by Shoba Viswanathan
The Emily Harvey Foundation hosted an event in November 2017 called “In Praise of Fragments Poetry, Performance and Media: Inspired by Sarra Copia Sulam.” Poet Meena Alexander, with collaborators, offered a poetic engagement with the work of Sulam, a 17th century Venetian Jewish writer. The mixture of poetry and performance was an intriguing way to be introduced to Sulam’s work, a bridge to this woman from another world, another context.
I was reminded of this when I read Alexander’s poem “Kochi by the Sea” in the February issue of The New Yorker. These lines from the poem
“…You always saw those things so well
You were the artistic one, keen and lovely”
are an apt description of the poet herself. Meena Alexander has explored her artistic vision in poetry and prose, always leaving the reader with a sense of having viewed the world from a different angle. In the glimpses we get of this vision—whether from her poems in Illiterate Heart, her novel Nampally Road, or her memoir Fault Lines—there is this pervasive sense of Alexander endeavoring to find words to define the undefinable. In an interview with the Kenyon Review, she refers to “the presumption of linguistic clarity or transparency, post-Enlightenment, that sense that everything can be known and a light can be shone into all parts of one’s thought,” when talking about how her own multi-lingual background helped her realize that certain ideas or emotions may always seem linguistically inaccessible. As a poet and scholar, Alexander engages with the familiar and the unknowable, and takes her readers along on this fascinating journey of finding connections.
It was a pleasure to interview the generous and thoughtful Meena Alexander and to talk to her about the process of creativity, the essential aloneness of being a poet, and the nuances of migrant identity.
Shoba Viswanathan: Your collaborations with other performers are rather atypical for a writer. What is your impetus for doing something like the Sarra Copia Sulam event?
Meena Alexander: Well I had never done anything like that before. But Elizabeth Coffman, a film maker and media artist I met in Venice, where I was invited for the 500th anniversary of the Ghetto Nuovo, had this wonderful idea for a collaborative event. So I worked with her, her husband Ted Hardin the cinematographer, and the actors and director George Drance of the Magis Theater. The bare space of the Emily Harvey Gallery, with its windows and white walls, felt just right. Of course I had no idea how any of it would turn out, but felt happy with what emerged: a collaborative experiment. Poetry is such a lonely art; that is also its glory. You get to listen to the voices in your head, which in a mysterious way connect you to the shared earth and your own body. What cannot enter into words is what the poem bodies forth, a paradox I have learnt to live with. Those poems, by the way. will shortly be published in Venice, in English with an Italian translation.
SV: It is that solitariness of the poet juxtaposed against the collective nature of the performance that was very striking. Speaking of this sense of identity as a writer, in Fault Lines you have shared the multiple ways in which you, as a multilingual immigrant writer, feel a sense of fractured identity. You have addressed the notion of how the choice of identity can feel violent. Do you see this as an ongoing struggle for a writer? You reference “the languages that flow through me” in your forthcoming collection Atmospheric Embroidery—is writing in English a choice you revisit?
MA: Well I don’t revisit it in the sense that English is the language I write in, but it is a river into which many other languages pour, including Malayalam, my mother tongue, and Hindi and French and Arabic. Migration has always been part of my life, but India was always the fixed point of the compass, even as the other point shifted with travels. Now that the beautiful tarawad, the old family home in Kerala, is gone, I feel things have changed. And there is a poem, the main poem in some ways of my new book Atmospheric Embroidery, that evokes this. It’s a poem of passage. Even if we stay in one place, our dreams are passages connecting us with the lost places of our lives, and the fragrance of what might never have existed. And my home is here now, in these acres and streets in the north of Manhattan near Fort Tryon Park, and as far as the subway, that mythic underground passage, can take me. I often write on the subway, dream on it. I have been known to miss my stop!
As for the first part of your question, yes, I have often. and indeed now too but in an altered way, think of how we are all so many selves put together. It’s fluid, and there are things we can choose, and other elements like our bodily beings that we are born to and live in and through. How that body is seen on the street is another matter. I have a poem in Raw Silk called “Kabir Sings in a City of Burning Towers” that speaks of this.
SV: In your poem “Brown Skin What Mask” you write:
“Shall I be a hyphenated thing, Macaulay’s Minutes
and Melting Pot theories not withstanding.”
Your immigrant experience is a central part of your writing. I wonder what you feel about the way writers are tackling the immigrant narrative now? As it continues to be a raging topic in the US, are we as readers getting a range of immigrant experiences?
MA: Yes, there are whole generations of wonderful writers from different parts of the world who are reflecting on the migrant experience and what it means to live here, now, in the United States. The borders are not just geographic, they are also within us. They can cause pain and difficulty, but can also grant us the exhilaration and the challenge of self-invention. I write what I have experienced, transmuted of course through dream and the sometimes flowing, sometimes broken syntax of the poem. And so often I write what I cannot yet know. And in that way writing is discovery.
SV: As someone who has lived in India, Sudan, England and the US you have an insider’s awareness of each of these places. They’ve all been home for a time perhaps? Given that your readers may be from any of these places, do you feel the compulsion to explain each to the other? (In some contexts, I find myself explaining American pop culture to some of my family in India, and in some others I’m suddenly an advocate for some Indian social mores to my American friends.)
MA: I don’t think I feel that; perhaps there is more of an interior dialogue, though there is no question that earlier in my years in New York there was the powerful need to explain where I came from and what things Indian were. I was also asked about all that a lot. Perhaps the drive to write the memoir Fault Lines came out of needing to respond to the perennial question, “Who are you?” But that is if course one of the great mysteries of existence. And when a writer asks this of herself, it can lead into material that is close and intimate and intense.
SV: A corollary to that question is how do you avoid the pitfalls of stereotypical representations? There’s still the very real trap of an easy exoticizing of the East. Do you think of a specific audience as you write?
MA: Yes, which is why I try never to consciously worry about the audience, because that can lead to all kinds of self-censorship; but try rather to go where the voice leads. But inevitably the question of readership does impinge on how one writes, even as one tries to evade it. After all, the work, in some measure, has to be accessible. I like to think that the reader is also the listening self, not just the writing self, by which I mean not just composing the work, but the part of the self that reads, judges, evaluates, and allows for revision, which is so crucial to bringing a work to some sort of completion.
SV: How has being an academic and a writer influenced your choices?
MA: I feel very fortunate to have my job as a professor. It allows me to read and think and enlarge my consciousness, and be in touch with and indeed learn from students. So I can reflect and grow in that way, and it does shape what I write, at least in some measure. The rest of course comes from what is close to the heart and the bone.
SV: I like the way you say that. To write about that which “comes from what is close to the heart and the bone” should be a guiding principle for anyone setting out to write anything! How do you get to the point as a writer where you can distill it to that core? Your three poems about September 11th, “Aftermath,” “Invisible City,” and “Pitfire.” written from September 13th to December 5th, 2001, must have been emotionally challenging.
MA: This is a difficult question, and I am not sure I can answer it in a way that makes sense. You have to listen, make space both physically and in the soul and let that hard music come. But for this you also need the layers of work, the sifting through, the discipline of revision. With each poem it feels like starting from scratch, and so it is. Finally, when the poem is done, whether it takes a month, a year, or even several years, you have to let it go. Yes, writing that cycle of poems was very intense, and I do reflect on this in the chapter called “Lyric in a Time of Voice” in my memoir.
SV: Given’s Bloom’s engagement with the various stages of a writer’s development, I’d like to ask you to share how you perceive the path you’ve taken as a writer. You’ve written poetry, essays, a memoir, and novels. You’ve been part of anthologies and you’ve curated writers for Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing. Could you share something of how you have approached this prompting to be a writer?
MA: Well I began as a poet and continue as one. My very first book published in India, when I was in my mid-twenties, was a book of poetry, as is my new book forthcoming in June. The two novels I think of as experiments, the memoir felt like a necessity, the essays and also the anthologies, particularly Name Me a Word, have been part of my process of self-education, trying to figure something out, a movement, currents of thought and so forth. Still it’s the music of poetry that is closest to me, and most intense—a way of instilling order into a sometimes incomprehensible world.
Shoba Viswanathan is a writer and editor based in NY. Her long-standing philosophy of understanding the Other Side, has developed a new urgency these days. She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.