GC Mourns the Loss of Professor Meena Alexander

Professor Meena Alexander passed away on November 21. photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

The Graduate Center mourns the passing of Professor Meena Alexander (GC/Hunter, English), revered poet and essayist and cherished member of the English department faculty, who passed away on November 21 after a long battle with cancer.

A winner of the PEN Open Book Award for her 2002 poetry collection, Illiterate Heart, she has been called “undoubtedly one of the finest poets in contemporary times.” Her writing was often autobiographical and touched on themes of feminism, migration, trauma, memory, and identity.

Her most recent collection of poetry, Atmospheric Embroidery, was described as a “magic carpet ride of language and image” by scholar Nell Painter, who added, “Reading her is the pleasure of displacement, but also the sadness of inescapable loss. She makes me cry. She makes me happy.”

The poems in the collection resonate with expressions of vulnerability and upheaval as well as innocence and beauty. In one of the poems, “Provincetown by the Sea,” she wrote

Almost always
I am in two places at once,
Sometimes three.

“Crossroad,” the last poem in the book, is set just on the crossroads outside the entrance to The Graduate Center at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. Alexander said that the poem, “swirls around through dream and imagination bringing disparate times and places together in what I think of as a shining symbolic space. It was composed in the aftermath of the most recent presidential election, and I read it out in January 2017 standing on the steps of NYPL Writers Resist gathering.” Alexander speaks about the poem in The Graduate Center podcast, The Thought Project.

In a recent interview with The Graduate Center, Alexander said, “Poems come as they will, you need to work on them with discipline and care, but you cannot force them. It’s a bit like waiting for a bird to peck seeds out of your palm, some are skittish, some quite bold.”

Earlier this year, The New Yorker published Alexander’s poem “Kochi by the Sea” a verse about her childhood home, which she discussed on a New Yorker podcast.

Born in 1951 in the northern Indian city of Allahabad in 1951, Alexander was raised in South India and Sudan. She received her Ph.D. from Nottingham University in England and taught in India before moving to the United States in the 1980s. She joined The Graduate Center faculty in 1989.

Alexander’s books of poetry include Stone Roots, House of a Thousand Doors, River and Bridge, Illiterate HeartRaw Silk, Quickly Changing RiverBirthplace with Buried Stones, and the latest collection, Atmospheric Embroidery. Alexander also published two novels, Nampally Road and Manhattan Music (1997), and the critically acclaimed memoir, Fault Lines.

Among Alexander’s scholarly works are The Poetic Self: Towards a Phenomenology of Romanticism and and Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Dorothy Woodsworth. Her anthology Name Me a Word: Indian Writers Reflect on Writing was published this year.

She received awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Arts Council of 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, and the Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation in Switzerland.

Graduate Center Provost and Senior Vice President Joy Connolly called Alexander “a creative force and generous spirit who enriched us all.”

Submitted on: NOV 26, 2018

Category: English | Faculty | General GC News