'This Is the Time for Poetry': A Conversation With Alice Walker

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The Pulitzer-winning author discusses the role of literature in moments of upheaval, the importance of women's rights, and more.

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Poetry is a constant for Alice Walker. Her literary career, which spans over four decades, has been dominated by her novel The Color Purple,often at the expense of a robust body of work and literary activism that includes collections of essays and short stories, children's books, volumes of poetry, works of fiction and nonfiction, and most recently a Tony-nominated play based on her signature novel.

Of course, one would be hard-pressed to downplay The Color Purple, which catapulted her into international celebrity. Walker became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1983. The book also won the American Book award and was adapted for film by Steven Spielberg.

But before The Color Purple, Walker was a poet. Her first volume of poems, Once (1968), was followed by seven more volumes of poetry.

Later this month, she will join a long list of poets in the nation's capital for the 2012 Split This Rock Poetry Festival, a progressive literary festival whose mission is to advance the profile of politically engaged poetry in the U.S.

Over the course of numerous emails and a telephone conversation, a pensive yet jovial Alice Walker shared with me her thoughts on the enduring relevance of poetry to societies in upheaval, becoming an elder, and why Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet remains at the top of her list of all-time favorite books.


Going back several books to The Way Forward is With a Broken Heart—you dedicate your book to the American race. What does it mean for a writer to gift her work to an entire nation?

That comes from the reality that we're in the making. America is not nearly done. We're only in the beginning. Who knows who we will be? Who knows... what color we will be? It is all something that, maybe, our descendants—if they survive that long—will see. We are a people in the making, so my book is dedicated to us in that sense.

In your more recent book, Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel, you self-identify in the subtitle as a poet. Why poet and not novelist or essayist or short-story writer or journalist?

I started out as a poet. I've always been a poet since I was 7 or 8. And so I feel myself to be fundamentally a poet who got into writing novels. If you look at my list of books, there are seven collections of poetry. The other thought is that this is the time for poetry: All the changes in life draw poetry from us, those of us who are in touch with it. It's direct even sometimes when you have to turn it upside down to understand it. There's still something embedded in it that directness [that leads] to the heart. Especially in times of revolution and times of great upheaval and change. And it just does that naturally. You don't have to play around wondering when it's going to come. It moves the people. It's just right there.

You're a writer and an activist. Did the two callings happen at the same time?

I think the writing started first because I come from a very large family and we were very poor and there was very little space for me. I was the last of eight children. And I think I turned to writing poetry for a room of my own. Solitude: a place I could express my thoughts and ideas that were not prevalent in my family. There was a quiet reserve in poetry.

I recall a moving essay you wrote where you talk about your mom giving you a suitcase and a typewriter, which gave you permission to do those things: to travel and to write.

Yes, I always forget one of them just as you did.

[Laughter]

So let me see: There was a typewriter, a suitcase, and a sewing machine so I could make my own clothing. So she saw to it very thoughtfully out of her meager earnings and provided those things she felt that I needed to get away from this town that was very racist, very backwards, where we had been living. So that is part of what infuses my poetry: this deep sense of gratitude to her and actually to my father as well. To start me out on my education in whatever way that they could.

Later this month you'll be reading at the poetry festival, Split This Rock. Do you have an expectation for what you want the audience to take away from your reading?

A clearer awareness of how useful poetry is in giving us direction. Part of what confuses people in times of upheaval is that you're getting so many different points of view and directions and so and so, how to do this and do that. And a lot of it is written in a language that honestly most people cannot understand.

That's true.

It's very cut and dry and doctrinaire ... about various systems of political thought. Poetry has a way of being all of that in a way but with subtlety and grace, if it's any good. And you can find your way with poetry that you can't find with political tracts.

For instance ... I think all college students, maybe before college even, but certainly by college, should read Letters to a Young Poet. It cuts through to the heart of what's of value in life. To really be true to your own spirit. To be awake and develop patience so that you truly understand what it is you're trying to do, desire, and who in fact you really are. That is not what you'd get from a polemical essay. Somebody trying to sway you on how many ears of corn you can grow if you collectivize. It's a wonderful gift to the planet.

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Abdul Ali is a culture writer based in Washington, D.C.

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