Literary Fiction by People of Color discussion

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Inaugural Poet Elizabeth Alexander

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message 1: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Mod
As we knew that our very literate pres-elect would, Obama has chosen an inaugural poet. She is Elizabeth Alexander (a DC girl!). The Washington Post quotes this from her website:

She is the author of four books of poems, The Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book, and American Sublime, which was one of three finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. She is also a scholar of African-American literature and culture and recently published a collection of essays, The Black Interior. She has read her work across the U.S. and in Europe, the Caribbean, and South America, and her poetry, short stories, and critical prose have been published in dozens of periodicals and anthologies. She has received many grants and honors, most recently the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954,” and the 2007 Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. She is a professor at Yale University, and for the academic year 2007-2008 she is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.

I must admit that, while I remember the publication of The Venus Hottentot, I am really not familiar with her poetry. Several poems are on her website:
[http://www.elizabethalexander.net/hom...].

I liked several, including this one:

Race

Sometimes I think about Great-Uncle Paul who left Tuskeegee,
Alabama to become a forester in Oregon and in so doing
became fundamentally white for the rest of his life, except
when he travelled without his white wife to visit his siblings —
now in New York, now in Harlem, USA — just as pale-skinned,
as straight-haired, as blue-eyed as Paul, and black. Paul never told anyone
he was white, he just didn’t say that he was black, and who could imagine,
an Oregon forester in 1930 as anything other than white?
The siblings in Harlem each morning ensured
no one confused them for anything other than what they were, black.
They were black! Brown-skinned spouses reduced confusion.
Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
When Paul came East alone he was as they were, their brother.

The poet invents heroic moments where the pale black ancestor stands up
on behalf of the race. The poet imagines Great-Uncle Paul
in cool, sagey groves counting rings in redwood trunks,
imagines pencil markings in a ledger book, classifications,
imagines a sidelong look from an ivory spouse who is learning
her husband’s caesuras. She can see silent spaces
but not what they signify, graphite markings in a forester’s code.

Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
The one time Great-Uncle Paul brought his wife to New York
he asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,
and that is where the story ends: ivory siblings who would not
see their brother without their tell-tale spouses.
What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
Here a poem tells a story, a story about race.


message 2: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Thank you for posting this, Mina! Elizabeth Alexander is a very good poet and an wonderful person. I was fortunate enough to take a class with her as the instructor. I'd love to use this thread to chat about her poems, perhaps with the intention of having a full-fledged discussion on the inaugural poem in late January? I recently enjoyed her Amistad series in American Sublime, so if I can dig it out, I'll post one of those as well.


message 3: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Mod
Fantastic, Qiana!


message 4: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Mod
There is an interesting article about Elizabeth Alexander in the NYT today. I liked what Maya Angelou said about her:

Ms. Angelou said that when she heard of Ms. Alexander’s selection, she smiled. “She seems much like Walt Whitman,” she said. “She sings the American song.”

The article is at the site below:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/21/us/...


message 5: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments Here's the text of Elizabeth Alexander's Inaugural Poem: "Praise Song for the Day"

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/20/us/...

Praise song for the day.

Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others' eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, "Take out your pencils. Begin."

We encounter each other in words, words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, "I need to see what's on the other side; I know there's something better down the road."

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.



message 6: by Wilhelmina (new)

Wilhelmina Jenkins | 2049 comments Mod
Interestingly, Ruth, the poet over in the Constant Reader group, found a version of the poem with Alexander's line breaks and structure. Seeing it this way made the poem even stronger for me. What do you think?

Praise Song for the Day
A Poem for Barack Obama’s Presidential Inauguration

Elizabeth Alexander

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.


Copyright © 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander.


message 7: by Qiana (new)

Qiana Whitted | 189 comments This is great, Mina! The breaks do make a difference. Which is funny because I found a version with breaks that I like too:

http://blogs.buffalonews.com/artsbeat...

I'm getting my thoughts together about the poem and I'll have more to post soon!


message 8: by jo (new)

jo | 1019 comments there are so many absolutely lovely lines in this poem. it's like she captures the extraordinariness and entire ordinariness of the day, compares to how extraordinary our lives are, and how ordinary, and how pain and joy make them remarkable to us but not necessarily to others, yet, for us, they are the most important and startling things in the world. i read this poem and think, "i like this woman, she sees in my heart."

We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.





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