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

Natasha Trethewey

So you aren't afraid to trust that kind of surreal dream imagery to take you to new places?
Well, I have a great fear of getting stuck in a rut. I think there are certain kinds of poems—such as poems in "The Venus Hottentot" mode, poems that engage a black historical figure, an aspect of black history—that I sort of know how to do, and that I feel I can do well. I don't want to do that kind of poem to death, although certainly there's so much to write about in that whole area. That's just to say I wouldn't want to be someone who just writes the same version of a poem she wrote before over and over and over again. That would be the worst thing.

I've heard other writers talk about the connections between the labor of childbirth and the birthing of poems, the links between these two acts of creation. Do you see the whole process of becoming a mother as affecting you as a poet, changing you, pushing your craft in a different direction?
I didn't know when I had my first son how my creative life would change, because of course you put so much physical energy, so much emotional energy, and so much creative energy into your child, especially around the birth of a first child. But the greatest gift is that in the absolute middle-of-night blear of nursing him, and being so exhausted and staggering about going from place to place with this nursing child...after I got used to it I found that there was also something that was very peaceful and fertile about that time, that half-dreamy place. And I found that little snippets of things came to me, almost as though to say, "This is just a new stage of your creativity and it is not incompatible with writing poetry, and in fact it will give your poetry something that it never has had before." I do think the correlation of trusting the pregnant, then laboring, then nursing body has corresponded with something being liberated in my work. Trusting the surreal turns in the dream poems, trusting the vocabulary of dreams, playing within the logic of a strange imagistic world, feels akin to me to what I experienced with the birth of my two children in quick succession—so it seemed to me! —while I was writing the book. There are so many sublimely organic wholes in the nature of pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy, and I think witnessing them has helped me find unconventional wholes new to me in line, stanza, image, and verse.

So let's talk about Antebellum Dream Book some more, particularly the title. Where does it come from?
It was a title delivered to me in a dream without explanation. I think of antebellum as a word that is like race, one of those old-school black words, one of those words always heard in my childhood in an accounting of our history in this country: There was this period, there was that period, there was the antebellum period, there was Reconstruction, and so on. I've been interested in old-fashioned dream books, particularly as they interested some black people. They'd say, "I dreamt a fish," and they'd look up fish and the book would give an interpretation of what fish meant as a symbol in the dream, and then often a number that they might go and play. I thought it would be neat to think of the book as a handbook of sorts. So there is kind of that allusion, and certainly the time period before the war seemed to have all sorts of suggestive possibilities: before something explosive, like childbirth, or before other moments of seeming crisis or apocalyptic moments. There are a number of, I think, quietly apocalyptic moments in the book, so perhaps I was interested in what leads up to those moments. But really, truly, it is a dream title that I decided to try. And it always seemed to me that it was absolutely the right and only title for the book.

One more question: Your first book begins with a poem that imagines the voice of a woman who has been objectified and thus rendered a mere body. Then you have a second collection entitled The Body of Life; and your new collection, Antebellum Dream Book, seems to deal with the body in many more ways. In your work, what does it mean to "write the body"?
I think, certainly for women, that the stories of so many bodies are not the stories that we have heard. I remember once, in teaching in the core curriculum at Chicago, I was teaching Descartes, and I remember one of my feminist colleagues saying that she asked the class, "If Descartes were a woman who had given birth, would he have written ‘I think, therefore I am'?" In other words, what would a more embodied version of that statement look like? What that means to me is "What would so many versions of our history look like if the body of the physically abused woman, the body of the sexually exulting woman, the body of the childbirthing woman, the body of the slave, the body of the domestic worker all spoke and told their stories and narrated their embodied experiences?" That's a huge, vast terrain. If you let a body speak, it gives you access to all sorts of concrete sensations that are vital, the stuff of poetry, the way a poem convinces. When my oldest child began to realize that he smelled things, he started telling me what everything smelled like: "Oh, it smells like toast in here" or "Oh, it smells like sickness in here." He'd go through experiencing the world only through smell. What a gift to go through life being aware that we've been given these senses and that you should live in them: something to look at, something to smell, something to taste—all as a gift.

Natasha Trethewey is the author of Domestic Work (Graywolf, 2000). She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.