For a short while on Inauguration Day, a poet, not a President, will hold the world's attention. Alexander, Barack Obama's choice to compose and read a poem on the occasion of his swearing in, spoke to TIME about writing for the moment.
How did it feel to be asked by Obama to play such an important role in the Inauguration?
Overwhelming, humbling, joyful. 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. To have that affirmed by the President-elect has really been an exciting thing for poets.
Is this the first time you've written a poem to order?
I've written some occasional poems 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 have you been preparing?
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.