The Inaugural Poet
Q & A with Elizabeth Alexander.
TR: Poetry, you’ve written,
“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,
in my case, D.C., from pillar to post, Adams-Morgan to Anacostia,
Shaw to Southwest, Logan to Chevy Chase Circles,
recalling every misbegotten everything, lamenting, repenting.”
What does it mean to have a black family leading not just the country but the capital city? Is this “repenting?”
EA: There is a poem of mine that is in Antebellum Dream Book and it opens the book, and it has a section called 1968, and it describes being in Washington as a child in the immediate aftermath of the King assassination. So that reflects my feelings in poetry. But personally, on U Street in particular, I cannot express how much it’s truly shocking—without saying it’s a good shocking or a bad—to see the changes. To see white people on U Street? Shocking, shocking. The city is changing, as cities change. What can I say?
TR: You were, as an infant, on the National Mall for Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech. What will it be like to return to the scene of such a foundational myth? Obama glancingly acknowledged the symmetry in his Aug. 28 nomination acceptance speech—will you be more overt?
EA: What I love about the obliqueness of Obama, you call it obliqueness, but I saw it more as being a very subtle allusiveness. In Denver, there was that reference at the end where you knew that he could only be speaking of King—but he was not hammering you over the head with it. Because he’s trying to invite as many people as possible into his rhetorical world. He—rhetorically—is a subtle human being; he has a way of letting our complexities lie, not trying to bring them all into a single narrative of unity but rather to understand that we crave analogies because it helps us understand things, but when they’re too heavy-handed it flattens out the truth.
So 40 years after that “I Have a Dream” speech, in that same space, it’s clear that one aspect of King’s dream was that all Americans would be able to recognize the full humanity of each other and to say ‘yes, he can.’ But here it is happening on the steps of the Capitol that enslaved black Americans, and as he is moving into a White House that in part was built by enslaved African Americans. And all of those are tremendous and worthy of note, those circles, if you will—but also there’s more to it than that. And I think that’s the way that he presents things to the country: It’s always more complicated than we think—and we can handle it. And I think that’s just great.
A chapbook of Alexander’s inaugural poem will be available from Graywolf Press on Inauguration Day.
Dayo Olopade is a Washington reporter for The Root.