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The Poet in the Public Sphere
A Conversation with Meena Alexander
New York City, January 2002
The events of September 11 and the aftermath: military retaliation, racial profiling of immigrants and international students, as well as the antiwar organizing in New York City, suddenly brought a new layer of urgency and complexity to our thoughts about artistic creation and critical dissent. I had been exploring the postcolonial novel as a literary form engaged in social critique. Reading Meena Alexander's Illiterate Heart in the months following the devastation made me reflect on the place of the lyric poem in the public sphere. What were the possibilities of this intensely private form to bear witness to history, to rely on the logic of images to press its point, free of the overarching frame of narrative?
It was against this background that the following conversations with Meena Alexander took place, the first at the cafeteria of the CUNY Graduate Center and the second at Alexander's home. We made written additions to the conversations after the initial meetings. Our informal, back-and-forth discussions helped us to reflect on the recent traumatic events in the public sphere. It seemed to me that there was a relationship between places and histories we were forced to confront. This is visible in Alexander's innovation of the lyric form, which grapples with multiple geographies and languages of migrancy and confronts the personal and public facets of dislocation and grief through the workings of memory.
Lopamudra Basu: Tell me about your use of lyric form. How are you fashioning it?
Meena Alexander: The lyric poem is a very important place for me. After the terrible events of September 11, I had been working on a prose book, which I put aside, because I needed the sharp fragility of the lyric.
It seems to me that the lyric poem is a place of extreme silence, which is protected from the world. To make a lyric poem you have to enter into a dream state. Yet at the same time, almost by virtue of that, disconnect; it becomes a very intense place to reflect on the world. Recently, I have completed three short poems related to what happened on September 11: one is called "Aftermath," another is called "Invisible City," and the third is called "Pitfire." I used couplets making twelve lines for each poem, and somehow the form helped me to crystallize and think through without [End Page 31] fear. And the question of fear is important, as these are poems that deal with traumatic events.
I have put aside the longish prose piece I was working on, a piece about childhood. After what has just happened in New York City I did not want to be swallowed up in the past, with so much molten and flowing all around, the world I love in turmoil. I need to bear witness to what is now.
The lyric poem allows me much better to catch the edginess of things, the sharp nervosity, the flaming, falling buildings. And I think I must work back from the pressure of the present into the past, for that is the only way I will reach into the real.
In all my work place is layered on place to make a palimpsest of sense. That is the kind of art I make. But the very indices of place have been altered by traumatic awareness.
LB: How can we reconcile the tragic reality of what we are faced with and the aesthetics of poetic composition?
MA: In the composition of poetry, something that is very difficult to face is brought within the purview of language, into a zone of images, and is crystallized. And that act of crystallizing the emotion through the image actually has its own peculiar grace, which frees one, if only momentarily, of the burden of the experience. This seems to be the great gift of poetry. It eases the burden of lived experience, if only very briefly, in...