As part of the 2019 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Alicia Ostriker in response to a video of her reading her poem “Move” aloud. Alicia Ostriker wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Alicia Ostriker reads "Move" for Dear Poet 2019.
Dear Alicia Ostriker,
My mind is constantly plagued with the thought that I won’t get that perfect career and life that everyone strives for. I felt a connection to “Move,” not only for its turtle imagery, but also for its prospect of hope. In kindergarten, I wanted to be a zookeeper or a paleontologist. Never kept up with those dreams because I never felt any potential in them. My neighbor had it all figured out by then. Her dreams of going to culinary school never ceased and she now excels in cooking of all sorts. That’s the reference I grew up with. I was raised thinking the right choice for me was impossible unless I had that early start. My stream didn’t take long to dry up.
So I wonder, how much did you have figured out in high school? Were you aware of your destiny? Did you see yourself as one of the salmon, effortlessly soaring up stream, or were you as confused as I am? Did you even envy those steady turtles as they dug their nests with purpose, just as I do? Your poem reassures me that I don’t really need to have my path paved for me yet, that I need to live comfortably in my current state. But I can’t help but question the reliability of your message. How can I go into the world with an open mind and be sure I’ll find what’s right for me?
It bothers me not knowing my future and having such trouble figuring it out. Those creeping career decisions loom over me constantly. I crave that breath that you wonderfully described, a breath that assembles itself to produce the perfect sound. How do I know I am in the “right spot?” So many options fill the mouths of counselors in their lectures concerning colleges and careers. I want to travel just as you say in your poem. A journey that ends only with the warm embrace of certainty.
Reading your letter responding to my poem "Move" touched me deeply, I sympathize so much with your sense that the "stream" of your very early sense of vocation (zookeeper or paleontologist?) "dried up" and that at present you haven't figured out what your destiny is, and you think you should have done so by now. Let me reassure you that I was in a similar state at your age. I was not at all like the salmon or turtle that has no doubts--I only wished I were. I had thought since I was young that I was destined to be an artist because I drew all the time--but when I saw the work of others in all the art classes i took, I knew they were more talented than I was. I ended up being a poet, but it took many years for me to be sure that was the "right spot" for me.
The multiple choices facing young people today naturally produce intense anxiety. How can one choose? My advice: try many things, and discover what you enjoy and are good at. Take a gap year before you go to college--travel, or get a job, or both, and learn more about yourself and the world. But I also want to tell you this: you are a good writer, and that in itself is a wonderful thing. I like the clarity and energy of your expression and the way you use metaphor. Whatever you end up doing in your life, being a good writer will help you out. So keep writing.
Dear Ms. Ostriker,
I like the poem “Move.” But it feels, well I can’t name it, but I feel like I have nowhere to go in my life, nothing to do. It really speaks to me. I’m glad you wrote “Move.” It’s great to write to you.
Thank you for writing to me. I'm glad that you like my poem "Move," and that it speaks to you about your own feelings of having "nowhere to go" in your life as yet, not knowing what you want to do. This is a very common feeling, which I have shared, and that is why I wrote the poem.
I hope you keep reading poetry and other things that are meaningful to you. Good luck finding things to do that you enjoy, on your own or with others.
Dear Mrs. Ostriker,
My name is Shaan, and I am a high school student in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have never been deeply interested in poetry, but your poem "Move" truly resonated with me. I have always been an indecisive person. I have difficulty choosing what career I want to enter, what colleges I would like to go to, and even sometimes which pair of shoes to buy. I overthink until I end up even more confused than where I started. Thirsty for a destiny like theirs, an absolute right choice to end all choices. This was the line that interested me so much like the poem. The turtle knows its course of action in life, as does the salmon. However, the line When we reach the place we'll know we are in the right spot, somehow, like a breath entering a singer's chest, that shapes itself for the song that is to follow gives me hope for the future. That maybe everything will just find a way to work out in the end. Another part that intrigued me was the question: Or just what is it—some kind of blueprint that makes them move? This makes me ponder much deeper existential questions that simply cannot be answered. That is why I love your poem. It contains both an element of self-reflection, as well as something that makes you wonder.
There is another significant way I can relate to this poem. When I was younger, my family lived in Gurnee, IL, which is directly between Milwaukee and Chicago. It was an extremely difficult time for us because my mom worked in Milwaukee and my dad worked in Chicago. They each had hour-long commutes and were in the car for an extremely long time daily. I was stuck in preschool and after-care for almost 12 hours a day. All of this led to a huge buildup of stress and general discontent at home. We knew we could not keep living like this, and one of my parents would have to quit their job. It was a time when we did not know if we would find a good solution. Eventually, we took a risk. My dad quit his job and we all moved up to Milwaukee. For a while, we had to live in small apartments before we found a home. But it all worked out in the end. My mom had two more boys and we live a happy life. It all found a way of "reaching the right spot."
After reading such a relatable poem, I have to ask: what inspired you to write "Move"? Did you go through similar confusion early in life? If so, how would you advise me on "reaching my right spot"?
Another thing I noticed was that the two examples of turtles and the salmon were about reproduction. They were both traveling somewhere to bring another generation to life. Is this a statement saying that the most important destination in life is having children and a family? Or were these just examples of animals having some life purpose?
Although I am not a very experienced writer, your poetry makes me want to try to write more myself. Do you have any parting advice for someone who is trying to find their groove in poetry and writing in general?
Thank you for your letter responding to my poem "Move." Right from the start, your letter made me smile, because I too have always been an indecisive person. I too "overthink" myself into confusion. Yes, I too can have trouble even deciding what pair of shoes to buy. On the other hand, your thoughtfulness has given you insight into my poem and its combination of anxiety and hope and existential wonder. I'm guessing that this same thoughtfulness gives you insight into many situations in the world.
It was interesting to me to read about your family's difficult experience and how it reached "the right spot." In my case the inspiration for the poem was not so much reaching "the right spot" as yearning to reach it. Your insight in noticing that the images of turtle and salmon in my poem were both about reproduction was a sharp one. And surely reproduction is a central goal in human -- and animal -- life. but you rightly intuit that these were basically examples of having "some life purpose."
I was glad to learn that my poetry inspired you to want to write. You are already a good writer, judging by your letter. Best advice: Read a lot, read widely, read for enjoyment and discovery--and keep a journal. In your journal, you don't need to please anyone but yourself, and you can be completely honest and open about all your observations and feelings, including the confusing ones.
Dear Ms. Ostriker:
I had the privilege to read your poem,“Move” in my Creative Expressions English class. As I am transitioning from my senior year of high school into my freshman year of college, this poem had a profound impact on me.
Personally, your poem represented how I feel about finding my place in the world. Making my college decision has been a year-long journey, and my biggest concern has been whether the college I’ve picked is where I’m meant to be. I am not a turtle or salmon with a predetermined destiny; I have to make my way in the world. You say in your poem, “When we reach the place we’ll know.” This feeling has become more and more familiar every time I think about where I’m attending college next year. It’s been hard to talk to my friends about my decision because they’ve all known for quite a while what local college route they were taking, and I am opting for a non-traditional route by choosing a university nine hours away. Reading your poem made me feel like I’m not alone and that it’s okay to make a decision and still be uncertain. Our lives are never 100% certain, and your poem reminded me of this.
Though I know how much your poem means to me, I would like to know what sparked your inspiration for this poem. Did you also have to make a big decision in your life? Also, at the end of your poem, you talk about how when we reach our spot in the world it will feel like a singer does right before they start a song. As a singer myself, I appreciated this line because that moment before singing a song is magical; when I sing, I like that I am a blink away from creating art, and I’m the only one who knows the beauty of the song right before I share it with an audience. Are you a singer as well? I seem to feel a passion for music in that stanza.
Lastly, I wanted to thank you for pursuing a career in poetry. Your writing inspires me and others like me to find my place in the world and to do what I love.
Thank you for your response to my poem "Move." You sound like a mature person who is able to think and choose for themselves, and still know, as you say, that "it's okay to make a decision and still be uncertain." Your independence is admirable, and so are your writing skills. You ask what inspired this poem. The answer is not so much the need to make some large decision as the experience of having to make many small ones while wondering what it would be like to have a destiny determined by biology. Freedom can be hard to live with. Having choices can produce confusion and anxiety. We can wish we didn't need to choose.
You also ask about the poem's final image of a singer at the moment before singing. Yes, I enjoy singing and I belong to a chorus. You have described what that moment feels like as "magical," and I agree. It is wonderful to be a vessel that brings beauty into the world. Poetry is like that too. I hope that you will find a vocation that enables you to do what you love, and I wish you luck in that quest.
Dear Dr. Ostriker,
My name is Elizabeth, and I’m a very nerdy, geeky, feminist, animal lover, and aspiring environmental activist in 12th grade. Reading has always been a big part of my life from J.K. Rowling to Roald Dahl and Malala Yousafzai, I’ve loved to read things that expose me to new ideas, worlds, or experiences. Although I haven’t read much poetry, much of what I’ve read has profoundly impacted how I think about myself and others. Thanks to my English teacher, I’ve recently started reading your poems and realized that they deeply resonate with my beliefs and experiences, as a young feminist and conflicted American citizen worried about the future of our nation and the world as a whole. The humanitarian issues you address (such as in “Ghazal: America the Beautiful”) in your work allow young readers to examine difficult topics in the comfort of their own mind and environment. Some of the most impactful poetry simply has the power to make people appreciate a single moment, a single instance, just like many of your poems achieve, such as “The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz”.
In your powerful poem “Ghazal: America the Beautiful”, the nostalgia I felt for the innocence I had in my younger years came back to me. I very clearly remember saying the pledges and having it forced and ingrained into my mind, but I didn’t know the true meaning or power of the words I said. Now, I know the darker aspects and shadows of our nation. What first made you see America’s problems? I remember the pain and guilt when I found out that America wasn’t full to the brim with happy capitalism and equality; it was instead only the gilded cage around America. Mentioning “The Golden Rule” points out the rule we were all told to follow, but as people grow up, they tend to disregard it, leading to one of the most prevalent problems in America: a lack of empathy. Your repetition of “America” as the last word in each stanza also represents the constant repeated and one-sided views of America that are forced on children who have a very narrow, naive understanding of their home.
In one of my favorite poems of yours, “The Dogs at Live Oak Beach, Santa Cruz”, the visual imagery shows the joy and “passionate speed” of the “happy dogs” as they “leap after [tennis balls]” and “plunge straight into the foaming breakers” on the bright and lively beach. Even a singular and seemingly trivial topic has the power to impact a lasting happy and thankful impact on readers. The joyous diction also gives the readers a glimmer of hope in dark and stressful times and a reminder that good still exists; it is just often unseen. I often focus on small instances to help me take my mind off bigger problems that I can’t solve myself. I love to go outdoors and learn about animals of any kind. Simply seeing one animal will bring me joy for weeks. What brings you joy in your life? I read in one of your interviews that “dog” represents “freedom” to you, and that clearly shines through in the poem. The pure euphoria that radiates off the dogs is clear and reminds me of my own dog, Coco, who’s a little ball of fluffy sunshine.
Thank you for being willing to read letters and correspond with readers like me who love and are inspired by your brilliant poetry. Thank you for having the courage to write about forgotten or pushed aside topics. Thank you for being a strong and opinionated minority woman to serve as a role model for aspiring young women like me.
A gracious reader,
Greetings from one "very nerdy, geeky, feminist" lover of reading to another. Thank you for your letter responding to my poems, and I'd like to thank your English teacher as well, if you are still in touch with her. I very much appreciate hearing that my writing has had an impact on you--both the side of you that worries about the future of America and the world and can't be satisfied with "happy capitalism", and the side of you that loves animals, especially dogs, and knows how to take joy from them, even in stressful times. I am delighted to learn that "simply seeing one animal" may bring you "joy for weeks."
My own dog was a Siberian husky named Silver Streak, who liked to run off on his own and come home when he was good and ready. But I enjoy dogs in general. I live in New York where dogs are plentiful and various, of all sizes and shapes and temperaments, and can be encountered on streets and in parks everywhere in my neighborhood. A recent book of mine is entitled The Old Woman, the Tulip and the Dog; these three characters have a sequence of conversations and are full of opinions, but the dog always has the last word.
I hope you will follow your own instincts as an "opinionated woman"--and keep writing.
Dear Mrs. Ostriker,
Hello, my name is Julieta. I am a freshman English 1 Honor student in New Jersey.
Poetry has been the main topic in our class over these past couple of months. We studied Emily Dickinson, William C. Williams, Langston Hughes, along with so many more poets. My first question to you is, “Who is your biggest inspiration when it comes to writing poetry?”
In your poem “Move” I love that you chose animals to share your message throughout your poem. In most literature, animals have meanings or a story behind them. I was wondering why you chose the turtle out of all the other animals in the world?
I interpreted the theme of this poem as “the choices we make in life are going to stick with us forever.” I like this message because I feel that in today’s world so much of OUR choices depend on those of the people around us. I am guilty of it as well. Have you ever struggled with a hard choice that was affected by somebody else?
Your poem motivates me to think for myself and to think of how the choices we make today will affect what’s to come in my life. This leaves me to wonder, “what do you want your audience to take from this piece?”
“We are in the right spot, somehow, like a breath
Entering a singer’s chest, that shapes itself
For the song that is to follow.”
This stanza is my favorite because this is something we all need to emphasize. Will the choices we make today be a positive or negative “breath” for our future? This is especially true for today’s youth. What audience was this piece directed to? Or in other words, who were you trying to reach when writing this poem?
Thank you for reading my letter! We hope that maybe one day you can come out and speak to my class. We would greatly appreciate it as you are an amazing poet and an inspiration to many of us!
Dear Alicia Ostriker,
My name is Jude from Fall River, MA. I'm currently a senior planning to go to college, and in the past year, I’ve felt this want for an absolute right choice. Something telling me that what I'm doing is the correct thing to do.
Your poem “Move” impacted me because the main idea has been something that I’ve thought about recently: “Some kind of blueprint that makes them move,” a blueprint that would tell us the right turn to take, the right place to go, the right person to pick. One of the hardest things humans have to deal with as intellectual beings is regret, not knowing which path is the wrong one and having to deal with the unknown hidden behind Door #2.
Recently, I decided that bottling up the pain of an absent father would help me just move on and better myself. On the contrary, it really hurt me. In my academic life, home life, and social life, issues arose because I was angry and lonely. I was lying to myself that I only needed myself, and that hurt me as well as those around me.
But I now know that this was the wrong door to follow. Now, I am on a mission. I know who I am, but most importantly I know who I have behind me.
So I leave you with this question, Alicia Ostriker: Did you make the poem “Move” after a big decision in your life that may have not gone your way?
Fall River, MA
Dear Alicia Ostriker,
My name is Alyne and I am a senior in Fall River, Massachusetts. The poem “Move” that you wrote was such a relatable piece to me. Not going to lie, when I first read it I was a bit confused at its meaning with the turtles and the salmon, but then it all began to be revealed to me. It’s really crazy how you managed to write something that many people my age go through in such a simple way.
As I’ve mentioned, I am a senior in high school. It’s my last year to figure out what I want to do in the future and my next step. I mean, I guess you can call me “envious.” Envious of the people who’ve got it all figured out and the people who've gained success from figuring it out. Envious of all the turtles and salmons who come to this earth already knowing their purpose. I loved how you described it, that we are “Thirsty for destiny’s like theirs,/ An absolute right choice.” I feel that we all are trying to make the right decision whether to go to college or not, if college is the right choice or if it’s the only choice that won’t lead us into failure.
All my life I’ve planned on going to college because my parents and brother never did. I saw how they struggled to find jobs because of this. I struggle from not being sure if it’s something I really want to do.
I don't know my purpose exactly, but one thing I know is that I have a great amount of options. I don’t need a “blueprint” because I have the freedom of decisions. As much as I would love to know what I'm supposed to do, I am also grateful for being able to decide if it's something I truly want to do. I have the option to go to college or not, to get married or not, and even to have kids or not. Turtles and fish don’t have that decision mainly because it’s their purpose to reproduce. At first, I felt jealous for not having everything figured out like they do, but your poem also made me grateful because it revealed to me that I also have choices among choices.
I’m curious, Ms. Ostriker, have you found your purpose? Are you envious of all the turtles and salmons of this world? Or are you proud to have the options that you have with the freedom to decide?
Thank you for your time.
Fall River, MA
Dear Chancellor Ostriker,
In my English class, we started our poetry unit and began to work on the Dear Poet Project. My greatest worry when it comes to reading poetry is not being able to grasp its many words and find the meaning behind it, no matter how long I stared at it. Now, that doesn’t mean all poems have to make perfect sense immediately. I believe a little confusion at first is what makes poetry fun to read, encouraging the reader to dive deeper into the poem and try to understand what the author is saying. When I was in elementary school, I thought poets were pretty amazing due to their ability to rhyme consistently. (In elementary, most poems that were read to us rhymed.) However, as I grew up and read more poetry, I recognized poets are not amazing solely for their rhyming skills, but for their ability to transform words, just words, into works of art that each reader comprehends in a unique way.
For this assignment, I read various poems and watched many videos of poets reading their poems. However, when I came across the video for your poem, “Move”, I was mesmerized by the poem’s words and the images that blossomed in my head as you read aloud. I visualized the awkward turtle & the silky salmon gliding through the waters, each swimming toward her destiny. At first, I struggled a little to understand the meaning behind the poem. Soon, I began to understand the significance behind the poem’s words. I think it describes the universal desire women have, being able to know exactly what it is we want to accomplish in our lives and not doubt a single choice we make. The passionate thirst for the certainty of knowing what we are meant to do in this life. Or, I could be very wrong. I can’t know for sure, but I really hope I am close to what you meant to say. I am still in high school, but I myself wonder what my purpose in this life is. Before this poem, salmon and turtles were simply animals to me, yet now I see how majestic and extraordinary they are. They know exactly where to go and how to navigate through the raging waters, without a single doubt in their minds. Something I was curious about was what was it that inspired you to write about the turtle and the salmon. What sparked the idea of writing about the “right spot”?
When I read the last stanza in your poem, I loved how you compared the right spot to a singer’s breath before they sing a song. The comparison to me is an artistic, beautiful way of describing how it would feel to be in that right place, prospering and feeling as if you and only you can reach your goals in life. Altogether, I truly enjoyed the whole experience I had reading your poem. I even wish I could wipe my memory of it, simply to experience it all over again.
I feel this assignment has made me value poets and poetry much more. I believe poets are artists that have the capacity to create vivid images in the reader’s mind and spark their imaginations. My experiences in writing poetry has been a little difficult as a result of thinking too much about the technical aspects of the poem. Not that meter, rhythm and all that stuff isn't significant, just that I dwelled on it too much. So thank you for giving me the wonderful experience of “Move”, and allowing me to understand that poetry is so much more than rhyming and rhythm.
Dear Ms. Alicia Ostriker:
I hope all is well. My name is Isabella; I am sixteen years old and attend school in Houston, Texas. I am writing to you about your poem “Move," which I read in my English class at school. After being handed your poem, which was neatly typed on a piece of white paper, I proceeded to read “Move” with confusion; however, I began to decipher the metaphors placed in front of my eyes (pattern la). I view one's connection to writing as a relationship, a relationship with the fabrication of words and, personally, I am captivated by the hidden implications and the unique eloquence each writer creates through their words. I am a person filled with love for a challenge, love for writing, as well as a love for interpreting meaningful texts. With this, when I read your poem, I accepted the challenge to bring out the underlying emotions you captured and locked within your poem. After reading your poem, I had a realization: In order to be entirely open-minded, I needed to allow myself to be vulnerable to the upbringing of emotions caused by this poem. With that mindset, I began to read your poem over and over again.
Lines nine through twelve state, “we are envious, our wishes speak out right here, thirsty for a destiny like theirs, an absolute right choice.” When I first read these lines, I immediately had a connection to them, except, I had no idea as to why. It was not a connection to the turtle I was having, nor the salmon; it was a connection with the envy for the simplicity of their lifestyle and the mapped-out purpose of their existence. With that thought in mind, I realized that it was not about the turtle or the salmon, themselves; it was the connection made between the life of these animals and, as humans, our envy for it. We envy their lifestyle, not in a way that we wish we were these animals, but that we wish we had a determined destiny and purpose in the same way they do. That is what I believe this whole poem is about: the envy of simplicity.
Another line that stood out to me was "We also are going to travel.” This line stood out to me because of the word "also.” The word "also” itself is not commonly known for being a very intriguing word, per se, but when added to this line it somehow grasped my attention. W turtles “travel,” they are traveling to their destined place in the world where they fit in and live their life of purpose. When humans travel, we are searching, unlike the turtles. We are for something that is unknown, something that we sometimes doubt exists, yet it is still there and found once we look hard enough. When we “travel,” we are going through experience to help us grow.
I connected to the phrase about traveling, “And we also [travel] —in the company of our tribe or perhaps alone.” When I read the line that speaks of people traveling, I believe it means we will all experience different things in life: whether it be good or bad, painful or joyful, severe or insignificant, we will all go through them. When we read the line about the company of our tribe, this word choice means some of us will have people to help us through our journey, or we will go through it alone, unfortunately. Though these different travels may be difficult and require us to endure, we may eventually overcome harsh circumstances which allow us to prosper in various ways.
Overall, I believe this poem is about the desire for a simple lifestyle, the desire for a declared purpose of life, and the desire for understanding the extremely large and titanic importance of each experience one will go through in their life, as well as how each experience will shape the person one becomes and that is each person's purpose, to become their truest self.
I have many questions for you about this poem. Was there a time when you knew you were “in the right place”? Is there a way to really know you are there if you are constantly growing as a person? Can this “right place” change? Was there ever a point in time where you wished you had a outlined purpose like the turtle and salmon you speak of in the poem?
Hello, my name is Jade. I like your poem the best because it is really interesting. I like interesting things. Another reason why I like your poem is that you talk about turtles. I love turtles. I like the word move. I am going to ask you some questions.
The first question I have is why did you choose Move as the name of your poem? Do you like turtles? Also, do you like salmon? Have you ever had a turtle in your life? In your poem, both the turtles and the salmon had to move a long way to get to the place to lay their eggs. I feel that it is important to work hard to get where you want to be. This is why I love your poem Move.
Bloomfield Hills, MI