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Poetry Prize for History-Minded Professor

As an undergraduate at Yale, Elizabeth Alexander '84 attended John Hersey’s final fiction class, and she shared coffee at Naples with a visiting Nigerian writer, the future Nobelist Wole Soyinka. It was during such times, she says, that she “first imagined what the writing life could be.” Now a professor of African American studies at Yale, Alexander has also pursued the writing life as a poet, an effort that recently earned her the first Jackson Poetry Prize, a new $50,000 prize from Poets & Writers, Inc., that honors a mid-career poet.

“Creative writing can fill in the blanks in history.”

Alexander has published four volumes of poetry, including American Sublime and Antebellum Dream Book. Her work explores how personal stories can mesh with public and historical stories, giving voice to, for instance, Saartjie Baartman, the African woman put on exhibit in early nineteenth-century Europe as the “Venus Hottentot"; and to the captives on the slave ship Amistad who rebelled against their imprisonment. Alexander has also collaborated with former state poet laureate Marilyn Nelson on a sonnet sequence about New England’s first academy for black girls, which opened in Canterbury in 1833 and closed, just one year later, due to violent resistance from the community. “Creative writing can fill in the blanks in history,” Alexander says.

The award was established by Poets & Writers board member Susan Jackson and her husband John Jackson '67. “One part of the mission of the organization is to support the professional development of poets and writers, and this award fits right in,” says Poets & Writers executive Elliot Figman. Alexander says the prize reminds her that she must never forget to make time to be a poet: “If I’m not doing that, I’m not doing what I’m on the planet to do.”



B. Davie Napier '39BD, '44PhD, Professor Emeritus of Bible and Ministry at Yale, died on February 24 in Claremont, California. He was 91 years old. Napier was affiliated with Yale first as a student and later as a professor specializing in the Old Testament (from 1949 to 1965 and again from 1980 to 1984), as a trustee of the university (from 1975 to 1980), and as master of Calhoun College (from 1964 to 1965 and again from 1980 to 1984). He also served as chaplain at Stanford University from 1966 to 1972—earning the school plaudits from Time magazine as “an enlightened case study of how Christianity on a secular campus can be imaginatively brought to life”—and was president of the Pacific School of Religion from 1972 to 1978.

Aaron Lerner, who led the dermatology department at the School of Medicine from its founding in 1956 until 1985, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on February 3 in New Haven. He was 86 years old. Lerner, the only dermatologist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences, was responsible for isolating the hormone melatonin, which was later found to regulate sleep cycles. He also developed a skin-transplant technique to give people with vitiligo—a disorder that causes skin discoloration—a more uniform complexion. Lerner retired in 1991.



Psychology professor Marvin Chun ’s reputation with students can be judged by his recent DeVane Award for undergraduate teaching—and also by a Facebook group called “Marvin Chun is the Man!!!” Now Chun will be spending more time with students as master of Berkeley College. A graduate of Yonsei University in South Korea and MIT, Chun studies how people perceive and remember visual information. Chun’s wife, Woo-kyoung Ahn, who is also a professor of psychology, will serve as associate master.

Praising his “vision, intelligence, and commitment as well as his gentle but effective management style,” President Richard Levin ’74PhD announced in February that James Bundy '95MFA will serve a second five-year term as dean of the School of Drama and director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. A university statement credited Bundy with enhancing the school’s international standing through new faculty appointments and increasing attendance by 20 percent at the Yale Rep.



An all-day celebration at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life on March 2 commemorated Rabbi James Ponet '68’s 25th anniversary as Yale’s Jewish chaplain. Billed as a “Festival of Thought,” the event featured talks by professors from Yale and elsewhere. Said former Law School dean Anthony Kronman '72PhD, '75JD, an organizer of the tribute, “In Jim we have one of the world’s great talkers and teachers, and so we assembled six animated talkers in his honor.” Said Ponet himself at the end of the day: “I expected today would be beautiful or a nightmare. It has been so beautiful.”  the end


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