Saturday 27 December 2008

Obama's inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander interviewed by Natasha Trethewey

NT: What was growing up in Washington like? Did it have an effect on your work?

EA: Washington was a great place during the 60s and 70s. I grew up surrounded by electoral politics as well as the street politics and protests of the late 60s. The 1963 March on Washington was an often invoked benchmark of my family’s move from New York to that city. Washington’s disfranchisement was a vital issue throughout my childhood, and my father was a candidate in the city’s first mayoral election in 1974. So a sense of national issues played out on a local stage, and vice versa, and of private lives made public was a part of my upbringing.

Washington is also an international city, and an internationally black city. My childhood awareness of the rest of the black world was sometimes imprecise, but omnipresent, and my much admired and adored late grandmother was proudly an “internationalist” who grew up in D.C. as well and roller-skated to the embassies ‘to see that the rest of the world was there’, as I write in ‘Feminist Poem Number One’. I think that curiosity about the black world beyond my black city, and how I fit into it all, is important to my work, even when inexplicit.

My parents are New Yorkers – more specifically Harlemites, which is where I was born – and that is a fierce identity that never leaves you. I feel lucky not to have been too circumscribed by localness – any localness can have its limitations – to have something else to belong to and to fantasise about as well, which you see in many mentions of New York in my poems. I seem to be very interested in “real” or “natural” identities and their tug with constructed ones, and the romance of racial and geographic identification.

NT: You have a poem in your collection Antebellum Dream Book called ‘Race’. Reading the poem, and particularly the last two lines – ‘What a strange thing is race and family stranger still. / Here a poem tells a story, a story about race’ – I get a glimpse of not only your thoughtfulness, but also your sense of humor. It’s as if you said, ‘Okay, I’m going to deal with it once and for all – here’s the banner title.’ Can you talk about the role race plays in your work?

EA: There are great storytellers in my family, as in so many of our families. But sometimes it’s rare that those stories are transportable or translatable intact into poem form; somebody talking to you is not the same as how you would tell a story or use narrative in a poem. These stories about color and about passing and even about siblings and their adult relationships and the readjustments of their adult relationships, as you have in that poem are the stones that so many of us have and do tell or don’t tell.

As for the ‘banner headline’, ‘Race’, I always loved the way that my grandfather, and to a lesser extent my parents, used the word race to talk about ‘the race’ – meaning, of course, black people – as a thing that they could imagine, a body of people that we could imagine, that you could almost get your arms around, that the race was something tangible and palpable. I think it is in some very important ways generational. I also thought about the idea of what it meant to be a ‘race man’ or a ‘race woman’, what it meant to ‘do something for the race’, or what it meant to ‘bring shame upon the race’.

NT: You’ve written some successful persona poems about historical personae. How do you go about making their voices real, as in ‘The Venus Hottentot’, which is about Saartjie Baartman?

EA: With invented voices, how do we really know if they are accurate or not? There’s no way of knowing. Certainly in writing ‘The Venus Hottentot’, one of the big challenges was to hold on, especially when the Venus Hottentot herself speaks, because that’s a longer part of the poem – to create a voice, and then to hold on to it and keep it consistent when it was not a voice that felt close to my own.

NT: You make it look effortless, though.

EA: Oh, I labored! [Laughter] To really, really be tight and to strike the proper historical note and tone, I did a lot of historical research, though there wasn’t a lot to be found about Saartjie Bartmaan at the time. But I read about carnivals and circuses and London in the early 19th century, and all kinds of different things that would give me a sense of her world. I didn’t want to be anachronistic, although at the same time there are very deliberately anachronistic moments – for example at the end, when she imagines her daughters in banana skirts and ostrich-feather fans, which is alluding to a Josephine Baker act, not something that she would have known. But that is where poetic license comes in handy.

I think in a poem like ‘Race’, in a way, I’m speaking in a voice that is more familiar. Certainly that, too, is a very formal poem in its way. It has a set of rules that it follows, but it’s trying to be a little chattier, a little more contemporary. The speaker is a contemporary person like myself telling a story, with the things that I know and my vocabulary to call upon. What I’ve always been interested in about ‘The Venus Hottentot’, and what I think is such a great teaching tool about persona poems, is that if you write about a character who obsesses you, you might not even know necessarily why that character is so compelling to you. Much later, after writing ‘The Venus Hottentot’, I thought, ‘Well, of course I know about being a black woman who is the subject of objectification, who is in some people’s eyes a spectacle simply for being a black woman, who is in some people’s eyes sexualised simply for being a black woman.’ That’s something that we all know as black women in the world.

NT: In your third collection, Antebellum Dream Book, did you find yourself taking uncertain paths? And did much of the book’s surreal imagery come from actual dreams you were having?

EA: Much of it did; some of it didn’t. Obviously, much of it was made possible by first trusting the surreal images that came out of actual dreams. I’ve been lucky to always have been a really great dreamer. And I’ve always been fascinated by my own dreams and the dreams of others, what different cultures believe about dreams: how they guide you, how they tell you things that you should pay attention to, how they sometimes look ahead to the future, how they’re a place where the ancestors can come and speak to you. So I’ve used dreams before in poems, but I just went further this time, really trusting that these strange juxtapositions could work as poetry.

NT: So you aren’t afraid to trust that kind of surreal dream imagery to take you to new places?

EA: Well, I have a great fear of getting stuck in a rut. I think there are certain kinds of poems – such as poems in the ‘Venus Hottentot’ mode, poems that engage a black historical figure, an aspect of black history – that I sort of know how to do, and that I feel I can do well. I don’t want to do that kind of poem to death, although certainly there’s so much to write about in that whole area. That’s just to say I wouldn’t want to be someone who just writes the same version of a poem she wrote before over and over and over again. That would be the worst thing.

NT: Your first book begins with a poem that imagines the voice of a woman who has been objectified and thus rendered a mere body. Then you have a second collection entitled The Body of Life; and your next collection, Antebellum Dream Book, seemed to deal with the body in many more ways. In your work, what does it mean to ‘write the body’?

EA: I think, certainly for women, that the stories of so many bodies are not the stories that we have heard. I remember once, teaching Descartes, one of my feminist colleagues saying that she asked the class, ‘If Descartes were a woman who had given birth, would he have written “I think, therefore I am”?’ In other words, what would a more embodied version of that statement look like? What that means to me is ‘What would so many versions of our history look like if the body of the physically abused woman, the body of the sexually exulting woman, the body of the child-birthing woman, the body of the slave, the body of the domestic worker all spoke and told their stories and narrated their embodied experiences?’ That’s a huge, vast terrain. If you let a body speak, it gives you access to all sorts of concrete sensations that are vital, the stuff of poetry, the way a poem convinces. When my oldest child began to realise that he smelled things, he started telling me what everything smelled like: ‘Oh, it smells like toast in here’ or ‘Oh, it smells like sickness in here’. He’d go through experiencing the world only through smell. What a gift to go through life being aware that we’ve been given these senses and that you should live in them: something to look at, something to smell, something to taste – all as a gift.

Elizabeth Alexander is a leading American poet whose work has been inspired by a wide range of influence, from history, literature, art and music, dreams and stories to the ‘rich infinity’ of the African American experience. She is Professor of African-American Studies at Yale University. In January 2009 she reads the inaugural poem for the swearing-in of President Barack Obama. Elizabeth Alexander has published four collections in the States: The Venus Hottentot (1990), Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001) and American Sublime (2005), as well as a collection of essays on African American artistic life through literature, painting, film and popular media, The Black Interior (Graywolf, 2004). Her first British publication, American Blue: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 2006), draws on all these. Copies can be ordered from

The above interview is an extract from ‘The Far, Deep Things of Dreamland: an interview with Elizabeth Alexander’ by Natasha Trethewey, from Poets & Writers (Nov-Dec 2001), reprinted from Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions: 1 (Bloodaxe Books, 2006). Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions: 1 is an anthology of work by Elizabeth Alexander, Moniza Alvi, Imtiaz Dharker and Jackie Kay. Bloodaxe Poetry Introductions are a new kind of anthology aimed at the general reader as well as the poetry lover. Compiled by Staying Alive editor Neil Astley, each book in the series covers four leading contemporary poets in depth, with substantial selections covering the whole range of each writer’s poetry, as well as intriguing and illuminating background material, including profiles, interviews, essays and commentary by the poets. To order from, go to this page:
American readers can order it here:

Natasha Trethewey is Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Her first two collections Domestic Work (2000) and Bellocq's Ophelia (2002) were published by Graywolf Press.

No comments: