I learned—as every single contribution to this tribute acclaims we keep on learning from Meena—that the word “panel” is a very strange word. It was indeed the case that it was the third or such “panel” on which I was sharing the stage with Meena Alexander. Each time, her smile and generosity and love prompted me to say to her that we should meet again, perhaps away from the crowd. Each time, the promise to meet would be fulfilled only at another panel. It is a strange word, Meena said to me, in contrast to “lunch,” “tea,” or “coffee,” even “chat.”
I laughed, because much of academic language is indeed surreal when yanked out of its odd habitat: a panel is a piece of cloth, sometimes put on a saddle, or a part of another fabricated material, of some tapestry, or blanket, or a decorative section of a wall, and so on. Meena’s words—whether in her memoirs, her scholarship, or her poetry—always had the dual push/pull power of estrangement/endearment for the reader: the sense in which an unfamiliar word was made natural or a known carrier of the everydayness made suddenly fantastic.
Our first panel together was on the Indian Ocean and I cannot, no matter how hard I try, remember where it was or who else was on the panel with us. I do remember the poem that Meena read and what she said about the Indian Ocean as an embroidered space. Embroidery rather than “world” or “system.” In my notes from the panel, I have that word circled many times.
In putting together this tribute to Meena Alexander, our hope is that all of us get back to those circled and underlined thoughts in our minds which belonged to Meena. Indeed, as each of the entries demonstrate, Meena’s words remain inscribed in us, flowing from our pens back onto this canvas. These are more than memories of readers and friends and students; these are tributaries from the vast river of Meena as can be now be typographically captured.
Over the years, Meena Alexander was a generous friend and contributor to the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Her presence at AAWW talks and panels, as a participant or an audience member, is as material as her many books lined up on the bookshelves of our performance space. We had planned for a launch of her latest collection Atmospheric Embroidery but she was not well enough to attend and we postponed it. I am grateful to Jyothi Natarajan for putting this tribute together and for inviting me to introduce it. I am grateful to AAWW for hosting these tributes.
Please note that we will be publishing tribute essays and remembrances to Meena Alexander through May 10. Come back to read the full series.