Meena Alexander, a poet and scholar, seems to be in perpetual motion. She spent much of her early years living in different landscapes, from India to Sudan, to England. Today, Alexander calls New York City home, where she’s an English professor at the City University of New York.
But Alexander is far from “settled.” She continues to write prolifically as an award-winning poet and literary scholar who explores migration, the politics of place and the trauma of dislocation. Her work is that of a traveler who helps readers see how a place — something that feels so static — can actually be both dynamic and unsettling.
This is especially evident in her newest collection of poems, “Birthplace with Buried Stones” (September 2013, Northwestern University Press, 140pp. $16.95). The poem “Experimental Geography,” excerpted from the book, was recently featured on the PBS NewsHour’s poetry series and captures the powerful sense of fragmentation that permeates much of the book.
Alexander sat down with the International Examiner to talk more about her own feelings on politics and place, as well as on her latest poetry:
IE: Place seems to inform so much of your work — migration, dislocation, and of course, where one is born. How has this sense of place influenced your latest book?
Well, I’ve traveled since when I was very young. When I was 5, I crossed the Indian Ocean with my mother to join my father who was posted in North Africa by the Indian government. And the garden from my childhood in Kerala — my grandparents’ garden — keeps appearing in my poems.
I think the self is fluid. We alter with the alteration of place, even though there’s a core self that remains (or so I like to think). My poems always exist in relation to sounds, sights, smells: all that is embodied in place. I can’t imagine not having poems that relate to the places in which I find myself. In a way, I write to exist in place. I think of a wonderful line in Valery’s “Eupalinos ou L’Architecte” (I’ll translate it): “By dint of constructing, I am constructing myself.”
IE: What about the process of writing “Birthplace with Buried Stones” was different for you from your previous works?
This book was hard for me to put together because it’s a book of journeys, and I had to try and find a pattern. After you write the poems, putting them in the right order takes a whole other kind of work. It’s like stringing pearls together — you have to get it just right.
With this book particularly, it was an exploration, and I was learning as I was doing it. I didn’t have a set plan. I had to discover the shape as I went along. I thought it had one shape, and then I spent time in Jerusalem and Palestine, which opened up a whole other shape. There are so many layers to it. The process of making this book was quite a revelation for me. I learned that when writing a book, one always starts from scratch.
IE: There’s a poem in the book titled “Autobiography.” How much of what you write about is actually autobiographical?
There’s always a kernel of something autobiographical in a poem. But the imagination takes over and transforms it. It feels wrong to say that poem “X” or “Y” is exactly what happened in my life. It isn’t. I don’t think of them as autobiographical, but as expressive of the self.
IE: Political events seem to have an influence on your work as well. What role does poetry play in conveying ideas that can’t be explained in journalistic accounts?
I think what poetry does — and this is extraordinary — is capture the intimacy of a moment: the emotion. It puts us in touch with what’s so often unspeakable. It has to do with the intensity of feeling and intimacy of thought. While a piece that gives you a factual description of an event is very important, it may not be able to convey what it means to be inside something terrible.
You know, something very interesting happened after 9/11. People turned to poetry and used it on the radio, in the newspaper and on TV in a way that wasn’t normally done. I think in times of crisis, people turn to the extraordinary intensity of poetry for things you can’t otherwise express.
IE: Would you say that you’re political?
Five years ago, I would’ve said everything’s political. Now I don’t know how to answer that because I just write about what I feel deeply. Some of the poems relate to issues that are deeply political, but I don’t think of my poetry as that. If someone asked, “Are you a feminist or a political poet?” I would just say that I’m a poet. I would find it very narrowing to say I’m this or that. I have to keep myself open to experience.
IE: What do you hope readers take away from “Birthplace with Buried Stones”?
I would love for a reader to encounter the book and come away feeling that their inner life was quickened and perhaps touched in some way that it would not have been otherwise.
Meena Alexander’s “Birthplace with Buried Stones” is available form Northwestern University Press at http://www.nupress.northwestern.edu/ or wherever books are sold.