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About this poet

Elizabeth Alexander was born on May 30, 1962, in Harlem, New York, and grew up in Washington, D.C. She received a BA from Yale University, an MA from Boston University (where she studied with Derek Walcott), and a PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

Her collections of poetry include Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010); American Sublime (Graywolf Press, 2005), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; Antebellum Dream Book (Graywolf Press, 2001); Body of Life (Tia Chucha Press, 1996); and The Venus Hottentot (University Press of Virginia, 1990).

Her memoir, The Light of the World (Grand Central Publishing, 2015), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. 

Alexander's critical work appears in her essay collection, The Black Interior (Graywolf Press, 2004). She also edited The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks (Graywolf Press, 2005) and Love’s Instruments: Poems by Melvin Dixon (University of Michigan Press, 1995). Her poems, short stories, and critical writing have been widely published in such journals and periodicals as The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, Callaloo, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Her work has been anthologized in over twenty collections, and in May of 1996, her verse play, Diva Studies, premiered at the Yale School of Drama.

About Alexander's poetry, Rita Dove writes that "the poems bristle with the irresistible quality of a world seen fresh," and Clarence Major notes Alexander's "instinct for turning her profound cultural vision into one that illuminates universal experience."

In 2007, Alexander was selected by Lucille Clifton, Stephen Dunn, and Jane Hirshfield to receive the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers. Her other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at the University of Chicago, and the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks.

In 2009, she recited “Praise Song for the Day,” which she composed for the occasion, at President Barack Obama's first Presidential Inauguration.

She has taught at Haverford College, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, the first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and a member of the founding editorial collective for the feminist journal Meridians. She has served as a faculty member for Cave Canem Poetry Workshops, and has traveled extensively within the United States and abroad, giving poetry readings and lecturing on African American literature and culture.

In 2015, Alexander was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She has been a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. She previously served as the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of African American Studies and inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She is currently the Director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation in New York City, where she lives.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010)
American Sublime (Graywolf Press, 2005)
Antebellum Dream Book (Graywolf Press, 2001)
Body of Life (Tia Chucha Press, 1996)
The Venus Hottentot (University Press of Virginia, 1990)

Nonfiction

The Light of the World (Grand Central Publishing, 2015)

The African Picnic

World Cup finals, France v. Brasil.
We gather in Gideon’s yard and grill.
The TV sits in the bright sunshine.
We want Brasil but Brasil won’t win.
Aden waves a desultory green and yellow flag.
From the East to the West to the West to the East
we scatter and settle and scatter some more.
Through the window, Mamma watches from the cool indoors.

Jonah scarfs meat off of everybody’s plate,
kicks a basketball long and hollers, “goal,”
then roars like the mighty lion he is.
Baby is a pasha surrounded by pillows
and a bevy of Horn of Africa girls
who coo like lovers, pronounce his wonders,
oil and massage him, brush his hair.
My African family is having a picnic, here in the USA.

Who is here and who is not?
When will the phone ring from far away?
Who in a few days will say good-bye?
Who will arrive with a package from home?
Who will send presents in other people’s luggage
and envelopes of money in other people’s pockets?
Other people’s children have become our children
here at the African picnic.

In a parking lot, in a taxi-cab,
in a winter coat, in an airport queue,
at the INS, on the telephone,
on the cross-town bus, on a South Side street,
in a brand-new car, in a djellaba,
with a cardboard box, with a Samsonite,
with an airmail post, with a bag of spice,
at the African picnic people come and go.

The mailman sees us say good-bye and waves
with us, good-bye, good-bye, as we throw popcorn,
ululate, ten or twelve suitcases stuffed in the car.
Good-bye, Mamma, good-bye—
The front door shut. The driveway bare.
Good-bye, Mamma, good-bye.
The jet alights into the night,
a huge, metal machine in flight,
Good-bye, Mamma, good-bye.
At the African picnic, people come and go
and say good-bye.

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010. Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. for Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010. Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. for Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.

Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander was born in 1962 in Harlem, New York, and grew up in Washington, D.C. She currently serves as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

by this poet

poem
Filene's department store
near nineteen-fifty-three:
An Aunt Jemima floor
display. Red bandanna,

Apron holding white rolls
of black fat fast against
the bubbling pancakes, bowls
and bowls of pale batter.

This is what Donna sees,
across the "Cookwares" floor,
and hears "Donnessa?" Please,
This can not be my
poem
A Poem for Barack Obama's Presidential Inauguration

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other's
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues. 

Someone is
poem

Now is the time of year when bees are wild 
and eccentric. They fly fast and in cramped 
loop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants 
in the bright, late-September out-of-doors. 
I have found their dried husks in my clothes. 

They are dervishes because they are dying, 
one last

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