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Two Questions for Alicia Ostriker

Blog Editor Claire Harlan Orsi interviews Ostriker on 3 AM inspiration, poetic personifications and more!

Alicia Ostriker’s fifteenth collection of poetry is The Book of Life: Selected Jewish Poems 1979–2011. Her most recent prose collection is For the Love of God: The Bible as an Open Book. She teaches in the Drew University Low-Residency MFA Program in poetry and poetry translation. Six of her poems appear in the current issue of Prairie Schooner.

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Each of these six poems moves from the perspective of an old woman to a tulip to a dog. From where did these embodiments originate?

The old woman, tulip and dog showed up on my screen in the middle of the night a few years ago. It was one of those nights when I wake up at 1 or 2 or 3 am and go sit in front of my computer screen to see what happens. The poem that arrived was this one:

The Blessing of the Old Woman, The Tulip and the Dog

To be blessed
said the old woman
is to live and work
so hard
god's love
washes right through you
like milk through a cow

To be blessed said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
implied by
your up-ended
skirt

To be blessed
said the dog
is to have a pinch
of God
inside you
and all the other dogs
can smell it

It wrote itself, except that for a while I substituted having "so many grandchildren" in the old woman stanza. It's a poem everyone seems to enjoy, but I thought it was a fluke. It wasn't like anything else I was writing. A year later, though, more of these poems began arriving, and there are over thirty of them at this point. Almost all have been published, and they seem to amuse people. I feel a bit like that other old woman the one who lived in a shoe. I have so many of these poems, I don't know what to do. The three characters can be interpreted in a variety of ways, but clearly they are all aspects of myself. What I enjoy is that I never know what they will say.

What project(s) are you working on now?

Currently I've been writing prose. An essay on aging for an anthology entitled Women of a Certain Age, an essay on Jerry Stern and an essay on being a feminist Jewish poet. But the main thing I'm doing is spending time in New York, where my husband and I have just gotten an apartment. We're going back and forth every week between the suburban delights of Princeton, where we've lived since 1965, and the urban energy of New York, where we both grew up and expect to end our days. But not for a while!