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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 speaks to the breadth of influences that has created the genre.

Question: Does African American have a signature language

Alexander:    African-American poetry, not even only these days, I mean, if you look at the work… I’m going to pick some people totally off the top of my head, Tracy K. Smith, Marilyn Nelson, Nikki Finney and Natasha Trethway, let’s say.  Those are 4 African-American women poets and their work… you would simply never mistake the work of one for the other if you looked at it on the paper, you just… you just wouldn’t.  They’re talking about different things, they’re speaking out of different regions in the country, different subject matters, different sets of concerns, different kinds of language, different responses to formalism, different ears.  So, you know, to really emphasize all that is quite distinct in African-American poetry is important so we don’t get it in our head that it’s… it is one thing.  On the other hand, is the African-American musical tradition and the African-American oral tradition a tremendous, tremendous resource for a poet to call upon?  Absolutely, in my own work, what I’m interested in is keeping all my ears, not just the 2 of them, you know?  Keeping every ear open to all there is, to bring into the work, and some of that listening is something that any poet can do, you know?  Anybody can listen, anybody can, you know, I’m not a jazz musician and though I consider it, an African-American tradition with some very brilliant practitioners who are not African-American but nonetheless, an African-American tradition.  It’s not anything that I know how to do but does that affect my work?  Well yes, because I’ve taken it, because it’s great.  So it teaches me something in the same way that a Shakespearean sonnet because it’s great, it teaches me something.  And so the poetics that emerge is sort of a quite of amalgam of a lot of different sources.  I do think… you know, when you think about even in families that are, in some ways, maybe further away from the really, really richest iterations of oral tradition, nonetheless, I think that, for example, aphorisms in African-American culture are a very, very powerful poetic resource and just that sense of kind of the Pythian proverbial which I think of as a poetics and that that’s something that you hear grandmother’s are saying but again, whether or not we choose to draw on it, depends on the poet.

Question: What influence has hip-hop had on poetry?
Alexander:    Well yeah, I would start with the influence that poetries had on hip-hop just as far as putting things in historical order.  And that when hip-hop emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was coming out of many traditions and many sets of circumstances but the oral tradition of toasting, right?  Of toasting and boasting and roasting, it’s part of the Black tradition that’s sort of getting up playing the dozens, you know, all of those competitive verbal traditions are totally especially in early hip-hop, just all over the place.  And so that’s a poetic resource, certainly, the way also in… that hip-hop is so elusive that in sampling, there are a million references, the inner textuality of hip-hop even when it’s not necessarily borrowing from written poetry is something that feels like literary activity to me in many ways.  But then to look at the influence from the other side, I think, there are a lot of people probably a little bit younger than I am who really, really, really, really came up in the hip-hop, I mean, knowing nothing else or knowing other things but… that hip-hop is always there.  I remember when my taste for form, when it wasn’t there so I watched with interest and listened as it emerged but I think for people for whom it was always there, there’s certainly that sense of rhythm and rhyme and again, sort of the public boast as an art form, you know, and some poets makes its way in.