MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Another prominent post was filled yesterday when 46-year-old poet Elizabeth Alexander was chosen to write an original poem and read it at Barack Obama's inauguration. Alexander's also a professor of African-American studies at Yale. Today she read one of her poems for us. It's called "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe."
(Soundbite of poem "Ars Poetica #100: I Believe")
Dr. ELIZABETH ALEXANDER (Professor of African-American Studies, Yale University; Poet): (Reading) Poetry, I tell my students, is idiosyncratic. Poetry is where we are ourselves, (though Sterling Brown said "Every 'I' is a dramatic 'I'") digging in the clam flats for the shell that snaps, emptying the proverbial pocketbook. Poetry is what you find in the dirt in the corner, overhear on the bus, God in the details, the only way to get from here to there. Poetry (and now my voice is rising) is not all love, love, love, and I'm sorry the dog died. Poetry (here I hear myself loudest) is the human voice, and are we not of interest to each other?
BLOCK: That's poet Elizabeth Alexander. She taught at the University of Chicago with Barack Obama and considers him a friend. Alexander grew up in Washington, D.C. When she was one year old in 1963, her parents took her to the National Mall to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his "I Have A Dream" speech. I asked Alexander if she's scared about writing and reading a poem for the inauguration.
Dr. ALEXANDER: Challenged, not scared. I think that the campaign and the election have made many of us feel that we are called to do better, called to contribute, called to do the best we can. So I feel that rather than be nervous or scared in the face of a challenge, rather to think this is something that I have been trained to do. And I'm honored to be able to be of service with and in the medium that I've been working in for a long time.
BLOCK: Well, you have about a month to do it. Have you started? Did you pull out your pen or your laptop or whatever it is you write with right away?
Dr. ALEXANDER: Yes. I've started. And I start with a pen. It ends up in a laptop after I've done a lot of drafting on paper. And I've been trying out phrases and ideas, and meditating and looking through scraps of things that I have been noting over the course of the campaign and the election, because, of course, it's been a time of tremendous feeling and tremendous thought. So I've been making many notes. And perhaps this poem is where some of those notes will find their anchoring.
BLOCK: You know, I imagine this must be a whole different process in terms of how you would write a poem - I mean, to create a poem essentially on demand in a very short period of time.
Dr. ALEXANDER: Yes, it is. This would be what we call an occasional poem. I've written some of them before for different occasions - for a baccalaureate, for a Phi Beta Kappa ceremony, for weddings. And the challenge is how to serve the occasion and, at the same time, how to create something that lives up to your highest standards of artistry.
BLOCK: You know, I went back and looked through the three inaugural poems that exist. Robert Frost from '61, Maya Angelou from 1993, and Miller Williams in 1997, and they're all very, sort of, prophetic. It's sort of what kind of country are we in? What are we going to be? on sort of a grand scale. Do you feel like that is sort of the model for what you should do here?
Dr. ALEXANDER: Well, I do think the call is to do something, if not prophetic, something that is grand, something that does take in and recognize the import and the potential of the moment - these enormous questions that we're thinking about, these enormous challenges that we're faced with. At the same time, in all of my work, I think it shows a great belief that what is local, what is intimate, what is precise is the best way to communicate those larger matters.
BLOCK: Have you allowed yourself to think yet about that day in January, standing at the Capitol, looking out over what's expected to be millions of people? It could be as many as four million people on the Mall that day.
Dr. ALEXANDER: Yes. It's going to be extraordinary. And what I have thought about that is that in that moment, really, I am the vessel for the poem. The pressure, the challenge is to write a poem that can serve all of those expectant, gathered millions and to let the poem be what calms my nerves when I'm up there.
BLOCK: You sound very calm about it.
Dr. ALEXANDER: I am. Getting nervous will not help me get it written.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: Well, I'm hoping we can check in with you over the next few weeks as you work on this poem and see how it's going.
Dr. ALEXANDER: I would enjoy that. Thank you.
BLOCK: Poet Elizabeth Alexander. She's starting work on the poem she'll read at Barack Obama's inauguration. You can hear her read more of her work at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Elizabeth Alexander, who was chosen to read at Barack Obama's inauguration, says she doesn't feel scared but wants to find the right words for the historic moment.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander was chosen Wednesday to read at Barack Obama's presidential inauguration.
Alexander, the author of five books of poetry and a professor of African-American studies at Yale University, taught at the University of Chicago with Obama and considers him a friend.
She grew up in the Washington, D.C., area. In 1963, when she was a year old, her parents took her to the National Mall to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his "I Have A Dream" speech.
In a conversation with Melissa Block, Alexander says she does not feel scared, but rather challenged, to come up with a poem for the historic moment.
"I've been trying out phrases and ideas and meditating and looking through scraps of things that I've been noting," she says. "It's been a time of tremendous feeling and tremendous thought."
"In that moment, really I am the vessel for the poem," she says. "It's not about the poet at that moment, it's about the poem. So the pressure — the challenge — is to write a poem that can serve ... all of those expectant, gathered millions and to let the poem be what calms my nerves when I am up there. To let myself remember that I am there to deliver these words and these words have been commissioned to deliver a very, very amazing moment."