Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

Stonework Journal Home

Letters to the Editor

Stonework Staff

Submission Guidelines

Editorial Philosophy

Our Favorite Links

E-mail Stonework:

  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Making Meaning: Telling Truth - an Interview with Julia Kasdorf

~Kelsey Harro, Allison Brown

Interviewer: In your essay, “Preacher’s Striptease,” you wrote, “Ironically the second book has been seen as less daring. A New York University creative writing teacher told me in the late 1980’s, ‘Anyone can write about sex, but who wants to write about religion, that is the real taboo.’ In our community it seems to be the other way around. Talking about religion is the norm and discussing issues about sexuality is the taboo. Could you talk about what makes the secular writing world so suspicious of your writing?

Kasdorf: The teacher who said that was Sharon Olds, who was my thesis advisor in the creative writing program at New York University. She said that around 1989, and since then the whole landscape has changed, the taboos do seem to have switched. Right now, I don’t think they can publish enough books dealing with religion. Whether they’re memoirs, contemporary poetry or books on spirituality, it’s no longer taboo. I think many people now have a better understanding of the connection between Eros and spirituality.

Interviewer: Can you talk more about that connection between Eros and spirituality?

Kasdorf: I think they both have to do with transcendence, transcending the definitions of the body, transcending the definitions of the mind. Every religious tradition has a mystical vein; in Christianity the writings of St. Theresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross show how the metaphors and tropes for religious ecstasy intersect with those of erotic ecstasy.

Interviewer: Yesterday you mentioned moving into the Episcopalian denomination; can you talk more about that and the transition’s effect on your ideas about sacrament and incarnation?

Kasdorf: Converting to the Episcopal church was not a conscious move for me. I grew up in a progressive, intellectual Mennonite congregation. My home church as a child was across the street from the denominational publishing house and so there were lots of editors in the congregation. It wasn’t at all what you might think of as a typical Mennonite church out in the country. I identified myself as a Mennonite both ethnically and religiously; I went to a Mennonite college for a couple years and lived in a Mennonite group house while attending New York University. I identified myself with the Mennonite fellowship in Manhattan, which met on Sunday night. This allowed me on Sunday morning to sneak off to the Episcopal church, which I continued to do for years, still thinking of myself as a Mennonite because it fit my ethnic identity.

I started going to the Episcopal church because I loved the Eucharist; it is so different from what communion is in the Mennonite church. In that church, communion happened twice a year and was an extremely solemn affair; it meant examining yourself and your relationship with God as well as your relationship with the community. And when I was growing up, that Saturday night before Communion Sunday there were a lot of phone calls. If somebody had hard feelings against another person in the church you had to make amends before you took communion. There was also a lot of emphasis on suffering and binding yourself to suffering. The image of the grapes being smashed and the image of the kernels of wheat being ground were metaphors for individual bodies becoming one body, through breaking.

But in the Episcopalian church, communion is about thanksgiving, and is open to anyone who has been baptized. It was a completely different spirit and it had a completely different meaning, which also encompassed the idea of sacrament. But I didn’t understand sacrament because I was so rooted in the Radical Reformation understanding that the elements are just symbols. Real absence in every sense of the word.

So after 10 or 12 years of working through this, looking back on it I would say that the sacrament worked on me in some way that was unconscious and invisible and full of grace. I became a sacramental Christian in a way that bypassed my intellect. But I didn’t have to act on this change until I moved to Pennsylvania where there were Mennonite churches. Then I no longer had the excuse of not being able to find a Mennonite church. I attended a Mennonite church one Palm Sunday and it convinced me that this was not the home for my soul; this was the home for my body. These people are my people, this is my ethnicity, but I can’t worship here.

Then when I had a child, I had to make a decision whether or not that kid would be baptized. It was a big decision because essentially this is where the rubber hits the road for Anabaptists. We’ve all grown up hearing stories of people who were killed in gruesome ways for baptizing one another. So if I were to have that kid baptized, to them it would be like having the blood of all those martyrs on my hands. But I didn’t want her to be excluded from the Eucharist, and so I made a decision to have her baptized and at that time I was also confirmed, about four years ago. Another big piece of that decision is that I’ve just lost patience with the denomination’s dialog on what to do about homosexuality. The way it’s been handled in the Mennonite church is that entire congregations are getting kicked out of the denomination when churches refuse to expel members who are openly gay, and so the entire church gets expelled; that breaks my heart in a lot of ways.

To me it is an uncanny irony because the Mennonite denomination has such a strong history of human rights, and yet here on this one issue, which I regard as a human rights issue, the denomination couldn’t find a way to keep everyone together. And I think in our community it’s especially wrenching because for Mennonites who are born into the tradition, family and faith are so entangled. If you get kicked out of the denomination it’s like being disowned by your family, it’s heartbreaking for everybody, and painful on both sides of the controversy.

Interviewer: I have a question about the connection of family and faith that you just mentioned. You were saying that a part of the appeal becoming an Episcopalian is that it’s open to everyone. Do you have a sense in which an inherent part your faith is rooted in connecting with other people?

Kasdorf: Well, at some level life is fundamentally painful and it ends badly, so why are we here except to bind the wounds? Menno Simons, one of the founders of the Mennonite church, wrote in the 1500’s, “True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant, it feeds the hungry, it clothes the naked.”

Interviewer: You said something yesterday about the advantage of being able to be in both the Christian community and the writing community. What kind of insights does that provide?

Kasdorf: I don’t like to think of a dichotomy between the faith community and the writing community. It’s more that we travel through the world and we have relationships with many people, if life is rich. I’m fortunate to have a place in multiple communities because every community has its own way of thinking and talking, and its own values and loves. If you’re lucky enough to be able to relate to these different groups it means only that you can learn to love more things, or you can learn more stories, or more ways of being. Of course, I know that the values of different communities are often not compatible and you can feel like you’re being torn apart. But as a writer you have to be large and embrace many things.

Interviewer: We’d like to go back to another quote, “She sees both from within herself and slightly outside herself, constantly watching to determine whether she meets the expectation of masculine desire, having internalized his ideal image of beauty and femininity.” Could you talk more about the idea of having a divided consciousness, and your doubly marginalized role as female and ethnically Mennonite?

Kasdorf: Well, that quote is from “Preacher’s Striptease,” which is a very troubled essay about anxiety, and also about gender. The idea I was expressing is actually a major theme in film and visual theory, the theme of the male gaze which becomes internalized within the female. It’s also a prevalent idea in feminist theory that there is some ideal of beauty or desirability that women internalize within themselves and then constantly scrutinize themselves to see if they are meeting. It becomes active self-surveillance, and one is constantly aware of how one is being perceived by others. The idea that I was exploring was, in writing poetry, how do you live with this consciousness of how you’re being perceived?

One way this played out was when the first book came out and I was interviewed on National Public Radio. It was a strange experience because it was really clear to me that the interviewer had a very clear idea of what the story was going to be. She perceived it as, “Well, here’s this ethnic, country-girl who writes poems about this quaint place, and then she moved to New York City.” To her it was something sweet about the American story of immigration, but instead of coming from a distant place, the immigrant is coming from a rural community. There was no way that any amount of talking I could do in that interview could complicate her version of the story, and in fact I found myself cooperating with it, because I know that’s the story they want to hear. I felt ashamed, but also completely helpless. Another example might be the image of the female author. Say that this woman decides to be a writer, what’s the story about what that writer can say, how angry can she be, how explicit can she be? How can you tell your truth so that people can hear it? How do you negotiate between what you know of yourself and what people believe when they see you? How can you know yourself at all, with all this information being projected upon you?

Interviewer: You said something about people reading your books with the assumption that they are autobiographical. Do you find that to be true in your writing, or is there a distancing that happens as you move along in a poem?

Kasdorf: First of all, I’ll put the cards on the table and say that I do use an autobiographical “I”. But I would also say that it isn’t all of me all the time, it’s me in the moment that I was making that poem. So in that sense it’s a lie, it’s not an artifact of life, but rather a creation. Right now, there’s a lot of talk about the death of the author and the rise of the reader, and a dismissal of the sense of authenticity of the individual voice. But you have to keep in mind that those things are not necessarily true of people who are writing out of communities that haven’t had a voice in literature. How can you talk about the death of the author when there weren’t any authors to begin with? I don’t think you can read literature that comes out of ethnic communities and even literature that comes out of women’s experience through those same lenses.

Interviewer: Can you talk more about what the difference would be when looking through a woman’s lens?

Kasdorf: The difference is that women don’t have enough stories yet to dismiss narrative or to talk about the notion of the first person as being faux authentic. There aren’t enough stories yet written in the first person that explore certain types of experience to start doing this high theory on it. People are questioning reading fiction and poetry as representative of groups but there’s also a move to write that all off as identity politics, and as simplistic, but I think that all those dismissals are easy ways to not pay attention to these minority voices that are still surfacing. We don’t have enough stories coming from minority groups to apply what is essentially a theory of white, European and North American patriarchal high-culture.
Interviewer: We noticed that Sleeping Preacher seems to have a clear, connecting theme concentrated on oral tradition and the community, but that Eve’s Striptease is more of a collage, putting many different experiences and points of view together. Was the way you put each book together different?

Kasdorf: As is, I think, the case with many people’s first book, Sleeping Preacher was written over 10 years, during which time I was writing one poem after the other. The themes of that book of family and history were important then because they were coming out of this sense of growing mindfulness of what home was, as many people experience when they move away and find they have the distance and maybe even the language to recognize the particularities of where they came from. When you’re growing up there it’s just the world, but when you get away from it, you realize “Oh, not every family is like my family, not every church is like my church.” So Sleeping Preacher is essentially an exploration of ethnic identity and religious identity, a story about leaving home and going to a big, multicultural city.

So after the experience of publishing your first book, you lose your innocence about your readership and also about your own intentionality. As I was writing Eve’s Striptease, I believed the book would be a kind of investigation into how we know what we know about gender and marriage and sexuality. Both of the books are about identity. I think they’re very much located in place and time, and self-obsessed in certain ways.

Interviewer: How does your next book fit in?

Kasdorf: I’m seeing the next book as a kind of exploration of both public and private subjects. It is inspired partially by experiences of being a mother during wartime, since I was pregnant during 9/11 and have seen how the country has changed since then. I definitely felt conflicting pulls, both to be interested in the world and to just protect this little life. I think also that when people have children they have to start thinking in terms of generations, not just the self. All of this has made me feel more connected to the basic questions about life in the world. I’m also working on trying to depart from my usual tone in these pieces, to be a little lighter even though it’s about war and raising a child. The book also has a lot to do with language and the place of literature in all of this.

Interviewer: What do you think the place of literature is?

Kasdorf: Well, language is what we have in common, and I think literature can help us defend a language from its misuses. And by its misuses I mean certain kinds of media, certain kinds of lying that are used to justify self-interested behaviors and violence. I see literature and the work of writing as the work of trying to keep language useful as a tool for making meaning and telling truths in a world of big lies.