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Poet Elizabeth Alexander Reflects on Inaugural Reading

January 13, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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Only a few poets have participated in the swearing-in ceremony for our nation's highest office, and on Jan. 20, Elizabeth Alexander will become just the fourth to hold that honor when she will recite an original poem at President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Poets typically write for a small audience. Very few will ever speak to millions. But, on January 20, Elizabeth Alexander will do just that, when she recites an original poem at the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Ms. Alexander was born in Harlem, raised in Washington, D.C., and attended Yale University, where she now teaches African-American studies. She’s author of four books of poetry, including her most recent, “American Sublime,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005.

Elizabeth Alexander is just the fourth poet ever asked to read at an inauguration.

And she joins us now. Welcome to you.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER, author, “American Sublime”: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I read that, as a 1-year-old, you were at the National Mall in 1963 and heard Martin Luther King make his famous speech. So, is there a special symmetry in your coming role at the other end of the Mall?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Oh, absolutely.

My parents were very committed to civil rights, worked their whole lives toward the goals of the civil rights movement. And, so, of course, they took me when I was a baby to the March on Washington.

And to think that here, in — in that same space in Washington, D.C., we’re going to be at a quite different moment, that in some ways is the civil rights movement coming not to total fruition, but at least coming to a moment where we can stop and say that some remarkable progress has been made, is a beautiful circle.

A poem with a 'life of its own'

JEFFREY BROWN: So -- so, have you made a start? How do you -- how do you go about this? What is it that you want to accomplish?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: What I want to do in the composition of the poem is to be very quiet and very humble before the forces that make me able to write poems.

It's a very, very big challenge. It's a very extraordinary moment. And I think the fact that Barack Obama has decided that he wants to have a poem as part of the inaugural is tremendously significant, to say that here is a time when we can listen to language that shifts us a little bit, that allows us to pause for a moment and contemplate what's ahead of us, to think about how we can contribute to the challenges ahead of us, all of those things can be possible in the moment of pause and shift that -- that a poem makes possible.

So, I'm just trying to be very serious and very quiet and very humble as I -- as I try to -- try to write something.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's, of course, very interesting, to be quiet and humble, when you're speaking and writing, in this case, for millions.

The poets I always talk to on this program, they usually think of the writer almost as individuals, because there aren't that many of them, right? Here, this is quite different. How do you -- how do you approach that part of it?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Well, I have to approach it in the way that I always approach my poems, in the same way that I always approach my poems.

And that is to say, when there is an audience beyond the one, the poem has life and it connects with an audience that you can't really control. So, that's not to say that millions are the same as one, but it is to say that the process is the same, that you're still asking for something from your creative forces. You're still tasked with creating something, with making something, with shaping something that, once it is delivered, has a life of its own.

So, the -- the work of making the poem is the same. But then the life of the poem is what I imagine might be a little different from the poems that I usually write.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there particular poets you're looking to as influences for something like this, something special like this?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Well, I have certainly have looked at the -- not only the other inaugural poems that have come before this one, but also at other poems written by poets who have addressed matters of state.

But, really, more predominantly, I have looked at poems that I love that seem to understand the historic moment, that seem to be able to find a language that has some resonance, that speaks out of a historic moment, but with hopefully a language that is somewhat enduring. So, that's -- that's what I'm thinking about, poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, like Robert Hayden, like William Butler Yeats, like Walt Whitman. Those are -- those are some who I have looked at extra carefully.

Honoring history on Inauguration

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it's interesting to me when you speak of the historic moment, or seeking it in this case, because, as I am reading -- I have been reading your poetry, one theme that stands out is -- is a sense of history, particularly where -- where race intersects with history.

But many of your poems go back and look at particular moments of the past and try to imagine it through poetry.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Well, that's right.

And -- and I think that one of the great bounties of American history and of African-American history in particular is that our history is so rich, but there are so many stories within it that haven't yet been told, or have been improperly told, or that can yield something particular when explored through poetry.

So, I have found that history, the history of the Amistad, history of the story of the Venus Hottentot, and so forth and so on, that those have provided tremendous opportunities for the imagination to sort of locate itself at a specific place and moment in time.

JEFFREY BROWN: I really have to ask, because this is occasional poetry, as it's called, poetry on demand...

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Yes. Yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Have you ever -- have you ever done that before?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: A few times. I have written poems for a few close friends' weddings. I have written Phi Beta Kappa poems before, a poem for a baccalaureate before.

So, I have done it a few times over -- over the years. And it's challenging, because what you try to do is both serve the occasion -- and, of course, the occasion of January 20 must be served -- but to find language and imagery that people will want to hold onto after the occasion is passed.

And, so, that's what's hard, but it's a good challenge.

Poetry forges a society's identity

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I know you think a lot about poetry in our culture today. What is poetry -- what does poetry offer? What does poetry offer that's different on an occasion like this than what we will hear in speeches, for example?

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Well, I think several things.

I think that poetry, cross-culturally, is one of the ways that people tell the story of who we are, of who they are. So, if you look at praise songs in various African countries, if you look at "The Canterbury Tales," if you look at "The Odyssey," these are all ways that people have said in verse: This is who we are. This is our story. This is how we came to this moment.

So, I think that's one of the eternal purposes of poetry. And I think, also, hopefully, what poetry does is distill language with a kind of precision that reminds us what it means to take care with the word, that the word has tremendous power, that each word matters, and that we -- if we are mindful with our language to speak to each other across the many differences between us, that that is the way that I think we're more able to communicate precisely with one another.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and, before I let you go, speaking of what poetry does, I want to ask you to read one of your poems for us, one that -- that addresses that very subject.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: I would be happy to.

This is "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe."

"Poetry, I tell my students, is idiosyncratic. Poetry is where we are ourselves, though Sterling Brown said every 'I' is a dramatic 'I', digging in the clam flats for the shell that snaps, emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there. Poetry -- and now my voice is rising -- is not all love, love, love, and I'm sorry the dog died.

Poetry -- here I hear myself loudest -- is the human voice. And are we not of interest to each other?"

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Elizabeth Alexander, good luck to you, and thanks so much for talking to us.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.