An Interview with Meena Alexander

Ruth Maxey

Meena Alexander was born in Allahabad, India, and raised in India and Sudan. When she was eighteen she went to study in England. She now lives in New York City, where she is a Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. Her eight volumes of poetry include the collections, Illiterate Heart (2002), which won a 2002 PEN Open Book Award, and Raw Silk (2004).

Much of her work is concerned with migration and its impact on the writer’s subjectivity, and with the sometimes violent events that compel people to cross borders, while a number of her recent poems, such as “Late, There Was an Island” and “Triptych in a Time of War,” deal with the aftermath of the traumatic events of September 11, 2001.

Alexander has produced the acclaimed autobiography Fault Lines (1993), chosen as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 1993, and revised in 2003 to incorporate significant new material. She has also published two novels, Nampally Road (1991) and Manhattan Music (1997); a book of poems and essays, The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (1996); and two academic studies, which include Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley (1989). She is currently at work on a new collection of poems and a volume of notes and essays on poetry, migration, and memory.

This interview took place at the Graduate Center, City University of New York on February 25 and 28, 2005.

Ruth Maxey: What do you see as the task of poetry?

Meena Alexander: In a time of violence, the task of poetry is in some way to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist. I believe this very deeply and I see it as an effort to enter into the complications of the moment even if they are violent but through that, in some measure, the task of poetry is to reconcile us to the world—not to accept it at face value or to assent to things that are wrong, but to reconcile one in a larger sense. Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus that there’s only one philosophical question: whether to commit suicide. And he says, “the point is to live.” He says that we must imagine Sisyphus happy as he pushes the stone up.1 Seen in that way, the act of writing is intrinsic to the act of living. It’s as if Sisyphus has to keep reinventing the wheel: once he goes up, the wheel rolls down and he has to start again. It’s a punishment but it’s also the way in which he grows in the world.

I would be the happiest being on earth if I could say, “I’ve written this wonderful book of poems.” I wouldn’t have to write anymore. I could lie in the sun. Why does one want to blow one’s brains out on these bits of paper? It’s an enormous psychic effort and so what it does do is extraordinary because there is an amazing clarity that you have for a little while. When you complete a work, you breathe deeply and think, “Oh yes, I’ve done it!” But then you have to start again.

By finishing one work, one has actually learned something that allows one to go on to make the next. But you don’t know that consciously because if you did, it would get in your way, so each time the hope is that you’re able to work with the material at hand but perhaps in a slightly different way. But you don’t know that up front, that’s the discipline you’ve learned. You have to look away from it.

I think the poem is an invention that exists in spite of history. Most of the forces in our ordinary lives as we live them now conspire against the making of a poem. There might be some space for the published poem but not for the creation. No ritualized space that one is given, where one is allowed to sit and brood, although universities give you a modicum of that. Poetry is a forsaken art, not for those who write or practice it, but for many others. Yet there is a kind of redress that poetry offers. I’m using the words of Seamus Heaney, who has a wonderful essay “The Redress of Poetry” in his Oxford lectures, where he talks about poetry as something existing within the gravitational pull of history and yet offering, precisely because of that pull, a redress or a balance.2 At this moment in my life, this is the very best possible telling or accounting that I have found in all my searching of what it is that poetry does.

RM: I want to touch on your relationship to Wordsworth. In Nampally Road, Mira defends her decision to teach his work in India. I was interested to see that because for other postcolonial writers, the study of Wordsworth in particular is a contested area.

MA: When I went to the Royal Festival Hall [in London] in 2002 for Poetry International, they asked each poet who our presiding spirit in poetry was, and I chose Wordsworth. And I said, “In picking Wordsworth I have to admit to a pained love that is not easy to speak of, an attachment so deep that I have sometimes felt it would be easier to deny it.” And then I asked myself an important question, “Why Wordsworth?” And I answered, “Because his words cut straight to the heart of my childhood —the trauma, the blessing, the interior life the child bears within.” And so often that interior life is cut away from the realm of words. Yet I felt that in order to read his work, I had to cross a line of blood. There is, of course, also his notion of the growth of a poet’s mind. The Prelude was an architecture. He was building this huge unfinished thing when he made The Prelude.

So I got this idea that the great poem was a house that was co-extensive with a felt understanding of the self in growth. The Prelude was actually critical to this enterprise but then growing to consciousness, I felt that everything Wordsworth stood for was completely inimical to where I’m coming from. In fact, the title poem of Illiterate Heart is about meeting these poets—one is an Indian poet, “a mahakavi from the temples of right thought.” The other is Wordsworth as I imagine him: “Or one in white flannels / unerringly English, lured from Dove Cottage, / transfixed by carousels of blood, / Danton’s daring, stumbling over stones / never noticing his outstretched / hand passed through me.”3 I wasn’t even flesh to that mode of apprehension. In other words, I didn’t exist. Yet he was an extraordinary poet.

RM: You’ve said that poetry is more crystalline, while fiction and life-writing give you more scope for exploring ideas. How do you see the transition in your work between genres? And does prose allow you to explore more disturbing themes?

MA: How interesting. It might. On the other hand, the poem “Triptych in a Time of War” [Raw Silk] is quite disturbing but it does use longer lines, so it’s like a prose poem almost. I think there’s a sort of continuum but what the prose essay or fiction allows me to do is almost like a clearing of the underbrush, going ahead as if you’re on uncharted territory, filled with vines, underbrush, wild grass, and rocks, and clearing a space. Then once you’ve cleared the space, you can do the poem there.

Prose has a different function for me because it’s broad, using a different sort of canvas. But once I’ve done that, there is the poem that I have to make. Then it’s also the case that for the book of essays that I’m putting together, I often write a poem and then work from that. In other words, I get to a place in my understanding through the poems, but it’s not articulated as such. It’s not set out in discursive thought because it’s a poem. And then I have to move from that and I can use the prose essay to try and reflect on where this other, new place is. Could I do it without writing prose? Yes, perhaps. I imagine I could. But it’s fun to do, it helps me, and also you know in classical Indian writing, there was a tradition of kavya, which existed before there was the distinction between prose and poetry. Kavya can be a prose poem, highly charged. I think some of the writing in the new edition of Fault Lines is like that. These are fluid, unquiet borders for me, because there is traffic both ways.

RM: That’s a helpful way of thinking about it because so much of your work is about migration and geographical borders, cultural borders and thresholds.

MA: Right, and I obviously write a certain kind of prose that is, in its texture, closer to the sorts of little knots that an embroiderer uses. The way it works is through an image rather than emplotment.

RM: Yes, I noticed in Fault Lines, for example, that you used very short paragraphs, sometimes only two lines.

MA: That’s something that comes from the poem rather than from a certain kind of prose. I’m not a great plot person. That isn’t the way my head works. I work much more with the image in an instant of time and the resonance that it opens up for the next thing, work of art, or piece of thought.

RM: In Fault Lines, you speak about “making up memories.” To what degree are memories constructed? Is there a deliberately blurred line between fiction and memoir in your work?

MA: In order to make memoir, you have to make things up as well. Even memories are made up at some level. You remember things but you don’t often have the words, so as soon as you start putting the words in place, you’re constructing it in the framework of the present. And you have to dramatize certain things and not others. With the memoir it was only when I started writing that I started to remember. It was as if the act of writing allowed a space within which one could remember.

RM: Can we talk about your relationship with language? I know the idea of heteroglossia is very important in your work: your use of English is informed by Arabic, French, Malayalam, Hindi. How do these other languages form part of your creative process when you’re writing in English?

MA: It probably works at the level of rhythm as much as anything and perhaps also at the level of image because thoughts are given to us at an almost pre-linguistic level. They come to you without words; an idea can come to you quite early in life. You pick up certain kinds of possibilities of rhythm from your mother’s speech or the kinds of houses in which you grow up, and when the art is accurate it draws on that. Some of my poems have been translated into Malayalam and people have sometimes remarked on how certain kinds of rhythms in a poem are from Malayalam. That may be true, but I can’t really read or write Malayalam, though I speak it fluently. My mother tongue exists as orality for me.

So inevitably in the second language that one inhabits – I use that term “inhabits” advisedly—there is a way of making accommodation for what has not yet been thought and I think that sort of accommodation is what a poem allows. I have multiple languages working for me. But I have always grown up in a world where there were things one did not understand, because there were languages that were not completely accessible: you use one language in the marketplace, another in the kitchen, another in the bedroom or the study. And then your friends are those who often speak some of those languages as well and it just gives you a particular sense of being in a world where you can be comfortable even though linguistically the world is not really knowable. I think this is a very good hedge against a certain kind of rational understanding, the presumption of linguistic clarity or transparency, post-Enlightenment, that sense that everything can be known and a light can be shone into all parts of one’s thought.

RM: You have said that “the woman poet who faces the borders her body must cross, racial, sexual borders, is forced to invent a form that springs out without canonical support.”4 What form do you feel you’ve invented? And what is your position now in relation to the canon?

MA: It’s a very complicated and important question and it’s difficult for me to think about. I think the mind is free and one ought to be able to draw upon whatever one needs. Why shouldn’t I teach Wordsworth? Why shouldn’t I draw on him for what I write? Why should I only draw upon women or women of color? It’s ridiculous. There was a time when I read a great deal of poetry by women and it was very important to me to do that. I was fascinated by what it might mean to make poetry as a woman, because there are certain kinds of burdens that form you or that you inherit. They’re part of being in a particular body. And not just that, it’s also the idea that aspects of what are called or thought of as “canonical literature” are not available to you.

That is a painful knowledge, which is why I wrote my book Women in Romanticism, because although there are women poets who are enshrined in the canon in India, or in China or elsewhere, within English poetry of a certain era, certainly, the burden of knowledge has gone the other way. Implicitly the poet is still male. I’m not saying that the development of a woman poet requires that she enter into overt reflections on these issues. But I think it is necessary that she faces them, if only in the solitude of making the work of art. So you cannot evade it even if the artwork in no way overtly relates to it. It is formed within the pressure of a gendered history.

There was a time when I had a real quarrel with form in poetry. I’m not there now. I actually value it very deeply. But if you’d asked me ten years ago, I’d have felt that the orality of my experience and particularly an experience which involved a rich, pre-linguistic awareness of other languages (and this takes us back to the question of heteroglossia), which is what I wanted to put into my English poems, would have been destroyed had I tried to achieve what we think of as a strict form. So I went for certain kinds of forms which were looser, and coming to America was wonderful for that, because American poetry does have a capaciousness in terms of how form works because vernacular is enshrined in it also.

In that sense, the passage to America has been very important for me as a poet, whereas if I’d gone to England I wouldn’t have achieved this. English poetry is much more bound within the canonical tradition, for better and worse. Even as within contemporary American writing there is an idea of a canon, but it’s of very recent provenance. If you come from a culture like India or Britain you have an ancient history, whereas America has all the energy and excitement of novelty and the dangers and difficulties of that also. When I came to America, I found the language amazingly liberating. It was very exciting for me to hear American English, not that I can speak it well, but I think in it. It allowed me to make a shift into a different kind of spelling-out of what one might be. That and the idea of being an immigrant. Both of those were very liberating.

RM: What do you still hope to achieve as a writer?

MA: I want to write some poems! I keep writing because I’m never really satisfied with anything that I do. It’s as if I’m driven from the inside because I don’t rest in what I’ve already written. I can’t. I’m not built that way. And so there is always the next poem. When I was young, I did think a poet should be like Rimbaud. Do one’s life’s work very young. Now I think of myself as someone who has a whole lot of work ahead of her.

Notes

1Camus, A. Le Mythe de Sisyphe: Essai sur l’Absurde. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1942. 92, 168.

2Heaney, S. The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures. London: Faber, 1995. 3-4.

3Alexander, M. Illiterate Heart. Evanston: TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern UP, 2002. 63-64.

4Alexander, M. “Unquiet Borders,” Crab Orchard Review 3.2 (Spring/Summer 1998), Special Issue on Asian American Literature: 2.

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