A Conversation With Elizabeth Alexander

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After her poetry reading at Heschel on March 28th, Helios editors-in-chief Julia Proshan and Sara Serfaty had the chance to sit down with acclaimed poet, essayist, playwright, and professor Elizabeth Alexander. Here’s what she had to say:

Julia Proshan: What do you find meaningful about poetry that you are unable to convey in prose?

Elizabeth Alexander: I think the comparison to prose is a good one, especially since I also write prose. I think poetry is song – poetry also has a very intimate relationship to human breath. Poetry is something that must come out of the body – it must be uttered, it must be sung. As such, I think it has both a spiritual component and a quality that this kind of sung language has had across culture and across time. It calls people together; it calls people to listen. Prose can do that informationally, but poetry does it uniquely with the muscle of song.

Sara Serfaty: How do different styles of poetry play into that breath you’re talking about?

EA: [Derek] Walcott, my teacher, had a strong belief that a line of iambic pentameter was about the length of normal human utterance. That is, when we take a breath, about how much breath comes out of us is a line of iambic pentameter. Some people then say if you have a long Whitman line, that’s why it sounds like prophecy and religious texts; those very long sentences that are meant to capture you, and that’s when you know you’re in the space of the sacred. Walcott used to say, “the line will reveal itself to you – just start writing and you’ll catch your rhythm, and then work from there.” I’ve found that that’s actually true. We carry so many forms and line lengths inside of us, and so we can fill them in different ways. I think that people should feel very hands-in-the-clay when making poems and not be so committed to making it one way that you sometimes shut down its potentially best way.

SS: How do you capture the “breath of poetry” when people are reading it on the page?

EA: The nice thing about the page is that it travels far. As a reader, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear many poets that I love, read. There have also been many who have been dead my whole life who I’ll never hear read, such as Walt Whitman. So thank goodness there is the page. It’s a complete experience if you then get to hear someone read the poetry. There’s a great New Orleans phrase for this [when you get to hear someone read the poetry] “lagniappe” – which is a little something extra, a little something on the top.

SS: What do you think is the value in coming to schools to perform?

EA: I love going to schools. I love being able to meet young people and to find out what they see in my poems. Once I release them, they are made by me, but they are living things, so how people interpret them is always fascinating. But also because young people who care about art and poetry are what’s even better – it’s a pleasure to be with them.

SS: How is speaking about African American issues, a common theme in your poetry, different with a majority-white audience, like that at Heschel?

EA: In my teaching life I’ve taught at Yale University, University of Chicago – predominantly white schools, though mixed schools. I think that African-American history and culture are the greatest stories ever told. I think that African-American culture is astonishing; they are exemplars of everything beautiful and important, and I want to share that. As you saw, I’m very matter-of- fact. I don’t flinch. These are stories: this is persecution, this is resilience, this is beauty. It’s real. Come and get it. I think that everybody should want to know. I go on the premise that I have the most extraordinary thing, and why wouldn’t everybody want to know about it? Because really, let’s talk about being Americans. If you don’t know African-American history and culture, you don’t know American history.

JP: As an educator and a poet, how do you incorporate the concept of intersectionality and the oppression African-American women have faced?

EA: Part of it is being me embodied in the spaces where I am – I was the third black woman ever to be tenured at Yale University. Being a department chair, being a tenured professor, being in front of a lecture hall, an authoritative figure, without any words shows that there are many ways to be excellent … What does it mean for a young black woman to see that, and what does it mean for a young white boy who’s perhaps never had a black woman in a position of authority? Everybody’s learning something, and it’s really important that that becomes normalized.

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