By Alicia Ostriker
Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus” has been part of my mental furniture since childhood.
All my grandparents arrived in this country from Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. For them as for so many others, America was not only the land of opportunity, it was a “nation of immigrants.” This is what I was taught in my family. But I never thought that much about the poem until recently. As rightwing opposition to immigration has grown, and has even taken aim at the poem–some saying it should be removed from the statue–I have wondered how I might fight back.
Here is part of an answer. As New York State Poet Laureate (2018-2021), I realize that Emma Lazarus is one of the most important poets the state has ever produced, and that she needs to be justly honored. With my
colleague Mihaela Moscaliuc, who emigrated from Romania in 1996, and is both a poet and a translator, as well as a teacher of poetry, we decided to gather as many translations of “The New Colossus” as we could, and to find an online host for them. We spent much of 2019 and 2020 on this project, and found a wonderful home for the dozens of translations by poets whose mother tongues are from all over the world, that we collected. You can read them, along with statements by the poets saying what immigration has meant to them, at this site created by the American Jewish Historical Society:
Poet, critic, and activist Alicia Suskin Ostriker, twice a finalist for the National Book Award, has published numerous volumes of poetry, including Waiting for the Light (2017), which awarded the Berru Award from the Jewish Book Council, and The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog (2014), The Book of Seventy (2009), which received the Jewish National Book Award. Ostriker has received awards and fellowships from the NEA, the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, the Poetry Society of America, and the San Francisco State Poetry Center, among others. In 2015 she was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She has taught in the low-residency Poetry MFA program of Drew University and New England College. She lives in Princeton, NJ, is professor emerita of English at Rutgers University.