Elizabeth Alexander
Poet
02:59

Elizabeth Alexander’s State of Poetry Address

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Elizabeth Alexander on the paradox of unprofitability.

Elizabeth Alexander

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

Elizabeth Alexander: What’s quite powerful about poetry is because it doesn’t really have much of a money marketplace, it has always survived. It is not dependent on patronage, it is not dependent on, people going out and buying books so that the poet can stay in shoe leather. Poets always know that we have to support ourselves in other ways and so I think that paradoxically, perhaps, that’s a very good set of conditions with which to know that if you must make your art, you will continue to make your art.

It also is an inexpensive art form when you think about it, I mean, there are no real supplies. Yes, it takes time and time is money but I think poetry has always found its way; it’s grass in the cement cracks.

 

Elizabeth Alexander: I would say, first of all, that it never hurt anybody which is to say go ahead and try it, right? I mean, there’s sort of no risk involved. I think that when people get all carried away and, you know, unhappy about feeling that poetry is being forced upon them, my response is often, “What it’s going to hurt you or anybody else if you read this poem? What’s going to happen if you take five minutes and read this poem?”

So that’s to begin with. And I think that poetry arrests us in wonderful ways, it makes us look at the material world in ways that we might not have thought otherwise.

So in the tremendous reward of a common object situation, feeling, emotion, described in language that makes us understand it more deeply, more richly, a little bit differently, is one of poetry’s great gifts and rewards.

The moment of pause that in essence, embodies the value of meditation, the value of not hastening through every utterance and every moment, the necessity of stopping and rethinking sometimes; all of that is what poetry kind of models for us.

I think what we ask poets in particular should do, artists as well, but poets in particular, is to dig deeply in emotional well springs, in the fields of experience, to dig deeply, also, in the language, and in a sense, do the feeling for those who at that moment can’t.

 

Recorded Feb 24, 2009.


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