Elizabeth Alexander 2016
A Menu Poem by Geoffrey Gatza
One Hundred Megawatts of Butter
Guest of Honor : Elizabeth Alexander
Hello and welcome to the 2016 Thanksgiving menu poem. This is the fifteenth incarnation of the Thanksgiving Menu-Poem! Our guest of honor is the wonderful Elizabeth Alexander. This series began in 2002 with a Menu-Poem to honor Charles Bernstein, and since then this series engages Thanksgiving as the basis to celebrate poetry, poets and the poetry community. Being a trained professional chef I have blended my love of food and poetry into a book-length work as a feast of words to bring everyone a tiny bit closer together.
This project is a conceptual meal served for the thousands of friend I would love to have over to our home on Thanksgiving Day. Since it is unavoidably impossible to even consider doing such a thing in real life, I have designed a menu of foodstuffs that reflect upon the guest of honor as a person, a poet and their poetry. These works directly respond to our surrounding environment and uses everyday experiences as a starting point. Often these are framed instances that would go unnoticed in their original context. With a conceptual approach, this menu-poem tries to increase the dynamic between audience and author by objectifying emotions and investigating the duality that develops through different interpretations.
It is my great pleasure to host Elizabeth Alexander as this year’s Guest of Honor. As one of America’s premier poets it was a very easy choice to make. Her accomplishments are too numerous to mention here, but briefly I would like to draw your attention to a few of her many accolades. Currently Professor Alexander is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she was a finalist for the politer prize for her 2005 book, American Sublime and her poem “Praise Song for the Day” was commissioned for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards; most recently she was presented the prestigious Schomburg Medal, awarded by the New York Public Library and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on the Center’s 90th anniversary. Dr. Alexander is also an influential voice in the Cave Canem poetry workshop, a community she helped to foster for 20 years. She has been a mentor, advocate and friend to many poets, many of whom have gone on to the national stage such as Kevin Young, Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, Evie Shockley, and Terrance Hayes.
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Food and cuisine are very important elements in Elizabeth Alexander poetry. They take shape in many forms and fashions in her work, such as in the vegetables in Autumn Passage, the comfort foods in Butter, or as the desire for a Coke and a hamburger in Apollo after the seeming disappointment that the moon is not in fact made of cheese, green or otherwise. The citrus and bergamot flavors and poppy seed cake bring her closer to an imagined Sylvia Plath who is setting her hair in The female seer will burn upon this pyre. These foods often portrayed the human element, the invisible hunger, the humanizing factor in a world that sees her as other, a person that is often not allowed to be where she should be, the person who is spat at lost and seeking directions. They are also the shown to be the comforts of the world through its foods such as the figs, string cheese, apricots, olives, and stuffed grape leaves in the poem Boston Year. In her poem Crash, Alexander describes her survival from a small plane crash in a cornfield near Philly. She writes:
All the white passengers bailed out
before impact, so certain a sister
couldn't navigate the crash. O gender.
O race. O ye of little faith.
Here we are in the cornfield, bruised and dirty but alive.
I invite sistergirl pilot home for dinner
at my parents', for my mother's roast chicken
with gravy and rice, to celebrate.
Food is that celebration. When I first devised this menu, I had planned an elaborate meal of French cuisine that encompassed many of her poetical foods. But the menu resisted. Each time I pulled out Slices of Wagyu Beef Tenderloin, Porcini Sablé, “Saint-Florentin” Potatoes, Red Kuri Squash, Bordelaise Sauce, my concentration would go flat. The soufflé would exhale and everything seems to be wrong. This is not the food that would fit for this Thanksgiving menu. Not to suggest that this style of cooking would not intrigue her, it would I am sure. But to celebrate her and her poetry, this menu wanted, hungered for roast chicken with gravy and rice, to celebrate!
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Poetry (here I hear myself loudest)
is the human voice,
and are we not of interest to each other?
—From Ars Poetica #100 I Believe
This time last year I was shopping for books in a pop-up shop at our local mall. After poking through the many of the usual choices that this small shop could offer for it’s Christmas selections, I was elated to find Elizabeth Alexander’s new memoir, The Light of the World, which details the unexpected loss of her husband Ficre Ghebreyesus. This is a moving book, which the New York Journal of Books, calls “... crushing, lovely, painful, and above all powerful.” After picking up this book I knew our shopping trip was over, the plan for the day changed and I was going to read this book. I was going through my own modes of grief and her book had me hooked immediately. Her memories held a glorious poetics that held everything I needed to focus on. It was in this moment that I started to conceive a menu-poem for her. After many starts and stops, restarts and heavy editing I found my pathway to write this work.
In Chorus of Life: Twenty-One Voices Led by Dr. Victor Frankenstein I found my way to address a response. Here are twenty voices, taking the form of a choir, still reeling from the loss of someone in their lives. Each poem is a person recalling, remembering, and reliving something that can only call upon the fragility of life, the emptiness of grief and the awful monster that it creates. The poems themselves appear as dreamlike images in which fiction and reality meet, well-known tropes merge, meanings shift, past and present fuse. Time and memory always play a key role. By experimenting with aleatoric processes, I wanted to amplify the response of the reader by creating writings and settings that generate tranquil poetic images that leave traces and balances on the edge of recognition and alienation.
I hope you enjoy this meal, the menu and the poem. Have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Bio, Interesting Links and Poems
Professor Elizabeth Alexander is a poet, essayist, and teacher. She is the author of six books of poems, two collections of essays, a play, and various edited collections. She was recently named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, as well as the Wun Tsun Tam Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. She previously served as the inaugural Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, where she taught for 15 years and chaired the African American Studies Department. In 2009, she composed and delivered “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Her memoir, The Light of the World, was released in 2015 to great acclaim.
Elizabeth Alexander’s webpage:
23 poems by Elizabeth Alexander at Poem Hunter
Elizabeth Alexander’s Wikipedia page:
Elizabeth Alexander: Profile and Poems at Poets.org
"Natasha Trethewey Interviews Elizabeth Alexander", Southern Spaces
“Praise Song for the Day”, 2009 Presidential Inauguration, Elizabeth Alexander
Keynote Address-Prof. Elizabeth Alexander, IRAAS 20th Anniversary, November 1, 2013
Keynote- Elizabeth Alexander, Towards an Intellectual History of Black Women Conference, April 29, 2011