The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Interviews Elizabeth Alexander

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The Rumpus Poetry Book Club talks with Poet Laureate Elizabeth Alexander about her poetry collection, Crave Radiance.

This is an edited transcript of the poetry book club discussion with Elizabeth Alexander. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview (you can read the unedited discussion here). To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.

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Brian Spears: Elizabeth, I was rereading the Miss Crandall poems earlier today, and I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed before that they’re all sonnets (or at least 14 lines). Was that a deliberate part of the project, or did it just happen that way?

Thelma: Yes, I noticed that, too—it seemed as though, formally, those poems’ structure got more fractured as the school itself got destroyed.

Elizabeth Alexander: When Marilyn Nelson and I decided to work on this book (we wrote alternating sonnets) we both came to the project with previous interest in the sonnet—it is such a hardy form and has morphed its way into our times still dynamic. we wanted some formal ground rules for the poems, and the sonnet form seemed like just the right “amount” of poem for the Prudence Crandall story.

Stephen Elliott: How do you feel about form in poetry?

Alexander: That’s an interesting point. Not my intent but I’ll have to look back at the poems to see what I think. If you look at the poems from beginning to end in Crave Radiance i think you’ll see that i have always been attuned to many different forms, but also playing with how those received forms can be stretched and also energized.

Spears: The alternating poems—so you’d write one and send it to Nelson and she’d send you a response?

Alexander: Marilyn and I worked over twenty-four hours together in her home, which also functions as a writers’ retreat, and when we emerged from our rooms we each had a handful of poems—amazing. then we went to our own lives for a few months and came back together when we each had a dozen. Like magic, they fit together with no repetition of subject matter.

Elliott: Mark mentioned this in our poetry discussion group:

I’m also interested in her process of finding voices. Ali, that’s someone you can go back and listen to and capture the cadences, but there are so many speakers in the historical poems I’m curious at the process of coming up with just the right voice, as she so often does in Amistad and elsewhere.

People were really fond of the Ali poems.

Camille Dungy: We have had lots of talk about your use of various persona in this collection. “Narrative: Ali” was one that got the attention of many of us. For one thing, we noted the masterful way you get into a known voice and show us new things. But then, sometimes you cover lesser known figures, and then you seem to show us things that had been there all along but we did not yet know. Now for the question: How do you pick whose voice you’re going to embody?

Alexander: Here’s the thing about Ali: it’s not “his” voice, anymore than Cinque a hundred years later is “his” voice. I love this Sterling Brown quote and overuse it: “Every I is a dramatic I.” You are always creating persona through crafting the voice and keeping it consistent.

And Camille, how do I pick? Governed by obsession, and I never know who is going to get stuck in my head. I was OBSESSED with early Muhammad Ali long before I wrote the poem, read everything, watched tapes of old fights, OBSESSED (and in love!).

Mark Folse: Ah, but it is his voice, as if delivered by an actor a century from now, someone creating an essence of the subject.

Thelma: Do you feel that collaborating is usually more rewarding than working alone?

Alexander: I work almost exclusively alone. don’t most poets? I feel the work is fundamentally solitary, profoundly so. Collaboration is hard. My collaborative energy mostly goes to my teaching, university work, and poetry world work. But I have been excited to have done a few collaborations with composers in the last few years. I do my part, send it along, they do their part, we meet and have mutually respectful conversations because neither can do what the other does, and then I get to hear singers sing my words—fantastic!

Spears: I think it’s easier to collaborate with someone who works in a different medium because it’s easier to surrender to their expertise. I’ve worked with a couple of visual artists and it’s a lot easier than working with another writer.

Alexander: Brian yes, absolutely, “surrender to their expertise.” With Marilyn, the nice thing was we were pretty light-handed about our critiques of each other’s poems, because we wanted to respect the fragility of how well the whole collaboration was working out.

Dungy: Speaking of the voices in our heads. Lots people try to write dream poems, but they’re really hard because dreams are so untranslatable. How many of your Antebellum Dreams were really dreams? When/how did you strike upon that method for entering the poems?

Thelma: Yes, I agree with Camille. Your dream poems are marvelous, whereas usually people’s dreams bore me—anything can happen so there’s no tension.

Alexander: I have always been a vivid dreamer and I think that has something to do with why I am a poet—I always relished staying in the strange, associative space of dream and post-dream, always loved narrating my dreams and hearing the dreams of others. I was amazed to learn that some people don’t remember their dreams! I have one son who never remembers his dreams and another who goes riding the wild waves all night long! Anyway, the poems themselves are not transcribed; the dream becomes an aperture into a mode of working that is open and surprising and better able to trust strange juxtapositions. So the “dream poems:” in Antebellum Dream book are formally analogous to the ars poeticas in American Sublime. It’s a way of making work.

Elliott: I don’t remember my dreams. Adam Johnson told me he wrote down all his dreams every morning for a year and learned a lot about himself.

Folse: Do you write in the morning to retain some connection to that dream state?

Alexander: I write whenever I can, and it is catch as catch can. usually a kid wakes me up in the morning.

Spears: I have a question about “Praise Song for the Day,” but I worry that you may be tired of talking about that poem. I can skip it if you like.

Alexander: No, that’s fine, what is your question?

Alexander: By the way, you all can ask me ANYTHING so please use the time however you like.

Spears: Well, you’re now the second inaugural poet I’ve had the chance to meet—I studied with Miller Williams at Arkansas—so I wonder if you worried a lot about the stage, if you considered turning the opportunity down?

Folse: And how it felt to go from writing about history to entering into it, in a sense.

Alexander: I did not consider turning the opportunity down. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a whole lotta everything that came along with it. But being asked by THAT president at THAT moment to write a poem for his inaugural felt like an invitation to serve, and it would have been somehow wrong to turn it down.

Alexander: Or better put, a call to be of service, in the way that the campaign asked so many of us to step up and offer the best we have.

Spears: Were there a number of false starts with that poem?

Alexander: I have a plastic storage container with all the drafts and scraps of “Praise Song,” and the many false starts. Maybe 350 pages!

Spears: That sounds like a book of its own at some point!

Elliott: I’m curious about what it’s like to have a “new and selected” works. It’s kind of like a greatest hits, a real testament to your impact.

Spears: And to go along with Stephen’s question, how much control did you have over the poems that made it into the Selected?

Alexander: I had total control over the poems in the new and selected, as with other books, even though I was very grateful for Jeff Shotts’ eye. I was a bit surprised to find myself mid-stream, with over twenty years of publishing (and teaching) behind me. So it seems like the right time to gather and cull and also to make enough of a new section that I felt I still had a pulse!

Dungy: What was your research process for some of the poems that come out of the past? You are so rich with your details and textured with your language. How long do you live with the historical facts before they show up in your poems?

Alexander: Interesting question, Camille. I have to say, the weaving of my own experience into a larger experience is a pretty unconscious process. I see all of us as historical creatures, living on the timeline with much that came before us. We are all raced, all gendered and class-ed, all from some PLACE and from some people. We each speak from our own mouths but out of all those loci simultaneously. I see everything in historical context, so it doesn’t feel like it interferes with formal choices, it’s just THERE.

Thelma: How were you edited? Or weren’t you?

Alexander: It is very, very, very hard to choose, so from my editor (Jeff Shotts) I really needed another eye. I also had two other poet friends look at it to help me see my blind spots.

Dungy: I want to quote something Mark said in our discussion:

One thing that clearly runs through the book is Alexander’s attempt to synthesize her own experience with that of the history of her people in America, and I think she succeeds beautifully, the poems of personal and family and historical experience running naturally together.

And then I want to ask how your formal decisions play against this synthesization (sp).

Folse: Reading “her people” all these weeks later makes me cringe a bit, but truth is hard sometimes, and I live in New Orleans, where caste and section matter like it’s Beirut during the civil wars.

Folse: One line that jumped out at me enough to go right into my notebook: “I’m born after so much. Nostalgia hurts…” which seems to be at the root of so much of your poems about family and 20th century historical figures.

Alexander: “I’m born after so much” comes from being the kind of child who likes to sit and listen to the grownups tell stories, and wanting so much to be in the worlds they describe. Then when I was a very young woman reading and reading, I wanted to be part of those worlds. I always wanted to be more venturesome than I probably actually am; writing the poems gave me a way to venture.

Thelma: I loved the glimpse into your youth with poems such as “Body of Life”—that particular poem broke my heart.

Alexander: Thanks for the comment on “Body of Life,” a poem very heartbreaking and tender and difficult to me when I wrote it. It feels like a long time ago. And what ties Thelma’s and Mark’s questions together is that I came of age as a young woman when AIDS was beginning its rampage and taking so many vibrant, creative people in my midst whom I looked up to, dancers and writers and scholars and other friends.

Spears: The poem about the FEMA trailers hit me really hard because I grew up near New Orleans and knew people after Katrina who were living in them. I’m curious as to where that poem came from?

Folse: The Komunyakaa line of advice, writing what you would know

Alexander: Yes, Mark, I love that Komunyakaa advice.

Folse: Actually Brian the African diaspora poems resonated with me so strongly because of the Katrina diaspora. And was having those thoughts about the immigrant diaspora and the Katrina diaspora when I got to the FEMA Trailer poem. And I had to put the book down for a while.

Spears: Mark, that part of it I watched from distance, because I was down here in Fort Lauderdale. But my daughter was living in Bay St. Louis at the time and had to move down here for a few months after the storm. Her mother’s house survived but needed repair. She got down here just in time for Hurricane Wilma. And I have friends still dealing with storm damage all these years later.

And I remember a couple of years ago thinking about a girl I’d gone to elementary school with—she had a terrific name, which is all I really remembered about her. So I googled her, and all I found was a message board query asking if anyone had seen her after the storm. No responses. All that came flooding back when I read that poem.

Folse: But back to the question: the FEMA trailer poem…

Alexander: Well, there is so much to say about the Katrina disaster and its ongoing aftermath. I made a few visits to N.O. afterwards, first in June, for the library conference, which as you know was the first big convention to come to the city, and then a few months later, to give a talk at a library about Gwendolyn Brooks. Everywhere i went people had urgently to tell me their stories of the storm, in the way that one feels compelled to share stories of total extremis with anyone who will listen. Telling the stories connects us as human. So I listened carefully and empathetically to many, many stories, in addition to the stories of friends and people i knew, and the story from “In the FEMA Trailers” shaped itself into a poem.

Thelma: I saw two women in a parade in NOLA on Inauguration Day that the poem brought to mind. They looked worn out and yet hopeful. Maybe before they got to the cruise ship. Man, those last lines are killer …

Alexander: I feel really really glad to know that poem spoke to some of you. It’s a newer poem and I have not had much response. I worked very hard to get it right. I have a bunch of other stuff, writing that came out of those visits, but it feels unwieldy, as perhaps it should. Like Gwendolyn Brooks said, when someone asked her why there is no punctuation at the end of her great poem “The Near Johannesberg Boy” about a boy living under apartheid, she said, “it’s because there’s no punctuation to that situation.”

Folse: Did I already ask this and it scrolled off? You write about jazz artists (jazz poems in the oldest, original sense). Do you consciously try to write in a jazz idiom. I started going through the book again looking for it (and here it a bit in a few, Blues, the Chicago one)?

And some others if I can find those notes.

Alexander: The idioms of jazz and also of soul music, and Broadway anthems, are all up in there, consciously, a bit, but not deliberately if you know what I mean. They just provide me wonderful modes to explore in poems without being too pre-determined about it.

Folse: “Neonatology” swings. Definitely.

Spears: I noticed that about the music as well, that it drew from a lot of different forms. Is that just the music you listen to and so it makes its way into the poem?

Thelma: I noticed that “Neonatology” ended with the word “jazz,” which seems so perfect …

Alexander: Yes, giving birth is indeed like jazz, enormous like that!

Thelma: Yeah, funky, and bloody, and beautiful.

Spears: What drove you to the Amistad poems? And how much time passes between your work on those poems and the poem “Hayden in the Archives”?

Alexander: “Hayden in the Archives” is quite recent, I think the last one I slipped into Crave Radiance, so maybe from late spring 2010. Amistad came from walking the streets to New Haven and thinking in a new way about that story as a story of the very place I lived. I wanted to explore the story as a New Havener and also as a Yale person, because Yale students and professors played a role in the story that hadn’t been explored enough, I thought.

Dungy: “The Black Woman Speaks” seems, though in the voice of the
sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett, to also be about your journey out of DC and in the world as a poet. I’m wondering not so much about how you find the ability to write about those you feel a connection with, but how you find your way to writing about that which disgusts or frustrates or terrifies you. There is a lot of horror in this book, but your grasp on it is firm and in control.

Alexander: Camille, I think I am not alone in that I am grateful to have an art form with which to process or approach or face or move through what you call “horror”

Guest: I apologize, I came late and have been quiet, but I am curious about the inspiration of the Dirt Eaters and the style. I am attracted to the minimalistic-ness (?) of it.

Spears: The Dirt Eaters poem reminded me of a story I read not long ago about Haiti, where it was also discussed as a tradition, but with little to no mention of the crushing poverty and famine that the tradition had grown out of. The news story angered me, frankly.

Elliott: Elizabeth, is there anything you want to leave us with? What do you most hope people will take from this book?

Alexander: I hope that people will find what they find in individual poems—I like to think that there are some quirky ones in there that will find their homes with readers—and also think about how the work moves over time, how the poems hopefully develop but also how there are consistent preoccupations and motifs and concerns. I hope people will read the poems with interest in the rigors and formal choices that went into making them, and that even as they may read the poems for how they open up certain “issues,” that those issues are not separate from questions of craft and artistic choices. i hope people can see that “Praise Song” is one poem among many that is in conversation with its brothers and sisters in the book. I am also very glad that from this book people can read “Praise Song,” since of course most heard it rather than read it.

Alexander: And finally, I think “mid-career”—one hopes!—is an interesting stage of life. It feels good to have gathered and chosen but to now be free for whatever comes next. The desk is swept clean and the cupboard is bare, just how I like it.

Spears: Thanks very much, Elizabeth for chatting with us this evening. I’ve really enjoyed the book and your answers to our questions.

Elliott: Thanks for coming out guys!

Alexander: Thanks to all of you for buying the book and reading with care. Thanks for choosing it for this forum. Thanks for your comments.

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This interview was edited by Rumpus Poetry Editor Brian Spears.


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