Yolanda Pierce of The Kitchen Table, on the selection of Elizabeth Alexander as the inaugural poet laureate:
I am celebrating this news because it honors a black woman we both know and deeply respect, a woman who has dedicated her life and work to not only writing, but training the next generation of writers. Alexander’s volume The Venus Hottentot, remains one of the most influential volumes of poetry I’ve read and I use it for my own teaching.
I am celebrating this news because Obama seems to fully grasp the idea that words and language truly matter. By restoring poetry as a central feature of his inauguration, Obama gives hope to those of us who believe that art is always important and necessary, especially during hard times. Artistic expression is as necessary and as vital as bread and water.
I am celebrating this news because our African American ancestors articulated their struggle for freedom and dignity in verse: poetry, song, and prose. And so, through poets like Alexander, we can pay homage to Phillis Wheatley, and Jupiter Hammon, and Lucy Terry Prince – 18th century black poets who dared to sing a free song, while their bodies were still enslaved.
I’m enjoying exploring some of Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry. Fitting for this site, here’s a beautiful poem she wrote about Los Angeles:
Stravinsky in L.A.
In white pleated trousers, peering through green
sunshades, looking for the way the sun is red
noise, how locusts hiss to replicate the sun.
What is the visual equivalent
of syncopation? Rows of seared palms wrinkle
in the heat waves through green glass. Sprinklers
tick, tick, tick. The Watts Towers aim to split
the sky into chroma, spires tiled with rubble
nothing less than aspiration. I’ve left
minarets for sun and syncopation,
sixty-seven shades of green which I have
counted, beginning: palm leaves, front and back,
luncheon pickle, bottle glass, etcetera.
One day I will comprehend the different
grades of red. On that day I will comprehend
these people, rhythms, jazz, Simon Rodia,
Watts, Los Angeles, aspiration.
And a wonderful poem on poetry itself:
Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry
is where we are ourselves,
(though Sterling Brown said
“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I’”)
digging in the clam flats
for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.
Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,
overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way
to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)
is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.
Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
She also wrote a beautiful piece on the legacy of poet and activist June Jordan. All these and more poetry, audio, and essays can be found at Elizabeth Alexander’s website.