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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Alexander’

writers resist nypl event protest

I spent most of the last week in New York City, first attending a work conference and then enjoying a long weekend in Brooklyn with my husband. We walked and wandered: around Fort Greene, across the Brooklyn Bridge, up through SoHo and what felt like half of Manhattan. On Sunday afternoon, we joined the crowd on the steps of the New York Public Library’s main branch for the PEN America Writers Resist event.

It’s always worth gathering to listen to writers read their own words and the words of other writers whom they treasure; to hear them speak in impassioned defense of free speech, a free press and the vitality of individual voices. We stood on the steps for an hour, listening to poets and novelists, essayists and short-story writers and singers, lifting their voices in praise of creativity and free expression.

In a moment of serendipity (or magic), we arrived just in time to hear novelist Alexander Chee read Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem “Praise Song for the Day,” from which this post takes its title. I stood there among a crowd of passionate strangers and felt tears prick my eyes. (As regular readers know, Alexander’s poem “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe” has been in my head for months.)

Lately, the loudest words in this country have seemed to be fear or division or prejudice. We are entering a time of political transition with many unknown factors, and I know a lot of us are struggling with fear and anger, every day. I can’t pretend that the protest solved that, for me or for anyone. But I believe it was important to show up and listen.

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, / any thing can be made, any sentence begun,” Chee read. I needed that reminder, and I’m sharing it in case you need it too. Pick up a pen, a paintbrush, a musical instrument – whatever tool you can use to make and remake the world. We need you: your work, your voice, your love. We are louder – and stronger – together. Let’s walk forward in that light.

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candle flower

Amid the horror and heartbreak of the past week, I have been turning back to poetry, because I honestly don’t know what else to do. I quoted this poem in a post I wrote last month (after the tragedy in Orlando), but I share it here in full.

Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Poetry, I tell my students,
is idiosyncratic. Poetry

is where we are ourselves
(though Sterling Brown said

“Every ‘I’ is a dramatic ‘I'”),
digging in the clam flats

for the shell that snaps,
emptying the proverbial pocketbook.

Poetry is what you find
in the dirt in the corner,

overhear on the bus, God
in the details, the only way

to get from here to there.
Poetry (and now my voice is rising)

is not all love, love, love,
and I’m sorry the dog died.

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

—Elizabeth Alexander

I also recommend Philip Larkin’s “The Mower,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Gate A-4,” and Adam Zagajewski’s “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

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peony candle

I read this line last month in Krista Tippett’s gorgeous, luminous book Becoming Wise. It is from a poem by Elizabeth Alexander, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it. In the wake of this weekend’s tragedy in Orlando, it has been with me like a heartbeat, thrumming quietly but insistently through my veins.

I talk a lot, lately, about my deep love for Darwin’s, the coffee shop down the street from my office. I am there so often – for chai or lunch or an afternoon snack – that I know at least half the staff by name. Several times a week, I stand in the lunchtime line that winds around the wine racks and past the ice cream freezer, and exchange smiles and hellos with the folks I know: Al, Kiersten, Ariel, Justin. If I’m lucky, my friend Gamal is working the register, and he always has a smile and a good word for me.

I have spent much of the past year not knowing quite where I belong: shunted between different offices, learning the ropes of two temp gigs while searching for the next right thing. I am both shy and introverted, and it’s hard sometimes for me to reach across and connect with new people, especially when I’m not sure I will be welcomed. (My first couple of years in Boston were hard and heartbreaking in that way, and it’s taken a long time for me to believe that people here want to know me, or be known by me.)

Especially during this year, I’ve been grateful for Darwin’s, and for other places of sanctuary and welcome in my life. The teams at both my temp gigs are full of smart, warmhearted people, and I’m lucky to have other folks to lean on: my husband, my family, a few treasured close friends.

And yet.

Relishing, and appreciating, the existing friendships in my life can’t be enough. Not when we wake up over and over to news reports of violence and tragedy, perpetuated by people full of hate and fear of those who are different from them. I can’t let my shyness – or my perceptions about any group of people – override my simple human responsibility: to be interested in others, and to treat them with dignity and compassion.

I am straight. I am white. I can’t imagine the discrimination experienced by some of my friends who don’t fit those descriptors. But I can – I must – be interested in them and their stories. Not as tokens or examples, but as people – complicated, messy, gloriously individual.

Alexander’s poem starts out being about poetry, as the narrator tells her students that poetry is “idiosyncratic.” But it quickly becomes about the human condition: “poetry is where we are ourselves,” she says. Her voice rises until it reaches the poem’s final crescendo:

Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,

and are we not of interest to each other?

Yes. We are of interest to each other. We must be, if we are going to stem the tide of hate and fear that seems to be spilling out all over the place. We must remain interested in – and delighted by, and full of compassion for – each other. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

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