The Far, Deep Things of Dreamland: An Interview With Elizabeth Alexander

Natasha Trethewey

That is very generational.
When my father went to college in the fifties, the school he went to—a predominately white school—would not give him a white roommate. That, of course, was not the case when I went to a predominately white school for college. But there were different, more subtle challenges and challenges of racial articulation for our generation that were perhaps not as stark. So in that regard, in my parents' generation, our grandparents' generation, you did know a little bit more clearly who was who and what was what, because there were places that you couldn't go and things that you couldn't do. Once I got past the anxiety of understanding my racial belonging, which I think is part of coming of age, it seemed to me that being born into this particular culture and being somebody who loved to read and talk to people is my gift. That is what was handed down to me and placed in my hands—this incredibly rich culture and heritage. And it's your privilege to go do something with your heritage, to learn and write and teach.

You've written some successful persona poems about historical personae. How do you go about making their voices real, as in "The Venus Hottentot," which is about Saartje Bartman?
With invented voices, how do we really know if they are accurate or not? There's no way of knowing. Certainly in writing "The Venus Hottentot," one of the big challenges was to hold on, especially when the Venus Hottentot herself speaks, because that's a longer part of the poem—to create a voice, and then to hold on to it and keep it consistent when it was not a voice that felt close to my own.

You make it look effortless, though.
Oh, I labored! [Laughter] To really, really be tight and to strike the proper historical note and tone, I did a lot of historical research, though there wasn't a lot to be found about Saartje Bartman at the time. But I read about carnivals and circuses and London in the early nineteenth century, and all kinds of different things that would give me a sense of her world. I didn't want to be anachronistic, although at the same time there are very deliberately anachronistic moments—for example at the end, when she imagines her daughters in banana skirts and ostrich-feather fans, which is alluding to a Josephine Baker act, not something that she would have known. But that is where poetic license comes in handy.

I think in a poem like "Race," in a way, I'm speaking in a voice that is more familiar. Certainly that, too, is a very formal poem in its way. It has a set of rules that it follows, but it's trying to be a little chattier, a little more contemporary. The speaker is a contemporary person like myself telling a story, with the things that I know and my vocabulary to call upon. What I've always been interested in about "The Venus Hottentot," and what I think is such a great teaching tool about persona poems, is that if you write about a character who obsesses you, you might not even know necessarily why that character is so compelling to you. Much later, after writing "The Venus Hottentot," I thought, "Well, of course I know about being a black woman who is the subject of objectification, who is in some people's eyes a spectacle simply for being a black woman, who is in some people's eyes sexualized simply for being a black woman." That's something that we all know as black women in the world.

That makes me think of the poem "Peccant," in your new collection, in which you say, "Komunyakaa the poet says, don't write what you know, write what you are willing to discover." How does this idea speak to your approach to writing? And how do you convey this to students?
I've always been a "write what you know" teacher, but also that dictum is a way to deter students from solely gravitating to preposterous personae and overlooking what is interesting in their own experience. Not that I want poems about every single thing that they do in a day, but I find it's useful to keep students close to known details. It's too easy, when you write about any dramatic imagined person, to lose the very details that would convince a reader of the truth of the poem.

One of the things that I really treasure about writing poetry is that you start someplace without knowing where you're going to end up. I particularly found this in my latest book, in writing the dream poems. I would start with an image or a series of images that were not necessarily transparent to me but were compelling as language or metaphor—suggestive in a way, again, that I couldn't necessarily articulate to myself—that I knew I had to follow. So I very powerfully experienced this business of taking a leap and saying, "Okay, I'm not sure how this works, but I'm going to follow this path into these overgrown woods and see what's in there."

In this latest book, did you find yourself taking even more uncertain paths? And did much of the book's surreal imagery come from actual dreams you were having?
Much of it did; some of it didn't. Obviously, much of it was made possible by first trusting the surreal images that came out of actual dreams. I've been lucky to always have been a really great dreamer. And I've always been fascinated by my own dreams and the dreams of others, what different cultures believe about dreams: how they guide you, how they tell you things that you should pay attention to, how they sometimes look ahead to the future, how they're a place where the ancestors can come and speak to you. So I've used dreams before in poems, but I just went further this time, really trusting that these strange juxtapositions could work as poetry.