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Studio Visit: Meena Alexander

This New York-based poet once dreamt of being a trapeze artist.

By Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander breathes poetry. So much so that one morning when her daughter was four years old and the two of them were riding the elevator up to their apartment near Columbia University, Meena’s daughter caught her in the act. She stared at her mom, puzzled, and tightened her grip to Meena’s hand. “Mama,” she asked, “why do you always speak to yourself? The other mothers don’t do this.”

At that moment, Meena realized that her constant murmuring, the lines of poems she recited to herself in a soft voice, was something her child could hear, and that her strange habit might have been the cause for some embarrassment. Meena chose to retreat to cafes, where she’d whisper words out loud, sipping cappuccinos, waiting for the poems to come. If people thought she was crazy, she figured it didn’t really matter—New York City is filled with such folk, whispering lines to themselves.

Alexander was born in Allahabad, India, brought up both in Kerala and in Khartoum, Sudan, where her father was posted, and at eighteen went to England to study. She now lives and works in New York City, where she is a professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her new book of poems, Birthplace with Buried Stones, is forthcoming from Triquarterly Books this September. Alexander joins us this week for Studio Visit.

What’s on your nightstand right now?
On my desk and carried with me on the subway: W.G.Sebald’s beautiful book : Across the Land and the Water (Selected Poems)

What superpower would you most like to possess?
Always hearing the music that allows the poems to flow.

What role does place have in your writing?
I turned five on the Indian Ocean, traveling with my mother from India to Sudan, to join my father who was posted there. All my writing is haunted by place, the loss of it, the return, the constantly shifting ‘I’ that tries to find a place in which to be. My new book Birthplace with Buried Stones (I am working on the proofs now) is a book of journeys.
What songs are on your iPod now?
I listen to music, over and over as I write — Chopin’s Nocturnes, the voice of the great South Indian classical singer M.S. Subbalakshmi, the music of De Lalande. Recently while working on my poem “Indian Ocean Blues” I was listening to Vijay Iyer’s “Solo.”

What is your writing process?
A rhythm in the head, deep emotion that will not let me be, jotting a few lines as an image, then doing something very different — if I am at home, jumping up to make tea, cutting some vegetables in the kitchen. (Somehow touching the coriander or the zucchini, or slicing an apple helps me with the poem.) Then after a space of time typing what I have written. Printing it up. Sticking it in my notebook. Crossing lines out, on and on the revision goes. Trying to get the uncaught music.

What are you working on right now?
The last poem I finished has led me here. I want to do a poem in several voices. One will be the voice of the child crossing the Indian Ocean. But will it come to me? You never know with poems.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
Eating fine chocolate.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be in the circus, I wanted to be a trapeze artist. This was my great ambition.