Canned Peaches and Pennsylvania Dutch

This week, I read Julia Kasdorf‘s 1992 chapbook, Sleeping Preacher. Yes, this book is one year older than me, but good poetry is good poetry, right? (Right! sounds the resounding online literary community.)

I read this chapbook at the recommendation of one of my professors, and I’ll admit, I didn’t dive into this reading with the poetic thoughtfulness that one should approach creative work.

But it caught my attention.

I would say the first thing the collection does very well is put you directly into the narrow and unique frame of experience of the poems’ speaker. In “Green Market, New York,” the collection’s first poem, you learn through an interaction between the speaker and an Amish pie maker that the speaker is living in New York City and is originally from a small community in Pennsylvania.

And so the scene is set. It seems simple, until Kasdorf begins to lay out the dirty laundry of her family in their small Mennonite community and grappling with how she deals with the alienation of living in a very modern and diverse city after growing up in the pastoral and very narrow Mennonite community.

This one poem sets the scene for the rest of the book’s theme, from the way the speaker approaches discussing her relationship with her husband to how she makes bean soup. Everything in her existence is permeated by her experience growing up Mennonite. What does it mean to reflect and integrate one’s past into their present? That’s what Kasdorf dives into in Sleeping Preacher.

So, what does this chapbook mean to my (and all of our) writing?

We read so we can have an eye for quality, for what makes writing good…

Here’s what Kasdorf does that makes this chapbook good. Like read most of it in one sitting without losing attention good:

1. She writes story, detailed but unpretentious.

After reading poems like “Grossdaadi’s Sale” and “Dying with Amish Uncles,” I feel like I understand her family and I can place members of my own into her story.

She details memories from her childhood without making them overly emotional or cluttered.

She’s an incredible storyteller.

She doesn’t mention how her mother “lovingly combs her hair, gently showing her/how to be beautiful from the inside out/a light to all.” (That was the most pretentious/overtly emotional fake poetry I could come up with on the spot, sorry.)

She tells the story and trusts that the story will speak for itself.

I know that I often need to remember that poets need to be good storytellers too.

2. Her poems work cohesively without having to be blatantly chronological.

Kasdorf has a good grip on where to place flashback pieces and where to place modern, reflective pieces. And they’re all mixed together, because life is complicated.

Memory mixes with current reality, and that’s what makes sense in human life.

3. She writes what she knows. What she uniquely knows.

Kasdorf was a Mennonite New Yorker. Not so many could say that. She knew her niche and wrote it well.

I’m not a Mennonite New Yorker. But I have unique experiences that not everyone has had. And I can learn from Kasdorf’s experiences and her reflection just as much as I can learn from my own life.

It’s okay to have a favorite flood subject. Poet Anya Silver, one of my favorite poets writing currently (read her chapbook The Ninety-Third Name of God– it’ll transform the way you approach faith and doubt in your writing) told my class this in a workshop we had with her last year.

Anya’s flood subject is cancer. Julia’s flood subject is Mennonite culture (at least in this chapbook), and I have my own. I fluctuate between brief interactions with strangers and the intricate heartbreaks and victories of romantic relationships.

It’s okay to write what you know. I know that I’ve had my share of bad relationships in my past, and I want to write about them. That’s okay. And your flood subject is okay too.

Write it from every angle. Fill a notebook with work about one single idea. Make it your own. It’s okay.

Your knowledge about what you care about could be exactly what someone doesn’t know they need yet. But they do.

Read Sleeping Preacher by Julia Kasdorf if you get a chance,

and write stories about what you care about.

Keep writing, keep reading.

Abigail Joy

“Yeah, I read! I read the Bible.”

My father, who’s currently getting his PhD in English, used to be a full-time minister in an evangelical denomination of Christianity. He was on the board that was given the task to interview new ministers to determine ordination.

One question he learned early on to ask at those interviews was “What are you reading?”

This is a pretty typical question thrown around at cocktail parties and coffee shops. It’s a getting to know you question. Are you the sort of person who reads fantasy? Young Adult Lit? Whatever Oprah put on her list in 2006 that you just got around to reading? God forbid, something pretentious like poetry chapbooks? (Because there is no “I’m kidding” font, I would like to say that I’m kidding here.)

However, when my dad would ask these potential young pastors what they were reading, they would often flounder and then say, “Well, I read the Bible.”

 

Now, as a Christian, I am fully supportive of reading the Bible. Like, I think it’s vitally important.

But Christians shouldn’t just read the Bible. Because not reading widely not only makes you miss out as an individual, it makes you miss out as a Christian.

I read a fantastic article that was actually published a few years ago, but I stumbled upon it today while doing some research for a class. It was titled “Thou Shalt Read” and it was written by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University. (You can read the full article here at Relevant).

She basically lays out the different reasons why reading is important and vital for Christians. It seems like a simple idea, but I think it’s unfortunately a necessary thing for a lot of Christians to know.

The argument that I think was my favorite in her article was that reading non-Christian work helps us to “test” all things, and cling to good and resist evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22)

She uses an example of the first time she read Madame Bovary, a book that was banned in its day for being too racy, and how it helped her faith and marriage. She said she saw her own romanticism in Emma Bovary, and she said the novel opened her eyes to the poor results that could come from having unrealistic expectations about love and passion.

A “secular” work made her rethink something very integral to her personal character.

It helped her cling to good.

Reading is important. Reading makes us better, if we let it.

As a beginning writer who’s currently focused on one major writing project, I need inspiration wherever I can find it.

However, this article reminded me that reading isn’t just beneficial for me professionally.

It’s essential for me spiritually too.

 

So in the coming weeks as I read and blog, I’m going to be clinging to the good technically and artistically, as well as spiritually.

Because I want what I read to mean something to my life holistically. I want everything to be drawing me closer to the person I want to be and the Saviour I profess.

 

Keep reading, friends. Cling to good.

Abigail Joy

 

Joshua Robbins–Seeking the Divine in Strip Malls

Do you remember that movie The Princess Diaries?

Okay, perhaps such a question isn’t a good first statement for a blog that I hope is pretty thoughtful reflections on the inspiring work I’m reading lately…

But as I read Joshua Robbin’s Praise Nothing this evening, I couldn’t help but think of Mia Thermopolis, the movie’s protagonist, and her quirky poet neighbor Mr. Robitussin.

In the movie, he’s a comically brooding poet who writes poetry about his garbage can and the goings-on in his San Francisco neighborhood.

While I believe Joshua Robbins to be a much better poet than that character seems to be in the film, I imagined as I read that Robbins perhaps has the same writing process.

 

I think one of my favorite aspects of Robbins’ chapbook so far (I’m about halfway finished) is his thematic focus on the mundane and run-down aspects of everyday living. He writes of suburbs and turnpikes, the sound of semi-truck jake brakes and the rumblings of washing machines in his local laundromat.

He writes eerily of the mundane and frankly depressing aspects of lower-middle class American life. Bowling alleys shut down, vacant strip malls with shady bars. And in all of it, he finds this spiritual depth and conflict.

The book is split into three main sections: “Against Forgiveness,” “Praise Nothing,” and “Collateral.”

“Against Forgiveness” seems to deal mostly with issues of the Church’s and God’s interaction with a dilapidated world of forgotten, failing America. He grapples with faith in very realistic and tangible way in poems like “Theodicy” where he writes “God raised both hands above His head

as if to say, “I’ve had enough,”

and renounced all of it,

 

took a job behind a desk

wearing khaki-colored scrubs,

filing papers to code and answering

 

the phones, His voice far away” (Robbins 7)

Even in this one section of poem, I think the way he approaches explaining his frustration or confusion about faith is very tangible and human. In his poetry, the divine and the base connect so seamlessly, yet also in juxtaposition with one another.

The passion of his poetry, the angst, is evident most in his constant referral to fire. He powerfully makes reference to burning a list of his father’s faults as his funeral in “Less than Ash,”  he describes guilt and passion in “Controlled Burn” by comparing an affair to a fire in a field in Kansas, and he describes a pile of hymnals on fire in “When I Say Hymn.” This motif both connects his poems and infuses this depth of passion into what he writes.

Juxtaposition is something Robbins’ poetry does wonderfully as well.

In “Washing in the Sangam,” his descriptions flow from a foreign and strange scene on the shores of the Ganges to a simple scene of his son eating breakfast in his high chair. The connection flows beautifully and unexpectedly with just a few common details to both scenes, and the end result is a very haunting view into the beautiful complexity of the simplest of everyday scenes.

 

I also deeply appreciate the simplicity of his structure–every poem is comprised of short lines, and most stanzas are two to three lines each. I think this keeps his poems fast-paced and passion-infused without losing a lot of the contemplative descriptions that he provides.

 

Basically, if you’re at all intrigued by work that attempts to grapple with the divine in unusual ways,

give Joshua Robbins’ Praise Nothing a try.

It’s a haunting, simple-yet-so-very-complex little read with much to offer in the way of writing inspiration.

His website is joshuajrobbins.com if you’re looking to learn more.

 

Keep reading and watering those creative minds, friends.

Abigail Joy