An Interview with Alicia Ostriker
By Melissa Cundieff-Pexa
Alicia Ostriker, author, most recently, of The Book of Seventy, and A Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979 – 2011, read on January 26th of this year as part of the Vanderbilt University Visiting Writing Series. She and I had the opportunity to talk about a number of issues during her stay – the apocalypse being one, daughters being another, as well as beer, country music, and, of course, poetry. It was when she recollected meeting Allen Ginsberg for the first time that I understood something, something that perhaps even Alicia is not aware. Allen, she said, was more than a poet, more than a mortal; he drew people to him, he had the gift of attraction, and people simply couldn’t, nor would they have wanted to, resist being in his immediate space. Alicia is the same exactly. After her reading, we and fifteen other people went to 12 South Tap Room and drank dark beer and ate beer cheese and pretzels. That night, it seemed Nashville could not resist Ms. Ostriker. In the morning, I emailed her a few questions which she had happily agreed to answer, and this is what she gave me: a glimpse into the life force that is she.
Interviewer: You spoke about the process of writing The Volcano Sequence as one of relative ease, particularly after three years of rather anguished writer’s block. Perhaps for the first and last time when writing that book, it was as if the poems wrote themselves, and you were something of a vessel. I’d like to know what you think about the religiosity or spirituality of writing/the experience of writing.
Ostriker: Let me begin by sharing this wonderful poem by D.H. Lawrence:
Song of a Man Who Has Come Through
Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.
Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.
What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.
I guess it is clear from this that my answer is yes – but D.H. Lawrence describes the process so beautifully, I couldn’t resist quoting him.
Yes, writing can be a spiritual experience. The writer, the poet, can experience himself/ herself as a vessel the wind of the spirit blows through. The more you open yourself to that possibility, the more likely it is to happen. You could say Lawrence’s poem (forget the bragging title) is a prayer asking to become a vessel for the wind of the spirit. In Hebrew, the word ruach signifies both wind and spirit, and another meaning is breath. It is the word used in Genesis 1.2, describing the creation of the universe: “And the earth was without form and void; and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
Of course Lawrence knew his Bible, so he knew that. He knew that this image at the very beginning of the Bible returns near its end, in the Gospel of John 3.8: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” For me, as I would guess for Lawrence and for other poets, “born of the spirit” means “inspired.” Same linguistic root, you notice. The -spir that becomes spirit and also flows into inspiration, respiration–there’s breath again. The breath of God blowing through you. The spirit of God blowing through you. Not I but the wind. The release of the ego, the letting go, which has nothing to do with any church or doctrine.
Think of it. Think of having the spirit of God or the breath of God, blowing through you.
Does this really happen? It does, it can, but you have to want it to, and it doesn’t happen often. Another part of the process that Lawrence’s poem reveals is that you have to let yourself be carried by that wind–which is also the wind of Time. So the poet needs to be part of his or her age, needs to ride the age, as it were, and then there is that extraordinary metaphor of the poet as “a chisel, a wedge-blade,” breaking through…Breaking through what? to what? From appearance to reality, from a corrupt society to an ideal one, from the literal to the mythic, from the obduracy of stone (in one’s heart and in the world) to the blissful garden? There’s an aggressiveness there, an attack. Break on through to the other side, as the Doors say. And then Lawrence goes back to the need for openness. The fountain, the wellhead. Language bubbling up from invisible sources.
There is more. The last part of the poem touches on self-censorship, and how it is born from fear, often from nameless fear. Inspiration “wants to do us harm.” The intensity of inspiration may be overwhelming, may be like a bad acid trip, may be like light that blinds you. T.S. Eliot says, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” We know that most people don’t want to hear our truths. Often in fact they will hate us. So we close our own minds out of fear. But the three strange angels closing the poem tell us that we have to trust.
In the process of writing Volcano, I went through all of that. Once the poems started coming and it was clear that they were coming from my deepest, most yearning, most wounded and wounding self, I made a literal deal with them: If you agree to keep on arriving, I agree not to tell you what to say. This worked. I became an aperture through which poems occasionally percolated. The book became one in which a nameless voice, or voices, addresses a “you” who is sometimes God and sometimes my mother. There’s deep anger in it. There’s also deep yearning. The voice or voices of the poem seemed to me to have their origin in what Lawrence calls “the Hesperides” and the doors call “the other side.” Very hard to describe this spatially, but it’s as if there’s another world, existing in another dimension, right alongside (or maybe inside) the material world we are familiar with. The voice somehow or other entered me from that other space, and somehow or other we produced the words. I can’t describe it any more clearly than that. But I should also say that I was never just a passive recipient. It was always work, and work right at the edge where “self” has to let go of itself and become the collective self. And there was always a sense of struggle, and a sense of fear.
Not fear of punishment. I don’t believe in the punitive God that looms so large in Christianity and Islam, so I don’t fear him. (Or Him.) What I fear is that my yearning and my words will come to nothing. That I am wasting my time–the little time that has been given to me. And that no further inspiration will ever come my way again. I guess that is my equivalent of Lawrence’s fear of “harm.” But once you have entertained invisible angels, you are always trusting that they will visit again.
Interviewer: So you must believe in a muse, especially as a source external to you that allows you to (pleasurably or not) experience the making of poem. As you have mentioned before, do you believe in a kind of spiritual role or *something* that has empowered you in the past to do what you have done, poetically and otherwise?
Ostriker: Yes, I believe in muses. They are not the same as the winds of the spirit–the winds of the spirit are disembodied, and I guess I see them as a “higher” level (whatever that means), while muses have human form, or sometimes animal form. I’ve had a number of male muses in my life–that is, times I’ve been in love with some male person, and desire seemed to spill over into creativity. It’s mysterious how that happens. How the erotic–whether sacred or demonic–arouses the artist in us.
And yes, I believe in a “something” that has empowered me. In the nineteenth century they called it “the life force.” A sense of energy. There is a nice wikipedia article on this topic, that points out that “spirit,” “prana” and “qi” are words meaning essentially the same thing, and they all are related to the idea of “breath.”
Yet somehow breath doesn’t completely describe what the life force is and does. For me it involves a sense of excitement, or heat–making the spiritual molecules move fast. That’s why the eros is so important. Perhaps when I achieve enlightenment it will take the form of pure breath.
Interviewer: I’m wondering if you might elaborate on the idea of the erotic, its mysterious nature that, either “sacred or demonic” can arouse the artist in us. Would you say there is a life and death force at play in eroticism, intermingling oh-so-perfectly?
Ostriker: I don’t think I have anything to say abut the life and death force in the erotic–I don’t begin to understand it well enough. Call it denial…but for me the erotic is all about arousal–of all our capacities at once.
Interviewer: Fair enough. Thank you, and, lastly, you mentioned animals as possible muses. I’m so intrigued by this. Larry Levis wrote, “Animals are objects of contemplation, but they are also, unlike us, without speech, without language, except in their own instinctual systems. When animals occur in poems, then, I believe they are often emblems for the muteness of the poet, for what he or she cannot express, for what is deepest and sometimes most antisocial in the poet’s nature.”
Have you ever thought of animals this way? Either in the making of poems or when you are not writing? In what ways are they meaningful?
Is there an instinctual, private language that exists in poetry — in the same way it might in the animal world?
Ostriker: I think it is wrong to say that animals are “without speech.” Larry Levis is a great poet but this is an ignorant remark. We know almost nothing about animal communication. On the other hand, it is absolutely true that animals are important to people in all kinds of ways including the way we project aspects of ourselves onto them, in life and in poetry. Maybe because they can’t talk back–or can do so only minimally–animals are commonly more satisfying love objects than people. And of course Levis is right that for poets, animals stand for our deep, mostly inarticulate “animal” natures. This i why people in so-called “primitive” cultures have totem animals. If I ask myself what roles animals have played in my own poetry, what immediately pops up is dogs. My poems are full of dogs, thanks partly to our Siberian husky, Silver Streak, who was intended by nature to run across hundreds of miles of tundra, and who ran off from home as often as possible (but always came back). I think “dog” represents “freedom” to me. I have one poem describing my soul as a dog on a leash that keeps pulling me this way and that, but my best-known dog poem is called “The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz,” and you can find it online. You can also find “The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog.” Other animals in my poems? Cows for motherhood…horses for beauty and for being “never entirely tamed.”
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