Elegy

I came into this world in an Allahabad hospital,
Close to a smelly cow pasture.
I was brought to a barracks, with white walls
And corrugated tin roof,
Beside a civil aviation training center.
In World War II officers were docketed there.
I heard the twang of propellers,
Jets pumping hot whorls of air,
Heaven bent,
Blessing my first home.
-Meena Alexander
Stand in the daylight and marvel at the complicated processes which have brought you to this moment. The breath of life. In the vast universe and the endless stretch of time, your presence has come to be. Accept with grace that you will one day cease while the world spins on and the cosmos continues to expand.

Meena Alexander was a poet who spoke to us in 2015. She died last week on November 21. She was 67 years old. The world has lost a wonderful voice but her words will live on.

In response to my off record admission that I find it intimidating to interview poets, she responded in the most wonderful and extraordinary way:

I do think of the poet as the most ordinary of creatures. I think a poet is a bit like the fly on the wall and we pick up little bits of dirt and little bits of air and sunlight and maybe a bit of starlight and something stitches together if we’re fortunate…I think of music as the highest art…I think of poetry as an art that’s really etched on silence…words are always straining for what actually cannot be said and so in some ways it is also an impossible art even as I think of it as very ordinary.”

Alexander went on to describe her meaning of “ordinary” relating to children’s early adoption of language and ultimately grounding poetry in a remarkable way.

Music, Alexander reflected, exists in time and does not occupy space. Music moves temporally and then vanishes. When she wrote poems she sometimes felt as though she was trying to “catch music” in a sense.

While watching a composer friend work, Alexander began to see that music and poetry are pieced together more similarly than prose narrative is created. The piecing together of bits and snippets is a common thread across poetry and music.

Alexander admired the way that artists could speak of their work in intricate, theoretical ways, something she could never apply to her own work.

While trying to figure out a poem, Alexander often would walk, particularly through Central Park beginning at 63rd street. Along this route a particular rock reminded her of one she sat on growing up in India. One day on a walk while sitting on the rock reading Ginsburg’s Rajistan Journals, she learned of his death and began composing an elegy to the poet in which he met a medieval poet saint of India.

This kind of crossing of place and time is featured throughout Alexander’s process and work. Her adopted home of New York City allowed her many opportunities to reflect and create.

After 9/11, Alexander remembers the Drawing Center bringing together a group of artists to discuss how to make art in response to the tragedy. As an invited artist, Alexander felt that this was a moment when there were no words but it was still possible to make a poem. She began to write some lines which she says was not “of use” but the thing that Alexander could do best was to write. Whether two or ten people read it and get something out of it, she considered it a way to crystallize emotion. Poets, Alexander believed, could catch emotions that we can’t necessarily see and deal with in every day life.

Alexander crossed the Indian Ocean on a ship with her mother when she was 5 years old in 1956. They met her father in Sudan. She went back and forth between Sudan and India throughout her childhood until age 18 when she went to England to study. The scenes from this time became more vibrant for her as she grew older, particularly in a world where so many had begun fleeing terrible conditions in their home countries. For Alexander, her migration to New York City was the culmination of a search for a place to do her work.

To hear her voice and learn more about her unique way of viewing the world, listen to the complete interview.

A Few Words to Keep in your Pocket:

Breath in the miracle of your existence. Breathe out joy for another sunrise.

Interviews are available on iTunes as podcasts, and for Android please click here. All weekly essay pieces in a shareable format are here. The full archive of interviews here.

Books to Read

What are you reading? Add your titles to our reading list here. Seren Morey has been reading The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer. Emireth Herrera recently read Frantz Jourdain and the Samaritaine by Meredith L. Clausen.

Opportunities

Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture is once again accepting applications for the summer program. While there are fees for enrollment, Skowhegan school emphasizes that financial circumstances should never be a barrier to application. A number of scholarships are available for those wishing to attend Skowhegan School who are in need of financial assistance. The program is located in picturesque Skowhegan, Maine. For further information and to apply, visit the website. Deadline for applications is January 10.Deadlines

Weekly Edited Grant and Residency Deadlines – review the list here.

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