Tuesday, September 25, 2012

thirteen: alicia ostriker

Alicia Ostriker has published eleven volumes of poetry, most recently No Heaven (U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), and has twice been a National Book Award finalist. She is also the author of Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America (Beacon Press, 1987) and other books of criticism.

Tell us about your relationship to your art.  

Pure love.  I love my own art, and I love literature, and I know that literature loves me back.  It’s more satisfying than any relationship with a person. 

What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?  

Two completely contradictory projects:  one is my selection of Jewish poems – 30 years’ worth, a diaspora of poems I have gathered together, a gathering of obsessions over family, the holocaust, Israel, spiritual quest, and the meaning of being a (woman) Jewish poet.  Much yearning, much grappling with tragedy. The other project is just plain fun: a sequence of poems spoken by “the old woman, the tulip and the dog.”  Somehow these three characters have things to say about everything from birth to death.

Tell us a little of your motherhood journey.  

Two daughters and a son, born in 1963, 1965 and 1970.  Been there, done that, all of them turned into wise and good and beautiful grownups I am proud of.  Raising them was a trip.  Writing of that trip was essential to me, especially when they and I were young. As I say in my essay “A Wild Surmise:  Motherhod and Poetry,” in Writing Like a Woman, “The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption...it constitutes an adventure which cannot be duplicated by any other...If the woman artist has been trained to think that the activities of motherhood are trivial and irrelevant to literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violene and death to love and birth, and it is a lie."

What are some crucial elements of your process?  How has that changed since having children?  

It’s possible that the experience of motherhood, by definition living with the unexpected  and unpredictable, is what altered my practice as a poet. When I was a student I planned all my poems, and somewhere along the way I stopped planning.  The poems happen.  They announce themselves. “Once More Out of Darkness,” a long poem abut pregnancy and childbirth that my colleague Elaine Showalter called “a poem in nine parts and a postpartum,” was the first “experimental” poem I ever wrote, the first that unfolded without a prior intention.  All of The Mother/Child Papers, really, unfolded in that way.  Ever since then, writing poems is like crawling into the dark—just like raising children.

What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?  

I write about family endlessly, endlessly.  Each individual responds differently.  My son enjoyed being the hero of The Mother/Child Papers.  My daughters are perhaps not so happy about appearing in poems.  They don’t say this in so many words, but I sense it so I don’t write about them any more.   Shutting the barn door after the horses have escaped?  Oh well....My husband has always been a good sport about the many marriage poems I’ve written.  Once, taking courage, I asked him how he felt about having me write so much about this.  He gave the perfect reply.  “It’s your job,” he said.  “This is universal material. You have the language to express what they experience but don’t have the language for.”

Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?  

Not really.  Truth and beauty—that’s what I’m after.

Are your children ever subjects in your art?  

See above.

How does travel figure into your art?  Do/did your children come along?  How has that worked out?  

The kids went with us on sabbaticals to California, we traveled in Europe several times, and we all went camping together, but I think the only poem that came out of all that is “Taylor Lake” inThe Crack in Everything, written after a great day hiking in Colorado, near Aspen.

What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?  

Haven’t done this for many many years, but when they were little we used to all make Season’s Greetings cards—Peace on Earth cards—together.  Woodcuts and linoleum cuts. 

How do you escape?  

When they were little I had a carrel in the library to escape to—that’s where I wrote most of Stealing the Language.  The first time I went to a writers’ colony was when my youngest was around four, and Oh, I felt guilty about it.  But I did a month’s worth of heavenly work and we all survived.

What advice do you have for expectant mothers in your field?  

Don’t depend on your memory. Write everything down.  Record their beautiful voices before they even begin saying words.  Take videos.  I wish I had done that.  They may drive you crazy, but all too soon they will be grown and flown.

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