Free to be Surprised

by    /  April 21, 2010  / 3 Comments

About a month ago, I went to see the poet Elizabeth Alexander speak at the Drue Heinz lecture series. She told the story of writing her poem “Praise Song for the Day” for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Despite the painstaking orchestration of that day, the inauguration team did not ask to see her poem before it was entered into the teleprompter.

She reflected, “Don’t forget that we live in a country were artists don’t have to say what we already know they are going to say and that these artist have a place in civic discourse.”

In other words, we live in a place where artists are free to surprise us.

These words have been ringing in my mind as I interview Haitian scholars and writers for a feature planned for our May issue. In the beginning, I mostly asked about writing and politics, oppression and poetry, exile and writing. I forgot that first and foremost, I was talking to writers, artists, and crafts people—all searching for that innovation in form or craft that could surprise and unsettle the reader.

I realized how easy it is to pigeon-hole writers in exile as “political writers” who can only speak with a collective voice, rather than consider them as highly individual artists who approach their craft in idiosyncratic ways.

So I re-read my notes from Alexander’s lecture and then cracked open, for the second time, Love, Anger, Madness by Haitian novelist Marie Vieux-Chauvet. Instead of searching for how the book is an allegory about dictatorship, I let myself be surprised by the shifting voices, quilted description, and stark images.

That is what is so subversive about good art:  It slips free of categories and holds the human imagination above the collective voice of politics.

Read Madison Smart Bell’s review of Love, Anger, Madness in The Nation.

Click here to read Elizabeth’s bio.

3 Comments on "Free to be Surprised"

  1. Sarah April 22, 2010 at 6:45 am ·

    That last line is golden. Well said!

  2. Amir April 22, 2010 at 11:42 pm ·

    Good, thoughtful post. For some reason, the subject reminded me of “When Night Falls”, which, on its surface, is about state-sponsored oppression/repression and how individuals interact with it. But the thing that makes the movie hang together and create such a powerful experience is the artistry – the cinematography, Javier Bardem’s deft portrayal of the adult Reinaldo Arenas, and the lush storyline. It didn’t move me in a political sense, but rather in a spiritual and emotional sense.

  3. Elaine May 10, 2010 at 11:58 am ·

    Great post, Liz! And what a wonderful surprise to learn that Alexander’s inauguration poem wasn’t pre-screened. (Although the fact that I was surprised made me realize how jaded I am about politics today…)

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