Video: On African American Poetry
From a February 27, 2009 interview with Elizabeth Alexander on Bigthink.com. To watch Alexander recall her experience on Inauguration Day and how abstraction has affected her work, please see the full interview at Big Think.
Look at the work (I'm going to pick some people totally off the top of my head) of Tracy K. Smith, Marilyn Nelson, Nikky Finney, and Natasha Trethway, let's say. Those are four African-American women poets, and you would simply never mistake the work of one for the other if you looked at it on the paper. You just wouldn't. They're talking about different things, they're speaking out of different regions in the country, different subject matters, different sets of concerns, different kinds of language, different responses to formalism, different ears. To really emphasize all that is quite distinct in African-American poetry is important, so we don't get it in our head that it's one thing.
On the other hand, is the African-American musical tradition and the African-American oral tradition a tremendous, tremendous resource for a poet to call upon? Absolutely. In my own work, what I'm interested in is keeping all my ears—not just the two of them, every ear—open to all there is to bring into the work, and some of that listening is something that any poet can do. Anybody can listen, anybody can.
I'm not a jazz musician, though I consider it an African-American tradition—one with some very brilliant practitioners who are not African-American, but nonetheless, an African-American tradition. It's not anything that I know how to do, but does it affect my work? Well, yes, because I've taken it, because it's great. So it teaches me something in the same way that a Shakespearean sonnet does: because it's great, it teaches me something.
The poetics that emerges is quite an amalgam of a lot of different sources—even in families that are, in some ways, further away from the richest iterations of an oral tradition. For example, aphorisms in African-American culture are a very powerful poetic resource as is that sense of a pythian proverbial which I think of as a poetics. That's something that you hear grandmothers saying, but again, whether or not we choose to draw on it, depends on the poet.
What influence has hip-hop had on poetry?
I would start with the influence that poetry has had on hip-hop, as far as putting things in historical order. When hip-hop emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was coming out of many traditions and many sets of circumstances, like the oral tradition of toasting—of toasting and boasting and roasting. It's part of the Black tradition: getting up, "playing the dozens." All of those competitive verbal traditions are, especially in early hip-hop, just all over the place. That's a poetic resource, certainly.
Hip-hop is so allusive. In sampling, there are a million references. The intertextuality of hip-hop, even when it's not necessarily borrowing from written poetry, is something that feels like literary activity to me in many ways.
But then to look at the influence from the other side, there are a lot of people, probably a little bit younger than I am, who really came up in the hip-hop era, knowing nothing else, or knowing other things but that hip-hop was always there. My tastes were formed when it wasn't there, so I watched with interest and listened as it emerged. For people for whom it was always there, there's certainly that sense of rhythm and rhyme, and again, the public boast as an art form—that makes its way into some poets' work.