In less than a week, Elizabeth Alexander, prize-winning poet and Yale professor will join the ranks of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Miller Williams as one of only four poets in U.S. history to compose and read a poem at a presidential inauguration. As she prepares to step into the limelight in front of millions of people across the world, she takes time to tell ESSENCE.com what keeps her inspired, her message for the day, and those comparisons to the great Maya Angelou.
ESSENCE.COM: Forty-five years ago, your parents took you to witness Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., give his “I Have a Dream” speech. And now, in six days, you’ll read your poem after President-elect Obama’s inaugural address. In a sense you’ve come full circle. How do you feel?
ELIZABETH ALEXANDER: Amazement. Joy. Humbleness. This day means so much in the hearts of so many people. It’s such a momentous day, and being asked to serve in any way is an honor. Any words that I can put together really do pale next to all of the powerful words of the people who didn’t think they’d live to see this day.
ESSENCE.COM: Who delivered the good news to you?
ALEXANDER: A spokesman from the inaugural committee called. I was home, working at my computer, finishing my e-mail and getting ready to grade a huge stack of papers. It was a day like any other, and then two minutes later, everything was completely different.
ESSENCE.COM: We assume you’ve finished the piece you plan to recite at the inauguration. Can you share your creative process?
ALEXANDER: Yes, I’ve finished the poem. I certainly didn’t want to make myself crazy until the very last minute [laughs]. I always work in the midst of my regular life-teaching, writing, attending poetry readings, and I’m a mother. I have a network of close people whose lives are bound up with mine, so in the midst of that I always have pen and paper. I don’t spend long hours in solitude. I try to create the necessary quiet inside in the midst of the bustle of everyday life. Once I have accrued those notes then I find time very late at night to sit at my desk and hammer away at the draft. I was very intensely engaged in that process through the holidays right up until a short while ago.
ESSENCE.COM: How long did it take you?
ALEXANDER: I’ve been working on it since the day I was told, which was about December 17. I’ve intimately followed this election with as much heart and hope as so many of us. I think that in a way the last two years have prepared me for the writing of this poem.
ESSENCE.COM: Some folks are comparing you to Maya Angelou. Have you heard that and what does that mean to you?
ALEXANDER: No, I haven’t heard that, but obviously that’s a great honor. She’s a great American writer and a great American sage. She has been able to not only share her art with millions of people but also to share her wisdom and presence, so that’s just a huge compliment.
ESSENCE.COM: Was it important for you to get a certain message out to the masses?
ALEXANDER: The beauty of poetry is that we don’t go to it for message, theme or even information in the conventional sense. We go to poetry because we understand that language can be made into music. And distilled language has the power to shift us. We are enabled to look at the world afresh, and so message or theme is not how I enter the making of a poem. I approach in a more visceral musical fashion.
ESSENCE.COM: Have you shared your poem with President-elect Obama?
ALEXANDER: No, I will read it for the first time on that day. What I think is very wonderful is that there is creative control with the artist. This shows a profound respect for what artists do, which is to go to places that are sometimes dark and mysterious.
ESSENCE.COM: Will the poem be published?
ALEXANDER: It will come out in book form almost immediately after the inauguration by Graywolf Press. We’re very excited about that.
ESSENCE.COM: It’s reported that Obama wrote poetry in high school and college. Do you think his administration will help shed light on arts education programs?
ALEXANDER: Well, that’s of course what we’re all hoping for. When he was photographed carrying Derek Walcott’s collected poems after the election, people were just calling and e-mailing back and forth saying, “He’s one of us; he understands.” During the campaign, Obama was the only candidate that put forth a wholesome platform on education and he did talk about the arts, so we have very high hopes.
ESSENCE.COM: Although you’re well known in certain circles, there’s a sense of coming out to the general public in this hugely iconic moment. What does newfound fame feel like?
ALEXANDER: I wrote once in a poem that poets are only famous to each other. There’s something really beautiful about that sentiment. For this to be a moment where poetry itself comes into the spotlight is very exciting. I believe whenever one poem gets attention, poetry gets attention. It’s a chance to say this art form is for everybody and to call attention to it.
ESSENCE.COM: What are you looking forward to the most during the inauguration?
ALEXANDER: I can’t imagine, but I also don’t think I should imagine. I just need to be calm, mindful and take it all in, and no matter when the night closes, to take some time immediately to write down what I’ve experienced.