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“Wrestling with the Angel”: Marina Camboni interviews Alicia Ostriker
This interview was first published in Italian in the journal DWF [42-43 (1999): 87-114] together with an introductory essay and the translation of a few of her poems.
Marina Camboni: Your early poems, those written between 1968 and 1974, but also later ones, like “The Crazy Lady Speaking,” remind me of Anne Sexton. Those, of course, were the years when Confessional poetry dominated the scene. Soon women themselves would use similar methods in their consciousness-raising groups. Can you tell me of your beginning as a poet and of the first influences in your poetry?
Alicia Ostriker: Confessional poetry—a term I would like to see outlawed, as it is typically used to disparage women poets. The term was invented by the critic M.L. Rosenthal, who afterward wished he could take it back. But once the genie was out of the bottle, it was too late. Conservative critics had the perfect weapon to condescend to women poets who use autobiographical material in their art.
My own beginnings were different. Between 1968 and 1974 I knew next to nothing about confessional poetry. As a student poet, I was a traditionalist and a formalist, and hoped to be some kind of amalgam of John Donne, John Keats, Gerald Manley Hopkins, and W.H. Auden. I began writing in open form while I was in graduate school, because it was more exciting, more of a challenge. You have to be inventing the rhythms of your poem at every moment, like a jazz improvisation, instead of having the form do half your work for you. But I did not think of myself as a “woman poet” until much later. As an American I was mostly influenced by Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Allen Ginsberg.
The first poem I wrote consciously as a woman poet was “Once More out of Darkness,” a sequence based on my first two pregnancies in 1963—65. At that time I had read neither Plath nor Sexton. It was not until the mid-70s that I started reading women poets intensively and being influenced by them. Reading is not the word. Devouring would be more appropriate. Plath, Sexton, Rich, Piercy, Atwood, Kumin, to start with. Lesbian poets like Judy Grahn. Black poets like Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, Wanda Robinson, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton. And of course, H.D. These are just a few. Before writing Stealing the Language I read over 200 volumes of poetry by individual women poets, as well as numerous anthologies. What thrilled me about the women’s poetry movement was the sense of power, the release of passion from under the trapdoor where it was kept for thousands of years, and the connection of passion with intellect. You know, nice girls and good women were not supposed to be either passionate or intellectual. And certainly not both! And I think it is when women are both passionate and intellectual that they are most threatening—and this is when conservative critics are most likely to attack them.
MC: In the poem “I Brood about Some Concepts, for Example,” while making fun of Lacan you take an essentialist stand toward female subjectivity. Am I right in thinking that the concluding lines of the poem, “I assume I am seeing language / … To disclose. The thing itself…” reveal your point of view? Do you still think we need to affirm the close connection between the female subject of language and the woman’s body?
AO: An important question! What I think we need to affirm is the close connection between mind and body. Man’s body, woman’s body, anybody’s body—the mind and the body belong together. Or, as Whitman says, “I am the poet of the body, and I am the poet of the soul.” This is very different from essentialism, which is the claim that our biological attributes determine everything. Really, the great essentialist was Freud, who said “biology is destiny.” Anne Sexton, who said “the body does not lie,” is the reverse of an essentialist. She is saying that the body is a source of true information, and that the mind should pay attention to it. One of the greatest struggles of feminism is to reject the philosophical dualism we inherit from Plato, from Descartes, from the whole western tradition. And one way to fight is to laugh. Laughter is the great weapon against tyranny. Including mental tyranny. Including the totalitarianism of theory. I am making fun, that is certain, not only of Lacan, but of all the theoretical masters of discourse who proclaim the death of the author and the irrelevance of the self. Is it a coincidence that they do this just as women are becoming authors asserting the reality of a female self? Above all I am making fun of those who claim that no reality exists outside of language. No reality? They should speak for themselves! I must say I am amazed at how easy it is to fool some people with pretentious sounding discourse. But I don’t want to be pretentious myself, so I use satire.
There is a brilliant younger poet, Anne Carson, a Canadian who was trained as a classicist and a philosopher, who has an essay on “The Gender of Sound.” She demonstrates that from Aristotle to the present, men identify women’s voices, which they always consider out of bounds, out of control, horrible and threatening, with women’s bodies. A young Italian woman poet, Elisa Biagini, writes me that a male critic has told her that her poems have “too much” body in them, too much “teeth and nails.” What is he afraid of? What is she supposed to do about it?
MC: Reading your poetry, I become aware that the body is at its center. Feelings, emotions, stories are filtered through a woman’s experience of life, love, maternity, of art and politics. I think of the “Mastectomy Poems”, but also of all the poems where sexual love in marriage, childbirth, motherhood are the themes. What is the relation between the biographical self and the poetic self in your poetry?
AO: Again, an interesting question. I think the biographical self is a major source of stories, passions, images and ideas. Whatever happens to the biographical self is raw material for art. The poetic self, on the other hand, is the shaper. The experience of biographical self is pre-linguistic, and the poet is responsible for translating it into language. Into the right language, at every point seeking le mot juste, the music, the phrasing, that will reveal the meaning of the experience. Without the poetic self there is no meaning. There is only raw experience.
I encourage my poetry students to kill the censor, the internal censor in themselves, and to write what they are afraid to write. This is to use the energy of the forbidden. My poem “The Class” deals with this. For me, poetry that is not somehow deeply rooted in a biographical self, with flesh-and-blood experience, is boring. I am bored by anything that is purely cerebral, taking no risks. I affirm the fact that when you plumb the depths of the self, of what seems utterly private, you become most universal. The interior being of the poet speaks to the interior being of the audience. There is a thirst for this kind of intimacy in poetry. There is a deep need for it. Precisely because it is repressed. As Adrienne Rich says, what is unspoken becomes unspeakable. So we need to speak it. In my poem “The Eighth and Thirteenth,” I quote Shostakovich in his autobiography Testimony: “Art destroys silence,” he says. I believe this. But the student must learn to be an artist before it will work.
MC: “The personal is the political” was a feminist slogan of the eighties. I think it still holds true even now that women have moved somewhere else. The poems from The Mother/Child Papers that you include in The Little Space I believe are representative in this sense. Every woman should read them. They tell stories that rarely enter poetry. What I liked about them was your linking the gynaecologist-pregnant mother power relations to the Vietnam war and to the power relations in that and in any war. How do you see the relation of poetry to society and politics?
AO: We began in the seventies saying “the personal is the political,” and this truth is still true, as you say. I think as this lesson sinks in, we are more and more able to write strong political poetry that is not just protest poetry and not just propaganda. We see that power relationships on the small scale—the microcosm—operate in the same way as power relationships on a national and international level. Muriel Rukeyser understood this very early in her life, and it is a basic principle of all her poetry. A distillation of this principle is her wonderful late poem “Despisals,” in which she warns against despising the body and its sexuality just as she warns against creating ghettos of despised underclass human beings. “Never to despise / the clitoris in her least speech.” What a brave thing to say in a poem.
Today, increasing numbers of women poets are turning to national and global issues, to the tragedies of history. Rich is of course important here. Carolyn Forché’s The Angel of History is a brilliant, fragmented exploration of post-war Europe and Japan. Sharon Dubiago’s South America Mi Hija is an epic poem exploring the significance of gender in her own post-sixties life and in contemporary and ancient South America, where she travels with her fifteen year old daughter in quest of Incas myth in Peru, meanwhile offering a revisionist version of everything. The book uses three languages, English, Spanish, and Quechua, the indigenous language of Peru.
There exists today a whole sub-genre within women’s poetry which I call the postmodern assemblage. These are booklength poems which use experimental modernist techniques, but instead of attempting impersonality, they write poetry of witness. The poet is present, struggling with historical and political reality, trying—perhaps failing—to cope with it. And so she becomes a figure for all of us. The Mother/Child Papers is for me a book that deliberately weaves back and forth between the most intimate moments of family life and maternity, and the larger world of history and politics. To show how we cannot divide one from the other. An obstetrician who invades my body against my will is doing the same thing as the United States invading Cambodia: using the power of technology against the powerless Other.
Can poetry make any difference in the world and to the world? Can we change history? I don’t see poetry as therapeutic—I see it as diagnostic—but we must have diagnosis before we can have healing, and I do believe poets can set an example of loving the world “in spite of everything,” as Anne Frank says, and yearning to mitigate its suffering.
MC: In your most recent poems I see a greater awareness of history and of the Holocaust. Do you think it is important to assert one’s ethnic and religious identity?
AO: You know, I don’t like to make rules for other people. But I have found that as I grow older I become increasingly involved with issues of politics and religion, and the ways they entangle each other. “Are not religion and politics the same thing?” William Blake asked. I agree with him that both need to be redeemed. At the close of my poem “A Meditation in Seven Days,” which is a meditation on the meaning of femaleness within Jewish tradition, I imagine myself as the woman who has been locked out of patriarchy, by a drunken and violent God who is afraid of my return, and I dream that my hand is on the latch of his door: “I am the woman, and about to enter.” I have also written about the Holocaust, but this is not the central thing for me. I am fascinated by the phenomenon of those non-Jews who rescued Jews in the Holocaust, as in my “Poem Beginning with a Line by Fitzgerald/Hemingway,” which is about Wallenberg, Schindler, and the French priest André Trocmé.
Every aspect of identity is interesting, but to assert one’s ethnic identity? This is not interesting. Assertion is for editorials. To explore, to discover, that is what a poem does.
MC: A number of poems of your Little Space are devoted to paintings, are either readings of paintings or re-interpretations of them. How important are paintings in your poetry?
AO: When I was a young girl I wanted to become a visual artist, and took many art classes. This gives me a closeness to visual art and a love for it. I have done poems on van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Matisse, for example, and more recently on Goya, O’Keeffe, and Anselm Kiefer. One of my major projects currently involves composing a sequence of poems on painters including Giotto, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Rembrandt, and Bonnard. I want to work with non-western art also. Right now I am struggling with a poem about a small terracotta sculpture of Ishtar from the second or third millennium before Christ, and I want to write about Indian and Chinese art. When it comes to art, I have no ideological agenda. I just want to explore my own pleasure. For me it is erotic.
MC: There are elements in your poetry that remind me of William Carlos Williams and his poetry in the American grain. How would you define your specific contribution to American poetry?
AO: When I was in school I identified with English poets and English poetry. It was a wonderful revelation to me when I realized that I was really an American. I see myself as belonging to the open, democratic impulse of poets in the tradition of Whitman, Williams and Ginsberg. What American poetry has to offer the world is freedom and inclusiveness. The energy it releases. The kind of playfulness and mad exuberance. But of course none of these men were interested in the creativity of women. So in a sense what I have to contribute is an extension of their principles, including as legitimate material for poetry anything I happen to experience and know as a woman. Although I am not the first American woman to write about pregnancy and childbirth, for example, I am among the first. And I think I bring a quality of joy and hope, that Whitman and so on have at the heart of their work, together with my own analytic bent as a woman poet. Also, the fact that I write as a Jew who is a feminist. There are not many of us.
MC: Many of your poems tell stories. Some of them are even built as narrative sequences with a beginning and an ending. And yet, they never read like prose. Even when they use prose, it is poetic prose. As a matter of fact, you show a perfect command of forms. Can you tell me how form is built in your poetry?
AO: Form is of tremendous importance to me, because I began as a formalist. My first work as a critic was a book on the prosody of William Blake. I can write iambic pentameter in my sleep if I want to. This is important training especially for a poet who breaks away into open, improvisational form. So much of the significance of poetry lies in its music, and I know how to use cadence and rhythm, rhyme and offrhyme, assonance, line and linebreak, in ways that will not appear artificial but will enhance the musical richness of the poem. And the whole shape or structure of the poem is important as well. That it stay aloft, like a coasting bird, and land like a bird at its close. At the same time, I need to entertain the possibility of surprise in the poem. The unpredictable. This is really why I use open forms. It is like jazz improvisation. A solo on the trumpet. You know where you’ve just been but you are not quite sure where you are going next—you must invent.
For me this is a very American impulse. It is like saying we expect the future not to be wholly determined by the past. We can change the direction. We can play around. We can surprise ourselves. Robert Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” Many of the best women poets go from being traditionally formal to working in open forms—Rich, Plath and Sexton are all examples. And in each case, it had to do with reaching out toward what was never said before in poetry. At the close of H.D.’s poem “The Walls Do Not Fall,” she writes something that is profoundly American:
MC: I would like to ask you a few questions about your re-visionist work, not only in poetry but especially with the Bible, a text that is central not only in Jewish culture but also within a Protestant heritage, and the Western culture. In one of your essays you maintain that the canonized Biblical texts, and the tradition built on them, encourage and even invite transgressive as well as orthodox readings and that rewritings of Biblical narrative by women poets, far from destroying sacred Scripture, are designed to revitalize it and make it sacred indeed to that half of the human population which has been degraded by it. Why do you feel the need to go back to a text that has been first written and then used to oppress women?
we know no rule
we are voyagers, discoverers
of the not-known,
we have no map;
possibly we will reach haven,
AO: Yes, this is a question many people ask. And it does seem strange for a feminist to be attached to the Bible. However, writing the Nakedness of the Fathers, a book that combines Biblical commentary, fantasy, poetry and autobiography—re-writing the Bible—was not really my choice. Something beyond me commanded me to do it. You cannot quarrel with an obsession. If I want to be rational about it, I would argue that we need to approach the old texts, as Adrienne Rich says, from a new critical direction, in order to break their hold over us. But it is more complicated than that. Where do we find our values? What do we actually believe in? For me, the Bible is a source of everything I struggle against in my life. But here is the complication. The Bible contradicts itself tremendously. It is also the source of everything I believe in. Justice and mercy. Caring for the poor and the oppressed. Criticizing authority. Ideals of liberation. The story of Moses and the Exodus was the inspiration for Martin Luther King. The oldest dream of peace on earth comes from Isaiah’s vision, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” Both the Jewish bible and the New Testament are full of visions of reversing social conditions. I need to explore what I both hate and love in these ancient texts. And besides, when I see a prohibition, I like to break it. For two thousand years, women have been forbidden to comment on the Bible. That is good enough reason to do it.
MC: You see in the episode of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son Isaac, in an act of obedience to his God, and in God’s final sparing of this sacrificial lamb, not only an episode telling of the end of the practice of child-sacrifice, but of the establishment of father-right over the prior institution of mother-right. Can you expand on this?
AO: This story, which we call the Akedah, or “binding” of Isaac (Genesis 22), is one of the most disturbing episodes in the Bible, and one of the most commented-on, in Jewish tradition. It is a core myth, like the story of Oedipus, and it has many, many interpretations. Of course you know Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which itself offers multiple readings of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. As you might imagine, women tend to be appalled at this story. Why does God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son? And why does Abraham agree to this cruelty? It is especially devastating because just a few chapters earlier (Genesis 18) Abraham challenges God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, worrying that some virtuous inhabitants may be killed, saying “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justly?” One woman’s midrash is that God was indeed “testing” Abraham, but Abraham failed the test by agreeing. He should have refused. It is noteworthy that God never again speaks to Abraham after Genesis 22.
The feminist scholar Carol Delany sees the Akedah as encoding the historical shift from mother-right, or matrilinearity, in which the children follow the mother’s line, to father-right, in which children are the possession of the fathers. The text supports this, because Abraham’s wife, Sarah, makes it quite clear that Isaac is her son, when she has Ishmael, the son of the bondservant Hagar, banished. Sarah is a very commanding woman in this episode. But in Genesis 22 she disappears, she is silent, and in Genesis 23 she dies. We are actually watching the creation of patriarchy, forming itself by taking away power from woman.
In Feminist Revision and the Bible, I propose that this is a recurring pattern. Story after story in the Bible has women who are powerful at the start of a narrative, and dead or disempowered by the close of it. I believe there is an obsessive need to re-tell, in coded form, the historical tale of the suppression of goddess worship and women’s power. I also believe, however, that the goddess is never definitively destroyed and that women’s power, too, remains latent. It is like the folktale of Red Riding Hood, where the wolf swallows the grandmother, but the grandmother does not die. She remains in the wolf’s belly and is liberated at the end of the story. At the close of The Nakedness of the Fathers, I propose that God is not dead, and not dying. He is in pain, yes, but that is because he is pregnant—with the goddess whom he swallowed and denied in prehistory. As feminists, our task is to be midwives of that partially buried female power. We are responsible for the return of the repressed.
MC: Last January I visited the Tate Gallery in London and saw Jacob Epstein’s sculpture Jacob and the Angel and was really impressed. I bought a postcard of it which I kept in my diary. A few days later I saw a reproduction of Delacroix’s The Struggle of Jacob and the Angel, with the following comment by Baudelaire: “What is this mysterious know-not-what that Delacroix. . . has translated better than anybody else? It is the invisible, it is the impalpable, it is the dream, it is the nerves, it is the soul!” All this started a train of thoughts. One of them was: “would a woman ever be inspired by Jacob’s fight?” and then you came to Rome, read from your poems and told us about your own re-vision of the Bible and use of Jacob’s story to illustrate your enterprise. Can you tell me more about Jacob as a symbol and about your work?
AO: I read the Bible for the first time only when I was in college. I skipped the dull parts and read the tales and the poems. One of my first heroes was Jacob. He wrestles with an unknown antagonist, sometimes interpreted as an angel, sometimes as God. As dawn approaches and his assailant says “Let me go,” Jacob responds, “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” He literally wrestles a blessing from the divinity, as he is re-named Israel and told he will be the father of multitudes. When I was about twenty I made an etching of Jacob wrestling the angel, with the title “I will not let thee go except thou bless me.” It is such a spiritual, moving line. My own attitude toward the Bible, and in fact toward tradition in general, is summed up here. Maybe it is indifferent or hostile to me as a woman, but I am determined to wrestle a blessing from it. Emily Dickinson, too, identifies with Jacob in one of her poems, where she calls him “the bewildered Gymnast” who “found he had worsted God!”
MC: During your lecture you spoke about the Women’s Spirituality Movement in America. Can you tell me about the different positions within this movement and your own role in it?
AO: Many women who are engaged with the Women’s Spirituality Movement in America reject Judaism and Christianity. They feel both these traditions are hopelessly patriarchal and oppressive, and they find their divinities in the ancient world (Isis, Aphrodite, etc.) or in other traditions such as Hinduismn (The Goddess Kali), African religion (Yemanja, Oshun, etc.), or Native American religion (Spider Woman). Many see themselves as pagan or as wicca (the contemporary version of witches). An excellent book about women’s spirituality is In the Lap of the Goddess by the scholar Cynthia Eller.
But some Christian and Jewish women are working to change our religious traditions from the inside. Ordination of women is a first step, and although Catholic women cannot be priests and Orthodox Jewish women cannot be rabbis, there are now women ministers and rabbis in all the other branches of both religions. Jewish and Christian women are inventing new prayers, new songs, new liturgies, that incorporate female imagery and women’s values.
MC: Can you tell me more about the new liturgies you are trying to initiate and their aims?
AO: An example is the feminist Haggadah. Jews celebrate Passover every year by retelling the story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt, using a text called the “haggadah,” which simply means “the telling.” There is no canonical haggadah—different communities use different ones though they are all modelled on the same basic pattern. A feminist Passover celebration typically stresses the role of the women in the exodus story, and imagines the day when true freedom will come for us and for all people. There are dozens of different feminist haggadahs in use today all across America. Women are also writing new ceremonies for life cycle events like giving birth, naming a girl baby, the onset of menses, the onset of menopause, and for times of grief like divorce or miscarriage. Many women celebrate rosh chodesh, the new moon, which used to be a women’s holiday in biblical times. Some congregations include female language for the divine, and pray to the Shekhinah, who in kabbalah is the feminine aspect of God. I have written a ceremony of mourning for a sacrificed daughter—the story of Jephthah’s Daughter—in the Book of Judges. In all these ceremonies the aim is to give dignity and sanctity to women’s lives and women’s experiences, and there has been a tremendous outpouring of creativity connected with this aim.
MC: You devoted a sequence of poems to Lilith where Eve is also a character. How do you see these two figures?
AO: In my sequence, “The Lilith Poems,” Lilith is a black woman speaking to Eve, who is a white woman. At first, Lilith is hostile to Eve, but as the poems continue, they become allies. This is in part my homage to the courage of black women poets, from whom I have learned so much. There is a wonderful new anthology called Which Lilith? You can easily see why Lilith is becoming a kind of folk heroine for women. Demonized by tradition, we celebrate her as the first rebel, the first wild woman.
MC: You are a famous literary critic. Can you tell me if and how your readings and interpretations interact with your own poetry?
AO: My poetry and my criticism feed each other. Both as a poet and as a critic I am dedicated to the art of poetry as one in which we may change and expand human consciousness.
MC: You are a university professor. How do you see your teaching? How do you relate to your women students?
AO: I have developed several courses with specifically feminist content. I teach a course in English and American women’s poetry, which goes from the sixteenth century to the present, and a course called “Theories of Female Reativity.” A course for Ph.D. students called “The Bible and Feminist Imagination” is my favorite. We read big portions of the Jewish bible and the New Testament, plus feminist theology and commentary, plus poetry and fiction by women using biblical stories, in other words women’s midrash. For their term project the students can write a conventional academic paper, or they can write midrash. Both men and women take my courses, I am happy to say, and I have had some extraordinary feminist male students. Most college age women in America reject the label “feminist,” but they can be very turned on by the power of women’s writing. Sexton, Plath, and Sharon Olds are tremendously popular poets among young women today. And of course I also teach creative writing.
MC: What advice would you give to a young woman aspiring to become a poet?
AO: I tell her to beware self-censorship, and to remember that today is a wonderful moment for women writers because, for the first time in human history, we are free to break the silence.
Marina Camboni teaches American Literature and Culture, and directs the PhD program in Comparative Literatures as well as the Masters program in Italian as a Second / Foreign Language at the University of Macerata, Italy. Her fields of research include: experimental poetry, Anglo-American and trans-Atlantic Modernism, cultural semiotics, translation, and feminist theory. She translated H.D.'s "Trilogy" (1993), selections of Adrienne Rich's poetry and prose (1985), and of Anne Sexton's poems (1990). She has also written extensively on modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Gertrude Stein,William Carlos Williams, and Bryher, and published books on Walt Whitman and H.D. Her edited volumes include Networking Women: Subjects, Places, Links Europe-America 1898-1939 (2004), U.S.A: Identities, Cultures and Politics in National, Transnational and Global perspectives (2009), and Translating America: The Circulation of Narratives, Commodities, and ideas Across the Atlantic (2011).