Alexander talks race, poetry

Elizabeth Alexander
Photo by Gavan Gideon.

Elizabeth Alexander ’84 wears many hats. The 2009 inaugural poet and chair of Yale’s African American Studies Department is also an essayist and a playwright. Alexander plays a pivotal role in African American poetry. Alexander has published six books of poems and two collections of essays, produced a play — “Diva Studies” — and composed words for musical projects. This month, Alexander will be honored as a “Champion of Change” by the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C. The News interviewed Alexander to ask her a few questions about her experience and mission as a poet.

Q: In Dec. 2008, you were selected to serve as President Obama’s Inaugural Poet, becoming only the fourth poet to read at a swearing-in ceremony after Robert Frost. Describe that experience for us.

A: It was a huge experience for me — there were a lot of pieces to it. I was honored to be chosen and wanted to write a poem that would hopefully live up to the occasion without exceeding its boundaries. That was a bit nerve wracking but the beauty of a lifetime of work and preparation is that when you find yourself in a crunch situation, you do what you’ve always done, and you do what you’re prepared to do, and you do the work you’ve been called to do. That was how I approached the task at hand. I thought it was extraordinary that then President-Elect Obama wanted to have a poem at the ceremony, and that he felt like poetry and art had a place in such an extraordinary civic occasion. I felt that I was representing American poetry, and that it was very important to do a good job on behalf of that wonderful rich and diverse collection of artists.

Q: Was it hard writing for such an occasion on a deadline?

A: Yes, it was very hard. And that’s okay because — hey — it was hard to become President! The difficulty felt actually the way it was supposed to be, because it was nothing but work and the forward march of history and sacrifice that got the country to that stage. For it to have been easy would not have been appropriate.

Q: On Sept. 26, you will be honored as Champion of Change by the Center for Community Change in Washington, D.C., where you grew up as a child. What is the significance to you of receiving this award in your hometown? What does this award represent?

A: I was very lucky to grow up in Washington, D.C., because it’s a city where civic pageantry is everywhere. I grew up in the neighborhood of Capitol Hill, so you see the government at its home and its workings all the time — there is a mode of accessibility. … The fact also that on the Mall and the grounds in the late ’60s and early ’70s, especially, there were always marches and protests. Sometimes we had to change our route to go to school or go about our business because there was some controversy that was going on. It was wonderful to see that what governs the country and also the very important voices that are counter voices when the government is going in a direction that some of the people did not like. It also gave me the understanding that dissent is not anything to be afraid of. There are structures within which dissent can express itself, and that is absolutely crucial. That’s what it was like for me to live in Washington in addition to the wonderfulness of living in a dominantly African American city and a city where, though not outside of the constraints of racism, nonetheless had black people governing it at all different levels. It’s also a town, in terms of Center for Community Change, where I spoke at their reform rally and read a poem in Spanish there on those same Capitol grounds. I think it is the perfect place to receive an award, plus my parents get to come.

Q: How do you incorporate issues surrounding racial justice and immigration through your writing?

A: I do not come at it issue-first. Honestly, I was very pleasantly surprised and honored when the Center for Community Change wanted to honor me in this way because that is not what I set out to do in my work. Through my work, I set out to be true to the word, to the voices, to the craft. So really, they are the ones who saw something in the work. My commitments to justice in explicit ways are more evident in my own ways as a citizen. So, I think it really says a lot about them that they see something in my poems that feels useful to their movement.

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