The Pulitzer-winning author discusses the role of literature in moments of upheaval, the importance of women's rights, and more.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
Since we're discussing college students, do you have any advice to those endeavoring to break into the arts—especially persons of color—who often find themselves struggling to bring all of themselves through the door?
I'd say act from the heart and the poetry comes like any other gift, invited on a joy ride.
For me, I used to be shy towards journalism because it wasn't poetry. And then I realized that the events that I covered in essays that became journalism were actually great because they inspired me and they became my muse. So you don't have to sit -wherever you are—should I write this poem or should I go out and join this demonstration. It's from the heart. And poetry is happy to say take my arm.
You mention several times in your recent book—Overcoming Speechlessness—growing up in Georgia, in the Jim Crow South, and how that memory bonds you to this universal struggle for freedom of all people. What do you think of younger Americans who don't have a memory of Jim Crow and are cut off from what that American period was like?
It's all happening in our time. All you need to do is open your eyes. Someone right now is living my life 50 or 60 years ago in this country, today. If you are thinking you are separate in any way, just wander onto any reservation. Wander to any part of the ghetto or any streets on the back roads of Georgia. It's still there. And so I think we have to remind ourselves of this so we don't get caught in that path that we have to have had the exact experience of someone else. But frankly what poetry does is it shows us, it's a teacher that allows us to connect, emotionally, with people so profoundly that we don't have to have had their exact experience, we can just connect with them wherever they are and live today.
So there's really no need ever to feel that you can't understand something or other people. That you can't feel for other people just because you didn't grow up that way. You can and we must really keep our faith strong that we can empathize.
You also write in the same book about the need for women, elder women to be in more positions of power.
Clearly older women and especially older women who have led an active life or elder women who successfully maneuver through their own family life have so much to teach us about sharing, patience, and wisdom. I would like very much like to have older women in leadership, that one of the things that I love about 13 grandmothers who go about teaching. The voice of the grandmother has been silenced, deliberately. Since the time of the witch burnings, the grandmothers and the healers and the midwives have been systematically targeted. And burned at the stake for hundreds of years, decimating whole communities.
Until women can lift their voices, take their rightful place, I don't think we're going to shift very much. The wisdom that comes from African women, Arab women, Native women, Asian women, all of these women make up over half the planet. For the most part do they get asked if they need a pipelined drilled into their country? No. It takes five minutes to ask [those women] what do they think.
If you can stand up for the whales, the elephants, salmon—stand up for women! Give your grandmother a hand. It shouldn't be such a stretch.
You also write about aging. You describe yourself as an elder. What's that process like?
Part of my ancestry is Cherokee. And in that tradition you become an adult when you're 52.
Isn't that great?
It certainly changes things, perspective-wise.
How old are you now?
See, you won't even be an adult for another half of your life. But then you'll be coming into the eldering stage. You spend some time as an adult. But when you get to be my age you accept being an elder. And there's great freedom in that. So much of your life is already lived. You feel empowered to say exactly what you think. And to share what you have gleaned whatever wisdom there is. And its actually quite beautiful, a wonderful place to be in.
Are you working on anything right now?
The World Will Follow Joy [a collection of poems]. I'll be reading from that for Split This Rock Poetry Festival. And I finished a new book of essays called The Cushion in the Road.
These are forthcoming. [The Cushion the Road] is about how as a meditator, as someone who is a contemplative and loves being on my meditation cushion, how the world still calls. You can be on the cushion and the phone rings. Hello! [laughter]. You can't really stay on the cushion.
Are there any young writers or artists whose work you're excited about?
Right now the artists who are making me feel so good about life and possibility is actually a musician whose name is Eric Bibb. He writes his own songs and is really terrific. As for poets, I'm reading and liking the works of Nathalie Handal and Dennis J. Bernstein.
What do you consider among your greatest accomplishments?
Surviving long enough to feel really happy. [laughter] It's such a delight to have lived this long and to have survived so many disasters and to still feel the beauty of the planet.