Thirty Year Retrospective

Husband, the Provost

Ostriker’s Bio

Theme: Judaism

Theme: Visual Arts

Corrections or additions?

A Poet’s Dazzling Mind

This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

November 18, 1998. All rights reserved.

One does not make a living as a poet," says Alicia

Suskin Ostriker, from the comfort of her large, but unpretentious

home in the Riverside neighborhood of Princeton. At 60, the poet and

college professor is relaxed, confident, and funny.

"I see myself as a Whitman-ic kind of poet — stress on the

`manic,’" she continues, making reference to the variegated sweep

of her career. "It isn’t as if I’m the kind of writer who found

`a’ voice and stuck to it for 30 years. I like experimenting. I like

trying to discover both new material and new poetic strategies."

Ostriker, a finalist for the 1998 National Book Award for Poetry for

her latest collection, "The Little Space: Poems Selected and New,

1968 to 1998," shares a reading with poet Chase Twichell at


Books, 114 Nassau Street, on Thursday, November 19, at 7 p.m. Ostriker

is the author of eight previous volumes of poetry including "The

Crack in Everything" (1996), also a National Book Award finalist.

This year’s award announcement takes place on Wednesday, November

18, at a gala dinner at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Manhattan.

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Thirty Year Retrospective

Ostriker’s new collection, her first volume of "selected


published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, spans 30 years of

a distinguished writing career. Known as one of the most intellectual

and accessible poets writing today, her poems tackle dense

and difficult subjects in language that the lay reader can digest.

Her probing works examine the meaning of marriage, motherhood, sex,

art, cancer, politics, and religion.

A member of the generation of American women of the 1960s who elevated

women’s voices to an audible level throughout our culture, Ostriker

seems always to have written from the assumption that "the


is the political." Paging through her new anthology is a dazzling

journey through the consciousness and experience of a brilliant mind.

Yet how many "confessional" women, who wove golden art out

of the straw of their quotidian lives, established lifelong marriages

to men who, as decades passed, became equally eminent? Ostriker’s

marriage to Jeremiah P. Ostriker in 1958, when both were college


endures. The prominent astrophysicist is now provost of Princeton

University, second only to Harold Shapiro, the president, in managing

the vast resources of that institution.

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Husband, the Provost

"He was the only boy I knew who could defeat me in an


writes Ostriker in her lively autobiographical essay for the


Authors" series. "He was wild, funny, athletic, fiercely


irreverent, arrogant. He taught me to drink wine and love Mozart.

He teased me out of my normal solemnity. He loved my writing, my mind,

my independence, my breasts. I was not too brainy or too artistic

for him."

Thus — despite our best intentions — we arrive at the


interview wondering whether the provost lives up to his portrayal

in the poems. For example, does he wear pajamas? But we phrase the

question more politely. Is your family resigned to being grist for

your poetry?

"Oh, yes," Ostriker replies. "It goes with the territory

of having a poet for a wife and/or mother that you get written about.

The people in my family all responded differently." She says there

have been times when her eldest daughter resented having her life

reflected in print, and times when her young son basked in the glory

of reading about himself and bringing his poet mom to school. But

her husband has been consistently patient with the most intimate


of their life together.

"My husband has been very generous," she says. "I did

ask him once how he felt about it, about my using my life and our

life together as material for poems, and he said, `That’s your job.’

The perfect answer! He said, `This is universal material and you speak

for those who cannot speak for themselves.’ It was the answer that

I hoped to hear and didn’t think I would hear."

Among the few early poems included in the new volume, written before

1980, is "Portraite de l’Artiste," a poem from the time of

her first pregnancy. It includes this passage:

Most of my nights I spend with your hot body,

First making love, then curled together,

Then rolling around back to back, pajamaless,

Which, we have decided, or

discovered, is best for sleeping

The whole night through —

But in the very next poem, on the very next page, the poet’s

male partner is wearing blue flannel pajamas. Some questions, we


are better left unasked.

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Ostriker’s Bio

Born in Brooklyn on Armistice Day, November 11, 1937,

Ostriker was a Depression baby, adored by parents and grandparents

alike. Both sets of grandparents came from eastern Europe during the

pogroms of the 1880s, and her parents, David and Beatrice Suskin,

met at Brooklyn College. Both were English majors, but neither wrote

professionally. Ostriker calls her parents "the gentle


who never outgrew being poor and proud.

"My mother wrote poetry and still does. That was important to

my life," says Ostriker, whose mother taught her to read and who

read the poetry of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Browning to her. Her father

worked for 25 years as a playground director for the New York City

Department of Parks. Alicia has one sister, Amy, 10 years her junior.

Their mother now lives in Princeton.

"I always wrote poetry from childhood on," says Ostriker.

"I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing poetry. But I


think of myself as `a poet’ until much later."

When she was six her parents moved from a Brooklyn housing project

to the East River Drive Houses in Manhattan so that she could attend

Hunter College Elementary School. Somebody told her parents she had

a high IQ, which was evidently true enough. For from Hunter, she went

on to become a scholarship student at the elite Fieldston School.

Her future Harvard-bound husband, Jeremiah P. Ostriker, was also a

Fieldston student.

At Brandeis on a full scholarship, between 1955 and 1959, Ostriker

studied "with an array of extraordinary professors," including

Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, J.V. Cunningham, Herbert Marcuse, Philip

Rieff, and Paul Vigee.

When married in 1958, she was a Brandeis senior, the groom a Harvard

senior. After their graduations, they spent a year in Washington D.C.

and then both went to graduate school, he at University of Chicago

and she at University of Wisconsin, Madison.

"I thought I would hate going to graduate school, but I wanted

the piece of paper that would enable me to be a college teacher,"

says Ostriker, whose vocation to teach outweighed any illusions she

may have had about "making a living" as a poet. "I did

my course work in two years, which I was able to do because I was

on a full fellowship, and wrote the dissertation in one year —

it was a record. I was pregnant while writing my dissertation, so

that was a spur. The baby was born a week after the dissertation was

handed in — and she was a week late."

In 1964, both Ostrikers, Ph.Ds in hand, applied for positions at


Jeremiah received an offer. His wife received a letter which read:

"As a glance at our catalogue might have informed you, our faculty

here at Princeton is entirely male. My reply to your query must


be in the negative." She accepted, instead, an assistant


at Rutgers where she continues to teach English and creative writing.

In 1988, she was a lecturer at Princeton University’s program in



Today the Ostrikers are parents of three adult children whom their

mother pronounces "lovely human beings." Their oldest


Rebecca, an English major at Harvard, now is managing editor of New

Age Magazine and plays bass in a rock band called the Burrs. Their

second daughter, Eve, has gone into the family business as an


professor of astrophysics at the University of Maryland. Their son,

Gabriel, works as a data analyst in the Boston area and sings in an

early music group.

What does it mean to arrive at a `selected poems’ and

how does one go about winnowing through 30 years’ work? "It’s

a landmark," says Ostriker, with a sigh that opens a little window

on the effort expended. "It means you must have been doing


right. But then it also means that you have to try to stand back from

yourself and get some sort of objective judgment on what you’ve been

subjectively producing all these years. And I found it quite


"Now I have spoken to people who have done selected poems who

have said, `Oh, I just made those choices in two weeks and it was

all over.’ I, on the other hand, tore my hair, and beat my breast,

and asked all my friends." Seven such helpers are listed in the

poet’s acknowledgements.

"There are many different modes I write in," explains


"Trying to select and find a balance that would be representative

of the various styles as well as the changes I’ve gone through in

my life was a task. I did reject most of what I wrote before 1980,

there’s very little of in this book, and some of it is quite early

work that now makes me wince because it’s so juvenile. Some of it

is work that’s still rather dear to me, and yet that I feel might

make other people wince because it would seem to them so


"It was 30 years of blood, sweat, and tears, and having to ask

myself, What here do I think is valuable? What is representative?

What do I think people would still want to read sometime in the


Who am I? — Again, that question that never seems to be decided!

And it does seem strange at the age of 60 still to be asking it, but

I know I’m not alone."

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Theme: Judaism

Judaism has been an important adult theme for Ostriker. In addition

to addressing biblical stories and themes in her art, she has


two critical works on Judaism and the Bible: "Feminist Revision

and the Bible" and "The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical

Visions and Revisions." Yet she did not grow up in an observant


"Everyone in my family was secular. I was raised third-generation

atheist, socialist Jew. It was that line of Jewishness that comes

out of the prophets in which being a Jew was about reading and


it was also about kindness and social progress," she says.

"Growing up free of Sunday school can be something that makes

one more attached to Judaism as an adult. There is so much that is

powerful and compelling and fascinating in Jewish history, culture,

and literature. If it wasn’t hammered into you as a child, then you

could come to it freely with your own temperament and your own


"This is a moment in which women are making a move to interpret

and reclaim our traditions in our way," says Ostriker, who


her enterprise as not simply to save the Jewish tradition from


but to "save it from the orthodox." "Feminist spirituality

has become important. And this is happening among Christians as


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Theme: Visual Arts

Ostriker’s interest in the visual arts continues into adulthood.


she did not become a painter or a printmaker, her new anthology


a spectrum of visually exciting and insightful poems about paintings

— from the Monet oil painting that hangs in Princeton University’s

Art Museum, to works by Van Gogh, Goya, O’Keeffe, Alice Neel, and

Alselm Keifer.

Ostriker says she has long found her mentors between the pages of

books. Blake was the subject of her doctoral dissertation, and she

took the title for her selected poems from lines by William Blake:

For we are put on earth a little space

That we may learn to bear the beams of love.

"I’ve always found books more useful mentors than people,

because I’ve always been an anti-authoritarian person. I was never

happier at school than when I could raise my hand and disagree with

something that my teacher had just said. So I didn’t have the


to be a protege. I don’t have adoration genes in me."

"My models have been many," she continues. "When I was

a student they were all men. I wanted to be some combination of


and Keats and W.H. Auden and Blake. And then once I was out of school

and teaching contemporary poetry I wanted to be some combination of

Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams —

that nice New Jersey set of generations. And then in the ’70s I began

devouring women’s poetry and acquired 100 or so more mentors."

Despite this eventual torrent of admired artists, Ostriker places

the late Allen Ginsberg in a category of his own. "The only person

whose sandals I ever wished to kiss was Allen. He was pretty ill that

last Dodge festival and he was frail — until he got on-stage.

That was an amazing performance. He levitated the big tent for 45

minutes. He always did channel — there is no other way of putting

it. He channels the holy spirit, he channels divine energy and is

a fountain of it. And I speak of him in the present, as if he were

still here, because there is a sense in which he is still here."

The fabulous biennial Dodge Poetry Festival brings Ostriker to reflect

on the place of poetry in our fin-de-siecle technological whirlwind

of existence.

"Where is poetry today? I think it’s very healthy in every


she says. "It is a characteristic of American culture that it

is spread out and democratic. So the poetry scene in America is


diffuse. Everywhere in America there are local poetry scenes, there

are regional poetry scenes, all of which are providing something that

is needed." Among the many community-based poetry groups to which

she has belonged is the US 1 Poets’ Cooperative, that she helped


While some may question the logic of literary competition, Ostriker

takes her second National Book Award nomination seriously, and hopes

for a happy outcome. "I’ve always felt that I write for people

of my generation, for living people, but also I write for the noble

dead. I write so that I can feel worthy of the poets I adore. And

I write with my fingers crossed for posterity.

"I think Milton in `Lycidas’ says, `Fame is the spur, that last

infirmity of noble minds.’ And I think anyone who is an artist wants

to be known, wants to live on. And there’s no shortcut to that.


prizes helps."

— Nicole Plett

Alicia Ostriker, Micawber Books, 114 Nassau Street,

609-921-8454. Poetry reading and book signing with Chase Twichell.

Thursday, November 19, 7 p.m.

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