Best Conditions

Elizabeth Alexander, from “Words that Shimmer,” a conversation with Krista Tippett, Being, Jan. 6, 2011:

Lucille Clifton, Wanda Coleman — they've talked about poetry as an art form that is a poor peoples' art form, which is to say you don't need [a lot of free time available]. You can't write a novel without a lot of time to yourself—they don't get written any other way. But I love how these women talk about how you can snatch time to make a poem. That doesn't mean that they aren't hard to make, but it means that they are like grass or flowers coming up in the sidewalk cracks.

Wanda Coleman says, "I can start a poem if I'm waiting on line. Poor people spend a lot of time waiting on line. I couldn't write a novel waiting on line, but I could start a poem waiting on line." Lucille Clifton says, "The best conditions for me to write poetry are at the kitchen table, one kid's got the measles, another two kids are smacking each other. You know, life is going on around me." And not only is that the stuff of the poems, but also that she can snatch little tiny snippets of space for the poems. She had six children and she was very, very funny. She said, "Why do you think my poems are so short?" Because that's what results when you're grabbing time like that. But, I mean, they are incredibly, powerfully meditative, amazing, amazing poems. So I think [when it comes to] poetry — you don't make any money from writing it and you don't need any money to make it.

Neonatology
by Elizabeth Alexander, (excerpt) from Crave Radiance
[Listen]

Giving birth is like jazz, something from silence,
then all of it. Long, elegant boats,
blood-boiling sunshine, human cargo,
a handmade kite —

Postpartum.
No longer a celebrity, pregnant lady, expectant.
It has happened; you are here,
each dram you drain a step away
from flushed and floating, lush and curled.
Now you are the pink one, the movie star.
It has happened. You are here,

and you sing, mewl, holler, peep,
swallow the light and bubble it back,
shine, contain multitudes, gleam. You

are the new one, the movie star,
and birth is like jazz,
from silence and blood, silence
then everything,

jazz.

Autumn Passage
by Elizabeth Alexander, from Crave Radiance
[Listen]

On suffering, which is real.
On the mouth that never closes,
the air that dries the mouth.

On the miraculous dying body,
its greens and purples.
On the beauty of hair itself.

On the dazzling toddler:
"Like eggplant," he says,
when you say "Vegetable,"

"Chrysanthemum" to "Flower."
On his grandmother's suffering, larger
than vanished skyscrapers,

September zucchini,
other things too big. For her glory
that goes along with it,

glory of grown children's vigil,
communal fealty, glory
of the body that operates

even as it falls apart, the body
that can no longer even make fever
but nonetheless burns

florid and bright and magnificent
as it dims, as it shrinks,
as it turns to something else.