Alicia Ostriker has published eleven volumes of poetry, most recently The Volcano Sequence (2002) and No Heaven (2005). She has twice been a National Book Award finalist and has won the William Carlos Williams award, the Paterson Poetry Prize, and the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award. Her writing on the Bible includes Feminist Revision and the Bible (1992) and The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions (1994), and she is currently working on a volume of essays on “biblical counter-texts.” She is Professor Emerita of English at Rutgers University and teaches in the low-residency MFA Poetry program of New England College.
Question(s): The title of your most recent book of poetry, No Heaven, comes from John Lennon’s “Imagine,” to which you refer in “A Walker in the City”: “Imagine there’s no heaven, and imagine / The people living in a world of peace.” In the section of poems in which “A Walker” is included, you address multiple acts of violence: individual acts of violence against women, Kent State, Auschwitz, Iraq. How does your conception of spirituality fit in with or provide perspective to such events?
Do you believe that there is no heaven, or that we should live as if there is no heaven?
Ostriker: First of all I have to correct the quotation, which isn’t quite right. I hope the ghost of John Lennon isn’t angry with me for condensing and altering his song to fit my meter. The first stanza of “Imagine” says, “Imagine there’s no heaven . . . ,” and the second one goes like this:
Imagine there’s no countries,
It isn’t hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace . . .
Not surprising that this song has become an anthem for people in the peace movement. I remember people singing it in the anti-war march in London on the February 15th before the start of the Iraq War. Probably they sang it in New York and many other places. In my poem “A Walker in the City” which features a list of murders that have taken place in New York City—some of them sex-related, some of them race-related—the quotation of “Imagine” follows a mention of Lennon’s murder, and it is intended to break up the list and break your heart.
Acts of violence enter my poems because we live in a violent world. The final section of No Heaven begins with a poem that alludes to Yeats’ line in “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” All too true in our time, too. Other poems in that section allude, alas, to the Vietnam War and the shooting of four students at Kent State by the National Guard; the death camps of World War II; Othello’s murder of Desdemona; our murder of the planet’s environment; the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel; the intransigence of Israeli settlers in the West Bank; the American love of “the violent screen, which they adore”; the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers; American Red-baiting; the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine; the war poetry of Homer; the equivalent viciousness of communism and capitalism; the history of lynching in America; the greed of the West for oil; and the start of the Iraq War.
Where is my spirituality in all this? Facing it. Grieving it. Furious at its stupidity and ugliness. Recognizing that greed and violence are “human, all too human,” as Nietzsche would say. Recognizing that, as the Roman poet Terence said, “I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me.” I need to be able to see the greed and violence in myself, and the fear that feeds them—not pretend to myself that it is only other people who are responsible.
Marianne Moore, in her great and agonized World War II poem “In Distrust of Merits,” writes of the suffering, “I cannot / look and yet I must,” and goes on in the last stanza to say,
There never was a war that was
not inward; I must
fight till I have conquered in myself what
causes war, but I would not believe it.
I inwardly did nothing.
O Iscariotlike crime!
Beauty is everlasting
And dust is for a time.
Do I believe that? I am agnostic as regards heaven. I was raised a third-generation atheist socialist Jew. When my grandfather died, when I was nine, I prayed every night, “Dear God, in case you exist, please let my grandfather into heaven, even though he didn’t believe in you, because he was a good man.” But you can see that John Lennon has a point. Much more killing has been done by people who believed in heaven than by those who didn’t.
Question(s): How does your critical writing influence your teaching of poetry and the writing of poetry?
Ostriker: All these activities feed each other. Most of the great critics of English poetry have also been poets: Sir Philip Sidney, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Shelley, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, to name a few. The experience of being a poet is central both to my teaching and to my critical writing. I love poetry from the inside, as it were. First I love a particular poem, then I try to understand the details of what it is I love. Never do I impose a theoretical grid on a work of poetry. I treat other people’s poems the way I’d like mine to be treated: with excitement and precision, with a sense of the form, with a sense of the context. But if there is nothing but intellectual analysis without the soul’s involvement, no art can be understood.
Question(s): In “Elegy before the War,” a poem that took you nearly a year to write, you invoke the presences of Shelley, Blake, Whitman, Ginsberg, Auden, and Shakespeare as you reflect upon your mother’s death. In this poem you do not invoke the women poets about whom you write elsewhere, but you do say, “I feel as if anything I have to say needs to be shaved down. I want my language to be like / The desert.” Does this poem also mourn the absence of literary mothers?
Ostriker: This is a little complicated. “Elegy before the War” began as an elegy for my mother, who died in March 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq War. But the poem took off like a runaway horse almost as soon as it began and became a vehicle for venting despair at the world situation—in particular, the oncoming war and the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. The invocations of Shelley, Blake, Whitman, and Ginsberg are in this context: they were all extravagantly passionate poet-prophets who explicitly deplored the evils of their own times and spent their lives in what Blake calls “mental fight.” Auden is different, more ironic, and enters the poem at a point where despair is turning to irony. Shakespeare enters quietly as memories of my mother return to the poem. By the close of the poem I recognize that just as much as I want the prophetic spirit of those dead poets to return to give us aid and comfort, I want the spirit of my mother, whose commitment to social justice I absorbed, and whose hopeful belief in a better world was my mother’s milk, “to come back and try again.”
A young woman poet has told me she thinks my mourning is for the Goddess—the female divinity who was buried or swallowed up by Judeo- Christian male monotheism, which has been responsible for so much bloodshed in the world. That may well be, especially considering the fact that in The Volcano Sequence I come to see my mother as representing the Shekhinah, which is the Jewish name of the Goddess—the name she has in Kabbala.
The loss of my mother is the loss of “The Mother.” But I don’t think the poem mourns the absence of literary mothers as such—I do have so many of them, though they do not speak with the huge resonant voices of Blake, etc.
Question(s): What women writers, contemporary or historical, well-known or obscure, do you count among your most important literary influences? And is anxiety of influence a notion that applies equally to women writers?
Ostriker: I could name dozens, but here are a few: Sappho, Emily Dickinson, H.D., Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, May Swenson, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Toi Derricotte, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucille Clifton, Ntozake Shange, and the author of the Song of Solomon, if that was a woman—some scholars think it was. Among prose writers, Virginia Woolf above all. I have written about all these writers except Sappho. About the anxiety of influence, I don’t know. Harold Bloom’s theory is that all poets are in competition with their forebears, and that in paying homage to them they really distort them. I think the theory itself is flawed; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes homage is simply homage. No doubt both men and women artists are competitive creatures. It seems to me that I am more competitive with my peers than with the poets of the past, whom I humbly wish to join. I fantasize this large garden party in heaven which I am permitted to attend, where I will meet and mingle with the noble dead, and we will sip translucent nectar and converse.
Question(s): You’ve written before about the uneasy relationship between the practice of poetry and the practice of literary theory. What points of resonance do you find with literary theory, especially as it applies to women’s writing, and what are your biggest points of contention with it?
Ostriker: “Theory” has very different meanings in science and the humanities. In science, a theory is something that is empirically testable. You check it against reality; it may prove right, or it may prove wrong. My husband and one daughter are theoretical astrophysicists. They work with equations and computer simulations—and if their conclusions do not fit the astronomical observations, they toss their conclusions out and start over. In the humanities, theory refers to webs of abstract ideas, usually in incomprehensible and graceless jargon, developed with slender regard for material reality, and often utterly counterfactual. An instance that enrages me: for years, academic feminists swallowed the notion that “language is masculine,” language is the “law of the father,” etc., and therefore women could not write “female subjectivity.” This is complete nonsense. All the women who parroted this notion were taught to speak primarily by women—their mothers and other early childhood caretakers. Their first schoolteachers were mostly also women. We could have a mantra in which we intoned to ourselves, language is female. It is quite true that the sub-languages of the academic disciplines are male. The sub-languages of theology, history, sociology, law, psychology, and so on. But these are mere specks in the great ocean of language as ordinary human beings experience it. The academy is not the world.
I have used literary theory rather in magpie fashion. When I see a bit I like, I take it for my own nest. My two favorite theorists are Kristeva and Bakhtin, both of them because they see writing as infinite possibility, in which one plays with cultural and linguistic conventions rather than being limited by them.
Question(s): Your poetry might be characterized as experiential and often conversational; it’s directly accessible even as it refers to historical moments or art that is less well- known. What are your thoughts about the fit between style/form and content?
Ostriker: My writing is always a gamble. I take the risk of going deep into myself, trusting that if I can go deeply enough, and translate the complex of feelings within myself into articulate language, it will be meaningful to others. We are all islands, but connected—so to speak—on the ocean floor, where human experience is very much shared in common. A conversational style comes naturally to me, but the music and the cadences of the language are always central also. I typically don’t work in fixed forms, because I like a poem to have a feel of improvisation about it.
Question(s): No Heaven includes a section of poems that are not mere meditations upon works of art and music, but rather enter the spirit of the works directly, so that the reader finds herself or himself in the middle of the art, looking at the work from a different perspective than that offered by the original artist. In “The Kiss of Judas,” for example, you write of Giotto’s painting:
We were never in a church
More comforting than this one.
Imagine if women’s wombs
Had paintings like this one.
All of us would be born
Wise and good, then.
Women’s presence in the arts community has often been a marginalized one, even more than in literature, but in these poems, you place women’s presence directly into spaces of art and music in which women are otherwise rendered invisible. In what other ways does poetry help or have the responsibility to help women claim spaces for themselves?
Ostriker: The walls of the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, are completely covered by panels of Giotto’s frescoes, and it is that sensation of being completely surrounded by the gentle beauty of his painting that feels womblike. This sensation led to the image in my poem. It seems to me that poetry helps women claim spaces for themselves whenever the poet is true to her experience, true to her sensation and emotion. Our thinking does tend to be dominated—colonized, you might say—by the history of patriarchal thought and language, but it is still possible to think independently if you make up your mind to do it and be vigilant. Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own promises that “if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think,” we might change the world.
Part of the task, of course, is simply insisting that female experience is human experience and worthy of being explored in literature. Before the women’s poetry movement, topics such as pregnancy and childbirth, mother-child relationships, sex, love, and marriage from a woman’s point of view, illness and aging from a woman’s point of view, were not considered “universal” enough for poetry. Ha ha ha. Women were silenced and condescended to when they wrote using the material of their own experience. But as Shostakovich said (speaking of Yevtoshenko’s Babi Yar poem mourning the massacre of the Jews of Kiev during World War II, defying the official cover-up), “Art destroys silence.” To bring what is silenced into speech is to make a space.
Question(s): In “The Birth of Venus,” you write from the point-of-view of Botticelli’s Venus standing in the shell, noting places in the painting in which “traces of draughtsmanship / Reveal revision, which is a kindness, or an insolence / Or a looseness beyond perfection.” In what ways are your revisions, both of poetry and of biblical stories, kindness, insolence, or looseness beyond perfection?
Ostriker: Obviously I cannot compare myself with Botticelli, who is one of the greatest artists in the history of the western world. The particular spot in The Birth of Venus referred to here is one where the thin layer of paint does not quite cover a bit of the previous drawing, so that there is a slight sense of the workshop in the painting, a slight sense of sketchiness rather than complete finish. You can experience the “message” of that sketchiness in different ways. It can convey kindness, as a gesture that involves the viewer in the creation. Insolence, as a gesture that haughtily does not bother to correct the unfinished bit. Looseness, as just the sheer pleasure of creating freely without worrying whether everything is perfect. I think the place in my own writing where you might find a comparable sort of writerly hesitation and sketchiness that draws attention to the process of creation is in The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions. The book is a mixture of midrash and autobiography, poetry and prose, and is self-conscious about its mixed strategies in ways designed to include the reader in the process, but also make clear that the writer is being audacious with the biblical texts, and lastly to convey the sheer joy of wrestling with scripture.
Question: Many of your poems are both spiritual and erotic—tell us why you think it is important to link the two?
Ostriker: They are already connected! I didn’t make this up! The idea that eroticism and spirituality should be separated is a travesty of both. Read the Song of Songs, a poem which is utterly erotic and utterly spiritual. Or read the great Persian poet Rumi. Or the Hindu Mirabai. All mystical poetry is erotic, uses erotic language, because it desires fusion with God. This is true of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu devotional writing. And all lovers see the beloved’s face and body as divine.
Question(s): Although feminist poetry is often said to make the personal into the political, your work also makes the political intensely personal. In “Cambodia,” from The Mother/Child Papers, you write of the birth of your son Gabriel, born a few days after the United States invaded Cambodia. In this prose poem, you address the doctor, “YOU SONOFABITCHING BASTARD, NEXT TIME I’M GOING TO DO THIS RIGHT,” but follow with the thought, “What next time?” and, later, “There will never be a next time.” Finally, you ask, “What does this have to do with Cambodia?” and allow the reader to make the connection. Would you mind giving more of your thoughts about birth and violence?
Ostriker: Childbirth under natural circumstances is painful but need not be violent. My first experience of natural childbirth made me feel like the center of the universe, as if I had just won Olympic gold. It was a peak experience of a lifetime. The problem with the birth of my son was that the obstetrician gave me a spinal anesthetic that I did not want, thus deadening all sensation below the waist, thus preventing me from giving birth to my child. He invaded my body just as my nation invaded Cambodia—because he could do it, because he had the power and the technical capacity—and the absence of conscience. The parallel was so obvious and so painful that I was compelled to write about it, for my own sake and for the sake of others who have experienced similar invasions.
Question(s): The Mother/Child Papers mixes prose and poetry and includes poems that leap across the page as well as poems that retain a traditional left-hand margin. Do you believe women writers should actively seek a nontraditional aesthetic to voice experiences unique to women?
Ostriker: I don’t really think so. Experiment is valuable but so is tradition. Look at Maxine Kumin’s poems about family. Or look at Marilyn Hacker’s wonderfully explicit lesbian sonnets.
Question(s): In The Mastectomy Poems, you dedicate a poem to your breast surgeon. What can the world of poetry offer to the medical community, and why is it so crucial that health care workers read and learn from individual stories?
Ostriker: More and more medical and nursing schools are requiring students to take courses involving holistic attention to patients, and many of these courses use poetry, fiction, and autobiographical accounts to demonstrate that the reality of the patient cannot be reduced to textbook knowledge. A good journal to look at is The Bellevue Literary Review, which publishes writing connected to the medical experience. Rafael Campo, a fine poet who is Cuban-American, gay, and a doctor, has written poetry that splendidly explores the complexity of the doctor- patient relationship, as well as a book of essays called The Desire to Heal: A Doctor’s Identity in Empathy, Identity, and Poetry. Another book I would recommend is Living on the Margins: Women Writers on Breast Cancer, ed. Hilda Raz, Persea Books, 1999. I have an essay in it called Scenes from a Mastectomy, but what is so important about this book is that every one of these essays tells a unique story—no two are the same. And that is what the medical establishment needs to know.
Question(s): In The Nakedness of the Fathers, you have mixed genres, combining biblical exegesis, storytelling, personal reflection, and poetry within the same book. Since you don’t mix genres in your other creative work, explain why mixing genres is important to your vision for this particular work.
Ostriker: I do a little bit of experimentation with genre in The Mother/Child Papers, as mentioned above, and more in The Nakedness of the Fathers. Here the material at each point seemed to dictate the form, but the mixing and combining as such is like what the Bible itself does. The Bible is perhaps the ultimate mixed-genre volume. Since Nakedness is a re-imagining of the Bible, letting it too be a mixed-genre book seemed appropriate.
Question(s): In this book, you discuss how women have often been marginalized in Judaism. Might Jael within her own tent, or Judith, be considered historical mothers for feminist scholars?
Ostriker: This description of the place of women in Judaism needs some modification, first of all. Though it does describe the past situation of women within Orthodoxy, many Orthodox women would contest the idea that they are treated as inferiors. Moreover, many things are changing within Orthodoxy today—for example, women scholars are beginning to be significant players as exegetes—and, even more important, Judaism is not confined to Orthodoxy. The Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist movements, as well as Jewish Renewal (which is the branch I identify with), all ordain women rabbis and are in other ways egalitarian. Still, there remains plenty of room for improvement. I can see why some feminist scholars might enjoy taking Jael or Judith as models. They don’t bother dickering with the enemy—they just kill him. Jael drives a nail through the head of Sisera, Judith decapitates Holofernes. But the Bible offers numerous other possibilities of female models that do not require such drastic action. Miriam is described as a prophetess, and leads the Israelite women in a song and dance when they have crossed the Red Sea. Deborah is a judge and calls up an army to defend Israel against the Canaanites. Ruth and Naomi are models of women’s loyalty to each other, and Ruth’s famous speech to Naomi, “Whither thou goest I will go,” is often used in lesbian contexts, including weddings. (Actually, it is used in heterosexual weddings too, which makes it a beautiful instance of a boundary-breaking text.) The prophetess Huldah, a contemporary and perhaps sister of Jeremiah (it is said he taught the men in his academy and she taught the women in hers), is brought in to interpret a document found in the ruins of the Temple (see II Chronicles 34.14-28). Many free-spirited women take Lilith as a role model, converting her from demoness to heroine. Mary Magdalene is a model for many Christian feminists. The poet H. D. in Trilogy, written during the London blitz, uses the Magdalene in her final, exquisitely beautiful long poem “The Flowering of the Rod,” as the central figure in what is virtually a new Gnostic gospel. Jane Schaberg’s massively scholarly book The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene proposes that the Magdalene may actually have been Jesus’ chosen successor, much as Elisha was the successor of Elijah—and that she was edged out of power and status by her jealous rival, Peter.
Question(s): The Volcano Sequence begins with the raw power of nature and the evoked anger of youth. What is the place of anger in poetry?
Ostriker: Anger has always played a role in poetry. Without anger there would be no Dante, no John Milton, no Jonathan Swift, no Ezra Pound or William Carlos Williams—to name a few large examples. All satire derives from anger. Most of the poetry written in Eastern Europe in the postwar period is charged with anger. Mandelstam died in the gulag for a poem contemptuous of Stalin. What is relatively new for poetry is women expressing anger, which horrifies many readers because it is such an unfeminine thing for women to do. Women are supposed to be nice and courteous, and leave the violence to men. You can find powerful anger in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems on slavery and child labor. In her anti-slavery poem “A Curse for a Nation,” she has an angel explaining that “A curse from the lips of womanhood / Is very salt, and bitter, and good.” Barrett Browning was roundly condemned in her own time for writing about politics. There is much anger in Emily Dickinson, lightly disguised as mockery. “The Bible is an antique volume / Written by faded men,” she proclaims. The anger in twentieth-century women’s poetry, beginning with Plath and continuing with Adrienne Rich and many others, especially Black women, has been thrillingly salutary, cleansing the air.
Question(s): In what ways would you like writing to change religion?
Ostriker: I am opposed to Orthodoxy in all its forms. Orthodoxy—“right” thinking, “right” dogma—depends on the assumption that your group, your authorities, already know everything there is to be known about God and what God wants us to do in this world. Orthodoxy pins God down to petty human formulations and pretends they are changeless and eternal. What could possibly be more arrogant? When King Solomon is dedicating the Temple, his prayer includes these words, addressed to the creator of the universe: “Behold, the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have builded.” Nowhere does Solomon exhibit his wisdom better than here. Let us never suppose that the structures of our human minds can contain God.
In what directions would I like to see change? I’d like to see more reverence for immanence and less for transcendence. I’d like to see new codes of morals that have less to do with respecting authority and berating sin, and more to do with human kindness and the celebration of both love and sexuality. I’d like to see the end of dualism. I’d like to forget about heaven and hell and concentrate on trying to improve life for everyone on this earth. I’d like everyone to recognize that worshiping a God in man’s image is idolatry. I would like every feminist to see herself as a midwife engaged in the task of re-birthing God the Mother who was swallowed by God the Father in pre-history. As I have implied in the penultimate section of Nakedness, entitled “Intensive Care,” I do not think God is dead or dying; I do think he is in pain (our pain is God’s pain) but that it is labor pain. He needs to be delivered of his feminine self, so long repressed.
The problem is that Orthodoxy has most of the best lines. This means that feminists, both men and women, will ultimately have to create language as powerful and resonant as the language used in religions today. New liturgy, new psalms, new tales, new parables, new revelations, new scriptures—standing beside the old, drawing from the old, yet embodying alternative spiritual realities. We are very far from this now. Most of the writing that attempts to be progressive is flat and uninspiring. Two books I would recommend are Marcia Falk’s The Book of Blessings, and Jill Hammer’s Sisters at Sinai. Jill also has a website, http://telshemesh.org/, which is about celebrating and creating earth-connected traditions in Judaism. I would also suggest that everyone read the poetry of Lucille Clifton, a black heterodox Christian woman who seems to me the most important spiritual poet in America today. –•