SEPTEMBER 12, 2019
A FORMIDABLE FORCE in the world of poetry, feminist scholarship, and political activism, Alicia Ostriker (b. 1937) has inspired generations of poets and scholars working at the intersection of activism, the academy, and the arts. One of my favorite Ostriker poems is “Everywoman Her Own Theology,” which first appeared in her 1986 collection The Imaginary Lover and has since lent its title to a work of critical essays and poetic reflections responding to Ostriker’s life’s work. A poetic takedown of the patriarchy, “Everywoman Her Own Theology” reimagines theology from a woman’s perspective: “I am nailing them up to the cathedral door / Like Martin Luther. Actually, no / I don’t want to resemble that Schmutzkopf / […] So I am thumbtacking these ninety-five / Theses to the bulletin board in my kitchen.”
If Ostriker speaks with the authority of a prophet, Erika Meitner writes in the vernacular, drawing heavily from personal experience. Her most recent collection reflects on some of the most pressing issues of our day, including gun violence, racism, and antisemitism in the United States. In a particularly memorable poem, “Hat Trick,” Meitner, who lives in Blacksburg, Virginia, writes of purchasing Girl Scout cookies in “my pajamas from the neighbor-girl / Isabelle, who rang the doorbell holding / bright boxes of Peanut Butter Patties / and Thin Mints,” a transaction that brings to mind “my mother’s constant refrain / that Girl Scouts uniform reminded / her of Hitler Youth.”
I had the pleasure of collaborating with Ostriker on a panel on women’s visionary poetry at the 2019 Association for Writers and Writing Programs, which took place in Portland, Oregon, in late March. Between sessions and readings, I sat down with Ostriker and Meitner in a hotel lobby in downtown Portland to talk about the intersections of poetry, feminism, motherhood, and Jewish identity.
SHOSHANA OLIDORT: Jewish identity, culture, and history are central themes for both of you, and you have both received the National Jewish Book Awards for poetry (Alicia, twice!). Can you each tell me a little bit about how Jewishness informs your work?
ALICIA OSTRIKER: I began as a poet in the 1960s, and became a feminist poet in the 1970s. In the mid-1980s, I discovered I was a feminist Jewish poet. I can tell you the specific moment. Stealing the Language was in press, and its last chapter happened to be on women’s revisionist mythmaking. It was 1985, and I was alone in my house, a rainy night, thinking for no reason about the Book of Job and how interesting it is that there are two endings. There’s the ending of the poem, where Job repents in dust and ashes, and then you go back to the prose frame where he gets his wealth back and his health back and 10 new kids. Something in me went, “Wait a minute, this is supposed to be a happy ending. What did Mrs. Job feel about having 10 nice new children to replace the ones God let Satan kill off, on a bet about his ego?” At that moment, I went into a spell of automatic writing. I did not know what my hand was doing. I don’t know how long it took, but when I came out of that trance I saw that I was writing about Job’s wife and that I had my work cut out for me. That’s when I realized I was going to be writing as a feminist Jew for the foreseeable future.
ERIKA MEITNER: I was born in 1975, and my family background, for someone of my generation, was fairly unusual. My mother was born in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart in 1947 after my grandparents had survived Auschwitz and four other camps, collectively. My father was born in British Mandate Palestine in 1947, after his family fled Czechoslovakia, and my grandfather’s whole family was slaughtered in Auschwitz. My father came to America when he was 13, my mother came in 1952. I grew up in a really ethnic part of Queens. Everyone’s parents were immigrants, but you were divided by whether you had to translate for your parents or not. Multiculturalism wasn’t cool. I grew up in a Yiddish- and German-speaking household that was very adamant about kids not learning a second language. No one ever talked about the war. I learned about the Holocaust through novels and literature — the diary of Anne Frank, the biography of Simon Wiesenthal, Paul Celan, and Primo Levi. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when archivists started coming around to interview my grandmother, that I found about my family story.
My impetus to write came partially from wanting to fill the gap in those silences, those stories. In my most recent book, I document what it’s like to be a Jewish parent of a white son and a black son in the Bible Belt in the Appalachian South, but I think so much of that impetus for me to tell stories comes from the fact that my own family history was this huge blank. There are still massive gaps in what I know.
So many of the poets I encountered early on happened to be Jewish. The first time I ever saw a living poet read it was Allen Ginsberg. I was in high school then and didn’t know there were living poets. I thought they were all dead. I started out with poems by Jewish men — Philip Levine, C. K. Williams — but eventually found all this work by Jewish women, like Adrienne Rich, that I felt gave me permission to write certain things. One of the things I love collectively about the work of Jewish poets, and this is very broad, obviously, is the way that we draw from traditional texts, from midrash, from tanakh, prayer language and structure, and from culturally Jewish and religious rituals, even the most secular among us —
ALICIA OSTRIKER: Which would be me, because I grew up as a third-generation atheist-socialist Jew. My religious training consisted of being told that religion was the opiate of the masses.
ERIKA MEITNER: But I think of your work as so conversant with the religious texts.
ALICIA OSTRIKER: That’s because when I was in college, my boyfriend (subsequently my husband) gave me a copy of the Bible, saying, “I think you should read this.” His family was twice-a-year Jews, so when I married him I became a twice-a-year Jew. We did high holidays, and we did Passover. But when I read the Bible, I bonded with it. I love John Donne, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, but the Bible was another sphere entirely.
ERIKA MEITNER: I thought I would be a rabbi but instead I decided to pursue a PhD in Jewish studies. I studied Jewish material culture and ritual with Vanessa Ochs, doing religious anthropology under her for seven years. I never finished my degree, but I did a ton of research, and you can see it in my work, in the way I treat spaces and objects. One of the things I think about so much, is that Judaism is a religion of practice, not belief, at first —
ALICIA OSTRIKER: For Jews, God is an option.
ERIKA MEITNER: That’s right. It’s interesting because I married a non-Jew, who considers himself a common-law Jew. He considers himself an atheist or possibly agnostic, and what he loves about Judaism is that you can practice without necessarily having the belief piece resolved.
ALICIA OSTRIKER: And you have the ethics.
ERIKA MEITNER: Right, and the social justice, which as someone raised Reform was super important, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.
ALICIA OSTRIKER: I just learned that both St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Ávila, the two greatest Christian poets, came from converso families.
ERIKA MEITNER: I love that you’re claiming them back! I put a ton of New Testament in my work. Part of that is living in the Bible Belt and part of it is that my husband’s extended family is very, very Catholic. But I also see so many similarities in certain moments of the New Testament.
ALICIA OSTRIKER: Well, the whole New Testament is a midrash on the Old Testament.
How have gender issues shaped the way each of you write and think about poetry?
ALICIA OSTRIKER: When I was a freshman at Brandeis, an instructor told us that we should not like Edna St. Vincent Millay. He didn’t say it in so many words, but the message was that we shouldn’t like her because she slept around. No women got into the modernist boys’ club except Marianne Moore, who was respected because she was respectable. Sexually respectable. This sounds oversimplified, but it isn’t. All the other women poets had sex lives — kinky sex lives.
My first awakening to gender issues was in graduate school. I was getting a PhD in literature at Wisconsin. A poet came through — I won’t tell you who he was. All of us who were student poets were invited to give him a portfolio of our work and have an individual conference with him. I’m around 20 years old at the time, and I’m writing these little poems that I think are very brave and bold. So, I go in thinking maybe he’ll say, “You’re the most interesting young writer I’ve read in 20 years, and I’m going to make sure you get published.” I had a big Cinderella complex. Instead, he looks at my stuff, and stops at one poem in which the speaker is in bed with someone. They’re not doing anything, but a staff of light is coming through the blinds. He pauses at that and he says, “You women poets are very graphic, aren’t you?” I had never used the phrase “women poets.” It was 1962. He gave this little shiver of disdain, almost hidden but not hidden.
I had a split-screen experience, with two opposite responses at the exact same time. One was, “Oh, he doesn’t like me, he’s rejecting me. I want to run home and put my head under the pillow and not come out.” The other response was, “Oh, yes, that’s right, we women poets, we are graphic.” Meaning, yes, women poets write about the body and if you don’t like it, too bad. That was a really defining moment for me.
ERIKA MEITNER: I had a very similar experience with a male poet who was hired to come to UVA my first year there. He was supposed to read our work and have half-hour conferences with us. When it was time for my conference, I came in and sat down and he said, “Well, I’ve looked at these, and there’s not really anything here to talk about, so how do you want to use our time together?” I had just come off of teaching public middle school in Brooklyn in an underserved neighborhood, so this guy wasn’t going to make me cry. I was pretty tough at that point. I went to Rita Dove, who was one of my teachers at the time — thank God for women poets — and her response was full of grace. She just looked at me and said, “Is his project your project?”
You’ve each written poems while raising children, and motherhood is something you both explore in your respective works. Can you talk a bit about how you negotiate motherhood and poetry, and motherhood inside of poetry?
ALICIA OSTRIKER: I wrote my first poems on pregnancy and childbirth in 1964–’65, based on my first two pregnancies. I was living in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and I found myself thinking, why don’t I have any models, where are the poems about pregnancy and childbirth? I realized finally that it was taboo, and that you’re not aware that your taboos are taboos until they’re broken.
ERIKA MEITNER: I think it’s so interesting that despite all the different ways that parenthood is winding its way into poetry now, there’s still this taboo around talking about women’s bodies. I read a perimenopause poem last night at a café, about blood and rageiness and sex drive and aging women’s bodies. It still makes people uncomfortable.
Reading both your poems, what emerges is a sense of the poet as not quite belonging to any particular world, or perhaps as having a foot in two (or multiple) worlds. I’d love to hear what this outsiderly quality means for each of you — how does it shape your work, and the way you think of yourself as a poet?
ALICIA OSTRIKER: I write about this in very first sentence of The Nakedness of the Fathers: “I am and am not a Jew.” I am a Jew by blood, but according to Orthodox Judaism, I have no status. I think that being half in and half out is a great driver, a great source of energy. Poets are outsiders by definition. I was an outsider as a kid because I grew up in public housing where everyone else was Irish Catholic or Italian. I think we were one of two Jewish families there.
ERIKA MEITNER: I had the opposite experience, growing up in a very Jewish neighborhood in Queens and Long Island. Anyone who is a working artist will have that feeling of being an outsider. If you’re a writer, you’re both experiencing things and taking notes. I think about this a lot. Poets feel like outsiders to the civilian world. But I think that’s very artist-like, that’s very poet-like. We’re not joiners.
ALICIA OSTRIKER: I beat myself up a lot for being a not-joiner, I just can’t seem to do it. It’s like Kafka said, “How could I have anything in common with the Jews, I have hardly anything in common with myself.”
Speaking of Kafka, and of Jews, antisemitism, as we know, is on the rise in this country. How does that surface, if at all, in your work?
ERIKA MEITNER: I was raised by survivors to believe that the whole world was out to get us because that was their lived experience. But both my sister and I have chosen not to move through the world that way. We’re both in helping professions, and there are other ways that we choose to open to the world. I think if you’re a poet you have to be open to the world to some extent. At the same time, that hypervigilance I was taught as a kid has really come in handy for me, raising one white son and one black son, encountering situations where racism is palpable. One thing my background taught me very viscerally is that we can’t really keep our children safe from anything. I got into real clashes with people in my local JCC, which is also our synagogue, about having armed guards at the door because I felt like the best I could do was provide a nontraumatic experience for my children around Judaism. We ended up compromising, but I’m very torn about it. Antisemitism and white supremacy are tied together for my family in really palpable ways, and right now our country is in a really toxic place when it comes to both those things. How that manifests in my poems, I can’t tell you yet. It’s been really hard for me to write about it in poetry. I have a much easier time in prose right now.
Does poetry offer us a way to respond to or resist what’s going on in our world?
ALICIA OSTRIKER: Poetry gives you permission to put into language what your reality is without sounding like an op-ed. I don’t think I ever get very far from politics; sometimes what I write is overtly political, sometimes it isn’t, but it’s always there. Just like being a Jew is always there. The difference between writing prose and writing poetry for me is that when I’m writing prose I know what I think before I start to write and when I’m writing poetry I’m just crawling into the dark. If something doesn’t surprise me I know it’s not a good poem. Poetry is very often problem solving for me, like there’s something I don’t understand and the only way I have of untangling it is by writing.
ERIKA MEITNER: I feel the same way. For me, the personal and political are so intertwined it’s hard to separate them. When I write about my life it’s inevitably political. My next book is about female bodies and desire in midlife, and it’s much less connected to headline news but I don’t think it’s less political. Aging female bodies are not something we talk about, so that feels political. I’m often addressing something I can’t yet articulate, and I’m never sure what the poem is going to lead to. Poetry can be a way to untangle something, but sometimes it leads to more questions.
Shoshana Olidort is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on poetry as a mode of performing identity through a consideration of five 20th-century Jewish women poets.