Anna Deveare Smith holds a conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, who was the inaugural poet at President Barack Obama’s election. Smith notes, “When I heard she’d been asked to compose a poem for the inauguration, I hollered out loud, but I wasn’t surprised.” Smith has brought three poems for Alexander to read, and invites her to pick one – she selects “Absence”, an excerpt from an epic poem about the Amistad, a slave ship that is seized, makes its way to Connecticut, and where US authorities declared the captives on board free Africans, not slaves and property of the Spanish. Alexander’s poem imagines the voyage from the captive’s perspective, the blue notes that come from moaning. It closes:
“in the absence of women in the middle of the ocean
there is no deeper deep, no bluer blue”
Asked about the official role of inaugural poet, the transformation of poetry into a new form of language, with the authority of its inclusion in an inaugural ceremony, Alexander reflects, “Poetry isn’t meant to resolve everything – it’s meant to open us up. And official language doesn’t have the power to do that.”
Alexander is heavily influenced by poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and she says, “Gwendolyn Brooks is the bard of the south side of Chicago. She’s the one who should be delivering the poem, because she’s from Obamaland before it became Obamaland…” How do you write a poem for a mall that used to be a slave market? Looking at a stretch of grass edified by Walt Whitman? How do you put this moment in a timeline?
She reads the inaugural poen, “Praisesong for the day“. It’s a praisesong in the West Africa tradition, but it doesn’t invoke Obama. Alexander sees this as a continuation of a campaign that invited people to look beyond the candidate, towards us, to the movement. A praisesong that served one person wouldn’t be true to the moment.
“‘Love’ is the one word we probably won’t hear President Obama say.” We might misrust him if we heard it a lot – it’s not a politician’s word. She quotes “Work is love made manifest”, and the room struggles to remember who the quote is from. “Kahlil Gibran,” someone yells out. “Good. I wanted it to be Gandhi, but I was worried it might have been Britney Spears.”