Q&A: Inauguration Poet Elizabeth Alexander

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Damon Winter / The New York Times / Redux

Poet Elizabeth Alexander was selected to read an original work at the Inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama

Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander will be the fourth poet ever to read at a presidential Inauguration. Alexander spoke to TIME about poetry's place in American life, her kids' fundraising efforts on behalf of Barack Obama and the challenge of writing poetry on a deadline. (See pictures of the best Obama Inaugural merchandise.)

Is this the first time you've written a poem to order?
I've written some occasional poems [to order] before — poems for Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremonies, poems for a few close friends' weddings. But I'm not quite sure that prepares one for something like this.

How does it affect your process?
It's very unusual to be a deadline poet. It's almost oxymoronic. I certainly work steadily and regularly on my poetry, and I sit down even when it doesn't seem like the muse is singing, but I don't have deadlines in the same way this deadline loomed. I didn't have the luxury of some of my procrastinating rituals, my usual ways of circling the target — clearing my desk, cleaning the house, putting on a pot of soup. I had to just hop to it.

How did it feel to be asked by Obama to play such an important role in the Inauguration?
Overwhelming, humbling, joyful. So many of my poet friends and I were hoping that he would decide to have a poem at the Inaugural, because we felt that it would be a signal of his own evident value of the possibilities of language. What we have is his understanding that the arts do have a place in day-to-day life, that poetry can still us — that is, let us pause for a moment and, as we contemplate that careful, careful language, hopefully see situations anew, from a different angle. That's so much of what art and poetry offer. I think that he is showing that moments of pause and contemplation in the midst of grand occasion and everyday life are necessary. To have that affirmed by the President-elect has really been an exciting thing for poets.

How do you think your body of work is relevant to Obama's election?
I'm very attentive to history and to a historical understanding of any given present as a way of both looking back and moving forward. That theme resonated throughout the Obama campaign.

We're also of the same generation. Seeing him rise to this mighty challenge and go with such grace and brilliance through the campaign has made a lot of my peers and me say we're going to step up our game. We're going to contribute. We're going to do more. We're going to work harder. We want to be better.

Did you get involved in the presidential campaign?
I had a period of several months where I pledged to engage every stranger I could in political conversation every single day. Also, my children, along with some of their friends from school, organized a yard sale — Families for Obama. They went through the house grabbing things and made a good deal of money. We were really proud of that, because Obama himself really captured the imagination of my children.

What kind of impression did Obama make when you met him in Chicago back in the 1990s?
Brilliant among many brilliant people. A rather astonishing brain. Warm. A very, very keen listener. An unusually curious human being. We're lucky, in my opinion.

How have you been preparing for this task?
I have just tried to create a lot of space around my head — which of course is challenging because I live in a family and I have a job. I've kept a notebook with me, just trying to keep track of everything and stop in my tracks whenever possible.

Did you give yourself a reading list?
I did a little bit of revisiting of poems that are important to me, and poets in the Rolodex who have addressed the moment in language that is fresh and not hackneyed or corny. I've gone back to poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Auden and Seamus Heaney. But I've also had to put them aside, Brooks in particular, because I kept looking at great lines and thinking, She already — I can't do that! At the end of the day, your job is to listen to your own music.

See pictures of Inauguration Balls past and present.

See pictures of Obama's Inaugural train ride to Washington.