Alicia Ostriker has published 12 volumes of poetry and is one of America's most prominent poets and critics. Her scholarship on Women's poetry has long been acknowledged with the publication of Stealing the Language; The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America and Writing Like a Woman. In 1986, The Imaginary Lover won the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. She is also the author of The Crack in Everything published in 1996 which won the Patterson Poetry Award and the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award. She has twice been a finalist for The National Book Award. After reading a series of Alicia's books including, The Little Space, Poems selected and New, 1968-1998, No Heaven, Dancing at the Devil's Party, and Stealing the Language, I recognized what others had long since recognized – here is a unique writer, never afraid to wrestle with what interests her, whose body of work has stood the test of time, and has the power to transform and change the way one see's. In her most recent collection of poetry, The Book of Seventy, Alicia writes, "We have almost escaped the rule of reason/we have almost returned to the rule of beauty." Her new book celebrates writing and living in that return toward beauty, (daring her fellow citizens in the nation of money to mock her) in a down to earth and highly courageous style. Alicia graciously agreed to talk with me and share her thoughts, life and work for A Gathering of the Tribes.
FM: What is the poetic process like for you?
AO: I wish I could say I had a handle on this, but the truth is that every poem is like starting from scratch, groping in the dark. Usually there’s a first draft that gets written quickly—so quickly that I have no real idea where the poem is going, what it will do. If I am very lucky, the poem is finished or nearly finished in the first draft. This was true of the volcano sequence, a book I basically channeled. At that time, some poems came to
tell me some unpleasant truths about myself and my history. My impulse was to turn away, but instead I made a deal with the poems: “If you agree to keep arriving,” I told them, “I agree not to tell you what to say.” Then I channeled that book, intermittently, for a year.
Mostly, however, there is revising to do, and I am willing to revise endlessly.
At this particular moment, for example, I have over a dozen versions of a poem in the voice of Persephone speaking to her mother Demeter, and part of the problem is that I don’t know what the mix of love and anger should be, in her voice. She is telling her mother to leave her alone, she’ll make her own decisions, she’ll come back from Hades when she is good and ready. Snarky adolescent. But does she really want to be left alone? I don’t really know, and the poem doesn’t know either—so it wobbles. But the companion poem, Demeter talking to Persephone? That got done in two drafts.
What I look for in revising is getting at the underlying emotional truth of a situation. And so much of this comes across only through shades of tone and music. Emotion can’t be stated. It’s always what’s under the statement. So for example, does Persephone say
don’t follow me
I’ll come back when I’m ready
Or does she say
don’t follow me
I’ll come back when I’m good and ready
--a difficult choice, because the first possibility is gentler, more ambivalent, the second is more dramatic, and it has that nice play on “good,” but it makes the whole poem harsher than maybe it should be.
FM: What do you think is the project of poetry in the 21st century?
AO: I see many important projects, areas of potential growth, for poetry in America. More translation, to help Americans understand that we are not the only people, or the most important ones, on the planet. More work by “marginalized” people, and that still includes women and blacks, but also includes GLBT poets, working-class poets, incarcerated people, Spanish-speaking, Asian, every kind of immigrant group. And this work shouldn’t be ghettoized, as if a Black poet could speak only to other Black people. Mainstream poetry journals and journals like the New Yorker should be looking for excitement in their poetry, not same-old same-old, and excitement is often going to come from the margins, because that’s where the energy is, that’s where the drive is.
More editors should do what Marilyn Hacker did with Kenyon Review. She discovered Reginald Shepherd and Rafael Campo, for example. And she published a sequence of my Mastectomy poems when nobody else would. What else do I look forward to? There should be more contact, less mutual suspicion, between traditional kinds of poetry and spoken word, hip-hop, slam, and so on. A great age of poetry happens in times of synergy.
FM: What sparked your scholarship on the history of women’s poetry?
AO: In the mid-seventies, I had been editing the Penguin edition of Blake’s Complete Poetry, which ended up with 200 pages of notes that I’d written to try to make Blake—the most difficult and revolutionary poet in the English language—clear and readable. Blake was my hero, and the work was all-consuming. But when it was done, I looked around and realized, belatedly, that there was a women’s poetry movement happening all around me.
So I started reading women’s poetry voraciously, I was on fire with that. I knew that what women were writing would change my life and my art forever. What I did first was write a set of essays on five of the poets most important to me—H.D., Plath, Sexton, Adrienne Rich and May Swenson. These were published in my book Writing like a Woman, in 1982. But just writing about a few big stars left me uncomfortable, because there was a collective voice in the air, we all could hear it, and I wanted to be able to define it, really understand the things it was saying, and make clear how earth-shaking it was. So that’s why I wrote Stealing the Language.
The research for Stealing included over 200 individual books of poems by women, and I don’t know how many anthologies. I wrote it formally, in scholarly form, with a first chapter surveying the history of women’s poetry in America from the 17th century onward, then five chapters organized thematically but also talking about esthetic issues, like the importance of what I called the exoskeletal style in poets like Plath and Atwood. Heavy research, tons of footnotes, because I wanted to make damn sure that I knew what I was talking about and that every reader would see that I did. At the same time, I wanted to make it reader-friendly, and I think it was. I meet women poets all the time who tell me my book changed their life, and I am incredibly grateful that the book went out into the world and did the job I hoped it would. It helped free women poets to be themselves.
FM: How did your interest in midrash and the Bible come about?
AO: The last chapter in Stealing the Language is on revisionist mythology—women re-writing classical myths and fairy tales from their own points of view. Anne Sexton’s Transformations is a prime example. But I didn’t include any poetry using the Bible. Then one day I found myself thinking about Job’s wife, and wondering how she felt about the “happy ending” of that story, when she gets ten new children to replace the ten that god let Satan kill off on a bet, at the beginning of the story. That did it for me. I wrote something imagining what Job’s wife would/ will say to God when she gets up the courage—and what she will ask for as reparation. By the time I finished writing that, I was captured, and I have been wrestling with the Bible ever since. As a feminist, my task is somehow to wrestle a blessing out of that deeply patriarchal book. But at the time, I had never even heard the word “midrash.”
Midrash has many different meanings, but the main meaning today is that midrash re-tells, re-imagines, Biblical stories, in ways that are meaningful to us, in our time and our society.
FM: Why do you feel that is an important thing to do?
AO: My book The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, mixes poetry and prose, midrash and autobiography. It’s got my own slant on all the stories in the bible. For example, there’s a poem in the voice of the prophetess Miriam, who is mentioned only briefly in the Bible, but she’s a central character for me—as she is for many feminist women—both Jewish and Christian. The Book of Judges, which is full of horrible war stories, I deal with in a piece that takes place in a women’s shelter. I’m just playing my part in the ultimate transformation—I hope—of patriarchy and its religion, and the creation of a more egalitarian and compassionate world. A tiny part, but better than nothing.
FM: How would you describe yourself at this point in your life?
AO: Good question. American Secular Jewish woman, daughter, wife, mother, grandma, poet, critic, teacher, with a lefty working-class background that shaped my values and dreams.
FM: how does your interest in art fit into your work as a poet?
AO: When I was young I wanted to be an artist. I drew all the time. As it turned out, after taking many art classes, I had to admit that I didn’t have the talent. But this left me with a lifelong love of every kind of visual art. And I’ve written many many poems based on painters and paintings.
FM: do you have any advice for younger poets?
AO: You bet. Read, read and read—poetry from the past , from now, from other languages. Just read as widely as you can—and follow your own taste, not what someone else says is good. Don’t read what doesn’t give you pleasure. You might change and like it later. Let your taste grow naturally. Discover what you love. Learn how to write by emulating what you love. Your own voice will emerge naturally.
Another thing I advise is to kill the interior censor. Write what you’re afraid to write.
That’s where the energy is.
THE SONGS OF MIRIAM
And Miriam the prophetess took a timbrel
in her hand; and all the women went out
after her with timbrels and with dances.
An exile, strange to every wind,
may I be given field and fallow land. . .
my silent soul howls like the jackals
and cries out like the sea.
I'm a young girl
My periods not started yet
Up to my waist in Nile water, I push
The baby basket through the bulrushes
Onto the beach
Come on, I say to myself, let's go
And they see it
And come running
My brother cries like a kitten
In the arms of that princess
Her painted face fills with the joy
Of disobedience, which is the life of joy
When she is hooked I walk
Out of the river
Bowing and bowing
I am Miriam, daughter
We gather the limbs, we gather the limbs
We gather the limbs of the child
We sing to the river, we bathe in the river
We save the life of the child.
If you listen to me once
You will have to go on listening to me
I am Miriam the prophetess
Miriam who makes the songs
I lead the women in a sacred circle
Shaking our breasts and hips
With timbrels and with dances
Singing how we got over
O God of hosts
The horse and his rider
Have you thrown into the sea--
That is my song, my music, my
Unended and unfinished prophecy--
The horse was captivity
And its rider fear--
O God of hosts
Never again bondage
Never again terror
O God of hosts.
Call me rebelliousness, call me the bitter sea
I peel the skin off myself in strips
I am going to die in the sand
Miriam the leprous, Miriam the hag
Miriam the cackling one
What did I have but a voice, to announce liberty
No magic tricks, no miracles, no history,
Or stone of law. You who believe that God
Speaks only through Moses, bury me in the desert
I curse you with drought
I curse you with spiritual dryness
I spit on your promise
But you who remember my music
You will feel me under your footsoles
Like cool ground water under porous stone--
Follow me, follow my drum
Follow my drum, follow my drum
Follow me, follow my drum
Follow my drum.
I who am maiden
woman and crone
I who am
From The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, Rutgers University Press, 1994
The puzzled ones, the Americans, go through their lives
Buying what they are told to buy,
Pursuing their love affairs with the automobile,
Baseball and football, romance and beauty,
Enthusiastic as trained seals, going into debt, struggling--
True believers in liberty, and also security,
And of course sex—cheating on each other
For the most part only a little, mostly avoiding violence
Except at a vast blue distance, as between bombsight and earth,
Or on the violent screen, which they adore.
Those who are not Americans think Americans are happy
Because they are so filthy rich, but not so,
They are mostly puzzled and at a loss
As if someone pulled the floor out from under them,
They’d like to believe in God, or something, and they do try.
You can see it in their white faces at the supermarket and the gas station
--not the immigrant faces, they know what they want,
Not the blacks, whose faces are hurt and proud—
The white faces, lipsticked, shaven, we do try
To keep smiling, for when we’re smiling, the whole world
Smiles with us, but we feel we’ve lost
That loving feeling. Clouds ride by above us,
Rivers flow, toilets work, traffic lights work, barring floods, fires
And earthquakes, houses and streets appear stable,
So what is it, this moon-shaped blankness?
What the hell is it? America is perplexed.
We would fix it if we knew what was broken.
From No Heaven, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005