When Elizabeth Alexander sat down to write her latest book, The Trayvon Generation, born out of a New Yorker essay of the same title, she drew upon a lifetime of material from her extensive career as a scholar, author and poet.

“The power of great poetry, great art . . . is that you return to it,” she said.

The Trayvon Generation, published in April 2022 by Grand Central Publishing, expands upon Ms. Alexander’s viral essay to create a full body of work examining the impacts of racial violence on a new generation of Black Americans. Art, she feels, is the principal way Black Americans can find meaning in grief.

Ms. Alexander is the president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and spent 15 years as a professor of poetry at Yale University. While writing the book, she returned to writing she has loved for decades, in search of new perspectives on the current moment, from the works of Lucille Clifton to Langston Hughes.

Early on, she cites the poem Ms. Clifton wrote when asked to exalt her home state of Maryland’s “colonial heritage” for its 350th anniversary. The poem, titled “why some people be mad at me sometimes,” reads: “they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and I keep on remembering / mine.”

“As I have gotten older I have gotten more and more and more impressed with Clifton’s economy,” Ms. Alexander said.

The ability to convey much in little space informed her own book, which tops out just under 150 pages and can fit in a coat pocket. Typical of a poet, Ms. Alexander paid attention to form when choosing the design.

“I wanted the physical aspect of the book to be inviting,” she said.

Elizabeth Alexander's recent book began as a New Yorker essay.

From capturing the blue in Carrie Mae Weems’s Blue Black Boy on the cover to making sure the photographs and scans of art leap off the page, Ms. Alexander was careful to make the work and the art cited throughout it as accessible as possible, she said.

“As an educator, what I try to do is facilitate encounters,” she added. “Sometimes people are taught to be afraid of [art], but when you can facilitate encounters . . . it ceases to become this intimidating thing.”

Much of the book revolves around the idea of monuments, from the statues of Confederate soldiers erected throughout the South to public art that asserts Black Americans’ right to exist and participate in civic life. While many of her examples are high profile by nature, Ms. Alexander’s concept of a monument also extends to the mundane. In one section, she reflects upon a cobalt-blue house in New Haven she used to pass frequently. One day, she returned to find that it had been razed to the ground.

“The not-there cobalt house feels like a memorial to people who rarely had a fair chance,” she writes. “The rest of the neighborhood was left to the Black folks who were still there, but with a chunk of their community scooped out.”

To Ms. Alexander, that cobalt-blue house played the same role that art should play for those who encounter it.

“It provided an arresting visual moment when we passed it, and we felt that absence when it wasn’t there,” she said.

Throughout her life, Ms. Alexander said she used her grief to make meaning out of absence. Her memoir, The Light of the World, follows her experience grieving the sudden death of her husband.

“Writing was a way of, not catharsis, because that’s a common thing people say, but of wrestling with what I was living through,” she said.

As art helped her, Ms. Alexander hopes it can help those around her experiencing similar loss, whether it be the death of a loved one or the fear of targeted violence permeating through generations.

“Great art is as alive to me as human beings,” she said.

Elizabeth Alexander takes part in a conversation with Barbara Phillips at 9:50 a.m. on August 6.