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Julia Kasdorf

Double the Digits


we called the game Jenny made up driving
back roads through West Virginia


at twice the speed on signs. Foot on
the gas, foot on the brake, she'd take


a 25 mile-an-hour curve at 50, triumphant
until something thudded under the hood,


then hissed as we drifted to the berm;
engine block cracked, her dad's Peugeot


left for the wrecker, sold for scrap.
She never could tell him how girls,


16 and 18, could get so bent on speed
they'd ignore an oil light's warning.


When my dad's Plymouth Fury hit 78,
weightless, on a crested curve of Route 136


and nearly flew into the grill
of a soda delivery truck, we swerved


toward a pole on Donna's side, then
were gone before the guy hit his horn.


We never said it, but close calls
like that made us see state troopers


on front porches, hats in hand, moments
before our mothers opened the door. Yet


we played that game every chance 
we got until college separated us


from our fathers' cars. Jenny divorced,
then married a canoe guide up north.


Because Donna married a black man,
she can't set foot on her home farm.


And now, I can barely stay in the lines
so I keep going back, as if those times,


half a life ago, could explain why some women
get driven by a dumb desire for flight.


Landscape with Desire

Next month maples along this lake will rage
orange and scarlet. Firs we barely discern 
on that far shore will state their dark shapes,
so we are torn between taking it all in
from the porch and taking a swim. At night
we pull on sweatshirts, lie down on the dock,
heads nestled in life preservers, and wait
for meteors to streak the August sky
like runs in the blackest stocking against
the whitest thigh. With each plummeting light,
our voices rise like love cries, more urgent 
and louder than any solitary loon or coyote
calling to its mate. Only we conflate
longing and loss like this; only we wait.

English 213: Introduction to Poetry Writing

Metaphor is made of two parts, I tell them 
because I must say something: vehicle and tenor,


and we should know the names of things we do by instinct, 
though I only half believe this. Not that kind of vehicle,


not that kind of tenor, and yet their poems must move, 
must sing. It's confusing and hard. Aristotle said


genius sees resemblance in difference. A car is not 
a metaphor, is a machine made of countless metal parts


that keep us mindful of oil, coolant, a milk jug in the trunk 
in which to dilute it, mindful of all the ways a day can turn-


pulling into Bloomsburg State, for instance, steam blowing 
from under the hood, I asked a student for the lecture hall,


campus clock gonging the hour of my talk, but he said, 
"Look, something really bad is happening to your car."


I have watched water run off my radiator 
as freely as the waters of birth. I have peered


into the boxy chambers of my master cylinder, drained 
of brake fluid, dark and divided as the human heart.


Unable to start some mornings, I have loosened a wing nut, 
lifted the air filter, and jabbed a pencil stub


into my butterfly valve, clenched like a catch in the throat. 
So when half the audience walked out of that reading


to attend a memorial service for some boys, killed 
in a frat house fire, I did what any of us would do:


paused until the room grew still, then continued.
In towns like that, mechanics take only cash,


but the folks who remained bought enough books 
to cover the cost of radiator hose, plus labor,


that transaction as sweet and pure as the motion 
of any of our lubricious, invisible parts.

-from Poetry in America

BIO: Poet, essayist, and editor Julia Spicher Kasdorf was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania. Educated at Goshen College, she earned a BA, an MA in creative writing, and a PhD from New York University. Kasdorf’s lyrical poems, steeped in her family’s Mennonite background, explore faith, social justice, and cultural inheritance. In an interview with Melissa Beattie-Moss, Kasdorf described how motherhood has affected the concerns of her poetry, noting, “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.”

Kasdorf’s poetry collections include Eve’s Striptease (1998); Sleeping Preacher (1992), which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association Award for New Writing; and Poetry in America (2011). She is also the author of the essay collection The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life (2001) and the biography Fixing Tradition: Joseph W. Yoder, Amish American (2002).

The poetry editor for Christianity and Literature, Kasdorf also co-edited, with Michael Tyrell, Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn (2007). With Joshua R. Brown, she edited a restored edition of J.W. Yoder’s Rosanna of the Amish (2008).


Kasdorf has received a Pushcart Prize as well as grants and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Arts Council and the Fetzer Institute. Her poems have often been featured on Garrison Keillor’s National Public Radio program The Writer’s Almanac. She has taught at Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pittsburgh, and New York University, and lives in Pennsylvania.

A Review of Julia Kasdorf's Poetry in America by Eliot Khalil Wilson & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Julia Spicher Kasdorf's Poetry in America (University of Pittsburgh Press) is her third collection of poems. It consists of forty-four poems organized, like so many books of poetry, into three sections, with more than half of the poems cast in invitingly readable two or three line stanzas. This collection has been a dozen years in the making. Her last collection, Eve's Striptease, was a quiet triumph of lyrical and narrative poems. 

With her latest book, what announces itself to me on first read is a vein of Western Pennsylvania toughness and, related to this toughness, a fondness for all that is no-nonsense, plain-spoken, and expedient. The poem Garlic, for example, concludes:

     Oh think of the time a person can waste
     All her life, she said, trying to peel off
     Impossible paper skins when you can just
     Strike the thing with whatever's at hand.

In the poem Cardio Kickboxing in an Town of 6,000 the citizens of the town are all punching through and toughening up-

     Harder, harder! She screams, I know you can
                Hit harder than that! She's a third grade teacher

     And mother of four. Yes! That's better, now
                Give me your uppercut. Swing from your legs!
                            Harder, harder! Whatever you got, I can take.

The toughness even bleeds into the landscape as in this excellent poem entitled Westmoreland


     Jewel weed thrived along Stink Crik, water rusted 
     in ponds of runoff and in parking lots slag chips 
     were flamingo feathers. The Del Bene brothers rode to fires

     hanging off the fire truck their bloody butcher aprons 
     flapping brides rode to their wedding receptions 
     clinging to that truck, veils trailing smoke tongues.

This is the world and time where-


     Band members were faggots, thespians were faggots, brains
     Hid in the library during Activity Period


Yep, Kasdorf definitely renders the zeitgeist of the mill towns along Monongahela Valley in the mid- to late 1940s and early 1950s, accurately. The steel industry was king and few questioned the king because the king provided jobs. Few questioned the fact that there was absolutely no vegetation of any sort growing in an half mile radius of the U.S. Steel's Zinc Works in Donora Pennsylvania. The infamous Donora smog inversion of 1948, that forced school children, my own mother among them, to squint their way to school wearing bandanas over their faces like bandits, that blotted out the sun for four days, that killed twenty people and sickened thousands, finally forced the American Steel and Wire Company and the U.S. Steel Zinc Works to cease operations, but, rest assured, full operations resumed in the less than 24 hours.

What separates Julia Kasdorf from the run-of-the-mill town poets is her refusal to condemn. Even though the time and towns were undeniably toxic, like living in a lit cigarette, finally there is no place like home. Kasdorf treats the landscape not with a judging, critical eye, but looks back with the almost absolving fondness of a native:

      Like all the Hawthorne they forced
      us to read in the 11th grade, was Westmoreland County wasted 
      on us, so young, all we could learn was to hate it?


Perhaps part of the Western Pennsylvania grittiness that saturates many of these poems comes from Kasdorf's repeated use of that apotheosis of steel-the automobile. Fully half of the poems either involve cars overtly like the poems Doubling the Digits, 78' Chevy, The Baby Screaming in the Backseat and The Girl in the Backseat Returns to Pittsburgh or indirectly like the poems Gettysburg 1996 or Gravity Hill. In her poem English 213: Introduction to Poetry Writing, she writes

     A car is not a metaphor, is a machine made of countless metal parts

     that keep us mindful of oil, coolant, a milk jug in the truck
     in which to dilute it, mindful of all the ways a day can turn. . .


Perhaps it is only right that a collection entitled Poetry in America should have the automobile figure in so prominently, but lest I leave you with impression Kasdorf is solely the poet of mill town blight, the Phillip Levine of the Monongahela Valley, I hasten to highlight other aspects of the book.

As Kasdorf is an Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies at Penn State, you might expect a number of poems that deal with the classroom-teaching or memories of being taught. There are several of these, and the poem Elegy Against----Ten Years Later is the best among them:

     When I read the news, I imagined him bloody 

     in a claw foot bathtub back home. Surely
     in poor Oklahoma the tubs are ordinary, but

     How could a plain tub hold his body? I want
     the graceful curve, white and smooth and cool

     And tender against his large hard shoulders.

The second section of the book also features poems about motherhood. In writing these poems, these songs of innocence, Kasdorf joins the chorus of female poets-- Sharon Olds, Naomi Nye, and Robin Behn spring to mind-who have written effectively of the new magic of childhood. The book also features several fixed form poems-several deft sonnets and even a ghazal. This was a pleasant surprise. The final section of the book finds Kasdorf returning to the familiar ground of life in the Mennonite community. Her first award winning collection, Sleeping Preacher, gave the world a glimpse into the Amish-Mennonite community and dealt with the speaker's problematic cultural adjustments. This new collection's most powerful and memorable poem, Rachel on the Threshing Floor, returns to Mifflin County and the poet's own family tragedy:

     All that is left of her: a long, gray apron,
     steel rimmed spectacles with one shattered lens,
     two diaries, her name Rachel embroidered
     on a quilt patch, and the photograph from 1948.


     She was so beloved, the stable was full and horses 
     had to be tied to fence posts the length of the lane

     Follow though buggy ruts and dung piles, enter the barn
     Find her body and children too stunned to know she is gone

Kasdorf's Poetry in America sounds every note on the scale of tones, forms, and intensities. There are notes of toughness and tenderness, notes of witness and experience-all the notes, to my ear, in tune.

 An Interview with Julia Kasdorf by Steve Davenport and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Steve Davenport & Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: "Double the Digits" is an interesting marriage of content and form. The couplets the female speaker sticks to suggest the highway lines that can't contain the teenage girls' "dumb desire for flight." And it's not just youth that causes transgressive behavior. The lines can't contain the girls when they become women either. They cross state lines, even race lines to get married. Would you talk about the ways in which content and form influence each other in this poem? 

Julia Spicher Kasdorf: You put it so beautifully-your summary of the various kinds of transgression the poem suggests. As far as form and content go, I was mindful of the title reading into the first line of an inverted sentence, suddenly, creating a sensation of speed or recklessness as a reader enters the poem. The enjambment between the second and third stanzas does a similar thing. The enjambment between the 13th and 14th stanzas usually arouses laughter at readings because of the surprise, I guess. The freight on "separated" gathers by the end of the poem in multiple ways-the daughter from her home farm, the woman from her spouse, the girls from one another, and death hovers neaerby, as soon as it is introduced through the immortal attitude of the young girls. 


SD & AMK: "Double the Digits" often utilizes a sequence of iambic feet some sort of metrical shift toward the end of the line, e.g. "we called the game Jenny made up driving" and "at twice the posted speed. Foot on.../" Iambic, of course, has kind of been running the show in the poetry universe for some time. It's nice to see a poet utilizing it in this way, using the "shadow of iambic" to hypnotize the reader into the line only to then jar them with metrical switches. Is this something you strive for, do naturally, or happen across accidentally?


JSK: I wish I could say I scan and plan, but in this case, the poem was really written by ear. That said, I will also tell you that when I was a college student I wrote a lot of Elizabethan sonnets and memorized a lot of Yeats. So, that iambic base is in my bones. I don't do it "naturally" although it may come without my being entirely conscious of it. It "just comes" as the consequence of many years of practice, just as a musician or athlete performs out of practice. 


SD & AMK: "Landscape with Desire" is fourteen lines long. Each line is ten syllables. Does this make it a sonnet or simply a poem of 14 metrical lines?


JSK: I call it a sonnet, or really, I call it a half-assed sonnet because I haven't lined up the rhymes precisely.


SD & AMK: There are a few lines that are more or less than ten syllables in this poem, particularly that third to last line, which is fifteen. The third line is nine syllables and the fourth is eleven. Given that you clearly could have written these lines like the rest, I'm wondering why you chose to break form here. What effect(s) does this shift hope to achieve? 


SD & AMK: More fun with numbers. Twenty-two of the thirty lines that make up "English 213" fall in the 13-15 syllable range. Compared to "Double the Digits," which employs a similar number of couplets but ranges more widely in the number of syllables per line, "English 213" stays in pattern. How do you make these sorts of decisions and at what point in a poem's construction? Does the material or subject matter influence you as you build a poem?


JSK: Oh, if it's a good one, the poem is smarter than I am, thank God! I was not aware of the points you make here, but once you say it, it seems right. Which reminds me of a time when a brilliant student, Kayla Candrilli, came in to my office and pointed out that in "English 213" the poem turns on the longest line (10), which ends with the word "turn-" Had I planned that, she wondered. No. I hadn't even picked up on it in revision, but thank you very much! 


It's mysterious, what we see and what we don't. Sometimes we are protected by not seeing everything in what we write. The trick is to know what to leave and what to work. I actually revise a great deal, and I publish so few poems because I abandon things or feel unsatisfied with them. Line length and the overall look of the poem on the page is mostly a matter of revision for me, but the line between revision and writing is never firm. And yes, subject matter is very important to me. I figure the world has enough poems already, so if I'm going to contribute, I need to have something valuable or urgent to say.

SD & AMK: So whenever I come to a poem about teaching, I cringe. "English 213" though moves past these opening lines and broadens quite a bit. I'm interested in how you enter a poem. I've always loved how Pattiann Rogers' poems start in one place and journey very, very far away from there. Do your openings occur organically, or do you start with an idea and find a way in?


JSK: Again, a question that makes me pause and wonder what in the world I know about my own practice! I love those poems that wander, too, although sometimes there's something sweet about running around the bases and sliding into home, especially if the point of view is somehow changed by the sprint. I have noticed that beginning writers have this instinct to end in a place close to where they started, and it's a big revelation for them to discover that they can stray far afield. But their initial instinct suggests to me that there's something satisfying in that return, not to be dismissed entirely in pursuit of more sophisticated paths.


I notice you casually oppose "organically" with "an idea," which is an opposition I want to think about. It's the material/mental split, eh? Poems often start the way stories start for me: one must swiftly locate the voice and catch the reader's attention. Beyond that, it's often a visual image or an irony or a weird phrase or a memory I hear myself telling someone that catches my attention and makes me sit down and put words on paper.

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