Sunday, July 8, 2012

My Top Ten Pittsburgh Poets: Julia Kasdorf

Julia Mae Spicher Kasdorf grew up in the suburbs of southeast of Pittsburgh, daughter of Mennonites who chose to leave their rural community in central Pennsylvania for work in a city. Her Mennonite background shapes her work, as well as her life, with three poetry collections--Sleeping Preacher (1992), Eve's Striptease (1998), and Poetry in America (2011)--, a scholarly study of Pennsylvania writer Joseph W. Yoder (Fixing Tradition), and co-editor of two editions of Pennsylvania local color novels, Rosanna of the Amish by Joseph W. Yoder and The House of the Black Ring by Fred Lewis Pattee. 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. Her poetry and other writings have won numerous awards, as well. Kasdorf is Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies at The Pennsylvania State University.

Kasdorf's accessible lyrical-narrative poetry resides in what she calls "the free space between places"--the place of the rural, provincial Mennonite community, and the world of the urban, traveled intellectual. The negotiation between these two worlds energizes her unique poems. "Uncle" is an example of a poem that speaks of these two worlds:


At nine I knew what Jesus would do
if he got C.O. just for being born
Mennonite. He'd go anyway, like you.

In the name of peace, he'd race
an ambulance through the screaming streets
of Saigon. He'd grow a moustache to show
he wasn't a soldier--a speck
on the camera lens, Grandpa insisted.

He'd take a generator to a village
in the hills where golden children
would run behind him yelling, "Mother Fucker."

He'd thrust brilliant green blades
of rice into the fields where men's legs
and the torsos of water buffaloes exploded
when plows struck bombs in the mud.

When the planes returned, he'd load
whomever he could into the only car,
drive to a refugee camp, and there give up
at last, as you gave up bearing that war
on your tall, blond body.

Lost across the continents for months,
you returned to us, the uncle of someone else,
gaunt as a corpse, pale and haunted.
And when you could barely finish
a child's portion at Howard Johnson's,
that was the only miracle I could grasp.

Kasdorf's simply gorgeous music is a bonus on top of her elucidating content. I've not read her widely, so I will end with a challenge to read her books as I will, and I'll report back at a later date on what I find. In the mean time, based upon what I've already read of her, Kasdorf is definitely one of my top ten favorite Pittsburgh poets!

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