Interview by Susan
Culver, Lily Editor
Alicia Ostriker is a major American poet and
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.
How old were
you when you began writing poetry? Do you remember what your
early poems were about?
wrote poetry. My mother was an English major, and wrote poetry
herself. She read Shakespeare, Browning and Tennyson to me from
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
Who do you
consider to be your poetic influences? Have those influences
changed during different times of your life?
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,
I discovered I was a woman, oh, my, I can’t count the influences,
Marge Piercy, the first feminist poet I read, set me on
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
have always been a daughter of William Blake.
What do you
feel is the purpose of poetry for the writer? How about for the
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
to myself except when I’m writing. I’m a little bit dead when I’m
writing. Some people think poetry is therapy—I think poetry is
diagnosis. The poem will tell you what’s happening, whether or not
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.
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
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?
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
emotional openness. It’s also true that women often write with
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
American art offers the rest of the world. We include
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
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
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
is midrash. The
midrash. Typical midrash today is not orthodox, and not very
pious. Still, it sees the compelling stories of the bible as
ongoing meaning. Many of us who do midrash are interested in
transformation of our traditions, and we see clues in the
bible. My own
biblical work in The Nakedness of the Fathers,
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
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.
do you feel a writer can gain from Midrash writing? What can the
reader gain from it?
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
have known existed. This is because the biblical stories are not
archaic—they reflect our lives today, our personal lives and the life
of our society, with acute accuracy.
Do you think,
as a general rule, that contemporary American poetry is well received
in other parts of the world? Why or why not?
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.
Do you think
poetry becomes more significant or necessary during times of war?
Why or why not?
question, but I don’t have the knowledge to begin to
answer it. We do know that people were exchanging poems at a great
after 9.11. It’s also true that before the First World War most
about military matters from Homer onward celebrated war. Even
stupidest. Think of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light
Brigade,” honoring the shredding of a brigade of British soldiers
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
Not until the completely absurd carnage of World War
did the tide turn. Only then did poetry and fiction (Wilfred
poetry and Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” most
notably) begin to be anti-war.
If you had a
day in which you could do anything you wanted, what would you be doing?
Having a date
with Al Pacino?
Of all your
literary accomplishments, which one are you most proud of? How
would you like your work to be remembered?
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
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
know how to read.
If you could
talk to the young woman you were at eighteen, what advice would you
have for her?
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!