Meena Alexander was born in Allahabad, India and raised in both India and Sudan. A poet and a teacher, Alexander’s works reflect her multicultural life in India, Sudan, and the United States. Educated at the University of Khartoum in Sudan (B.A. Hons, 1969) and at the University of Nottingham in England (Ph.D, 1973), Alexander held a number of teaching positions in India and elsewhere. She is a Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. The subjects explored in her writing include language, memory, and the significance of place. She also wrote a semiautobiographical novel set during the 1978 civil unrest in Hyderabad, the Nampally Road (1991). In this interview, she talks about her poetic experiences, journey of lie and message to youth. Excerpts from the interview:
Literature is a vast field with so many different genres, what made you to pick up poetry writing?
I love the music of language, something that transports … that’s what led me to poetry. Also lyric compression. A poem can be borne in memory, it can be written down on scraps of paper. In many ways, it’s an instinctive use of language, using images to spell out the unsayable. Obviously there is a paradox here.
As said by someone, “Writing is more about penning down thoughts, thoughts which are aligned with our imaginations”. So what is the source of your imagination? From where do you get inspiration?
That is and probably will remain a mystery. But buried thoughts, memories, dreams, the pressure of the present, all this enters into the boiling pot of the poem
I had a chance to look at some of your works, the idea of journey has been one of the important elements in your creativity? What do you have to say about it?
This is a very interesting question. There is a power in the imagination that can make different places hang together, even the light falling on a leaf in a far country can evoke childhood. In ancient literature, journey has been an important part of human experience, it’s an ancient trope used to evoke life itself. What does it mean to leave home and then try to return? Even if we don’t physically leave our birthplace, time makes us exiles. I was born in Allahabad, my parents are from Kerala and I have traveled all my life. Sometimes there is a clarity that can come with travel, a possibility of rediscovering oneself and the world. Every journey is special. In Chennai I just stepped out to buy a coconut at my mother’s request, and as I walked down the small street I was able to see something very new. I have also experienced multiple languages, both as a child and an adult. In the 21st century, idea of global migration is important to all of us. In a way, it is path of searching for self.
Even a normal person sees dreams, so what skills he need to become a good poet?
It varies from person to person, you need to believe in the imagination and you should love the rhythm of words. The zone of dreams opens up, through the musicality of rhythm. The poem can pitch towards tragedy, or evoke happiness, but the music of language needs to be there. This carries the spirit along.
You also need the discipline of the poetry, ability to revise and to improve the words so that they cover meaning in the best possible way. I often think of the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, and how he started as an artist from making crossings out and deletions in the manuscript of `Purabi’, turning those into birds and flowers and surreal creatures. Revising is the powerful quality of becoming a good artist. You need to keep revising and polishing.
What is the most difficult thing to become a poet? How did you face it?
It is a very hard question. Often people don’t take poetry seriously, they feel it cannot be bought or sold, so what is its value? Then again it is very hard to publish, this is something that every poet faces. Also one writes in loneliness, but this is the way writing goes — the writing that comes from the inner soul. Have faith in yourself. The world generally does not need your poems, so you can always face many rejections, but you just have to keep going. I once heard the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky speak of how hard it is to be a poet. While fiction writers got paid for their writings, the poet has to send something out and wait for it to be rejected, and send it out again! So hang in there, have faith. Keep writing and keep making the poems better.
You have also written literary critic books in past. So in your view, how important it is for an artist to be a good critic?
I really don’t think a writer has to be a critic in a formal fashion. But each time you read something else, you measure it and try to make sense of it and learn from it, it is a kind of self-evaluation.
We now see the influx of technology in our day-to-day work. How did the writing changed from letter writing of 60s to merely tweeting in 140 words today? And how will it change the path of writing in future?
I don’t think that we will see the end of writing. At the same time there is no question in my mind that advent of cyberspace has radically altered the space of imagination. Happenings at one part of the world are now spreading to the other parts of the world so fast. Distances appear to collapse and it also affects the mind of the writer. New forms of writing and micro messaging, and the social media are important too. We do not yet have the language perhaps to speak of this. I myself have composed lines of poetry on my cell phone and sent it to myself. In this way a poem called `Experimental Geography’ came into being. In Japan, recently there has been some news about a novel that has been written on a cellphone.
What do you have to say about your Indian connection? And how did it help you to reach the position you are in today?
India is always in my heart. Yes, I am a New Yorker now, I live in this city, but my earliest thoughts and feelings and desires were formed in India and marked, even in the diaspora by being part of an Indian family. One does not lose these things.
Let’s talk about involvement of poems in society. The best example, I can remember is from Indian independence movement where poems inspired people to fight for their freedom. Do you think that the poems can still play the same role in uniting the society against various causes?
I think that poems are so important in times of tumult, they can spell out the unspeakable; bring the political and the deeply personal together.
Despite being so good, still not many Indian writers are known at the world stage. Where do you see the problem lies? What can be done to change this?
There is amazing writing coming out of India, in the Indian languages and also in English. More of it should be known worldwide, I completely agree. India is not just country, it is a subcontinent offering wide and rich diversity in our regional languages like Oriya, Hindi, Malyalam, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali etc. But these works need to be properly translated for world audience.
At the same time, it is not necessary to see English as the only outlet. Chinese, for example, will become a global language in future. Indian literature which is already multilingual and multicultural can easily make entry into this new and globalized world.
With majority (more than 50%) of the Indian population still young, do you see in future an improvement in the literature activities in India?
Each time I return, and I come back each year, sometimes twice a year, I recognize the exuberance, and vitality of literature in India. The ancient traditions are still remaining, but also reworked by the new. Yes, I do think the internet helps. Young people and others too, can publish their work and it’s immediately available across all sorts of borders.
India is an extraordinary site for forms of literary activity. The country has a thriving press which is free and has ability to deal with current issues.
You have lived in many countries (Sudan, England, India and US mainly). How the intersection of different cultures influenced your writing?
It is a very hard question Ankit. Perhaps the act of writing is to make a space where all these different strands come together, ‘A house of words’.
Maxine Hong Kingston has said, “Meena Alexander sings of countries, foreign and familiar, places where the heart and spirit live, and places for which one needs a passport and visas. Her voice guides us far away and back home. The reader sees her visions and remembers and is uplifted”. Going through the same lines, how far you have come in your work and how much more will you like to achieve?
I have so much more to write. I only hope I can do it. I always feel I am starting from scratch. It keeps one humble. You never know if the words will come.
Any message do you want to give to the current young generation to achieve goals from your own life experiences?
The best advice I can give is to remain focus and disciplined. Have the passion to achieve your goals and the persistence. All of us face difficulties in life sooner or later and in that case if you ask yourself, how do I face it? So much depends on how you come to terms with what is given to you. My advice is: Hang in there and have faith in your abilities.
— From Khandelwal, Ankit. “Traveling Helps in Self-Discovery.” The Times of India, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. 11 Feb. 2013. Web. 26 May 2013.