In the beginning, for Alicia Suskin Ostriker, there was the word. She began writing poetry as a child, and at 80 she is still using her words to capture and convey life’s truths, its spirituality and sensuality, and the urgent calls of social justice.
She became a literature teacher in 1965, and 52 years later she is still teaching. She also became a revered critic and commentator on Judaism. But Ostriker’s dedication to social action seems just as strong as her academic pursuits.
“In my politics I am with the prophets,” she told NJJN. “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked. ‘Justice, justice shalt thou seek.’ And God’s repeated command that we must ‘love the stranger.’”
But despite her passion for words, her concern for the downtrodden is not just talk.
“Right now,” she said, “I am signing petitions to save DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). I do so as a Jew.”
Her various commitments will be on display when Ostriker takes to the stage on Tuesday, Oct. 31, at Monmouth University. Her appearance is part of the West Long Branch school’s Visiting Writers Series.
Though now a resident of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which she said is inspiring a new stream of poems, Ostriker was a fixture in New Jersey for several decades. She lived in Princeton, and taught in the English Department at Rutgers University until her retirement in 2004. She still has a presence across the river, serving as Distinguished Poet in Residence at Drew University in Madison and teaching in its Low-Residency Poetry MFA program.
Armed with a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, at the start of her career as a teacher at Rutgers, the mother of three became a pioneer in the feminist critique of literature. “There was a sound in the air that was different from what poetry in English had ever been,” Ostriker told an interviewer when she retired. “I wanted to understand it, decipher it. It was important to me both as a poet and a critic.”
She wrote a number of barrier-breaking studies, including the acclaimed “Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America,” published in 1987. The study argued that since the 1960s, female poets had created a literary movement as distinct and important as Romanticism or Modernism.
As her teaching career gained momentum, she began to take her own creativity more seriously, and published her first collection of poetry in 1969. She has produced 16 additional collections in the years since.
Honors followed. She won the Paterson Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Award, and the William Carlos Williams Award, among others. Twice she was nominated for the National Book Award, and in 2010, she won the National Jewish Book Award for “The Book of Seventy.”
In 2012 she wrote a sequel of sorts, “The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011,” a gathering of works originally published in eight separate books. Of her most recent volume, “Waiting for the Light,” published last March, one reviewer said, “she explores politics and people with her characteristic complexity and curiosity.”
Her many works, prestigious awards, and impressive titles — distinguished professor emerita of Rutgers University and a current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets — might sound like sufficient laurels to rest on, but Ostriker’s productivity is undiminished.
In an e-mail to NJJN — which she composed at 5:30 in the morning — she said, “What happened after that is that I moved to New York City, where my husband and I both grew up, and began writing poems based in the Upper West Side, poems of my new neighborhood. They are poems of celebration and suffering, of a vibrant multicultural landscape. So much has changed since my grandparents came as immigrants to this city…and so little.”
Asked about what it took for her to become a poet, she wrote, “My mother was an English major who wrote poetry and read Shakespeare, Browning, and Tennyson to my infant ears, so perhaps I was destined to become a poet. But like many women, I was hesitant to claim such an exalted vocation. When asked, ‘What do you do?’ I’d say, ‘I teach English.’ But now I say, proudly, ‘I’m a poet.’
“And yes, that is the center of my life.”
Along with her growing contribution to literary commentary and original poetry has come her religious analysis. It is of a piece with those other aspects of her working life, on another plane and yet entirely consistent with them. As she put it, she was writing midrash — or commentary — before she knew there was a word for it.
“My Judaism is the Judaism of a feminist,” she told NJJN. “At Rutgers University I taught a seminar entitled ‘The Bible and Feminist Imagination,’ where we read large portions of the Bible alongside feminist theology and commentary and midrash. And I co-taught a course on the history of Jewish women. In my writing, I wrestle with the Bible, and with Jewish tradition, the way Jacob wrestles with the angel in Genesis — to wrestle a blessing out of it.”
That approach was clear in her 1994 book “The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions.” Through her retelling of the familiar narratives, she showed how they can offer both relevant guidance and personal illumination for the contemporary reader, whether female or male.
As a poet, she said, she is “something of a mystic, so the tradition of Kabbalah, which acknowledges the feminine aspect of divinity, named the Shechinah, is central to me, as it also is in the Jewish Renewal movement, which is egalitarian and oriented to joy and to justice.”