How to Heal: An Interview with Alicia Ostriker

by    /  November 14, 2019  / Comments Off on How to Heal: An Interview with Alicia Ostriker

Photo by Miguel Pagliere


Last September, Alicia Ostriker performed in City of Asylum’s Jazz and Poetry Festival. Ostriker’s performance was at once graceful and snappy. Reading alongside the evening’s jazz band, her words plucked at the heartstrings of the audience, evoking both humor and grief. Ostriker has twice been a finalist for the National Book Award, and has published over ten volumes of poetry. She is also a critic and activist, publishing three books of criticism and several prose essays. She writes about  everything from art to violence to religion, and every crevice in-between. Prior to her performance, Sampsonia Way sat down with Ostriker to talk about her life and career. 

I. On the Internal

You’ve spoken before about how your writing is quite improvisational, but your work seems so precise. Is there any tension between this precision and unpredictability?

It’s a dynamic. When I was a student, I always wrote in traditional forms because that’s what I was taught. I’m from the late Neolithic, a time when we still read Shakespeare and Keats, and I wanted to be some combination of all the male poets that I read and loved. They all wrote in closed forms, so that is what I did. When I made the transition to writing in open forms, I found that doing that made my heart and my mind more open, so that I could write about things I had never written about before, such as my family. I could write in much more free ways – not just in form, but in feeling. Nevertheless, I still had the muscles of writing in traditional form, and very precisely, already in me. 

You write a lot about personal grief as well as public grief. Is there a difference when writing about the two? How do you balance public and private grief in your poetry?

What a really good question that I can’t answer! I think I can only write things dealing with public events if I take them personally. A couple of nights ago, sitting with my husband at dinner, he was saying, “It looks like we are going to go to war with Iran,” and I started to moan and scream and cry. I can’t stand it. It hasn’t happened yet, and maybe it won’t happen, but having that kind of grief inside me feels personal and not just public. So I’ve written a lot about Israel and Palestine and the grief of that, as if it’s happening to me. I’ve also written about Abu Ghraib in a poem called “Laundry” and about many other issues I take personally. 

II. Womanhood and Healing

When I was reading your works, I thought a lot about the intersection between grief and identity and how sometimes we can feel grief for who we are as people. I was wondering if you’ve ever felt grief for being a woman?

I’ve always felt fine about being a woman, which was a piece of good luck. I think most women in America and in the world are made to feel lacking, inferior, secondary, fearful, and self-hating as females. I think that’s the norm, but not for me. It gets passed down from mother to daughter to mother to daughter, but didn’t get passed down to me because my mother was so narcissistic, woundedly narcissistic and preoccupied with herself, that she didn’t even understand how girls were supposed to hate themselves. Piece of real good fortune.

I’ve also had some traumas in my life that I have been able to deal with healingly as a woman. One was way back – 1974. I was raped and I did what every raped woman, I think, does – started hating myself, believing it was my fault. I was getting overwhelmed with reasons to be disgusted with myself and to despise myself.  But because I had read about victim-blaming, I was able to take a step back and concentrate on my goals, which were: pull up by their roots those thoughts trying to spiral me down into the toilet of my psyche; notice when they were sprouting; pull those thoughts out by the roots; and get rid of them right away before they had the chance to really grow. 

My goal was to get back to what I recognized as my real self, to get back to loving my body, to get back to feeling good about sex, to get back to feeling the same about black people because it was a black guy who raped me, so that was important. And I did, and that was healing. Awhile later I wrote about it, which was more healing. And then – though fearful – I read what I wrote to my workshop group thinking maybe they wouldn’t want to be my friends anymore if they knew, but I was brave and I did it. And they were right there for me. They commented on the style and the substance just like they would have done for anything else, and that was healing. And then I found myself able to talk about having been raped in a class, and that was healing. So many stages of healing, but all were possible because at my foundation, I’m comfortable with myself as a woman.

Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m so sorry that happened to you.

It happens to a lot of people. And I wish that women who have been raped, and men who have been raped, could find ways of not carrying that trauma around for the rest of their lives, which many people do.

I was curious about the healing aspect as well. Is there a difference between healing for you and the healing you’re trying to do for your audience?

I wrote a little essay on poetry and healing that was in American Poetry Review about a year ago, and I realized that that healing is different than curing in that you can’t make the loss go away; you can’t make the suffering go away – it’s there forever. But poetry of healing, it seems to me, has to acknowledge the reality of suffering. It can’t be “get well soon!” It can’t just be cheerful. It has to go into the pain, the suffering, the illness, to get through it. There is something about acknowledging a reality that is somehow healing in itself. That you name it and you contain it in that way, instead of it imprisoning you. 

III. On Defining Feminists

Do people ever try and tell you what your work is about?

Sometimes I get silly reviews. Does that happen to you? Do people tell you what your work is about?

Well, not yet! I think it’s interesting how writers, women writers in particular, can get put into boxes where they’re not allowed to write about more than one thing. Have you ever experienced that? 

Oh Yeah! When I was 20-something in graduate school we had a visiting esteemed poet, and all of us grad students getting Ph.D.s in literature were able to give him a set of our poems and have a meeting with him. My poems were very naive. I thought they were bold. They were very naive. And the visiting poet thumbed through and stopped at one where the speaker was in bed with someone and they weren’t doing anything, but a shaft of light was coming through the blinds. And he said: “You women poets are very graphic, aren’t you?” With a little, barely discernible shiver of distaste. I knew instantly that he didn’t like it that I was a woman writing at all about the body. I had never heard the phrase ‘women poets’ before, and I had kind of a split-screen experience. One half was “Oh he doesn’t like my poetry and I want to run out of the room right now and go home and put my head under the pillow.” The other half was smoke coming out of my ears: “Yes! That’s right! We women poets are graphic!” Just like that, he had defined me negatively, and I flipped it. I defined it assertively. There is something to be said for the motivation of I’ll show you, you son-of-a-something. It was a moment of revelation for me, both of what I was and what I was up against. 

Earlier today you were talking about how some people would label you as feminist – which you are – but they thought of it as something narrow and you thought of it as something broad. Could you elaborate on that for me a little bit?

I think of being feminist as being inclusive, not exclusive. I think of being feminist as whenever I’m confronted with some kind of either/or, black or white,  how I like to say “Both, and.” Give me one of this and one of that! Same as I do with the whole issue of form.  I like to think of feminism as what, hopefully, will ultimately make a better world for all of us. I don’t know which is harder to fight in a culture, whether sexism or racism is more damaging, more traumatic, more harmful, more pernicious – they both are. They’re not the same thing, but they’re both the biggest things we have to fight. Both, and.

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