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.