Alicia Ostriker interview with John Hoppenthaler
Recently, a number of critics, David Wojahn among them, have argued for more politically-engaged poetry, which of course suggests a more politically-engaged poet. In an interview with Anna Journey in Gulf Coast, Wojahn says, “I just think that the ways in which the social and political are evoked [in the current period style] are facile and theoretical rather than urgent.” You have always been a poet who is politically-engaged, whose poetry speaks to issues outside the egoic self and speaks for those who would otherwise remain largely voiceless. Do you, like Wojahn, see a lack of urgency and social engagement in the work of our younger poets? Could you, as well, speak to the difficulties of making political engagement the stuff one’s poetry?
Blake says “To generalize is to be an idiot.” With all due respect to David Wojahn, whose own poetry I admire tremendously, I don’t feel qualified to make any general statements about “our younger poets.” We all write about whatever obsesses us, which in my case has included politics, religion, art, family life, sex . . . I don’t think writing good political poetry is any harder than writing good love poetry. If what is meant by “the period style” is coolness and irony, I guess I have to confess that coolness and irony bore me. I prefer ardor. I also like comedy—which is one of the zillion reasons I worship Allen Ginsberg. Allen was able to write political poetry that connected all the dots—personal life and what Shelley called “the one life within us, and abroad,” history and the current moment, the fact of war and the dream of peace. And he was able to leaven the power of his poetry with the yeast of comedy. Not that he always did this. But “Howl” is a greater poem than “Wichita Vortex Sutra” partly because “Howl” is threaded full of funny lines, and “Wichita Vortex Sutra” isn’t. Another clue to writing good political poetry is to get inside of whatever you think the evil might be, to deal with your own complicity, not to just finger-point. It’s a reason I admire Tony Hoagland. Look at a poem like “America,” which you can find online, and I think the reason some folks dislike Hoagland is that he holds a mirror up to them, and they don’t want to see what they see there. To take another example, look at Patricia Smith’s amazing post-Katrina book, Blood Dazzler. The book gives us a cross-section of New Orleans people, butKatrina in that book is a real entity—a goddess-like being who glories in her own destructiveness—and don’t I think Smith tapped something in herself to write in that persona, just as Shakespeare tapped the Iago in himself?
You’ve taught in the low-residency MFA program at New England College, and now in the low-residency MFA program at Drew University. You, of course, also taught creative writing at Rutgers University and elsewhere for many years. Many believe that there exists a glut of low-residency programs, and that many of these programs have devolved into a less-rigorous sort of mentorship that, at worst, preys on the naïve aspirations of young (or not-so-young) would-be writers. At the same time, many also feel that there are as well far too many more traditional MFA programs, many founded in just the past ten to twenty years. Tenure-track creative writing jobs are nearly impossible to come by, and many MFA graduates are underemployed or slaving away as fixed-term faculty, carrying nearly impossible course loads that allow little or no time to write. What are your thoughts about all of this? I mean, what is your opinion of the state of the poetry education nation?
The complaint that there are too many creative writing programs is decades old. Now it is accompanied by the complaint that there are too many MFA programs, whether “traditional” (a funny word to use in this context) or low-residency. Are there similar complaints about athletics in America? Is varsity football or basketball criticized because few of the players will ever get to play professionally? Are music lessons, or conservatories, criticized because very few kids taking piano lessons or young people studying violin, will end up playing in orchestras?
There are two problems here. One is that not everybody who studies writing will become a writer. But we don’t know beforehand which ones they will be. So why not make the possibility available to as many aspirants as possible? One certain result is that just as music lessons make better audiences for music, and athletics in school makes sport fans, the experience of creative writing creates readers. The second problem is that most of the people who get advanced degrees in creative writing won’t become tenured teachers of it. Here again, we just can’t know which ones will and which ones won’t. But is getting this kind of job the only reason to study poetry or fiction? How about the desire to write? To write better? To spend some time among others who care about writing, and make friends with them, and not feel you are the only crazy one? To become part of a community of writers? Thanks to the Web, genuine communities of poets have sprouted everywhere. Yes, they read each other. Is that so bad? Maybe some of them teach in community colleges, maybe they do journalism or technical writing, maybe they go to law school, maybe they have other kinds of jobs. Is it bad that people who love and write poetry may be secretly scattered in all kinds of places that don’t expect them?
As you know, I’ve assembled this issue of A Poetry Congeries in support of WILLA, an organization founded by Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu, and as a compliment to the guest feature of up-and-coming young woman poets they have co-edited for this month’s issue of Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. I was struck by what you wrote in response to” Your Silence Will Not Protect You”: A Conversation Between WILLA Co-Founders and Co-Directors Erin Belieu and Cate Marvin, in the blog SheWrites: “You women rock. You are fantastic writers, woman writers, woman-as-mother writers, woman-as-activist writers: intelligent, eloquent, with long memories and high hopes--you are MY dream come true, and I'm ordering your books today. May blessings fall on your heads.” (http://www.shewrites.com/profiles/blog/show?id=3506464%3ABlogPost%3A57953&commentId=3506464%3AComment%3A60605&xg_source=activity) Please, if you will, speak to the events that led up to the creation of WILLA and your support of its goals, and please elaborate a bit on how this organization may help make your “dreams come true.”
So far as I can tell, WILLA came into existence at about the same time as SheWrites, as an opportunity for women writers to seize the opportunity to network, to support each other, and to get women onto the cultural map. The variety of female experience (to adapt William James’ phrase) is still terra incognita when it comes to High Literature. Prizes still go to men writing about war, not women writing about motherhood. And even if it’s not High Literature we’re talking about, just Market Share, women haven’t been selling themselves with the same gusto as men; we’re still, as a group, diffident, subject to qualms, shames, modesty, and the Cinderella complex. WILLA exists, I take it, to change that. Let’s have a little more immodesty here. Let’s be fearless about using our bodies, our brains, and our emotions in our writing. If we are teachers, let’s get our students to read a wide range of women writers. Let’s read and review other women. Let’s write manifestos. Let’s blog. Let’s write whatever we are afraid to write.
What thrills me about Cate and Erin—what makes them a dream come true for me—is their utter wholeness, their refusal to deny any part of themselves, including their urge to be generous. They are both serious and funny, they are self-examining and sharply observant of the world around them, they are ambitious for themselves and for others. They remind me of a saying attributed to the famous Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when?” There is a revolution of rising expectations for women going on around us, that could not have happened earlier in our history. It took a critical mass of women writers for this to happen, and Erin and Cate are exemplary of this revolution. They have benefited from it, and they are its benefactors.
One poem in The Book of Seventy, your most recent collection of poetry, is “Prayer in Autumn,” a supplication that ends, “please look at us and take us in your arms / not like a master, like a mother.” You must be aware of the esteem with which so many writers and/or Feminists, men included, hold you and your work, both your poetry and your prose; you are, in fact, a mother figure for many poets. In effect, you are both master (as teacher, mentor, critic, senior poet) and mother. How does it feel to be in a this place in which you find yourself?
Oh well. It’s true that, as a critic once said of Maxine Kumin, I have an excess of maternal genes. I need to feel useful. I remember when I first came across the title poem of Marge Piercy’s To Be of Use, and how I resonated with her need. Here’s the close of that poem:
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
The work of mothering, of mentoring, of trying to help others to grow into whatever their gifts intend, is real work. It’s hard. But when I see those beanstalks growing, and those buds opening, I feel tremendous satisfaction. And when I travel and some young person I’ve never met before comes up and says, “you changed my life,” I want to weep with gratitude.
Still, you have to know that for someone like me, an old lefty who still yearns to Change the World, it’s never enough. Why can’t I be more like H.D, or Muriel Rukeyser, or Judy Grahn, or Adrienne Rich? Why can’t I be more like William Blake or Allen Ginsberg? That’s why it is so gratifying to see women like Erin and Cate taking the ball and running with it. More power to them.
Back to the Garden
I swear there was never a time
when I did not love my body
like an intimate friend
as you intended me to do, sucking the milk
slowly, blissfully like a snake
that takes an hour to swallow a frog,
as through the bedroom window you showed me
the wind biting the moon
for pleasure, wrapped up
In sheets and blankets of cloud
you let me slosh in the still water
of the bathtub
until I know how to
touch myself, touch anyone
with awe as if that person too were holy
I have smelled the pink worms underground
I have scarred my skin scaling the granite cliffs
you provide as a test
and I have seen you
smile to yourself
when you look at me
The Chestnut Casts His Flambeaux
(after A.E. Housman)
Like an arm throwing a Frisbee
or a spear
because it can
because it must
and don’t you think
the bloomless tree feels the same
sorrow and joy you feel making love
or listening to music
in the deepening afternoon
A student invited me to be her midwife
It seemed an easy birth, the girl healthy and strong
I reached in, drew out the head
But the head was smooth and cleft
Strange I thought but it will be ok
Only as I pulled and it emerged
It actually was a penis
Smooth and veined
pushing through the girl’s stretched labia
Strange the dream arrived
So late so far along
In my life