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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.

ALL ABOUT US IS NOISE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ELIZABETH ALEXANDER, Part 2

- by Mahua Chaudhury and Goutam Datta

Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher born in New York City and raised in Washington, DC.  Recently, she composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama.  Her work has been inspired a number of influences, from history to art and music to the African-American experience. Many of her poems bring history alive and into the present in highly musical, sharply contemporary narratives which use many different forms and voices to cover subjects ranging from slave rebellions, the Civil Rights movement, Muhammed Ali and Toni Morrison to the lives of jazz musicians and the ‘Venus Hottentot’, a 19th-century African woman exhibited at carnivals. Hers is a vital and vivid poetic voice on race, gender, politics and motherhood. Following is the second part of Urhalpool’s interview with Ms. Alexander at her office at Yale University.  


Urhalpool:  You know, coming back to The Venus Hottentot, I mean, your poems have had always such a strong narrative component to them—just digressing for a little bit, you know, you made an observation about Gwendolyn Brooks' books, saying that each of our books were more successful when they had one long poem in it and the rest of the poems in the book were arranged around that.  you are thinking of The Venus Hottentot, thinking of “Ali's Voice” in Antebellum Dream Book, and of course “Amistad” in American Sublime, they seem to follow similar patterns and I kind of wonder in each case, in each of these, in each long narrative poem, if in terms of the whole organization of the whole book, are you also telling us about a bigger narrative, something less apparent?

Elizabeth Alexander:  That's very interesting.  I mean, you know, Rita Dove, another poet that I have learned so much from and who I was really thinking a lot about when I was a young writer, she tends not to have the big, long poem.  The thing I learned from her about books—she said such an interesting thing: she doesn't think that books should have—I mean it’s not a hard and fast rule but—three sections because she said then you have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  And there's so much pressure on each of those units and I thought about that, especially with American Sublime.

Urhalpool:  The last section?

Elizabeth Alexander:  That little last one I thought, “That’s right.” I need to throw it off a little bit, you need to torque the ending of the book so that it doesn't feel tidy, and that's very important.  But I think, you know, I do like a long poem.  Every few years I seem to find myself in something long, something serial, something that doesn't get resolved with just one little poem, and I have to keep going.  And so I think probably what happens is that then it comes time for a book, I think some of it’s probably almost accidental.  That, well, there's this big one and what do you do with it?  And when you have got this big one it is like the elephant right there.  Well, okay, what are going to put around it?  You cannot think about it.  And you have to ask yourself as with “Amistad” in American Sublime, okay do I open with it, do I close with it, do I—where does it go?  You know, it’s a sofa in the living room.

Urhalpool:  An exquisite sofa.

Elizabeth Alexander:  But there are other things, and there is a chair, and there is a lamp, and you put those around it in some kind of way.  But I am interested in epic, and I am interested in spread and large stories, and I think that probably, probably I am interested in that in its particular American iterations, I think, because also one thing I do realize about my work over time is how much of an Americanist I am, how Americanness is an ongoing obsession and topic for me.

Urhalpool:  Can you elaborate?  This is a very interesting phrase.  Can you tell us a little bit more about what defines Americanness for you?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, it’s kind of enormous.  Some of the basic things maybe sound a little corny, but I do believe… one of them is multivocality.  You know that this really is a place where even… When I teach poetry for example, an exercise that I always like to use is to have people do a writing exercise in the voice of a grandparent.  Because when you do that exercise in the United States, what's fantastic is that everyone's grandparent is speaking in a completely different idiom, if not a different language, and that is what I really love, it is that…  And then also someone will say, "But I don't know my grandmother's language" and then that becomes the poem, you know, that becomes the interesting thing and that over the generations…  You are likely to have, I mean amongst my studentship, you know probably—I don't know I am guessing—probably half of my students have an immigrant grandparent to this country.  So, then there is that question of language, and then also you have differences of region, sometimes class differences within families, you know, and also differences in era.  So, what would have been even just the wonderful quirks of language, quaint, old fashioned language, how has that captured your ear?  I think what is interesting about the exercise too is that it gets the students too, surprisingly, to an intimate language, because what they will remember is how they would have been spoken to by a grandparent.  So, it is not the same as if they observed their grandparent in the street… going about that kind of business.  So, that really excites and interests me.  Kind of onto itself about America and I think that, you know, unpacking… that this is a whatever kind of country, you know, and that is why it is so exciting because there is a de facto unpacking of that now that we are in the Obama age because… here we are with a President with a very different outlook.  And all of a sudden, it is like the cloth is taken off, you know, so what does it mean okay, we have an American President who was raised in the middle of the ocean… I keep looking at the map and looking [at] where Hawaii is; it means way out.  In the middle of the ocean and then a President who talks about in his years in Indonesia, in waking up and hearing the imam's call in the morning… and that's one of his sounds.

Urhalpool:  His childhood memory.

Elizabeth Alexander:  And you know that all of this and that there is the known and imagined world of the father and there is the kind of the middle of the country, you know—whole white Midwestern Kansas roots of the mother and the grandparents who he talks about.  He said, “It’s those Midwestern roots that I have in common with Michelle.”  So, he’s connecting these white Midwesterners of a generation to these black Chicagoans, you know, I mean it’s beautiful, but I mean, I think it is also—it’s just the truth, it’s just the truth, and it’s not all sunny, it’s just the truth, and so, I feel like huh!  You know, the truth at last.  This thing that those of us who are committed to seeing and crossing, it’s what we know… finally maybe this is the norm, you know?

Urhalpool:  In The Venus Hottentot, your first book—and I am going back to the narrative element and the multivocality that you just were speaking about—you opened your first book in the voice of, not with Sarah Baartman, but—

Elizabeth Alexander:  The scientist.

Urhalpool:  Yes…  with the voice of Cuvier.  Is this a decision you struggled with or did it just come to you naturally because the poem came that way?

Elizabeth Alexander:  I realized that Rita Dove actually gave me that answer.  I realized this long after the fact, so I thought I came to it naturally, but I did not.  Her poem “Parsley,” which has the voice—she actually starts with the cane workers in the Dominic Republic and then has El General Trujillo, who executed them—but I realized that I had read and read and read and been haunted by that poem and I think what I realized was, not so much as far as the order of things, but I realized because I first worked on the Baartman section that Cuvier wanted to speak and ought to speak and that it was more interesting if he spoke.  And this notion I wanted to understand, I wanted understand in lines like “Elegant facts await me, Small things in this world are mine,” what do I see?

Urhalpool:  The beauty that he saw from his cold scientific perspective.

Elizabeth Alexander:  I really did want to understand that, not as a way of making him justified in any kind of way, but I … just wanted to understand.  And I felt that that would actually make the poem richer to have both people in the room.  But I do think maybe a political decision, even though it just kind of came out that way, but I wasn’t going to give him more space.  She was the one; it was really about her voice.    So, I do not know what you have done if I had had more to say.

Urhalpool:  You know what is also interesting to me is it was your first book of poems, but you chose a third person's voice to open your book with, instead of going with the poem where you talked about the kitchen table where the father left a wishbone.  I love that poem.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Oh thanks.  Nobody notices that little poem.  Thank you.

Urhalpool:  Really.  I thought it was just beautiful and the last line that takes my breath away sometimes things…

Elizabeth Alexander:  Hmm… things will often break sometimes, yeah.

Urhalpool:  I loved that.  So instead of starting, putting that kind of individual first person poet's voice to start the book with you chose a third person and even an unsympathetic narrator.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.

Urhalpool:  In the case of Cuvier.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Oh well that’s interesting, that’s interesting.  Some of that might have been a little bit of the influence of Walcott and a little bit of eschewing the first person.   Also I think some of it—one thing that I did not learn first from him, but he kind of set in stone for me in a good way is a kind of a modesty that I think is very, very important.  So I, I, I, I, I, I… [is] boring and his reinforcement of that, that was what I learned from my grandmother… that it’s unattractive for a child to carry on about herself.  I, I, I, I, I…  now of course that goes against many of the very important and galvanizing movements into “I” that feminist poetry has helped us understand, that the personal is political… it’s that great Muriel  Rukheyser  line: “If one woman told the truth about herself, the world would split open, if just one woman told the truth about herself, the world would split open.”  So… I definitely believe in that the first person in that repressed stories need to be spoken.  So I don’t know, none of these did I think about when I wrote the poem.

Urhalpool:  We see that you were saying something about the community before long time ago, but do you see any contradiction between writing belonging to a community and to an individual?

Elizabeth Alexander:  You mean like having a responsibility to connect to that community or—

Urhalpool:  Yeah, yeah.  I have heard that thing in many African-American discussions: “belonging to the community.”   Do you see a contradiction between the individual and the community?

Elizabeth Alexander:  I see… not with artists.  I feel like artists, they sing their songs and those songs serve the community.  I really feel like that’s what we ask of artists: to find something inside and bring it out and then wait and see what community does with it.

Urhalpool:  Like you were saying a few moments ago—it was very interesting—your father saying… suppose the community does not like it.  But as an individual writer it’s a contradiction, so how do you feel as a writer?

Elizabeth Alexander:  There’s an essay in The Black Interior where I really go into that, quite a bit actually, on Gwendolyn Brooks and the responsibilities of the black writer, responsibilities being in “question.”  On the one hand, there are real communities, we know what they are, we know who they are.  On the other hand, the community does not exist, which is to say that… I think we can, especially as writers but even as just regular folks, we can get completely paralyzed if we always picture the counsel, the counsel sitting and judging.

Urhalpool:  Exactly.

Elizabeth Alexander:  And certainly, I mean I have felt that pressure; sometimes you still feel that pressure.  It makes me happy when I feel like black people like what I’m doing, but also who are black people?  I don’t know.

Urhalpool:  Exactly.

Elizabeth Alexander:  I mean so many different kinds of ways and I think that to worry about or seek that approval, get your way from the fundamental question of “How can I serve?  What do I have to offer?”  I think people of all communities can be very cruel to artists, not take care of them, not recognize that it’s hard work that it’s an offering.  You like it or don’t like it, but it’s still, it’s an offering, it’s made to be received then in some kind of exchange.  So, I just think it is I have learned to try not to worry so much about the community because it is all so mythical.

Urhalpool:  And the significance of the work might come to light, sometime down the road, the gift might not be appreciated in the moment, but it doesn’t stop us or the artists from giving.

Elizabeth Alexander:  So true, that’s right, and I think that is what it is… especially poetry—when you think of them as small things that sit out.  I mean thinking now, how could I possibly know who will see this interview?  I mean especially now with the Internet and like who knows?  Anybody in the whole wide world can find it, what an awesome thought to think, “I do not know what they will do with the poetry.  I do not know what they will find.”  You can’t almost speculate.  You just send it out there and then every now and again, you get the reward like you say you liked that kitchen table poetry.  No one’s ever told me that, but I mean then they go to other things in that book.  It’s a small, strange little poem, but I believed in it when I wrote it and that was how many years ago?  So, I couldn’t have just waited by the phone, someone going to call and tell me about that poem, but sometimes you get—it’s one of the, I think, the great things about being a poet with poems in the world, is that you never know when somebody will say “this is what I saw” and then you realize that you’re always in exchange with the art and that’s so great.

Urhalpool:  Recently, I went to someone's house and there was a young, very young, Indian, Asian-Indian girl, she was trying to read a poem, she read the poem, and I said this is a very nice performance piece, and she was really upset about that.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Awww…

Urhalpool:  If someone asks me: how do you like this poem?  I always try to speak the truth.  So, I said this is a nice performance piece, but if you write it, it’s not like written poetry… I saw that contradiction there.  She said that…  that’s why no one likes to read poems, because people like to do slam poetry.  She was making contradiction between these two.  Do you have any kind of opinion on that?

Elizabeth Alexander:  About slam poetry?

Urhalpool:  And the regular poems... the contradiction.

Elizabeth Alexander:  I’m happy that anybody does anything called any kind of poetry.  I think that’s a wonderful thing that people are in language and that they are sharing language.  I think that’s a fantastic, fantastic thing.  But I do think … that especially when you think about African-American art when people are more used to something that’s snappy and jazzy and funky and crowd pleasing, and mindful of a crowd, so therefore playing to a crowd in a certain kind of way that if you’re comparing it to other kinds of poems that can sometimes operate in a way that is a bit quieter or that also pretty much necessitate that you come back to them—you see the slam poem… you do not have a second chance, it has to succeed.

Urhalpool:  Grabbing the moment.

Elizabeth Alexander:  It’s in the moment, so therefore, there are certain technical choices you’re going to make, to make it succeed in the moment because there’s no second act. But, you know, when we write poems… we want them to succeed the first go round, but also what we hope for is that layers will reveal themselves over time and you’ll say, “Ah!   I didn’t see that now…  Oh, okay.  Oh!  Look at the shape of the pattern, ah, I see that, you know.”   So, it’s just two very, very different ways of encountering art and also of two different ways of being used to, especially for African-American people, being used to seeing us in public.

Urhalpool:  It is not only African-Americans I think, because I think that in general in the United States, culture becomes more humorous or fun.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.

Urhalpool:  People like to make fun of everything.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Interesting.

Urhalpool:  What I notice, even with many famous white Americans writing, if you go to their readings, they become laughing and clapping.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Urhalpool:  So, I think that that also affects the poets themselves because they are thinking about that when they are writing--whether their audiences will laugh at that.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Urhalpool:  So the seriousness is gone there.

Elizabeth Alexander:  That is interesting, yeah, that is interesting.  I think what I meant about the African-American poem is I was thinking more to the side of question about familiar African-American rhetorical modes.

Urhalpool:  Of course—

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.  No, that is very true.

Urhalpool:  Have you noticed any time, in the poetry itself as well as general world living, everywhere if you watch TV, if you go hear a political speech, everyone is trying to make fun.  

Elizabeth Alexander:  No that’s right, that’s right.  And I actually don’t like it.

Urhalpool:  Ha, ha, ha.

Elizabeth Alexander:  So I think you realized.

Urhalpool:  Your form of poetry does not do that at all.

Elizabeth Alexander:  No.

Urhalpool:  You have done some wonderful work.

Elizabeth Alexander:  We do laugh sometimes in the poems.  I do think also—at the risk of generalizing terribly, but I think there’s something to it, my husband is from East Africa, and one of the things that I really notice—not just in our family and in our friends, but as someone who has married into a different culture—I have tried to learn that culture in that way and what I so love about not just East Africans, Africans in general, is that I think there is a greater degree of earnestness with which utterance is received.  It’s not met with sort of cynicism or flipness or quick response; it’s met with a serious and thoughtful response that what you say is received.  And I dare say I could probably look to other parts of the Third World and think about that kind of response as well.  Not to say that we don’t find in those cultures--and let’s particularly take some East African culture to begin with--a dry wit, cutting wit, subtlety, all of that, but I do think there’s a more of a graciousness with receiving the word at face value instead of automatically making it into something to like laugh at or deflect, or make a commentary on.  So for whatever that’s worth, I think that that sort of fits into what we’re talking about in the culture.  What I wonder in general, as technology has speeded up so much all over the world, I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with speed, but one thing that I certainly observe in the US context is that everyone has something to say and most of it is not well thought through.  Because then can say it openly and like whoosh! out it goes and I do not much care for that.  So I guess the thing to do is then ignore it.   But I do wonder… I was talking with my kids about with a million choices and so much information out there as they were asking about—they said who are John and Kate?  Those TV people with all the children?  And we were talking about with so much stuff out there, what do you choose to fill your head with?  And… we always know that there is some junkie stuff, I have tons of junkie stuff that I willingly put in my head, but you don’t have room for everything in your head, so how do you keep room for things with depth and heart and history and things that are hard to learn and hard to digest?

Urhalpool:  That is where being a mother comes into—that’s what being a mother teaches you.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah, that’s right.

Urhalpool:  Did you notice that—I noticed it myself, I noticed it as an outsider—that African-American poetry in the last twenty years has changed drastically?  I feel like it’s completely changed, and I also see it because I work in the working class neighborhoods—I see there’s a lot of contradiction between the older, the civil rights generation of African-Americans, and the younger generations of African-Americans.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Mmm.

Urhalpool:  A real confrontation.  Do you see what I am saying?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Here’s what I think has happened in the past twenty years in the poetry world.  One thing that has been really good—and I feel proud that I have been a little part of this—is that with organizations like Cave Canem and with just some of the work like the Yusef [Komunyakaa] and Rita [Dove] generation has, they are not a parent generation to me, they are like a big sister, big brother generation to me.  So, starting with their generation… there are a lot more publishing opportunities and teaching opportunities than there were, not where we need to be, but many, many, many presses and magazines and things have opened up.  Really in The New Yorker you did not used to see black poets.  Ever.

Urhalpool:  Wow!

Elizabeth Alexander:  Ever, and so, there are people like, for example, starting with the Michael Harper generation, Michael Harper, a great and a wonderful poet.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think he has ever appeared in The New Yorker.  So, someone like that who sees all their white peers, all their mediocre white peers getting in The New Yorker—what is the sense in that?  So, a lot of people have done a lot of work and a lot of pushing and there are more opportunities.  So, the voices that were always out there are getting published.  It’s not that they are sort of more or more varied, but now more people have a place to be seen.  Even with things like, every couple of weeks, I feel like I get a request to write a tenure letter for a black poet.  Isn’t this interesting?   This did not used to happen before.  

Urhalpool:  Do you always have to put humor in?

Elizabeth Alexander:   Well no, I don’t think you do.  And in fact, actually given some of the subject matter that I approach, I think that and if you ask any of my students, they would say that I am a teacher with a sense of humor, but there are some times where I am deadly and unsmilingly serious.

Urhalpool:  As a senior class poet, how can you be funny?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Because with young people it is so easy to get into that irreverent mode, but you have got to as a teacher, I think, control it because guess what, guess what?  I cannot, when I’m talking about—I often teach a book called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and it’s a woman’s slave narrative where she tells the story of the way she escaped her master, was for seven years hidden in a crawl space that was seven feet long, three feet high, bug-infested with a tiny peephole for air and a board where her grandmother would pass her food.  And for seven years she listened to her enslaved children play outside through the crack, but that’s how she got them free.  So, I do not want to peep out at anybody when I’m talking about that book.  So that is kind of controlling the tempo and yet also…

Urhalpool:  What is the name of the book?

Elizabeth Alexander:  It’s called Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs…  it’s kind of the quintessential women’s slave narrative.  Frederick Douglass is like the quintessential, it is the quintessential and it is a great book.  She is very readable.  She writes it following the conventions of the 19th century women's romance, so it’s all this, you know, “Dear Reader…”

Urhalpool:  An African-American female wrote before a male?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.

Urhalpool:  You have the tradition.  In our tradition, males wrote before females.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Oh…  Interesting, interesting.  It’s a very great book and a very, very readable book.  So, at the same time though, I sometimes feel like the history is so sometimes depressing, but I think that one of the beauties of the African-American tradition, like so many survival traditions, is that actually sometimes humor was the way through, sometimes song was the way through.  How did the people who actually had to live through this, get through this?  They had some way…  You got to do something.  You got to do something.  So what is the release at the end?  I want the students also not to come out of—this would be in an Introduction to African-American Studies class—just feeling like, “Oh oh oh, woe is me!   These poor people.”  Because I do not feel that way.

Urhalpool:  In African-American studies your students, what are the proportions?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Everything, just like the Yale undergrad, maybe a little more black than the Yale undergraduate students.  By the by, I have every kind of students, which is nice, which is really nice and challenging.  Who was it?  It was June Jordan, and she talked about the challenge of teaching African-American Studies to the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slave owners.

Urhalpool:  Wow!  Very interesting.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.  Yeah.  So that even as people are in the moment of their learning they also have their histories, and so sometimes does that mean that the white student is bending over backwards, correcting herself, trying to make up for something?  Or does that mean she does not want to hear about it?  Or does that mean the African-American student is relishing that “my people’s story, this is our turn, my story?”  I mean, you do have all of this human dynamics.

Urhalpool:  But unless you do that you will not create situations like Obama getting elected.

Elizabeth Alexander:  That is it.

Urhalpool:  You have to do that.

Elizabeth Alexander:  That is it, that is it, that is it.

Urhalpool:  People have to get over that situation.

Elizabeth Alexander:  That’s right, that’s right.

Urhalpool:  Well, it’s also is an ongoing story.  It has not finished yet.  Like you said, it is in the continuing dynamics that are still evolving in a sense.

Elizabeth Alexander:  That’s right.

Urhalpool:  But when you were writing a poem like “Amistad,” how did you envision the narrative? How did the narrative suggest itself to you, in terms of those vignettes?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, I became intrigued with individual different things, different moments.  So, the other cargo.  Because I did a lot of research on the poem… some of the tidbits, I mean that were shaped, but were also found.  Just in looking at ship’s ledgers—was on this boat besides people?

Urhalpool:  And you call it “the other cargo,” which is a great name for that.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yes, it that starts there or imagining—and I have written some about this— walking on the New Haven green and knowing, after I did my research, that this was where the Amistad captives were let out for their exercise and so, a flight of fancy picturing that.

Urhalpool:  And the seal pups.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Oh the seal pups… some of that information came from a quite another setting of just being on a seal watch, a very New England thing.  You go on whale watch, you go on seal watch and you see these creatures who live around here and how interesting that is, although when I went on it, not even thinking about the Amistad, I was so haunted because the way that this creatures looked at us.  And that suddenly we were all creatures.  And so then that’s stored away and then later on when I started thinking about these captives in the boat and about the vast, vast lonely expanse of the ocean, nothing around you in any direction,  just trying to sort of imagine that.  So, they came together piece by piece, and then a very important part of writing that poem was working on the time line and realizing that that little prose bit that told the story, that if I could have that part of that poem then I was totally free not to have to write a poem that told everything.  That it could be vignettes because readers could be anchored with the time line.  So that was kind of a big thing in writing the poem.

Urhalpool:  The beginning of the first poem, it kind of reminded me of the line from Eliot: “after the torchlight red on sweaty faces…”

Elizabeth Alexander:  Ah, interesting.

Urhalpool:  I thought of that and… there is a poem called “Waiting for Cinque to Speak.”

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yes.

Urhalpool:  I absolutely loved that poem because it could have been spoken by anyone who has done all of that, but nothing remarkable.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Urhalpool:  It is sort of like an everyman waiting for his or her messiah to speak.  And that could be the spirit of a little bit of Eliot, like in “A Song for Simeon.”

Elizabeth Alexander:  That is very interesting.  I certainly read Eliot quite exhaustively when I was much, much, much younger and was very captivated by him.  So again, our governing metaphor is all those things that are in there, that you don’t even know when they are serving you and hopefully they serve you, and I think also and I’m really interested across time actually in this kind of having done nothing extraordinary…   How do people meet the day?   How do people find their courage, that’s is all in the Prudence Crandall book: that she did not set out to educate black women, that she did not set out to have a fight, but she just did what was just when faced with a choice and maybe that is how the world moves forward.  Every day you do not know when you are going to have to—

Urhalpool:  Rise up and meet the moment.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Find a bit of courage.

Urhalpool:  And you do play with time a lot in your narrative poems, like in “Amistad” you kind of broke away from the narrative strain to talk about the Amistad Trail, which brings us back to the present day.  And I might be wrong, but I think you also do it to some extent in The Venus Hottentot.

Elizabeth Alexander:  She imagines.

Urhalpool:  Where you go from Sarah being alive, then Sarah being dead, and then her physical identity kind of clings onto her through all the humiliation, her body suffers even after she moves on, but so you do play.

Elizabeth Alexander:   I think that Hottentot is just wanting to have as much as poetic freedom and latitude as possible, kind of like in college theater when there is always like some college theater production where some smarty-pants director breaks the fourth wall, but then you think, “How you can do that?”  Or ways in which modern dance breaks the rules of ballet, “Oh, you can turn your feet in?  Oh!  Wow!”  Like that, that’s what makes art always seem possible if you realize that you can, you can break it and you can change it, and there is always that option.  I think also one of the things that I worry about in the historical poems is I would never want it to be like a marble bust.  Just that fixed and still and you have to assume a certain … Brooks write about that in her poems, let’s see this book you have here…  there is something here…  I think it is in “The Chicago Picasso” where she talks about how people stand before art, and cough a little bit, and pull themselves together…  “Does man loves art?  Man visits art, but squirms…”  and then she says “Art hurts.  Art urges voyages and it is easier to stay at home, with a nice beer ready” and then she says “We must cook ourselves and style ourselves for art, who is requiring courtesan.  We squirm.  We do not hug the Mona Lisa, we may touch or tolerate an outstanding fountain or a horse-and-rider.  At most another lion.  Observe the tall cold of a flower which is as innocent as guilty, as meaningful and as meaningless as any other flower in the western field.  So, there’s more, and it’s in another poem, but this idea of not feeling like you just have to mind your manners when you watch art. When you encounter art I think is really, really important, and in the historical poem I think there is a danger that they seem purely educational, and that’s just so boring and bad.

Urhalpool:  I did wonder though on the same note you have spoken about the need to write precise words, that you value poetry because you get to write these distilled words, pristine intense words. Do you ever worry that, in longer poems with more narrative structure, the reader might get pulled into the narrative current, and not pay as much attention to the individual word choice?

Elizabeth Alexander:  I think that that is again another example where different readers, different readings.  I don’t care if somebody reads the Amistad and learns something about that whole story and does not pay attention to the words that they learn.  I think that’s fine too, presuming that, if many people read it, that there are different levels and also that again hopefully one revisits poems over a lifetime.  So, there are many, many poems which I took in at one point and got thing X  from it, and then later on, I got something totally different.  Or poems that outlived their usefulness too.  I think, “Ah, this doesn’t have as much to say to me anymore.”

Urhalpool:  Yes, that is true.  It must have been a very interesting experience being present at the inaugural ceremony.  I’m just wondering—and this probably has put you under a different kind of scrutiny—is there just too much pressure, too much expectation now because you are going to be judged at a relatively young age on the basis of your existing work?  Or is this opening up new avenues for you to experiment more?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well as I said, as I said when we were chatting beforehand, I think that one of the gifts of having something enormous and unprecedented and peculiar, happened in the middle of your life is that I already know who I am, what I’m supposed to be doing, I am who I am, I have my work, so that with all of the increased media attention, for example, which also I know that things fade, passing fancy, people are onto the next thing, but it was really great actually to be able to talk about the things that I already know a lot about, but maybe more people were listening. To talk about poetry, to talk about American poetry, to talk about the necessity of the arts, to talk about the arts and civic discourse, to talk about the importance of African-American Studies and African-American Studies at the center of thinking about America, to have a few more people listening while I just yammer on as I usually do, was really, really rewarding.  Again, just doing what I already know how to do.  I do think it was a strange experience, I mean it’s strange with so many people having so many opinions, it’s a little odd, I don’t really know how else to describe it ,and maybe I am still processing it.  I mean being famous for two seconds.  I don’t know how people stay famous.  I really don’t, I really don’t.  It’s a curious kind of thing and one of the lovely things about being poetry famous, I mean before the inaugural, but every now and again, maybe once a year in a used bookstore someone would say, “Are you Elizabeth Alexander?  I really love your work,” and then we’d get into like a used bookstore conversation, and it would be another poetry nerd like me and just in the same way that I have had and still have those moments, “Excuse me are you  Frank Bidart?  Oh my goodness!”  And then you have this excited conversation.

Urhalpool:  You wrote about a moment like that because poets are famous to themselves.

Elizabeth Alexander:  To each other.

Urhalpool:  To each other.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yes, that’s right.

Urhalpool:  That is a beautiful poem, I liked it.

Elizabeth Alexander:  With Lynda Hull, what a great poet she was.

Urhalpool:  Scarlet and violet…

Elizabeth Alexander:  A New Jersey poet and really too bad.  And Yusef has written about her too, more than too bad, I mean tragic that she’s not us anymore because she was a great, a very great poet.  And so,  just that way in which she and I were meeting the first time that night and in our own little secret corners we had been avidly reading every word of each other’s work because we cared about it.  And so when you finally get to meet that person… it’s a private sweetness that is really very, very wonderful from people who have to care for the art form they love because the world at large doesn’t care for that art form.  So, those who tend to poetry have a kind of sacred job to do.  So, I don’t know, it’s been a weird few months, I must say, it has been a little strange, but the wonderful thing about it is hearing from so many—literally hundreds and hundreds, actually now thousands—of people by e-mail and by letter who have written and told me about themselves and how they met the poem, which says to me so much more even than anything about the poem itself and more about people knowing how to behave in front of art, people receiving, people engaging and interacting, people saying “Ah, this is where this took me.”  Someone, one of my very favorites, these people wrote from, a husband and wife sign painting company and they said, “When you said ‘hand painted signs’ we jumped for joy, because some of us still paint signs by hand, like this is our work, this is what we do and you saw it, thank you…”  That just blows me away, that makes me so happy.  So many people who said to me I don’t own poetry books, I don’t have poetry in my home, but here’s what I heard in your poem, here is what it reminded me of, here is what made me think about.  People engaging with poetry that is just so fantastic, so I feel proud that I have been able to some of that work.

Urhalpool:  But you wouldn’t feel obligated to tread the same path; you’d still push ahead with experimentation in your own work?

Elizabeth Alexander:  That is necessary and actually interestingly I’m working on a New and Selected Poems now—it was time for that anyway, about that stage in the gathered work.  I feel like, in a way, it kind of sweeps the desk clear for me, and I imagine that the next project may be very experimental.   I want to kind of tidy up the past and be free to move on, because otherwise, it’s artistic death, right?   It is soul death, if you don’t feel like you can keep doing different things and really what a dreadful—imagine, really?

Urhalpool:  Yeah… so many people start scrutinizing your work that your artistic spirit might get fettered, but it seems like you definitely have it, that you are not going to have any of that.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, but I have had to learn, I have really had to learn, I’ve had to grow another skin in the last few months.  Because you know people say all kind of things and it’s not even so much that it hurts my feelings, I don’t want people to like a poem to like that poem, but I feel sad for a culture in which there can be so much random venom.  I just think, “Ugh, what’s that all about?”  So I kind of have gotten a toughness about me, which is a very ancestral relearning.  My late grandmother, she hasn’t been with us for a long time, but eventually I came back to what she always taught us, which was: if people say bad things about you, you ignore them.  Because someone called you something, does that mean you are that person?   It was a very racial lesson with her, right?   Because—and this how many black people survived—in the old truism, well if they call you a dog, do you get down on all fours and bark?  Are you that thing that they say?  Well no, you don’t even let it in…  it doesn’t exist, doesn’t exist.  But the next part of the lesson—which was my grandmother’s wisdom as well that I had to remember… very deeply—also when people praise you, you cannot need that either.  That just because people say you are brilliant, you are wonderful that as an artist especially you can’t need that.  So that is the place that where I try to keep myself.  So let us hope that place serves me well.

Urhalpool:  I’m sure, we are all sure.  I mean on that day, on the inaugural ceremony day you were there representing three groups that are disenfranchised to some extent or another: African-Americans, women, and poets. And for better or for worse, you have been handling the mantle almost like you are the de facto poet laureate.

Elizabeth Alexander:  No.  There is a real one.

Urhalpool:  I know that…  In United States of America, people are more in tune with the message that you delivered on that extraordinary day of change.  How do you look forward, how do you prepare yourself for the coming months and years?  Do you see this as just the beginning of a long process of change or are you getting prepared to teach us about a more tempered optimism where nothing is fixed in the moment, but you just have to push on and you are going to get to the Promises Land by degrees?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, I don’t think we ever reach the Promised Land.  I don’t think we get there, but do things hopefully move forward.  One of the things that I think Obama has really modeled for us, so powerfully that it is once again completely resonant with a family and ancestral message for me and for so many people, is: get ready, get ready to meet your moment. You don’t know when you are going to have to speak up, you do not know when you’re going to have to show what you’re made of, you don’t know when you’re going to have to fight the fight, but you better get ready.  And there are a lot of ways of getting ready, getting educated and all that that means is one way to be ready.  So that you have something to say that’s not just off the top of your head that’s considered, that has historical perspective that is not just wind, that is worth saying and thinking about, get ready, stay ready that is what my parents always taught me.  Get ready and you don’t know, you may see other people who aren’t ready get the opportunity, the opportunity may pass you by.  Sometimes it won’t be fair, sometimes you’re going to hate it, but you know, get ready, stay ready.  And so I think in that way what are the people saying who said Obama is not ready, he is not experienced, he has not been in the Senate long enough?  Well, agree or disagree, he is not a perfect man, but is he ready, is he doing it?  Is he showing us that this is a kind of a leadership that can take us somewhere?   I think that those questions of readiness seem ridiculous now, but what I love is that readiness was not necessarily following the straight path in his case.  So, if you take that example writ large, you never know when it’s going to be your moment or your opportunity to be able to do some good.  So, just try to prepare yourself, and luckily I think the preparation is the kind of one foot in front of the other daily business, and this is why teaching is so great because you refresh that knowledge all the time, you have your presumptions questioned all the time, you retool all the time.

Urhalpool:  And deal with small disappointments, small disappointments—

Elizabeth Alexander:  Every day—

Urhalpool:  Small disappointments should not derail or cloud our perspective from the bigger picture from the bigger truth.

Elizabeth Alexander:  No, no.

Urhalpool:  I would like to ask you one question, one always I ask, it kills my mind, always bugs me.  I think, as I see that more Hispanic workers are immigrating to this country, joining working class fields, companies, African-American workers are pushed out, and the Hispanic community workers are getting hired.  I had an opportunity to work over three years with about eight or nine African-American workers, and from that point I talked to Yusef about that on a regular basis.  I feel like an African-American role model needs to come and work with the community.  I think this problem is greater than the Iraq problem. What I think is these are our own country’s citizens; what we are doing for them?  What we are giving?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.

Urhalpool:  You cannot blame people only.  People have to do work on them.  So, as an African-American intellectual and also with Barack Obama being the first African-American president, what do you think society will do to work on this huge challenge?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Tell me exactly what challenge?

Urhalpool:  The challenge that African-American people are pushed out of work. Where they are going to go?  How we are going to bring them back to society, those who are not intellectuals, who have nowhere to go?

Elizabeth Alexander:  In that regard… I used to always get back to education.  And I just think about the morality—or the immorality rather, of all the inequalities in our school system.  Something that we so know, which is that every five year old has something inside of him, has some life course, has some sparkle, has some native intelligence, has a huge ability to learn, but depending your color and depending on your class, that what you are able to learn is going to vary tremendously—and depending on luck.   Because of course not every school in a bad neighborhood is a bad school, not every teacher is a good or a bad teacher any different school.   So I guess what I hope and pray is that the emphasis on education that the President has already been talking about… education for the last eight years, just about wasn’t on the agenda.

Urhalpool:  There is a whole young generation. They are changing their names to Tyrone, and all different subnames, and they have no place to go when they could, and society is not helping them.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Well, yeah.  So, I mean I think we are not giving them—

Urhalpool:  People are only blaming things on each other.

Elizabeth Alexander:  That’s right.

Urhalpool:  There is a guy working for me.  He said—they call me Dada; my last name’s Datta.  He went in for something and the prosecutor made a case, all right?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.

Urhalpool:  For minor things and they said that if you sign these things, you will be free.  So, he went to prison for six months or three months for something and that put stamp on him.  But no one had advised him, “You could have a lawyer.”  I could do big things and I can spend $10,000-$20,000 to get freedom.  So, this is like class structure at work.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, that’s right.  And that brings us to the second area, which has been so perverted in the last eight years, which is the whole Department of Justice, the whole justice system.  So I do feel like those things, they have got to change a little bit.  They have changed already and I think there’s a powerful story, especially that Michelle Obama puts forward when she talks about what it meant to imagine different possibilities in life—that her life was not laid out to go in the direction that it went by any stretch of the imagination, that she’s a product of a working class black community; I mean, they say that over and over again and of Chicago’s public schools, which are a mixed bag.  I think that there’s got to be something good that comes out of that too—not to say why aren’t you like Michelle Obama?—but… to activate the learning and the curious part, but also to make demands that these kids be served.

Urhalpool:  Also the government has to do more.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah.  These kids need to be served by their government. That is their right. That is their right.

Urhalpool:  I think also African-American intellectuals have to be conscious not to ignore that fact, also work in the community to bring this thing upfront.  Am I right?

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah, yeah.

Urhalpool:  There is again, I think, contradiction within the community like our star—who is that?  Bill Cosby said something, alright?  He was criticized for that.  So, there is a contradiction within the community also on that subject.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Hmm.  But I think, in that case and also in general, I would wish for us to listen more carefully to each other…  I think sometimes, for example, we saw this used against Obama in the campaign, but I think the culture of the sound byte has made people sometimes afraid having hard and honest conversations in public.  Because the Bill Cosby line was repeated over and over and over again.  Well, okay, how you put that in the context of all of his life’s work, for example?  Is that really what he meant?  What did Michelle Obama mean when she said, “This is the first time I am proud of my country.” I think that all of this kind of—

Urhalpool:  That is an honest statement to me.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Yeah.  Well I know; me too, but I mean there is a way in which we are so ill served by this kind of taking the one tidbit—

Urhalpool:   Of course.

Elizabeth Alexander:  And not saying, “Oh! Hold on a second, let’s just…what did you mean?  Let me stop you, wait a second, let’s have that conversation and not try to say therefore you’re one of those kinds of people, or  you’re one of those kind of people…

Urhalpool:  Because the reason I feel… I feel like lot of immigrant Indians, many Indians are writing, but the stories they are writing are one section of the whole story, all the privileged class’ stories, but there are lot of people where I came from—I was the only educated person.  I came from a gang area where I pursued my education and  things and I was successful, also mere luck—

Elizabeth Alexander:  Luck is there.

Urhalpool:  But in a country like India, where the government is so poor, they do not help so much… but here, we are sitting in the richest country in the world, why can’t we solve our own problems?

Elizabeth Alexander:  There’s a great Langston Hughes poem called “Luck,” and it goes—if I can remember—“Sometimes a crumb falls from the tables of joy, sometimes a bone is flung, for some love is given, to others only heaven.”  So, I mean there’s so much to unpack in that, but I mean, about the luck, sometimes you get a crumb, sometimes you get a bone, sometimes that bone has meat on it, sometimes it doesn’t.  Some people are lavished with love and affection, some people will go through their entire lives and the only reward is in heaven.  I mean, what I mean is luck, luck is real.

Urhalpool:  Let’s read one of your poems…

Elizabeth Alexander:  Anything you like.  You are a scholar of my work.  You can make a request.

Urhalpool:  There are so many, it’s hard to choose.  I can sit here, listen to you recite the whole book, I feel.  We want to you to read the last poem of American Sublime.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Good.  Okay.  That’s great.

Urhalpool:  It seems almost like a prophetic vision that we hoped would come true.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Okay, I like that, that’s great.

Urhalpool:  And would you also read “Matrimonio?”

Elizabeth Alexander:  You pick all the ones that nobody asks about, you are my ideal reader.  The whole thing?

Urhalpool:  It’s up to you.  Of course we are thirsty for each word.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Okay, I have to take my glasses off now.

MATRIMONIO  

1.  Blues

If I am the baby who does not fit
in the overheard compartment, in
the weekender tote, if I am the baby
who will bounce off a lap on the jitney,
who sleeps in a dresser drawer or shoebox
then I am no rosebud, no foundling, no pearl.  
I am outsized, enormous for a baby,
too giant for footie pajamas.  
(the cradlewood splits, the tree bough breaks),
not baby then, but mother, a mama
for whom there is no cupped palm, no bosom,
no cradle, no lap, just the wide world
to be crossed in strides and floorboards
to be paced until they wear away to dust.


2.  Oscar de la Renta

Oscar de la Renta
adores my avoirdupois,
every ounce, every pouf of me.  

His voice never raises,
all sentences prefaced
My darling, My dear.  

He’s arranged for his best seamstress
to measure and tuck.  In a few
weeks’ time the gown will be ready.  

He will escort me into Society.  
We’ll eat a light dinner
on trays in the library, before.  

How he loves
bacon, lettuce,
and tomato sandwiches!  

Even in this field of plenty
(my real life, my marriage),
a cold wind blows sometimes

—raised voices, sharp words—
and in dances Oscar de la Renta
to do the Continental

and each time, I give him my hand.


3.  The Dancers Dressed in White

It was the dancers dressed in white running
in a line together like spume to the shore
who made me run to where they were, bringing
the baby along in a grocery cart,
distracting him with bananas.  There
I made a mistake, soul-kissed the man
who gave me armfuls of dresses, a green dress,
(I never believed I could wear green) kissing
his mouth, making plans to follow him and dance.  
Shuck the corn, harvest jig, and I have erred,
but I have not worn white in a century,
not kissed, not danced, not maiden, nor autumn gold,
nor spring nor run full out to the shoreline,
its white edges always receding.


4.  Siesta

The sounds of the day turned to dust, particles
fizzing in a sunlight shaft, faraway
lawn mowers, leaf blowers, motorcar motors,

and the purr of each baby in his sleep,
and Papa’s snores, and the tick-tock clock,
even Doña on the bed with Papa,

the kitchen floor swept, food set in the cupboard,
hyacinth nipped and in water releasing
its wild mask throughout the quiet house.  

Even Doña has taken her shoes off,
lying down on the bed and fitted the arch
of her foot in her husband’s, and slept.

So that’s “Matrimonio.”

Urhalpool:  The first poem… “You paced the floorboards till it turns to dust…”  That whole poem is just such a treasure.

Elizabeth Alexander:  Thank you, thank you. And then this “Tanner’s Annunciation” that is the one.

Urhalpool:  Yes, that would be a fitting coda.

Elizabeth Alexander:  That’s great and so I can show the camera.  This is the painting Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American artist from Philadelphia who made this painting in the early part of the 20th century....  He went abroad in part because of the racism in the United States and made most of his career in France.  So, this is the very beautiful painting which is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

TANNER’S ANNUNCIATION

Gabriel disembodied,
pure column of light.
Humble Mary, receiving the word
that the baby she carries is God’s.
Not good news, not news, even,
but rather the rightly enormous word,
Annunciation.  She knew
they were chosen. She knew
he would suffer, as the chosen child
always suffers. Perhaps she knew
the dearest wish, mercy,
would be ever-inchoate,
like Gabriel: light that carries
possibility, illuminates,
but that can promise nothing but itself

Urhalpool:  Thank you.

Elizabeth Alexander:  You are so very welcome.  This was so great.  These were such great questions.

Urhalpool:  Thank you for time.


The previous installment of this interview was published in our July 2009 issue.  To read it, Click here.