“This unlikely thing of being a poet has given me a place for all that strange music in my brain.”
There’s something thrilling about walking to UMMA in anticipation of a Helen Zell Visiting Writers reading. I love sitting in the Helmut Stern Auditorium, underneath the lights that look like floating candles, and gathering in The Apse surrounded by artwork and artists alike.
This past Tuesday, I attended the Zell Visiting Writer Series with readings from Elizabeth Alexander, Distinguished Poet in Residence. Alexander is an incredibly talented writer with a number of accolades to show for it. She composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” at the inauguration of former President Barack Obama, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her book of poems “American Sublime” and was recently appointed President of the Andrew H. Mellon Foundation.
But Alexander is more than her impressive list of accomplishments. She’s deeply curious. She’s thinking about big ideas. She’s constantly experimenting with sound, form and genre.
Alexander opened her reading with a discussion of freedom, asking the audience, “What does freedom look like? What does it look like when we lose it? How do we guard it?”
Using this framework, Alexander read “Emancipation.” She plays with alliteration in the first line: “corncob constellation.” The poem is a conglomeration of unlikely words, references and sounds coming together. Alexander mentions Linda Brent, a character from “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs, who grapples with a choice between freedom and staying a slave to be with her children. Though the end of the poem ends with the lines “We’re free,” Brent ultimately chooses motherhood, making me wonder if the poem is saying emancipation isn’t as easy as being told you’re free.
Throughout her reading, Alexander offered writers in the audience small tidbits of advice.
“For those of who you are writing, history is an extraordinary source,” Alexander said. “Though historians have done a great job of figuring out the past, there are still gaps, and we can fill in the spaces historians cannot.”
Alexander thinks about historical gaps with her poetic sequence “Amistad,” which is based on the famous story of the Amistad ship that was carrying African captives to Cuba. The captives took control of the ship, steering it north until they arrived in Connecticut. Alexander imagines the perspective of some of the captives, from someone who watches a blue whale swimming alongside the vessel for hours, to a little boy who has no mother and whose father possibly just died next to him.
My favorite out of Alexander’s poems read aloud was “Ars Poetica 17: First Afro-American Esperantist.” The poem’s strong words varied vastly in sound, from “gumbo” to “certificate.” This poem reminded me that language is meant to be spoken and heard, as reading the poem in your head doesn’t give you the full effect of Alexander’s pauses and drawn out words.
Alexander concluded the night by reading from her memoir “The Light of the World,” in which Alexander reflects on the unexpected death of her husband, who passed away at only 49 years old. Though writing a memoir gave her a “momentary crisis about genre,” she realized “these words were poet’s prose.”
Alexander’s decision to focus the reading on the idea of freedom was a smart one. In moving from historical freedom to the personal freedom of writing what she needed to grieve, Alexander effectively shared how poetry is her mental freedom, and can be ours too.
The Zell Visiting Writers Series will return next semester.