Alexander, Elizabeth 1962–
Alexander, Elizabeth 1962–
PERSONAL: Born May 30, 1962, in New York, NY; daughter of Clifford Leopold (a business consultant) and Adele (a historian and writer; maiden name, Logan) Alexander. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1984; Boston University, M.A., 1987; University of Pennsylvania, Ph.D., 1992. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopalian.
CAREER: Poet and educator. Washington Post, Washington, DC, reporter, 1984–85; instructor at the University of Pennsylvania and other schools, Philadelphia, PA, and Boston, MA, 1985–89; Haverford College, Haverford, PA, scholar-in-residence, 1990–91; Village Voice, reviewer; University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, assistant professor of English, 1991–97; Smith College, Northampton, MA, Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, 1997–99, and first director of Poetry Center; Yale University, New Haven, CT, professor in African American studies and English, fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center; Cave Canem Poetry Workshop, New York, NY, instructor.
MEMBER: Modern Language Association of America, American Studies Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Larry Neal writer's award, Washington, DC, Commission on Arts and Humanities, 1986; poetry award, Illinois Arts Council, 1992; creative writing fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1992; two Pushcart prizes; Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, University of Chicago; George Kent Award (given by Gwendolyn Brooks).
The Venus Hottentot, University Press of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), 1990.
Body of Life, Tia Chucha Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
Antebellum Dream Book, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2001.
American Sublime, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2005.
(Coauthor of phototexts) Houston A. Baker, Jr., Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women's Writing, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1991.
Diva Studies (verse play), produced at Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1996.
The Black Interior (essays), Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2004.
(Editor) Gwendolyn Brooks, Selected Poems, Library of America (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Work represented in numerous anthologies, including Boomer Girls: Poems by Women from the Baby Boom Generation, edited by Pamela Gemin and Paula Sergie, University of Iowa Press, 1999; American Poetry: The Next Generation, edited by Gerald Costanzo and Jim Daniels, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000; The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry, edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton, Vintage Books, 2000; and By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry, edited by Molly McQuade, Graywolf Press, 2000.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Collage: An Approach to Reading African-American Women's Texts; research on black women's autobiography.
SIDELIGHTS: Born in Harlem, New York, Elizabeth Alexander grew up in Washington, DC. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and educator and has gone on to become a highly accomplished poet and lecturer in African American studies and English.
Alexander writes on a variety of subjects, most notably race, gender, politics, and motherhood. A reviewer in New York Times Book Review observed that she "creates intellectual magic in poem after poem." Doris Lynch, writing for the Library Journal, commented that "memory and race" are "two of Alexander's most powerful themes," adding that "when Alexander's forge is hot, the reader is transported to her world."
Alexander's poems, short stories, and critical essays have been published in a wide range of media. She has also written a verse play titled Diva Studies, which was produced by the Yale School of Drama in May, 1996. Her first poetry collection, The Venus Hottentot, won widespread praise from reviewers. The poems in this collection delve into the minds and emotions of historical black figures. "A superb first book," wrote a reviewer for Poetry magazine.
As with her first book, Alexander's second collection, Body of Life, deals with what Antioch Review contributor Harryette Mullen called "the ongoing public preoccupation with the black body." Mullen further noted that Alexander "reminds readers that the life of the body cannot be separated from the construction of individual and collective identities."
Alexander's Antebellum Dream Book was named one of the "Twenty-five Favorite Books of 2001" in Village Voice. As Cathy Hong stated in her review for Voice Literary Supplement, the book "moves as if Alexander breathlessly awoke in the middle of the night and jotted down her somnolent wanderings in verse form." Hong also observed that "Alexander's poems are deftly pared down, engagingly readable, and impressively generous in their coverage of historical and popular figures." These historical figures include Nat King Cole, Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Mick Jagger, and Toni Morrison.
In Black Issues Book Review, Fanonne Jeffers called Antebellum Dream Book "an allegorical journey through race, gender and motherhood…. Most engaging are the postpartum dream poems in the middle section of the book, where Alexander is, by turns, erotic, poignant and delightfully outrageous." The critic concluded by finding the book "a collection of startling and provocative verse." A reviewer in Essence found the book "absorbing" and "hypnotic," while a Publishers Weekly contributor considered it "an aggressively vivid impressive third collection" in which "Alexander's spoken immediacy mixes a personal mode—forceful, self-aware, funny—with prophetic, visionary lyrics."
Alexander has a similar focus in her American Sublime poetry collection, published in 2005. The book is broken into four parts, each centered on a different theme. The first section, "American Blue," interweaves Alexander's personal experiences, from childhood to adulthood, with historical events from the 1970s through the present. In the third cycle of poems, "Amistad," Alexander "adroitly" recounts the famous 1839 slave-ship rebellion from the points of view of several of the participants "with a dramatic voice and carefully selected details," Janet St. John noted in Booklist.
The title of The Black Interior, a collection of essays, refers to what Alexander sees as the "black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination." In these essays Alexander discusses the lives and works of famous African-American artists, including writers Langston Hughes and Anna Cooper, poets Gwendolyn Brooks and Michael Harper, and actor Denzel Washington, and attempts to explain the cultural role that such artists play and have played in both the African-American and wider American communities. From these starting points, however, Alexander branches out to discuss, among other things, the stereotype of the African-American male, the murder trial of O.J. Simpson, and the nature of Jet magazine. "Her concluding piece on the Rodney King case … is a tour de force," wrote a Kirkus Reviews contributor, while Library Journal contributor Felicity D. Walsh deemed the collection "fascinating" and "essential for academic libraries."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Alexander, Elizabeth, The Black Interior, Graywolf Press (Saint Paul, MN), 2004.
Antioch Review, fall, 1997, Harryette Mullen, review of Body of Life, p. 500.
Black Issues Book Review, November-December, 2001, Fanonne Jeffers, review of Antebellum Dream Book, p. 44.
Booklist, October 1, 2005, Janet St. John, review of American Sublime, p. 18.
Essence, November, 2001, "Take Note," p. 86.
Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2003, review of The Black Interior, p. 1297.
Library Journal, January, 2002, Doris Lynch, review of Antebellum Dream Book, p. 108; February 1, 2004, Felicity D. Walsh, review of The Black Interior, p. 85.
New York Times Book Review, September 30, 1990, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 20.
Poetry, July, 1991, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 233.
Publishers Weekly, July 23, 2001, review of Antebellum Dream Book, p. 68; June 27, 2005, review of American Sublime, p. 54.
Small Press Review, October, 1991, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 10.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 20, 1997, review of Body of Life, p. 3.
Village Voice, December 5-11, 2001, "Our Twenty-five Favorite Books of 2001."
Voice Literary Supplement, June, 1990, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 8; October, 1992, review of The Venus Hottentot, p. 18; October, 2001, Cathy Hong, "Dream of Reason."
Washington Post, October 21, 1992, Jace Clayton, "Color Everywhere," p. T13.
Women's Review of Books, July, 1992, Colleen J. McElroy, review of The Venus Hottentot, pp. 25-26; July, 1997, Judith E. Johnson, review of Body of Life, pp. 28-30.
Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/ (March 7, 2006), "Elizabeth Alexander."
Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org/ (March 7, 2006), "Elizabeth Alexander."
Meridians, http://www.smith.edu/meridians/ (March 7, 2006), "Founding Editorial Board."
Poetry Daily, http://www.poems.com/ (March 7, 2006), "About Antebellum Dream Book."
Yale University Web site, http://www.yale.edu/ (March 7, 2006), "Elizabeth Alexander."