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2013 Inauguration Press

NationalJournal “The Inaugural Poet—a Gay Cuban-American Named After Nixon—Finds Inspiration in His Identity”

CNN “Richard Blanco becomes America's first Latino, openly gay inaugural poet”

Press release for Praise Song for the Day (children's book version)
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Reviews of Praise Song for the Day (children's book version)
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Reviews of Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010

The Washington Post “Blood and ink relations: National Book Festival's Adele and Elizabeth Alexander”

Interview in the San Antonio Current “The Poetic Radiance of Elizabeth Alexander”

Publishers Weekly “A Poet for Obama”

Publishers Weekly starred review

2009 Inauguration Press

CNN “Commentary: For Obama's poet, poetry 'is the human voice'”

The Washington Post “Selection Provides Civil Rights Symmetry”

The Guardian “Why Obama Chose Elizabeth Alexander for his Inauguration”

The Daily Beast “The President-elect’s New Poet-elect Was the Right Woman for the Job”

The New York Times “Poet Chosen for Inauguration Is Aiming for a Work That Transcends the Moment”

The New York Times “The Intersection of Poetry and Politics”

EbonyJet “Praise Song: The Morning After”

Pittsburgh Post Gazette “Scholar Arnold Rampersad speaks in Pittsburgh about what the Obama election will mean for poetry”

Salon “How Was the Poem?”

America.gov “Penning a Verse”

The Miami Herald “Inauguration Opened a New World for Poet”

Reviews of American SublimeDownload Printable Version

Reviews of Antebellum Dream BookDownload Printable Version

Reviews of The Black InteriorDownload Printable Version

Critical Essays on Elizabeth Alexander’s Poetry


American Sublime


American Sublime Named One of 25 Notable Books of 2005 by the American Library Association

Sparkling with humanity and unexpected grace, Alexander’s poems reflect on art, dreams, history, and the African American experience.

www.ala.org


American Sublime: One of Three Finalists for 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

2006 Pulitzer Prize Winners for Poetry: For a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author, Ten thousand dollars ($10,000). Awarded to “Late Wife” by Claudia Emerson (Louisiana State University Press). Also nominated as finalists in this category were: “American Sublime” by Elizabeth Alexander (Graywolf Press), and “Elegy on Toy Piano” by Dean Young (University of Pittsburgh Press).

www.pulitzer.org/year/2006/poetry


Barbecues, midwives, “Soyinka and Senghor,” “Etheridge Knight, from prison,” grand-parents, students, “not Congo but Zaire,” mom,“ aggressive magic,” jail, “my book,” “children, fathers, brothers” collection, Alexander traces shifting global histories, family alliances, ways of working and being trapped, and means of escape in four broad parts. The first, “American Blue,” takes in the U.S.’s post-’60s history alongside Alexander’s child-, student-and adult-hood (with stops at Ellington/Strayhorn’s ’40s, Monk’s ’50s and a dream of Krishna along the way). A selection from a larger series titled “Ars Poetica” covers the ways poetry confronts history: “‘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/ ... and as life/ it is all that can stand/ up to violence.’” “Amistad,” the third ection, channels the black Atlantic convincingly, while the last section, “American Sublime,” consists of just two short lyrics; the latter ends “light that carries/ possibility, illuminates,// but can promise nothing but itself.” This collection makes similarly restrained promises and delivers lucidly. (Oct. 1)

— Publishers Weekly,
June 27, 2005


Antebellum Dream Book



Listed as one of “Our 25 Favorite Books of 2001”
the Village Voice


“Antebellum Dream Book sports the page-turning pull of a good story, the intimacy of personal verse, and an unforced braininess that so few smart poets can get right.”
Jace Clayton, The Washington Post Book World


“Fans of Alexander’s debut, The Venus Hottentot, have been waiting for something this good from her: here it is.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review


“In narratives sweetened by the lyric pulse and pierced through by felicitous turns of irony, Alexander chronicles the world of ‘black and tan.’ Her poems bristle with the irresistible quality of a world seen fresh. Race is present in her poems in the way that sex, class, age, even weather are present in all of our lives.”
Rita Dove, “Poets Choice,” The Washington Post


“Alexander, an African-American, explores tensions inherent in gender and race and expresses the ambivalence of motherhood in jazz-inflected tones.”
ELLE


“A beauty, musical but restrained as each word, each note, releases its full range of sound and meaning.”
— Booklist


“Antebellum Dream Book moves as if Alexander breathlessly awoke in the middle of the night and jotted down her somnolent wanderings in verse form.”
— Village Voice Literary Supplement


“These poems of personal history are so particular in their rendering and so precisely made that they often transcend the poet’s private domain and stand beautifully for the human condition in all its glory and tragedy. In other words, Alexander has an instinct for turning her profound cultural vision into one that illuminates universal experience.”
— Clarence Major


“Elizabeth Alexander’s new book — her best yet — uses the structure of dreams to meditate about the strangeness of race, the mysteries of family, the centrality of African American precursors, and the excitements — the estrangements — of motherhood. What joy to have this book of birthings that burns with a radiant black light.”
Edward Hirsch


The Black Interior


“The great achievement of Alexander's book is how seamlessly it weaves erudite analysis with lyrical exposition. The essays shift between social, aesthetic, institutional, and anecdotal frames of reference. It is refreshing to see the dimensions and intricacies of blackness articulated so eloquently. One gets a sense of just how complex these notions are, and should remain….The Black Interior is incredibly incisive and intensely poetic.”
ARTFORUM, chosen as “One of the Best Books of 2004”


“The Black Interior, a critical look at some of black America’s most influential cultural voices, may be another such masterpiece….best known for her poetry, it may be that poet’s lyricism and eye for nuance that makes this new work so compelling.”
SAVOY


“This original and electrifying collection greatly enriches and extends understanding of African American culture and its essential role in American culture as a whole.”
Booklist


“Alexander presents her critical ideas primarily in essays that examine the work of black artists and writers who, she says, reveal the private moments of black people through their art… Many of her essays are studded with questions that provide excellent fodder for debate and discussion, questions for which her analysis provides possibilities finish.”
Publishers Weekly


“In prose that is both elegant and clear, rigorous and accessible, Elizabeth Alexander illuminates in these essays on art, literature, film and politics, places in African American culture that elude stereotypic representations and the limits of public discourse.”
Valerie Smith, Princeton University


“Elizabeth Alexander’s keen observations about a broad range of African American artifacts — poems, films, photographs, and conceptual art, for example — offer far more than clever visual analysis. They set cultural objects into their broadest social context. In these perceptive and eloquent essays, Alexander continually reminds us of the power of representation — words, images, indeed art itself — to oppress, to provoke, and ultimately to liberate. The Black Interior represents the best and most resonant form of cultural history, writing that tackles life-and-death issues through the lenses of visual and literary culture.”
Maurice Berger, Senior Fellow, The Vera List Center for Art & Politics, New School University


“Elizabeth Alexander is one of the brightest stars in our literary sky, a poet of poise and power. Now we see that she’s also capable of striking prose. These essays speak eloquently not only about literature — especially poetry — but also about life itself and the complicated culture in which we live. Her sharp intelligence and her knowledge of the contemporary arts make her a superb, invaluable commentator on the American scene.”
Arnold Rampersad, Stanford University


“When a poet of such declarative distinction as Elizabeth Alexander unfolds her critical wings, she swoops across the landscape of Black cultural thought, making it new, making it her own. This is a work of great generosity and insight that explores the deep springs of African-American creativity with a sensibility that is both moving and engaging.”
Homi K. Bhabha, Rothenberg Professor of English, Harvard University


The Venus Hottentot



The Woman in the Sideshow —
Doris Jean Austin, New York Times, September 30, 1990

(Doris Jean Austin is the author of “After the Garden,” a novel.)

Elizabeth Alexander has executed a brilliant literary reclamation with her first Elizabeth Alexander has executed a brilliant literary reclamation with her first book of poetry, “The Venus Hottentot.” Ms. Alexander reintroduces to Western readers an African woman who was paraded as a sideshow freak in 19th-century Europe and whose preserved genitalia, after her death, were displayed in a Paris museum.

Saartjie (“little Sarah” in Afrikaans) Baartman was the diminutive 19th-century African woman with the ample buttocks characteristic of her people who became the historical Hottentot Venus in one of the most bizarre chronicles of European racism. According to the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s essay on the subject, “The Hottentot Venus,” “anthropological theory assessed as subhuman both malformed Caucasians and the normal representatives of other races.” Thus did science uphold the displaying of exotic humans in circus-like exhibitions throughout Europe.

Prior to her death, Saartjie Baartman was exhibited as the infamous Hottentot Venus in and around Paris and London for 18 months, accompanied by an animal trainer. She emerged from a cage on a raised platform, presented as a beast, for the scientific community and their wives, as well as all who had the price of admission. Upon leaving Cape Town she’d been guaranteed half the profits of the tour, a ludicrous contract because, even after death, she remained on exhibition. Ms. Alexander’s title poem, which encompasses Part One of this slender volume of prose poetry, is the first voice given to Saartjie Baartman, allowing her a sardonic if posthumous response to the French scientist to whom she owes her first immortality: Monsieur Cuvier investigates between my legs, poking, prodding, sure of his hypothesis. I half expect him to pull silk scarves from inside me, paper poppies, then a rabbit! He complains at my scent and does not think I comprehend, but I speak English. I speak Dutch. I speak a little French as well.

Upon Saartjie’s death of what was called an inflammatory ailment, in 1815 at the age of 25, it was Baron Georges Leopold Chretien Frederic Dagobert Cuvier (1769-1832) who dissected and immortalized Saartjie — her genitalia preserved under a bell jar — in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris, among the preserved skulls of white males, on a shelf just above Paul Broca’s brain and, as Mr. Gould writes, in the company of “the dissected genitalia of three Third-World women. I found no brains of women, and neither Broca’s penis nor any male genitalia graced the collection.” The reader is tempted to rush from line to line, yet is pursued by scenes so vivid and brutal that every word is a blow.

Part Two is a bit of relief from the intensity of the “Hottentot” story and returns the reader to a more popular version of history in the “civilized” world as the poet offers her own family’s voices from Harlem, Jamaica and Washington. Ms. Alexander, who teaches black women’s literature at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, continues her intensely personal and original style in the poem “West Indian Primer,” which deftly sketches three generations, three continents: “On the road between Spanish Town and Kingston,” my grandfather said, “I was born.” His father a merchant, Jewish, from Italy or Spain... His black mother taught my grand- father figures, fixed codfish cakes and fried plantains, drilled cleanliness... “There is no man more honest,” my father says. Years later I read that Jews passed through my grandfather’s birthplace frequently. This autobiographical section captures grandparents and house parties; a 19-year-old’s first summer away from home; a first lover.

Parts Three and Four move toward ancestral recovery, offering intimate poetic sanctuary to, among others, Duke Ellington, Romare Bearden, Paul Robeson, John Coltrane and the black cowboy Nat Love, a k a Deadwood Dick. With the same emotional intensity as in Part One, Ms. Alexander moves effortlessly through difficult forms embracing music, art, heroes, history and politics. Her predominantly first-person narrative style connects her directly to the reader.

This collection is a historical mosaic with profound cultural integrity. The title work exhumes the previous century’s mutilated victim of science and history and sets her amid today’s heroic voices. The current proliferation of benign, yet soothing works of poetry gives ‘‘The Venus Hottentot’’ a particularly exhilarating quality. Readers owe themselves the many pleasures to be found in this book; Elizabeth Alexander creates intellectual magic in poem after poem.



The Venus Hottentot
by Elizabeth Alexander [Albert Murray]Stephen Yenser, Poetry Magazine, Page 214, Volume 158, July 1991

Elizabeth Alexander is teaching this at Haverford college and finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, and “The Venus Hottentot” is her first collection of poems. The poems are catchy, seductive, steeped in history, more rewarding on successive readings. Alexander has arranged then carefully in four parts. First is the title poem, which deals with the African woman whose name (at least in Afrikaans) was Saartje Baartman. She innocently sold herself into virtual slavery and degrading exploitation when she contracted to be displayed naked in carnivals in nineteenth-century Europe, so that the “civilized” public could gape at her large buttock — and doubtless at other features. Second comes a set of poems concerned chiefly with Alexander’s family and her youth. The third section is a constellation of poems about her heroes and heroines, who include the polemical cultural critic and novelist Albert Murray, his friend the well-known artist Romare Bearden, the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, the actor and singer and celebrated spokesman for the Left Paul Robeson, the photographer James Van DerZee (The Harlem Book of the Dead, among other works), the black cowboy Nat Love, and jazz luminaries Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. Last is a group of poems that deal especially with racial issues and with cultural exile.

Alexander’s volume is a whole café of different voices. There are a number of epigraphs scattered throughout the book, and the poems include interior monologues, quotations, attributions, indirect speech, and conversations. An epigraphs scattered throughout the book, and the poems include interior monologues, quotations, attributions, indirect speech, and conversations. An epigraph she has culled from Duke Ellington could be adapted to her own work: “So much goes on in a Harlem airshaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love…. You see your neighbor’s laundry. You hear the janitor’s dog….” Her poems are highly permeable to their cultural context, and that is one reason that they are so lively. Alexander’s “own” voice — which in one of its modes we could describe in Baraka’s team, “jazzically bluesy” — amalgamates others. Here is the opening of the “Overture” to her sequence entitled “Omni-Albert Murray”:

(three four) The ancestors are humming: Write a poem, girl.
Turn the volume up, they say. Loud-talking. Talking loud.
On piano someone plays a boogie-woogie run:
Omni-Albert Murray Omni Omni Albert Murray.

The author of “The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and American Culture” (1970), Murray wants his title to indicate the diversity in unity of our culture. The United States, he observes, is “a nation of multi-colored people,” and “any fool can see that the white people are really white, and the black people are black. They are all interrelated in one way or another.” Elizabeth Alexander is the great-granddaughter of a Jewish merchant, whether Spanish or Italian is uncertain, and a Jamaican woman. Her great-grandmother, the neighbors said, “ ‘Musta ate / chalk, / Musta ate / starch, cuz / why else / did her / babies / look / so white?’ ” Alexander was born and raised in this country, where her experience has been both distinctively black (“My first week in Cambridge a car full of white boys / tried to run me off the road, and spit through the window”) and not (she has degrees from Yale and Boston also). “Omni” in her definition means “having unrestricted, universal range,” and as she has it in “today’s News”: “I didn’t want to write a poem that said ‘blackness / is,’ because we know better than anyone / that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things.” The poem reflect that knowledge — so that the first line of the “Overture,” for instance, incorporates three voices, one of them plural. As she changes voices, so she shuffles words: “Loud-talking. Talking loud.” This is the second stanza in the “Overture”:

In my mind and in his I think a painting is a poem.
A tambourine’s a hip shake and train whistle a guitar.
Trains run North/South home their whistles howling Afro…Am.
Black and blue Blue Afro-blue blue-black and blue blew blew.

The opportunity offered by the abbreviated phrase “Afro-Am” to glance at Amtrak and to usher in the first person singular verb, the title of one of Murray’s books, “Train Whistle Guitar,” several dimensions of the phrase “black and blue,” John Coltrane’s nickname, the quick pun on “hip”: Alexander shakes such things together into lines that are anonymous, they are so “omni,” yet wholly her own.

When she turns to “John Col” himself her language turns to jazz. It is no fair to the poem to quote it in part, even though she refers to it as a “poem snipped / from paper,” but I shall have to do so:

Or
a battered brass
blood-blowing horn

the bloody foot-
lights cup the dark
where red and black
are beautiful

a terrible beau-
ty a terrible
beauty a terrible
beauty a horn

And this brass heart-
beat the red
sob this this
John Coltrane Col-
trane song.

She has so liberated her syllables that it is hard to know how to corral their associations, especially because she has prefaced the poem with A. B. Spellman’s remark that “trane’s horn had words in it.” Like others before her, she finds the “train” in “trane” and lets the one’s sound and power merge with the other’s. The “red” that her “black” bleeds into, the “red” that is a “sob” even as it is a “heart- / beat” skipped (as the line break mandates) and that is “brass” heartbeaten, or a horn that is a heart, derives in part from the earlier phrase “shred- / ding of my heart.” The word “shredding” is shredded so that its affinity with “red” and even “battered” is exposed and so that it fits into this poem “snipped / from paper.” The snipping comports with the hyphenation of Coltrane’s name, which yields not only the train and its black fuel but also the pass or col it whistles through. Or perhaps it’s more to the point to notice that the last line break, in the wake if the “sob,” bends the musician over the curved neck or col of his tenor sax. We can hear the “sob” before it is named, in the preceding stanza’s enjambment and elision, when “a terrible / beauty a horn” is born from Yeats’s refrain in “Easter 1916.” That refrain is changed, but not changed utterly, since Yeats’s is also a poem resurrection (a theme Alexander touches on in “the bloody foot-“ and in her epigraph from Michael Harper, who has written his own poem about Coltrane: “I reach from pain to music great enough to bring me back”).

Alexander’s experiments owe as much to her study of collage as to her appreciation of jazz and blues. At one point she wonders whether she will “find names like Trueblood [which she found in Ellison’s Invisible Man] and shapes for my collage,” and in her elegy for Bearden she equates “these stanzas on the page” with “discarded strips from your collage.” In this poem itself, “Farewell to You,” she slips into the narrative an unexpected snippet, / snake-hips unmoored / in a blue-black sea.” Elsewhere she interlocks details in a way that might be traced back to Bearden: “Those brownstone textures, marcelled hair, / iron faces, gathered drapery, / smooth foreheads, porcelain brains.”

There are any number of remarkable poems here — “Deadwood Dick” is a model of fierce succinctness and “Painting,” a monologue from the point of view of Frida Kahlo, has the vehement immediacy of Ai’s small triumphs — but the volume is most likely to be remembered for its title poem, the first half of which, written in dry, clinically precise two-line stanzas, is put in the mouth of Baron Cuvier, the French naturalist and anatomist who identified the pterodactyl — and dissected the Hottentot woman and preserved her genitalia in a jar that now rests “in the Musee / del’ Homme on shelf / above Broca’s brain.” The second part of the poem, in gracious eight-line stanzas, is spoken by the woman herself, who by the poem’s end lies on the autopsy table — though by then it is clear that Cuvier is the one who is dead, his heart “shriveled and hard, / geometric, deformed, unnatural,” deserving of preservation in formaldehyde. In the end the accident that put the African woman’s genitalia above Broca’s brain makes a point. This volume makes it too, accidentally or not, when it begins with the word “Science” and ends with the word “love,” in the phrase “brotherly love,” which is the only possible effective response to the kind of seemingly disinterested search for “Elegant facts” that motivated Curvier — who by the way also preferred the theory of catastrophism to the theory of evolution. I am not sure that its title poem will prove to be this book's most important poem to Elizabeth Alexander herself, but I am sure, or as sure as I can be, that it will be a landmark in American poetry, and that The Venus Hottentot is a superb first book, and that Elizabeth Alexander can be about as good a poet as she cares to be.



Miss Crandall’s School for Young Ladies and Little Misses of Color


From School Library Journal — 9/01/07

“Twenty-four sonnets tell the story of Prudence Crandall and her efforts to educate young African-American women in Canterbury, CT, 1833-1834. The school began as a boarding school for white girls; when two black women inquired about taking classes and Crandall agreed, the townspeople withdrew their daughters. As she accepted more black students, the town became more vocal in its resistance, poisoning the school water supply, refusing to sell it supplies, and charging Miss Crandall and others with a variety of crimes. The sonnet format is challenging but compelling. . . a heartfelt, unusual presentation.”


From Kirkus Reviews — 8/15/07 — Starred Review

“[A] glorious poetic celebration of the teacher and students at a Connecticut school that defied mid-19th-century convention to educate African-American girls. Divided into six sections, four sonnets in each, the voices of the 24 girls tell, one by one, the tale, from hope and excitement at the beginning of the enterprise to fear and defiance as forces both institutional and vigilante conspire to destroy Miss Crandall's School. . . A foreword provides a brief prose history of the school; a concluding authors’ note explains their collaborative process. (Poetry. 10+)”


From Horn Book — 9/01/07

“Taking on the voices of individual students, Alexander and Nelson create a portrait of a determined community of learners, the poems escalating in drama as the young women face racial hatred, from poisoned well water to their own Kristallnacht of broken glass and fire. Both poets play with the form, allowing readers to see the elasticity inherent in the exacting fourteen-line sonnet. However, what is always trenchantly clear is the power and worth of education, as when in “Fire from the Gods” Nelson acknowledges that “the Ancestors [are] tickled to death to see / a child they lived toward find her mind’s infinity.”


From Book List — 10/01/07 — Starred Review

Twenty-four clear, beautiful poems in different voices. . . Alexander and Nelson, both Connecticut poets, use dramatic sonnets to tell how Crandall and her students braved resistance to teach and learn. The pupils speak directly of the anguish of family parting (illiteracy means silence when you leave home); the wonder of learning (I didn't know how much I didn’t know); the racism, including the etymology of invective (no one in town will sell us anything); and the horrifying climax of Arson at Midnight, when 300 men attacked the school and closed it down.”


Awards

• Winner in the category of Children’s Author for the 2008 Connecticut Book Awards.
• Featured in BOOK LINK's “Best New Books for the Classroom” list in the November 2007 issue.
• Will be featured in BOOK LINK’S “Top Ten in Black History” list in the February 1, 2008 issue.
• Featured in MOSAIC 2007, an annual multicultural literature exhibit hosted by Lincoln (NE) Public Schools Library Media Services. The exhibit featured the best and most current multicultural titles from 2006-2007.
• Included in the 2008 edition of The Best Children’s Books of the Year, an annotated bibliography from the Children's Book Committee of Bank Street College of Education in New York City.



Critical Essays on Elizabeth Alexander’s Poetry


Pereira, Malin
“Sister Seer and Scribe: Teaching Wanda Coleman’s and Elizabeth Alexander’s Poetic Responses to Sylvia.”

Plath Profiles
Inaugural Issuse (August 2008)


Pereira, Malin
“‘The Poet in the World, the World in the Poet’: Cyrus Cassells’ and Elizabeth Alexander’s Versions of Post-Soul Cosmopolitanism.”

Forthcoming


Francis, Terri
“I and I, Speaking in Tongues: Elizabeth Alexander’s Collective First-Person Voice and the Lure of Amnesia”

Black Women’s Writing Revisited
Gender Forum Special Issue, No. 22 (2008)




 
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