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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Meena Alexander

By Nathalie Handal

Part of the Special City Series / New York City

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                  —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities




Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

Sitting on the subway platform at Columbus Circle, waiting for the A train to bring me home, the city feels like a slumbering creature.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

A child scrabbling for food in a garbage bin on the street. 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The sun blazing at the dead end of an utterly straight street in lower Manhattan then dropping into the land across the water.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Nella Larsen , Louis Zukofsky, Sharon Olds.

Is there a place here you return to often?

The heather garden in Fort Tryon Park (upper Manhattan).

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Brooklyn Bridge with all the poems inspired by that crossing 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

The tiniest streets in Chinatown where I can buy fresh ginger.

Where does passion live here?

Underground, near the third rail.

What is the title of one of your works about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

“Kabir Sings in the City of Burning Towers”—one of the poems I wrote in the aftermath of 9/11. It’s in my book Raw Silk.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

The great skies, the galaxies.  Perhaps for a writer the inside and outside are the same?


Meena Alexander was born in Allahabad, India. She is considered one of the foremost poets of her generation. She grew up both in India and in Khartoum, Sudan. She has published numerous books including Birthplace with Buried Stones, her seventh book of poetry (2013), Illiterate Heart, winner of the PEN Open Book Award; Raw Silk; the critically acclaimed memoir Fault Lines (picked as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of the year); and the novel Nampally Road, a Voice Literary Supplement Editor’s Choice. Alexander also edited Indian Love Poems. Among her many honors, she is the recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award in Literature from the South Asian Literary Association, a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, a Fulbright, a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Residency, and the Glenna Luschesi Award from Prairie Schooner. She is Distinguished Professor of English at the Graduate Center and Hunter College, City University of New York.



Published Dec 18, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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