Profile: Poet Meena Alexander

Lighthearted Musings by a Serious Poet


"I often write in the subway or in a cafe," Alexander says.
Take a look at writer Meena Alexander's list of accomplishments and you might assume she's so serious its scary: Eight books of poetry, two novels, a memoir, awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller and Fulbright Foundations.

There are two books of criticism, a Pen Open Book Award and earlier this year, a Guggenheim. She's also a distinguished professor of English at Hunter College and the Graduate Center.

But at her small, windowless office one day last spring, Alexander was anything but intimidating. Breezy, easygoing and prone to sudden bursts of laughter, she kicked off her shoes and talked about her childhood in India, immigrating to America as a newlywed, her kids, and juggling it all with the writer's life.

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO BE A POET? WHEN YOU'RE RUNNING ERRANDS DO YOU SEE THE WORLD IN IAMBIC PENTAMETER OR ARE YOU REALLY GOING OVER THE GROCERY LIST? "I always tell my students that what you actually see of the poem is just the tip of the iceberg and underneath there is this whole zone of meditation. So sometimes when I need to write something, I just go to a different place in my head. I might be walking or cooking and then burn the food. ....[Poetry] is part of everything else for me."

SO YOU REALLY AREN'T GOING OVER THE GROCERY LIST? "No. I often write in the subway or in a café. I always have little bits of paper that I carry around with me. I've often written lines from here at my office and e-mailed them to myself at home and then I might wake up very early in the morning and work.  And when I had young children it was harder. It was impossible, but then it's even more important to do it [write poetry] because it helps you survive."

IS IT HARDER FOR STUDENTS TO WRITE POETRY NOW, GIVEN ALL THE DISTRACTIONS? "I think poetry is alive and well. I think for a lot of young people, it's incredibly powerful. The trouble is that in our very consumer-orientated culture, poetry doesn't really have a place because there is no money attached to it. If you write fiction you might get enough money to live on for a year but if you write a poetry book, you are lucky if you can take your best friend out to dinner at a moderately priced restaurant. But that makes it even more valuable because it becomes this place where you don't buy and sell. Poetry reminds us that there are some very precious things that are not for sale."

DID YOU PUSH POETRY ON YOUR KIDS? "Without meaning to, I guess I did.  My daughter writes poetry and my son is a singer and performer. But, I probably didn't bake as many cookies as they would have liked and I broke too many dishes, but your mother is your mother and you have to put up with that, right?"

WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH THE GUGGENHEIM? "I'm working on a new book of poems that will be a book of journeys. There is an ancient art of shadow puppets in Kerala, where I come from, that uses the epic Ramayana to tell the tales of kingship and exile. I saw these puppets as a child...there were brightly lit flares that cast moving shadows. I was haunted by this and will use it in this book."

YOU CAME TO THIS COUNTRY IN THE LATE 1970s WITH YOUR AMERICAN HUSBAND. WHAT WAS YOUR REACTION TO THE U.S.? "There was a whole issue of racism that shocked me out of my wits. I never thought of myself as a person of color. I was normally the majority where I lived."

YOU'VE BEEN AT CUNY FOR 21 YEARS. WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT IT? "I love the cosmopolitan nature of it. CUNY feels like New York with the whole world flowing in, the multiple languages, the history, the immigrant nature of our lives.

YEARS AGO, YOU SAID YOU BELIEVED POETS PROBABLY DO THEIR MOST SIGNIFICANT WORK WHEN THEY ARE YOUNG. NOW THAT YOU ARE OLDER, DO YOU STILL FEEL THAT WAY? "Did I say that?  That's nonsense.... I think I'm just getting there. Some writers hit it early. I didn't. It took me a long time to get it all together."

FINALLY, WHAT DO YOU DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME? DO YOU KNIT, OR SEW OR RAISE WILD ANIMALS? "Ah, my dear, what do I do?  I sit on a park bench and look at the sky.  I examine clouds—my father was a meteorologist and he taught me this—I do some cooking and I watch Law and Order whenever I can."