In a review of Julia Kasdorf's Eve's
Striptease, Library Journal comments:
"Kasdorf is using the concrete to get at deeper things:
there's an amazement at life in these poems, and a hard-headed
determination to make it work." In so many ways, Kasdorf's
poems and her two books of prose have been full of her amazement
and determination to take the world seriously in language.
Given her Mennonite upbringing, Kasdorf's love for and
attention to the world might be surprising to some, perhaps
even to herself. Yet she's made this amazement and her development
as a writer a central concern of her work. Kasdorf was born
in the Big Valley area of Central Pennsylvania and grew
up in a suburb of Pittsburgh before going off to study at
and at New York University.
When her poems initally appeared in periodicals like the
The New Yorker (and later won the coveted Agnes Lynch
Starrett prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press),
reviewers commented mostly on her poetic renderings of her
Mennonite roots, expressing surprise that such deft, incisive
lyrical poems could come from such a homely tradition. Those
within the Mennonite tradition also expressed surprise (and
supressed, sometimes, their pride) that one of their own
might be lauded in such an unusually public venue.
Kasdorf herself explores these varying responses to her
poetry in a collection of essays The
Body and the Book : Writing from a Mennonite Life,
commenting at one point: "I dreaded my book's reception
in the Mennonite community, although it turned out to be
warmer than I ever imagined. Given my context, perhaps I
needed to imagine punishment in order to cast myself in
the position of author." In the twelve years since Sleeping
Preacher appeared, Kasdorf has found a variety
of ways to inhabit the position of author. In "Black
Dress," a poem from Eve's Striptease, Kasdorf
suggests one of the maps she's used to find her way--the
work and life of other writers. About the poet Maxine Kumin,
I need to know how Kumin finally survived
her own beauty, and how she keeps writing alone-
how she finally stands here in defiance
of anyone who'd concoct a cautionary tale
of her life.
This conversation took place in March 2004 (though it began
back in September 2001) and explores the paths Kasdorf has
followed (and is still following) in her determined "definance
/ of anyone who'd concoct a cautionary tale / of her life."
David Wright: When did writing appear on your radar?
When did it become a habit? Have you stopped writing for
long periods of time?
Julia Kasdorf: I was a scribbling kid--wrote little
verses to present to my 3rd grade class mates at birthday
parties, then around 4th grade started keeping a relentless,
daily journal or dairy that persisted throughout college,
and now lingers but not with the daily discipline I needed
as a child.
I suppose I'm always writing something: letters, e-mails,
notes to self, notes for talks or teaching. For six years,
I worked 40 hours-per-week writing grant proposals and brochure
copy. But as far as poetry goes, I think I never write it.
I always think I'm not writing poems. I do all this writing
activity that is mostly transactional and functional, but
always feel that I'm not writing poetry, or enough poetry.
When people ask how my work is going, I say it's not. I guess
it's some kind of defense or just this constant state of feeling
inadequate to the task. But I do end up publishing poems sometimes,
DW: Material and characters from your childhood--the
past--appears throughout the poems in Sleeping Preacher
and Eve's Striptease. Talk about how you deal with
this powerful familial/intimate material, which is, for
some writers, dangerous in terms of potential sentimentality.
JK: The usual 20th century way, I guess, irony.
And maybe also play--which I think comes in more through
the later work. And maybe attention to small things, the
DW: That makes me think of several poems from Eve's
Striptease, pieces like "Secrets of Marriage" or "Thinking
of Certain Mennonite Women" where you use voice and character
as well to sharpen the poems. How do you help students to
find ways of entering and honoring such important material
without giving in to easy sentiments?
JK: I guess its possible to tell students to avoid
certain topics that are bound to become sentimental--death
of a grandmother, for instance--but following Lynn Emmanual's
wonderful essay about revision, I don't tell them to avoid
the topic, instead to be really honest. To be really specific
and write into the complexity of everything they know about
the subject, not just the one sappy thing they might choose
out of laziness. I tell them nothing is a bad topic for
a strong writer.
DW: Having been in workshops and having taught them,
how has the value of such workshops developed or changed
for you over time?
JK: I think we've gotten smarter about creative
writing pedagogy. It's no longer possible for a teacher
to just show up, gather a stack of poems, have the writer
read then remain silent, listen to the students discuss,
then pronounce the final word in a few tidy, articulate
statements at the end.
I am pleased that research in rhetoric and composition
has influenced workshop practice--if only because many of
us taught composition and studied composition pedagogy as
graduate students. We're in the midst of a paradigm shift
from the apprentice/mentor model to a more democratic, enabling
model, and we can no longer feel or speak in absolute ways
about our own taste. That seems good and important to me.
(Which is not to say, of course, that many writers don't
still speak of students as possessions or extensions of
their own narcissism, and of "talent" as some kind of mystical
quality, but at least we now have language and space to
question these practices.)
DW: In your essay, "Writing Like a Mennonite," you
say, "A written text cannot be made to change in response
to others; it does not fail to speak out of fear, nor can
it alter in response to the loving attention of a reader."
So you like the strong utterance of writing yet worry about
its inflexibility in response to loving attention. Could
The Body and The Book, however, be seen as an effort
at speaking to the attentive audience? More of an ongoing
JK: Well, that quote comes straight out of Plato,
you know, when Socrates was so worried about the technology
of writing. In The
Phaedrus when I read it after Sleeping Preacher
was published. And yes, The Body and the Book is
a collection of obsessional pieces that were really trying
to negotiate between my books and my life, which includes
readers in many communities and texts from many times and
places. And the conversation continues, of course, but I'm
aware of my power as author in a way I wasn't early on.
DW: How have other writers played a role in this
adjustment to a kind of "authority?" I'm thinking especially
of Mennonite writers.
JK: The main figure here is Rudy
Wiebe, both as a personal friend and mentor and
as a public figure. His first novel Peace Shall Destroy
Many (1962), in some respects, did what my Sleeping
Preacher did. In the words of Tri-T. Mihn-Ha, both were
texts of "authority and arrogance" in that they exposed
our traditional communities of origin to the outside world,
and they were controversial at least in the communities
depicted in them. Rudy, so much farther along in his career
has been a wonderful encourager and support, like a father
is more like a brother. I've told him that he is the "prodigal
at home." Although when I was in New York being touted as
the "Mennonite poet" because I'd written about a traditional
community, he was actually living in a Mennonite community--has
taught at such institutions all his professional life--and
writing poems that had no explicit ethnic marks. (This was
before his prose books surfaced--around the time he wrote
the parody poem "How to Write the New Mennonite Poem.")
And it seemed he was like the faithful older brother who
resented the prodigal out there spending the family's inheritance.
But I think by now, he's squarely in the position of "Mennonite
poet" for whatever that's worth--and still his poems do
not contain those markers.
DW: In several of the pieces you've published recently,
I've noticed that you are making poems out of the material
of parenting and teaching-poems like "English
213: Introduction to Poetry Writing" or "The
Baby Screaming in the Back Seat"--making your art
of what might be mundane, daily material. What draws you
to this material?
JK: Oh dear, I sense the word "domestic" coming
on, and then worry that "women" and "ethnic" can't be far
behind. What can I tell you?
DW: Ha! Don't be worried. I mean, I see why you
might be, but I write "domestic" poems too. I think we all
have to make art, in part, out of what we have by paying
better attention to it. What poets modeled this kind of
attention paying for you?
JK: My teacher Sharon
Olds (there's one possible model, along with her
teacher, Muriel Rukeyser) back in the late 1980s answered my worry that I
was writing the same poem over and over again, "Well, if
a bird only has one song to sing, she sings it." I make
my poems out of the things of my life, and now being a mother--which
is such totalizing and exhausting and joyful and mind-numbing
work--this is just the material I have. I've always worked
from immediate material--even when it appeared I was working
from the past, memory can be as immediate as this moment.
DW: So what current poets are you reading? Who did
you read last month?
JK: Last month--Kate
Daniels (because I needed the amazing mothering
poems in the final section of her Four Testimonies),
Espada, because I fell in love with the 9/11 poem
and wanted to read the book. G.
C. Waldrep because I ordered his new, first book,
and I've known him a bit personally. Then for a graduate
poetry workshop I'm teaching, Joanna Goodman's Trace
of One, Henry Israeli's New
Messiahs, Barbara Campbell's Erotic
Distance. And for that class I plan to read
Sandra Kohler's The
Ceremonies of Longing.
DW: What poet will you likely never read again?
JK: Never again? Are you kidding? I can't say something
like that. I'm always curious--can't see a poem on a page
anywhere and NOT read it--I can't be that principled, I guess.
I can't commit to a refusal like that.
DW: Most recently you've published two books of prose.
How have The
Body and the Book and Fixing
Tradition been different experiences from the
two poetry collections?
JK: Well, the essays are different. They can be contained
the way a poem feels contained to me, but full-length book
projects cannot. With poetry collections, I'm a poet who just
writes one poem after another and then 5 years later I sit
down with the stack and discover what the book is about--its
deep themes, I mean, which are the themes of my life at that
The biography was first a dissertation, then rewritten
as a conventional biography over about 7 years. I always
felt like I was floating in a vast sea when I was working
on that--like a poem is something I could hold in my hand
(or my head) and carry around and continue to work on--but
the biography (the life and all the history I had to learn)
was a sea that I entered and that swallowed me.
DW: How has spending that much time in prose affected
JK: My poems were still there, but the book was
bigger than poems. What has really stalled my poetry is
becoming a mother, returning to work, and so forth. It's
only lately that I'm finding words, just as my kid is finding
words, or sentences, I now realize.
DW: You've commented and written about the amibvalences
you felt about first gaining a wider audience, both within
your own Mennonite tradition and beyond it. Near the end
of The Body and the Book you write: "I still occasionally
feel uncertain about the ways that writing exposes my thoughts--and
often my body--to the eyes of others." Do you still feel
JK: Yes, I still feel that ambivalence. I love writing.
I love revising texts and working with others. I love making
books and I've been fortunate to have had some hand in the
design of all my books. But some time ago, I realized I
don't want to be famous. I don't want to have those weird
conversations with strangers where they know lots about
me and I know nothing about them, and I must act very gracious
about it all. I can't account for it, but there it is. So,
I guess that's a good way to end an interview, no?