David Wright:

"Those weird conversations with strangers"
An Interview with Julia Kasdorf

An Anecdote about Julia


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 Goshen College 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, Kasdorf writes:

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, books even.

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 material world.

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 conversation?

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 almost.

Jeff Gundy 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), Martin Espada, because I fell in love with the 9/11 poem "Alabanza" 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 time.

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 your poems?

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 that way?

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?


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