Born May 30, 1962
Life and Work
Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York and raised in Washington, D.C. As a child, she explored her creativity as a “voracious reader,” participated in dance and ballet, and visited theater performances (Phillips 494, 507). Writers in a wide range of styles, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Walt Whitman, T.S. Elliot and Lewis Untermeyer, inspired her interest in writing as she was growing up. Alexander also considers her involvement in the Black Periodical Fiction Project (now known as the Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers) and her interest in African American literature and women’s studies as an undergraduate to have inspired her to write poetry (Keenan and LeBlanc 3, 8). She received her bachelor of arts degree from Yale University in 1984 and went on to receive her master of fine arts degree in 1987 from Boston University. She earned her doctorate in English from the University of Pennsylvania in 1992. As a graduate student, she was a reporter for the Washington Post.
After graduating from Yale University, Alexander began her career as an educator and scholar. She has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, the University of Chicago, Smith College and at Yale University. Alexander has been an active member of several educational committees, has been a guest speaker at various colleges and universities, and has won numerous academic honors. Her work as a scholar includes writing and publishing essays and editing collections of poetry by other poets. She has received fellowships and honors for her scholarship.
Alexander has published five books of poetry; her poems appear in over twenty journals and over twenty anthologies, and she has been frequently interviewed. Currently she is a professor of African American studies at Yale University. In the summers, she is an instructor for Cave Canem’s Poetry Workshop, a summer seminar for African American writers and students located at the University of Pittsburgh in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. Her upcoming writing projects include a “poets on poetry” collection and a young adult poetry series with Marilyn Nelson.
Elizabeth Alexander is a poet who writes about “race, gender, sexuality [and] class,” although the theme of family also appears in her work (Jones, “Who is the Self” 30). When asked about poems that seemingly resemble her life, she explains that some of her poetry is derived from “personal or autobiographical” experiences; places that she has lived or visited may appear in her work (Keenan and LeBlanc 1). For instance, “Preliminary Sketches: Philadelphia” and “Overture: Watermelon City” portray two different views of Philadelphia, where Alexander completed her doctorate in English. The former, from her first book The Venus Hottentot, offers a whimsical and somewhat idealized view of Philadelphia. Scenes of girls playing jump rope (“double dutching”) and a fish-man selling fish from his truck provide a nostalgic feeling of childhood, especially, perhaps, to the Philadelphia natives among Alexander’s audience. Alexander gives the poem’s speaker a specifically African American voice through Black English constructions such as “they live crabs,” “naw, naw” and “I ain’t.” The phrase “boundless love,” echoed in the last line, is almost like an afterthought of Philadelphia’s motto: “Brother brother brotherly love” (The Venus Hottentot 52). Yet the words “preliminary” and “sketches” in the title imply that the poem is merely a first glance at Philadelphia.
“Overture: Watermelon City” from her third book Antebellum Dream Book presents a more somber look at Philadelphia, with the word “overture” hinting that a third viewpoint may arise in the future. The girls and fish are replaced with extreme heat and crack heads who listen to the watermelon truck, not the fish truck. While both foods are nutritious, the watermelon can be broken more easily than fish, representing the people’s broken wills in this poem. That the people “work very hard for very little” while suffering in the heat suggests that engaging in drugs is a form of despair in a lower class African American neighborhood. The poem implies that although there are pleasant things in Philadelphia (e.g. sweeping porches), it is a city that has its problems with drugs and poverty; this could make the people feel like they are “burning” in their own personal hell with “the smell of smoke and flesh” (9, 10). About the idea of drawing on autobiographical sources, Alexander has said that “we can trick ourselves into writing about things that feel too close… if we were to use the particulars of our own lives” (Keenan and LeBlanc 5). She feels that topics that are read and heard about can affect an individual so much that they would become inspired to write about similar personal events, despite of how painful they may be. Alexander’s material is not only derived from familial places, but also from a historical context. In particular, Alexander is interested in the trials of African American women in the past and present. “The Venus Hottentot,” a poem, and Diva Studies, a play, are works that originate from the struggles of the original Hottentot, Saartjie Baartman. Readers learn through Alexander’s works that Baartman was a woman from South Africa who was displayed naked in bars and carnivals in Europe in the 19th century. George Cuvier, a French scientist, experimented on her with the notion that by studying an African woman’s body and genitals, knowledge about African women in general could be revealed to the European public. This notion was characteristic of Western scientific thought in the 19th century, and contributed to the dehumanization of Black women through stereotyping them as primal, sexual beings (Phillips 502). In her poem, Alexander shows how such stereotypes are achieved by exaggerating physical characteristics: “In this newspaper lithograph / my buttocks are shown swollen / and luminous as a planet.” And “Monsieur Cuvier investigates / between my legs…sure of his hypothesis” (The Venus Hottentot 5).
Due to the prejudices against and stereotypes about Blacks held by Europeans and White Americans, Alexander believes that knowing true Black history is problematic. Despite her belief in a garbled Black history, she maintains that the “melancholia about the unresolved slash, the never-to-be-known homeland … co-exists with the great and unlimited possibilities of reinvention…” (“Africa and the World” 108). Doris Jean Austin notes in a review that Alexander brings awareness to the struggles of the Hottentot by adopting Baartman’s voice as the speaker of the poem. As a result, her struggles as a Black woman are remembered today by readers of the poem partially because of Cuvier’s post death examination of her body. In his review of “The Venus Hottentot,” Stephen Yenser observes that although Baartman lies physically dead on the autopsy table, she has lived on symbolically through her genitalia displayed in a jar (just recently, finally, taken off of display), while Cuvier is symbolically dead due to the cruelty of his “shriveled and hard“ heart (214).
While the poem focuses more on Baartman, the play Diva Studies uses Baartman’s story to illustrate broader ideas about race and gender. The main theme of the play is remembering greatness, for a Diva is akin to a goddess, and as Opal J. Moore asks, “What is a god without believers?” With all of their glamour, if no one remembers the Divas and their efforts, they will lose their greatness and disappear (344). Alexander explains that a Diva deals with daily survival and making herself stand out even when she is at her worst (and not just with beauty). With the inspiration of the accomplishments of African American women such as Toni Morrison and Marian Anderson, the Divas attempt to make themselves be remembered as beautiful, confident and successful women (Phillips 497, 498). The connection between the poem and the play is that they both suggest that women can strive to overcome racial and gender stereotypes by remembering the stories of Black women in history.
On the subject of racial prejudices, Alexander discusses how African American writers deal with the demands of the public. In her essay “Meditations on Mecca,” Alexander defines “the black interior” as the African American lifestyle that is freed from the misconceptions of others. The public attempts to interfere with the black interior by pressuring Black poets to address only racial issues in their poems. Alexander believes that Black writers should not allow the demands of others to interfere with their work. If the public appreciates the writer’s work, the praise is appreciated by the writer. However, the main issue is that a writer should be able to “deal with” those demands effectively and be able to freely express herself in writing (The Black Interior 56, 57; Keenan and LeBlanc 16, 17).
Publications and Awards
By the Author
Books of Poetry
- The Venus Hottentot. Charlottesville: University Press, 1990.
- Body of Life. Chicago: Tia Chucha, 1996.
- Antebellum Dream Book. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 2001.
- American Sublime. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 2005.
- American Blue: Selected Poems. Northumberland, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2006.
- “Fortune.” Callaloo. 35 (1988): 277-79. (John Hopkins UP)
- American Poetry Review
- The American Voice
- AnuarioHispanoamericano de Poesia
- The Antioch Review
- Black American Literature Forum
- The Boston Review
- The Chicago Review
- Crab Orchard Review
- Drumvoices Review
- Hanging Loose
- The Indiana Review
- The Kenyon Review
- The Massachusetts Review
- The Minnesota Review
- The New Yorker
- Obsidian II
- Obsidian III: Black Literature in Review
- The Paris Review
- Prairie Schooner
- South Atlantic Quarterly
- The Southern Review
- Voice Literary Supplement
- Water-Stone Review
- William and Mary Review
- Yellow Silk
- American Poetry: The Next Generation. Ed. Gerald Costano and Jim Daniels. Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon UP, 2000.
- Blues Poems. Ed. Kevin Young and Alfred A. Knopf. New York: Everyman’s Library, 2004.
- The Book of Eros. Ed. Lily Pond and Richard Russo. New York: Harmony, 1995.
- Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation. Ed. Paula Gemin and Pamela Sergi. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1999.
- Bright Pages: Yale Writers 1701-2001. Ed. J.D. McClatchy. New Haven: Yale University, 2001.
- Cabin Fever: Poets at Joaquin Miller’s Cabin 1984-2001. Ed. Jacklyn W. Potter et al. Washington, DC: The Word Works, 2003.
- Cave Canem Anthology VI 2001. New York: Cave Canem, 2001.
- Cave Canem Anthology VII 2002. New York: Cave Canem, 2002.
- Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton. New York: Little, 1994.
- A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Conspicuous Form by Women. Ed. Annie Finch. Ashland, OR: Storyline, 1994.
- The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry. Ed. Clarence Major. New York: Harper, 1996.
- Giant Steps: The New Generation in African-American Writing. Ed. Kevin Young. New York: Harper, 2000.
- The Harper Anthology of American Literature. New York: Harper, 1994.
- I Hear a Symphony: African-American Writers on Love. Ed. Paula Woods and Felix Liddell. New York: Doubleday, 1994.
- Identity Lessons. Ed. Maria Mazzioti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York Penguin, 1999.
- In Search of Color Everywhere. Ed. Ethelbert Miller. New York: Stewart, 1994.
- In The Tradition. Ed. Ras Baraka and Kevin Powell. New York: Harlem River, 1993.
- Jazz Poems. Ed. Kevin Young. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
- Kiss off: Poems to Set You Free. Ed. Mary D. Esselman and Elizabeth Ash Velez. New York: Warner, 2003.
- Motion: American Sports Poems. Ed. Noah Blaustein. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2001.
- The New American Poets: A Breadloaf Anthology. Ed. Michale Collier. Middlebury/ New England, 2000.
- A New Geography of Poets. Ed. Edward Field. Fayetteville, AR: U Arkansas P, 1992.
- The Norton Introduction to Literature. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 1995.
- On the Verge. Ed. Thomas Sayers Ellis. Boston: Agni, 1994.
- The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry. Ed. Arnold Ramperstad. New York: Oxford UP, 2005.
- Perfect in Their Art: Poems on Boxing from Homer to Ali. Ed. Robert Hedin and Michael Waters. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.
- Poems for America: 125 Poems that Celebrate the American Experience. Ed. Carmela Ciuraru. New York: Scribner’s, 2002.
- The Poetry Anthology 1912-2002. Ed. Joseph Parisi and Stephen Young. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.
- Powerlines: Guild Complex Anthology. Ed. Michaal Warr, Luis Rodriguez, and Julie Parson-Nesbit. Chicago: Tia Chucha, 1999.
- The Pushcart Prize XXIV 2000: Best of the Small Presses. Ed. Bill Henderson. Wainscott, NY: Norton, 2000.
- The Pushcart Prize XXVI 2002: The Best of the Small Presses. Ed. Bill Henderson. Wainscott, NY: Norton, 2002.
- Rebel Angels: 25 New Formalists. Ed. Mark Jarman. Ashland, OR: Storyline, 1996.
- Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art. Ed. Medina Bashir Lansana. Chicago: Third World, 2002.
- Step into a World. Ed. Kevin Powell. New York: Wiley, 2000.
- The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry. Ed. Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton. New York: Vintage, 2000.
- Words for Images: A Gallery of Poems. Ed. John Hollander and Joanna Weber. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2001.
- “Africa and the World: Writers at Home and Away.” PEN America: A Journal for Writers and Readers. 7 (2006): 108-12.
- “The Anxiety of Authority: Memory and Mentorship.” The Women’s Review of Books. 11.5. (February 1994). 7-9.
- The Black Interior (essays). Saint Paul: Graywolf, 2004.
- “A Black Man Says ‘Sorbet.’” Two Cents: The Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Poetry of Kevin Young. Miami-Dade Community College Wolfson Galleries. 1995.
- “Can you Be BLACK and Look at This?: Reading the Rodney King Video(s).” Public Culture. 7.1 (Fall 1994): 77-94. Reprinted in Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. Ed. Thelma Golden. New York: Whitney Museum, 1994.
- “‘Coming out Blackened and Whole’: Fragmentation and Reintegration in Audre Lorde’s Zami and The Cancer Journals.” American Literary History. 6.4 (Winter 1994): 695-715. Reprinted in Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture. Ed. Kimeberley Wallace Sanders. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan P. 2002.
- “The Genius of Romare Bearden.” Something All Our Own: The Grant Hill Collection of African-American Art. Ed. Alvia Wardlaw. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.
- “Living in the Jet Stream: Reading Black America’s Bible.” Voice Literary Supplement. (1994): 23-24.
- “Meditations on ‘Mecca’: Gwendolyn Brooks and the Responsibilities of the Black Poet.” By Herself, Women Reclaim Poetry. Ed. Molly McQuade. Saint Paul: Graywolf, 2000. Reprinted in The Writer’s Chronicle. March/April 2000.
- “Memory, Community, Voice: African-American Poetry in the Age of AIDS.” Callaloo. 17:2 (Spring 1994): 408-21.
- “Real/Not Real.” Real: Six Black Figurative Painters. Miami: Bass Museum of Art, 1996.
- “Some White Men.” Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships. Ed. Emily Bernard. New York: Harper, 2004.
- “‘The Space Between’: On Etheridge Knight.” Poetry Speaks. Ed. Elsie Paschen and Rebecca Presson Mosby. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2001.
- “Walt Whitman and Gwendolyn Brooks.” Voice Literary Supplement. April 1994.
- “‘We Must Be about Our Father’s Business’: Anna Julia Cooper and the In-Corporation of the Turn-of-the-Century African American Woman Intellectual.” Signs:Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 20.2 (Winter 1994): 336-57.
- “We’re Gonna Deconstruct Your Life!’ The Making and Un-Making of the Black Bourgeois Patriarch in Ricochet.” Representing Black Men. Ed. Marcellus Blount and George P. Cunningham. New York: Routledge, 1996.
- Diva Studies (verse play). Connecticut: Yale University, 1996.
- Larry Neal Writer’s Award for Fiction, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, 1986
- Yaddo Fellowship, 1990 & 1991
- George Kent Prize, 1992
- National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1992
- Illinois Arts Council Literary Award, 1993
- Kenyon Review Prize for Literary Excellence, 1994
- Ragdale Foundation Fellowship, 1994
- George Kent Prize for Poetry, 1997
- Jane Chambers Playwriting Award, Women and Theatre Program at ATHE, Honorable Mention for Diva Studies, 1997
- Pushcart Prize, 1998
- Pushcart Prize, 2000
- Pushcart Prize, 2001
- John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, 2002
- Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship, 2005
- Jackson Poetry Prize, 2007
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Austin, Doris Jean. “The Woman in the Sideshow.” New York Times. 30 Sept. 1990.
- Hong, Cathy. “Dream of Reason.” Village Voice Literary Supplement. 16 Oct. 2001: 103.
- Jeffers, Fanonne. “Antebellum Dream Book.” Black Issues Book Review. 3.6 (Nov. /Dec. 2001): 44-45.
- Jones, Meta DuEwa. “Jazz Prosodies: Orality and Textuality.” Callaloo. 25.1 (Winter 2002): 66-91.
- Moore, Opal J. “Enter the Tribe of Woman.” Callaloo. 19.2 (Spring 1996): 340-47
- Phillips, Robert. “O lost!” The Hudson Review. 55.1 (Spring 2002): 146-52.
- Yenser, Stephen. Rev. of The Venus Hottentot. Poetry. 158 (July 1991): 214.
- “Call and Response.” Village Voice Literary Supplement. 109 (Oct. 1992): 11-12.
- Jones, Meta DuEwa. “Who is the Self Rooted in Language? An Interview with Elizabeth Alexander.” The Writer’s Chronicle. Oct. /Nov. 2006: 28-36.
- Keenan, Deborah, and Diane LeBlanc. “An Interview with Elizabeth Alexander.” 3 Oct. 2002: 1-22.
- Phillip, Christine. “An Interview with Elizabeth Alexander.” Callaloo.19.2 (Spring 1996): 493-507.
- “Poet Elizabeth Alexander: Inspired by Rich Variety of Experiences.” All Things Considered. Minnesota Public Radio. 14 Oct. 2005.
- Smiley, Tavis. Interview. The Tavis Smiley Show. National Public Radio. 8 Jan. 2004.
- Trethewey, Natasha. “The Far, Deep Things of Dreamland: An Interview with Elizabeth Alexander.” Poets and Writers. 29.6 (Nov. /Dec. 2001): 28-33.