When Elizabeth Alexander read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at Barack Obama’s inauguration last year, she followed in the tradition started by Robert Frost who read at Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. And while using verse both elevates and provides inspiration on an occasion, it can also signal a renewed commitment and appreciation of the arts.
Alexander’s poetry is both majestic and down home, rich in its cultural awareness and magnificent in its storytelling. Her collection American Sublime was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Her latest Crave Radiance (Graywolf Press) gathers both previous work and new poetry that includes the inaugural poem.
The 48-year-old Alexander is also a playwright, essayist, and teacher. She currently chairs the African American Studies Department at Yale. I spoke to her days before her scheduled appearance on Thursday at Trinity University.
Is ‘Praise Song’ in the title a verb and a noun or an adjective and a noun? I’ve discussed this with students, and we’re divided on that, but perhaps that’s the magic of the poem.
That’s great. I love that. I meant it in the West African form of the praise song of “you did a good job,” but more importantly, what it means to lift someone or some moment up to the light, and what does it mean for us to behold this moment. So “Praise Song” is not about one person Obama — but the communal moment that Obama’s election occasioned.
Which was more daunting: having a few weeks to write the inaugural poem or having to recite it after Obama’s inaugural address?
Actually, the writing of it was more daunting. As you know the hardest part of being a writer is writing, not reading. It was a very daunting occasion, speaking out to all of those people. That aspect of it was so completely surreal that when people ask me if I was nervous, I say, ‘I sure was nervous when I was writing the poem and I wasn’t finished,’ because that is really my job: the reading of it was a little piece of the job. My grandmother always told me, ‘You need to be prepared.’ And once I finished the poem, I was prepared.
In “Praise Song,” the word lettuce evokes images of farm workers laboring in the fields and also addresses the immigration issues of the workers that we bring to this country to do those jobs as well.
Absolutely. One of the most gratifying responses I got was from the United Farm Workers and they said, ‘Thank you for that word lettuce because of that one word, you helped make visible the work of the people who feed the nation.” So to me, one word matters. It matters that people see themselves.
How did you get my compadre and poet Luis Rodriguez’s Tía Chucha Press to publish `Body of Life` a book of your poetry? Hablas español?
Sí, y espero que tu tienes mi poema inaugural en español. `Yes, and I hope you have my inaugural poem in Spanish.`
No lo tengo pero quiziera tener una copia. `I don’t, but I’d like to have a copy.` `Laughs.`
Luis and I lived in Chicago at the same time. He and I found each other along with other poets that were in the Tía Chucha orbit. We became friends poetry buddies and comrades. And for a time we formed a group called the Pissed-Off Poets. Before Luis published me, he asked me to help with the press, and I edited one of their books.
I love the new poetry in Crave Radiance. My fave is “Stokely and Adam” — a dialogue between the two civil rights leaders from different generations, Adam Clayton Powell and Stokely Carmichael.
That’s part of the point. They’re approaching it from a different angle.
The black civil-rights movement is now a chapter in the history books and yet little of that history is taught in our public schools – ditto the Mexican American civil-rights movement. What approaches are needed to keep the faith of Powell and the passion of Carmichael alive today?
Our history gives us pretty much everything. If you look at all the mighty people and the different approaches they’ve taken to the problems of the day, that is how my mind operates, to look how other people have done it before even if we’re not in the same circumstances and don’t do it the same way or have to make our own way. I don’t think we can do it very well unless we look at our struggle as being an interconnected one.
When I think of Adam Clayton Powell and boycott, I have to think about César Chávez and boycott. What does it mean to organize people and then you go back and think of Montgomery and boycott. And then you go back even further and think of Mahatma Gandhi and boycott. So we need to look back but also around and to the side to see the different ways people have just simply tried to create a more just and felicitous community.