Elizabeth Alexander reads "The Dream That I Told My Mother-in-Law" for Dear Poet 2019.
Dear Ms. Alexander,
My name is Leah and I attend high school in Los Angeles. Usually English is not my best subject, but this year I found a liking and appreciation for the English language. I’ve always liked poetry because I create a meaning behind the poem. It fascinates my to see how a poem can be interpreted in so many different ways based on the person reading it. We’ve been reading Frankenstein in my English class and I enjoy it because it produces feelings of sublime; and I think a feeling of sublime is the true reason of writing.
I found my truth in your poem. Your poem made me feel feelings of sublime; feelings that I would not feel, had I not read your poem. My family is from many different places; they all have their different superstitions, which made me relate to your poem. In the poem when the mother cracked eggs and they “all had double yolks” and the mother in law “read the signs,” it reminded me of my grandmother who believes many things are not just coincidences, but signs.
Something very important to me when I get older is to have a good relationship with my mother in law. I think that the dream the mother tells her mother in law is precious and beautiful. I believe that most people are somewhat a reflection of their parents, that they wouldn’t be who they are without them, which can be both positive and negative. The last line is by far the strongest line in this poem, it truly moved me. The last line states “you are a mother now, and you have to take care of the world.” I interpreted this in the sense that who your child becomes can either help the world or hurt it. It’s up to mothers to make the next generation world changing and great.
What is it like to be a poet? Do you ever get writer’s block? Is it hard to put your emotions on paper and share it with the world? Thank you for your exquisite, delicate poem.
Los Angeles, CA
Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
When I read your poem for the first time, the first thing that came to mind was “this woman is clearly a mother.” Also, I honestly didn’t understand it. Not understanding it made me upset because I, myself am a mother. I had my baby girl, Olivia, five months ago.
When I read your poem for the second time, I still didn’t get it, which only frustrated me more. Until I let myself sit back and allow the poem to take over my mind, I realized that what I did understand was the very end where you wrote, “Daughter, she said, when her journey began, you are a mother now, and you have to take care of the world.” I know you meant the baby was now the world. My baby is my world. I breathe for her. I work for her. I even cry for her. I cry because taking care of the world can be so stressful. Not only that, but taking care of the world also represents how you see the world. Also, what makes it worse is how easy someone can take credit for the world you created, raised, influenced and did your best to fill with love more than anything.
I didn’t get lucky enough to stay with the father of my baby nor have a healthy relationship with his family in general. I can’t thank you enough for creating that image for me. What I do wonder is, how is that like?
Kansas City, MO
Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
You are a PHENOMENAL poet. I love your poem, "The Dream That I Told My Mother -in -Law." I also loved how you read it in the video we watched. When you read it, you broke off each line in unexpected yet beautiful ways. I appreciate you for putting great poetry into the world.
The most meaningful line to me is: …”said her portraits revealed their truest selves. She snapped my picture, peeled back the paper, and there was my son’s face, my first son, myself. Mamma loved that dream so I told it again.” To me, this line shows the dedication to family and to love. Also the pride from one to another (in this case your mother-in-law to you).
I also noticed this ending note to the line above: “so I told it again.” It’s like the last crunch of the cookie, a satisfying SNAP! You know it’s over, but it was worth the end.
When you wrote the line “you are a mother now, and you have to take care of the world.” What did you mean? Was it that she wanted to tell you something you had to work out on your own? That might not be why, so that’s why I asked. Also when you wrote: “(war took that son, we destroy one another)” who are you destroying and why?
Thank you so much for reading this, I hope you write back.
Dear Dr. Alexander,
My name is Ella and I am a freshman. I play volleyball, and I laugh…a lot. I love poems, even if I don’t write them often, and when I finish one I feel extremely accomplished. I love when you can read someone’s poem and almost feel what the words portray. When I cannot express myself I either turn to read my old Shel Silverstein books or my journal. Both give me a sense of peace and calm. Your poem gave me a sense of peace, but also an uncomfortable feeling. It was the feeling I get when my binders are unorganized. Except for this time I liked the feeling.
When I read your poem, “The Dream That I Told My Mother-In-Law” I took a while to understand/comprehend. That is part of what I find so hard about poetry: I don’t want to dive too deep into it. But with your poem, I liked how it made me stop and think, and look back to different stanzas or lines. The feeling I got from this was unsettling at first. But it made me want to read the poem even more. It made me want to understand it. But here’s where I get nervous: I am afraid to get it wrong even though there is no right answer in poetry, so says my teacher. I do not feel like there is an answer, but I am scared that there is. However, I tried to challenge myself to push down that mental wall when I read “The Dream That I Told My Mother-In-Law.” Your poem was so complex yet simple, it was a lot longer than most poems I have read. It was so intriguing. Especially the line, “to the enormous white bed that rolled/and now held three, and soon held four,/four on the bed, two boys, one man, and me,/ our mother reading all signs and blessing our bed.” It is very interesting and complex. I found the mention of the mother blessing their bed very luring. The poem just makes you stop and ponder at almost every other line. I have so many questions for you and how you write.
How do you write poems? It seems so easy from the outside. I get so nervous when I write a poem. And worry that it’s not good enough, that it doesn’t make sense, or that I have no clue what to write, cross my mind. Does this happen to you? When you first started to write poems, how did you write? I watched the interview you gave for your book about your late husband. It is one thing to write about something very personal in a notebook or journal. But it takes a lot of courage to write about something that personal and share it with the world. I couldn’t even imagine. I admire you for that. I write things, that if they got out to even one person I think I would break down. How did you do it?
Paradise Valley, AZ
Dear Dr. Alexander
I hope you are doing well. My name is Remy and I am a ninth grader in Arizona. Since it is National Poetry Month, our English teacher has been teaching us about poems in a way that I find very unique and intriguing; instead of reading a few poems from one or two authors, we are reading many poems from a variety of different authors. I really like how poems can convey so many different ideas, feelings, and thoughts and can make the reader feel so many different ways.
“The Dream That I Told My Mother-in-Law” made me feel whole. While reading the poem I felt a warm sensation that reminded me of the importance of family. One line that really stood out to me was, “Blessing us and our bed.” This made me think of my grandmother who, whenever she comes into our house, prays to her guardian angels to protect us. It is a sign of love and safety that makes me feel as though there is a big purple bubble around us and our house, protecting us from the bad. “Blessing our bed/through her frailty,” is such an impactful line because most mothers, mother-in-laws, grandmothers, etc. will think of their family even when they are weak. They will give their last bit of energy to make sure that those she cares deeply about are protected and feel loved. This poem made me feel a variety of emotions. Being a woman, even one who is only fifteen, I feel a strong need to bring compassion, safety, reassurance, and love to those I care deeply about. The mother-in-law in this poem gave me the impression that she has lived her life helping and giving reassurance to others and, now that she is departing, must teach her daughter-in-law the same ways and values: “You are a mother, / and you have to take care of the world.” Now that her daughter -in -law is a mother, she possesses the same qualities as her mother in law and must take on the duties of protecting the world.
While reading this poem, I wondered if the mother-in-law is supposed to represent your real life mother in law? Does the line, “(War took that son. / We destroy one another)” mean ‘we’ as a world or ‘we’ as a family? Who destroys whom? Also, what inspired you to write this? I always have trouble getting started while writing a poem because I have not been able to come up with a plan to help me begin the writing process. Do you have any recommendations on how to start the writing process?
Paradise Valley, AZ
Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
My name is Grace, and I am a freshman at a boarding school in Wisconsin. For the month of April, my English teacher decided to do a poetry unit. To be frank, I am not the greatest at poetry, but I do enjoy some good slam poetry. I used to think that poetry was an abstract way to tell a story with very basic rhyming. Now, I know that it is a lot more complicated than that, with stanzas and a while lot of complicated English terms. We have written around five poems including, two “I am” poems, one “place” poem, one “confession” poem, and one “book poem.” Throughout writing all of these poems, I have learned to really appreciate the art of poetry. Now we have to write a letter for the Dear Poet Project” and I chose you.
I would first like to start off with how beautifully written you poem was. The way you wrote about how your mother-in-law wanted to have grandchildren so bad that you told her a dream you had about having children. She was so happy that she went and told all of her friends. Well, that was how I interpreted it. I thought this way because poetry is just like art; people interpret it in different ways. Like when you go to an art exhibit and you see a piece of abstract art and it looks like something from your past. Like a lake or a house. For some strange reason, you made me think that way which is probably because when I wish for something so bad I tend to dream about it until I am able to get said item. When I have the item I will tend to tell my friends about it and show it to them as well.
Another reason I decided to write to you is because I just could not get your poem out of my head. I listened to all of the poems but, your poem was still stuck in my head. When I was listening to the other poems all I was thinking about was your poem. With the aspect of childbirth towards the end of your poem was really moving. The way you used that metaphor to describe the feeling of the child. It was just breathtaking, and what your mother-in-law had told you that you are a mother now and you have to take care of the world.
Your poem has showed me how beautiful a poem can be. The ways you used the words to describe how much your mother –in- law wanted a grandchild. She was wishing for one so long and when you told her that dream you had, it gave her hope. Hope for one day maybe soon that she would have that grandchild. That dream became a reality and that has gave her hope.
With much gratitude,
Dear Chancellor Alexander,
When I heard this poem for the first time a few days ago it was six months to the day after my grandfather had passed away and around four months since I lost my friend unexpectedly. Whether or not you believe in fate, your poem “The Dream that I told My Mother-in-Law” found me when I needed it; so if nothing else thank you for this poem. While I watched all seven videos, I found myself unable to focus on the others after watching your poem. I went back to read some of the poems and after reading and rereading it I felt I had to write about your poem.
At the end of the first stanza when you repeated the word “blessing” every time I could feel a stronger and stronger sense of the love and happiness the mother-in-law brought with her like the water and white dirt. When the speaker spoke about her dream and how the portrait could pull away to reveal the subject’s true self, I wondered if it would stay the same as one’s life went on. The diction you used in the final line is almost haunting in effect because of the way the words almost hang in air. So how does someone take care of the world?
Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
My name is Dervin and I am a 9th grader. My English 1 class is starting a new project in our poetry unit. We are participating in Dear Poet. One of the first poems that we listened to was yours, "The Dream That I Told My Mother-in-Law." I felt like I can connect with you and this poem because of the setting and content.
I love how you explain the setting and situation. I understand having a small room with a big bed that takes up most of the space because I've been in that situation my whole life. I also love how you use the words "break off and drift, float, and become our own continent," when you are describing how high the bed is on the casters. All of your choice of words are amazing! The way that you switch the moods on how you went from disliking her to telling her a dream that she liked, and now you guys are close.
This is a wonderful poem/ story/ dream. I loved it. I just wanted to ask even though you've probably been asked this, but is this a true story? The way that you tell it, I can visualize it all. Were you in a spelling bee? Or are you just great with choices of words because I love how you describe things. When she moved in what were you thinking to tell your husband and/or how did you handle it and work through it?
Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
My name is Antonio. I’m 16 years old and I’m currently a sophomore. I can relate to your poem because I used to live in an apartment for 4 years. I went from living in a two-story house to an apartment because my parents got divorced. My mom could only afford a one room and a loft apartment. We had to fit in five beds because of my two older brothers and my grandpa who usually came in and out of El Salvador. Also these lines: Our mother reading all signs and blessing our bed/ blessing us and our beds. Those lines relate to my mom because from the year 2012-2013 my mom would come home at 10:30 every night. Even though she had a teaching job at the Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart, she still gave tutorings for extra money. Without my mom’s sacrifice of staying up late and working, she provided every blessings to me and my brothers. She provided us food, water, a roof over our heads, and going to an amazing school. Even though she had to pay for three different schools at once, my mom always found a way to pay for it. No matter how atrocious the situation was, my mom always found the positive side to make everything work. Without her sacrifice, there would be a huge possibility that we would be living in the streets. My understanding of this beautiful poem is that the mother wasn’t very well off and could only afford a one bedroom apartment. Even their bed was out of date that they had to balance it so it wouldn’t fall of the casters. The mother had to provide food and water for her children. One of the children began to dream of flowers and started telling her mother about the dream. The mother loved the dream that she kept telling her children to repeat the dream. The mother went to talk to her parents about that she came back with food supplies. The daughter told her mother that she has to take care over the world.
Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
I would like to start off by saying that I generally don’t like poetry. But I really like your poem. I like how you read it, and how you expressed yourself as you were reading it. I find it difficult to express myself when I read something out loud and I know people are going to be hearing it. Anyway, my name is Sophia. I am a 9th grader and I am in the Engineering Academy. Now, generally at my school, the engineering students are known to have the worst grammar out of all the academies because we are math, engineering, and science. Nowhere in the academy does it state that we have to be good at English. As I said earlier, I generally don’t like poetry and normal poems bore me to death. The nitpicking and trying to understand it just goes right over my head. But, your poem was different. I went through the list of poems with the videos of all the amazing authors, but somehow I skipped over yours. When I got to the last one, I was bothered that not a single one of the poems stood out to me. However, I didn’t give up. So I went to the website again and I saw your video. And I realized I hadn’t watched it yet. I highly doubted it would be any better, but it was.
I think it was the title that caught my attention. “The Dream That I Told My Mother-in-Law” You gave this poem such a large expanse of ways it could be written. It could have been about a purple and green spotted dog. However, you made the poem about family. And I like that. Family is the most important thing in my life, and this poem perfectly encompasses that. My first reaction to this poem, without even reading it was, “Oh boy, how can this be any better than the others.” But I really liked your poem. Like really liked it. The line where you say corner twice in a row about the corner apartment at the top of the hill and a rolling bed, really caught my attention. The way you read the poem was so smooth and you talked about it so fluently as if you’ve been talking about it your whole life. I have a lot of questions, but the one that I really want to know is if this was an actual dream that you had. If it is a real dream, was it weird at first? Did you instantly know you were going to write a poem about it? Was the dream set up like a poem?
Thank you for your time.
Mays Landing, NJ
Dear Ms. Elizabeth Alexander,
In your poem “Praise Song for the Day” you present parallel moments Americans experience apart from each other, not even aware of each other, highlighting the distinct nature of every American’s life. However, in this distinction I perceive an underlying unity. We all live day to day doing what must be done, and appreciating what we cherish. Although no two people have the same life story, we have the potential to relate to and love each other harmoniously through our individual narratives. We don’t get the chance to love everybody on the streets though. We only realize the privilege of experiencing true and honest love with a few. We begin life in a family held together by our parents, then we venture off on our own, becoming a stray in this vast world. Recently I’ve been experiencing a lack of purpose in life. I’m not suicidal, and I know I have a great life, but I don’t know where it leads. As a person who likes knowing where I’m heading, I’ve been struggling. Your poem “Stray” helped me understand that it’s okay to feel lost. As the eldest child in my family, I will one day undertake the responsibility of protecting them. Even if I amount to nothing else in this world, I will always belong to something—my family. The way you discern the American society makes it clear that everyone is different but that it should never inhibit our ability to love each other without pre-empt opinions and views of each other.
Thank you Ms. Alexander, for being a constituent of the “Dear Poet” Project. I never expected poetry to impact me so powerfully because I’ve always been opposed to poetry as I thought it was a bore. I’ve never been one to connect emotionally to literature, yet your words truly struck a chord in my heart. Thank you again for sacrificing your time to connect with teens from all around the country, and for giving so freely of your love, perhaps even though you are unaware of it.
Admiringly submitted, and hoping to hear from you soon,
A grateful new fan
Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
My name is You Young, and I’m an eleventh grade student in Seoul, South Korea. When I saw the title of your poem, the first thought that came to my mind was, “This poem must be about an in-law conflict.” In Korea, mother and daughter-in-law relationships are considered one of the most difficult relationships to navigate, and are believed to be the source of various family tensions and conflicts.
With such preconceptions in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the relationship in your poem was a near antithesis of my expectations. The speaker’s emphatic change in referring to the mother as “your mother” to “our mother” and phrases like “our mother… blessing us and our bed” reveal the affection and gratitude she feels toward her mother-in-law. I felt quite embarrassed that I had presumed the nature of a certain relationship solely based on my culture’s stereotype. Thank you for reminding me to maintain an open mind, especially when approaching subject matters that I might already be familiar with.
Additionally, your recitation helped me realize the importance of not just reading, but also listening, to poetry. When reading the poem, its sentimental tone (in the second stanza especially) gave me the impression that it would be read softly in a slow tempo throughout. But you read certain phrases, particularly those with repeated words, with a strong and steady pulse that made them really stand out. For example, the lines “we would roll / in the room in the corner of the corner / apartment on top of a hill so the bed would roll” were read so rhythmically that I could envision the words actually “rolling” smoothly from one corner of the room to another. It also felt as if I, too, was drifting along on the rolling bed with the poem’s words. Did you repeat certain words and phrases with the intention of creating visual imagery through rhythm? If so, do you think of the images first before writing the words, or do you create images out of the words you’ve already written?
I also want to share with you my interpretations of the poem. I noticed that while the pronoun “you” is mentioned several times in the first stanza to refer to the speaker’s husband, it is not mentioned again in the second stanza. Although the husband is mentioned in the second stanza, he is simply mentioned as the son of the mother-in-law: “And soon she crossed over to her parents, / sisters, one son (War took that son.)” Was there a specific purpose for detaching the husband from the speaker? I’m thinking that it may be to change the focus of the poem from the speaker’s relationship with her husband to her relationship with her mother-in-law. Would I be correct in thinking this way?
Furthermore, it seemed that throughout the poem, the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law figures overlapped to create a single image of a loving mother. The lines in which the daughter-in-law tells the mother-in-law about her dream stuck out to me the most; the speaker was photographed and her portrait, revealing her truest self, revealed “[her] first son, [her] self.” To my interpretation, the mother-in-law loved this dream because just as the son is the embodiment of her very self, he was everything to the mother-in-law as well.
Such a loving and selfless image of a mother provoked me to think whether you took inspirations from Mother Nature. The mother-in-law’s actions, like libating the bed with water from the homeland to blessing the bed and reminding the speaker that she “ha[s] to take care of the world” now that she is a mother, seem to suggest the belief that mothers must nurture the world.
And were the idea of Mother Nature embodied in the two mother figures, has it also influenced the structure of the poem? To me, I felt that the life-giving and nurturing traits of Mother Nature complemented the free verse structure. I was thinking this might be because while Mother Nature does provide fundamental principles of life, such as regeneration, it allows its children to roam freely. Would I be going too far off in thinking this way? If not, was there another reason why your poem is free verse?
I truly appreciate the opportunity to engage with your poem and write to you about my observations. I’ve always loved how poetry can captivate readers with aesthetic and rhythmic qualities. My experience thus far with poetry has taught me that there is a special intensity in poetry that cannot be found in other mediums of literature and art. This subtle yet powerful expression of emotions and aesthetics has improved my ability to better conceptualize the world and communicate it to others. Though I don’t consider myself a poet, I am thankful that I was able to come across your poem, and that the Dear Poet Project has given me the chance to engage with it on a deeper level.
Seongnam-si, Gyeonggi-do, South Korea
Dear Elizabeth Alexander,
My name is Syr Charles. I am 14 years old and I’m in the 9th grade. I’m writing this letter to you because your poem caught my eye. It talks about a dream that you told your mother-in-law. My question is what was the dream exactly? It also talks about photography and how rooms were filled up with king sized beds living on a hill. So does that mean you want to feel rich? Other than that the poem is amazing/outstanding. The poem is similar to my life. When I grow up I wanna do photography and live a decent life like this poem talked about. So thank you Elizabeth, thank you for your hard in making this poem. Keep up the good work and don’t let nothing stop you. In conclusion my final question: is this poem done, what’s next for you?