Elizabeth Alexander Transcript
Elizabeth: One of the values that I think poetry practices with language is that precision matters. Naming things precisely matters as human beings. If we have not been seen straight on or named precisely, we feel ill at ease.
Helga: I think we learn from poetry to be precise. To be exact in our intention. And that's a big thing for me.
I think poetry also distills some of the chaos of the personality. We are at once essential, unmasked, and sometimes even unnerved.
Is that the door? Is that the door?
Our paths have crisscrossed so many times over the years. The smile and wave from across a crowded room, the embrace before the hurried exit. But we've never had the opportunity until today to simply sit in the presence of one another.
Finally at rest, after a long day and many meetings, she arrived. We hugged, we centered, and we began. I'm Helga Davis. Here we are with Dr. Elizabeth Alexander.
So, you've named the things that you did, right?
Helga: You're going from meetings to your head, to your head, to your head, to your head. But then what does it feel like?
Elizabeth: To be not on earth?
Elizabeth: If you imagine the inner rooms of us, it feels like I haven't been to those inner rooms recently enough. And I think you have to go to those inner rooms every day. But I think also shifting in the last couple of years from a life that has more time and space for reading and writing to a life that is trying to do something else that's more external. I have to remind myself that it's fine that it's not the same as how it was, but I have to identify a vitamin deficit and see what I can do to build it in.
So, what it feels like is, I don't know what the contours of my insides are like. And so in my body I feel like I'm hollow. But now I feel like I'm coming back to full and curious about
Helga: And that place I think is also so important to know, to be curious about what's inside. Not to know, but to be curious about what's inside. It's so important.
Elizabeth: And I think also what was wonderful about coming in and seeing you and being received is that different people open us up to different parts. And it's an exchange. Yeah. So, there's not only the occasion, but there's also the human being occasioning the occasion. So, thank you for that.
Helga: Thank you for that. I had the big privilege of being in a car with you and with Lorna Simpson and with Thelma golden. Like three, three of my spirit hero sister people.
And the thing that I was aware of was how important it is to see yourself in the people that you surround yourself with. And to feel yourself. And then I felt also young. And I also felt my full grown ass self.
And that was another thing that felt so important to me to identify as a necessary part of an inner life. Is this mirroring. And to be able to sit in the company of women. Of black women. Of women who feel like sisters. Of women who feel like role models. Of women who look like me so anything they do, I can also do. That's like, that's the young part, right? I belong here. Yeah. This, this sense of belonging.
And it has nothing to do with how often I see you. Whether or not I've ever been to your house. It's not any of those things. But it was medicine for me, just this ride from Point A to point B.
And then of course we got inside the place that we were going to and there was a lot of activity there. And lots of different needs to be met in that room by the four of us. But I had that first imprinting in the car and it actually made it okay for me to be in the space that we were in.
I had a sense of completeness and of wholeness. Yeah. And an interior life.
Elizabeth: You know, when I think about that car ride, I think also about the, the spiritual health of it all. Which is also to say that, you know, to accept each other to be with each other.
Thelma and Lorna and I had a little bit of business we needed to figure out. We figured out that business, but it could have been that any combination of us had to get something done. And that whoever wasn't in the business would've in a trustful way, been able to just be there? I mean, that's a pretty profound thing in this life as well.
You know, I think also this business of belonging to each other? It's important unto itself because, you know, human beings are connected. And that's one of the reasons to be alive. Is to connect to other human beings. But I think that also we fortify each other and ourselves in order that we can go back out and share something. Or do some work, you know, or mentor, you know, a younger generation. Or, you know, fix some bullshit.
So all of this fortifying, again, while it's enough unto itself, it's actually what it enables all of us to be able to do the things that we're trying to do in our work lives.
Helga: What is it for you about words and particularly words organized as poems, that that is so important for your life. And that is so much of your life.
Elizabeth: Yeah. I was thinking about how being a poet manifests in spaces that are not, you know, artistic spaces. Today, when I was in one of my meetings, And we were thinking about how to name an Institute or center that's coming together.
And I was like, "Ooh, naming time. I can do that. Name, name, name. You know, here's 20 words. This is exciting. I love this." And I thought that one of the values that I think poetry, practices with language is that precision matters. Naming things precisely matters.
Conversely, being imprecise, being sloppy, not looking directly, but rather looking to the side is of consequence. You know, as human beings, if we have not been seen straight on or named precisely, we feel ill at ease.
Elizabeth: And I think that language is, it's the thing that all of us have with which to exchange ideas. Language is one of the ways that we unify and distinguish and make community.
So, I started off in my life studying dance really seriously I felt like it was my art form. And so that was the way I communicated. And it turned out that I was a person more of words.
But I think a lot about what it means to communicate even ideas with and through your body. But what I found with words, being better at them, is that I could say more, do more, exchange more, soul to soul, more. Figure things out in what I find the hard, exhilarating work of searching for the right words.
I think about, you know, some of our poets. I think about, you know, Audrey Lorde in Coal. And when, she says "Some words bedevil me." And about, you know, just her understanding of the texture and depth and potential of words. How we wrestle with them.
But I find that not only very satisfying, but also, quite a medium without which some things can't happen. So, I need them.
Helga: I have some words that I'm actually having trouble with, right now.
Elizabeth: They are be deviling you.
Helga: They are be deviling. May I share them with you?
Elizabeth: Please! Yes.
Helga: Faith. Tradition. Journey. And family.
The tradition one I have a really hard time with because very often when I hear that word, I hear white people excluding black people or black people excluding white people. There's some, it's used not from a place of pride, but as a place of separation. Well, we have our traditions.
And then immediately in my head I go, and I look. My mind makes this filter of who, well it depends on who's saying the word first. So, its source. I consider its source. And then I make a lot of assumptions about who they're talking about.
And I think that perhaps until I see or live evidence to the contrary, I'm always going to make the assumption that it doesn't mean me.
Elizabeth: Hmm. Well, tradition goes in so many different directions. I mean, in my education, a lot of my work was about working along tracks of people who were trying to build counter archives. You know, other traditions to say, "Here are these black women writers from the 19th century whose work has not been preserved in book form."
You know, so I came up, my contemporary reading was people like Lucille Clifton, and Sonia Sanchez, and Ntozake Shange. But those were not people who I was studying in school. And those were not people who were seen as being in the English literary tradition.
So, you know, tradition and counter tradition is something that not only am I comfortable with, but I find dynamic. And part of why I find it dynamic is that it is animated by the fight. So, that's one way that I think about tradition.
I think, the complexities of a tradition within Black conversations, is that I think sometimes as artists figuring out how we do and don't fit into Black traditions when that's supposed to be our heritage is a whole interesting, tricky thing.
Elizabeth: So I think that, you know, what's beautiful about being- And you know, many have said this. I think it was Ellison who said, "You can't choose your kin, but you can choose your ancestors."
Which I take to mean, you know, there's the blood you're born into. But who opens you up as an artist, who your people are in that regard. Well, that's idiosyncratic. You just figure that out. And your work is a resolution of that.
But it's not always easy. And I think, I guess to me the privilege of making art is that you can bring all these things together, but you don't have to resolve it. You know, it's all process.
I think a lot about, what are some of the transferable skills about being an artist to doing other kinds of work. And I think the ability to sustain process with elements that seem irreconcilable. That's very, very transferable and valuable. And it's also valuable to go to another of your words, inside a family.
I have two sons, 20 and 21. And they were choosing their courses for the semester and I stay out of it as long as possible. And then I have many opinions. So I said, you know, "Take a literature class."
And he looked at me and he said, "Mama, I like to read things that are true."
And he said it with great kindness. But he was saying, this is how, at this point in my learning, I need to learn. This is what kind of sinks in and feeds me.
So I think that, I think a good mother moment, was that I didn't feel the need to reconcile that. He is who he is. I am who I am. At this moment in time.
You know, one of the beautiful things about having a little bit of time on this earth is that you realize, okay, well Inshallah as they say. You know, you get to meet and practice and learn something for a stretch. Be in certain relationships for a stretch. And then keep it evolving.
Helga: Are there things that you do everyday? Are there practices that you have everyday?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I love people's days and people's habits and people's practices. And I devour that in others. And I'm really curious about it in others.
You know, I remember when I read Virginia Woolf's, A Room Of One's Own. A nd thought about the luxury of having a room of ones one. And then around that time also read something that Ntozake Shange wrote about how when she's really, really deep in hard work, she says, first what she has to do is there has to be water and flowers on the table where she's working. But that there also comes a point where she has to get out of the house. Because the writing makes it too funky in the house. So she has to go and work in a cafe for a little while.
And what I loved about that was I thought you can always have a flower. You can always have water. You can have a dandelion. That's not about having certain kinds of resources. That's about a practice and a habit.
I always have flowers in my living space. I try to meditate before I pick up my phone or do other things.
Helga: And what does that mean for you?
Elizabeth: Yeah. And what that means is it's meant different things at different times. So, sometimes it might've meant listening to Oprah and Deepak. Or listening to The Daily Calm. Or listening to any kind of, you know, app.
More often what it means is just turning over on my back, putting one hand on my chest and one hand on my belly and just closing my eyes and coming into the day.
I have a little piece of wood, a small painting that my late husband made, and it says, "I wake up grateful for life as a gift." So, I look at that every morning as well.
On a good day, there's yoga. There's walking. I find walking to be very great centering time. And I think, you know, that walking also gives time to transition from one idea to the next. From one place to the next. From a bodily state of being a little bit tight, to being a little bit looser.
I also, every day, start with a text round robin with two other sister girlfriends. And so, you know, everyone's an early bird. And you never know what you'll wake up to or if you'll be the one to start it. And it might be good morning, or it might be, here's an interesting, interesting thing someone saw or, you know, here's a something funny, or here's a something on our minds. But that happens every single day.
Helga: And it doesn't matter where you all are on the planet.
Elizabeth: Nope. This morning on the planet we were in Western Pennsylvania, San Diego, California, and New York City. And it's kind of actually one of the great things because we move around for our work. That it's a way of being together even when we're physically not together. And that there is shorthand.
But also just, I want to see the world through her eyes, you know. And also, it's being, so again, we didn't like go deeper on family. And what is, you know, vexed about the word for you?
You know, I love the family I was born into. I love the blood family that I made. And I really love my chosen family. That I sometimes refer to as "the village".
And so for me, at this stage in my life, 57 years old, really knowing that I have chosen family and that my, my parents and children have those people too. And knowing as I look out at the next stretch. I don't feel ominous, but I am certainly more than halfway through my life. You know, so, you know, which is only to say, I feel like, okay, so we are journeying together.
So that's, when I think about the word family, that's where I sit with it. And that feels full.
Helga: I feel like I'm getting there and what it's meant is a lot of holding on and letting go. And it's both things. And trusting, like believing people when they say, "I'm your family". Right?
Elizabeth: What are your day things? What are your rituals and habits?
Helga: I wake up and I'm a pretty early person too. I can feel the light change. I don't have shades or anything. And I feel the light change. And when I feel that, I open my eyes.
By the window of my bed I have a little thing of foliage that has been wired into the word yes. And I make sure I look at that first and say, "Yes". I get up, I light my candle and then I sit. I just sit down.
There are six women who receive a text message for me every morning. And that's a thing that I pretty much do every day. Sometimes when I travel it gets wonky. But, I am committed to that.
For most of them it's emojis and sometimes I try and tell stories with the emojis. And then recently I had one friend who was always sending me back what I said to her. And I got mad and I'm like, "Come on. You can be more creative in this."
And so I sent her a message and I said, "What is it that you would have me have from you to begin my day?" And that's the way I phrased it. And her response to me was that, "I would write you love notes". I would send you words that I love. And emojis when applicable.
But that was not her go-to. And so it helped me understand this thing full circle. Because here I was in my judgment and my anger, which I've been trained to hold back. And I said, "No, I'm not going to because I want more from this person." Right?
So I asked this question and then she sent me back the thing that completely humbled me. And she said, "Thank you for asking me." Because this is not what I want to do with you. What I want to do with you is to send you love notes."
And so now every morning with this person, we send love notes.
Elizabeth: So beautiful.
Helga: And I had no idea.
Elizabeth: Well, it's courageous to ask something of a friendship. Not to just be in it, you know? I mean, I think, you know, we spend most of our time being in our friendship. And that's part of why we're friends with people because it is easeful and pleasant to be with them. But to ask something of a friendship, I think, is brave.
Helga: She's my family. Without a doubt. And I don't want to lose my family. There is love here. And it's long love. It's many, many, many years. Ask for more. Ask for what you want.
Elizabeth: Hmm. Wow. Well, I'm going to take that.
Helga: So you've accomplished a lot of things now. Are you able to enjoy the things that you've been able to do?
Elizabeth: Well, what would that look like? I mean, I think, raising two sons well, you always knock wood with these things, is the thing I'm the most proud of. And the thing that gives me the most pleasure. You know, having these 20 and 21 year old people. Big people. Beautiful people. Fascinating people. Hilarious people who still come around a lot.
I enjoyed, every stage of their lives actually. Being their mother. But I feel that this is an extra special stage because they haven't yet, you know, they're in college. They haven't yet fully gone off on their own. I mean, it's nice. They've sort of created some space and independence, but they still have college vacation time to come around so that we can really be together. But I can also look at them from a distance, doing their thing.
You know, reading their own books, having their own friends. There's a lot of dynamism because everybody goes out and bring something back. So the house is very alive with that. So I'm very, I enjoy that accomplishment.
I have written well. I have done my best with the books I've written. I'm glad that that's there although I think, I don't know if you feel this way. I think that even making art that you're pleased with sometimes has a bit of a taunt in it.
Helga: Oh, absolutely.
Elizabeth: You know, because then it's like well, you're going to do it again? What's next? Are you in yourself or are you squandering yourself? So there's a little bit of that.
As far as enjoying, I mean, so many decades as a teacher. And what I enjoy from that is when the former students come around in different guises. And because most of them haven't become scholars or artists, it's fascinating to see what studying Black literature and culture, how they've taken that into other worlds.
But I'm proud because also because that work was rigorously teaching Black culture to mixed audiences. And because black culture is something where we've had to fight for it to have its space in the Academy, I feel good about that.
So to this work now, and of the last few years in philanthropy, I feel really fortunate that I get to be helpful in that way. And I feel like the work that I do is not as hard as the work that the builders and the makers and the artists and the institution builders and the educators who we support are trying to do.
So I just feel like, great, you know, I got something here, a resource that lets you go do your thing. And because I've been responsible for a lot of resources, I think of it as fuel and energy.
So, it's hard work and I'm doing it intensely. I'm doing it fast. I'm doing it. as strategically and intelligently and boldly as I can muster. And I'm pushing myself in that regard. Because look, the world is a changing place.
Helga: Yes, indeed.
Elizabeth: And good works can be undone. And good people can be marginalized. That's what being black teaches you too . It teaches you to make hay while the sun shines. So that's the work now.
Helga: In the way that you spoke earlier about going from one headspace to another. One person to another. What was it- what was this transition for you?
Elizabeth: So I've been doing work in philanthropy first two years at the Ford Foundation. Then a little hiatus and now a year and a half at Mellon.
And the transition was very hard at first because I didn't know how to balance or calibrate. I didn't know yet that you're always who you are. I thought, you know, a little dramatically like, "I'm on a mission. I've left her behind. And that's my sacrifice."
But to two beloved poet friends we're like, "Girl, you know, like to get up off the fainting couch. You know, you are always a poet."
Helga: You are.
Elizabeth: And what does that mean, right? Does being a poet mean making an actual thing called a poem a day? Well, no. You know, it means being able to sustain contradiction. It means being precise with languages. It means being, I think, brave enough to go into a certain kind of darkness. Knowing that there is light and the light can be the precision of the turn of phrase. The light can be the insight that comes from working in writing. The light can be the knowledge that is accessed when you go deep. You don't know quite what you're rooting about for.
So that all of those are transferable skills. One friend of mine said, you know, "What does it mean to enter the room with poets eyes?" What does it mean to look in a certain way? What does it mean to live in curiosity. But also what I am still in the process of doing and that I'm feeling good about is it's not all or nothing. Because poems are what's true to me.
Helga: I wonder if you would say something about one or two teachers who had a huge impact on you?
Elizabeth: I love the topic of teachers because, Well, I'm very interested in intimacy and it's so intimate with a teacher. So, I'm thinking about my favorite ballet teacher. A woman named Cara Gargano who was fierce and demanding and relentless. And always expected more from us.
She wasn't sadistic. She wasn't mean. But she always expected more from us. And she was precise in her corrections. And she was intense. So she would sometimes come like, you know, I can, like right now I can feel her finger.
Helga: And it's interesting. You just sat up. And you put your shoulders back. And your neck. You got longer.
Helga: So, sorry.
Elizabeth: And that was a long time ago. I'm here to tell you. But I could feel like that finger in between my shoulder blades. Or I could feel like she would also pinch our butts. Like she would, you know, like, just like activate the muscles. Use them. She'd say, "You're trying to lift that leg up? You gotta use this, you know?"
And so, I felt like with he you could always go further than you thought. But it was hard. It was hard.
Helga: And that's such a life lesson.
Elizabeth: Oh my good. Oh my goodness.
Helga: You can always go further than you think you can. And it's hard.
Elizabeth: I feel like I always need to mark Derek Walcott, the teacher who showed me that I was a poet. I went to study with him not having written poems. Having written fiction but not having written poems.
And, he was a very gruff and exacting teacher. So again, we have a bit of a theme. But, he was very deeply loving in a completely. Not warm and fuzzy way at all. He was not about a certain kind of praise, which I found to actually be very black and familiar. Very West Indian. You know, like, "I'm not going to just tell you, you know, what a pretty girl you are. You know, like, why would I do that?"
You know, I think about Tony Morrison in Sula when Nel says to, you know, to her mother, you know, "Did you love us? Like, love you, right? I kept you alive. I kept you alive."
I didn't come quite out of that, but I did come out of people who were like, "Do your work. Work hard. You know, this isn't meant to be easy."
But also who loved me so deeply, and this is what I felt from Derek as well, that they didn't need to say it a million times. It was just the bedrock. So with Derek also, for someone to say, "This art form really belongs to whoever can respect it. Learn it. Work it. Revere it. Bow down before it. Never give up on it. Do it every day.
You know, Derek worked on at poems every single day. So to see him, someone who was so devoted to the work of making art was a really amazing thing.
But also someone who, you know, talent notwithstanding, it wasn't about, are you talented? Are you not talented? It was about what is within your control. Go out and do your work.
He also said things, to us, to his students like, "Never try to charm with your work. Which I think had a great resonance for me in family. Don't be cute. Don't act cute. Cute is not durable. You want to be a strong grown person. You know, you want to be strong and true.
And so, that value in one's work was something that I really, really, really learned from him.
Helga: "Take out your pencils. Begin. Anything can be made. Anything can be done."
Thank you, Dr. Elizabeth Alexander.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Madam. This was a joy. Thank you. Thank you.
And that was my conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Alexander. I'm Helga Davis.
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