Conversation: Poet Elizabeth Alexander

BY Mike Melia  October 19, 2010 at 3:48 PM EDT

On January 20, 2009, Elizabeth Alexander was vaulted onto a world stage that few poets ever see. She had been asked to compose and read a poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. For Alexander, the intense pressure of that moment — and the preceding buildup — have presented an unforeseen new challenge: How do you top that?

Alexander, who chairs the African-American Studies Department at Yale University, has published this month her latest collection of poetry, “Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems.”

Asked if she’s sensed expectations to write new poems that would be inauguration worthy, Alexander laughs, saying yes. But she’s quick to add: “[W]henever I feel any kind of external pressure about my work, I always just try to take myself back to the blank page…and the work of making poems, which I think have to exist without concern from the outside and without worrying about both the noise and also the eventual life of the poem. If you worry too much about that, if you feel that pressure, you just can’t do the work.”

Throughout her career, Alexander has often explored dimensions of race. “Crave Radiance,” her sixth book, continues that exploration.

“There’s no escaping walking around in a black woman’s body,” she says. “I think that what is more interesting to me is an understanding that that can mean anything as far as the subject matter for poetry goes. So I’m just more interested in understanding categories of identity as being much broader and more diverse and fascinating and surprising than some people might think.”

Going back over a career’s worth of poems can be a challenge for poets as they curate their “Selected Works.” For Alexander, it was a surprise to realize she’s been publishing for more than 20 years. “It felt like a clearing of the decks. It felt like a way of opening the door to whatever is next in my writing, and I have no idea what that might be, but I think I feel a little bit more liberated moving into it,” she says.

Recently, I spoke to Alexander about “Crave Radiance.” Listen to our conversation here:

Listen to Alexander read “One week later in the strange”:

A transcript is after the jump.

MIKE MELIA: On January 20, 2009, Elizabeth Alexander was given an opportunity few poets ever get. She read her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” before a gathered crowd of hundreds of thousands and tens and millions of people watching on TV around the world at the inauguration of President Obama. Alexander is the Chair of the African-American Studies department at Yale University. She has written six books of poetry, including her latest, “Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems,” out this month. She is no stranger to the NewsHour audience and joins me again by phone from her office in New Haven, Conn. Elizabeth, it’s a pleasure to talk with you again.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: It’s very nice to talk with you, too.

MIKE MELIA: Let’s start with the new poems. Have you felt an added pressure to your writing now that you’re known as the president’s inaugural poet?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Yes. But whenever I feel any kind of external pressure about my work I always just try to take myself back to the blank page, to of what the surf has washed away the night before and the work of making poems, which I think have to exist without concern from the outside and without worrying about both the noise and also the eventual life of the poem. If you worry too much about that, if you feel that pressure you just can’t do the work.

MIKE MELIA: Well, your work has dealt with issues of race and examined black history and black identity throughout several of the poems and collections. That continues in these latest poems, but I’m curious — were you tempted to move away from race given all the rhetoric of a post-racial America under the Obama administration?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: I’m not wild about the moniker post-racial, because I think that it assumes that a sense of the complexity of who we are in this world — the bodies we walk around in, the communities we walk around in, how that matters, the histories that we come out of — and how that contributes to the futures that we’ll make. I find those questions of identity to be quite infinitely fascinating. There is no escaping walking around in a black woman’s body. I think that what is more interesting to me is an understanding that that can mean anything as far as the subject matter for poetry goes. So I’m just more interested in understanding categories of identity as being much broader and more diverse and fascinating and surprising than some people might think.

MIKE MELIA: A couple of new poems also feel a little political, like “In the FEMA Trailers.” Do you worry your work will now be taken in a more political light given your increased public presence?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: I think that my work actually has always been taken in a political light, if you will, and I think that some of that — it’s not something that I shy away from. To me what the political means is it means that you are alive and open-eyed in the world. It means that you think of yourself as existing in communities, that the concerns of the human beings with whom we share literal and sort of metaphysical space are of interest to one. It means being engaged and of the moment. And I don’t think that’s anything to shy away from. Further, I think that sometimes political is used to describe the work made by people of color or women or people of ideological minorities or left-wing people. It’s used sometimes as a disparaging term, as though thinking about the polis, the community, the world around us means that we are not also attuned to questions of craft and how poems are made and the need for poems to sing. I don’t see any of that as being contradictory.

MIKE MELIA: This is a collection of not only the new poems that we’ve talked about a bit, but also selected works. Can you talk about that process for you, of going back and reviewing former books and picking out the poems you wanted to include in this selection?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Yes. It was so interesting and so hard. I was surprised in the way that I think the cliche, time flies. It’s a useful cliche, to find that I had been publishing poems for more than 20 years, that I had been at this work for a while and that the work had added up. So that was one thing. But how to go through and choose my greatest hits, but not just the poems that I like the most, the poems that hopefully showcase a diversity of interests, obsessions, formal concerns. How to be in some way representative when choosing the poems is something that is really, really hard to do when they are your poems. But I found at the end of the day the process to be very satisfying. It felt like a clearing of the decks. It felt like a way of opening the door to whatever is next in my writing and I have no idea what that might be, but I think I feel a little bit more liberated moving into it.

MIKE MELIA: Finally, you have always paid homage to great black women poets that have come before you and written widely on Gwendolyn Brooks. You’ve come back to that idea of heritage here with poems like “The Elders” and “One week later in the strange,” about the death of Lucille Clifton. How do you see this next generation of black women poets and what do you hope your role in that legacy might be?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: That’s a great question, and I would just want to broaden it by saying that I pay homage to lots of poets, as well, not just black women poets, because I think that one of the important things, even if they come out of a very strong sense of identify and community, which I do, and I’m a scholar of African-American literature so this is something that I’ve sort of devoted my professional life to, but I think that the field of influence on a poet is necessarily extremely eclectic, so black women’s poetic voices are extremely eclectic, as well, but I did want to point out that there is a whole lot of founding going on when I think about who influences the poems. One week later in the strange” and the legacy of Lucille Clifton, who died in February of this past year, who was beloved, who will continue to be tremendously influential on American poets and whose legacy and reputation will continue to grow as we look at unpublished work and really continue to take her measure in scholarship. She personally taught me a great deal about moving with grace and generosity in the poetry world and always kind of having that attitude towards others. And also she was able to listen to her own voice when it didn’t sound like anyone else’s. And that to me is one of the marks of greatness in a poet, when they are able to sing their own quirky song and it turns out that it wouldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s.

MIKE MELIA: Elizabeth Alexander, thank you so much again for taking the time to talk to us.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Thank you for these great questions.