David C. Wright
Interview with Julia Kasdorf

Dwelling In (and Out) of Place:
An Anecdote about Julia Kasdorf

Two places dominate Julia Kasdorf's poetry and essays: the valley of Mifflin County, Pennsylvania, where she spent significant periods of time growing up, and New York City, where she attended college and graduate school at NYU. And some readers and critics of her work have seen these two very different locations as symbolic-one being the simple, humble and sometimes stultifying rural home; the other representing sophistication, urbanity, diversity and freedom. Of course these critics are right, and of course they are also wrong.

In Julia's two exceptional books of poetry, Sleeping Preacher and Eve's Striptease, she does indeed juxtapose images, voices, and experiences from her days in New York against the landscape and recollections of the Amish and Mennonite communities of central and western Pennsylvania. And of course these juxtapositions are telling about both places, and about the poet herself.

However, I think to read Julia's poetry (or any poetry worth reading), as merely caught between two different locations is not to do honor to either the poems or the places they inhabit. I think a collection of essays, The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life, demonstrates precisely how difficult it is to locate ANY work of literature, to trace all the paths that lead one from a landscape to a page and back again.

A story about Julia might help make my point. Several years ago, I invited her to read at a school in downstate Illinois where I was teaching, and to also read at First Mennonite Church in Champaign-Urbana. To get Julia to my native place in the world, I borrowed a college van and a willing student and trekked to Carbondale, Illinois, where she had given a reading at Southern Illinois University.

The road back to Decatur was not an interstate, but rather a two-lane highway winding through the small towns of southern and central Illinois. And on that trip I observed a way of interacting with place that impressed me. As we drove, Julia observed, commented, made comparisons to her own landscapes of Pennsylvania and New York. She asked questions and listened. And more, she insisted that we stop, several times, at the most amazing roadside flea markets-sprawling junkyards, really, where we picked our way through the debris and treasures of a half a century of whatever it is that various lives might collect. Finally, she insisted (peaceably of course, she is a Mennonite after all) that we search for a hole in the wall restaurant, not a chain, where we could order a lunch that was as inexpensive as it was authentic.

So here I was with this most iconic of Mennonite writers, a poet with work in Poetry, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and we were eating deep fried something or other at a little café in McLeansboro, Illinois, after having pawed through old jars, records, and assorted metal objects in an "antique" shop just down the road.

What's telling about this for me (and I think for any literary treatment of place) is the particularity of the experience, the details. Julia demonstrated on that trip what I find in her writing: that to faithfully and lovingly engage with any landscape we have to look closely and carefully, to get lost, a bit, in the intricate particulars of a place and to allow the place to inhabit us as we inhabit it. Wendell Berry has written that the well traveled are sometimes the most provincial of folks because they touch a place briefly and think they know it. It's those who stay put who understand the impossibility of ever utterly knowing or writing about ANY locale.

Brooklyn or Pennsylvania both are more complicated than a tourist can know, and Julia's poems and essays, while grounded within and between these landscapes, demonstrate the vivid beauty and particular joy to be found in both these worlds.

Another poet, William Stafford, once wrote: "the world says have a place / be what that place requires." Sometimes our places in the world require that we leave them-as Julia left Pennsylvania to study at Goshen College in Indiana and then to live and study in New York City. Sometimes they require that we return, as she's also done now to direct the MFA program at Penn State University. Whatever our own worlds demand, we can also dwell in Julia Kasdorf's work, as she dwells in and on what her world's various places have required of her-bodily, artistically, spiritually.

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