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Elizabeth Alexander – poet, educator, memoirist, scholar, and arts activist – is president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation's largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in[…]

The poet covers poetry’s dynamics, from graduate to grade school.

Question: What should poets consider when thinking about an MFA?

Alexander:    Well, I think to each our own.  I really do think it’s not the answer for everyone and I don’t like to think that people, you know, to make that choice because of the career.  I think it’s not… it doesn’t really guarantee you anything.  So I wouldn’t want people to put all their eggs in that basket for the career.  On the other hand, to hear someone who is a passionate and committed writer say, “You know what?  This gives me time to do some writing.  This gives me time to work on a manuscript and that’s how I’m thinking about the year.”  I think that that’s a wonderful and sensible thing to do.  It’s great if you can get a fellowship to do that and, you know, used to be when there are fewer of them that a fellowship, you know, paid year in graduate school made a tremendous amount of sense, made more sense than anything else in a way, as a way to try to get a first book done.  I think study is good, I think community is good.  Do I think that there are positive, creative communities in all MFA programs?  No; in some?  Absolutely, absolutely.  And so you see people who make their communities of readers for life or who are able to apprentice themselves with a teacher who changes their life, that was certainly the case for me studying with Derek Walcott, he was the only poetry teacher I ever had and he was the teacher who changed my life and that… and that was that.  So, if you’re lucky enough to make that connection and absolutely of course, it’s worth it.  I think also, you know, for MFA programs that have a classroom component that’s not just the creative writing workshop?  So then in other words designate some time in your life to, you know, really, really, really read and soak up a lot, I think that’s great.  Although I also think for any artist and for any poet, there is no substitute for autodidacticism, you know, that you have to have a reading hunger that leads you on your own path, that that’s a very, very, very important part to my mind of being an artist. 

Question: How can success be measured in poetry?

Alexander:    There are so many poets who make a life in the work and do their work but that’s not necessarily measurable in conventionally successful ways.  You look at… there’s a very great poet who died about a year ago named Christopher Gilbert who wrote a book called across the mutual landscape and he published this book about 25 years ago, it was a book… a kind of an underground hit with… I know many poets for whom this is a secret, special book for them and he was a practicing, I think, psychotherapist?  He had another professional life, apparently, he was writing poems and kept writing poems but the legacy as we know it now is that one book but it was a very beautiful and important book.  So, you know, how do you put that against the career of someone like an Adrienne Rich right?  Who publishes her first book of poems in the Yale series of younger poets when she’s in college, you know, she’s 20 or 21 or something when… on picks that book.  And now as an elder, she’s had a whole steady productive… I mean, that, that’s a life in the arts.  That’s another kind of success and so eventhough, you know, poem for poem there, there are many rich poems that are indelible and incredibly important to me.  But I also learned so much from the whole career, the whole life.  So there’s so many different ways that it plays out, you see?  And in different ways that I would think of… of success so I think that it’s mysterious perseverance that keeps you going. 

Question: How do you get your students to write?

Alexander:    When I teach Creative Writing, I’m a great believer in Free Writing in, you know, that whole concept of taking the sensor off your shoulder and of when you feel stuck especially just trying to let it all out to write without stopping and then deal with the fixing up later.  That can be very, very difficult because sometimes page upon page, day upon day, week upon week of drafts.  Sometimes, it’s unbeautiful, it’s uncompelling, and you just have to keep moving through it, you have to keep moving forward but I think that that kind of just letting it come and knowing that somewhere, in the tumbling down the river, there’s going to be a stone that’s… that’s… that it’s got a particular sheen to it and that’s what you build on.  I think that that’s the most important thing, is not to stop.

Question: What’s an effective way to teach poetry in schools?

Alexander:    I think that one of the important things that I’ve seen in places where poetry is taught well to young people is to realize that they have got… they’re not yet afraid of it and they are still unselfconsciously in love with sound and also they’re fantastic memorizers, kids can memorize so much because, you know, their brain as supple and spongy.  So, I think to have to memorize and recite, before you think of it as cod liver oil is a very, very, very good thing because then you have that wonderful experience of possessing a poem and also of feeling how it exists in the voice which sometimes makes it very exciting in a way, you can, you know, you can sort of experience the rhythms in a way that might not always be clear on a first reading on the paper.  And then finally, I would say, just the continued and avid teaching of poetry and to teach that… you know, yes, we go back, we study it, we try to unpack how it works but we also need to take it in as music and I think that remembering that aspect of reading poetry is very important.  

Question: Can digital technology deliver a greater appreciation of poetry?

Alexander:    When I see some of the cool things, let’s say, that the Poetry Foundation is doing or, you know, when… I see these things where, you know, “Oh, here’s Langston Hughes on a street in Harlem.  Here he is with Charles Mingus, doing his… the weary blues,” I mean, why not take digital and multimedia capabilities as a way of bringing poems into three dimensions, it’s great.  I am recorded and it was such a pleasurable project an AM podcast for the Poetry Foundation where they do a literary tour of Washington D.C. which is my hometown which is… you know, you’re supposed to… they paste it out, you’re supposed to put on your iPod and go out and start walking and see and learn about the literary heritage and, you know, you can stop in front of whatever historical sight, you know, this is the corner where Walt Whitman would shyly wave to Abraham Lincoln and then they… there’s Lincoln’s voice in your ears while you stand on that corner, what’s not to like about that?