Meena Alexander is a poet, a memoirist, a novelist, a scholar, and a collector of many frequent-flyer miles. She wrote the poems in her most recent collection, Birthplace with Buried Stones, in Cassis, Venice, Jerusalem, Delhi, Shimla, and New York City.
Born in 1951 in Allahabad, India, Alexander grew up in both India and Sudan, studied in England, and now lives in northern Manhattan, where we met for tea and discussed Birthplace with Buried Stones, which explores—among many subjects—life in a globalized world. It opens with “Experimental Geography,” an elliptical lyric about taking the U.S. naturalization test. The poem poses questions such as “Who can gainsay a bird singing in a suitcase?” and “How many stars to hold the flag up?”
Alexander’s poetic voice, much like her speaking voice, is measured and calming. The comparisons she makes in her poems often reference the natural world (“flesh the color of pigeon wings,” a “terrace deep as the sky”). This technique gives coherence to an inner world that otherwise might feel fragmented. What follows is an edited, condensed version of our conversation.
How would you describe your process? Do you say the lines aloud when you’re writing?
I do say them aloud, actually. It’s funny. I need to hear my voice when I’m writing. Many years ago, when my daughter was quite young—four years old, I think—I remember we were in the elevator together and she said, “Mama, why do you talk to yourself the whole time? The other mothers don’t do that.” So I had to stop. Now I can say them in my head. But I still find myself speaking them sometimes.
Sometimes [writing] is like going over a piece of wood. I think a poet’s a bit like a carpenter joining bits of wood, polishing the whole thing. So I’ll try to polish the poem over and over. Sometimes I try to get the whole thing, the shape of it at one go, with all the lumps and gaps, then work on it bit by bit—a slow process of accretion. Recently I wrote two long poems, and one’s called “Indian Ocean Blues” and the other’s called “Univocity.” That second one is almost like an autobiography. With both of those, I had to do it the strangest way because each poem is composed of parts. Many times I had to pick up pieces and move those and pick up other pieces. It felt different than writing a sonnet, more like a process of mapping.
Is there a particular form you’re drawn to, such as the sonnet? Did you begin with formal training in prosody?
I obviously didn’t do an MFA. It didn’t exist in those days, when I was an 18-year-old student in England. I don’t think you need an MFA to write poetry. You teach yourself. I remember when I was young I was very, very struck by Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I still love. I used to repeat the sonnets to myself when I was a teenager. And then for years I thought I would never write a sonnet. Someone in Italy was translating one of my poems and asked, “Why don’t you write sonnets?” I said, “I wouldn’t dream of writing a sonnet.” It shocked me out of my wits that he would ask me. But then in this book there are sonnets, these 14-line things. So I don’t know. I resist form. But then I have a lot of slant rhyme.
I often hear the echo of certain traditional forms in your free-verse poems. I’m reminded of Berryman’s Dream Songs, how it transformed how American readers thought about the sonnet. They didn’t have to be 14 lines.
His Dream Songs, now that has been a huge influence on me. I love Berryman. It’s funny you mention him. I’ve never written or talked about him, but Berryman has been so important to me.
Do you remember when you first read him?
I read a lot of American poetry when I was 18, 19, in England. And that’s when I came across Berryman. There’s one particular poem of his that completely haunts me. I even wonder if there’s something in this book that has an echo of it. The poem is “A Usual Prayer,” and the lines go like this: “Lord of happenings, & little things, / muster me westward fitter to my end—” So long before I came to America, I had this poem in my head. I felt it was pulling me.
And there’s one that I used to repeat to my daughter all the time. She even learned it by heart. It goes, “My daughter’s heavier. Light leaves are flying. / Everywhere in enormous numbers turkeys will be dying / and other birds, all their wings. / They never greatly flew. Did they wish to?” And these are the lines I love: “If there were a middle ground between things and the soul / or if the sky resembled more the sea, / I wouldn’t have to scold / my heavy daughter.” We used to laugh together at that last line.
Speaking of sonnets, I was curious about your cycle of poems inspired by Donne’s Holy Sonnets. How did that make its way into your book?
I went to the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, where they keep writers’ papers. They have Virginia Woolf’s papers and the New York poets’. And they have writers’ typewriters, things like that. They have my papers now. It’s so funny because I was keeping a lot of my papers at Hunter [College] and then the people from the library came to get them, and the guards wouldn’t let them through. And I had a tough time proving that those were my boxes, and then that I was who I said I was, even though I had an ID and a letter from an administrator in the English department. There was the time after 9/11 in Zurich airport (I was returning to NYC), the security people pulled me over and kept staring at my American passport. A friend later said they probably thought I was traveling on a stolen passport. You can have an ID or a passport with your name, but there really is no way you can prove you are who you say you are. It’s so strange, this conundrum of identity.
I’m sorry; I’m getting off track. About Donne’s sonnets: I went to the Berg Collection, and I told the curator I wanted to look at some manuscripts of poetry. He said, “Well, the jewel of our collection is John Donne’s Holy Sonnets in the Westmoreland Fair copy.” So the curator brought the manuscript out, he was so kind, and put it on this silk cradle. It looked like it was made of alabaster in the light. It was so beautiful. It blew my mind to see “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” in the manuscript. In my notebook I wrote down some of the lines, which I already knew. Then at home I printed out the sonnets from the Internet and put double spaces between the lines and in the spaces wrote each of my lines, a species of poetic hatching. In this way, I made a cycle of poems called “Stump Work.”
Do you often find yourself consciously writing poems in direct conversation with other poems?
We have such an archive in our heads as poets, and sometimes I even feel I’m flipping through pages. Yes, even when we don’t know it, surely there is a conversation. As soon as we enter into language there is another, listening, even if that other is part of the solitary self.
I love Dickinson. Her edgy brilliance, the way things implode in her writing, geographies, little longings and big ones, even cosmologies. I loved her writing always, and was scared by it. The whole question of decorum, growing up as a girl, and then finding Emily. I couldn’t get “Wild Nights” out of my head.
In this collection, you have a lot of poems inspired by Bashō. What was it that drew you to him?
I’ve long been enticed by the Japanese aesthetic. There’s a kind of profusion in Indian classical forms that I grew up with. Very sensual. And there’s something in the Japanese sense of restraint and the economy of line that I find attractive. Now Bashō, I love the fact that in the journey to the Deep North he is putting his body out there and walking. And he’s walking the whole distance. And the things he writes about are things he experiences, but there are also lines about memory and the creation of the poems. It’s a book tinged by that horizon of mortality, ephemeral, things that pass and change as we do.
A few years ago, when I was composing Birthplace with Buried Stones, I was traveling. I was in France, I was in Italy, I was in Jerusalem. And then I was back in India, in the mountains. Before I left I thought, “I’m going to be traveling a lot. So let me take one book that can be my staff.” I chose Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. So I was able to sit on the great terrace outside my suite of rooms in Shimla and look out at the mountains and read Bashō. Out of that came “Lady Dufferin’s Terrace” as well as a cycle of Bashō-inspired poems, including the one called “Bryant Park,” which of course is set in New York City. The last of those poems was actually composed in Venice, at the time of the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster. I called it “Near Sendai” and sent the whole cycle to a former student of mine who lives in Japan. He wrote back: “You know all those places where Bashō walked are gone now, under water.”
How did you decide on the order of poems in the book?
It takes me a whole year and more to order the poems in a book. And this book gave me a lot of trouble. I had written sonnets inspired by drawings done by children from Darfur who lived in the relief camps. After I spent a month in East Jerusalem, I wrote poems evoking what I saw and felt there, and somehow the entire concept of the book changed. The Darfur poems are waiting to find their place in a new book I may someday write. Birthplace with Buried Stones took me a very long time. Perhaps some books come quickly because they have a shape that’s clear from the beginning. This book took time, but I’m happy with it.
The North was considered this unexplored territory in Bashō’s time. I can see that as a metaphor for poetry itself: travel into the unexplored.
I love that. Surely poetry is a journey.
I’m curious: how did you decide “Birthplace with Buried Stones” would be the title poem?
Because it’s a book of so much traveling and wandering. In the course of my journeys I visited Allahabad, in the north of India, where I was born. It’s where two great rivers meet, the Ganga and the Yamuna. I left when I was three, and this was my first chance to go back. I think of the poem as an anchor.
The poems that I found myself reading and rereading are the Lady Dufferin poems. I love those lines in “Lady Dufferin Writes to Her Mother”: “Why waste your time taking tea with a woman / Who dresses up as a white cat?” What was it that drew you to her as a subject?
Lady Dufferin started a string of hospitals in India. The whole crossing of borders is very interesting to me, what it means for a woman to travel. I think of the violence, both psychic and physical, of colonialism, and the human lives on each side.
I spent a month in residence at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, in this lovely setting. The building was once the British vice-regal palace, and the terrace I was fortunate enough to have for that month came with a suite of rooms, had been designed for Lady Dufferin. So each morning I would sit on a stone bench, on that immense terrace, and look at the mountains. “Have you seen the ghost?” people would ask me. It was thought that she haunted those rooms, suite 19 and the terrace. So there I was, the granddaughter of Indian nationalists, musing on this British aristocrat who was part of the colonial regime.
Lady Dufferin’s life was very sad. Her two daughters outlived her, but everyone else in her immediate family died before her: her husband, her sons. Two of her sons died in infancy, I believe; two in war; and her youngest died in a plane crash.
She had a difficult life. She had great sympathy for women and children. She saw women and children dying during childbirth, and so she started these hospitals with women doctors because women didn’t feel comfortable going to male doctors.
You mention in one of your poems her bathtub with gold claws. Did you see it when you were in Shimla?
Yes. And they were actually cleaning it when I was there. I mean, it had a marble bathroom. It was amazing. It was pure marble. And her terrace, it was massive. That terrace is twice as big as my entire apartment.
The terrace in “Lychees”—is that the same terrace, the one that you describe as “deep as the sky”?
It’s the same amazing terrace.
What I love about that poem is how self-contained it is in the natural world. Not only is the terrace “deep as the sky,” [but] the lychees have “flesh the color of pigeon wings.” The poems feel contained yet expansive.
Yes, I keep returning to the natural world. It’s so under siege these days, wherever you look, with massive pollution and the way human beings degrade the earth. But our flesh, our bodies, are part of nature. We are part of nature. Somehow when I make my poems, perhaps only in very small ways I return there. As a child in Kerala, I ran through fields and climbed trees and stared up at the monsoon sky. Where is that life now? Those fields have been turned into plots for high-rise apartments, those trees cut down.
In your poem “Question Time,” you write that a woman at a reading once asked you, “What use is poetry?” You replied, “We have poetry / So we do not die of history. / I had no idea what I meant.” Do you have any idea now?
No, I do not have a clear idea. It’s something more inchoate, intuitive, something I believe. But it’s not something that I can fully figure out. I suppose I could think about it discursively in essays, but I’d rather explore this through the writing of poems.
Did you ever have a desire to do something else?
Well, I wanted to be a trapeze artist in the circus. I got taken to the circus in India when I was six. There were these girls in bright tinselly clothes and pink sequins, and I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ So at home I got a bamboo stick and put it between the rabbit hutch and the wall outside the kitchen, near where the clothes were washed, and I thought if I could walk on this … but of course I couldn’t. I couldn’t even walk a straight line. So I had to give that up. But that was my first great desire, swaying through the abyss of air. Perhaps writing a poem is the closest I can come to that.
Jeannie Vanasco is a 2014 Emerging Poets Fellow at Poets House and a 2014 recipient of the Amy Award from Poets & Writers. Her writing has appeared in the Believer, the Times Literary Supplement, Tin House, and elsewhere. Born and raised in Sandusky, Ohio, she now lives in Brooklyn.