Celebrated poet and critic Alicia Suskin Ostriker, who lives in Princeton, recently published her 14th collection of poetry, The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems, 1979-2011 (University of Pittsburgh Press). Ostriker, a professor emerita of English at Rutgers University currently teaching in the master of fine arts program of Drew University in Madison, answered e-mailed questions from NJ Jewish News.
This new book, she said, “is a gathering of my Jewish poems written over the course of 30 years — a ‘diaspora’ of poems I wanted to bring together.
“So there are family poems, poems dealing with the Holocaust, with Israel, with spiritual quest, with what it means to be a woman within Judaism, and how our understanding may change as we move into the future,” she said. “Certain biblical phrases remain central to me: ‘Choose life.’ ‘Seek justice.’ ‘Love is stronger than death.’ Whether I am exploring personal life, or politics, or what we can possibly mean by God, the urge and the urgency remains the same.”
Ostriker told NJJN, “I have always written as a Jew because I am a Jew, but I only started putting my Jewish identity and my wrestling with tradition front and center in the mid-’80s. I started writing midrash” — interpretive commentary on religious texts — “before I even knew the word. It was rather frightening at first, and then I discovered that others were doing it, and had been doing it, forever.”
She described her 1994 book, The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions — her first specifically about being a Jewish woman — as “a combination of prose and poetry, midrash and autobiography, from my 20th-century Jewish woman’s perspective.”
Throughout her career, she has sought both to express herself and to teach, pursuing both goals with equal fervor. She said, “I cannot imagine my life without poetry. Reading and writing poetry are at the core of my existence. Writing is my spiritual practice. When I’m not writing, I become a rather unpleasant person.
“‘Self-expression’ is, of course, a factor, but the hope is always that if I can reach deeply enough into my own interior life, I’ll be touching the interior lives of my readers. As human beings, we all share so much more than we usually recognize. Our so-called individuality is just the tip of the iceberg…or the island.”
She continued, “And I believe we are all connected underneath as well. Yes, there’s also the desire to enlighten or illuminate, but first of all it is myself I’m trying to enlighten.”
Despite her prolific output, Ostriker admitted to often experiencing writer’s block. As a teacher, she said, she tells her students to try such exercises as “free-writing” — writing without thinking. “But usually the underlying problem is that there is something you are censoring,” she said. “And until you kill the censor, and write what you are afraid to write, you’ll be blocked. Can I always do that myself? No, not always.”