Weaving Words For The Inaugural Poem Poet Elizabeth Alexander, a friend of the president-elect, was asked to write an original poem for the inauguration. We asked her for a sneak peek.

Weaving Words For The Inaugural Poem

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Poet Elizabeth Alexander was asked to write an original poem for the inauguration. The African-American studies professor from Yale, and friend of President-elect Obama, joins us now from New York. Ms. Alexander, thanks so much for being with us.

Prof. ELIZABETH ALEXANDER (English Language/Literature, African-American Literature and Gender Studies, Yale University; Poet, Essayist, Playwright): I'm pleased to be with you.

SIMON: So, is it done?

Prof. ALEXANDER: The poem is done, yes. That does not mean that there may not be a last-minute fiddle or tweak, but it is - it is fundamentally done.

SIMON: So, can we, like, hear it?

Prof. ALEXANDER: No, you can't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALEXANDER: You have to wait until the 20th.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALEXANDER: And then you get the whole thing.

SIMON: I was hoping to catch you unawares.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALEXANDER: I'm guarding it like a mother tiger.

SIMON: I remember reading once, a number of years ago, that Robert Frost, who's one of this very illustrious, short category of poets who have read previous inaugurations, he'd written his poem - or said he had written his poem - on a pad of paper that he was balancing on his foot, he wrote his poem. May I ask, paper, pen, computer - how do you write?

Prof. ALEXANDER: I begin often with scraps of paper because poems for me begin when I'm in the midst of doing the things that I do on regular days - teaching, picking up my children, making dinner. I always have pen and paper nearby because in the meditative snatches of time in the midst of the day, I find that many, many, many phrases often come to me. And then once I have some clear time to myself, that's when I gather the scraps and see what's there, and see what has a life that goes beyond the fragment. After I've drafted it on legal pad, that's when it goes into the computer.

SIMON: And may I ask, this poem you're going to read at the inauguration, did you have to run it by anybody?

Prof. ALEXANDER: No, isn't that extraordinary? I did not, and I think that that says something about believing that what artists bring that folks need and can use.

SIMON: Have you chosen to run it by anybody whose opinion you respect and want?

Prof. ALEXANDER: My husband is the person who always hears my poems, and he gives me the big thumbs up or the big thumbs down, and so we've gone through our usual ritual.

SIMON: In your mind now, what do this mean for you to share this moment, and to help embody this moment in America?

Prof. ALEXANDER: It is profoundly humbling. What this day means to so many people and the power of that emotion is something that I've really tried to respect and consider. This is a day that reminds us of all of the work that there is ahead, but it's also a day of a very, very sober and powerful joy. And so that has kept me sober myself.

SIMON: I don't want to be responsible for instilling you with even more anxiety, if that's what you're feeling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But...

Prof. ALEXANDER: I'll keep it together.

SIMON: The audience will be, I assume, in the billions.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Mm-hmm.

SIMON: And your words will be quoted for decades, centuries.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, that's right. And so, when faced with the literally unimaginable - I mean, really, who can imagine that? None of us, nobody can imagine that. It just took me back to what I already know about how to approach a poem. You're looking at a blank page. You are humbled before the muse. You hope that she will help you. You make a million false starts. I can't tell you how many crossings out and excisions and overwriting and then cutting back, I mean, you know, the drafting process just went on and on and on because what I did know - and this as regards your question - is that I had to feel that I had absolutely done my very best and then some. So I did give it my very best and then some.

SIMON: And without imparting anything to us or in any way destroying the magic of discovery, is your poem about the president, about the country?

Prof. ALEXANDER: Well, it's hard to say what the "about of" is in this poem. Is the word Obama in it? No. I can tell you that. It's not about the president in that way. But I do think that it's about this very, very, very extraordinary moment that I really see as a collective moment, and about trying to strike a tone that keeps us aware that a lot of work and sacrifice brought us here, and that that's what we need to keep doing to move forward.

SIMON: And may I ask, in conclusion, does it rhyme?

Prof. ALEXANDER: There are some rhymes in it. I'm not trying to evade your question, but there are some rhymes in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ALEXANDER: Wait and see.

SIMON: OK.

Prof. ALEXANDER: Be surprised.

SIMON: All right, All right. I will.

Prof. ALEXANDER: OK.

SIMON: Elizabeth Alexander, who will read her poem at the inauguration of President Obama on Tuesday. Ms. Alexander, so nice talking to you.

Prof. ALEXANDER: You, too. Thank you very much for your questions.

SIMON: And if you're braving the cold and crowds of Washington, D.C., or you're simply watching Barack Obama's inauguration at home, we'd like you to share your experience. You can head to npr.org/inaugurationreport and actively be a part of our coverage. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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