Elizabeth Alexander on Inauguration Day

Elizabeth Alexander is Professor of African American Studies and future Chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University. In 2008, Dr. Alexander was selected by President-elect Barack Obama to compose and read a poem for his inauguration.  She is the author of four books of poems, The Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book, and American Sublime, which was one of the American Library Association’s 25 Notable Books of the Year as well as one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.

Her collection of essays on African American literature, painting, and popular culture, The Black Interior, was published in 2004.  Her verse play, "Diva Studies," was produced at the Yale School of Drama in May 1996.

Alexander has taught at the University of Chicago, where she won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and member of the founding editorial collective for the feminist journal Meridians.

Professor Alexander is an inaugural recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She teaches courses on African American poetry, drama, and 20th century literature, as well as the survey introduction to African American Studies and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.

Her collection of essays on African American literature, painting, and popular culture, The Black Interior, was published in 2004.  Her verse play, "Diva Studies," was produced at the Yale School of Drama in May 1996.

Alexander has taught at the University of Chicago, where she won the Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, New York University’s Graduate Creative Writing Program, and Smith College, where she was Grace Hazard Conkling Poet-in-Residence, first director of the Poetry Center at Smith College, and member of the founding editorial collective for the feminist journal Meridians.

Professor Alexander is an inaugural recipient of the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954.” She teaches courses on African American poetry, drama, and 20th century literature, as well as the survey introduction to African American Studies and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. 

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How did you approach writing the inaugural poem?

Alexander:    Well, I was extremely practical about that aspect of it simply wasn’t an option not to get right to it and do it in a very, very short window of time that I had so I didn’t waste a second, I set to work immediately and worked in a very, very, very focused fashion for 3 and a half weeks to get the thing done, writer’s block was just not allowed.  

Question: What was it like reading ‘Praise Song for the Day’?

Alexander:    I tried very hard to be there in the moment, in part because I didn’t want to get nervous, I didn’t want to freeze up, I didn’t want to be overcome by the emotions that I was feeling as so many other people were feeling extreme emotions so I breathed deeply and did take it in and the phrase “sea of humanity” which I wouldn’t use under other circumstances because I would think that it was a cliché really applied.  It was extraordinary to see all of those people who come together for a common purpose, not just to share the moment but I think also for common purpose and from that perspective, I wasn’t able to distinguish faces, I just saw the great sea and that was truly an awesome, awesome sight and a privilege.

Question: Did you get any feedback from Obama?

Alexander:    Not yet, I imagine one day.  Right now, I’m very glad that he’s attending to the affairs of the day, there’s an awful lot that he needs to be working on.

Question: Is a creative routine part of your craft?
 
Alexander:    Well, I certainly love hearing about writer’s routines.  I fetishize writer’s routines, I love to read interviews where writers say, “I need fresh cut hyacinth and I need utter silence and I need this and I need that,” but what I found is that my own process is never that set and that in the midst of life and I think this is probably true for everyone really, it’s very, very difficult to say that there is one way to do it and you stick to that way.  So I find that in the midst of life, in the midst of child rearing, teaching, going about everyday business, I try to keep track always of the phrases, of the language, of the words that come to me that feel that they have some kind of power, or magic, or potential to them.  And then when there is that window of quiet to sit down with that notebook and those scraps of paper and a yellow legal pad and then see which of those phrases or words seems to want to grow, seems to be a germ of something larger so that’s stage 2 of the work.


×