The first time I talked with Elizabeth Alexander was in early June at a restaurant in Harvard Square. We had agreed to meet at Out of Town News at noon. She was traveling from New Haven, where she teaches at Yale University and lives with her husband and two children. I arrived a few minutes early and stood near the crosswalk so that I could see her coming from any direction. While waiting, I couldn't help thinking how appropriate it was that I should meet her at a place promising news from a world of distant and varied places—appropriate because Alexander is just that kind of poet.
Born in New York City in 1962, Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C. After completing her undergraduate studies at Yale, she returned to D.C., where she worked a year as a reporter for the Washington Post. Later, she earned an MA at Boston University and a Ph.D in English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book, The Venus Hottentot (University Press of Virginia), was published in 1990. Since then she has been the recipient of many awards and fellowships, including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, two Pushcart Prizes, the George Kent Award (for poems appearing in Poetry magazine), and the Quantrell Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching at the University of Chicago. She has published essays and short fiction, as well as a second poetry collection, The Body of Life (Tia Chucha Press), in 1996. In October her third collection, Antebellum Dream Book, was published by Graywolf Press.
all your books there are poems that seem to be odes to various cities,
which gives me the sense of a speaker who is a traveler, one who is
both resident and visitor in all of those places. How do you understand
ideas of travel and place in your work?
Well, I'm a very urban person. I certainly appreciate the country, appreciate its beauty and all that comes with it, but cities are beautiful, live, fascinating places to me. Whenever I go someplace, the details just offer themselves up. Perhaps because cities are made places, I'm interested in how these made places almost become natural landscapes.
Yesterday I was reading a book about Chicago's murals—that city has a great tradition of public murals—and I came across the Sandburg quote about how Chicago is "hog butcher to the world, city with the big shoulders." I thought about how black folks always talk about the mighty hawk, that great wind that comes and sweeps you up and probably was especially startling for black people who had come from various points south. And I was thinking, "How would I characterize that city that I lived in for six years in a way that's not reductive? How to do justice to all of its boisterous vibrancy and incredible diversity?" Travel and relocation offers an opportunity to rely on your wits a little bit more than you do when you're in a familiar place. You can say to yourself, "Let me just pay attention to this new adventure in this new place."
What was growing up in Washington like? Did it have an effect on your work?
Washington was a great place during the sixties and seventies. I grew up surrounded by electoral politics as well as the street politics and protests of the late sixties. The 1963 March on Washington was an often invoked benchmark of my family's move from New York to that city. Washington's disfranchisement—D.C. is still taxed without real federal representation—was a vital issue throughout my childhood, and my father was a candidate in the city's first mayoral election in 1974. So a sense of national issues played out on a local stage, and vice versa, and of private lives made public was a part of my upbringing.
Washington is also an international city, and an internationally black city. My childhood awareness of the rest of the black world was sometimes imprecise, but omnipresent, and my much admired and adored late grandmother was proudly an "internationalist" who grew up in D.C. as well and roller-skated to the embassies "to see that the rest of the world was there," as I write in "Feminist Poem #1." I think that curiosity about the black world beyond my black city, and how I fit into it all, is important to my work, even when inexplicit.
My parents are New Yorkers—more specifically Harlemites, which is where I was born—and that is a fierce identity that never leaves you. I feel lucky not to have been too circumscribed by localness—any localness can have its limitations—to have something else to belong to and to fantasize about as well, which you see in many mentions of New York in my poems. I seem to be very interested in "real" or "natural" identities and their tug with constructed ones, and the romance of racial and geographic identification.
You have a poem in your new collection, Antebellum Dream Book,
called "Race." Reading the poem, and particularly the last two
lines—"What a strange thing is race and family stranger still. / Here a
poem tells a story, a story about race"—I get a glimpse of not only
your thoughtfulness, but also your sense of humor. It's as if you said,
"Okay, I'm going to deal with it once and for all—here's the banner
title." Can you talk about the role race plays in your work?
There are great storytellers in my family, as in so many of our families. But sometimes it's rare that those stories are transportable or translatable intact into poem form; somebody talking to you is not the same as how you would tell a story or use narrative in a poem. These stories about color and about passing and even about siblings and their adult relationships and the readjustments of their adult relationships, as you have in that poem are the stories that so many of us have and do tell or don't tell.
As for the "banner headline," "Race," I always loved the way that my grandfather, and to a lesser extent my parents, used the word race to talk about "the race"—meaning, of course, black people—as a thing that they could imagine, a body of people that we could imagine, that you could almost get your arms around, that the race was something tangible and palpable. I think it is in some very important ways generational. I also thought about the idea of what it meant to be a "race man" or a "race woman," what it meant to "do something for the race," or what it meant to "bring shame upon the race."