The Inaugural Poet

Q & A with Elizabeth Alexander.

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Also, I thought a lot about the poet Robert Hayden, and poems of his such as “American Journal,” where he meditates on “this variegated people” and a poem like “Frederick Douglass,” when he tries to define freedom, to define this concept that we all know, we say we want it—but what is it? And Frederick Douglass is in the poem and tries to make sense of freedom. Those are actually all poets that I teach—at one point or another I try to make it a point to teach what I love.

TR: Isn’t this a lot of pressure?

“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?”

And yet a formal reading—at its worst—is one-sided. How will you make your recitation seem like a conversation; how will you evoke that grand American tradition of call and response?

EA: I don’t think of poetry as being quite so didactic, of telling people in that way. I think of it as more of an offering, and there is a call and response in that. And part of it is that I’ll have an audience that is so large and dispersed that I won’t even know it—most of the people who will be watching will be watching it on TV—but that call and response will be implicit.

One of the things I have learned in 20 years of writing and reading poetry all over the world is that poetry lands, poetry reaches people. You don’t always know in that particular moment who and where your audience is, but it has a brilliant way of finding the people that need it and so I hope that this will.

TR: You’ve said that Obama holds “not a strictly nationalist view of where art is to be found.” Your work and teaching certainly share this assessment—and yet nothing could be more nationalist than an inaugural. How will you incorporate the melting pot into a poem for such an occasion?

EA: I think there are two ways of answering that: One of them is to say that what is universal, beyond the national, is always, always local. You speak from right exactly where you are, and you hope that if you find the right words that they can radiate out infinitely. You can’t know where it will stop. Also, we are not isolates on the planet. I think when someone speaks out of America and out of Americanness that is something about being human, connected to all of the other human beings around the world. That’s how I understand nationalism. I am very American; I think there are ways of being quintessentially American. But my life and our lives do not exist in isolation from lives at large.

TR: Your poem, “Peccant,” reads as follows:

“On Exercise Day, walk the streets of the city you grew up in,