Elizabeth Alexander reads from her work

Award-winning writer, educator and cultural advocate concludes the 2018-2019 Lamont Poetry Series.

Nicole Pellaton
April 22, 2019
Elizabeth Alexander

The poet who praised the day at former President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration came to Exeter last week to share her words. “Speech that divides us and degrades us and dehumanizes us is something that we have to fight against with all our might,” said Elizabeth Alexander on Wednesday evening, as she looked out at 800 students and community members gathered in Assembly Hall for the Lamont Poetry reading. “Words are how we give our souls to each other. Words are how we are human with each other. And our words matter.”

Alexander writes on a variety of subjects, including race, gender and history. She is author or co-author of 14 books, most recently a memoir, "The Light of the World," which was a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Her other works include "Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010"; "American Sublime"; "The Venus Hottentot"; as well as numerous essays, poems and fiction published in journals and anthologies.

The students were visibly moved by Alexander’s directness and warmth. “We all came from women,” said Alexander with arms outstretched and a large smile on her face as she introduced a poem about the birth of her eldest son, which she read in honor of his upcoming birthday. As the themes moved from motherhood to racial injustice, tales of a slave ship and grief, so did expressions on the faces of the listeners.

Many students had studied Alexander’s poetry in class prior to her visit; their thoughtful consideration of her writing showed in the heavily annotated books some held in their laps during the reading.

Annotated book of poems by Elizabeth Alexander.

Exonians reacted with extended applause to excerpts from “The Light of the World,” about the unexpected death of Alexander's husband. They snapped their appreciation at the end of “Absence,” a section from a longer poem titled “Amistad,” about a slave ship traveling across the Atlantic with no women on board. Students listened intently as Alexander read:

In the absence of women, of mothers,
who found the note that would soon be called “blue,”
the first blue note from one bowel, one throat,
joined by dark others in gnarled harmony.
Before the head-rag, the cast-iron skillet,
new blue awaited on the other shore,
invisible, as  yet unhummed. Who knew
what note to hit or how? In the middle
of the ocean, in the absence of women,
there is no deeper deep, no bluer blue.

Alexander capped the reading with “Praise Song for the Day," the poem she composed for Obama’s inauguration. Students awarded her a standing ovation.

The next morning, Alexander met with about 100 students for an open Q&A in Phillips Church. Their questions showed an intense reading of the poems, for which Alexander thanked them. Here are selected excerpts from the conversation:

“What role does enjambment play in your poems?”
“One of the biggest technical challenges of poetry is that you are actually controlling time,” said Alexander as she discussed her method and how the eye works when reading words on a page.

“What is it like to be a poet?”
“Being a poet has given me family,” Alexander responded. She went on to discuss the difficulty of making a living as a poet, and the need for a dual career which, in her case, has brought great fulfillment, first as an educator and now as president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. But, she assured Exonians, “If you are supposed to be a poet, nothing can stop you.”

“You mentioned doing an internship early in your career. How did that affect you as a craftsman of poetic technique?”
Alexander recounted taking her work — her diary, because she had not yet written any poems — to Derek Walcott, a professor at Boston University at the time. He transposed one of her diary pages to verse and told her that she had no sense of the poetic line. Go figure it out, he advised. He pushed Alexander to consume the greats: all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, all of Donne, all of Frost. Then come back and talk to me, he said. That year of working with Walcott “showed me I was a poet,” Alexander explained. “Being an artist isn’t about getting an A or pleasing someone,” she added. “It’s about knowing deeply within yourself and only within yourself that you’ve done something that you feel can stand up to what you are trying to do.”

As the bell rang for the next class, a few students lingered in Phillips Church. Alexander connected with each individually, freely gave hugs, pulled out her phone and showed pictures of her two sons, one of whom, the eldest, had turned 21 that morning.

Alexander and students share stories after a Q&A in Phillips Church.