Poems Essays On Elizabeth Alexander Teaching
Interviews News Events Bio&CV
 

Audio

An Interview with
Michel Martin of
NPR’s Tell me More

  A Memoir Should Be More Than A History Lesson
  Wednesday, February 1, 2012
  Audio Link  Audio

Words that Shimmer:
An Interview with Krista Tippett from
On Being

  Thursday, December 2, 2011
  Audio Link  Audio

FIVE: Elizabeth Alexander
from
BlackArtistNews

  Friday, September 16, 2011

  Visit the Website

An Interview with
Bob Edwards of
the Bob Edwards Show

  November 2, 2010
  Audio Link  Audio

An Interview with
Mike Melia of
PBS ArtBeat

  Conversation: Poet Elizabeth Alexander
  October 19, 2010
  Audio Link  Audio

An Interview with
NPR’s Weekend Edition

  Poet Lucille Clifton: ‘Everything is Connected’
  February 28, 2010
  Audio Link  Audio

An Interview with
Neal Conant of
NPR’s Talk of the Nation

  Henry Louis Gates Uncovers ‘Faces of America’
  February 17, 2010
  Audio Link  Audio

An Interview with
Michel Martin of
NPR’s Tell me More

  A Tell Me More series on Black History Month:
  More College Students Choosing to Major in Black Studies
  February 3, 2010
  Audio Link  Audio

An Interview with
NPR’s Weekend Edition

  Weaving Words for the Inaugural Poem
  January 17, 2009
  Audio Link  Audio

An Interview with
NPR’s All Things Considered

  Poet Calls writing Inaugural Poem A “Challenge”
  December 18, 2008
  Audio Link  Audio

Obamapoetics
  Elizabeth Alexander on how the Derek Walcott-toting June
  Jordan-quoting president will affect poets and poetry
  Audio Link  Audio

Interview:
Writers at Cornell

  Cornell University
  February 2007
  Audio Link  Audio

Interview:
Newsletters.org

  Poet Elizabeth Alexander reads from American Sublime,
  nominated for a 2006 Pulitzer Prize, and Antebellum Dream
  2006
  Audio Link  Audio

Tom Crann’s Interview
with Elizabeth Alexander

  Poet Elizabeth Alexander inspired by a rich variety of experiences
  Minnesota Public Radio
  October 14, 2005
  Audio Link  Audio

An interview with
NPR's Tavis Smiley

  'The Black Interior' and the African-American Artist
  January 8, 2004
  Audio Link  Audio

Discussion of
The Black Interior

  The Cambridge Forum
  April 21, 2004
  Audio Link  Audio

“Overture: Watermelon City
  Elizabeth Alexander provides vocal recording
  for song by DJ Rupture on the album Special Gunpowder
  Audio Link  Audio

Reading from
Lunch Poems Series

  U.C. Berkeley
  October 5, 2000
  Audio Link  Audio


Video

An Interview on the art and
performance of the U.S. presidential
inauguratiom with
@YaleLive

  Thursday, January 17, 2013
  Video Link  Video


Dialogue from
the Aspen Institute

  Dialogue featuring Poet Elizabeth Alexander
  Video Link  Video

An Interview with
Stephen Colbert on
The Colbert Report

  Elizabeth Alexander explains to Stephen
  the difference between a metaphor and a lie
  January 21, 2009
  Video Link  Video

An Interview with
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer

  Poet Elizabeth Alexander Reflects on Inaugural Reading
  January 13, 2009
  Video Link  Video

An Interview with
CBS Evening News

  Eye to Eye: Inaugural Poet
  January 13, 2009
  Video Link  Video

An Interview on
WGBH’s Basic Black

  Host: Kim McLarin
  January 31, 2008
  Video Link  Video


Print

An Interview with
Southern Spaces

  Natasha Trethewey Interviews Elizabeth Alexander
  October 16, 2009
  Visit the Website

An Interview with
Faith & Leadership

  Elizabeth Alexander: ‘I wanted to talk about love’
  May 12, 2009
  Visit the Website

An Interview with
48 Hours

  Well Versed: The Inaugural Poets
  January 18, 2009
  Visit the Website

An Interview with
The Wall Street Journal

  The Poetry of Politics: Elizabeth Alexander on
  Writing the Poem of a Lifetime

  December 20, 2008
  Visit the Website

An Interview with
Professor Meta DuEwa Jones
for The Writer’s Chronicle

  Jones, Meta DuEwa “Who is the Self Rooted in Language?
  An Interviewwith Elizabeth Alexander”
— The Writer’s Chronicl
  October/November 2006 Vol. 39 No. 2 p. 28

An Interview with
Professor Meta DuEwa Jones

  Read the Interview below
 
Download Printable Version  PDF

An Interview with
Deborah Keenan and
Diane LeBlanc

  Read the Interview below
  Download Printable Version  PDF




An Interview by Professor Meta DuEwa Jones


Meta Jones:


Your poetry has meditated — mediated — through the dynamics of enslaved Africans and resistance or rebellion such as Saartje Bartman, Nat Turner, and others. In “Islands Number Four,” for instance, you “describe a slave ship in 1789. . . At a distance, pattern. Up close, bodies / Doubled and doubled, serried and stacked.” This is dated before the 1839 Amistad Revolt. In your new boo of poems, American sublime, you have an epic poem called “Amistad.” Did earlier poems such as these foment your interest in the Amistad affair? Or were you also motivated by its close proximity — the ship was brought into New London, Conneticut and the enslaved Africans were detained in New Haven, correct — to you, personally, geographically, and politically? Why did you choose to explore this historical and political imbroglio?

-
Elizabeth
Alexander:


Seven years ago I was walking my first son in the stroller through New Haven. We came upon the New Haven Historical Society and I thought, why have I never been in here? Once inside, we saw the original of the famous portrait of Cinque as well as other documents from what you aptly called the “political imbroglio,” and I realized that not only was there much more to know than I did but also it made me think about the ground on which I walked, New Haven, Connecticut, and what I could learn about its history. The story brought in Yale and teaching, which was of course of great interest to me, and I thought that perhaps in poetry I could imagine my way to a fresh understanding of some aspects of the affair.


MJ:


Your treatment of the translator, James Covey, is intricate and engaging. The search for a translator fluent in Mende to enable the jailed Africans present their version of the events in court must have had great implications for you as a poet. In some way, your series of poems read as a “translation” of this international affair in ways that communicate more fully than what one might find in government documents, history books, or even, film. Could you discuss translation, in terms of theory and praxis?

-
EA:


The character Covey was close to my heart. He himself was brought from what is now called Sierra Leone in the slave trade and became a dock worker in New York. Many years after he was brought to the United States he was found by the Yale professor Josiah Willard Gibbs who was looking for someone who spoke Mende who could help the captives tell their story. What would that moment of being spoken to in your language after so many years feel like? What would it mean to meet with those captives after being away from home so long? What new identity would Covey have had to assume in order to survive? Where does what you leave behind after that violent separation reside?


MJ:


What process of selection framed your ordering of American Sublime? How important are the macro-organizational details such as poem order, table of contents, section titles and arrangement, font type, to you in the development of your creative statement?


EA
:


The title “American Sublime” operates many different ways: it is literal, as in the poem “American Sublime,” to describe paintings out of that school and time period, but also ironic, because those paintings were made in the midst of a violent slave economy. In the ars poetica poems, part of what I realized I have always reveled in the possibilities of American englishes, its sublimities. So “Sublime” is sometimes literal and sometimes ironic, and “American” is meant to contain all of the possibilities, erasures, and contradictions of American-ness and the American story.


MJ:


You seem able to make the archive come alive, to give flesh, bone and teeth to the historically important figures you write “about” and through, from Paul Robeson’s wife, Eslanda, to James Vanderzee, to Yolande Dubois to Muhammad Ali. In poems such as “Translator” and “Cinque,” for instance, the human-ness, as a given, not as something to be “proven” pushes through. Does working with major figures from a previous epoch or era present particular challenges, offer special rewards?


EA:


The study of African-American history and culture has been a great gift to my work, because the font of rich stories and characters appears limitless.


MJ:


In First Afro-American Esperantist, you invoke both the literal and metaphoric possibilities of “lingua franca” as well as the interplay between identity, audience commodity and language. I love your phrase “dialect bucket” for the history, music, politics, poets it conjures. Could you comment on this poem?


EA:


Isn’t that a quirky little poem? There actually *is* a first Afro-American Esperantist — William Pickens -- and there is a certificate that says so amongst his papers. He went to Yale in the early 20th century. There is such beautiful hope in the idea of Esperanto, the wish to communicate across place and boundary, and I think I am also interested in what we might call Negro esoterica — I love our quirks and oddnesses, our particularities, and my poems are sometimes a way to make an archive, to preserve them.


MJ:


Family, both literally — in terms of kinship — and figuratively — in terms of community, appears as a recurrent theme in your work. The reader meets, in your poems, a civil-rights hero father, a historian and storytelling mother, a great uncle that painted, another ancestor that passed, and now an East African mother-in-law that blesses and weeps. How has family influenced your creative process, conceptually or concretely, your career as a professional writer?


EA:


I’m very lucky in the family department. I come from and have joined with clear, committed people, whatever they do. I think they have affected me most in the way of being a teacher and being someone who always feels I am supposed to be helpful to others and generous. That’s the family ethic.


MJ:


Spirituality, seems to be a vital component in your work. In this, I am not intending to invoke a sense of religiosity, but instead human and heavenly nature of the spiritual: the divine, divination, intuition, the incorporeal. At the same time, you have a written a great deal about corporeality in your life as a writer. How do you keep these in balance? How does spirit inflect your writing?


EA:


Writing poetry seems to be a way that I explore such questions. Spiritual and ethical situations and conundrums are occasions for poems — though I am rarely aware of the conundrum as such when I embark upon the poem — and the writing of the poem is a way of working through those conundrums and accepting their frequent open-endedness. Besides making and raising children, the mystery of making art is the most spiritual zone of my life.


MJ:


You have written of the poet, Gwendolyn Brooks’ “specialized vocabulary. . . the strange diction that could belong to no one else; the tensile strength of each line,” her rhyming of “banshee” “Gets” and “vinaigrettes,” for instance, adding that “If such wild and unexpected curiosities were possible in her language, then anything might be possible for me.” In one of your untitled poems, the speaker exclaims, “my thinking looks like blue vapor, /red sparks, yellow tildes, then viscosity.” Here’s what your lexicon looks like: “viscous,” “gelatinous,” “angostura,” “tonsured,” “mende,” “damask” “tulle” “finger-fucked,” “Whassup G,” “ziggurat,” “Hey, Blood,” “bloody crotch.” As you write in “Fugue,” “You could / ruminate all night about / the difference between “taut” / and “tight.” Can you comment on these, or other words you choose in your work that incite curiosity, surprise and delight?


EA:


That is what writing poetry is for me, on a level, the profound — and I do mean profound — pleasure of writing certain words, preserving them, giving them a place to be and make sense and raise new questions and possibilities.


MJ:


Several of the poems in American Sublime have appeared previously in various poetry journals. What transpires between journal and book publication? Do you revise for the book?


EA:


I do some revising for the book if the poems need them, but mostly they are pretty done when I release them to journals and magazines.


MJ:


I’d like to ask a question that your poetry and most clearly your recent essay collection, The Black Interior asks and answers in a variety of ways. In one of your poems, “Haircut,” for example, the speaker begins by quote “getting off the IRT in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,” in New York, and ends by asking the question: “What is black culture?” I’d like to extend that question to you. What is black culture? How does it impact your life, your poetry, your writing in general?


EA:


On one level, we need to remember that any culture is that which makes it way to an audience. As critics and scholars and appreciators of art, what we can talk about is what we have received, and much has not made its way to us or has only begun its journey to limited pockets of the populous. Marketplace issues very much affect what we even think of as culture of any kind. That said, black culture is that which black people have made across an unimaginably wide spectrum of backgrounds, esthetics, and identities. And we have not yet fully taken stock of all that black people have made under the rubric of culture because I think that there has been too much that’s getting stuck in prescriptive ideas of blackness. We get caught up in the politics of, is it black enough? Does it follow this particular trajectory?


MJ:


The statement that you made, “Black culture’s that which black people have made” seems deceptively simple, but it points to a key aspect of black culture and black work. It reminded me of an interview with Gwendolyn Brooks you may have seen in Joanne Gabbin’s Furious Flowering of African-American Poetry. She says “the black poet should only write about the black experience,” which sounds proscriptive but then she follows it up by saying, “the black experience is any experience any black person has.”


EA:


Absolutely. It is really too astonishing in 2005 that the widely defined mainstream imaginary still sees black people in such limited terms. You know the feeling when a white person is looking at you or listening to you speak as though you could not possibly exist?


MJ:


Yes, yes. Absolutely.


EA:


No matter how devoted we are to the culture and to each other, we have a lot to overcome, imagining ourselves, or imagining each other. And in receiving each other.


MJ:


In terms of The Black Interior’s form and subject, it struck me that this is the kind of work because of the level of its language, the range of its subjects, that I can imagine seeing in an undergraduate Introduction to African American Studies, or African-American Literature course. You move from talking about poets such as Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Michael Harper to Jet magazine to an extended meditation on the film actor and producer Denzel Washington to the 19th century black intellectual Anna Julia Cooper. You cover a range of kind of black subjects and at the same time that you do close textual readings of not only literary works but of culture. What kind of pedagogical contribution do you see The Black Interior making?


EA:


I’ve been teaching at universities for a long time now, and so and certainly some of the ideas in the book have gotten their start in the classroom. I’ve tried them out in the classrooms and one of the things that I really love, and one of the reasons that I never have and never want to write exclusively, is that staying engaged with the literary and cultural traditions as a teacher, you have to keep going back to the texts. That’s the pleasure of university teaching for me. And so it wouldn’t be surprising if that pleasure and that practice made its way to the book.

The essays formally are whatever they have to be. When you talk about Anna Julia Cooper in the 19th century, she had to invent a form that served her unimagined “type,” that type being the turn-of-the-century African-American female intellectual. So she used the first person. She quoted from scripture. She commented on world literature. She engaged what we would now call political science. She made her way and this made space for her mind and then she was visible, imaginable, plausible, real. I’ve always been interested in the kinds of essays that cross genres and follow what I would call poetic logics and stretch the way we think about the essay, and stretch the way we think about thinking and defining arguments in a wider way. I’ve always written critical prose but I’ve also always wrestled with how to call upon all of my esthetics and intelligence at the same time, when it felt that it did not fit into received forms.


MJ:


I want to turn to your first book of poem the Venus Hottentot, it seems appropriate to me that The Black Interior would be titled as such because your poems address the issues of race, gender, sexuality, class. Particularly the issues of the exterior. Or the literal black exterior in terms of Sartje Bartmann’s exoticized or eroticized exteriority, her exploited exterior, in terms of the public display of her body in Europe. On the other hand your poem envisions a contrast to that through her own negotiation of her interior life, her very deliberate private self. As a black artist, a poet, a creative and critical thinker. Are you always in some sense negotiating the interior and the exterior self in your work and in these works? How do these terms that you put out, — race, gender, sexuality, and class, — work within the context of the interior and the exterior and The Black Interior?


EA:


I often say when I do teach creative writing that it’s all well and good to have an idea, to say, I want to write about such-n-such and such-n-such. But I think the idea has to be rooted in language. It has to live in language. You can talk forever about the idea of the Venus Hottentot. But the first line of that poem which came to me, “I am called Venus Hottentot,” was a real voice speaking and saying, essentially, I’ve been called out of my name. The name my parents gave me is no more. I am called Venus Hottentot. That’s the language part, where character lives. That is what we have to protect and that is very challenging for black writers because of how challenging it is to be a social creature in the way black people are forced to be. Obviously I don’t mean social creatures like just hanging out. I’m talking about what it means for us to walk around in the world as physical people and actually deal with stereotypes and expectations that deny our own complex interiority.

This is what I explored in the dream poems of Antebellum dream book. I imagined I would find a sort of “fictional space” in the dream world, but what I found instead was space that wild and intimate and raced and gendered. So it’s not about kind of superceding the social identity, but it is about protecting the full dimension of the self. Anything and everything that black people are.


MJ:


That’s so lovely. I like the idea of kind of the rootedness that idea of being rooted in language. Some of the poems in Venus Hottentot work so well because they’re not didactic in that way. It’s not just this idea — that what happened to Sartje Baartman was that she was exploited but it’s about the language. The poetic language of her voice saying: I speak English. I speak French. I speak Dutch and languages Cuvier will never know have names.

You wrote that the one thing that wasn’t in the historical register, that you couldn’t find despite all the visual imagery that abounded about her, was her voice. And that poem is in part about giving voice rooted in poetic language. And that is what makes it art.


EA:


That’s what catches the imagination of somebody else. Even the way that we express ourselves as none-poet “civilians,” if you will, is what makes us interesting to other people. What stops you on the bus when you overhear a conversation is the way people use language. Who is the self in language? And what is the revelatory and unguarded and surprising self in language? That’s what makes someone else pay attention. When you start turning that into art, that’s what making poems is about.


MJ:


Absolutely. Could you talk about the distinction between making poems and making essays? As the author of what Donna Seaman called in a review of your work, three “indelible” collections of poetry, why a collection of essays as opposed to another volume of poetry? Is there something specific about the essay form that enables you to write about the subject’s historically, personally, politically or dream wise that engaged you differently than in poetry?


EA:


I worked on the essays of the Black Interior for a long time over time and simultaneous with poems. There is a lot of subject matter that doesn’t quite work for poems, or that perhaps can go in both directions. Often I cannot answer. Because again, there’s a lot of reading and research and thinking my poems that is not necessarily made explicit. There are a lot of arguments in my poems. There’s a lot of narrative in my poems. Why in a given moment do I turn right or do I turn left? I’m just not sure how that happens. One of the things that I enjoy in essays is — I’m very opinionated, very declarative and I like being able to plainly state certain things or try to convince with textual, often close reading. In a poem I think you just are suppose to be there and if somebody wants to come be in your world, you being the poem, then they can come there, but poems are not meant to work to convert or charm. In essays, as in teaching, I enjoy that work of saying okay, come on, are you with me? Though I wanted the essays to be completely clear, I wanted them also to do things that were mysterious and evocative and, therefore, interesting over time, too. In a way that poems remain mysteries to me, even if I have written them, even if I — if I lived with them for a very long time.


MJ:


Yes, I can see that. You talked about and have returned to discuss the joy of teaching. And I know that you’ve been involved as a teacher not only within a classroom setting at Yale, but also in your role as an instructor and mentor to many poets through your work in Cave Canem. Could you describe your involvement in Cave Canem and its significance as a black literary and cultural institution?


EA:


We’re coming up on Cave Canem’s 10th anniversary, which is amazing. I joined the community as a guest poet and teacher at the invitation of Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady in its first year, and then it became a huge part of my life and a very vital community to me. We really are in the middle of a black poetic renaissance, in different cultural locations. It’s all over the country. Many more black poets are getting published than in previous years. They’re getting published by black presses, they’re getting published by white presses that never published black people in their lives. Our work varies tremendously, stylistically and thematically. Black poets are in creative writing programs where we never were before. And that’s not totally taking care of some of the isolation and some of the issues that were problems, but nonetheless, I mean, but you know, to sound old for a moment, when I was coming along, the moment, was not like this. It was not like this. And so it’s really very exciting and remarkable and I think what Cave Canem most potently represents to me is the incredibly rich and healthy and loving, yet challenging, diversity amongst ourselves and our aesthetics. Because there is no one aesthetic or doctrine in Cave Canem between the faculty or the fellows — even sometimes making that distinction. You know, so many of the fellows have published books and are very well known, and have remarkable careers of their own — Major Jackson, Honoree Jeffers, A. Van Jordan, Evie Shockley, Tyehimbas Jess, and many others. I am proud that at Cave Canem we have made the commitment to help sustain, challenge, and develop whatever the best of each other is. By taking some important intra-community historical lessons very seriously, we are also trying not to litmus test each other into extinction.


MJ:


When you talk about a black poet renaissance, it really does link to the earlier things that you were saying about the extensiveness of the aesthetic and the expansiveness of what one black aesthetic or cultural experience might be or look like. When you speak of the lineage that Cave Canem really creates, the presence, of an institutional lineage that enables us to kind of look back and talk about what’s been happening with black poetry and where it might go in the future.


EA:


You don’t have to be a scholar to be aware of the fact that ongoing availability of our work is an issue. I've spent a lot of time in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale, especially around the James Weldon Johnson collection. It’s very humbling. You see the amazing the writing in The Negro Digest by the people who never went on to publish books, who would only be known through those periodicals. You see letters from important poets late in life practically begging for readings and publication. You see exclusive first editions of poetry that have been out of print for forty-five years. The reality is that most people will never know these books even exist. That’s why I keep coming back to the institutional aspects of work being available.


MJ:


It’s so wonderful to emphasize that institutional because I think often one of the things that it goes against is this individual model. It’s important for having this concept about black poetry that is institutional and communal and a part of the culture in a broader sense. Not just individual. Not just singular, star black artists that is the exception and that exists as an isolate.


MJ:


In African American poetics, historically, the rubric of the oral, the rubric of the vernacular, the rubric of the spoken, the sung, the musical is what — has predominated critical study. Yet as Harryette Mullen said in her essay African Signs and Spirit Writing we must also pay attention to the graphic in black literary traditions as well. We have a history of black poets who were very particular about who illustrated their work. Langston Hughes and the drawings by Miguel Covarrubias and E. Simms Campbell [yes??], among others, or Ishmael Reed’s work with Betty Saar in the 70s, or, more recently Saar’s daughter, Alison Saar, composed Arcade collaboratively with Erica Hunt, or Kevin Young’s work on Basquiat, and then of course we have your plethora of poems and essays on the photographer James Vanderzee and Romare Bearden about Monet, so not necessarily solely black individual artists, but certainly other visual artist as well. I very feel that is the critical turn that needs to take place, to focus not only on ekphrasis in poetry but also more generally the relationship between black poets and visual poetics, visual politics. Can you talk about your choice of book cover art?


EA:


I’m so proud of my gorgeous book covers, all of which have important works by African-American artists on the cover: Charles Alston, Kerry James Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, Bob Thompson, Elizabeth Catlett, and Henry Ossawa Tanner — so far!

I think it is an opportunity not only to expose my readers to that great work but also to make an implicit conversation between the poems and the paintings. And black artists haven’t even come close to getting their due.

The cover of American Sublime is Tanner’s “Annunciation,” where the angel Gabriel is not embodied but rather represented as a blazing column of pure light. That use of light I think points to Tanner’s interest in the painters of the “American Sublime,” but he is also doing something radical by making Gabriel body-less, therefore race-less (in the late nineteenth century), therefore potentially of any race. Tanner opens up a space of great possibility.


MJ:


I couldn’t agree with you more. Our culture needs to have the same familiarity with and some of investment in black visual artists that might come close to how we value our musicians.


EA:


Ntozake Shange talked about that when she says in the introduction to Nappy Edges, all Chaka would have to do is sing one note and you’d know who it was. She’s saying Chaka Khan singing Empty Bed Blues is not the same as Bessie Smith singing Empty Bed Blues, and she goes on like that to say if you are culturally literate about black music, then, it should follow, you should be so literate with the rest of the culture. She’s saying why can’t you tell the difference between reading a Nikki Giovanni poem and an Amiri Baraka poem? You don’t mix Romare Bearden up with any other artist. You don’t. Not if you’re paying attention. You don’t mix James Brown up with anybody else. How we “sound” — in poems, music, painting — is what we are.


MJ:


I’m glad you mentioned Romare Bearden. There’s an illuminating essay by you in the Grant Hill Collection of African American Art catalogue, Something All Our Own. in which you state, “It’s difficult to imagine twentieth-century American art without Romare Bearden,” adding that “the Bearden collage gives us a way to think about the complexities of African American identity.” What is Bearden’s significance as an individual and an institution in terms of his relationship to black art, black culture and black identity? How important is he to you in your own writing? Or might he be for other poets and writers? What do you think his significance for American culture, broadly conceived?


EA:


Now that he’s had his big show at the National Gallery and he’s on refrigerator magnets and so forth, but it wasn’t always so. His career was a career of struggle, of doing different kinds of work, as you know. He was a social worker for a long, long time. He tried to be a song writer, tried to be a poet. He did a lot of different things. He traveled in the armed services. So I think that that sort of became number one in terms of when we talk about Bearden in 2004 is that he was not always that “famous artist.” When I wrote about him in my dissertation in the late 1980s there was some scholarship, most notably Mary Schmidt Campbell’s dissertation, and there had been some important Bearden shows, but nothing like the kind of availability to his work and his images that there is now.

As I’ve written, I think his particular use of the collage, as he specifies that technique as African-American; as it engulfs the call and response and jazz improvisation; as it references the Middle Passage and the ripping of something from its original source and reconstituting it in a new space that still has allusions to and memory to that old place, is a brilliant metaphor for talking about black creative production, survival, and living. Also his use of color has always spoken to me very powerfully. That’s not just to say that black folk love our bright colors! What I love is that he does not fear the force of color, and he understands the musical power that can be present as it is in the way that he uses color.


MJ:


Yes. That’s a lovely way to figure the visual.


EA:


There’s a lot that is inchoate in how that is part of the poetic process. But nonetheless his work is deeply part of the bedrock of the process of making poetry. He’s also personally very important to me because I grew up with his work and with stories about him. Charles “Spinky” Alston, my mother’s uncle, was Bearden’s cousin. Alston helped Bearden in the New York and Harlem art scene when Bearden came from North Carolina to New York City. One of the Bearden paintings in particular that I grew up with on the wall of my parents’ home was a watercolor that he gave to my mother which she was eight years old and he came to Christmas and didn’t have any money, and what I took from that story as a child is something about commitment and the long struggle of an artist. In college I was writing a paper on his work and I called him up on the phone. I didn’t know him, and I asked him to talk about his work and his life. And he said, artists are like mice. They need old houses where no one can bother them and they can just go about their business and do what they have to do. And he said don’t do it — that is, become an artist — if you don’t have to. I didn’t take that as discouragement. Because I guess for me the answer was, well I have to. I try to translate that for my students: be crystal clear about your need to make art. Don’t mix it up with trying to get a certain kind of job, or build community, or gain recognition. You can tape up your poems on the wall of a bathroom stall and have more readers than in a literary journal. A carpenter or a ballet dancer understands clearly about perfecting craft, and we who write must also. Why do you do this? Why must you do this? And why must you do this in a way that extends beyond a hobby, something executed with pleasure but not necessarily with devotion. Bearden’s “Don’t do it if you don’t have to” was a very real and necessary statement that I continue to think about and learn from.

I always knew that he was a very well-read and aware person. And that he was an aware black person in the world. And that is to say that being an artist didn’t mean for example that he didn't have race politics, or that he wouldn’t read novels. Perhaps being a great artist is about having many passions and knowledges in excess.

Spinky, who I did know in the family in my childhood before he died, was also a tremendously capacious person. He didn’t make it seem like being an artist was about sacrifice, because he was passionate about his work and lucky enough to know what he wanted to devote himself to. As my mother says, well, isn’t it good you’re not a gymnast because you would have peaked long ago and there’d be nothing you could do about it —


MJ:


(Laughing)
That is so true, I can hear Adele Alexander saying that.


EA:


Thank goodness I’m doing something I can keep getting better at.
I want to connect that back to when we were talking about my work in the college classroom. I want to emphasize is that even as we talked about my coming out of that academic world, what I really wanted for The Black Interior was for intelligent interested people to be able to pick it and feel like they had come to be challenged but not shut out by a certain kind of specialized discourse.


MJ:


I can appreciate that. You dedicated The Black Interior to: Barbara Christian. June Jordan. Toni Cade Bambara. Claudia Tate. Audre Lorde. Shirley Anne Williams — the list continues. You spoke of Elizabeth Catlett before, about her art being on the cover of the book. Why is this lineage of black — diasporically speaking — women artists, critics, writers, and scholars essential to you and your creative work?


EA:


What is the institution building work? And the mentoring work and the breaking-down-the-door work? And the first black woman this that and the other thing work, that Barbara Christian did. That means that we don’t have fifteen books by her. And she’s left this earth. You know. That needs to be spoken and acknowledged. Someone like June Jordan, who was a poet but also who was an institutional and political person. That work is profoundly taxing.

You’re filled up with other people’s words and vibes and energies and struggles. And what do you have to show for it sometimes except that you’re tired at the end of the day? Thank God they did the work that they did. But the cautionary lesson is for us to take advantage of the fact that they made it possible for us to make more life affirming choices. Sometimes NO is more life-affirming than YES. Because for black women in institutions, all that YES can eat you up and break you down. Many of these institutions are calcified and wedded to their status quo, and being an empowered, and intelligent black person and even more so being an empowered and intelligent and self-respecting black woman, is profoundly destabilizing to most status quo. You’ve got to remember that in a way that’s not disabling.


MJ:


When you think about the premature demise of many of these black women, it’s not that you can explicitly stand and say the institution per se caused their untimely deaths. But when you think about cancer on a metaphysical level, there’s a sense of the limitations of the body’s psychic or spiritual or physical ability to ward off or withstand the kind of pressures they had to have faced over and over again. The daily micro-aggressions posed by the sometimes subtle and not so subtle intricacies of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism as they operate on an institutional and individual level surely affected them.


EA:


Audre Lorde and June Jordan have given us an important written legacy about cancer and what that has to tell us about living in predominantly white institutions — institutions that have not historically welcomed us, both of those women lived with cancer years longer than anybody expected them to. Even in their writings at least they say that the way they were able to keep fighting and living with it is that they learned to listen to their selves and their bodies, in the face of extreme institutional pressure, of doctors saying, you know, we have to take it out. I can’t even imagine being Audre Lorde and the doctors saying you will die if we don’t cut your liver out. And one after the other and saying you know, I’m going to — you know, there are other ways of thinking in the world and I’m going to go around the world. And I’m going to learn how other people have dealt with this. I think that’s a metaphor, too. That’s a metaphor. You know, what would it mean — what would it mean if all of the black women throughout history and to this day had swallowed and acted upon that which was said about us? We wouldn’t survive. I don’t think we would.


MJ:


Right. In the Cancer Journals, Lorde describes her struggle with cancer as only another face of that continuing battle for self-determination and survival that Black women fight daily, often in triumph.” Quite literally, it’s what Toni Morrison said in an interview over a decade ago; the marvel is that we’re still living. You know, in the face of all of the pressures, that which might seek to devalue or destroy our lives, the marvel is not that at some point one of us, ends up succumbing to the insanity of the world and then that gets put forth within the media as the stereotypically angry and/or crazy black woman that does this and kills her children. The marvel is that most of us don’t. That we live. That alone is the miracle.


EA:


I love the late Melvin Dixon’s poem “Fingering the Jagged Grain.” His work was really important to me and he’s talking actually about Bearden in the poem. It concludes: “What did you do? You lived, you lived. With open wings so black and blue, open like mouths about to sing.”


MJ:


What vibrant lines, lovely.


EA:


He lived. He lived. Those examples of fierce brilliant, courageous, beautiful, engaged lives full of rampant loving, loving of the word. Loving of the work. Loving of each other. Moving towards what we love and not just towards the destruction of enemies. Now that’s what all those women represent to me as well. And that that driving force — that love act — is a force of nature that they believed in. And it and it empowered them. And you know, that’s what I feel like it’s important to do upon rising each day.


MJ:


And it touches on something that I thought was so powerful about your essay on Jet Magazine, this different notion of black pride. In that essay you illuminate things about Jet that you love — you use that word--whereas there’s other things about Jet that are problematic and one of the things that to me is terms of thinking about how this current institutional or moment or current of black literary and cultural work is different than earlier periods. One is that it in this space that I think there is very particular queering of black studies that is taking place at this moment that is absolutely essential. And this notion of the love act that is not just in this traditional heterosexual matrix which isn’t badgering heterosexuality and saying well that is a love act that is corrupt and untenable, but to say that there should be a notion of black love and black community that includes all of those. That includes men loving men and women loving women, and some loving both, and then all loving in between. So this sense that, I think Jet as an institution and that a part of your critique in that essay is that there is value in the black interior of these black cultural products that these are worthy of kind of critical thought and analysis. Nor are you saying let’s let go of Jet altogether but instead asking and saying what was valuable about Jet, was that in it black life mattered, that the minutiae of it was important in a way that you don’t necessarily see much of in People or Time or Newsweek magazine or what-have-you but on the other hand, but still being able to say, it was valuable but still being ardent in your critique of it at the same time. To criticize the narrow-narrowed vision of what black life and black love is that appeared in its pages.


EA:


Right. You said it really beautifully. That’s what I was trying to get at in that essay. When I was younger I used to think that love as an ethic was — I mean, obviously a good thing but a little corny. I am certainly an optimist but not a fool. In academic environments, we are taught a skepticism that can lead us to discount the power and force of love. But the older I get, the more I think of all its possible permutations and possibilities of a love ethic. To love someone or something is not just to agree with them or affirm them. To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love. So what does it mean in a complex and dead-serious way to come from that place of love. If I say, I love black people. I love my people, that is not uncritical space, not sentimental. How can that love be useful, echoing Marge Piercy’s wonderful poem, “To be of Use”?


MJ:


Thinking about that “uncritical space” as a way to talk about black people and black culture, one thing that I think often historically has happened in the way that we think about black culture that you mentioned earlier in terms of the Harlem Renaissance is that too often we focus on just one particular locale for it to symbolize the multiplicity as a whole. How does geographical, social and cultural location impact and influence your work? I know in previous interviews people have asked you about New York in particular, but being a native Washingtonian, I noticed that Washington, too, is a crucial site for how you reflect critically on some of the material in The Black Interior and in the language and source and movement of some of your poems. Could you talk a bit about a city other than New York where black cultural work takes place that is also important to you?


EA:


As I recently said in a Studio Museum of Harlem publication, Harlem is my Valhalla. So, yes, I was born there. Yes, that’s where my parents come from. And that that is an identity as powerful as if they were from, oh, Yugoslavia! They are both from that place, so that necessarily affects who I am and is part of my mythos, an imaginary/real space that I've always been trying to get back to. I think all artists have those spaces or places, those lost childhood and roads not taken, where versions of ourselves exist. For me, Harlem is an utterly diverse place with everything in it and a rich artistic and political legacy. I think I’m always trying to get back to a party I remember as a child, at my Uncle Spinky’s and Aunt Myra’s house. Where you know, it just seemed like there was jazz, and there was great food, and interesting black people sitting around and I thought this is what I want in my life, period.

With all that said, of course, as you know, Washington is an incredibly diverse and rich and global black place. And it was a wonderful place to grow up. I miss it right at this moment in New England when it’s suppose to be springtime and it’s not. That DC weather put you out on the street for more of the year. You were in contact with other people, and their talk and their walk and their ways. That I really loved growing up. My grandmother was born in Alabama but spent much of her girlhood in Washington. And she — I’ve written about this in a poem — would go sit on steps of the embassies and just imagine the world. There was the world, the beyond. When she left Washington to go to school, she always said that all her girlfriends came to the train station and just wept. Nobody else was leaving Washington. So she was the adventurer. She became a world traveler. So the presence of the embassies and the people from all over the world who worked there was always something that I felt was quite wonderful. I was also intrigued by black Washington’s proximity to its southernness. But I didn’t realize that until I left, how very southern it is.


MJ:


Yes, very much so. The same thing happened to me when I left D.C. for college in New Jersey. I learned from other classmates that — Oh — I grew up in the south. I didn’t know. (Laughing)


EA:


It’s all about being interested in how people do things. The ars poetica of life. How people talk. And I got to see all of these different ways of being. Also, Washington is a city of free museums. I had to cross town to go to school and I would pass by the museums on the way, get off the bus early and just go visit “my” paintings.

My father, as you know, ran for mayor of the city, in the first mayor election held in DC — that was ’74, so I was twelve. During the campaign just being out in the street with Dad, to the extent that we did, gave us a political awareness of the city and its issues. We were — and still are — taxed without representation. Home rule is still a struggle not unrelated to being a predominantly black city. It was very inspiring to join hands with people in that political realm as my dad was part of what was also a very symbolic race for mayor.

It was a wonderful place to grow up. I always am very, very happy when I go back there. I think I was probably eighteen or nineteen when I met Ethelbert Miller for the first time and went to his reading room at Howard, and heard stories and saw papers from the many writers he’d known. That is still a rite of passage for young writers in DC. Sterling Brown, Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, the color field painters — DC has a wonderful cultural history.

And for better or worse, DC is a black city, and an international black city. We do everything in the city, some beautifully and some not. And I have to say for better or worse. (Laughing)


MJ:


Do you have writing rites? Where and when do you engage the process of composition? Is custom an essential element of the writing life, of your livelihood as a poet?


EA:


I try to grab things when I can, to keep notes of things as I internally hear them so that when I do have writing time I have something to begin with.


MJ:


Why do you write? What motivates your continual return to your writing desk, your computer? What makes you turn your face towards the blank screen, or ink your ideas onto paper?


EA:


Paper first, then the screen, for. I feel bollixed up if I don’t attend to my internal soundtrack, so there is a personal satisfaction that comes from attending to it in writing. Also, at this point, twenty years into my life as a poet, I feel clearer about having something to say and people who benefit from hearing it.


MJ:


Your verse employs a vibrant spectrum of forms and styles: sonnets, sestinas, villanelles, syllabics, accentual-syllabics, free verse, narrative, blues, jazz, ekphrasis, and beyond. Do poems and poetic forms “happen” to you? Which comes first, the subject or the form for a poem? Or, if that’s a false dichotomy, what encourages your use of particular forms or styles?


EA:


I always tell student poets to read and listen as much and as variously as they can to build up a rolodex of possibilities in their minds when they sit down to write a poem. You always need to have many more possibilities of approaching a poem than you end up using. Walcott would say, “the form will suggest itself to you as you begin the poem,” and though I found that mystifying when I first heard it, after many years of practice I now find it is true for me. It’s about tuning your internal ear and listening to what the poem at hand is trying to do and be.


MJ:


You published four volumes of poetry, a collection of essays, and a play. Does American Sublime signal you are you more at home in the world and rooms and multiple possibilities of form that poetry offers? Or do you have plans to write in other genres, prose fiction, for example in the future? Have you written any verse or stories for children?


EA:


I began my life as a creative writer with short fiction, many moons ago. I was lucky enough to study with John Hersey my senior year in college, who helped me find a fictive voice that I now see as compatible with my voice in poetry. I imagine one day I will return to short fiction — many of my poems are “short stories.” I have been carrying around an idea for another verse play for a few years now but life with small children in not really compatible with life in the theater. I am in the midst of several more scholarly prose and editorial projects. I have written a book of poems for young adults with Marilyn Nelson, on Prudence Crandall, the nineteenth century Connecticut teacher who went to extreme lengths to educate young black women. I make up poems and stories for my own children all the time to I suppose I should put them down on paper. But at the end of the day, the bottom line is that I live centrally in poetry.


MJ:


What advice might you give to newer poets and writers concerning the creative process?


EA:


Submit to it, tend it, nurture it, honor it. Too may young writers get distracted by thinking about career before process; without process, there is no real work and thus, no career. Every day is another blank page to be filled from your own particular landscape. Process is all.


MJ:


I’m appreciative of the time and spirit you’ve put into this interview. As an artist, as a thinker and as a human being. Thanks so much.

 
   


An Interview with Elizabeth Alexander
by Deborah Keenan and Diane LeBlanc


This public dialogue with Elizabeth Alexander was held in front of a live audience during her visit to the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Hamline University on October 3, 2002. The two interviewers were Deborah Keenan, a member of the faculty, and Diane LeBlanc, a student in the M.F.A. program at Hamline. Questions at the end were from members of the audience.


LeBlanc:


Publisher’s Weekly observes that your poems mix a “personal mode” with “prophetic visionary lyrics.” How do you respond to that observation? Do you see yourself in the personal mode? Do you see yourself as prophetic? What does that mean to you?


Elizabeth Alexander:


I hardly see myself as prophetic. On the other hand, I think of a quotation from Edward Hirsch that I’ve used a great deal and find very useful, in which he talks about the long line in English poetry. The line that exceeds natural breath is the line of prophecy, the line of the dream space, he says. In that particular book (Antebellum Dream Book), there is that large middle section of poems that had their genesis in dreams and have that sense of spilling over — spilling over into the surreal, spilling past a certain kind of daylight logic, let’s say. I think that’s something we’re used to receiving in the prophetic mode. If you think of the way that we listen to someone like Whitman, or to other people who practice that long line, that may be where your observation comes from. A lot of my poetry comes from “personal” or autobiographical material. What is the transformation that has to happen in order for those details and that realm of personal to work within a poem? I can’t really say that I could anatomize it, but I know that there’s a transformation that has to take place.

In the workshop today, I mentioned a quotation I’ve been taking around with me like a mantra lately, from Sterling Brown, through the poet Michael Harper, who quotes from Brown at the end of his collected poems, Songlines in Michaeltree. He quotes Brown as saying, “Every I is a dramatic I,” which I really love because of the way it has let me think that regardless of whether or not you’re working in an autobiographical or personal mode, if there is a persona in the poem, you have certain charges to make it work dramatically in the poem itself. So, fulfilling those demands in the poem as such, put a nice set of parameters around the question of working with the infinite personal, because it’s quite infinite.


Keenan:


So both of these are, on one level, removed from the “I” in a certain way.


EA:


Do you mean the day-to-day me “I.”?


Keenan:


Yes, that’s the question we’re getting at. What is the “I”?


EA:


Yes, one level removed, or alchemized. Or converted, for the purposes of poems, which after all, have very strict demands, a wide-ranging set of demands. I don’t think that poems have only one set of strict demands by way of a certain kind of formalism. But at the same time, for any poem to succeed, whatever its rules, there are strict rules, or else the whole thing falls apart.


Keenan:


I’m curious, having read all your books, and taught them, what you consider now to be the major aesthetic events of your life — a particular art exhibit, a certain book, a work of music. Do you have a sense that there are major epiphanies that have come via the aesthetics that have hit you?


EA:


I love that question, and I’ve never thought to answer it before. You always get asked, “What are the books that are important to you? Who are the writers?” I’ve been trying to think lately what a truly honest answer would be. I’ve noticed that writers whom I’ve brought to campus where I teach really resisted this question because, of course, it’s always hard to commit, there’s so much, and how do you commit? And, also, how do you think about the politics? Not of representation necessarily, although that could be there, but the politics of what your answer is. How do you say something that’s useful to people? How do you say something that seems to have some coherent relationship to your work? And of course, it does change. Do you ‘fess up to things that were actually quite aesthetically important to you that you would not want to admit that you read or you listen to now?

Usually, as far as writers who have influenced me, I talk about my work as kind of child of Gwendolyn Books and Walt Whitman. Lately I’ve been thinking about the Lewis Untermeyer Modern American Poetry anthology, which I studied in high school. I read it over and over again, and I particularly loved the imagist poets. I loved H.D.; I loved Amy Lowell. Moving out of imagism. T. S. Eliot was very important to me in that kind of high school period. What I hope I’ve held onto is the real belief that the powerful, distilled, vital image unto itself is somehow enough.

New York City itself was very important to me aesthetically. I was born there — my parents are New Yorkers. They left when I was young and moved to Washington, but with that sense that many New Yorkers have that they couldn’t believe they were in this other place and always thought they were going back. I would visit grandparents, particularly a much-cherished grandmother in New York City who had a great deal of time for me and took me on what seemed to me to be very grown-up adventures. The space that she lived in was magical, her objects were magical, her street was magical, and her grocery store was magical. Everything was on a quite different scale from the life that I lived in Washington D. C. She also took me to musical theatre. I think those big, loud, brassy anthems actually have something to do with my poems.


Keenan:


I think you’re right.


EA:


Though I’ve never copped to it before. She also was someone who had a very compelling interest in and respect for other cultures. She lived near the United Nations and was very pleased about that.


Keenan:


We have an amazing image of her hanging out in the stairway, checking out which cultures were coming down the steps.


EA:


She grew up in Washington D. C. and was obsessed with embassies. Imagine that this was the 19-teens and the 1920s, and what the rest of the world must have seemed like, and how she might have imagined it to be.

Also, I grew up taking ballet. Very seriously and quite regularly. I think that listening to music and trying to learn how to make my body do things with music and trying to be, as our teachers would say, sensitive to the music, have a lot to do with trying to have and utilize an ear in poetry. I find that now with certain aspects of my teaching and my approach to certain aspects of craft and discipline.


LeBlanc:


We can’t talk about your work without talking about historical figures and their influences on you. In The Venus Hottentot and Body of Life, you write in several voices, and historical figures tell their own stories. You addressed this a bit this afternoon, saying you weren’t sure why you were talking about the Venus Hottentot, you didn’t really know you wanted to write about being on display or about objectification. But as a personal poem, “The Venus Hottentot” becomes historical and autobiographical, is that what you said?


EA:


Well, I was saying that in persona poems, sometimes by writing about figures that obsess us, or historical figures, that unwittingly we are activating certain kinds of autobiographical insight and knowledge. We can also trick ourselves into writing about things that feel too close, or too personal, or too undigested, if we were to use the particulars of our own lives.


LeBlanc:


In Antebellum Dream Book, though, you do use more of the personal, of the “I.” It seems more autobiographical. Perhaps going back to your earlier response, that it’s the dramatic. Can you talk to us about that shift?


EA:


Some of it is about getting older. I wrote the first book when I was in my mid to late twenties. I was in school when I wrote the book, so still very much in apprentice mode. In the middle book I was done with school, in very professional years, and then the last book was written after becoming a mother. A lot of women talk about their voices opening up, freeing up, moving toward a certain kind of embracing of their “I.” I think that is a rather typical journey you could chart for me.

Also, the particular apprenticeship that I was in and coming out of in the first book…I only ever had one poetry teacher, Derek Walcott, who was a great teacher for me. He was, as you would imagine from his work, a strict formalist. He would always say never try to charm in your poems, never try to charm with your identity, it’s not enough that you’re a cute, black girl.

That was very useful advice, not that I would have. I think the point is, he’s saying, none of us as persona is ever enough. Whatever your identity, your set of particulars, there is going to be someone out there who thinks it’s fascinating unto itself. But that unto itself doesn’t make for a fine poem you could stand up with. So he was also saying, don’t be swayed and don’t let praise go to your head. And don’t let it get into your writing, and don’t let it get into your quest. At least, that’s how I interpreted it.

Subsequently, you’ll see, there is a stricter adherence to certain kinds of forms in The Venus Hottentot, and the “I” is a bit under wraps.


Keenan:


It feels that way in The Venus Hottentot. I didn’t ever think of the “I” as under wraps; I think of the word “guarded.” It ends up getting attached to that lyric “I” sometimes, in the first book. Whereas in the third book, the “I” feels like a shield has been thrown up to the sky. It’s interesting, these three journeys are so different.

In Rafael Campo’s poetry, there’s a lot of “what the body told,” and he often finds his energy as poet in what the body told. It always feels to me that the material world, whether it’s in paintings or your body, is an incredible anchor to you. Even though we think you’re getting unfettered, like we were reading “Creole Cat” the other night, you know, you took those three steps and you fly. But you were instantly back, anchored, grounded in your body again.

I think you’ve been really faithful to what the body told. What do you feel you’ve stayed faithful or connected to? Has your faith stayed steady to a certain set of allegiances as a writer? Or do you feel like you’ve tossed them over your shoulder?


EA:


I’ve developed a great deal more faith in whatever the truly inner voice is. I’ve kept sporadic journals for a long time. Every now and then, when I look back at them, even going back into my teenage years, I’m struck at how I have some of these very strange little utterances, clusters, things that were frightening to me when I wrote them, that felt unrecognizable to me as the self that I spent most of my time walking around in, but yet, I wrote them down. I had to write them down. The ongoing quest is to trust the voices that are more and more and more subterranean. And to trust, also, the sense of shape that arises from those voices.

I think that my second book — this is really putting it in too much of a nutshell — but in some ways I think of it formally as a transition. You know, what happens if I open up this line? Because there are a few very long line poems in the second book, and those were big moments for me, to write those poems: “In the Small Rooms” and “Haircut.” Those were breakout moments, and the title poem was, too, but it was also terrifying. I didn’t know if I had hit something that was cohesive.

I just saw Richard Wilbur talking on a panel about what form is for him. He said, “if I start a poem and finish half of it and go to sleep and then wake in the middle of the night wanting to finish, if I don’t know that I’m writing a rondeau (that was his example), how do I know how to finish it?” That was interesting. In a way, even though the forms I work in now are not only sonnets or villanelles or rondeaus or this, that, and the other thing, I like the idea that there are a whole lot of shapes out there, but that you do always have that sense of shape in your head. Sometimes, it’s just a curious and unfamiliar shape, and you have to trust that it’s a shape, that the bowl has sides, so I think that’s what the sort of developing faith would be all about.


Keenan:


So you’re saying, it’s keeping a sense of belief in yourself. That the shapes you’re coming up with in dream, or walking around, might hold what you need to say.


EA:


Yes. And I wouldn’t call that being faithful to “myself.” I would call that being faithful to some sense of shape or vessel.


LeBlanc:


I’d like to talk more about being faithful, but to our stories. In an interview in the November/December 2001 issues of Poets and Writers, you said you had a fear of getting stuck in a rut by writing again and again the kind of poems you do well. We’ve seen in your books the poems that engage black historical features and an aspect of black history. You’ve written in Josephine Baker’s voice, even in Muhammad Ali’s, which is quite a feat. I think many of us fear getting stuck in a rut. Especially, perhaps in an M.F.A. program, where we finally find what is getting praised, and say, here is my story. How do you remain faithful to your own stories but avoid getting in that rut of either voice or form?


EA:


When I was going to college in the early part of the 1980s, black literature, African American literature, and Women’s Studies were just taking hold on campuses. It was a very exciting time for me. There were books that we read in xeroxed form in class, that later were brought back into print. I worked on the Black Periodical Fiction project which became the Schomberg Library of 19th Century Black Women Writers. Suddenly there were thirty books by black women in the nineteenth century that had not existed on anyone’s radar screen before. So it was very, very heady, and really shaped my sense that there was great life and vitality that could find its way into poetry. But also, there were a lot of people like Venus Hottentot who needed to be rescued. I could spend the rest of my life telling those stories, and I would never exhaust them, because they are such a rich lode.

Recently I wrote a little poem about Ornette Coleman. I’m also working on a poem about the Amistad incident because it has such a New Haven history and there are rich records there. Getting stuck in a modal rut is one thing, but you don’t have to completely abandon what still needs to be done, and what still compels. So the question is, how to get better and better at it, I guess.

One of the challenges I’ve tried to think about with this Amistad poem, which is in sections, still in progress, is, what would a post-postmodern African American poem look like? I think there’s a wonderful tradition in this poem that I’m working on, that obviously hearkens back to Robert Hayden’s poem, “Middle Passage,” from the 1940s, and further back. We know what those landmarks of the African American poem look like, and it’s usually about going back, about retrieving, recreating. I’ve been thinking, “Wow, what could such a poem look like if it does that, but if it also has present knowledge and angle?” I don’t know if that will even be manifest in a way that anybody can market.


LeBlanc:


That definitely shows a way of staying faithful. We’ve talked about going from the historical and how the poem blends and becomes autobiographical. In my work I’m starting with the autobiographical and wanting to tie into a larger historical narrative of coming from a white, working class family, and I’m wondering how you encourage students to make that connection to the larger narrative. To be consciously thinking, “Here is my story, here is a larger narrative,” or even to find a larger narrative.


EA:


I think you always must find ways to honor students’ voices. Poems don’t really lie too much. You can often see the moments in a poem that are full of vitality and real stuff, and the moments that are fakey, even if people don’t know it. They know they’ve hit a bumpy or uncomfortable patch, they’re moving away from something, they’re trying very hard not to get to something. The teaching challenge is to honor people’s voices. In the workshop, much too often, hopefully not as much in this generation, there are stories about the dishonoring of people’s voices.

It’s no small thing to create a workshop environment where people can feel free to explore and speak from who it is they are. Another thing I learned from Walcott as a teacher is that he did not do workshop in the conventional way: put a new poem on the table and everyone talks about the poem. He talked about published poems that were great and why he thought they were great. Then you would meet with him individually and he talked to you about your work and what you should be reading, you know, sort of your own tailored thing. I liked that.

Sometimes it means just pressing the right book into a student’s hand. Sometimes the Japanese American woman needs to have the book by the Japanese American woman poet. Or something else. Trying to find out what would be really useful, what would break that person wide open and make him or her come closer to the real energy of her own work and her own voice. Often that happens through the reading that is suggested.


Keenan:


I have two quotes. Stanley Kunitz said, “Never before in this, or any other country, have so many apprentice writers had the opportunity to study with their predecessors and their ancestors. That is one explanation of why it is so difficult to detect and to find a generational style in the work of our contemporaries. Instead, we have an interfusion, an amalgum of styles and influence, a direct transmission belt that overleaps the age barrier. A two-way learning process culminating in the young writing old, the old writing young.”

And Susan Ludvigson, in the fall 2003 issue of Water~Stone, talks beautifully about the lessons she’s getting from her students. Her young students say, “Read this, read this.” It’s blasted her whole vision of her line into a whole new world, in that spirit.

So here’s what I’m wondering: What direct transmission do you think you’ve received from your elders? I know you’ve mentioned a few of them, but beyond the ones you’ve mentioned. And, are there younger writers who are coming on, and you’re going “oh” and then you go home and think, “wow.” Then, do you have a sense in any of your books that you would say, “I speak for my generation”?


EA:


For the last six years, I’ve taught at a workshop called the Cave Canem Poetry Workshop for African American writers. Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady founded it out of their own experience, which is like so many of our own experiences — being either the only one teaching mostly white students, or having an empathic feeling about the only student of color, or one of just a few. And asking the question, what would happen if we created an environment in which the poem itself, in all that that means, could really be gotten into? It’s been a completely remarkable community. The writers have ranged in age from 19 to 81. Most people, I would say, are maybe 30, who are working, who’ve done undergraduate degrees, but it truly varies. Often this propels them into an M. F.A. program because they get really excited and confident about the work they do and they have a portfolio to present.

There are a lot of writers in that group who are fierce. I’m thinking of one in particular, Terrence Hayes, whose second book, Hip Logic, just came out from the National Poetry Series. I’ve taught his work. His first book was much more discernibly an “I” that was presumably close to his life — a young, black man who had a difficult relationship with his father. These are some of the sociological particulars of the book, that he said have led a lot of people to feel that that is the more accessible book, that’s the book they think is the better book because it’s telling the story they want to know, or the story they know how to receive, about a young, black man. In his second book he has a lot of surreal dips, really surprisingly surreal dips, and it is exciting to see him trust in that way. He also has some acrostic word game poems, where he starts off with a word game in a newspaper and then he makes quite remarkable poems out of them. But these are harder for some people to receive, in part because they confound the stereotypical expectation of who the young, black male poet should be.

Bob Kaufman is a poet who’s been very important to him, and it’s also important to him that Kaufman has not received that kind of attention that Baraka, or other sorts of poets who are his peers have. So Terrence is a young writer I can think of whose work makes me so excited and proud and challenged, and just the ongoing life that comes out of that group, and joy for writing poetry, are sustaining and inspiring. I don’t ever lose that joy, but you know, I get a little tired sometimes. And to feel that every summer that I’ve gone there, I teach and I read, I feel like I have to come up with some hot new stuff. I get very nervous about sharing for this group that is, in many ways, one of my ideal audiences. You know, people who just are very serious, committed people who know where I’m coming from. You don’t often know who your audience is, of course, because the poems go flying out into the air.

And then elders, I would also say, Robert Hayden, I mentioned his name, but he’s been, his exquisiteness, his, he called himself a romantic realist, which I like quite a bit, a believer in beauty, a believer in universality in the truest, most rich kind of sense, but also very wedded to the particulars of paradise valley, the Detroit neighborhood that he writes about, or any place where he is. The ways that he has, in a poem like “Frederick Douglass,” wonderfully acknowledged what heroes mean to us, but also undercut, you know, that hero to us, not with statues, rhetoric, and bronze alone.


Keenan:


We just studied that poem.


EA:


It’s an amazing poem.


Keenan:


The poem we studied, connected to Hayden, getting ready for your visit was “Tending,” which felt so powerfully connected.


EA:


It is.


Keenan:

Good, I’m glad I picked that one then. It’s just like, oh my God, what your grandfather does in that poem.


EA:


I didn’t know it when I wrote it, but it’s certainly a response to “Those Winter Sundays.”


Keenan:


It felt powerfully that way.


EA:


Lucille Clifton’s work was very important to me when I was younger, and still is. She’s an amazing poet. I call her the “Still waters run deep poet,” because as a younger person I thought that I could understand what the poems were saying. But they get under your skin, and they reveal themselves and their depth and nuance and lessons over time in such a remarkable way. My parents had lots of books, but not many poetry books, but when I was young they had Lucille Clifton’s Good Times in the house, and so I read it over and over again.


LeBlanc:


I want to talk a bit more about Robert Hayden, in the context of your essay, “Meditations on ‘Mecca’: Gwendolyn Brooks and the Responsibilities of the Black Poet.” You write that in addition to being faced with racism, black writers face judgment within their communities. You explain the pressure to create work that will, “perform a certain service as well as say and not say what is empowering or embarrassing to the race at large.” I think of your poem “Race” in Antebellum Dream Book as a good example. In your essay, you quote Robert Hayden saying that he identified himself first as a poet and then as a black. He later revised that to say poets’ work should be universal, so it should be addressing issues of race and other large issues if it’s compelling, urgent work. Now, I recently read your essay from 1994, “Memory, Community, Voice,” and you say, “I cannot think about feminist without thinking about black.” So, to put these all together, I’m wondering what you consider your responsibilities as a black, feminist writer today?


Keenan:


We really want you to speak to this whole idea of how many words drop in front of the word “poet,” and does that empower, does it limit?


EA:


I’ve thought a lot about this, over a long period of time. Once, with some of the Cave Canem poets, we made up a great game, where you had to fill in the blanks, “I come from a long line of ----.” Then we did, “I come from a short line of ----.” My answers surprised me. I come from a long line of “race people.” People whose work has been about bettering the race in one way or another. Their sense of themselves in the world has been about bringing black people along with them.

At the same time, there are so many different ways that I have seen that enacted. It can be in your job, or it can be in the way that you are in your neighborhood, or it can be the way you teach your children. In the case of this grandmother that I mentioned, in the way that she dressed and appeared and conducted herself, she was really quite fabulous, and quite composed, and quite impeccable and conscious, and she believed that she was quietly slashing down dragons along the way. So there are a lot of different ways that people interpret this whole business of race responsibility.

When Hayden was talking about being a poet first, I interpreted what he really was saying was that if you are doing the job of writing a poem, that is the job you’re doing and that it doesn’t negate. I mean really, the difficulty is with the question. I understand why people ask that question, “Are you with us or are you not with us? How do we move forward?” But it’s not a good question. Even though I’m sure I’ve asked versions of that question. Are you in, or are you out?

I think that was Hayden’s insistence, saying I’m a poet first, the fact that I attend to the poem doesn’t take away from anything else, doesn’t take away from writing Middle Passage in 1946. Before half the people who criticized him had even written a word. You know, it doesn’t interfere with that, and that’s what I take from the lesson of Hayden. What I also take from the lesson of Hayden, if that literary history tells a version of the story. Anthologies tell a version of the story.

So that in that essay that you quote from, and looking at Hayden around ‘68/’69/’70 and looking at Brooks around ‘68/’69/’70, Brooks is now supposed to be the black woman poet, because she’s had her conversion, and she’s with the people, and Hayden is the Uncle Tom. But at the same time, in the books they wrote at that time, both had Malcolm X poems; both had poems about black heroes, [e.g., Medgar Evers] poems. They’re about the same thing, from a different angle. They’re facing the same challenges as different human beings, but as committed human beings, and as committed, black human beings.

I try to remember that you can get really distracted by the demands people make on you. Demands that are real are one thing, demands that come from a real community in need, or a real person in need, and we’re asked all the time to be of service. But demands that are often about posturing — you may have to deal with them, but I’m trying to figure out a way not to let them worm their way in too much.

I was giving a talk about a week ago at Southern Connecticut Community College, which is about two miles away from Yale, where I teach. There are all kinds of issues with what Yale is in the New Haven community, so forth and so on. One of the faculty members said, “So how’s it feel breathing the rare, fine air over there at Yale?” I didn’t get bent out of shape; he felt had to ask the question. It gave me an opportunity to talk about my students. What do you know about my students? What do you know about me as one of a few black woman teachers at a school where there is only one tenured African American woman in the faculty, and it’s not me? And there has only been one tenured African American faculty member for years and years and years. Our visible work lives are one part of our lives, but I travel and go to different places where I read and teach, and I also teach at Cave Canem, I have children, I have ten billion nieces and nephews, I have strangers I correspond with. I mean, there are all of these different ways that each of us act and take responsibility for “the community.” And so, I guess, how do you sleep at night, just with the sense hopefully, that you do your best when you can.


LeBlanc:


As far as the feminism aspect of that, Barbara Smith says you just can’t pull the pieces apart.


EA:


I love Barbara Smith, and I don’t think you can. I think that’s a very important stance to take, when, for example, in anti-discrimination law, if I’m a black woman and something bad happens to me and someone calls me a so-and-so and so-and-so at my job, I have to decide whether I’m going to sue as a black person or as a woman. You know, well, what was the worst part of what was said to me? Well, I mean, that will make you crazy.

But we have such a long, inspiring, touch history of African American women finding ways to maneuver. It wasn’t until I think the late 1960s in the American South that a white man was ever convicted of raping a black woman. So you know, you have a whole legal history that says that what you know never happened. How do you maneuver a way around that? How do you stay sane? How do you survive?

I think part of it is in the words of Audre Lorde, who’s been really important to me — that refusal to separate. With so many essays, I am woman, mother, dyke, black, New Yorker, so-and-so and so-and-so. Don’t divide yourself, because other people will try to. Say who you are because no one will name you kindly. I think that’s really, really important. She gave it to us. She’s on the elder list.


Keenan:


This is the last quote I’m going to read to you, from Vassar Miller. She says, “Poetry, like all art, has a Trinitarian function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying. Creative because it takes raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning.” I love these categories and thought hard about them for a lot of years, Do you feel like you’re carrying big, abstract nouns around, that are your set? Like Vassar Miller felt these are her set?


EA:


Those are really good. I don’t think that way. What I do carry around is that sense that we live in the word. And the word is precious, and the word must be precise, and the word is one of the only ways we have to reach across to each other, and that it has to be tended with that degree of respect. That is the kind of human level of, “if I’m not precise with my word, if I’m not good with my word, then how can I come soul to soul with anyone else?” I do carry that around. And also, the idea of transformation. I believe that life itself is profoundly poetic, in all sorts of places and guises and unexpected places.


Question:


Harryette Mullen was here and gave a beautiful reading from her book called Sleeping with the Dictionary. One of her comments was about how she’s felt that there’s been so much pressure on African American writers to stay in the oral tradition — her first book was praised for being within that tradition — and she wants to create more space for writers to work with whatever form their voices lead them to. I’m just wondering if there’s more you’d like to comment on, as far as what the canon is, and pressure you felt to write one way or another.


EA:


I’m so glad you mention Harryette Mullen because she’s a genius. She’s really an extraordinary thinker and prose writer, as well as a poet. Harryette is a writer whom I consider a generational peer, to pick up on the generational aspect, and whom I also think of as being, you know because she has a real academic career as well, that I think of her as being analogous, in a way. That book really makes me want to write because it awakens me to the possibilities of a language. She has such a sense of play — you see that in her mishearings, you know, all of those phrases that she twists just a little bit. It’s as though the whole history of the usage of a word and a phrase comes spilling out, and also a future opens up in front of it. So, she’s very, very remarkable.


Question:


Can you talk about your process? How do you write a poem?


EA:


The process starts with a word or a phrase, or an image, or sometimes the utterance goes bit past the phrase. Just when you get on a roll, the kinds of things that come, always, it seems while driving the car or doing other things that hopefully you keep track of. I also keep in my notebook, and in my file folder, newspaper clippings, pictures, things that should be saved.

When there is time to sit down and work, there are a lot of different starting points. But it all begins with utterance, with word. Even if then it grows into, as with the Amistad poem, an idea for a poem. Or even with something like the long poems, like the Ali poem. It began with an obsession with him, and a sense of trying to enter him through his language, rather than, I’m going to write a poem. It’s going to have twelve parts. It’s going to be in the voice of Muhammad Ali.


Question:


We read The Venus Hottentot in class, and we watched the film and looked at the stories of Venus Hottentot. I was struck by how much there is to the story.
How did you distill down what you wanted to talk about when there was such a huge story there?


EA:


That poem is very important to me, but I don’t remember much about writing it. Which is to say, it wasn’t quite written in a white heat, but it was written in a very, very, very consuming space. The first words that came to me were, “I am called Venus Hottentot,” and the thought of being called other than the name your mother and father gave you, and living your life that way. Then the challenge was how to hear her voice, and how to hold onto her voice. It seemed very important that the voice be very tight, and very consistent.

I recently read a book by a poet named Peg Boyers called Hard Bread that’s told from the imagined voice of Natalia Ginsberg. It brings up a lot of questions, too, about when you have an interesting life, a life that contains volumes. How do you decide what you are going to choose, and how do you also not approach it as reportage? Because that’s not what your job is, as a poet. Your job is to transform in some way. And yet, that process, I think, is mysterious.

For me, it started with getting a sense of what her voice was, what her rhythm was. And making sure that the other voices were tight and consistent. It also is a poem that has a huge amount of historical research in it. Even though most of those details didn’t make their way in in a visible fashion, it was very important to know.


Question:


Do you think of white vs. black when you write celebratory poems about African American historical figures? What do you imagine reaching across to that audience? Does that play into your creative process?


EA:


It does not play into my creative process, and I think that would be a bad thing. Because to be presumptuous about any kind of audience is not a good thing. I’ve had too many wonderful surprises. I don’t even mean it would be too corny to say, “Oh a white person loved this black poem.” I don’t mean that at all. But too many surprises with people who even read poetry who I wouldn’t have imagined read poetry. That it has a place in their lives. You just really never know. You just can’t let that imagining get into the creative process because it would twist it and distort it and shut it down. After all, what individual people are we talking about? Some people talk about the ideal reader, and I don’t really have an ideal reader. I read the poems out loud to my husband when I write them, and he gives me the thumbs up or thumbs down. (Laughter.) But you know, I’m just trying to be my most articulate self. I just trust that when it goes out there, it will be found by who ever can make use of it.

I can’t think of a poet who comes from my exact background. I mean, there are African American poets, but Robert Hayden’s life was nothing like mine. Gwendolyn Brooks’ life was nothing like mine. Though she had a happy childhood. I feel a kinship with the reverence with which she speaks about her parents. But she had a very different life. The beautiful thing about poetry is that you never know who will find it, and you never know what will be found in it.


Question:


How do you make time for the work? Your life is very complicated. You teach full-time. You have children and a husband. Your mind is taken up by a lot of thought and critical work. How do you make time for the work?


EA:


Before I had a family to tend to, it seemed that there was never enough time either. But in fact, actually, paradoxically, there’s more time because now I know the value of it a bit more. What I used to do was think of the summers. Twice I went to a writer’s colony, and that was amazing to have those three weeks to go and only have to worry about the writing. To get so much done that I was jump-started. You kind of get the muscles going again and you keep it going a little bit more. So those summer respites were very important. I don’t do that anymore. I just try the best I can to keep track of the scraps as they come, and make the time when I can. It tends to happen in jags. And in those jags other things kind of fall by the wayside, you know, bills don’t get paid, and things get a little piled up and then I emerge and tighten things up again.

I wasn’t able to write prose for several years, right when my children were being born. I found that that took a space that was just too wide, and I couldn’t find it, and it also distracted me for too long. I’m interested in how poets like Lucille Clifton, who had six children, talk about having a room of one’s own. She says, “For me, the ideal circumstances for writing a poem are at the kitchen table. The kids have the measles, and everything is going around.” What I love about that, and what I think is really useful and important is that idea of being porous. How can you stay porous at the same time that you have your bubble, in which things can exist or stay safe?

 
 
 
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