Lily: A Monthly Online Literary Review
An Interview with Alicia Ostriker

"Poetry is my tool for understanding myself
and everything else."

Interview by Susan Culver, Lily Editor

Alicia Ostriker is a major American poet and critic. Twice nominated for a National Book Award, she is author of eleven volumes of poetry, most recently No Heaven (2005). As a critic Ostriker is the author of two pathbreaking volumes on women's poetry, Writing Like a Woman and Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America. She has also published two books on the Bible, Feminist Revision and the Bible and the controversial The Nakedness of the Fathers; Biblical Visions and Revisions, a combination of prose and poetry that re-imagines the Bible from the perspective of a contemporary Jewish woman. Her most recent prose book is Dancing at the Devil's Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics and the Erotic.

Ostriker's poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Antaeus, The Nation, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Atlantic, MS, Tikkun, and many other journals, and have been widely anthologized. Her poetry and essays have been translated into French, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew and Arabic. She has lectured and given performances of her work throughout the USA, as well as in Europe, Australia, Israel, Japan and China.

Ostriker has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Society of America, the San Francisco State Poetry Center, the Judah Magnes Museum, the New Jersey Arts Council, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband. Ostriker is Professor Emerita of Rutgers University and is a faculty member of the New England College Low-Residency Poetry MFA Program. Ostriker has taught in the Princeton University Creative Writing Program and in Toni Morrison's Atelier Program. She has taught Midrash writing workshops in the USA, Israel, England and Australia.

SC: How old were you when you began writing poetry?  Do you remember what your early poems were about?

AO:   I always wrote poetry. My mother was an English major, and wrote poetry herself. She read Shakespeare, Browning and Tennyson to me from the time I had ears. So poetry was never a foreign language to me. It was the mother tongue. I think my first poem was about dancing round an imaginary maypole.

SC: Who do you consider to be your poetic influences?  Have those influences changed during different times of your life?

AO:  When I was a student , writing in traditional forms, I think I wanted to be some kind of compound of John Donne, John Keats, Gerard Manly Hopkins, and W.H. Auden. Later, when I discovered I was American, I wanted to be a compound of Whitman, WC Williams, and Allen Ginsberg. Still later, when I discovered I was a woman, oh, my, I can’t count the influences, but Marge Piercy, the first feminist poet I read, set me on fire. Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Ntozake Shange, June Jordan, Maxine Kumin, Toi Derricotte, May Swenson, and many more, have been models for me—models of courage, models of artistry. Probaby the two most important in latter years have been H.D. and Lucille Clifton. And I have always been a daughter of William Blake.

SC: What do you feel is the purpose of poetry for the writer?  How about for the reader?

AO: Can’t say what it is for “the” writer—only what it is for me. Poetry is my tool for understanding myself and everything else. I’m incoherent to myself except when I’m writing. I’m a little bit dead when I’m not writing. Some people think poetry is therapy—I think poetry is diagnosis. The poem will tell you what’s happening, whether or not you want to know. Or—poetry is the next best thing to sex.

Tell me what the word "feminism" means to you and how it applies to your writing.

AO: Feminism for me is the extension of what I learned at my parents’ knee: the world is filled with injustice and it’s your job to make it more just.

SC: Having written a book about the emergence of  women's poetry in America, what are some of the ways you feel that the landscape of women's poetry has changed throughout your lifetime?  How has it changed since the writing of the book?

AO: Well, in 1960 there was no Beth Ann Fennelly, for instance!  Today we've got so many women poets who aren't apologetic or defensive about being alive, and sexy, and free.  But what I think has really changed is men’s poetry. My speculation was that women’s poetry would change the course of the river, and I think it has. Men today, compared with men in 1960, write with so much more emotional openness.  It’s also true that women often write with more coldness, more emotional distance, than they used to—they call it experiment, post-modernism, and so on—but that is less personally interesting to me, though the art is commonly fantastic.

I guess the main thing that has happened since 1960 is that the landscape has become infinitely more various. And in a sense that variousness is what American art offers the rest of the world. We include everything.

SC: For those who haven't heard of it, explain Midrash.

The word derives from a Hebrew term meaning “search” or “investigate.” It is originally a rabbinic genre, coming out of Talmud and sermon literature in late antiquity, and has many meanings, but for my purposes midrash means re-telling biblical stories in ways that are meaningful to people in time present—whenever that time happens to be. In other words, midrash means you take a biblical story and spin it.

There has been a renaissance of midrash writing in America in the postwar period—mostly, though by no means all, by women—in poetry, fiction, and drama. Jesus Christ Superstar is midrash. The Red Tent is midrash. Typical midrash today is not orthodox, and not very pious. Still, it sees the compelling stories of the bible as having ongoing meaning. Many of us who do midrash are interested in radical transformation of our traditions, and we see clues in the bible. My own biblical work in The Nakedness of the Fathers, for instance, rests on the assumption that the being we call God the Father swallowed God the Mother in prehistory. More or less the way the wolf in the Red Riding Hood story swallowed the grandmother. All kinds of things follow from that.  My own notion is that we should all be midwives helping her to be reborn--actually, i think God is in labor, trying to give rebirth to his suppressed female self.

SC: What do you feel a writer can gain from Midrash writing?  What can the reader gain from it?

AO: Midrash is both a window and a mirror. It helps you see more deeply into the biblical stories, and it helps you see more deeply into yourself. Midrash writing brings out aspects of the self you might not have known existed. This is because the biblical stories are not just archaic—they reflect our lives today, our personal lives and the life of our society, with acute accuracy.

SC: Do you think, as a general rule, that contemporary American poetry is well received in other parts of the world? Why or why not?

AO: Good question. My guess is that we are still received well, but that we will soon see our role as cultural flag-bearer replaced by China.

SC: Do you think poetry becomes more significant or necessary during times of war?  Why or why not?

AO: Another good question, but I don’t have the knowledge to begin to answer it. We do know that people were exchanging poems at a great rate after 9.11. It’s also true that before the First World War most poetry about military matters from Homer onward celebrated war. Even at its stupidest. Think of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” honoring the shredding of a brigade of British soldiers by Russian artillery in a battle of the Crimean War due to a mistaken order. “Theirs not to reason why/ theirs but to do and die,” wrote the admiring Tennyson.

Not until the completely absurd carnage of World War did the tide turn. Only then did poetry and fiction (Wilfred Owens’ poetry and Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” most notably) begin to be anti-war.

SC: If you had a day in which you could do anything you wanted, what would you be doing?

AO: Having a date with Al Pacino?

SC: Of all your literary accomplishments, which one are you most proud of?  How would you like your work to be remembered?

AO: This is like asking me which of my children I love best. I think they are all delicious. But I’d be happy to be remembered as someone who took poetry a few places where it hadn’t been before—and as a critic I’d like to be seen as someone who knew how to read. Most critics don’t know how to read.

SC: If you could talk to the young woman you were at eighteen, what advice would you have for her?

AO: I would tell her to cheer up!  I would tell her she is going to have a lot of beauty in her life.  And sex.  And even love.  And that she'll become a poet.  No kidding!

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