Elizabeth Alexander (poet)

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Elizabeth Alexander
Born (1962-05-30) May 30, 1962 (age 52)
Harlem, New York City, United States
Occupation Poet, essayist, playwright

Elizabeth Alexander (born May 30, 1962)[1] is an American poet, essayist, playwright and a university professor.

Early life[edit]

Alexander was born in Harlem, New York City and grew up in Washington, D.C. She is the daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Clifford Alexander, Jr.[2] and Adele (Logan) Alexander, a teacher of African-American women's history at George Washington University and writer.[3] Her brother Mark C. Alexander was a senior adviser to the Barack Obama presidential campaign and a member of the president-elect's transition team.[2] After she was born, the family moved to Washington, D.C. She was just a toddler when her parents brought her in March 1963 to the March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous I Have A Dream speech. Alexander recalled that "Politics was in the drinking water at my house". She also took ballet as a child.[4]

She was educated at Sidwell Friends School, and graduated in 1980. From there she went to Yale University and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1984. She studied poetry at Boston University under Derek Walcott and got her Master's in 1987. Her mother said to her, "That poet you love, Derek Walcott, is teaching at Boston University. Why don't you apply?" Alexander originally entered studying fiction writing, but Walcott looked at her diary and saw the poetry potential. Alexander said, "He gave me a huge gift. He took a cluster of words and he lineated it. And I saw it."[4]

In 1992, she received her PhD in English from the University of Pennsylvania. While she was finishing her degree, she taught at nearby Haverford College from 1990 to 1991. At this time, she would publish her first work, The Venus Hottentot. The title comes from Sarah Baartman, a 19th-century South African woman of the Khoikhoi ethnic group.[5][6] Elizabeth is an alumna of the Ragdale Foundation.

After College[edit]

While a graduate student, she was a reporter for the Washington Post from 1984 to 1985.[1] She soon realized that "it wasn't the life I wanted."[4] She began teaching at University of Chicago in 1991 as an assistant professor of English. Here she would first meet future president Barack Obama, who was a senior lecturer at the school's law school from 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. While in Chicago in 1992, she won a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.[7]

In 1996, she published a volume of poetry, Body of Life and a verse play, Diva Studies, which was staged at Yale University. She also became a founding faculty member of the Cave Canem workshop which helps develop African-American poets. In 1997, she received the University of Chicago's Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching. Later in that year, she moved to Massachusetts to teach at Smith College. She became the Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence and the first director of the college's Poetry Center.[8]

In 2000, she returned to Yale University, where she would teach African-American studies and English. She also released her third poetry collection,Antebellum Dream Book.[8]

In 2005, she was selected in the first class of Alphonse Fletcher Foundation fellows and in 2007-08, she was an academic fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.[9]

Since 2008, Alexander has chaired the African American Studies department at Yale. She currently teaches English language/literature, African-American literature and gender studies at Yale.


Alexander's poems, short stories and critical writings have been widely published in such journals and periodicals such as: The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Village Voice, The Women's Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Her play, Diva Studies, which was performed at the Yale School of Drama, garnered her a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship as well as an Illinois Arts Council award.[10]

Her 2005 volume of poetry, "American Sublime" was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize of that year.[11] Alexander is also a scholar of African-American literature and culture and recently published a collection of essays entitled The Black Interior.[6]

Alexander received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry in 2010.[12]

2009 U.S. Presidential inauguration[edit]

On January 20, 2009, at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, Alexander recited the poem "Praise Song for the Day", which she composed for the occasion.[2][6] She became only the fourth poet to read at an American presidential inauguration, after Robert Frost in 1961, Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams in 1997.[13]

The announcement of her selection was favorably received by her fellow poets Maya Angelou, Rita Dove,[13] Paul Muldoon,[2] and Jay Parini, who extolled her as "smart, deeply educated in the traditions of poetry, true to her roots, responsive to black culture."[11] The Poetry Foundation also hailed the choice, "Her selection affirms poetry's central place in the soul of our country."[13]

Though the selection of the widely unknown poet, who was a personal friend of Obama, was lauded, the actual poem and delivery were met with a poor reception.[14] The Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times Book editor, and most critics found that "her poem was too much like prose," and that "her delivery [was] insufficiently dramatic." The Minneapolis Star-Tribune found the poem "dull, 'bureaucratic' and found it proved that "the poet's place is not on the platform but in the crowd, that she should speak not for the people but to them."[15]

Personal life[edit]

According to research done by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of Harvard University, in 2010 for the PBS series Faces of America, it was revealed that according to DNA analysis, she is a lineal cousin of another of the guests on the show, Stephen Colbert. Her paternal grandfather came to the United States in 1918 from Kingston, Jamaica. On the maternal side, her roots can be traced back 37 generations through notable ancestors, including her 23rd great-grandmother Joan, Princess of England, 24th great-grandparents King John I of England and Clemence, Mistress of the King, and 37th great-grandfather Charlemagne, first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. [16] She was married to Ficre Ghebreyesus until his passing in April 2012. She lives with their two sons in New Haven, Connecticut.



Years linked to corresponding "[year] in poetry" articles:


Years linked to corresponding "[year] in literature" articles:


  1. ^ a b "Elizabeth Alexander". The Africana Research Center. PennState College of the Liberal Arts. Retrieved 2009-01-15. [dead link]
  2. ^ a b c d Katharine Q. Seelye (2008-12-21). "Poet Chosen for Inauguration Is Aiming for a Work That Transcends the Moment". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  3. ^ Biography Today. Detroit, Michigan: Omnigraphics. 2010. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0-7808-1051-8. 
  4. ^ a b c "Biography Today", p. 10.
  5. ^ "Biography Today", pp. 10-11.
  6. ^ a b c "Yale Professor Elizabeth Alexander Named Inaugural Poet". Yale Bulletin (Yale University). 2008-12-19. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  7. ^ "Biography Today", p. 11.
  8. ^ a b "Biography Today", p. 12
  9. ^ Corydon Ireland (2008-05-08). "Radcliffe Fellow, poet Elizabeth Alexander reads". Harvard University Gazette Online. Retrieved 2009-01-15. [dead link]
  10. ^ "Elizabeth Alexander: Biography and CV". Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  11. ^ a b Jay Parini (2008-12-18). "Why Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander for his inauguration". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  12. ^ http://www.anisfield-wolf.org
  13. ^ a b c Michael E. Ruane (2008-12-17). "Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry". Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-01-15. 
  14. ^ Schmich, Mary (2009-01-25). "Big stage amplifies poet's critics". Chicago Tribune. 
  15. ^ http://www.startribune.com/politics/37883244.html?page=2&c=y
  16. ^ "4". Faces of America. Season 1. Episode 4. 2010-03-03. PBS. 
  17. ^ Book listed under "Edited" on "Books" web page at Elizabeth Alexander's website; Alexander mentioned only as author of the introduction at the Amazon.com web page for the book; both retrieved December 25, 2008.

External links[edit]