As part of the 2020 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 “Pickup” aloud. Alicia Ostriker wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with additional responses from students.
Alicia Ostriker also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear Poetry reading students,
As a poet, I always write in the hope that my poems will connect with the lives and experiences of others. In a deep sense, we are all connected to each other, and to the world we live in, and poetry can help us feel the connection within ourselves.
Especially in times like these, where there is chaos all around us, and everyone seems competitive and divided, poetry can be reassuring, reminding us that we are not alone.
I also think that all people have some poetry inside them, waiting to be written. So I hope anyone who loves to read will also love to write. Writing is discovery of what you didn't know you knew. Good luck with it!
Alicia Ostriker reads "Pickup" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Chancellor Ostriker,
I am writing to you because I love your writing style. Your intense imagery and specific details draw me in to your writing, especially in your poem “Pickup.” I can vividly picture the players moving “like neurons charging” (line 3) and can almost feel the “hard, pebbled, orange / and black” (8-9) basketball in my hands. The simplicity of the “hot asphalt and exhaust” (5) emphasizes the tactile nature of the game and the enjambed lines of the poem seem to run like the players themselves, building the energy and excitement of the game. In fact, only the twelfth and last line are not enjambed, and the twelfth line is further distinguished from the rest of the poem by its unique use of the “he” pronoun and contraction in the phrase “it’s all part of it” (12). I wonder, what is the significance of these aberrations? Is the contraction intended to highlight the variation between the twelfth line and the analogous opening phrase of “It is all about speed” (1)?
Throughout “Pickup,” the tone remains casual and conversational, with references to “you” and “man,” almost as if the player is starting a dialogue with the reader. Was this your intent when writing the poem, or is the speaker simply talking to an unnamed person? Either way, the “we” and “our” pronouns throughout the poem emphasize the strength of the relationship between the players, and overall, the voice of the pickup player communicates love and passion for the game. Sprinkled throughout the poem, dance metaphors-- from mentions of choreography to allusions to Nijinsky, a Polish ballet dancer-- reveal the beauty and grace of a pickup basketball game. To the players, the game is much more than a pastime; it is a form of art. The similes comparing the players to barn swallows and schools of fish reinforce the unity and natural finesse with which they form configurations on the court.
In my English class this year, we’ve focused a lot on Billy Collins’ question “How does this poem travel through itself in search of its own ending?” Personally, I love the idea that there is somewhere a poem is going, because it implies that the poem is destined to arrive somewhere. Sometimes it feels as though a lot in life drifts by without a sense of completion, but “Pickup” weaves its way through descriptions of the court, dancers, and nature to arrive at the conclusion of the player’s purpose: to convey a sense of understanding. Through simile, the speaker relates how “You could say // we slosh like waves in a bathtub,” (21-22), but reveals that regardless of its messy and chaotic appearance to outsiders, the game is more than about what “feels good” (23). The capitalization of the “you” reinforces the importance of the person whom the speaker is talking and the cruciality of their understanding. For the players, “there are no pauses in this game” (24) and the intensity of their game is matched only by the intensity of diction, loose sentences, and comma splices in the poem. The ending really resonated with me because I understand what it’s like to love something that some people seem to misunderstand. I play the violin and trombone, and I also like to write, and while I enjoy these activities in and of themselves, I often feel as though people do not comprehend the intensity or necessity of these pursuits. Like the players, “there are no pauses” when I’m practicing or sitting down to write a story. I write and make music because I need to express myself and be understood, not just because it “feels good.”
After having read many of your poems, I am most interested by your experimentation with various voices and points of view. In some poems, the differences are obvious, such as the second person point of view in your poem “Insomnia,” but many of your poems remain in a first person narrative where the understanding of the speaker unfolds through the course of the poem, as it does in “Pickup.” One of my favorite parts of writing is getting to explore and develop different characters, and I was wondering how much of yourself you put into the voices of the different speakers of your poems. Does the inspiration come mostly from within, from the people around you, or are they entirely fictional?
Lastly, I have one final question about “Pickup.” What is the significance of their ancestors being farmers? I understand that there is a connection between the barns and the barn swallows, but is it to emphasize the players and their ancestors’ mutual appreciation for formations or to illustrate that the players have the freedom to create the beauty that their relatives could previously only appreciate from a distance?
Thank you again for your time and for sharing your poems with the world.
Thank you so much for your letter, which is so lucidly written (you are a writer!), and so full of fine perceptions and even finer questions. Very few people, even when they enjoy a poem, are able to notice the artistic strategies the poet is using, so it is deeply gratifying to the poet when someone does notice--the way you notice the physical imagery, the enjambment, the conversational style, the dance metaphors and the similes of barn swallows and fish in "Pickup,", all helping convey qualities of the game. You are such a perceptive reader!
And your questions are so sharp, I had to look at the poem again myself, to try to answer them. You ask about the single use of "he" rather than the "we" of the rest of the poem. I wanted the voice to be a collective one, casual, a "street" voice rather than something more formal, because that's what pickup games are, spontaneous, and the players don't even necessarily know one another before they start playing, so when anybody new comes into the game, everybody looks them over--hence the "he." Having the voice of the poem address the reader as "man," and "You could say," I think is a way to bring the reader in closer, and at the same time to create a sense of audience for the players while they are playing. Somebody standing outside the chainlink fence of the playground, watching--as I have often watched.
Another question you have is about the "farmers...barn swallows." You have part of the answer yourself, that this mention of ancestors is a way of saying these players have opportunities their ancestors did not have. At the same time, it's a way of saying urban kids can have country roots that are still somehow a part of them, they are sort of showing off. And it is a way of saying that what they are doing--the intensity, the grace that you notice--is also something natural. So the poem, as you have seen, is about this intense game being at once highly artistic and natural. I imagine this has resonance for you as a musician and a writer--and I also imagine that it troubles you when others don't understand how important your musicianship and your writing are to you.
Being an artist can be lonely, but please stick with what you love, and you will find others who are like you as you go along. Meanwhile, if in your writing you enjoy creating different characters, well, observing others and trying to understand them, even if they don't understand you, will help you do that. I believe my poetry is almost always an effort to understand something I can't understand except by writing. The "something" may be the world, other people, or my own feelings.
I'd like to end this letter where I began, by saying that you as a writer made a strong impression on me. You are intelligent and gifted. I showed your letter to my husband, and he agreed.
Take good care of yourself in these difficult times of ours, and stay safe and sane.
Dear Mrs. Ostriker,
Upon my first listening of your poem, I immediately was captivated by the scene you paint. I could see myself in my local downtown court, not only smelling exhaust of the cars going by, but also feeling the energy and exhaust radiating from each of my fellow players. While I was listening for the first time, I thought the poem was about perspective, about how, to someone who might not understand basketball, the “sound and pound, the lope we adopt,” might just seem as random as fish darting around to a human, or Nijitsky’s ballets to someone who isn’t familiar with ballet and its beauty. Once I finished your poem, though, I realized I had not even begun to unlock the meaning behind this beautiful scene. “the way we play it, there are no pauses in this game.” Wow. Suddenly, I realized this wasn’t about a basketball court at all. This was life and the way that life rhythmically ebbs and flows like waves in a bathtub. Suddenly, the “sound and pound,” was a way of representing the way that life goes. Ups and downs, turning, leaping and swiveling, but life doesn’t take a break. Somehow, you can step on and off of that basketball court, but your destiny will never wait for you to catch up.
The nobility of a basketball game also struck me. You started by describing the elements that make a good game. Somehow in this intellectual description of the game, you used neurons to continue the painting of a picture. The game has choreography, it is noble, but then suddenly you bring the reader back to earth with a harsh depiction of the scene where this noble game is taking place. Chainlink fence. You spelled it without a space, whereas normally it is spelled chain link. This to me is a part of the flow of the poem, bringing the reader back to the reality of this game. It does not look like a game of neurons, or proper grammar, or a place where Nijitsky’s work would be at home. There is exhaust on the court, the ball is pebbled and hard, but somehow, “when we swivel it is a whiplash, when we pass it is a cannonball.” In my head, the game continually switches from a grimy affair to an intellectual activity similar to chess without the pompousness. Then again you mention Nijinsky, but then I am suddenly hit with an image of shoulders and butts being slapped. What is this? A sterile beautiful affair, with passes like whiplashes and leaps like Nijinsky, or is it a grimy, dirty game, with hard balls and concrete and chainlink fence? Could it be both?
Thank you for your letter. I'm so pleased that you enjoyed my poem "Pickup," and felt it successfully represented what you might experience in a basketball game. I was delighted that you used the term "nobility." But even better--you were able to see that the depiction of the game is also a depiction of the changing rhythms of life--"no pauses"--and that the scene can be seen as esthetically beautiful and grimy and dirty at the same time. You made me smile when you said the game in one sense resembled "chess without the pompousness." These are lovely insights.
It's often said that the ability to hold two contrasting or contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time is a mark of intelligence. This ability is encouraged by poetry, since poetry is often ambiguous, as life is. We are so commonly pushed into seeing the world dualistically, we fail to see things as both black and white, as they truly are. Walt Whitman says, "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." The same might be said of all of us.
Good luck with your own contradictions, and with your future writing.
Dear Mrs. Ostriker,
I am Pranavi a Middle Schooler in Portland, Oregon.
I don’t usually connect with a poem so deeply but your poem especially caught my eye. Your poem makes me think of the basketball I play. Since I am a girl, people honestly do not expect me to play basketball. Every single aspect of this poem reminds me of outdoor basketball on almost a spiritual level and I can’t get enough. Even though your poem is mainly about boys, I a girl, however, can relate on most instances which makes me feel especially grateful. Thank you.
I personally have never actually seen poems talk about basketball so insightfully so this is new to me. One line that really spoke to me is “it was all about speed and flexibility, about speed and flexibility and teamwork and accuracy” which really does explain the work and effort put into basketball. Contrary to popular belief, basketball is not so simple and this line especially shows how important “speed and flexibility” with the repetition. I also especially like that it is in first person shown with the word “we” because that really explains how the whole team is hustling, not just one person.
After reading this I started wondering about your inspiration for this poem. Are you into basketball like me? And if you are what would your advice be for me to be balanced? How can I find a balance between my interests and gender stereotypes? Sometimes when people first talk to me, they think I am a troublemaker because I am not as ‘girly’ as other girls. Especially since I am not really interested in what girls are interested in like pop singers or girly clothes. I prefer hip hop/rap over ‘girl singers’ which makes people consider me as ‘edgy’. Even though it does not bother me that much, I just don’t want people to get the wrong idea and think of me as something that I am not.
I also worry about something else. My basketball playing has decreased a lot because I have become busier lately. I was wondering if there was something I could to motivate myself to play more basketball.
Thank you for writing to me in response to my poem "Pickup." I'm so pleased that the poem reflects your own experience playing basketball, including the sense of a "we...not just one person." You mention also that you don't fit "girly" stereotypes in a number of ways besides loving basketball. You say you don't mind that much that others may think of you as "edgy" or a "troublemaker," but the truth is that middle school can be a tough time for anybody who does not exactly fit some standard role. It was tough for me, as a nerd. But please keep being the person you are, and the person you want to be, and you will find as you grow older that there are more people like you, and more people who accept and admire you for yourself. Have courage. And also have patience.
My own love of watching street basketball isn't that I play the game, but that when I was a kid I loved to watch my dad play. I still love to watch basketball played in "informal" settings, where it seems so alive. As to finding a balance among all your interests, good luck doing that. It will be important all your life for you to do things you love and are skilled at. And the wider your interests, the more you will grow as a person.
Best wishes, and I hope that you are staying safe in Portland, in these difficult times.
Dear Alicia Ostriker,
Because of my love for sports and soccer in particular, your poem, “Pickup”, stands out to me in the most mesmerizing way. While I’m not an all-star basketball player, the imagery that you present in this poem captivates me and makes me feel like I am indeed playing on a “hot asphalt” basketball court. I can feel the rough basketball in my hands, the heat absorbing into my shoes from the asphalt, and the pounding of the basketball with each bounce. To grasp and go into this particular detail of imagery in your poem, did you simply observe a basketball game, or do you have a more personal love for the game and remember how each moment felt on the basketball court? When I write a poem, it’s not enough to draw on my own memory of experience; I need to physically surround myself with my subject matter. Even though I have played soccer since I was a little girl, if I were to write a poem about my love for the sport, I would have to physically drive to my school and sit on the soccer field in order to correctly describe the feelings I would experience while playing. Do you have a similar process when writing, or are you able to recall these moments from memory?
I love the energy and rhythm conveyed in this poem. I especially enjoy the essence of team spirit you create with the line, “when the ball goes in we slap each others’ shoulders and butts”. To me, this is very relatable because in soccer we always give our teammates support through “love taps” on the shoulders or our backsides. Throughout our games, we play with such a team mindset, recognizing one another for outstanding plays, just like the players in your poem. For a piece entitled, “Pickup”, your poem, with its references to choreography and schools of fish, speaks not to an individual playing a game of pick up ball but to a team. Was this intentional or accidental on your part? Regardless of your answer, it is the energy surrounding a team and the fast-paced nature of the game depicted in your poem that I love so much.
Like many student athletes, my soccer season was cut short this year because of COVID-19, and your poem enables me to relive those moments on the field and reminds me about the value of teamwork, which is what I will miss most about my season. Thank you for taking the time to read this and stay safe out there, whether on the basketball court or on the soccer field.
Thank you for your letter responding to my poem "Pickup." I'm delighted that you felt the poem reflected your own experience with basketball, and you asked some good questions. I wrote this poem because I just love watching street basketball , and have loved it ever since when I was a kid I used to watch my dad playing in the playground near where we lived. You are right that my intention was to intuit the collective voice of a team, not just just an individual, and to capture the team's sense of energy and speed.
I was very interested in your description of your own writing. I do sometimes jot a phrase or a line down at a moment when I am observing something, but usually I let my observations and feelings sit and percolate before trying to write. Commonly, a poem happens because there is something ticking around in my mind, but I can't understand what it is until I write about it. It's fascinating that you need to locate yourself in a space in order to write about it. You remind me that the poet Maxine Kumin used to say to her writing workshops--that the poet should always ground the poem in "location, location, location."
Good luck with your ongoing writing life, and I hope you can get back to soccer this spring. Soccer is a great game too.
Dear Ms. Ostriker,
I listened to you read "Pickup" and my mind flew to many places in slow motion. I could feel my heart beginning to beat faster in every move to get the ball in the hoop. I imagined my teammates moving like a flock of birds or fish darting so quickly to defend me. What specific moment was in your mind when you read this poem? Was it the same moment you imagined in the many times you read the poem before? Thank you for taking me on this journey!
Des Plaines, IL
Thank you for writing to me about my poem "Pickup." I'm delighted that it sparked your imagination of what it would be like for you yourself to be playing. Thank you also for asking about the source of the poem. In truth, the poem arose not from a single moment but from many occasions of watching people play street basketball, which I have loved to do ever since I was a kid watching my dad play. When I wrote the poem, and when I read it to an audience, I try to recapture the many aspects of that pleasure, and imagine the collective experience of a team, not just a single person.
Dear Ms. Ostriker,
To say it most simply, I love your poem “Pickup”; the imagery, the metaphors, the pacing - all of it wrenches my attention into the page and fills me to the brim with awe and understanding. But, what initially brought my attention to this poem was your perfectly imperfect personality. When I watched you read your poem and you messed up on one of your words (something we have all certainly done), I was struck by how you laughed, shrugged it off, made a joke, and let our human tendency to mess things up shine through. Out of all the poets in Dear Poet Project, you stood out to me, not only because your joyous personality made me smile, but because it reminded me that we are all human, and even those like you, who can boast a multitude of accomplishments, make mistakes. Your imperfect, joyful nature compelled me to empathize with you on a deeper level that only humans, with our flaws and all, can reach.
For “Pickup” itself, I find myself drawn to the lines where the language register shifts such as the lines, “We move/ like neurons charging in your head, man,/ choreography from the ground up,” and “or a school of fish, you know the way fish dart/in unison,”. You fluctuate from scientific, sophisticated words like “neurons”, “choreography”, and “unison” to casual terms that we use in everyday speech such as “man” and “you know.” These casual words and phrases pull me out of the technical, rigid structure of your description of basketball and provide me with a sense of emotion and depth in the piece. I was taught in theatre that words like “oh” or “man” that doesn’t have specific meanings are used as placeholders for emotions that we can’t process in words. This is how I interpreted your use of register shift: it provides deeper insight into the emotion of a basketball player that cannot be represented with scientific words, tactics, or descriptions. The sensation of dunking the ball, hearing that you are going to start, huddling with a mass of sweating bodies - those feelings cannot be replicated with the scientific language that is needed to express some parts of the game. The casual language adds a layer of empathy to my understanding of the poem. Furthermore, the casual phrases “you know” and “you could say” engage me even more into the poem, almost like you are there, talking to me; it draws me in and provides me with a more personal, one-on-one connection with the poem. This is similar to the video of you reading the poem: that human moment of messing up on a word gave me insight into your personality - who you are and how you react when you aren’t rehearsed - and formed a more personal connection with you and your poem just like the register change does. I certainly don’t know you or your poem, but I enjoy having a more personal connection with “Pickup” through your use of the register shift.
I used to play basketball (I have since stopped to pursue volleyball), and your passion, dedication, and awe of the game of basketball seem akin to that of a dedicated player. So, I have to ask, did you ever play basketball, and if so, were you as amazed by it as “Pickup” makes it seem? Also, I know that each poem is different for everyone, and we all experience it in our own ways, but, I would like to know, for you, does this poem have a deeper meaning beyond basketball? Does “the game” and “the players” represent something else, or is this poem just a dedication to the synchronization, choreography, and brilliance of basketball? Thank you for your beautiful writing and personality.