Friday, September 21, 2012

Poetry Friday: Elizabeth Alexander 2

I'm back with Elizabeth Alexander today, after finishing listening to the podcast I linked to last week. Again, I enjoyed learning more about Alexander than that she was the poet who read a poem at Obama's inauguration. I loved so many of the things that Alexander had to say, and the poems that she read, that I had to feature her once more. Here she is on poetry as a poor people's art:
"So but I think poetry — you know, what I also like to continue what a number of writers — Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman — they've talked about poetry as an art form that is a poor peoples' art form, which is to say you don't need — you can't write a novel without a lot of time to yourself. They don't get written any other way. But I love how these women talk about how you can snatch time to make a poem. That doesn't mean that they aren't hard to make, but it means that they are like grass or flowers coming up in the sidewalk cracks. Wanda Coleman says, 'I can start a poem if I'm waiting on line. Poor people spend a lot of time waiting on line. I couldn't write a novel waiting on line, but I could start a poem waiting on line.' Lucille Clifton says, 'The best conditions for me to write poetry are at the kitchen table, one kid's got the measles, another two kids are smacking each other. You know, life is going on around me.' And not only is that the stuff of the poems, but also that she can snatch little tiny snippets of space for the poems. She had six children and she was very, very funny. She said, 'Why do you think my poems are so short?' Because that's what results when you're grabbing time like that. But, I mean, they are incredibly, powerfully meditative, amazing, amazing poems. So I think that there's a way that poetry — you don't make any money from writing it and you don't need any money to make it."
I liked this quote because I have been feeling lately as though I don't have time for poetry - for any of my own writing, really. Of course I'm teaching poems to my students, but I'm also grading their work and taking an online graduate class, and that doesn't leave much time for thinking and creating. But I need to "snatch little tiny snippets of space" more often. Later she talks about writing with a newborn:
"You just realize like, well, if you're gonna do it, just do it. Don't even think about doing it. Don't talk about doing it. Just do it. So actually, it was with my first child and nursing in the middle of the night and being, of course, so tired, but also wonderfully unguarded. I found that actually being that tired was fantastic for my poetry because I had no filters. You know, I'd have the baby in one arm and it would be three in the morning and I'd write some things down on any scrap of paper. I just grabbed the time I had."

Speaking of birth, here's the beginning of Alexander's poem "Neonatology."


 by Elizabeth Alexander

Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence,
then all of it. Long, elegant boats,
blood-boiling sunshine, human cargo, a handmade kite —

No longer a celebrity, pregnant lady, expectant.
It has happened; you are here...

Here's the rest.

And with the combination of poverty and birth, I have to share this post too, written by my friend Beth McHoul. Yes, giving birth is like jazz, in all its improvisation and beauty and joy, but for too many women around the world, giving birth is terribly dangerous. Here's a poem I wrote about a scene I witnessed in Port-au-Prince right after the US election when Obama became president.

 November 7, 2008, Port-au-Prince

The Friday after the US election
 We were driving home on Delmas
And I saw a little family:
A man carrying a newborn with infinite gentleness
And a woman walking slowly behind him.
She had the doughy belly of recent childbirth.
My body felt that familiar soreness as I watched her.

Some women are pushed to the curb In a wheelchair
After the hardest work they'll ever do
And then helped carefully into a car
With a car seat awaiting the floppy-headed baby
And driven by a husband who tries to avoid every bump in the road.
This one walked home
With a towel tied around her waist
To hide any evidence of postpartum bleeding.

I wondered as we passed if she had named her baby Obama?
I wondered what his life would be like
With such a strong mother
And with a father who carried him home
With so much love and pride.

 by Ruth, from

Alexander says about poetry,
"I think that one of the great things about poetry, and many black women poets have written about this, that human beings have always made song. Communities, tribes, peoples, have always told each other the story of who they are in song."
This week, Elizabeth Alexander and Beth McHoul and Haiti have me thinking about poetry and song, birth and death, life and loss.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.


GatheringBooks said...

The music of poetry - must be the reason why I fell in love with poetry to begin with as they have their own distinct rhythm and charm - with unfamiliar melodies and rhyme. I don't know much about Elizabeth Alexander so I'm glad that you shared about her this week.

Linda B said...

Beautifully told to us about her, Ruth. I love that story at the end that makes us begin an understanding that all things are not equal. I remember a scene of a long while ago from The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. A woman gave birth, rested for only a while, and returned to the fields. That was my realization. Thank you for your own poem too. Lovely. And "you don't make any money from writing it and you don't need any money to make it." Much to think about here.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Powerful pair of poems here. Thanks for the stories and quotes to frame them. I love the way you draw the picture and put us in the story.

Jessica Stock said...

What an inspiring post. I love that (I think you have written this before) through poetry we recognize our own stories, realize we are not alone. I have never heard anyone talk about trying to write poetry in this way, but it is so true! I love your poem, too Ruth.

Robyn Hood Black said...

As always, much to ponder and appreciate here, Ruth. Thank you for the thoughtful quotes and poetry from others and for your own insights and beautiful writing.

A young friend just had a baby here - they don't have much (materially) but she did have excellent care, something unavailable to so many women in the world.