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Elizabeth Alexander

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[…]

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: When teaching I would often send especially writing students to look at a retrospective of an artist's work, to look at work across an entire lifetime and to really pay attention to dates when they are going through that exhibit. Because I think the thing that you learn is that there are fallow periods and there are incredibly generative periods. There are periods where you're trying to work an idea out so you're kind of stuck in a groove and there are periods when you have breakthroughs. If you look on the walls there will be years where there's nothing at all. And I think it's also really interesting when you learn about the lives of the artists and I think about this with women artists in particular. Where they, you know, had children in those years? What were the usually family forces or forces within the self. Were they in a depression? Were they struggling with their health? Or were they just, to use the fantastic expression that jazz musicians use, were they just woodshedding. Were they in the woodshed just working on their craft, biding their time, trying to work it out in private so that then they could come out shazam with something different and public?

That I think is a useful way of thinking. Once I got old enough to start realizing that for every day of my life I would not rise with the dawn and write into the light and do that every day and thus there would be a book every other year. It just doesn't work like that. Things happen in life. There are stages. There are eras in life.
What I've been thinking a lot about too is the chi of creativity can take different forms. Interestingly when I had children I thought with my first son that the chi of my creativity would all go into my mothering. But interestingly much to my surprise when I was nursing that first child in the middle of the night to use the French expression and Carolyn Forche has turned it into beautiful poems, the blue hour, right. In that blue hour when it's the middle of the night and you're nursing a child I would scribble down lines in that fugue state. And it felt to me as though my child was saying I've made you a mother but you're just a different kind of artist now. But you're still an artist. You haven't left that behind.

So creativity can go in a lot of different directions, so what I think about more now than I used to is what does it mean to be physically healthy. What does it mean to be spiritually healthy. What does it mean to be calm. What does it mean to be able to make decisions sharply and quickly so that time is liberated for both the creative and the writing but also the creative in the day job if you will. As well as being available to people to whom I am responsible. And that just accrues as you get older. So the children go away to school but they're still your responsibility. Parents, you know, create new responsibilities as they age. There are more human beings in one's lives. My students kind of come with me. Writers who I've mentored come with me. So I find more than ever I'm just thinking about how to be peaceful so that I can be like a laser and that I can make good use of the creativity I have because I know that it is not a limitless resource if you don't take care of your spirit and your body.