I posted two poems from Elizabeth Alexander's The Venus Hottentot about a week ago, but wanted to wait to write about her work until we got closer to the Inauguration, where she will be reading a poem written for the occasion. I also wanted to read some more of her poetry and some of the essays in her book The Black Interior.
Part of what I want to say is simply that I am extremely pleased by Obama's selection of Alexander to be the Inaugural poet. I like her poetry very much, but even more than that, I think she is an incredibly appropriate choice. One of the major themes of her work is the creation of a poetic history of black men and women in the public eye, a concern which is obviously extremely relevant to this Presidency and to the ritual of the Inauguration this year.
Alexander's poetry examines the various public positions that blacks have occupied—there is the object of sheer voyeurism (the "Hottentot Venus," Saartije Baartman [wikipedia], about whom Suzan-Lori Parks also wrote an amazing play, Venus), the artist-as-surrogate-sufferer (John Coltrane [pdf]), the leader-as-symbol (Nelson Mandela [pdf]), and the figures in a photograph as a communal memory or a memory of a community (in "Van Der Zee," which I posted earlier). In The Black Interior, Alexander also considers the art of Romare Bearden and the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and the different ways each artist depicts the act of viewing black lives and living spaces. She also has an essay about Denzel Washington, and one about Jet magazine, each thinking about how blacks are portrayed in popular culture. Perhaps the best essay in the book is about Langston Hughes's role as an anthologist, trying both to bring African voices to (white) American audiences for the first time and to create a sense of the context and history of black American poetry that would supplement the usually exclusively white or patronizingly segregated anthologies of American poetry from the Louis Untermeyer days.
I am excited to see what Alexander will say in her Inaugural poem—so excited, in fact, that only today did I realize that I would get to hear a new speech from Obama as well on Tuesday. I will try to post on the poem Alexander reads when it is made available. Until then, enjoy the poetry at her webpage!