Lines of departure and return

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Julia Kasdorf

Poet and scholar Julia Kasdorf's first book of poems, Sleeping Preacher, was selected as the 1991 Agnes Lynch Starrett prize winner and garnered critical acclaim for its quietly powerful portraits of Mennonite life in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania's "Big Valley."

Drawing on childhood memories, Kasdorf introduced many readers to the intertwined culture and landscape of her parents' Mennonite childhoods. In the years since writing Sleeping Preacher, Kasdorf has published a second volume of poetry, Eve's Striptease (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998), as well as two works of non-fiction exploring Mennonite and Amish cultural issues. Since 1999, Kasdorf's life has also shifted from New York City (where she lived while doing graduate work at N.Y.U.) back to her Central Pennsylvania roots.

Research⁄Penn State associate editor Melissa Beattie-Moss sat down with Julia Kasdorf recently to discuss the evolution of her writing and literary identity.

Q: How was Sleeping Preacher received by the Mennonite community?

A: People from Mifflin County are literally represented in the book by name, out of my memory, because somehow I just was so naïve, I never imagined that something I was writing in Brooklyn would end up there. Because my life was divided, I imagined the world was divided. But it did get back there and people were very upset. It's a culture where conflict is rarely articulated. It's a culture of many kinds of meaningful silences...and it's a culture where people don't write books. People are literate but it's really not a world where people write. In a sense I didn't think of myself as having the power authors have and I didn't understand how meaning functions in an oral tradition, so I learned a great deal through the experience.

Q: In Fixing Tradition (Kasdorf's biography of Amish writer Joseph W. Yoder) you speak of his life as filled with "lines of departure and return." What has it been like for you to return to Central Pennsylvania? Did it feel like a return home?

A: I think in some ways I had to come back here to this landscape. I was writing so much about it, so I was here in my imagination, but coming back I was able to see it differently because I was living here. I'm not writing about this area in the same kinds of longing ways now. Also, I was able to do a lot more research locally that I couldn't do from New York. Does this feel like home? It feels like "thirty minutes from home"? You know how the valleys are in this part of the world—it's another universe over the mountain.

Q: How would you describe the poems you are writing lately?

A: I'm writing a lot these days about history, danger, and a post-9/11 world. I was pregnant when 9/11 happened and my daughter was born that December. Coming from a peace tradition, Mennonites always feel threatened and take personally when the nation is at war. It's been a time in the past when Mennonites have been very vulnerable as pacifists and also there's this sense of feeling so strongly that this is wrong and how can we not be complicit in it when it's the national policy.

My poems are more public lately, even though my daughter is present in a lot in them. But it's a common thing that women say—there's this funny paradoxical position after you have a child. You're both incredibly drawn to the small and the domestic and you're also suddenly very sensitive to matters of the world. Your attention is pulled urgently in two directions.

Q: What prompted you to write the poem "Bat Boy, Break a Leg"?

A: This poem taps into some really big things for me that have been themes throughout my work from the first book on. It has to do with safety and danger in high-stakes situations—survival. I don't see the public and private as opposites, but more as a kind of conversation.

If it's true—and I don't know this yet—that my work is moving in a more public direction, or a more political direction, then I think this poem sits between the public and the private. On the one hand it's just dealing with an intimate conversation or a nurturing kind of relationship between two individuals. But on the other hand it's making certain gestures towards public attitudes on homosexuality, AIDS, what students should be like, who they should be, how they should behave...what education is. In a lot of ways that poem says learning can really be violent and can be really scary...It's a thing that can change you, but change can be frightening.

Q: How do you feel about being described as a Mennonite poet?

A: I used to get really anxious about this stuff but I can't control it. That first book is going to go into endless reprints and will follow me around the rest of my life. I just have to do what excites me next. I think there will always be a source of energy in Mennonite culture for me—there's always something there. Ann Hostetler, who edited an anthology of Mennonite poetry for the University of Iowa press, said that she felt my current work—which doesn't make any reference to anything ethnic—is more Mennonite than the first book because it's so grounded in a kind of ethical world view and is so troubled by the world's violence. So who knows?

Q: Where do you find community as a writer?

A: I have a handful of dear friends, scattered, but in a sense, I see community also as these people in history who stand with us while we write, the texts that are with us in the room while we write, the voices in our heads. To me this invisible presence is a gift...We're not alone.

Julia Kasdorf, Ph.D., is associate professor of English and director of the MFA writing program. She can be reached at jmk28@psu.edu.

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Bat Boy, Break a Leg"

Last Updated March 23, 2005