Q&A: Elizabeth Alexander on her inauguration poem

Video muted: click volume for sound

 

It's an assignment that could induce writer's block for even the most seasoned scribes: penning a poem to be read before a crowd and TV audience likely to reach the hundreds of millions, commemorating the inauguration of America's first black president, all while the country is fighting two wars and a crumbling economy. As his inaugural poet, President-elect Barack Obama chose Elizabeth Alexander, a Yale University professor of African-American studies and a former faculty colleague from his teaching days at the University of Chicago. NEWSWEEK spoke to Alexander soon after she completed the piece, which, of course, is under lock and key until the big day. Excerpts: 

NEWSWEEK: Tell us how you found out you were selected to deliver the inauguration poem.
Elizabeth Alexander: I found that I was selected when I received a phone call from the inaugural committee, and it was quite an amazing moment because so many poets with whom I'm friends had been talking back and forth, hoping that President-elect Obama would decide to include a poem in the day's festivities. It's really quite an affirmation of the potential importance of art in day-to-day and civic discourse.

What speaks to you about using language in poetry?
Well, what speaks to me about language in poetry, I think, in part is a mysterious gift. This is something that I feel called to do, it's something that I'm obsessed with, it's something I feel that I must do, it's something that once I start I don't let go of.

You're only the fourth poet to recite a poem for an inauguration. Did you go back and look at these other inaugural poems?
I did go back and look at the previous inaugural poems—Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams—and that was a very important part of the process, to see how other people thought about this particular occasion, this sense of occasion. But I also looked at many, many, many other poems that addressed in resonant language a historical moment. So I looked at William Butler Yeats, I looked at Robert Hayden, I looked at Gwendolyn Brooks, I looked at Walt Whitman, so many poets who have found a way to stand up to occasion in ways that we still want to read now, after those occasions are long past. And then after I looked at those poems and immersed myself in those poems, I very pointedly stopped reading other people's poems so that I could listen a little bit and see what was happening inside.

What lessons did you learn?
Perhaps the greatest is that it's very, very hard. It's very, very hard to write in language that transcends the moment and also serves the moment, and that has a sense of grandeur without overreaching for that grandeur. What I learned is what I always learn when I read great poetry and when I embark upon each new poem—that you have to be very, very humble before the art form itself. It's good to go humble into a task of this enormity.

Have you finished the poem?
I have finished the poem, yes. It would be cutting it too close for my taste not to have finished the poem at this point. That doesn't mean there may not be a last-minute tinker or tweak, but it's fundamentally, knock wood, done.

What message do you think Obama is sending by including a poet in the ceremony?
It's that the arts have a place in conversation, that poetry, its distillation, its precision, its mindfulness, models for us a way that we might stop and think and choose our words with care, that we might offer our ideas and experiences to each other with precision and care, I think that's what poetry shows us.

There is a lyrical quality to Obama's speeches. Do you see reflections of poetry in the way he speaks?
Obama is an extraordinary orator, as we have all observed, whether he is giving speeches or whether he is in interviews. You can see him in the process of choosing his words with care. You can almost see the wheels of thought turning as he answers questions. He is contemplative, he takes that seriously, he is not hasty or off the cuff. He knows that words have power.

I want to play a word-association game.
OK.

Obama's election.
Thrilling

Obama's inauguration.
Sobering.

Change.
Necessary.

The next four years.
Work.

America.
Diverse. Multivocal. Clamoring.

Pride.
Necessary, also.

Believe.
Skeptically.

Hope.
I think of poets when you say the word hope, so I think of "[Hope is] the Thing With Feathers" [by] Emily Dickinson, I think of the line that James Baldwin quotes from the Bible, "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." So I think hope is hard to pin down or respond to with just one word, because it's something that is visceral but perhaps formless, but also as necessary as water.