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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 the current President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and lives in New York City.


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)

Ars Poetica #1,002: Rally

I dreamed a pronouncement
about poetry and peace.

“People are violent,”
I said through the megaphone

on the quintessentially
frigid Saturday

to the rabble stretching
all the way up First.

“People do violence
unto each other

and unto the earth
and unto its creatures.

Poetry,” I shouted, “Poetry,”
I screamed, “Poetry

changes none of that
by what it says

or how it says, none.
But a poem is a living thing

made by living creatures
(live voice in a small box)

and as life
it is all that can stand

up to violence.”
I put down the megaphone.

The first clap I heard
was my father’s,

then another, then more,
wishing for the same thing

in different vestments.
I never thought, why me?

I had spoken a truth
offered up by ancestral dreams

and my father understood
my declaration

as I understood the mighty man
still caught in the vapor

between this world and that
when he said, “The true intellectual

speaks truth to power.”
If I understand my father

as artist, I am free,
said my friend, of the acts

of her difficult father.
So often it comes down

to the father, his showbiz,
while the mother’s hand

shapes us, beckons us
to ethics, slaps our faces

when we err, soothes
the sting, smoothes the earth

we trample daily, in light
and in dreams. Rally

all your strength, rally
what mother and father

together have made:
us on this planet,

erecting, destroying.

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.

From Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010 (Graywolf Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Alexander. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Graywolf Press.

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

(Miami, October 2008)

The awesome weight of the world had not yet descended
upon his athlete’s shoulders. I saw someone light but not feathered

job up to the rickety stage like a jock off the court
played my game          did my best

and

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

2
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