As prize-winning poet Alicia Suskin Ostriker prepared to write her latest collection of poems, her 70th birthday was fast approaching. With that in mind, she wanted to write about growing older, so she reflected on how her writing process had evolved as she aged.
”When I was starting out, I would have an idea for a poem and try to make the words fit the idea,” she says. “At some point, that kind of controlling aspect dissolved and my process now is that the poem finds me.”
These days, she adds, “I mostly feel that, as a poet, I am an aperture or a conduit, rather someone who sits down and says, ‘This is my plan.’ It’s a process of letting go. There’s a line by D.H. Lawrence: ‘Not I, but the wind that blows through me.’ ”
The poems that emerged from Ostriker’s pre-70 “letting go” are grouped together in her latest book, “The Book of Seventy,” which she will read from in an Author Series event co-sponsored by Berkeley’s Aquarian Minyan and the JCC of the East Bay. The event on Monday, May 24 begins at 7:30 p.m. at the JCC in Berkeley.
Ostriker, 72, has had a long and storied career. Her poems (many of them with Jewish themes) have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, American Poetry Review and other publications and journals, and many of her 12 volumes of poetry have received awards. “The Book of Seventy” won the National Jewish Book Award’s top poetry prize for 2009, and twice she was a finalist for a National Book Award. Her fourth book of poems, the anti-war “The Mother/Child Papers,” is considered a feminist classic.
Ostriker, a resident of Princeton, N.J. and a professor emerita of Rutgers University, describes her latest book, published last October, as “a kind of cross-section of the various things that are on my mind as that age is coming along and arriving.”
The native of Brooklyn, N.Y. says people often tell her that they’re impressed by the wisdom contained in “The Book of Seventy.”
“I like that, because wisdom is what I’m constantly seeking in my life,” she says. “Part of what’s going on in the book is something that I think many older people will affirm: As you go along, you lose some of the self-destructive impulses that you have built around yourself through a lot of the middle years of your life. You mellow out. There’s mellowing out going on in the book, as well as facing the darkness.”
Ostriker believes that our society does little to prepare us for the aging process.
“Through most of our history, people have been familiar with death, but Americans are protected from it. Death goes on in sanitized places away from our eyes, therefore, it is frightening [when] we have to deal with death,” she says. “I think that’s something I need to learn.
“I have friends who have gone and worked in hospices, both because they feel it can be some kind of duty and because they feel that it will prepare them for their own loss of themselves. At the same time you’re experiencing losses, you’re also experiencing a piece of yourself that you haven’t really known since pre-adolescence. I have found myself able to laugh at things I haven’t been able to laugh at before.”
Although Jewish text and teachings are important to Ostriker and influence her work, this wasn’t always the case.
“That has changed as I’ve gotten older,” she says, noting that she had a secular upbringing. “I began being obsessed with Jewish tradition in the mid-’80s.”
She says she first read the Bible during her college years, and she called it a “bonding experience.”
“It spoke to me as if it were a long dream of my own that I was suddenly remembering — that all of the men and women in the Bible were my personal mothers and fathers,” she says. “It was a very personal experience [but] I didn’t do anything with it for a couple of decades.”
Eventually, she started not only writing midrash, but also teaching midrash writing workshops at home and abroad in Israel, England and Australia. She also has published three books on the Bible.
In addition to 12 books of her own poetry, Ostriker also has penned two books on women’s poetry, “Writing Like a Woman” and “Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women’s Poetry in America.”
Ultimately, Ostriker hopes that her poems have a universality that touches people’s souls.
“If I can find the true language for what happens in the depths of my life, my spirit, my experience, then it will speak to other people and to their own interior depths,” she says, using a line from a Muriel Rukeyser poem titled “Islands” to illustrate her point:
“O for God’s sake, they are connected, underneath.”
Alicia Suskin Ostriker will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 24 in the Aquarian Minyan Author Series at JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley. 10-$20 sliding scale, includes light refreshments. Information:www.aquarianminyan.org, (510) 528-6725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Book of Seventy” by Alicia Suskin Ostriker (72 pages, University of Pittsburgh Press, $14.95)