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Biography
Elizabeth Alexander is one of the most vital poets of her generation. She has published five books of poems: THE VENUS HOTTENTOT (1990), BODY OF LIFE (1996), ANTEBELLUM DREAM BOOK (2001), AMERICAN SUBLIME (2005), which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize and was one of the American Library Association’s “Notable Books of the Year;” and, most recently, her first young adult collection (co-authored with Marilyn Nelson), MISS CRANDALL’S SCHOOL FOR YOUNG LADIES AND LITTLE MISSES OF COLOR (2008 Connecticut Book Award). Her two collections of essays are THE BLACK INTERIOR (2004) and POWER AND POSSIBILITY (2007), and her play, DIVA STUDIES, was produced at the Yale School of Drama. Professor Alexander is the first recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She is the 2007 winner of the first Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. Other awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award, given by Gwendolyn Brooks, and a Guggenheim fellowship. She teaches at Yale University.

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ALL ABOUT US IS NOISE:
AN INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH ALEXANDER, Part 1

- By Mahua Chaudhury and Goutam Datta, Video by Mousumi Duttaray and Kajal Mukhopadhyay

Urhalpool:  We are here with Elizabeth Alexander interviewing, who has graced us by accepting our request for an interview.  We are very privileged to be here.  We are here representing Urhalpool, which is a bilingual Bengali web magazine that is aiming to bridge cultural gaps, gaps between different cultures, different countries, different languages.  Thank you so very much for being here with us.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Thank you for travelling to see me and for your work too.

 

Urhalpool:  Before the camera got started, we were talking about how you were brought up and how important you feel the process of memory is to your writing.  When I read The Venus Hottentot, especially that book, I saw it’s practically bursting at the seams with references to mid-century African-American literary and cultural figures.  It seems like you grew up knowing many of them personally.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Some of them… my household was very cultural; my mother's influence in that regard was huge.  My parents were both New Yorkers, and that is where I was born as well, and I think part of what you sense in that book that I think was very characteristic of my upbringing is the way in which everything feels accessible in that city, that that city itself is bursting at the seams with culture, with language, with words, with very, very different kinds of people in close proximity to each other, crossing, crossing, crossing.  So, I think that was the kind of effect that informed many things about how I looked at the world from a very, very early age.

 

Urhalpool:  There is a wonderful poem in there about a house party where there is a reference to finding earrings, finding lost earrings to keep, it is almost like you treasured the memories from an early age in the same manner so that you can go back to them again in an opportune moment and plumb them for your poetry.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, I do think even though my memory isn't is not what it once was, I think that children just suck that all up, I have been blessed with a very sharp memory, and I am often aware of that.  I remember details and I remember them vividly, and I remember words and I remember small things, very, very sharply and vividly, and so I think that probably that particular gift is part of what that led me to a life as an artist. You’ve got to do something with it, really what else would you do with it?  And really in that poem in particular, I think the world of grown-ups as I perceived it as a child that there was something, kind of burnished and magical about the way grown-ups would be grown ups together and what was it to be a child on the periphery of that, wanting to understand a little better, wanting to have keepsakes of it.  That's  kind of world I was in at that time, writing the book in my 20s, looking back, and sort of plumbing the memories of early years.

 

Urhalpool:  And your need to be a part of the same grown-up world in a sense.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Absolutely, although of course when we get there, we realize that it never is as it we imagine it to be.

 

Urhalpool:  Yes, it is always evolving and changing with us.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  That's true, that's true.

 

Urhalpool:  But, you have been present in a few moments that have held so much historical significance and you have, I have read—correct me if I'm wrong—that you were at the historical speech at the Washington Mall.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  The March on Washington.

 

Urhalpool:  Yes, when you were a one year old, and then you talk about your father being in the running for a mayoral election in the city of Washington, D.C.  These moments, do you go back to them now, now your process is so memory intensive, do you go back to them at different times and walk away with different significance?

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, I think the funny thing about large moments is that what we see as iconic often does not necessarily seem iconic when we are experiencing it.  The inaugural would be an exception.  I knew that was a big day.  And you know what I said before, that I think what is very important about the March on Washington is that there was nothing extraordinary about my parents taking me.  For people of all colors who believed in progress, I don't know, the millions of people who assembled that day, there was no question, but that we would go because it was the moment with Dr. King, who everybody knew who was carrying a message that was so vital and so important.  Everybody I think must have known that he was a messenger in a certain kind of way and so not to go would have been a refusal of that forward vision that so many people cared about and that, in the case of my parents, that was a big piece of what they were working toward, so of course, of course we went, of course we went.

 

Urhalpool:  Do you think back to the date or can you almost looking back now re-imagine yourself in the moment as a one year old?

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  I have certainly done that.  I grew up in Washington D.C. after we moved from New York, and I, you know, passing the Mall, going over the Mall a million times, and going to the Mall as an adult for other marches, because I think that's something so wonderful about Washington as a civic city.  When I was growing up, there were always marches, lot of anti-Vietnam War marches, the later March on Washington, women's suffrage marches for women's issues and women's rights.  That was just, it was matter of fact that people would be gathered on the Mall to try to push for change, and that was actually rather a nice tradition to grow up with and especially… when you see it is important to remember. I mean, even today… hearing in the news about the protests in Iran and how… so many people have died marching for their point of view.  So I do consider that a very precious way of thinking about some of what is wonderful in the legacy of this complicated and contradictory country.

 

Urhalpool:  Hmm… and staying engaged in the moment and staying engaged with your ancestry…

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Uh hunh, yes.

 

Urhalpool:  You have also spoken about how, growing up as a child in Washington D.C., you would get off the bus, from your school bus and go look at paintings.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yes, yes.

 

Urhalpool:  And, you know, some of your poems and especially when you write about Bearden, you know, in some cases I wondered if there were specific paintings that you were writing about, for example, the man with one eye bigger than the other one, the large ham hands.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah.

 

Urhalpool:  It seems like you have had an upbringing where you are in the moment, but also you are in a family where you are able to keep an objective distance.  Do you feel that was a privileged position to be in, not be thrust into the turmoil of it, but experience it, but also be able to stay back from it?

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  And the turmoil, not to be thrust into the turmoil of what exactly?

 

Urhalpool:  Of, you know, the African-American life's day-to-day struggle.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, that's interesting.  I will break the pieces of your question down; there are so many things in that.  In thinking about Bearden in particular, what's kind of interesting is that, in that poem that you mentioned, which is called “Bearden,” it wasn't about one particular painting, because also I think to meditate on one painting, I wouldn’t want make a poem that was so static.  So it was kind of taking a lot of pieces of Bearden from his Mecklenburg County pictures. These are the pictures that were his childhood memory pictures, of time that he spent in North Carolina when he was a child before his family moved to Pittsburgh and then to New York City.  So that is his space of idyllic romance, in a way, and visual romance are in those North Carolina paintings.  I think I am just thinking of them now with your question, some analogs to what we have been speaking about with childhood and memory.  I think the question about being in or out of the turmoil of African-American life, on the one hand, I mean, I don't hesitate to say that my childhood was loving, privileged, protected, endowed in so many ways, and in so many ways that were not necessarily about money per se, but that were about a cultural legacy, cultural exposure, being loved, being safe, all of those things.  And one of the really terrific things about growing up in Washington is that the museums were all free.  So you mentioned getting off [the bus] to see my paintings, I mean, it was a huge thing that if I had had to pay as a 12-year-old to go to the museum, I would not have gone to see a painting.  It would have been a proper field trip, that maybe you do it once a year, and it is a big deal, but not that wonderful, almost casual relationship with art that says it has a place in the everyday, it really is for everyone, it’s for young people as well as for what you might think of as, you know, patrons of the arts.  It gets used.

 

Urhalpool:  It grows with you and it evolves with you.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  It grows with you, and it has different meanings depending on…  if a 12-year-old kid can get off the bus and go look at it, what does she see?  And then what does the… what does the art's matron, you imagine her, what does she see in that painting?  So I think that is actually really, what’s really important about D.C. and some other cities, but not so much now, I mean I am a sort of horrified at what you have to pay to go to museums in New York.  It's crazy and, you know, yes, they are doing the best they can, and they have free days on school days and so forth, but I think that maybe governments need to rethink what that does for communities.  So yes, all of that bounty, all of that privilege, all of that security, but yet I think growing up as an aware and as a starkly aware African-American was with a sense of responsibility, which is how… not just my parents, but everybody in my family always operated with the ethos that you are supposed to share your gifts, that you are supposed to be a helpful person, that you are supposed to serve your community in some kind of way, that you are supposed to think about yourself in the context of a community, that you are not just an Adam all by yourself, you know, [but] floating along with your family.  So I think that was what gave me a kind of a grave sense of trying to—by learning and teaching and writing and doing—engage with the struggle with the particular abilities that I had and… there was a sense too that it wasn't always a safe thing to be a black person in this country, I was very aware of that, in particular if the work that my father did as a very outspoken person, working for civil rights…  I mean he would get death threats and, you know, all kinds of things like that and we saw… what happened to Medgar Evers in Mississippi… gunned down in front of his children in his driveway because of being an NAACP organizer.  And, you know, the NAACP was not an organization that we saw as being wild and radical, I mean everybody we knew was involved with NAACP.  So, that's all to say that there was a sense of proximity too… that sometimes terrible cost of speaking out and doing that good work.

 

Urhalpool:  Yeah.  There is a beautiful poem that you write about how, you know, I forget the exact words, “Hey Blood”…

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah.

 

Urhalpool:  My father still says that sometimes.  That poem just encapsulates so many things you are speaking to us about.  It turns out that, you know, being able to locate a moment in history, in memory, and being able to find its significance so many years down the road and also have it be a very personal moment at the same time.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, that's such careful reading, thank you.  But also I am thinking again as you are saying this, because your questions are opening up things for me about how that particular phrase, “Hey Blood,” which you know I am very interested in vernacular and black vernacular, and the ways that people talk and the incredible turns of phrase that you find if you are not just looking for language in literature, but you are also looking for it ambiently, everywhere.  And I think about something like “Hey Blood,” which is such a brilliant vernacularism because it’s tossed off, it’s cool, it’s kind of fabulous, also wow, what does it mean to see another black man, for a black man to see another black man in the street and to say “blood”?

 

Urhalpool:  Yeah, yeah.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  You know, to invoke that as a way of saying, in this small moment, I connect to you.

 

Urhalpool:  Yes.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  I think that's really beautiful.

 

Urhalpool:  It is violent, and also the question of blood brothership.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  That's right, it is all in there, it’s all in there, all of the ways that we connect or choose to connect.

 

Urhalpool:  Or many, as many as like me, read that poem and their hearts just skip a bit.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Oh! Well.

 

Urhalpool:  It is such a great, great, you know, one of my favorite poems.  But, moving away from that subject for a little bit, you also, you have found so many different ways of writing about the African-American experience.  You know there is a personal aspect, which you bring up in “Boston Year.”  You write about the historical imagination, the early cinema.  There are poems like “Amistad,” and I am just wondering if writing about being an African-American has ever gotten in the way of your writing as a woman.  If I think about The Venus Hottentot, it’s full of references to cultural figures, to American cultural figures, but most of them are men.  You do mention Frida Kahlo, you know, she almost being the sole exception and of course, I’m not counting.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Urhalpool:  But, I am just wondering, does that happen because growing up there was no feminist African-American movement, there was no institution through which a figure like Gwendolyn Brooks could be become culturally accessible to you?

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, that's interesting.  I mean, you know, I mean Brooks could have been accessible to me, although it is important to know that that a lot of black women at the time when I was being educated—first of all, a lot of my own learning about African-American work was autodidactic.  I learned some in school, but a lot of it was just reading, reading, reading on my own.  And as far as black women poets are even poets at all, in the early 1980s, it was all about the novel.  So many women poets were not taught as extensively as they might have been at an earlier time, and I think than now.  I think also what I would sort of rephrase from what you say about no black feminist institutions, is that the word institutions is key because Black Feminism was everywhere.  Right, I mean, you know, it was everywhere in the women I knew, in the women who raised me… aunts and great aunts, and mother and grandmother.  I mean, it was absolutely a part of how they looked at the world, they just didn't call it Black Feminism, and also they didn't have some of the same kinds of outlets and spaces that the men had. So, for example, I never had a black female professor when I was an undergraduate...  The people who were my teachers were largely white and black men, because that's who was teaching in the universities at the time.  But what I think is interesting about the book is that we can't rush pass Sarah Baartman because, you know she is the center, the point… she is everything of that book and she’s the raison d’être of that book.  And so I think the way in which the profound feminist identification of, you know, what does it mean and what does it take to try to tell that female story, that has to, in a way, maybe read against these other voices that you are looking at.  So, maybe--and again I am just sort of thinking about this for the first time—but maybe… those figures that you mentioned, the artists and the writers and the musicians who are so celebrated in the second part of the book, maybe part of the idea is that a Sarah Baartman could not have come to any kind of artistic voice because of the circumstances of her life.

 

Urhalpool:  Exactly.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  You know, her life is about truncation and also of course… she dies young because of how she is violated.  So, I am thinking that there is something important about who has space to speak, and that is also something very important about the particularly black feminist message of that.  Certainly in a lot of my reading, not only by myself, but also outside of the classroom, but in feminist communities, particularly in college, we were just hanging on the every word—no one was teaching us Audre Lorde in the classroom, but we were reading those words and needing those words and organizing ourselves around a lot of those principles and trying to theorize ourselves around those principles that we found in literary Black Feminism in particular.  So, I am sure that that also is part of, you know, when I came across the Venus Hottentot story in an essay by Sander Gilman because of that feminist perspective, I was able to say, here is the storybook; where is her voice?

 

Urhalpool:  Yeah.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  You know, and that knowing what was missing was what then made space for the poetry to take over.

 

Urhalpool:  Yes.  The reason I bring this question up is I come from a culture where growing up we had many prominent women fiction writers, but growing up I didn't really have—the poems I memorized were always—and I realized that after I was grown up—were always written by men…  And I just wondered what it did, how it might have been if I grew up being resonated by women's poems as well, if somehow my training was incomplete as a poet because of that shortcoming.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yes, yes.

 

Urhalpool:  By the time you to theorize that element, like you said, and a child is always sucking [everything] up, its pieces are getting very deep into your memory, in your psyche—is that freshness, is that element of spontaneity still there?

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.  Well…  hopefully as we grow and as the years go by, and hopefully also as we grow as poets, I always hope that each book so far, so good, each book has set another set of challenges that I have tried to work through.  Each book is different, with each book I feel like I learn something, with each book I feel like I started out in one place and I ended up some place else, and that's what I would hope would always be the case.  So certainly, in my second book, I felt that I was breaking free of a kind of a being a good girl in certain kinds of ways, you know, that I was trying to do something, find a voice that in many ways was more about being an autonomous grown woman.  I had one poetry teacher, Derek Walcott, as I'm sure you’ve read, he was, I studied with him here in Boston for one year of graduate school, and he was a revelatory teacher for me.  He opened me in so many ways, he really, I came to him, not knowing that I was a poet.  I knew that I wanted to be a writer, but I really didn't write poems, and he unlocked that for me and he unlocked it for me to the lengths that made sense for him, as you know, he is real formalist.  He believes in the European tradition and what it has to give poets, all of that, I mean that's his, but of course, his brilliance, and I don't know if he would talk about it this way, is that it is a European tradition that he learned in the Caribbean, people forget this about him all the time.  You know, that when you are learning—I’m sure you have much to say about this—that when you are learning an English tradition in the colonial setting, it is not the same thing.

 

Urhalpool:  It's not.  You are very right.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  It's not the same thing.  So, even when he hears Shakespeare recited, he is hearing it recited by a St. Lucian, you know.  So, that’s going to effect, because of the finely tuned ear of the poet what you write and what you make, not to mention that his ears are also open to everything else that…  he is hearing around him all the time and the particular kinds of turns of phrase that are particular to that place.  And also, he grew up very well aware of the people on the island who made art.  So, it wasn't just like there was that one heavy handed graft of the English tradition, but nonetheless, he is a poet and a teacher who believes that you should… know how to work with iambic pentameter and sonnets and rhymes, so that is how that first book I think of mine shows that influence tremendously.

 

Urhalpool:  Yeah.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  So I remember, in the second book, where there are a few very long lined poems, I remember thinking… sort of I was like scandalizing myself, like what I've done here?  And I knew they were right and I did think, “What would Derek think?”  You know, my beloved teacher, what would he think?  But I also knew…

 

Urhalpool:  Would he be scandalized enough?

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  That's it, but I knew that I had to make these poems, what my journey as a poet was and it wasn't even like I said, “Now I'm going to break the line.”

 

Urhalpool:  But don't you think learning those kinds of traditional ways and then breaking away as you like is useful as a poet?

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  I think it is everything.

 

Urhalpool:  The more weapons that you have, the better you are.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  I believe in that.  That's how I teach.  I totally, totally believe in that.  So, what I think, what I hope for is that also there is that whatever that internal thing is that makes us write poems, why do we do it, I don't know.  Why do we keep doing it?  I don't know.  There is an impetus, a quest, you are listening to unheard music—oh okay, what does it need to look like?  And I consider that a part of my journey as a woman writer too.  I think also moving through life, certainly becoming a mother, and the way in which that takes you, even with all of the tremendous and humbling uncertainty of parenthood and motherhood, it takes into another kind of authority and knowing very profoundly.

 

Urhalpool:  It is very apparent in American Sublime, Antebellum, towards the end of Antebellum Dreambook.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  You can see that.  Yeah.  I mean I just felt like it, it just took me to a different place, a different place.  So, that is part of the woman's journey in poetics I think as well.  And I wonder, you know, you mentioned my great Gwendolyn Brooks, my idol, my love, my great—not someone who taught me by hand—but someone of whose poems continued to teach me.   And people speak a lot about the change in her work in the 1960s as being about a change in the nation's politics and that she was sort of becoming a black power poet then in that way, but I think—and I think maybe I have to write this because I think I am right about this—I think the changes in her work are more about being a woman moving through life and getting to a place where her vision and her language was more and more distilled.  You know, we know this about elder's books, we know this about elder women, you know that everything just gets pithier and more distilled and that also because of the ways that societies of all kinds repress women; every society represses women to some degree.  The older women get, you know, they are able to find more ways to speak the truth.  Women go through life seeing and knowing things that they often can't and don't say, but that doesn't mean that they don't have it and they don't know it.

 

Urhalpool:  Sometimes they probably grasp this truth without much fanfare.  They hit upon the truth, and it just takes a long time for other people, the other gender around them to catch up to that perspicacity.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Perspicacity, yes exactly.

 

Urhalpool:  That lucidity.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah. No, that's right, that's right.  So, I think that I now look at Gwendolyn Brooks, the development of her work as telling us more about a woman's life actually, which kind of circles back where you started… do your questions of gender, questions of race trump questions of gender, which I think is very interesting.

 

Urhalpool:  In the forward for your collection of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems, you do talk about how, even Paul Dunbar said that "I've to speak in this dialect, otherwise I wouldn’t be heard," and I also wondered—and you kind of answered my question—if that also happens as a woman?  That you work with an arsenal that we have mostly picked up from the poetic world, which is mostly predominated by the male gender, and we are forced to use that arsenal till we are ready to break free from it and find that pithy that clear voice of  ourselves?

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  I agree with that, maybe more than half, but I think also what it is important to remember, you know in the time when I was first writing poems and studying with Walcott, I was very obsessed with Sylvia Plath.

 

Urhalpool:  That's a beautiful poem that you wrote.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, you know, she and with her—it was her poems.  But more it was her whole life’s example, not I wasn't enchanted with, you know, the whole cult of death thing.

 

Urhalpool:  That was a mistake of mine.

 

Elizabeth Alexander:  That, I am really not interested in that.  But her ferocious appetite for poetry and her ferocious female ambition, I mean like, she was not messing around, writing those poems, she wanted to be published, she wanted to be out there, she believed she could do everything, she, she was, she was ferocious.  And so, I would read her letters, her journals, you know, all… that was the Sylvia thing that interested me.  And so I think what Sylvia teaches us about women poets is that the hunger for the male tradition, the love for the male tradition is, you know, sometimes that works.  It is precious to us because we aspire to whatever greatness looks like.  And so I think to think about female ambition and the wish and the will to do whatever it takes to be a better writer is part of what I would put into what you said.