Julia Spicher Kasdorf is the author of three poetry collections—Sleeping Preacher (1992), Eve’s Striptease (1998), and Poetry in America (2011)—all from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Sleeping Preacher won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Great Lakes College’s Association Award for New Writing, and Eve’s Striptease was named one of the top twenty poetry books of 1998 by Library Journal. She has also coedited an anthology of poems about Brooklyn, Broken Land, with Michael Tyrell. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, to a Mennonite family and grew up in Westmoreland County. She attended Goshen College and completed her BA and PhD at New York University. Her essay collection, The Body and the Book: Writing a Mennonite Life, was awarded the Book of the Year award by the Conference on Christianity and Literature. She was awarded a 2009 fellowship for poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts and has received a Pushcart Prize. She is a professor of English and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University. She was interviewed by Anya Krugovoy Silver.
Image: All three of your books of poetry, in particular Sleeping Preacher, draw from your Mennonite background, including family history and summers spent on your grandparents’ farm in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. I’d like to start off by discussing the Mennonite presence in your poetry. For example, in your essay “Bringing Home the Work,” you write, “from our very first confessions of faith we’ve expected language to be a useful, solid bucket to hold truths as clear as water.” Can you relate that statement to your poetry?
Julia Spicher Kasdorf: Well, that essay was written in anticipation of my first book, more than twenty years ago. These days, I am more reluctant to trace an essential connection between my background and the kind of poetry that I have written and continue to write—the kind that employs language in a referential way. I’ve thought much more about these things since I wrote that essay.
I will say that Mennonites, at least the kind I come from, are biblical literalists in some respects. They believe that when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies, this means one should not bear arms, even in the service of the state. They take the Sermon on the Mount very seriously: “Blessed are the peacemakers…. Blessed are the poor in spirit…. Blessed are the persecuted.” They do not project the kingdom of God into the heavens, but imagine it can be created here and now, and from this arises a commitment to work for justice in various ways. This is not fundamentalism, but a kind of earnest intention that may be evident in my poetry, in terms of form and content.
That said, I will also recognize the importance of certain modern poets in my training. I wrote an undergraduate honors thesis on H.D.—another Pennsylvanian who had Moravian roots—and memorized poems by Yeats. Who uses language in a more referential way than William Carlos Williams? There is a material quality in the way the great Imagists used language.
Now I live about thirty miles from those farms in Mifflin County, just over some mountains. And on Sunday mornings, I do not worship with Mennonites, but with Episcopalians, who recite a liturgy that employs language in mysterious and metaphoric ways.
Image: I’m curious what draws you to the Episcopal Church. How do you worship as an Episcopalian and still retain an identity as a Mennonite?
JSK: I once heard Denise Levertov give a talk at a Mennonite literature conference in Goshen, Indiana, just months before her death, in which she reflected on being a poet who was not rooted in the cultural dimensions of her religious practice, who never felt “at home” socially in her chosen Christian affiliation. She said, “To the artist, it is not a matter of regret.”
I will probably always feel like a Mennonite who was drawn to the Episcopal Church, drawn by the Eucharist and liturgical practices that were very different from the communion and patterns of worship in my birthright affiliation. I am interested in returning to older Christian liturgy, such as the Book of Common Prayer, although I realize that the Anglican division dates to 1534, just after the Anabaptists divided from the Swiss reformers. Of course the Anabaptist movement was far more radical, and a trace of dissent and resistance to the dominant culture remains in that tradition (and in me). I am intrigued by what it might mean to take seriously the Episcopal claim to be “both Catholic and Protestant,” whereas Mennonites claim to be neither. Nonetheless, my values and affinities were shaped by a certain Amish-derived Mennonite sensibility that I recognize in matters of taste, particular ways of being thrifty and conservative, a sense of when to speak and when to remain silent, ethical priorities, and other ineffable cultural qualities that shape my sense of how to be a decent and useful person in the world.
Image: You mentioned the modernist poets Yeats and H.D., both of whom took on the mantle of poet as prophet. That seems to conflict fundamentally with the Mennonite virtues of Demut (humility) and Gelassenheit (submission) that you’ve written about in The Body and the Book, and that underlie the Sermon on the Mount as well. How do you reconcile those qualities with the sense of ego and belief in what you have to say that play such a large role in the poet’s vocation?
JSK: You have located one of the great tensions in my life! For all the humility and yielding to God and community that seem to be bred in the bone, the Mennonite tradition that I grew up with also sustained the memory of martyrdom, from the time of Jesus until the late fifteenth century. The meaning of the word “martyr” is “one who testifies,” you know. The earliest definitions of “martyr” had less to do with suffering and death than with standing up and bearing witness. Of course, martyrdom can be a risky business, but even within the tradition there are figures—both male and female—who give voice to individual vision and belief.
Image: One of my favorite quotes is Simone Weil’s oft-repeated claim that “absolute unmixed attention is prayer.” Your poetry pays intense attention to the natural world, both rural and urban, to the people you encounter, and to the concrete objects with which you surround yourself. Some poets consider poetry to be prayer and others emphatically do not. Do you have an opinion on the subject?
JSK: I would have said that I have never considered my poetry to be the same as prayer. I don’t know what prayer is beyond a practice of being centered, being still, being open, listening to one’s intentions and desires, whether or not language is uttered, which may be a way of listening to God. But then I hear this lovely phrase you offer from Simone Weil and I realize that the focus and listening to the world that I associate with writing—that listening and looking until something speaks—may, indeed, be similar to the practice of prayer.
Image: Turning from light to dark, in the poem “The Knowledge of Good and Evil,” from Eve’s Striptease, you recall being dragged out of a showing of Disney’s Snow White because you were so upset about Snow White’s death, not believing that she would be kissed back to life. You end the poem with the lines, “I was a heretic too insulted by the cross / to accept resurrection.” You’re really getting at the heart of theodicy in that poem: how could a loving God allow suffering? You seem to return to that theme, in a secular mode, in the title poem of your latest book, “Poetry in America,” in which the persona of Barbara enumerates the way that a capitalist and individualistic society finds “just one more way to keep poor people down.” Do you think your interest in suffering and injustice has a religious underpinning? Do you think that you, as a poet, have a responsibility to tackle the theme?
JSK: As a poet, is it my responsibility? I don’t know. I think poets are obliged to pay attention to language and to pay attention to their consciousnesses. I feel it’s my responsibility to pay attention to suffering as a person, not as a poet. But then the stories of others become my subject. I don’t know where I got that idea. When I was a child, growing up in western Pennsylvania in the 1970s when the steel mills were closing and the war in Vietnam was raging on TV and organized crime and organized labor were waging small skirmishes in our region, there was just a lot of violence around. And yes, I learned from my Mennonite community that the Jesus way was the way of peace and civil rights and justice. But why I got this idea that it is the work of poetry to represent injustice and suffering, I can’t tell you. Certainly I’m not the first to take this path, which people used to talk about in terms of “the poetry of witness.” Thinking about it, my guess is that this impulse to “witness” comes from a fairly naïve belief that if people would really see what’s going on, they would work to change things. As if it could be that sweet, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Or, if I think about it on a personal level, in addition to everything that was swirling around in western Pennsylvania back then, there was a certain amount of loss and suffering in my family’s background—the loss of a traditional agrarian life and the religious community that gave that life coherence, the loss of my paternal grandmother in a horse and buggy accident and the untimely, sudden death of my maternal grandmother—both before I was born. I think that first book, Sleeping Preacher, in some ways performed the work of a good daughter who grieves the familial and communal losses. The way elegy works: you have to show the significance of the thing that got lost, perform the mourning, and then somehow resolve the mourning into a kind of acceptance or else you’re doomed to melancholy forever. I wonder if what you recognize as an interest in the suffering of others isn’t somehow tied up in that labor.
Image: “The religious community that gave life coherence,” as you say, is obviously an underpinning of your poetry. In Sleeping Preacher and Eve’s Striptease, you represent two very different communities: the Mennonite farm of your beloved Grandmother Bertha, and Brooklyn, New York, which, though diverse, is home to close groups of Italian Americans and Hasidic Jews. The emphasis on communitarianism in the Mennonite tradition has been much discussed in criticism, and the same can be said about Hasidic Jews and Italian immigrants. I’m curious about any connections that you can draw between the different communities in which you’ve lived, and how they have shaped your poems.
JSK: In the introduction to an anthology of poems about Brooklyn that I edited, called Broken Land, I talk about living there during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Although I was working and studying at NYU, learning to be a sophisticated cosmopolitan intellectual, I felt most at home with the parochialisms of my neighbors out in Brooklyn. Whatever their origins, I recognized people who attended to the cycles of religious observance and the materiality of family life and traditional foods. People who squeezed gardens into unlikely spots and discussed recipes with the butcher before going home to cook. In those days, Brooklyn between Ocean Parkway and Coney Island Avenue still felt like it was poised between some distant lands and America, improvisational and chaotic and fabulous in some ways. (I guess that would be places in Queens now.) We lived next door to a Chinese-speaking family from Burma who had a son named Elvis. I’m sure I’ve idealized it in my memory. It’s not as if it was some magical peaceable kingdom by any stretch of the imagination. I was there during the Crown Heights riots, and managed to see Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirrors performed to an audience that included some of the individuals she impersonated. So, these notions about difference and identity and community and violence come from life, all my life, really. And I find them endlessly interesting.
Image: Your concern with community in your poems is matched with an interest in the “other.” I’m thinking of two poems in particular. The first is “Catholics,” in which you admit that “I wanted a white communion dress, / and to pray with you / to your beautiful Blessed Mother in blue.” The other poem, “Ladies’ Night at the Turkish and Russian Baths” celebrates the diversity of women’s bodies—“Our eyes meet and we grin, / grateful to show and view the real shapes / of ourselves”—but ends with a glimpse of a beautiful woman weeping next to you, a mystery. Could you speak to the role of the other in your poetry?
JSK: Well, every community needs strangers, as every individual identity needs an other: we are the righteous remnant in comparison to the fallen world; we are queer as opposed to the hegemonic norm; he is male because he is not a woman. What does it mean that the ancient Hebrews were commanded to welcome the stranger into their midst? In addition to a practice of hospitality, that gesture of welcome helped to consolidate the community’s own sense of itself as a distinct people. Others are precious because they give us information about ourselves. So, just as sectarian communities need “the world” to shore up their boundaries, so the dominant culture in the United States needs traditional religious communities, figured as harshly patriarchal, repressive, backward, and so forth, so that the dominant culture can imagine itself to be democratic, progressive, and free. I thought about this dynamic when there was all that enthusiasm for liberating the women of Afghanistan and Iraq circulating as one (minor) rationale for those wars. Since when has the American military industrial complex cared about women’s rights in this country, let alone anywhere else in the world? But I digress.
Even as difference consolidates identity, it generates curiosity about the other and even desire, which then can tend toward violence. That shows up there in “Catholics.” Maybe one root of violence is the stifled desire to transcend one’s own community or its identity-building memory and connect with others. I guess I’m saying that one kind of violence may come from the thwarting of a virtue.
Image: I’d like to ask a bit more about your newest book of poems. Does any of the work in Poetry in America break new formal or stylistic ground for you?
JSK: I don’t know if this is new ground, but I observe that the book is more explicitly political. In at least one of the workshops of my 1980s graduate degree in creative writing, there was a strong sense that we were supposed to be writing poetry for all time, and therefore should avoid references to immediate political issues. The line spoken by Barbara in the title poem might apply here: “I’m a fifty-year-old woman, and they can kiss my ass.” In other words, the urgency of the circumstances overcomes a more abstract or idealized aesthetic. I also see the use of quotation and increased fragmentation. A poem like “Cardio-kickboxing in a Town of Six Thousand” gathers voices and narratives from around the community and juxtaposes them with the voice of the kickboxing teacher to create a meditation on small-town, civilian life in wartime. Whereas I might have combined two narratives in a poem earlier, a poem like this gathers many, often in rapid succession, and does not explain their relationship to one another, but strings them together. There’s also a greater awareness of history pressing onto the present in this book and an attempt to articulate that pressure.
Image: Also, the title draws attention to itself: it sounds like a textbook or anthology. What were you driving at with that title?
JSK: Oh, yes. That’s what my former department head told me. He said I should change the title for marketing purposes! Of course it’s ironic. The title poem describes a reading that takes place in a box bookstore with only one person in the audience. But also, there’s a sincere question in that title: where is the poetry in America? Where are the songs? Who is singing them and how do they sound? So, I think of some of these poems of everyday life, the voices of everyday people, being the answer to that question. In that regard, it’s a project that follows Whitman.
Image: The book includes poems for Gerard Manley Hopkins and Yehuda Amichai, with whom you studied at NYU. Have these or other poets played a role in your faith life, or had an especially strong influence on your poetry about a life of doubt and belief?
JSK: Perhaps given all he lived through—migration from Germany to Palestine as a child, World War II, the rise of the state of Israel, more wars—Yehuda no longer maintained a religious practice. Once in class, he lamented the fact that he could not, in good conscience, pass on to his children the deep religious knowledge that he had grown up with, and that sustained his writing. His sources—history, memory, human connection, loss, scripture—feel close to me, and I love the materiality of his writing. I take his little poem “When I Banged My Head on the Door” as an ars poetica, a manifesto and reminder of why we write. And in comforting the self, of course, we make the medicine that can comfort others.
Image: Can you talk about poetry as that kind of medicine? What kinds of wounds can poetry heal?
JSK: I use the word medicine deliberately. Yehuda talked about how they used to make vaccinations: inject a horse with the germs, and then take out the antibodies and inject that serum into a person for the cure. I recall him pronouncing this word with his Hebrew accent that I couldn’t understand at first: “tet-an-oose.” Ah, tetanus! So, it stuck in my memory forever—the odd pronunciation and the metaphoric lesson: how our bodies are sites that can brew remedies out of our own suffering. What kind of wounds can poetry heal? Well, maybe poetry can’t help when you step on a rusty nail, but there are so many other wounds, including the emotional ruptures that occur alongside physical failures. Or poetry can create language for experiences that are impossible to talk about because no one wants to know about them, little vocabulary exists; or because your mind hasn’t been able to frame what happened in terms of a continuous narrative. The lyric—the intense articulation that occurs outside of narrative time—could be said to be the perfect form for traumatic experience.
Image: I would call you a feminist poet. You seem particularly interested in what it means to inhabit a female body. All bodies, as you describe in poems like “The Body Remembers,” can be tortured and starved. Women’s bodies, in particular, can be forced to hide their sexual contours, can be sexually assaulted, can be considered “handled merchandise” if they’re sexually active, can revel in sex, can give birth to new life. What do you consider the place and importance of the female body in your work?
JSK: Yes, we need these handles to locate a context for the voice: Mennonite poet, feminist poet, Brooklyn poet, Pennsylvania poet, Christian poet, progressive poet, white poet. I’m happy to belong to any club that will take me. A feminist believes women should have the same social, political, and economic opportunities as men. Does that have anything to do with writing poetry? It does, I guess, in the ways Virginia Woolf speaks of in her essay “Professions for Women.” And it does when it comes to some of the subjects I’ve chosen to consider, in a poem like “Poetry in America,” for instance, and the endnote that accompanies it in that collection. Am I “interested” in what it means to inhabit a female body any more than a man might be interested in what it means to inhabit his body? Probably, because he might be able to move through the world as if his body were invisible; he might write a poem describing a woman’s body as if his interest in that topic were not the consequence of his own body’s vitality. Or maybe that was long ago—are we over that yet? As for the place of the female body in my work, I write from trouble, and some of my troubles come from the ways the world has responded to my female body. I’d also say that I have written about physical experience as part of the material world. And because I am a woman writing about the material world, the female body is unavoidable.
Image: To what extent has “writing from trouble” had an impact on your poetry? Would you agree with Polish poet Anna Swir, for example, that “My suffering / is useful to me. / / It gives me the privilege / to write on the suffering of others”? What role do you see suffering as playing in the vocation of poetry?
JSK: I guess the Swir lines cut to the sources of compassion and empathy, don’t they? My painful or demanding experience becomes a means of recognizing, really seeing, and then articulating the experience of another. Or maybe I’m thinking too literally. Maybe she means that her own suffering compels articulation, and then when others read her work, they meet themselves in her experience, and find in her writing some language that is personally useful. In other words, her poetry performs a kind of alchemy that transforms the personal into something broader. This makes me think of something that the late, great Adrienne Rich said: “We write to save ourselves, and sometimes we end up saving the whole community.” I used to say this all the time when I was talking to Mennonite audiences. Our Anabaptist cultural background places a great stress on service, on contributing to the common good, and less on saving or expressing the self. What I wanted to communicate is that for me—and I know this isn’t true for everyone; it isn’t even true for me all the time, now that I’m older and feeling safer—poetry was a means of personal survival. That was the first urgency. I needed to make beauty and sense out of pain and chaos in order to live. Only later did it seem that these poems were of some use to people. I care a great deal about being useful, but if that had been the primary motive for writing, I don’t think the poems would have worked at all.
I guess suffering is a kind of impetus—the blunt scream, “When I Banged My Head on the Door”—and then it can also be a way of sharpening one’s sights both inward and outward. But let me stress that I don’t want to valorize suffering. Sometimes it’s just stupid and meaningless and wrong and horribly painful, and it cannot be avoided. Instead of suffering, I would like to valorize nurture and newness and growth and creativity and intelligence and beauty. But that’s not always what we get, is it?
Image: I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of sin. I’d like to relate that to some of your poems. I don’t know how I feel about sin, or what it is. Does it even exist?
JSK: What if we said that oppression is sin? What if we said that the root of evil is deception, which begins at home, of course, with self-deception. When people believe that their own race or sex or economic location is superior to another, and that this superiority entitles them to enslave others in ordinary ways or to abuse the environment, that’s a sin. (Enslave is a strong word, but I mean taking advantage of the bodies and labor of others.) I’m thinking that entire economic systems are predicated on these sins. We deceive ourselves and others in large and small ways and materially benefit from these sinful assumptions.
It’s frustrating to live in a time that comes after Marxism and feminism and poststructuralism—all the secular, critical ways of thinking that did not dismantle the structures of oppression they described with such brilliance and eloquence. Now, no one wants to hear a feminist critique. They’re weary of the argument and nothing much changing in culture. It’s not that people are impatient. I think they’re just exhausted, and now on top of human rights, we have global warming and fracking to think about. What would thoughtful Christians have to lose if they said that oppression is a sin? As far as I can see, Jesus was a radical advocate for human rights in his time. It’s a modest proposal, right? Just ask all the Christians in the world to follow the example of Jesus.
Image: In Eve’s Striptease, you include several poems about sexual violations of the young female body, such as “Flu” and “A Pass.” But the poem “Sinning” seems specifically to argue against the idea of sex as inherently sinful. In that book, you seem interested in redefining sin, and the sins recounted are generally personal. But as that interest continues in Poetry in America, your definition broadens considerably, to something more communal and political. Many of those poems make explicit critiques of economic inequality and war.
JSK: Yes, it’s just a guess on my part, but I’m thinking that Jesus would frown on global capitalism.
But thank you for bringing us back to the poems. The earlier poems you mention do not condemn sex, no, but they critique the misuse of power by describing abusive acts. Thinking about power and always asking who benefits from whatever is going on—that is one of the important things I learned from poststructuralism. And yes, I think you’re absolutely correct to observe that the critique of power moves from the personal in Eve’s Striptease to something larger in Poetry in America—cultural patterns, economic inequity, national policies. I think that having a child opened my eyes in this way: it forced me to think deeply about experience beyond my own, to care for this little life I must protect and project into the future, but also to think about all the other children of the world as well.
I have this distinct memory of standing in front of the library in the center of campus at Penn State one spring morning as classes were changing, and hundreds of students were streaming by. I was exhausted at the end of the semester and sleep-deprived from caring for a baby, and suddenly it struck me that all those students were the children of someone somewhere. All of them precious and cared for in that particular way. I guess I needed to have a child to get this, but I’m sure that many people understand this without ever becoming parents, through their own empathy and imagination.
“Mother with Toddler” comes from reading a wonderful essay by Mary Gordon in which she argues that mothers are the most immoral beings in the world because their ethical instincts are oriented entirely by the drive to protect the one life in their arms. This is a lower-order principle, she observes rhetorically. So the speaker in my poem wonders what would happen if everyone functioned from such an urgent, primitive drive to protect life, rather than being motivated by more abstract things like the need to preserve honor or to protect economic interests in foreign lands and so forth. It’s a 9/11 poem.
Image: In the poem “On an Oregon Mountain I Remember the Hebrew Mystics,” you write, “If you focus hard enough on the power of words, / you will begin to see light spark inside letters.” Does God spark inside letters, offering some redemption? Does writing offer a balm for sin?
JSK: I’m not entirely comfortable with that language. I have to think about why that is. But I might say that poetry can sometimes shine a light. Sometimes it makes one more aware of one’s inner life or more aware of life beyond the self. I don’t know what the Jewish mystics meant in that verse I quoted in “On an Oregon Mountain….” I suspect its meaning is more particular to its context and more mysterious than anything I have access to where I stand. I think it may be pointing to a relationship between study and transcendence.
Image: Where do you find transcendence these days? Is it through study? Is it lying in a pasture in Danville, Pennsylvania?
JSK: Last week I was up in Tioga County. It’s a gorgeous place, mountainous, very rural, dirt roads between scruffy farms with unpainted barns, about fifty thousand people in the whole county. Now ninety percent of it has been leased to the natural gas industry—mostly Shell, but other companies, too. I was there on poetry business, snooping around, reading local history in the public library at Wellsboro, hanging out in diners eating hot chicken and gravy sandwiches. My next book, I hope, will deal with resource extraction here in Pennsylvania. Uncertainty. Danger. Possibility. Windfalls. Ruined wells. I’m really not sure what I’m doing, but my plan is to visit these places—including right around where I grew up in Westmoreland County—and listen to the ways people are talking about their experience. And to walk around, take photographs, fall in love with the landscape all over again. It’s not necessarily elegiac, unless perhaps any writing about place is elegiac these days.
Image: As a poet, you could choose to write entirely secular poetry, but you don’t. God and faith have kept creeping back into your poetry as your faith journey has changed. So I’d like to end with a question that Image asks many of its interviewees: Why believe in God?
JSK: It’s never occurred to me as a choice: shall I believe in God or not? I have always believed in some way for as long as I can remember. Maybe that is a gift. As a child, nature was very important to me, and it seemed that God was there—in the light, in the sky, in the trees. I spent a lot of time alone in the woods. I loved growing plants and flowers, and still do. The rhythms of the seasons are important to me. When I lived in New York City as a college student, I found a job caring for plants and trees in office buildings and atriums in midtown. I don’t think much about a life after this one. That wasn’t big in the religious teaching of my childhood, mercifully. The teaching was more about how we treat others, how we work to make the kingdom of heaven a reality here, now, how to find the Jesus way in everyday life, and then pass out of this world in peace. Of course, that can go in bad directions, too—all that work and not much time for language, for instance—but mostly I’m thankful for the example of my parents and community along these lines.
When I taught at a Christian college for a few years, there was a great deal of talk about “integrating faith and learning,” as if religious practice or belief were something separate from scholarly research and classroom teaching. It seemed strange to me. Is my being a woman something I must find a way to integrate into my intellectual life? Is being a white first-world person? Or are those locations all just part of the ground under my feet as I do my work? To become conscious of the ways those things shape my thinking or my writing seems very useful, but I don’t think that I could write poetry that didn’t bear the marks of those locations because they inform so much of how I see the world and shape what I care about.
My sense is that belief is not an intellectual matter. I would prefer to say that I choose to practice, rather than I choose to believe, as (at certain more intentional times in my life) I practiced yoga. I did not achieve anything as a yogi, but I practiced, and the practice of yoga taught me something very precious: that practice is all that matters. So, I show up at worship on most Sundays. I practice something that might be called prayer, although I am not at all certain of that. I practice trying to discern the Jesus way in the world, which would be to choose the way of love, of newness, of nurture, of becoming, of compassion, etcetera.
But believe? I don’t know what that even means. I repeat the Nicene Creed most Sundays, and there’s a lot of repetition of the phrase “I believe” in there, but mostly I’m thinking that’s like a place holder. Maybe an announcement of intention. Maybe a way of binding the voices together who recite it with me. I say it joyfully most Sundays, but why do I believe? That I can’t say. I can say that I walk on the path that lies under my feet. I can say I have been blessed to find it lead in pleasant places.