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Poems in Conversation and a Conversation

by Elizabeth Alexander & Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

2008, 27 pages

Elizabeth Alexander
"The Black Woman Speaks"

I am thirty-five and the love of my life,
and my great work, and my three sons,

and my new nation are ahead of me. Good-bye, Chicago.
About to set out for the territory, Mexico,

for the rest of the century and into the next.
My sense of my people will strengthen and shift.

But first I had to leave D.C. You have to leave D.C.,
lovely colored town that will make a colored girl smile

but not stretch or growl or frown
with the exertion of thinking, WORK.

Yet there I made my first carving
from a cake of Ivory soap, at Dunbar High School.

There I was taught. There I stood
in front of the United States Supreme Court

with a noose around my neck, protesting lynching.
There I realized I had a debt I had not paid.

I am black because my great-great grandmother
was kidnapped on a beach in Madagascar.

In Mexico, I will carve black woman's bodies and heads
from reddish stone and black stone.

Some will be massive and the work will make me sweat.
The black woman's head is a massive weight.

The black woman's head holds the black woman' brain.
The black woman's body holds the black woman's head.

The black woman's work is the work of the world.



Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon
"Bop: The North Star"

Polaris sits in the sky and if I knew
which one it was I could follow it all the way
to Auburn. Oh, Harriet, who did not need the poise
of freedom knocked into your head like sense, who found it more
than possible to sleep, pistol shoved deep into your pocket
along this route, I cannot tell a dipper from Orion.

Yes, the springtime needed you. Many a star was waiting
for yor eyes only.

The univerity twinkles on the hill above my house.
The fat moon rises and a girl holds out her arms. She twirls
in a blue Polly Flinders dress. Mama's precious
cameo — a white woman's silhouette on black satin ribbon
choker tied around her neck. Poise begins here:
in cinders, in rhyme, in splintering beauty into this
and this —: the image at my throat: the summer's pitching
constellations: the ten o'clock scholar's midnight lesson.

Yes, the springtime needed you. Many a star was waiting
for yor eyes only.

At the prison at Auburn I cros the yard. Inmates whet tongues against
my body: cement-sculpted —: poised for hate —: pitch compliments
like coins: —(wade) — their silver slickening — (in the water) —:
uncollected change. A guard asks Think they're beautiful? just wait
til they're out here stabbing each other.
Oh, Harriet, the stars
throw down shanks —: teach the sonnet's a cell —:now try to escape —

Yes, the springtime needed you. Many a star was waiting
for yor eyes only.

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Audio Samples:

Listen to "The Black Woman Speaks"

As read by the author,

Elizabeth Alexander

Listen to "Bop: The North Star"

As read by the author,

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon


About the Authors:

Elizabeth Alexander

is a poet, essayist, playwright, and teacher. She is the author of four books of poems, The Venus Hottentot, Body of Life, Antebellum Dream Book, and American Sublime, which was one of three finalists for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. She is also a scholar of African-American literature and culture and recently published a collection of essays, The Black Interior. She has read her work across the U.S. and in Europe, the Caribbean, and South America, and her poetry, short stories, and critical prose have been published in dozens of periodicals and anthologies. She has received many grants and honors, most recently the Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society and furthers the broad social goals of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954,” and the 2007 Jackson Prize for Poetry, awarded by Poets and Writers. She is a professor at Yale University, and for the academic year 2007-2008 she was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Her website is

Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

is the author of Open Interval (forthcoming, University of Pittsburgh Press) and Black Swan (University of Pittsburgh Press), winner of the 2001 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, as well as Poems in Conversation and a Conversation (Slapering Hol), a chapbook in collaboration with Elizabeth Alexander. Her work has appeared in such journals as African American Review, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Shenandoah, and in the anthologies Bum Rush the Page, Role Call, Common Wealth, Gathering Ground, and The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. She is currently at work on a third collection, Southern Gate. She teaches in the creative writing program at Cornell University.
Praise For Poems in Conversation and a Conversation

“When Alexander and Stefanon scrutinize the variegated surfaces of Romare Bearden’s art, the intensity of their gazes gives way to speech. In the hands of these poets, ekphrasis is an act of inquiry, a mode of poetic transformation as well as cultural analysis. For both, the lacunae inherent in acts of reading and looking are openings for empathy, uncertainty, discourse.”

—Barbara Fischer

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