The selection of Yale professor and poet Elizabeth Alexander to write and deliver a poem at the inauguration of Barack Obama marks not only the return of poetry to a place of prominence in presidential history (she is only the fourth to read at a presidential swearing-in), but represents a true mind-meld between the president-elect and his chosen bard. Professor Alexander is a virtuosic writer and a shrewd analyst of American letters, a polyglot who moves fluently from essay to sonnet, from free verse to drama—and in her teaching, traces equally diverse themes. As the big day approaches, it’s hard to tell who will serve as muse to whom—Alexander and Obama share ties to Chicago and to the classroom, and a demonstrated commitment to the power of words and of community institutions.
I recently caught up with my former teacher to discuss her work and the now-finished poem she will deliver at Tuesday’s ceremony.
The Root: Congratulations! How were you chosen for the honor? Who called who?
Elizabeth Alexander: I actually don’t know! You’d have to ask the inaugural committee what happened. I just got a phone call saying that they were asking me to write a poem and deliver it. It was a tremendous thrill. Kind of like Sarah Palin, I didn’t even think about saying no.
I think one of the really exciting things about the Obama campaign and his election is that so many more people than in the past have felt called to serve, have felt that they needed to step up their game, do what they could. You know, not much has been asked of us in the last eight years—now is the time. So I thought that this question was a continuation of the same mission we heard expressed on the campaign trail.
TR: Have you read the president-elect’s college-era poetry? It’s pretty bad. How can you trust his judgment on you? What kind of poetry does he enjoy? (I think that he must have loved your “Stravinsky in L.A.”)
EA: Well, most 19-year old poetry is pretty bad! As to what poetry he favors now, that’s a question better left for him. I do know that when he was photographed a few days after the election, he was holding a copy of Derek Walcott’s collected poems. And let me tell you, an audible collective whoop rose up from the poetry world. It was so wonderful to see that three days after he was elected leader of the free world that he would literally model for us a book of poetry, show the value of taking a moment to see what wisdom could be found in a poem. And with a great poet like Walcott, who, of course, doesn’t shy away from politics and serious sociological thinking.
TR: Who have you been reading for inspiration, and how is that different from what you teach at Yale?
EA: I did a lot of rereading—and then I stopped. Because it was important that I remind myself what it was possible to do in poetry, but at the same time to create a space to listen to what I had to say. I have learned that the greats inspire, but they can also daunt. So to know when to put them aside is a key calibration. I certainly returned to Walt Whitman, thinking of his lines about “I hear America singing; the varied carols I hear,” and that vision of a multivocal, loud America, speaking in many different voices and different registers. Conveying a sense of expansiveness in America was important to me.
And Gwendolyn Brooks, as usual, provides me with her intensity, her fierce intensity of language, the way that she begins simply with the lives she might see outside her window on the South Side of Chicago. I thought particularly about Brooks because, were she living she would absolutely be the one giving the inaugural poem. She’s the bard of the South Side and one of the unheralded geniuses of the last century. And I’ve been thinking, of course, about her connection to Obama’s stomping grounds and what it means to be from Chicago, but also her sense of occasion—her sense of what it means to be a community and to hear it all in the tiniest things.
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?