Elizabeth Alexander on Writing, the Ethic of Love, Language as a Vehicle for the Self, and the Inherent Poetry of Personhood
“You have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others.”
By Maria Popova
“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin observed in his terrific forgotten conversation with Margaret Mead. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” A generation later, the great poet (both in the literal and in the Baldwian sense), essayist, playwright, memoirist, and beloved professor Elizabeth Alexander explores the trying, triumphant art of that telling in Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews (public library) — a slim, towering treasure of a book.
Weaving together history, literature, politics, and personal experience, Alexander — who became the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration when she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her poem “Praise Song for the Day” — examines the rewards and challenges of being a black woman, a poet, an academic figure of authority and, above all, of inhabiting a culture in which the Venn diagram of these psychographic particulars is still lamentably improbable.
Radiating from these essays and interviews is incisive and generous insight into writing, the creative process, and the complexity of the self.
Echoing Audre Lorde’s abiding wisdom on the responsibility, to ourselves and others, of breaking our silences and Adrienne Rich’s insistence that an education is something you claim rather than something you get, Alexander considers the reactions and resistances she frequently encounters in those “feeling displaced in a room where the first-person voices of black women are primary”:
I want to inject them with a serum that makes them believe what I know: that speaking is crucial, that you have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others, that education is not something you passively consume.
And yet the necessity of speaking and the authority of visibility come with a personal cost, which Alexander articulates with a vulnerable self-awareness tremendously inspiring amid our culture of invulnerable facades:
I have been in public discussions where my own paralysis had made me quiet or less articulate than I can be and kept me, perhaps, from being the role model a young woman needed at that moment. I now choose my battles and deal with the same beleagueredness that perhaps my teachers those years ago felt. I have learned that you can’t always be who others need you to be at any moment.
Alexander revisits this question in another interview:
I try to remember that you can get really distracted by the demands people make on you. Demands that are real are one thing, demands that come from a real community in need, or a real person in need. We’re asked all the time to be of service. But demands that are about posturing — you may have to deal with them, but I’m trying to figure out a way not to let them worm their way in too much.
Asserting that this obligation to the truth of one’s story must be “lived in our day-to-day lives, in the way we conduct the business of our lives, in the way we spend our money and raise our children and make a multitude of decisions every day,” Alexander considers the role of writing in inhabiting one’s visibility:
Great writing can make you face the truth around you and within yourself.
In another interview from the collection, Alexander turns to the transmutation of personal truth into writing:
A lot of my poetry comes from “personal” or autobiographical material. What is the transformation that has to happen in order for those details and that realm of personal to work within a poem? I can’t really say that I could anatomize it, but I know that there’s a transformation that has to take place.
Citing Sterling Brown’s pronouncement that “every I is a dramatic I” — a quote she wove into her beautiful poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” — Alexander adds:
Regardless of whether or not you’re working in an autobiographical or personal mode, if there is a persona in the poem, you have certain charges to make it work dramatically in the poem itself. So, fulfilling those demands in the poem as such puts a nice set of parameters around the question of working within the infinite personal, because it’s quite infinite… The day-to-day me “I” [is] one level removed, or alchemized.
Echoing Kierkegaard’s assertion that “the more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes,” Alexander cautions:
For any poem to succeed, whatever its rules, there are strict rules, or else the whole thing falls apart.
She recounts what the inimitable Derek Walcott, her only poetry teacher, taught her about writing and about the loaded interplay between personal identity and creative integrity:
He would always say never try to charm in your poems, never try to charm with your identity, it’s not enough that you’re a cute, black girl.
That was very useful advice, though I was already averse to exploiting “identity.” I think the point is, he’s saying, none of us as persona is ever enough. Whatever your identity, your set of particulars, there is going to be someone out there who thinks it’s fascinating unto itself. But that unto itself doesn’t make for a fine poem you could stand with. So he was also saying, don’t be swayed and don’t let praise go to your head. And don’t let it get into your writing, and don’t let it get into your quest.
But Alexander notes that there is a universe of difference between not being swayed by praise and being wholly impermeable, severing one’s connection to the world — a connection carried out through the authenticity of the word:
We live in the word. And the word is precious, and the word must be precise, and the word is one of the ways we have to reach across to each other, and … it has to be tended with that degree of respect… I believe that life itself is profoundly poetic, in all sorts of … guises and unexpected places.
Being open to those poetic surprises, Alexander argues, also requires a certain openness to the audience and to the range of possible receptions:
To be presumptuous about any kind of audience is not a good thing. I’ve had too many wonderful surprises… I’ve had many surprises with people who read poetry who I wouldn’t have imagined read poetry, that it has a place in their lives. You just really never know. You just can’t let that imagining get into the creative process because it would twist it and distort it and shut it down… Some people talk about the ideal reader, and I don’t really have an ideal reader… I just trust that when it goes out there, it will be found by whoever can make use of it… The beautiful thing about poetry is that you never know who will find it, and you never know what will be found in it.
In fact, one of the most beautiful articulations of poetry’s singular power comes from the poet Vassar Miller, quoted in this book:
Poetry, like all art, has a trinitarian function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying. It is creative because it takes the raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning.
In another interview from the same volume, she considers the origin of the creative impulse. In a sentiment that calls to mind Hannah Arendt’s notion that unanswerable questions are the wellspring of our spiritual and intellectual vitality, Alexander offers:
Spiritual and ethical situations and conundrums are occasions for poems — though I am rarely aware of the conundrum as such when I embark upon the poem — and the writing of the poem is a way of working through those conundrums and accepting their frequent open-endedness. Besides making and raising children, the mystery of making art is the most spiritual zone of my life.
Among those conundrums is the way we relate to one another, or what Adrienne Rich called the alchemy of possibility between us. Alexander observes:
No matter how devoted we are to the culture and to each other, we have a lot to overcome, imagining ourselves, or imagining each other. And in receiving each other.
Language, Alexander argues, is the locus of reception — the medium in which we imagine ourselves and each other — something she captures beautifully in the piercing final line of a poem: “…and are we not of interest to each other?” She revisits the complexity of personal identity and considers how the self lives in language:
It’s all well and good to have an idea, to say, I want to write about such-and-such and such-and-such. But I think the idea has to be rooted in language. It has to live in language.
That’s what catches the imagination of somebody else, a listener or a reader. Even the way that we express ourselves as non-poet “civilians,” if you will, is what makes us interesting to other people… Who is the self in language? And what is the revelatory and unguarded and surprising self in language? That’s what makes somebody else pay attention. When you start turning that into art, that’s what making poems is about.
But this unguarded self in language, she argues, isn’t about “superseding the social identity, but it is about protecting the full dimension of the self.” And yet social identity and the poetics of personhood can never be fully disentwined from one another, nor unmoored from the wider cultural context. Alexander writes:
Being an empowered and intelligent black person and even more so being an empowered and intelligent and self-respecting black woman is profoundly destabilizing to most status quo. You’ve got to remember that in a way that’s not disabling.
Turning to some of her creative and cultural heroes — Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Melvin Dixon — she echoes Bertrand Russell’s assertion that construction is both more difficult and more satisfying than destruction, and adds:
Those [are] examples of brilliant, courageous, beautiful, engaged lives full of rampant loving, loving of the world. Loving of the work. Loving of each other. Moving toward what we love and not just toward the destruction of enemies… And that’s what I feel like it’s important to do upon rising each day.
Half a century after Dr. King’s beautiful case for an ethic of love inspired by the Greek notion of agape, Alexander reflects:
When I was younger I used to think that love as an ethic was … obviously a good thing, but a little corny. I am certainly an optimist but not a fool. In academic environments, we are taught a skepticism that can lead us to discount the power and force of love. But the older I get, the more I think of all the possible permutations and possibilities of a love ethic. To love someone or something is not just to agree with them or affirm them. To bother to engage with problematic culture, and problematic people within that culture, is an act of love. So what does it mean in a complex and dead-serious way to come from that place of love?
When asked about the mental habits and practicalities of her creative process in writing poetry, Alexander offers:
I try to grab things when I can, to keep notes of things as I internally hear them so that when I do have writing time I have something to begin with.
Paper first, then the screen, for I feel bollixed up if I don’t attend to my internal soundtrack, so there is a personal satisfaction that comes from attending to it in writing. Also, at this point, twenty years into my life as a poet, I feel clearer about having something to say and people who benefit from hearing it.
A generation after Susan Sontag urged aspiring writers to “love words, agonize over sentences, and pay attention to the world,” Alexander offers her advice to the young:
I always tell student poets to read and listen as much and as variously as they can to build up a rolodex of possibilities in their minds when they sit down to write a poem. You always need to have many more possibilities of approaching a poem than you end up using… It’s about tuning your internal ear and listening to what the poem at hand is trying to do and be.
This internal process, Alexander enjoins, should be the primary focus of creative work:
Submit to it, tend it, nurture it, honor it. Too many young writers get distracted by thinking about career before process; without process, there is no real work and thus, no career. Every day is another blank page to be filled from your own particular landscape. Process it all.
Power and Possibility is an illuminating read in its totality and a fine addition to this evolving collection of writers’ advice on the craft. Complement it with Alexander’s stirring memoir of love and loss, one of the best books of 2015, then revisit her wonderful On Being conversation with Krista Tippett: