Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander

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In a final salute to National Poetry Month, Elizabeth Alexander talks about moving poetry away from the ivory tower and into people's lives. Alexander read a poem at President Obama's inauguration and is a professor of African-American studies at Yale University.

MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

As we continue our coverage of President Barack Obama's 100 days, we want to return to his first official day in office, Inauguration Day. And what better way to return to that day and wrap up National Poetry Month at the same time than to invite the poet invited to read her work at the inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander.

She's only the fourth poet invited to present an original work at a presidential inauguration. She joins us from New Haven, Connecticut where she is a professor of African-American studies and English at Yale University. Thank you so much for joining us.

ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: I'm so glad to be with you. Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, I mentioned we've been celebrating National Poetry Month. I'm going to start with a question I should have asked somebody before now but for some reason did not. What is poetry for? Why do we need it?

ALEXANDER: Well, I think we need poetry because it's wonderful to have examples in the midst of our days of language that is distilled, that's heightened, that's special in some way, that makes us look at language itself and situations and the world in different kinds of ways. That's what poetry provides for us. It's out of the ordinary even when it's looking at the ordinary.

And like so many other forms of art, it provides an oasis, not necessarily of calm or of peace or of rest, but an oasis from the sort of daily experiences that gives us a way to understand the extra ordinary that's part of our ordinary lives.

MARTIN: How did you find poetry or how did poetry find you? Were you one of those little kids who was always scribbling into a composition book?

ALEXANDER: Well, I was, but I can't say that they were poems. I was certainly even more than I was one of those kids who scribbled - I was a kid who read all the time, nose in a book, and a kid who listened. I was very interested in the different ways that people used language around me in the kinds of regionalisms that I would hear and the ways that grownups talked to each other, that grownups talked to kids, that people talked in school, that teachers talked to each other, the teachers talked to kids. I noticed those differences and thought that it was very exciting that the language could shift in those different sorts of ways.

And then later on I thought I wanted to be a journalist for a while. I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer, but eventually I realized that the kind of language that I was most called to work in was poetic language.

MARTIN: Was it hard the first time you said to somebody that's what I - you know like - a lot of people just filed their taxes recently, hopefully they did - and there's a line on the tax form which says, you know, occupation - do you write, poet?

ALEXANDER: I do not write poet. I write writer and professor. Sometimes I write teacher because I think that in a way, though professor describes my job, teaching describes what I actually do. So, like all poets I know, none of us make our living writing poetry, even if it's the thing that we're most passionate about in our work lives. And my sense of myself and of my work and my mission as a teacher is really equally important, though I would say being a poet is at the center of my identity of myself as a working person.

I also do write other kinds of things. I've written a play in verse. I write essays on mostly African-American culture, painting, film. So in that regard the writing part kind of covers the waterfront.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Elizabeth Alexander: writer, essayist, poet, professor. We're talking about poetry. And we're also talking about the poem that she prepared for Barack Obama's inauguration. About that poem, I mean, that is maybe for some people the first or last exposure they would've had to poetry since school. And I know you've been interviewed a lot about the experience, but tell me the truth, when push came to shove, when you got ready to deliver the goods, were you nervous?

ALEXANDER: I would say that I had a huge amount of adrenaline coursing through me, which I think is a little bit different from nervous. I was in a state of high anticipation. My stomach was definitely churning, but I - at that point I had written the poem and so to my mind the big part - the important part of the work was done. So what I had to do was just figure out how to breathe and keep my wits about me and get it out there.

MARTIN: I'm about to do something very terrible to you. I'm about to play an excerpt of the poem, which is terrible - a terrible thing to do to a writer, but...

ALEXANDER: Yes it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...just play a short clip. But time is...

ALEXANDER: I'll survive.

MARTIN: Time is our master. I'm going to just play just a little bit. And here it is.

ALEXANDER: Okay.

MARTIN: Here's Elizabeth Alexander reading "Praise Song for the Day," a portion of "Praise Song for the Day," a poem she prepared for the inauguration of Barack Obama, January 20th 2009. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM, "PRAISE SONG FOR THE DAY")

ALEXANDER: Each day we go about our business walking past each other, catching each other's eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues.

MARTIN: There you go. How was it? How was it to hear yourself?

ALEXANDER: That's the first time, Michel.

MARTIN: Really?

ALEXANDER: Yeah. I haven't YouTubed - if that's a verb now - I haven't YouTubed myself, like Googling yourself, so it sounded okay to me. My late grandmother was with me throughout the reading of that poem. And she said just be sure that you speak clearly and enunciate.

MARTIN: And what has been the response to the poem?

ALEXANDER: I hear from people who have read my work. I've been publishing it for over 20 years, but the pace has accelerated. And I find that I hear from - more letters, for example, from people in prison who sometimes send their own poetry, more letters from young people who send me their creative responses, sometimes visual work that they've put together and sometimes poems and both of those kinds of letters are very rich and interesting. Letters from people who want to collaborate in different kinds of ways and that's been very, very interesting, again, to think about this as a moment.

You know, Barack Obama didn't have to decide to have poetry at this inaugural - only the fourth time. It feels to me like there should always be poem like there should always be art, but it's not a given. And so I think that what that did in addition to the different registers of artistry that we saw with Yo-Yo Ma and with Aretha Franklin, all of this incredible multi-vocality is to say that art belongs in this civic place, but also that there are different art forms and they have something to say together and to each other.

MARTIN: I understand that the poem was also translated into Spanish. What was that process like?

ALEXANDER: That's something I'm very, very happy about. And I'm very grateful that Graywolf Press, when I said that I wanted to do a Spanish translation of the poem and issue it in North America, that they instantly felt that that was a good idea. So with the poet and translator Rodrigo Rojas, who is a Chilean, we worked on a translation because millions and millions of people are Spanish speakers and readers in this country.

And even though millions of those people are fully bilingual, I thought that - to acknowledge that we are a multilingual country. And that Spanish language and culture is such a vital part of American culture and society. I thought that that would be a terrific thing and there's been a great response to that so far.

MARTIN: You know, poetry seems to come in and out of our national life in its importance. I mean, there are times when people seem to be very engaged with poetry, at times, less so. There are some people who think of hip-hop as the poetry of today, the way that people experience it. Do you see a possibility of poetry becoming hip again?

ALEXANDER: Well, of course I think that poetry has always been hip. But I think that what's been great about this moment is that it's not about one poet, it's not about one poem, it's not about one president, it's about a conversation about American poetry and a conversation that in my little piece of it I've tried to emphasize, comes out of a great and multi-vocal tradition. And also reflects a very, very, very vigorous poetry scene that's active right now. And some of those people would call themselves hip-hop artists. And some of them are spoken word artists. And some of them are formalists who you write exquisite sonnets.

And there are very, very many different ways that American poets are being excellent. And so I think that recognizing that diversity makes us realize that this is a terrific time for poetry to stay in vogue.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Alexander, award-winning poet, essayist, professor of African-American studies and English at Yale University. Her most recent collection of poems, other than her inauguration poem, is a collection of poems for young adults, "Miss Crandall's School for Young Ladies & Little Misses of Color." She also recently edited the essential "The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks." She was kind enough to join us from New Haven. Professor Alexander, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALEXANDER: Thank you so much. I enjoyed this tremendously.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And finally, as we wrap up program about the first 100 days of the Obama administration, our planning editor Luis Clemens has a few words to say about another milestone, the second anniversary of TELL ME MORE, which we will celebrate tomorrow. Luis?

LUIS CLEMENS: Thanks, Michel. After two years and more than 500 shows, we've gone from a blog to a daily broadcast. One thing, though, hasn't changed. We're still turning to our listeners to ask how we can best tell you more. Do you have a story idea, a guest suggestion? Tell us what's on your mind. Visit us at npr.org. Click on TELL ME MORE and leave a message on our blog. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That's 202-842-3522. Remember to leave us your name.

MARTIN: Thank you, Luis. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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