The Academy of American Poets in partnership with the Housing Works Bookstore Café in New York City presents a free conversation series each fall exploring how different art forms engage with poetry. These conversations pair some of today’s most celebrated poets with accomplished artists from other disciplines. On September 25, 2017, the series featured Academy of American Poets Chancellor Elizabeth Alexander and Brain Pickings founder Maria Popova. Read Academy of American Poets Executive Director Jennifer Benka’s introduction and listen to an audio recording of the event.
Tonight, it’s my pleasure and honor to introduce two women who are among our county’s most influential agents of cultural change. With their writing, extraordinary support of other artists and thinkers, intellectual stewardship, and generous spirits they are leading lights.
Academy Chancellor Elizabeth Alexander is one of only five poets in history to have shared work on the world’s largest stage for a poet. In 2009, she read her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at the first inauguration of President Barack Obama before an audience of billions watching on television and online, offering lines we still hold onto, like:
I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
One of our nation’s most distinguished poets, as Clarence Major noted, she has an “instinct for turning her profound cultural vision into one that illuminates universal experience.”
A poet, prose writer and playwright, she is the author multiple collections of poems, including American Sublime, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and the best-selling memoir, The Light of the World, also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, as well the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Meghan O’Rourke wrote in the New York Times that the book possesses and discovers “a warmth that will remind some readers of the deeper truth of grieving: It is a sign of love.”
When we struggle to answer ‘how do we survive loss’… We are fortunate to have Elizabeth as a guide. Her work helps us navigate fundamental human experiences and questions. And reminds us just how powerfully words matter.
And, now, after her many years of teaching as the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, she currently serves as the Director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation.
Maria Popova founded Brain Pickings in 2006 as a weekly email that went out to a handful of friends. Today it is a website visited by—let’s just say gagillions—of readers each month who are eager to see what treasure she has unearthed from the worlds of science, and the arts and humanities.
She is an innovator and inventor. Somehow, Maria has found a way to use the Internet to be the opposite of the Internet.
In a present that is often defined by haste, like Elizabeth’s poems, Maria’s weekly essays and excerpts invite us to engage in deeper, richer, and more expansive thought.
“In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world,” she wrote, “we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new ideas.”
The genius of Maria and her work is her understanding that one of our fatal mortal flaws is reinvention. She labors to spare us and spring us from the trap of looking only forward and forever faster instead of gleaning insights and instruction from the past.
In addition to Brain Pickings, she has written for Wired UK, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, among others. And, she is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.
In these increasingly troubled times, Maria’s and Elizabeth’s culture work and cultural contributions are electric sources of restoration. Thanks to the both of them, we have a place where we are safe—and we are reassured that we will reach something better down the road.
So let us listen, let us let thinking sink in, let us never forget and continue to ask, as Elizabeth did, “What if the mightiest word is love?”