Will Alexander’s Sonic Grammar

A Los Angeles poet draws inspiration from the cosmos and John Coltrane.

will alexander
City Lights

Born in Los Angeles in 1948, poet Will Alexander has authored over 30 books for various independent presses, including City Lights and New Directions, and is considered one of the premier surrealist poets alive. His recent book Refractive Africa was short-listed for a Pulitzer and won the California Book Award for Poetry in 2022. His newest book, Divine Blue Light, is dedicated to John Coltrane, which makes poetic sense: Alexander uses language like Trane played his saxophone.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

I’ve been talking to Alexander periodically for 15 years, and every time we speak, I’m enlightened by his stories and reflections. Divine Blue Light spotlights his intergalactic register especially through his extended meditation on Coltrane. Alexander says he started listening to the legendary saxophonist while he was in middle school, around 1961, and has never been the same since. “Listening to Trane gave me an instantaneous connection with realms that were unknown to me within the borders of the conscious mind,” Alexander says. “I was being spontaneously educated via realms which proved to be poetic praxis.”

Coltrane’s discography and that of kindred avant-garde players like Eric Dolphy helped Alexander forge his vocabulary and find his identity coming up in the wake of the Black Arts movement of the 1960s.

His poetic career began in the 1970s and has gradually picked up steam, especially in the past decade. For Alexander, though, it’s not about the awards or recognition. “It’s an ongoing repartee with the cosmos,” he says. A key line from his poem on Coltrane is instructive here: “you understood this to be in the infinity of your heart.”

There’s an erupting spirit to Alexander’s work that has a volcanic quality. He uses language so cosmic that he might even send readers to the dictionary. Take this statement he emailed me recently: “The imagination is not a multi-valent cipher but power rising beyond its own periphery so that it is capable of endorsing itself within the thrilling power of itself, a power not unlike a multi-valent.” Alexander wants us to know that we, too, can be transcendent like John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy when we channel our imagination.

The copy on the back cover of Divine Blue Light emphasizes that Alexander is at the intersection of surrealism and Afro-futurism. “Will Alexander’s work is often described as ‘writing from another planet,’” explains Quentin Ring, executive director of Venice’s Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center (where Alexander is a longtime poet in residence). “However, that’s not quite right because it omits the very real way in which Will’s work is deeply rooted in—and responds to—the history and ongoing horrors of this planet.”

“Will’s visionary approach to poetry seeks to open up new paths through language for human consciousness to expand beyond the narrow instrumentalism, violent hierarchies, and exploitative practices that have oppressed billions and have sent our planet lurching towards an environmental catastrophe,” Ring says.

Ultimately, Alexander is talking about the power of imagination to break free of the limitations of reality. His poems are akin to the music of Sun Ra or the science fiction of Octavia E. Butler. Like Ra and Butler, Alexander uses his work to show what’s possible and how individuals can go beyond the constricted realities they came up in through art, expression, and creativity. His poems contain a transcendent thread that urges readers to find their own formula for freedom. Coltrane helped him find his identity and consciousness, and Alexander’s poems, like “Mantric Blizzard as Space,” offer instructions for how you can do it too.

Intergalactic as his poetry can be, in person Alexander is approachable and deeply humble. At 74, he still runs long distances as he did back on the track team in middle school in South Los Angeles. Stamina is something he understands intuitively as a runner. For a poet with a cosmic consciousness, running is a way to keep his feet on the ground.•

Mike Sonksen, a third-generation Angeleno, is a poet, an essayist, and the author of Letters to My City.
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