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The President’s Poet

Say what you will about the poem or the poet, the opportunity to recite at President Barack Obama’s inauguration ushers in “a moment in the sun for poetry and poets, and I hope to be responsible in that moment,” says Dr. Elizabeth Alexander.

A professor of African American studies at Yale University, Alexander is only the fourth poet ever to read at a presidential inauguration and the second Black woman to do so.

“This has become a moment where there is a larger national light that has been shined on poetry itself. To be able to talk with you, to talk with others about the vitality of this as an art form … about its place in everyday life, about its mystery and nonmystery — it is a richly complex art form, but it is also an art form that can appeal to many, many different people.”

With the official release of her poem on Feb. 6, Alexander was starting a round of interviews barely a fortnight (she inspires one to think in pretty words) after her worldwide debut as first poet. “I’m trying to take this moment to talk about poetry because that is the community I work in,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for all of us.”

Alexander, the author of five collections of poetry, including the 2006 Pulitzer Prize finalist American Sublime, follows in the footsteps of Maya Angelou who read in 1993 at President Bill Clinton’s ceremony. The other presidential poets were Robert Frost for President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and Miller Williams for Clinton in 1997.

As to why she was chosen as “the one,” she says, “That would be a question for him. Certainly, in my work I have always had a sense of the historical and about the utility of the historical as a way of thinking about the future and I think … that is the approach that he shares in his acts, too.”

The professor says she has been getting hundreds of letters and e-mails from people from as far away as Croatia, Tunisia and Vietnam about how they connected to the poem or specific lines of it. (“Say it plain: that many have died for this day,” comes to mind.)

Says Alexander: “The poem has been sent out into the world. It really belongs to the people who receive it … .That’s where its measure is.”

Since day one, it has been a target for some bloggers, critics and others. Of the critics, she says merely that they “are entitled to their opinions.” She hopes that they will take a fresh look now that the book is out, in part because versions on the Internet and in print did not reflect accurate line breaks and stanzas.

“One of the great things about sending a poem out into the world is that people can have their interpretations.”

A l e x a n d e r earned a bachelor’s from Yale, a master’s from Boston University and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. She previously taught at Haverford College, the University of Pennsylvania and Smith College. At Yale, she is preparing to chair the African American studies department.

All the attention she has attracted since the inauguration has not changed her life much, she says, but her students have been “very excited” about her selection.

“They, like so many young people around the country, were very, very invested in the Obama candidacy and election,” she says, “and this feels like a little part of that which many of them worked to see has made it into their world. I love my students, and I think the affection is mutual. And they are just excited.”

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