Of all the writing genres, poetry can feel the most mysterious. It is dense, concise, heartfelt, a wave of words and feeling crashing over the writer and then the reader. Poetry arrives quickly, intensely and, like a comet that has just breached the earth’s atmosphere, needs to cool before taking shape.
Another one of life’s mysteries swept up Elizabeth Alexander, the poet and Yale University professor, moving her, for the first time, to blend poetry and memoir – a monumental task given the differences in genre. But Alexander says when it comes to genre, she doesn’t follow the rules.
In 2012, Alexander’s husband of 15 years had a massive coronary and died almost instantly. She did not stop writing. Instead, she began a book, grieving and writing at the same time.
Alexander is first and foremost a poet. However, in the memoir, she deftly incorporates poetry as if the two genres have always gone together.
Alexander met Ghebreyesus – an academic, restaurateur and painter – in 1996 in a café. In The Light of the World, she describes her first encounter as a “torque inside my stomach, the science of love.”
That love is at the heart of the story – and the title is borrowed from a love poem by Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott, Alexander’s teacher and mentor prior to her time at Yale. The book has been called an extended narrative poem, an elegy, a tribute and a love letter to her husband. For Alexander, the book is all of those.
The Light of the World is filled with heartbreaking details of her husband’s death and snapshots of the life they built. In what she calls “poem chapters,” Alexander creates sentiments of devout, gentle prose. The chapters are short, sometimes smaller than a short poem. One chapter near the start of the book is fewer than 25 words – an example of a single sentence woven by narrative and poetics.
“It’s the shock, not the grief baby,” my hairdresser says, as he runs his hands over and through my newly coarse, wildly gray hair.
Alexander deceptively interjects poetry throughout the book. At first, the prose is a string of facts and descriptions, a stage being set. But early on, the reader is offered more than data.
I am the wife. I am the wife of fifteen years.
I am the plumpish wife, the loving wife, the
smart wife; the American wife.
I am eternally, his wife.
Alexander also has the tendency to make readers feel as if they are sitting expectantly – tucked among soft pillows on a generous couch – in the author’s living room. In transforming her grief, she shares stories of food and widens the family to include readers.
Indeed, in the pages of her memoir, Alexander offers some of her favorite recipes from her family’s kitchen, as well as from her husband’s restaurant and native country Eritrea. Every couple of chapters, she knocks off the rough edges of grief by offering instructions for making food such as Shrimp Barka, the most popular dish at Ghebreyesus’ restaurant, and A Thousand Onions, a pasta dish by beloved friends who folded Alexander and the couple’s two sons back into fellowship after the loss. Ghebreyesus’ cherished Bolognese sauce, prepared and frozen before he died, becomes a gift.
This latter recipe punctuates her prose like a floating list of ingredients: “diced pancetta, fresh marjoram, no garlic.” These fall between paragraphs, as if the Bolognese itself is a scattered poem.
Alexander was born in Harlem and raised in Washington, D.C. She is the child of civil rights activists who took her to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the march on Washington in 1963 when she was 2. “Politics is in my blood,” she has said. As a graduate student, she became a reporter, but it was not the right fit for her love of words. She began teaching in the English department at the University of Chicago in 1991.
It was there that she formed a fortuitous friendship with then-law professor Barack Obama. Alexander wrote and read “Praise Song for the Day” at Obama’s 2009 presidential inauguration ceremony, one of four poets to ever do so.
Twenty years ago Alexander helped found Cave Canem, an organization devoted to providing fellowship and recognition for African American poets. She met and befriended poet Terrance Hayes, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Poetry for his book Lighthead.
“After looking over my work, she put me in touch with her editor, Louis Rodriguez at Tia Chucha Press. That’s how my first book was published. We’ve remained very close friends,” says Hayes. “It’s a friendship that began rooted in poetry but that has branched into all aspects of our lives.”
Alexander’s work is marked by her personal humanity, says Hayes.
“When I think of how her work has impacted modern American poetry, I think of how it is an extension of her mentorship and love for people,” he says. “And something else too: the poems display such grace of spirit – humorous, generous, contemplative – but it is a grace with boundaries,” says Hayes.
Alexander’s poems, he adds, make readers feel she has invited them into her life: “They are discerning in a way that reveals their true insight. And that’s Elizabeth. Anyone who reads her is in genuine dialogue with her and her work. To read her is to feel somehow selected by the writer.” This stems, he says, from Alexander’s affinity for the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, whose “affection for African American culture” and “broader attention to how people express care and community” resonates through Alexander.
New York Times reviewer Joel Brouwer says Alexander’s “greatest gift” is her use of “Faulkner’s claim that ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past.’” And while the past is very much at the heart of her new book, she is a woman of her own time, her own voice. The following is an edited version of our exchange.
Q&A with Elizabeth Alexander
When did you know you wanted to be a poet?
I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t until grad school that I knew I wanted to be a poet. It was then that my teacher, poet Derek Walcott, said, “You don’t know how to line break.” And so he taught me how to line break poetry.
How was the transition from poetry to nonfiction or memoir?
I never imagined that I would write memoir. It came to me one note at a time. It’s like it came from the same font as poetry. It was the same familiar process of sound and music and it became a model.
With The Light of The World, at what point did you know you would write about this experience in a memoir?
I began writing soon after my husband’s passing. I used writing to process. I knew I was still alive. And writing was a way to have earth under my feet. My editor approached me about a memoir and something in me said, “Try this.”
And were you afraid?
When the most unimaginable thing has already happened to you, you aren’t afraid of anything.
Your poetry has been called “sensuous.” I felt that quality in The Light of the World, especially in the kitchen scenes with all of that warm, rich food. Did you feel this, too, when writing parts of the book?
Food, the smaller details are sensuous, as in “of the senses.” The challenge in writing is: How can I get people to smell and taste this food?
The Light of the World felt like a love story not only about your family but to your family. I’ve heard others call it an extended narrative poem, an elegy, tribute. Aside from memoir, what do you call it?
I call it all of those things, really – a love poem, a love story. We took the love we had and it radiated to the family, our community and to points unknown. You share the love you have.
The ER scene has an almost dream-like quality to it. Yet it was so intense I found myself holding my breath. How did you get through the writing of such a highly personal scene? Did you take it in small bites? Or was it all in one continuous movement?
The whole book was continuous small bites. I call them poet chapters. I was very meticulous and careful with the intimacy in the book. Scrupulously careful. And then in the end, I went back and polished the chapters like stones.
From very early in the book, I felt I was seated in your living room: It all felt very intimate and cozy; as if, as the reader, I was a beloved guest. Was this felt-sense intentional?
I didn’t say in my head, “I’m going to let people in,” but first, I brought them outside the house. Then inside the house. Ultimately, I wanted to bring the reader in, but it wasn’t conscious. There is that one chapter early on where a guest is welcomed into our house.
I noticed some chapters were simply a short poem, or something like a poem; but even the other, longer chapters had a poetic feel. How was it to write memoir with a poetry mindset?
I did it word by word, bringing care – words, music – to the writing. I know if I’ve gotten it right.
In your memoir, you go back and forth from present and past. How did this affect your writing process? Was it loose or structured?
By the end, it was very structured. I wrote little bits, then a lot of little bits. I was very mindful of not looking until I had a pile. And before I knew it, there were lots of little piles. As for going back and forth, that’s what time and memory does; that’s the way the mind works. Perception and memories – going forward in time – then in and out of memories – then the past.
Is poetry evolving faster than any other genre?
Poetry is beautifully flexible. American poetry right now – it’s this wild, amazing beauty. There are more and more voices coming out. It’s quite a renaissance for American poetry.
What’s your favorite category of books, outside your home base of poetry?
Memoir. And African American history and culture.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary poets?
Marie Howe: deep, true, soulful, profoundly philosophical. Terrance Hayes: an inventive poet, can do anything with language. I’m also inspired by artists who use tools other than the kind I use, such as jazz musicians, painters.
How does your former teacher and poet Derek Walcott influence your work today?
He will influence my work forever. He was always starting fresh, every day. He made tremendously brilliant artwork that stands up to the ages. He was always trying to make work that could stand up to the greatest work. It was a daily devotion to learn from him.
What advice can you give to poets making the transition from one genre to another for the first time?
I spent many years in poetry apprenticeship. Practicing for decades. And this is what I can say: Know what you’re trying to make; know it; practice it. Just write, and write seriously, and don’t worry about genre too much. Create something brand new.
Your husband Ficre is an artist of many talents. What do you think he’d have to say about the retelling of this family story?
He was always my absolute, most fervent supporter. He always encouraged me to do more. He’d be proud that I did something that was both hard and honorable.
Julie Krug is a regular contributor to The Writer and lives in Washington state.