Obama chooses his poet
by Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor
There was no poet at the inaugurations of George W. Bush but Barack Obama is returning to the tradition started by John F. Kennedy who famously asked Robert Frost to share the stage with him in January of 1961. Obama’s choice for inaugural poet: Elizabeth Alexander.
Alexander may not be a household name but in the world of poetry her credentials shine bright. Today many in the literary world are reacting positively to Obama’s choice.
Alexander, who was born in Harlem in 1965, teaches at Yale. She has published four volumes of poetry, including “American Sublime” which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2006. She is also the author of two collections of essays. Last year, she won the $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize.
She and Obama both taught at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.
“Elizabeth Alexander is a superb choice for the Obama inauguration,” Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets told the Associated Press. “She is from Washington, she represents Obama’s generation, and she has written about the civil rights conflict and other historical events that have shaped the character of this country. At the same time, her intense personal vision reveals the commonplace life illuminated from startling new angles — as good poetry always does.”
“I’ve read Alexander with great pleasure over the past two decades,” enthuses critic and poet Jay Parini in a Guardian blog. “She writes from the center of her experience as a black woman, but she makes this viewpoint relevant to every reader, whatever his or her color.”
The selection of Alexander sends the right cultural signals, says Parini.
“In a sense, the Obama team remains pitch-perfect here,” he writes. “The choice of Alexander to read is brilliant. She represents black American culture, but she says to the audience: ‘We’re here, and we’re very smart and well-educated, fully aware of western European culture in all its complexity; yet we retain an allegiance to our own past, our roots, our needs, our vision.’ ”
Other than Frost, only three other poets have read original works at US presidential inaugurations: James Dickey at Jimmy Carter’s 1977 ceremony, Maya Angelou at Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration, and Miller Wiliams at Clinton’s second ceremony in 1997.
Another big winner in Obama’s selection of Alexander is her publisher, Graywolf Press. Graywolf is an interesting group.
Located in Minneapolis, they are far from the epicenter of US publishing but have earned high marks within the book world for some savvy moves, including becoming the US publishers of Norwegian author Per Petterson’s “Out Stealing Horses” and bringing out critical successes like “The End” by Salvatore Scibona and “Elegy” by Mary Jo Bang.
But the publishing of Elizabeth Alexander may prove their smartest move ever.
After the inauguration Graywolf will publish the poem Alexander will be writing for the event in a chapbook. They will also republish all of her works.
“This is the biggest thing that could happen, for Graywolf and for Elizabeth,” Mary Matze, Graywolf publicity director, told Publishers Weekly. “It’s bigger than Oprah! The entire world is going to be watching.”