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Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander

Poet, scholar, and writer
Meena Alexander
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro Poet, scholar, and writer
Was Author Writer Novelist Poet
From United States of America India
Type Literature
Gender female
Birth 17 February 1951, Prayagraj, India
Death 21 November 2018, Manhattan, USA (aged 67 years)
Star sign Aquarius
University of Nottingham
University of Khartoum
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship  
PEN/Open Book  
Peoplepill ID meena-alexander
Meena Alexander
The details


Meena Alexander (17 February 1951 – 21 November 2018) was an Indian poet, scholar, and writer. Born in Allahabad, India, and raised in India and Sudan, Alexander lived and worked in New York City, where she was Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College and at the CUNY Graduate Center in the PhD program in English.


Meena Alexander, described as "undoubtedly one of the finest poets of contemporary times" by The Statesman was born into a Syrian Christian family from Kerala, South India. She lived in Allahabad and Kerala until she was almost five when her father's work—as a scientist for the Indian government—took the family to Khartoum in newly independent Sudan. She attended the Unity High School there and after graduating in 1964, when she was only thirteen, Alexander enrolled in Khartoum University, where she studied English and French literature. There she wrote her first poems, which were translated into Arabic and published in a local newspaper. After graduating with a Bachelor's degree Honors from Khartoum University in 1969, she moved to England and began doctoral study at the University of Nottingham. She earned a PhD in English in 1973 — at the age of 22 — with a dissertation in Romantic literature that she would later develop and publish as The Poetic Self. She then moved to India and taught at several universities, including the University of Delhi and the University of Hyderabad.

During the five years she lived in India she published her first three books of poetry: The Bird's Bright Ring (1976), I Root My Name (1977), and Without Place (1978). In 1979 she was a visiting fellow at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. The following year she moved to New York City and became an assistant professor at Fordham University, where she remained until 1987 when she became an assistant professor in the English Department at Hunter College, the City University of New York (CUNY). Two years later she joined the graduate faculty of the PhD program in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. In 1992 she was made full professor of English and Women's Studies. She was appointed Distinguished Professor of English in 1999 and continued to teach in the PhD program at the Graduate Center and the MFA program at Hunter College. Over the years she also taught poetry in the Writing Division in the School of the Arts at Columbia University. Since moving to New York, Alexander was a prolific author, publishing six more volumes of poetry, two books of literary criticism, two books of lyric essays, two novels, and a memoir. She was married to David Lelyveld, the historian and brother of journalist and author Joseph Lelyveld, and had two children.

Alexander is known for lyric poetry that deals with migration, its impact on the subjectivity of the writer, and the violent events that sometimes compel people to cross borders. Though confronting such stark and difficult issues, her writing is sensual, polyglot, and maintains a generous spirit. About her work, Maxine Hong Kingston said: "Meena Alexander sings of countries, foreign and familiar, places where the heart and spirit live, and places for which one needs a passport and visas. Her voice guides us far away and back home. The reader sees her visions and remembers and is uplifted." Alexander was influenced and mentored by the Indian poets Jayanta Mahapatra and Kamala Das, as well as the American poets Adrienne Rich and Galway Kinnell.

Among her best-known works are the volumes of poetry Illiterate Heart (2002) and Raw Silk (2004). Her latest volume of poetry is Atmospheric Embroidery (2015). She edited a volume of poems in the Everyman Series, Indian Love Poems (2005), and published a volume of essays and poems on the themes of migration and memory called The Shock of Arrival: Reflections on Postcolonial Experience (2006). In 1993 Alexander published her autobiographical memoir, Fault Lines (significantly revised in 2003 to incorporate new material). She published two novels, Nampally Road (1991)—which was a Village Voice Literary Supplement Editor's Choice—and Manhattan Music (1997), and two academic studies, The Poetic Self (1979) and Women in Romanticism (1989). Fault Lines was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of the year in 1993. Illiterate Heart won the 2002 PEN Open Book Award.

Her poems have been set to music. Impossible Grace was the lyric base of the First Al Quds Music Award, with music composed by Stefan Heckel and sung by baritone Christian von Oldenburg (First performed in Jerusalem). `Acqua Alta' was set to music by the composer Jan Sandstrom and performed by the Serikon Music Group and the Swedish Radio Choir (first performed in Stockholm)

Alexander read at Poetry International (London), Struga Poetry Evenings, Poetry Africa, Calabash Festival, Harbor Front Festival, Sahitya Akademi (India) and other international gatherings. She received awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Arts Council England, National Endowment for the Humanities, American Council of Learned Societies, National Council for Research on Women, New York State Council on the Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation. She was in residence at the MacDowell Colony and held the Martha Walsh Pulver residency for a poet at Yaddo. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Sorbonne (Paris IV), Frances Wayland Collegium Lecturer at Brown University, Writer in Residence at the Center for American Culture Studies at Columbia University, University Grants Commission Fellow at Kerala University, and Writer in Residence at the National University of Singapore. In 1998 she was a Member of the Jury for the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. She served as an Elector, American Poets' Corner, at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York. She was the recipient of the 2009 Literary Excellence Award from the South Asian Literary Association (an organization allied to the Modern Languages Association) for contributions to American literature. In 2014, Meena Alexander was named a National Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, India. In the summer of 2016 she was a Poet in Residence at the Ghetto Nuovo/ Beit Venezia as part of the 500th anniversary celebrations of the Jewish Ghetto. Her cycle of poems inspired by the 17th-century poet Sarra Copia Sulam was published in the volume Poems for Sarra/ Poesie per Sara (Poems by Meena Alexander, Rita Dove, Esther Schor, Venezia: Damocle, 2018)

Her book Poetics of Dislocation was published in 2009 by the University of Michigan Press as part of its Poets on Poetry Series. Also in 2009 Cambridge Scholars Publishing brought out an anthology of scholarship on her work titled Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander.

The poems in her book Birthplace with Buried Stones "convey the fragmented experience of the traveler, for whom home is both nowhere and everywhere".

Of the poems in her book Atmospheric Embroidery A. E. Stallings writes: "Alexander’s language is precise, her syntax is pellucid, and her poems address all of the senses, offering a simultaneous richness and simplicity." Vijay Seshadri writes: "The beautiful paradox of Meena Alexander’s art has always been found in the distillation of her epic human and spiritual experience into a pure and exquisite lyricism. That paradox and that lyricism are on triumphant display in this book."

Of her anthology Name Me A Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing Simon Gikandi writes: "Name Me A Word is an indispensable guide for readers of Indian writing, animating the powerful impulses of the country's famous writers and introducing the multiple voices that gone into the making of the most important literature of our time."

She died in New York on 21 November 2018, at the age of 67, from undisclosed causes, although according to her husband she died of endometrial serous cancer.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 04 Jun 2020. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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