Janet Kauffman – The Tribute Interview

Janet KauffmanThis collective interview is a tribute to Janet Kauffman’s 20 years at EMU, and to her careers as writer, teacher, and environmental activist. In the spirit of Janet’s collaborative fire, students and faculty of the Creative Writing program play the interviewer here, where inquiry bears the weight of our admiration and appreciation. Particular thanks to Susana Adame, Paul Bancel, Sharon Ciclian, Anya Cobler, Andrew Conant, Christine Hume, Jamie Jones, Christina Milletti, Jeff Parker, and Jack Visnaw. And mostly, thank you, Janet; we will miss you.

When did you get mixed up with mixed media? What was the spark that made you say, Hey, I want to spend some time in mixed media country?

It was the usual suspects in my life that led to mixing things up (blame farming, feminism, environmentalism). I love manual labor, play, hands-on work and shifting points of view, found materials, recycling. Teaching had a lot to do with it, too — about 10 years ago, I started assigning a mid-term in writing workshops, asking students to do a project “not readable in the usual ways.” Those projects were incredible, surprising. The weird bookforms and hangings and constructions they came up with were more interesting and inventive, usually, than their writing on the page. Soon, we added an entire workshop of writing/mixed media. I love that country (more a mess, a wilderness than a plowed field).

How much has feminism influenced your shift from traditional methods of creation like novels to multi-media projects?

Feminism, and civil rights work before that, were major influences in thinking about fiction especially, re-thinking how stories were told, whose voices were heard, what structures made sense, what “plot” meant and what “action” meant to me (not much—action is talk, or walking around, in many of my stories). So the shift from traditional structures in writing began on the page, and kept going, off the page.

In your mixed media classes you encouraged artistic expression and unbridled creative thought, often creating a lasting visual image. From the class I took I remember a room full of shoes, a tree draped in rope, a box full of worms. What project do you remember as the most successful in expressing your concept of mixed media art?

I’d say the mix of work in those classes was the real success. Rather than any one project being “most successful.” Some of the projects that interested me the most were the kind I’ve rarely done myself—interactive installations. I remember a “Poetry Machine” one student made with old typewriter parts– the roll attached to a pulley and motor, the keys removed and attached to wooden handles. The motor turned a roll of paper, and you picked up the letter-handles, hit them on an ink pad and then tapped the paper as it rolled along. I liked the collaborative projects, too – often ephemeral – the long satiric text about Pray-Harrold wrapped around the interior walls a few years ago; the Q&A elevator lobby project this year, with answers made into poems-wallpaper. I liked that wormbox, too – the worms digested garbage, and newspaper, and words.

I’ve been incredibly thankful that you’ve never flinched from discussions of race, radical feminism, or how race interacts with gender, and when bringing my work to class I never worried about your reaction because you’ve always been respectful while at the same time you’ve pushed me to think further and deeper about my subjects and forms. Have you encountered student work that DID make you uncomfortable or even angry, and how did you handle it?

Depictions of violence, abuse, and especially torture (which has shown up in projects recently, since the Iraq war) often make me uncomfortable – especially if the images or text are free-floating, out of context, just there as if they’re part of the scenery. Worse, when these images look “beautiful” or are shifted “away” from us into a medieval past, for instance, I have an especially strong reaction. We discuss these things, though – they’re important issues in a violent world: how/why do you depict violence, what is the “sense” of different “uses” of violence in creative work, etc.

Remember the difficulty of the steel rod tree that I welded for your class? What do you consider the most difficult media you’ve ever had to work with? Did you complete the project and if so, how did you feel about it afterwards?

I’m still trying to find ways to work with mud – mud paper, mud writing, etc. I did make mud paper this semester, but didn’t get a mud book put together. The paper looked pretty much like brown paper, not mud, and so now the question is, do I want mud paper at all, do I want a mud book that’s not wet?

Your class was very much a boon to my educational experience. It opened a number of doors for me and what I found on the other side expanded my own creativity exponentially. That said, I’d like to know who or what shaped your teaching style. Are there any links between the influences of your teaching and the influences of your writing?

Many years ago when I was first teaching at Jackson Community College, a visiting older poet came to my poetry workshop and said that he always started discussions with the simple but open-ended and visual question: What do you notice here? (Not “What do you like,” not “what works or doesn’t work,” etc). I’ve used his question ever since in discussing writing, teaching mixed media, reading & editing. Answering that question, students are equal, they can notice anything, there’s no pressure to be smart, first thing, but they learn to use their senses, and that leads quickly to mindfulness. By starting with description, the simplest observations about words or materials or structures, discussion can quickly move into multiple and more complex analyses and points of view.

I really believe in the senses – they’re the brain, how we know what we know. That’s probably why there’s so much walking around, so much touching, air and water and fire, in my writing, too.

In one of your short stories, you created a visual image that I often return to: a robust farm girl’s bra flames from the host exhaust of a farm tractor. Fact or fiction?

Fiction: the bra bursting into flames. Fact: taking off the bra in the field. (The fact that men and not women in this culture can rip off their shirts when it’s hot—and have the deep pleasure of all that good air on expanses of skin—has always seemed a serious injustice).

The body (much like women’s identities) arises in your work as a condition of (and conditioned by) language. What is the relation for you between the (perceived) materiality of the body and the (perceived) abstractness of language?

Materiality is all, body & mind & language, to me. Even the abstractions of language take shape in the body, the brain, the mouth, as air, sound, assume the physical shapes of letters and lines. All molecules, arrangements of atoms, organic constructions and decay – it’s all composition and decomposition. Construction, deconstruction. Language separate from the living body is not possible. Just as the body separate from water and air is not a living body. The more separate language is from meaning (some L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poetry, for instance), the more we can see its materiality! Just because words sometimes make sense, arrange strings of ideas or abstractions, doesn’t mean they’re any less (literally) elemental and material.

All of your work seems to be driven by a revisionary impulse, particularly challenging dominant ideas about language, women, nature, and genre. Your recent book Five on Fiction demands that we read between the genres of essay, handbook, prose poem, and short story. Do you see your newest work merging the concerns and ways of fiction and nonfiction as you have already managed to merge poetry and fiction techniques?

I guess I think of creative work as an ecosystem, with its organic mergings, overlappings, sequences, arrays, grotesqueries, diversity of structures, richness, decomposition—as a sign of health. No monoculture, please!

At least one Amazon reviewer, in wild praise, called your first collection of stories: “feminist farm stories”. I don’t know about that, but there are beloved cows there and a rat named Ratzafraz and women doing “the work of men”. What do you think when you look back on these first stories, either about yourself then, or the writer you were, or the writer you’ve become, or yourself now?

I was determined to get women outside in fiction, out of the house – walking around, working—as I know them in life. A feminist impulse, but also a vision of the world that shifts nature from “background” in human lives to foreground, the natural world with us, around us, whether men or women, creaturely within a living world. Those early stories were more “realistic,” in the sense of having real characters with names, rather than the more weird and elemental tangles of writing in some later books, where I wanted to make the natural world the characters (Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, for instance, in The Body in Four Parts).

As a farmer/environmental activist/writer–not necessarily in that order–what have you found shared among all these (pre)occupations? I mean, does the craft involved in one or the other have any resonance with the craft of the other?

Absolutely – profoundly shared obsessions, all around: manual labor, air on skin, the elements as us, life and language as mixed physical media…

What’s next? You’ve mentioned that you’ll be happy to have more time to write—what particular projects or subjects are you up for tackling next?

I’ll still be working on how to make language and its structures as much of a match for nature as possible— less & less linear? more layered, or not? a restoration ecology of writing? On the other hand, I expect to do more non-fiction, op-ed ranting on the destructions and losses we can’t seem to quit, and writing on the ecological restorations we’d better get to, and quick.

I admire your work ethic, your writing, your amazing thoughtfulness, and your ability to have fun. How do you seem to stay so happy and to have such a positive outlook?

When all’s lost, all’s destroyed, it’s pretty easy to have a good time! I’m completely pessimistic about humanity as a species, pulling ourselves out of the mess we’ve made of this planet. At the same time, as an antidote and possible rescue, if only for moments, from the horror and brutality we commit, I believe absolutely in the power of creativity to re-invent what it means to be human – creatures who haven’t lost their senses! Who know pleasure, and play, and joy, and peace.