Elizabeth Alexander 2016

Elizabeth Alexander

I’m really, really happy to be here tonight. I love this prize. Every year, I wait to see what happens; every year, I learn something new. Every year I also say “I knew it!” about more than one person who I’m so happy to see with a light shined on them. I think every year it brings a wonderful wind of excellence and possibility. It’s a very, very special award. So I’m very grateful that I was asked to talk with you tonight and to be part of this.

I want to talk tonight about staying the course as a writer, about genre, and about remaining open to uncertainty. “When did you know you were a poet,” I am often asked. I usually answer that when I was a child, I collected words, devoured books, and loved to listen to people talk and tell stories. I was a child who went reluctantly and fitfully to sleep, uncertain of what was there. But the mornings were a wonder, because I woke not only alive and myself, but knowing I had been somewhere amazing. That there was a subterranean world that was not always accessible to me in the minute-by-minute, but was complete and expressed itself in the dark, in visual images, music, and, at the forefront, in words. I visited that dream space and came out with an acceptance of the surreality that presented itself in the daylight of my mind.

In college I wrote fiction and then was a newspaper writer for a stretch; writing critical essays was a constant. I found my way to poetry as such when I was 23, and learned that it was my true self, home base as a writer, the way I understood and organized the world, the analogue to the strange magic of my dream space and the way to bring it to imperfect form.

Poems and poems, books and books, a struggle each time but the work went on. When I map the years there are a lot of things on the lifeline: teaching and its attendant wonders, academic administration and its … non-wonders. Poetry-world mentoring and building, institution-building, work on behalf of various fields, one child, another child, extended family responsibilities. Then, when my beloved Ficre died unexpectedly, there was the encompassing work of grieving.

I might like to think that my life is one book lined up tidily next to another; so speaks literary ambition. But really, it is a jagged path. I look at the work of four of my touchstones: June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, and I see that same jagged path through writing in different forms, rearing children, learning the self, tending the sometimes fragile body, evolving with self and time and in community, building something more than themselves.

The ideal circumstances for writing poetry, Lucille Clifton said, are sitting at the kitchen table. One kid has the measles; another is doing her homework. Lucille Clifton had six children. “Why do you think I write short poems," she said. But she described those as ideal circumstances for writing poems. Zora Neale Hurtson wrote, “There are years that ask questions, and years that have answers.” Some years have books and some years have babies and some years have bounty and some years have loss. And some years, it feels like someone died or was born even if it literally didn’t happen. I look to Jordan and Rich and Lorde and Clifton to study their years and think about the ways they have evolved and stayed the course.

For all the years I crafted poems I felt it important to assert that in the midst of all else, poetry was where I lived. “I am a poet,” I loved to say and love to say. I am a poet. It is a passport, a global entry card, something that means to me: you are precise. You observe with utmost care. You are a craftsperson. You make music and understand that your work emanates from the body and its rhythms and waters. You stand outside of the marketplace, as we know, because no one gets much money to be a poet, and so your work is unencumbered by commercial concerns. And so you are very, very pure. And actually, being a poet is a job that connects you, I believe, to the rest of the globe, where perhaps everywhere, more than here, people understand the will to make song and sing the self or the tribe to others. You are honored around the world as a poet.

I never imagined that when I wrote first one word and then another in the wake of my husband’s death that I was beginning the process of creating a memoir, let alone a memoir that would make its way into the world and connect me to so many people and stories. Braced by my writing hand on the dining room table, I felt I was literally making sounds, not even words, one by one, until they became fragments, then sentences, and then something whole that told me not what I was feeling, but rather what was happening at the most basic level. “The earth will hold me,” I would tell myself as I wrote as I lay on the floor between sentences and reminded myself I was alive and I was a mother to two human beings, and I could think and breathe and write, even as I felt the earth had been swept out from beneath me.

Such as the state in which began The Light of the World. When I finished it, after sharing it at two junctures with my sons, for I would not have put it forth in the world without their ascent, I did not feel it had been cathartic as many quite reasonably asked me. I knew I had not written poems. It was memoir, a form that felt too public and explicit to me. But I knew I had written my way through a stretch in the road of my life,  and that each word was a necessary step forward to the next station, the next stage, brief poet’s chapter by brief chapter. And as I let myself inhabit standing inside a new genre, I realized that perhaps my sense of the sanctity of genre could come under some pressure, indeed had cracked open. What might happen with a story that didn’t inhabit the vessel of a poem? And what might I learn, and in the process, learn how tragedy remade me?

As much as The Light of the World is a love story that begins with two people and tells a particular story about a particular man and woman and family, I wanted those particulars to radiate outward and be meaningful in ever-widening circles. Our tidy family of four was a three-legged table. A family queer and bent and whole. For loss is our common denominator; none of us will escape it. None of us will outrun death. What do we do in the space in between that is our lives? What is the quality and richness of our lives? How do we move through struggle and let community hold us when we have been laid low? This book had to live some place outside of the sound of my own voice, to paraphrase the poet Sekou Sundiata, another dear one gone too soon. It had to be larger than me and my individual love.

Remarkable things happened around my book. I might have expected to connect with other widows. “Widow”: I write the word; I cross the word out. It’s not the right word; I’m not that person, still, four years later. Other widows who read the book and connected because of demographic commonalities.

But I found the human connections far exceeded that boundary. In Los Angeles, I did a reading called “Inside Out Writing” that creates writing workshops for incarcerated young people and then continues that writing practice with them when they are released, both as anti-recidivism work and also to continue to build community. I read to and with some of those young people who shared stories of what they wrote of and through. Two of them interviewed me with tremendous care and closed the interview by thanking me in their languages, Korean and Tagalog, recasting Ficre’s polyglot mantra that I described in the book, when he said “What could be more important than saying thank you to someone in their original language”? A young man who joined the program while a teenager in prison gave me a bag filled with glitter, in which was a tiny glass bottle with a cork plug. The plug was a computer drive, and his own poems jumped up on my screen when I plugged it in, a life in verse, someone else who was moving forward and staying alive with writing.

Some connections took my beyond Ficre and were merely moving or uncanny. Among the moving: the man who came up to me and told me he was so happy to have found me, because it connected him to my 82-year-old father, who was a childhood playmate of his, because their parents were united in the wish for justice and connection between Blacks and Jews, and he inherited my father’s childhood wooden boat, with which his own grandchildren now play, and which he brought me on a picture on his phone. Ficre would have loved that, and so I showed my father a picture of a beloved childhood toy he had not laid eyes on in 70 years. Stories carry memory; objects carry memory and connect us.

Or the Haitian poet who spoke to me of the many commonalities in the figure of the horseman that Ficre was painting at the time of his passing being a harbinger of death. I will never know if he had foreknowledge of his passing, nor would I wonder, nor would it matter, given the un-retractable fact of his death. But I am stirred by the idea that, from another culture, someone saw symbol and ritual and meaning and was moved by it.

A colleague, a classicist, after hearing me read, wrote: “When I read your account of Ficre’s last days and seeing the hawk taken as an omen that prompted the acrostic and lottery tickets. It made me image that somehow, at a subconscious level, your husband had an intuition of disquiet and danger ahead. And I find it very moving that he responded by trying to turn the apparition into a propitious omen for his family, the urge to win the lottery. Now, whenever I teach passages where Homeric warriors prophesy on the cusp of death, I will think of your book and of its hero, Ficre.”

I received this interpretation of the Jewish Kabbalah poems I wrote of hearing in the minutes before Ficre died. I believe that a stranger wrote me that what we are uniquely given as humans is windows into the infinity of God. We are also given the remarkable ability to open our windows wider, to stretch our view into the infinite, worship, beckoning, weeping, joy, bearing, birth, banjo, love, poetry, astrophysics, term papers, painting, a hawk devouring a squirrel. To me, this is what you describe in your story, the stretching of your world, the ability to see and experience and love more deeply as you built a life together with Ficre and your sons. To join your windows from such different worlds together so you could all peer more deeply into the infinite. But you are never going to get all the way there because that is the nature of infinity. You are never going to have your husband and lover forever; no one can. What you were able to do is to deeply appreciate the additional depths and dimensions you are able to reach because of the time you had together, and the new windows into the infinite that opened for you. Windows without numbers and windows without end.

As a writer, it is so very rare to have someone and someones tell you what they see in your work and expand it into different worlds. But even if they don’t tell you, they’re thinking it. Sometimes - oftentimes - our writing has meaning that we didn’t even consciously put in there. The poem is smarter than the poet, we poets sometimes say, which is to note we dredge so much from the subconscious for our work that we cannot even know to be sure of all that we put in it. So the gift rarely glimpsed is what others see there, and thus what was and is within us.

In these letters, on the road, I’ve had the privilege of receiving very, very intimate stories, each of which I hold like treasures: of loss, of family, and its simultaneous strength and vulnerability. The strength of human connection gets us through this life but we are also, in moments of profound loss, reminded of how fragile this life is. How do you start again and carry the past within you? What remains when the body is no longer here? I have been privileged on this journey to have readers help me answer and contemplate those questions.

I found that first-generation Americans connected with the story of what I had not previously thought of as a “mixed marriage”: American and immigrant. And that they saw, in Ficre’s life story, not the story of his passing, a wonderful way to make a way in America. To work hard and aspire not to be a doctor or an engineer, as so many hard-working parents would wish for their children, but rather a chef. An artist. Someone uniquely positioned to tell the tale and exemplify their life of cross-culture. What happens when you come from one place and make something new in glorious combination in America.

It is not easy to go back to the site of a book like this and write about it. Writing in the very wake of my husband’s sudden passing was writing in a zone. The language there was raw and true and lit. There was urgency. I knew as I wrote that I would not be the same person on the other side.

The Rilke that was a touchstone for the book and that I quoted within it continues to resonate for me: “No feeling is final.” Never have I so clearly understood life as a road to be walked. And while I wrote in the book of hearing the Hialeah Jackson as though for the first time I also, outside of the book, hear a new “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” For so many circles have been drawn in the life that came out of this book for me, a life that is so much bigger than mine or even that of the mighty, beautiful, soulful, unforgettable Ficre, the most beautiful person anyone ever knew.

This book was not a conjurer’s wand to bring him back to life, but he lives in its pages and like other heroes of literature he teaches us something about how to live our days and detail. Every day can have beauty and tenderness at the simplest level of the meal, and a flower in a garden. Every day can contain some small pleasure, every act can have integrity and be courageous, every action can be guided by kindness.

Over and over again as I meet people who themselves have been refugees as he was - he walked out of his country when he was 16-years-old - or suffered political consequences in different countries, I think of the courage to start anew. I think of this particularly in the global refugee crisis that we’re seeing right now, and the miracle of positivity and light.

I turn, again, to the spirituals: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” It was, after all, that line, best known as an anthem during the mighty struggle of the Civil Rights Movement, not just a merry exhortation, that beautifully repeated “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine” performs the will to live in the context of mighty life and death struggle. The word “shine” is bright radiance itself.

For some years I have thought I may never write another poem and of late I think, what if I never write another book? Writing is writing; I do not believe that are things that are not writing are writing. Writing is writing. But I realize that the larger questions are about staying the course. And that the things I learned from writing a book from the inside out are the things that seem to me right now the most human and important. And that is what writing gave me.

What does writing - the act of writing - help you understand? How is art a companion? What are the blessings of craft, of having a craft to practice which allows you to understand, more keenly, what you feel and inventory what you know? How does genre matter and not matter? How do you always know more than you think you do on the surface? How is writing about the deep soul practice that Adrienne Rich called “diving into the wreck”? Diving into the wreck for the story itself, and not the story of the wreck - the thing itself.

There are sureties that come with life; we ride them like rafts. The act of making art, the courage of it, is challenging the sureties and going out into the deep, deep ocean of unknowing. The simple challenge as I see it is staying the course, and the stories told in more than just the poems or the books.

I live with human beings. In fact, a 16-year-old human being is talking to me as I write this sentence, telling me the story of what he dreamed last night, a dream that takes a cathartic journey from being terrorized to becoming the hero and saving his family. Simon tells his dream to me in vivid detail. I have turned from my own words to listen.

My last book existed in my own body as a dream and now it connects and continues to connect with others, making an ever-widening human circle. I’ve learned that our individual lights are very, very small compared to all the light in the world. And every day I seek just a little bit more light. Thank you.


Professor Elizabeth Alexander is the author of six books of poetry, including American Sublime, a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize; two collections of essays; and The Light of the World, her critically acclaimed memoir on love and loss. In 2009, she wrote and delivered her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.  She has received many awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees, among them grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Anisfield-Wolf Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry, and the inaugural Jackson Poetry Prize. She served as chair of Yale University’s African American Studies Department and was recently named the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and was recently appointed Director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation.​


Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths​