When President-Elect Barack Obama finishes his inaugural speech on January 20, don’t jump off the couch and turn off the TV set. He’s chosen poet Elizabeth Alexander — who recently published a chapbook with the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center‘s Slapering Hol Press — to read a new work after his speech. He’s a tough act to follow, and she actually might be up to the challenge.
Yes, Alexander is no lightweight. A professor at Yale, she’s published many books of poetry (The Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book, and American Sublime), in addition to young-adult books and essays. She’s been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She was even made a plot point in New York magazine‘s “Approval Matrix,” in the “Highbrow, Brilliant” quadrant. Surely, she has something special cooking up for inauguration day.
What’s most exciting about Alexander — to me, at least — is that in 2008 she, along with poet Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, published a limited-edition chapbook with the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center titled Poems in Conversation and a Conversation. This is the first in the “Poems in Conversation” series, in which the HVWC asks an established poet to choose an emerging poet and create a work together. “It’s a conversation in that Elizabeth’s and Lyrae’s poems are one after another, and it’s also a conversation in that, at the end, Elizabeth actually conducts an interview with Lyrae,” says Margo Stever, founder of the HVWC’s Slapering Hol Press and editor of the chapbook. “It’s just wonderful to have that at the end of the collection.”
Stever notes that the two poets easily settled in to a theme for the book. “It focuses on the black woman’s experience, and it works on a number of levels,” she says. “It works on the cosmic and visionary level, and it talks about the Earth and the environment, and then it’s about what the black woman’s experience is like in the United States in particular.” The two women write about Romare Bearden’s art, particularly his The Reclining Nude, which was ultimately chosen as the book’s cover illustration.
Though Poems in Conversation seems particularly timely now that Alexander has been named Obama’s inaugural poet (only the fourth poet in history to be given that honor, by the way), the collection has been years in the making. “One thing that’s remarkable is that it’s an experimental work — and I mean experimental in the good sense,” says Stever. “I think that some modern American poetry pushes ‘experimental’ so that the poems move beyond comprehensible. But both Lyrae and Elizabeth are experimental in a playful way, and they use playful language and wordplay, and even experimental punctuation. That made editing the collection challenging, and it actually took us a couple of years before it was finished.”
The final product is out and available at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, or you can order the chapbook online. (Warning: Supplies are limited.) To hear the works in person, Riverspace Arts in Nyack is holding a (free!) reading on February 1.