I got a chance today to talk with Elizabeth Alexander, whose poem "Praise Song for the Day" was part of the Obama inauguration ceremony. Almost as soon as her words died out, the poem sparked a debate on Read Street. Some called it inspiring, a celebration of everyday life. Others thought the poem -- and her delivery -- were flat.
You can read excerpts at www.baltimoresun.com/readstreet and get a link to hear the full 15-minute interview. Here are excerpts from the interview;
On what she wanted listeners to take away from the poem: "That's really not how I approach a poem ... . I just want people to take it in. That's the wish. That people will pause for a moment and take the poem in."
On the challenge of a ceremonial poem: "My job was to ... address the occasion in some way but also hopefully do it in language that would have some resonance beyond the occasion. My challenge also was to do it with the utmost clarity, but clarity that did not sacrifice complexity."
On preparing for a reading heard by millions: "I told myself, 'OK, the hard work is the making of the poem, When you read it, you're sort of setting it free. In a way the moment for nervousness is in the making. .... I did speak to an actress friend of mine and her wonderful reminder, which became my mantra, was 'Remember to breathe. If you get nervous, breathe. If you think you're going to start to cry, breathe. If you start to cry, breathe. Before you start, breathe.' "
On the sometimes harsh reaction to the poem: "If people think it was not complex enough, then I hope they might take a moment to go back and look at it in its written form and perhaps see what it yields. ... I'm sure that before this poem there were plenty of people who did not care for my work. I certainly respect any artist who puts themselves out there ... .
"Being an artist is not about being liked. That's not why you do it. That's not why I do it. ... What I know from this extraordinary outpouring on the street and on my email and in my mailbox, is that a whole lot of people, and a whole lot of people who have never encountered my poetry before, and who have never encounterd poetry before, in addition to many who do, they're finding something there. So that's nice. ...
"The main reason I'm doing this press is it's important to take this moment on behalf of the art. Guess what? We can have this national conversation about poetry and it won't hurt a bit."