Ask a Poet: Alicia Ostriker

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Welcome to the Ask a Poet blog series! Leading up to the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, we will be putting the spotlight on poets you can see at #DPF18, October 18-21. Learn more about a new Festival Poet every Wednesday and Friday, presented in no particular order.

Today, we’re getting to know Academy of American Poets Chancellor Alicia Ostriker!


If someone sitting next to you on an airplane asked you to describe your poetry, how would you describe it?
When I tell a stranger I’m a poet and the stranger asks “What kind of poetry do you write?” I like to say I write poems about life and death, love and sex, family, the weather, the city, religion, politics, and art. Usually they have nothing to say after that. Sometimes I say I write poems to make people laugh and cry. Once it happened that a man in a suit who sat next to me on a plane looked at me condescendingly (you know the way they do?) when I said I was a poet, and asked “Are you published?” “Yes,” I answered. “I’ve published ten books.” He was quiet after that. And it happened just once that the person I was sitting next to on a plane turned out to have read my poetry. That was a treat!

When did you first discover poetry? What poets made you want to write?
As a student I wanted to be some combination of John Donne, John Keats, and Gerard Manly Hopkins. As an American, I’m a daughter of Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg (all of them with New Jersey connections, by the way). As a woman, I wanted to write like H.D, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Toi Derricotte, Marilyn Nelson, and so on and so forth…

What is the role of poetry in today’s world?
Same as always. It can find language for human experiences that never found language before, it can illuminate reality, it can shock, console, and awaken readers and listeners, it can attack, it can curse and bless, it can make beauty out of bitterness, it can fool around, it can tell stories, it can reach across boundaries, it can change your mind, it can change the world. Yes, it can. Maybe just a little. Auden was wrong. Poetry can make things happen, and more and more people are catching on to that.

Tell us about your favorite experience reading for an audience.
Years ago, I opened for Allen Ginsberg at the Bumbershoot Festival. B.B. King was playing at the other end of the festival grounds, but we were in some arena as big as Madison Square Garden (or so it seemed) and it was packed to the rafters. Being applauded by Allen’s fans–and they kept applauding till I did an encore–that was a thrill.

Have you ever written anything you were afraid to share?
Yes. Poems about my family. And then I shared them and the sky didn’t fall in.

What are you looking forward to most at this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival?
Everything, really. But especially meeting poets I admire, and being awestruck. And I love the live music between the panels.

Alicia Ostriker has published fourteen volumes of poetry, including Waiting for the LightThe Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog; The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979-2011; No Heaven; The Volcano Sequence; and The Imaginary Lover, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award. She was twice a National Book Award Finalist, for The Little Space (1998) and The Crack in Everything (1996). Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Atlantic, Paris Review, Yale Review, Ontario Review, The Nation, The New Republic, Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Anthology, and many other journals and anthologies, and has been translated into numerous languages including Hebrew and Arabic. Ostriker’s critical work includes the now-classic Stealing the Language: the Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America, and other books on American poetry from Walt Whitman to the present. 

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