Thank you for joining us this week for Lyric Essentials! Emma Hine joins us to read Elizabeth Alexander and explores how poetry can give us the tools to communicate, thrive, and connect with one another during a time of political healing.
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Elizabeth Alexander for Lyric Essentials?
Emma Hine: I’ve loved and regularly returned to Elizabeth Alexander’s work for years, but I’ve been thinking about her especially during the past few weeks. Partly, this is because my first encounter with her poetry was actually at Obama’s first inauguration, standing in the foot-numbing cold on the Washington Mall—a memory that has felt both terribly distant and wonderfully potent for a long time since. Then, in 2017, I heard Alexander in conversation with Maria Popova at an event hosted by the Academy of American Poets at Housing Works. She was talking very explicitly about the role poetry could play in the current political climate and its rhetoric of hate and distrust; she said, “We’ve got something better than that spew that comes out; we’ve got something more precise; we’ve got something that names one another; we’ve got something that sees one another. We’ve got something that connects people instead of separating them. This is what we’ve got, so let’s use it. Let’s believe in it.”
I can’t get over this description of poetry as something that precisely names and sees and connects us, and in my experience with Alexander’s work, this definition seems especially true. Many of Alexander’s poems feel profoundly familiar to me—poems I wish I had written or was able to write—and reading them makes me feel both seen and named. At the same time, across her body of work she is speaking to an identity and to experiences that I have no personal knowledge of but still feel like I can inhabit fully as a reader. I feel connected.
And I’ve had the privilege of seeing firsthand how Alexander’s poems connect with other readers and make them feel seen and named. At the Academy of American Poets, I produced four years of the annual Dear Poet Project, where students wrote letters in response to individual poems. In 2018, one of the included poems was Alexander’s “Tending,” and scores of students sent in letters about how this piece affected them personally. A sixth grader from Sacramento wrote, “It felt like the poem was speaking to me, even though my life was nothing like the life that you described. It really felt like you were speaking to me.” This is how her poems make me feel, too.
EH: What drew you to choose these two poems of Alexander’s, specifically?
EH: I love how muscular and lyrical these poems are, how tight the syntax is, and yet how much room they still make for wildness. “On suffering, which is real” is just such an incredible way to start a poem, and then to move into the gorgeous specificity of a toddler’s voice before taking us out, again, to an almost sublimely adult understanding of death—I return to “Autumn Passage” both as a lesson in craft and a lesson in feeling. The same goes for “Equinox,” which, at fifteen lines, is structured like a long sonnet, with its three thematic sections and the final pivoting couplet. This ending is also something I return to often, for how it holds both love and unabashed honesty, and how sonically that last line just lifts from the page.
If we’re talking about the Alexander’s poetry as a vehicle for naming, seeing, and connecting, I should add that I had a lot of trouble selecting which poems to read—partly because I love so much of Alexander’s work, and partly because recording someone else’s poems in my own voice felt like an invasion of intimacy and of identity. Alexander’s “Stray,” for instance, is a poem I read often, but when I tried to record it for this series, my voice seemed to rob it of some of its power and privacy. In a similar vein, many of my favorite poems by Alexander—“Apollo,” say, and “Haircut”—speak specifically to her experience as a Black woman; I didn’t want to impose my own voice on these poems in the recording, but I hope anyone reading this interview will seek out this work as well.
EH: Is there a personal connection with Alexander’s writing that inspires your own work as a poet?
EH: Her work has definitely inspired mine, through what it has taught me about craft and language and kindness. She’s one of a few poets I turned to most often while writing Stay Safe—along with Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Tracy K. Smith, Ada Limón…. Like I said, there’s something about both the precision and freedom in her language and syntax that I find fully captivating, and familiar in the best poetic sense of the term—familiar because it needed to exist and therefore feels right when it does, not because it’s like anything we’ve already seen.
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?
EH: Thanks for asking! About two-thirds of the way through Stay Safe is a long, lyrical prose poem sequence, which was the last part of the book to come together for me. This sequence is set in space, on a fleet of generation ships centuries after the loss of Earth. While I was submitting Stay Safe to publishers and contests, I started working on a novel set in this same world, partially because I couldn’t let go of the idea and partially just as a distraction from submission anxiety. It’s been two years now, though, and I’ve recently finished a first full draft! I’m excited to continue working it, but I’m also excited to start writing poetry more consistently again soon.
Elizabeth Alexander is a widely recognized poet, memoirist, playwright, and cultural advocate from Harlem. Alexander is the author of eleven collections of poetry, of which American Sublime (2005) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Most recently, she published the memoir The Light of the World, which earned 2015 best book of the year pick by Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Gilbert, and several others and was a New York Times bestseller. She recited her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for Obama’s 2009 inauguration, making her only the fourth poet to read at a Presidential Inauguration. Dr. Alexander worked as a professor at Smith College, Columbia, and Yale for 15 years, and currently president of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in arts and culture, and humanities in higher education.
Purchase Alexander’s poetry collection Praise Song for the Day.
Watch Alexander read “Praise Song for the Day” and discuss then and now for Library of America.
Read this profile on Alexander’s memoir The Light of the World in The Washington Post.
Emma Hine is the author of Stay Safe, which received the 2019 Kathryn A. Morton Prize and is forthcoming from Sarabande Books in January 2021. Her poems have recently appeared in The Baffler, Copper Nickel, The Paris Review, and The Southern Review, among others, and her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Guernica, and Poets & Writers.
Preorder Hine’s debut collection Stay Safe from Sarabande Books, available January, 2021.
Visit Hine’s contributor page for the Academy of American Poets to read her lesson plans for teaching poetry.
Read Hine’s poem “Dipping Achilles” in The Missouri Review, which was a finalist for the 2016 Jeffery E. Smith Editor’s prize.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/