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Inauguration reading has raised profile of poet and poetry

As only the fourth poet to read during a presidential inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander carried the hopes of many poets on her shoulders as she rose to the lectern on Jan. 20, 2009.

Millions heard her read, saw the high place that poetry occupies in our president's life, and gave poetry a greater public spotlight than it has had since Miller Williams read for Bill Clinton at his inauguration in 1997.

With all that attention focused on her, I wanted to know what regrets she has now, more than seven months later.

"I worked as hard as I have worked on anything," Alexander said of Praise Song for the Day, which she penned for the occasion. "I did the best I could. I'm not one to look back and tinker retroactively."

But, she said, there was one regret.

"No one could see my cute shoes," Alexander said, laughing. "I wish I had worn boots. It was freezing that day and I was all put together."

Alexander, a poet, essayist, playwright and chair of the African American studies department at Yale University, will be the keynote speaker at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference this year.

"We had invited her in 2007, but she was unable to attend," conference director Julie K. Wrinn said. "And then there she was, on stage at the inauguration.

"I am more of a fiction reader and not poetry," Wrinn said. "My friends who are poets say she is a superstar among poets."

Alexander has written four books of poems, including American Sublime, one of three finalists for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and one of the American Library Association's "Notable Books of the Year."

Critics have said she explores race, family, history and sex in her rhythmic verse.

Alexander said she has always loved reading and the different ways people told stories and used words.

"It was like walking through life with a radio antenna," she said. "It wasn't conscious; just how I am."

Alexander, 47, was born in Harlem but was reared in Washington, D.C. Her father was a civil rights adviser to President Lyndon Johnson and later became the first black secretary of the Army.

After college, Alexander said she dabbled a bit in journalism before realizing that she preferred "making up things." She then began writing short stories and transitioned to poetry because of the encouragement of a professor at Boston University.

A good writer has a "responsibility to the language," she said, "to find the most necessary word."

Writers need to be ruthless in the editing, always honing and shaping the piece. "They must understand they need to cut away to the pure form," she said. "I say that to students all the time. It is tough love, but the best piece of advice you can give to anyone.

"I love that process," Alexander said. "It's like cleaning up a messy room."

Alexander will make two public appearance during the conference, which began in 1979.

The first appearance will be Saturday afternoon, when she will share the stage with Nikky Finney, professor of creative writing at UK and a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, the author of three books of poetry and an associate professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. That program requires a paid admission.

The second appearance, later that evening, is free. Alexander will give the keynote address, focusing on female writers mentoring other female writers. Alexander mentored Jeffers, who also will take part in the evening program.

Wrinn, the conference director, said the conference also will focus on the "homecoming" of Louisville-born writer Sallie Bingham, who financially supported the conference during the first decade of its existence. Wrinn said Bingham has been a positive influence on many younger girls.

"We also expect Elizabeth Alexander will make a huge impact on this community," Wrinn said.

That's fine by Alexander, who believes in the Chinese proverb that says: When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

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