Elizabeth Alexander (poet)
Alexander in 2015
May 30, 1962|
Harlem, New York City, United States
|Occupation||Poet, essayist, playwright|
Elizabeth Alexander (born May 30, 1962) is an American poet, essayist, playwright, and the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation since 2018. Previously she was a professor for 15 years at Yale University, where she taught poetry and chaired the African American Studies department. She then joined the faculty of Columbia University in 2016, as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.
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. and Adele (Logan) Alexander, a teacher of African-American women's history at George Washington University and writer. 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. After she was born, the family moved to Washington, D.C. She was just a toddler when her parents brought her in August 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.
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."
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. Elizabeth is an alumna of the Ragdale Foundation.
While a graduate student, she was a reporter for the Washington Post from 1984 to 1985. She soon realized that "it wasn't the life I wanted." 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.
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.
In 2007, Alexander became the first recipient of the Jackson Poetry Prize, an annual prize awarded by Poets & Writers that "honors an American poet of exceptional talent who deserves wider recognition."
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.
Her 2005 volume of poetry American Sublime was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize of that year. Alexander is also a scholar of African-American literature and culture and recently published a collection of essays entitled The Black Interior.
2009 U.S. presidential inauguration
On January 20, 2009, at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama, Alexander recited her poem "Praise Song for the Day", which she had composed for the occasion. 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.
The announcement of her selection was favorably received by her fellow poets Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Paul Muldoon, and Jay Parini, who extolled her as "smart, deeply educated in the traditions of poetry, true to her roots, responsive to black culture." The Poetry Foundation also hailed the choice: "Her selection affirms poetry's central place in the soul of our country."
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. 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."
Alexander wrote of her experience of reading at the inauguration in The New Yorker in January 2017. Alexander brought her father, who had attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to sit next to her at the inauguration. At the rehearsal for the inauguration, Alexander read Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "kitchenette building".
According to research done by 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. She was married to Ficre Ghebreyesus until his death in April 2012. She lives with their two sons in New York City.
- Alexander, Elizabeth (1990). The Venus Hottentot. Graywolf Press.
- — (1997). Body of Life. Chicago: Tia Chucha Press.
- — (2001). Antebellum dream book. Graywolf Press.
- — (2005). American Sublime. Graywolf Press.
- —, ed. (2005). The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks. Library of America.
- — (2006). American Blue: Selected Poems. Bloodaxe Books.
- —; Nelson, Marilyn (2007). Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color: Poems. Honesdale, Pa.: Wordsong.
- — (2009). Praise Song for the Day. Graywolf Press.
- List of poems
Essays and introductions
- Dixon, Melvin (1995). Love's Instruments. Introduction by Elizabeth Alexander. Chicago: Tia Chuca Press.
- Alexander, Elizabeth (2004). The Black Interior. Graywolf Press.
- — (2007). Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews. Poets on Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Alexander, Elizabeth (2015). The Light of the World: A Memoir. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
- — (February 9, 2015). "Lottery tickets: mourning a husband". Personal History. The New Yorker. 90 (47). Retrieved 2015-08-26.
Critical studies and reviews of Alexander's work
- Anon. (April 11, 2015). "How to remember". Books and Arts. The Economist. 415 (8933): 75–76. Review of The Light of the World.
- Gollin, Andrea (May 1, 2015). "Review: Elizabeth Alexander's 'The Light of the World'". Miami Herald. Retrieved 3 May 2015.
In art, in poetry and in her community of friends and family, Alexander finds divinity. The memoir itself is, of course, art. Its eloquent, grief-struck gratitude draws the reader in, and we celebrate and mourn alongside Alexander.
- "Elizabeth Alexander". The Africana Research Center. PennState College of the Liberal Arts. Archived from the original on 2010-07-30. Retrieved 2009-01-15.
- "Elizabeth Alexander - Words That Shimmer". On Being with Krista Tippett. Retrieved September 3, 2015.
- Milstein, Larry and Emma Platoff (2015-09-18). "Elizabeth Alexander, poet and professor, to depart for Columbia". Yale Daily News. Retrieved 2017-02-09.
- "Elizabeth Alexander '84 named president of Mellon Foundation". Yale University News. 2018-02-07. Retrieved 2018-03-02.
- 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.
- Biography Today. Detroit, Michigan: Omnigraphics. 2010. pp. 9–10. ISBN 978-0-7808-1051-8.
- "Biography Today", p. 10.
- "Biography Today", pp. 10-11.
- "Yale Professor Elizabeth Alexander Named Inaugural Poet". Yale Bulletin. Yale University. 2008-12-19. Archived from the original on 2010-07-09. Retrieved 2009-01-15.
- "Biography Today", p. 11.
- "Biography Today", p. 12.
- Corydon Ireland (2008-05-08). "Radcliffe Fellow, poet Elizabeth Alexander reads". Harvard University Gazette Online. Archived from the original on May 11, 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-15.
- "Renowned Poet and Scholar Elizabeth Alexander Joins Faculty | Department of English and Comparative Literature". english.columbia.edu. Retrieved 2017-02-09.
- "Elizabeth Alexander: Biography and CV". Archived from the original on 2009-02-04. Retrieved 2009-01-15.
- Jay Parini (2008-12-18). "Why Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander for his inauguration". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-01-15.
- Michael E. Ruane (2008-12-17). "Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-01-15.
- Schmich, Mary (2009-01-25). "Big stage amplifies poet's critics". Chicago Tribune.
- Star Tribune.
- "A Poet's Tale from Obama's first inaugural". The New Yorker. 17 January 2017. Retrieved 18 January 2017.
- "4". Faces of America. Season 1. Episode 4. 2010-03-03. PBS.
- "Elizabeth Alexander". Academy of American Poets. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
|"Praise Song for the Day", 2009 Presidential Inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander|
|Keynote Address-Prof. Elizabeth Alexander, IRAAS 20th Anniversary, November 1, 2013|
|Keynote- Elizabeth Alexander, Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women Conference, April 29, 2011|
- Poems by Elizabeth Alexander and biography at PoetryFoundation.org
- Elizabeth Alexander: Profile and Poems at Poets.org
- Official site of Elizabeth Alexander
- Quantrell Award: Elizabeth Alexander
- California Newsreel: Elizabeth Alexander
- Elizabeth Alexander's profile
- "Natasha Trethewey Interviews Elizabeth Alexander", Southern Spaces, 10 December 2009.
- "Elizabeth Alexander". Yale University. Archived from the original on July 6, 2014. Retrieved July 6, 2014.