Review of Janet Kauffman’s, Eco-dementia and Joanna Ruocco’s Fiction Reading

By: Maria Kornacki

The main takeaway I got from Janet Kauffman’s Eco Dementia reading was the power of bringing people and environments together through writing.  Not only through writing, but through visual media to help make connections to our world. Janet Kauffman began her reading performance with defining her own term “Eco-Dementia” as being the “condition of humanity; a love of the living world while causing hurt and suffering its destruction”.

If I hadn’t gone to this reading or been a part of the creative writing community, I probably would not have gained insight from her thoughts about the environment.  The ability to share my personal view about society and the world is a writer’s gift, which has helped shape me into a better writer.  I have been gradually getting better at sharing my inner thoughts with others instead of just writing them down or not writing anything at all.  Her presentation was successful in fostering a sense of community and shared endeavor because we are all capable of learning from our surroundings through our senses.  Learning through observing, feeling, smelling, hearing, and even tasting allows us to make connections to the world around us.  Janet Kauffman explained the environment she lived in that was sort of a carley for how Eco-Dementia came about.

Kauffman is surrounded by land and described the importance to protect farmlands and wetlands in Michigan.  Kauffman’s environment placed prominence on connecting to the sense and physical world.  I thought it was a key note when she said she dislikes it when her poetry is described as “nature poetry” because it sounds more flowery in terms of really getting underneath all of the dirt and issues that come along with nature, which is what Eco-Dementia exhibits.

I then attended Joanna Ruocco’s reading on October 24th at 6pm.  Her reading was successful not only in fostering a sense of community, by helping foster young writers’ individual voices.  The pieces she read were lengthy, but each sentence was packed with experimental language to keep the audience engaged.  I noticed several people, including myself that laughed and smiled while listening to her read, particularly “My Future Boyfriend”(her “Dan” excerpt was also humorous).  This piece formed through a response to artwork, which is a similar to a writing/photography class exercise I have participated in at our EMU galleries.  If I have learned anything about Joanna Ruocco’s work, it’s to hone in on finding your voice as a writer while also being open to other possibilities for different styles of genres.

As a creative writing major, my college experience has been about finding my voice through writing and both bathhouse readings have helped me learned how to think outside the box in terms of getting the audience to be invested in my own writing style.  Expansion of the mind and the words on the page go hand-in-hand.  Ultimately, writing should be a way to bring an audience together and leave them thinking about the meaningful questions the work provoked.

Review of Janet Kauffman’s in-class discussion of ‘Eco-dementia’ (9/26/17)

By: Adam Malinowski


“i believe any string of words put together makes meaning” — Kauffman, at Emu, 9/26

the image of the fish (or, the logic of k=q=e) is the magical manifesto of Janet Kauffman’s Eco-dementia, a book of poems where all things—language, life, and all beings—are equal. Kauffman’s poetics nestle language thick inside the ecology of the physical world we all inhabit, but are quickly losing touch with, quickly forgetting, as we deepen our de-realization with life, the body, and the infinite bodies within and beyond us, committing ourselves (those of us plugged into the techno-capitalist machine, the majority of us) to technological alienation. Kauffman’s critique of positivist technological utopianism was best summarized when she stated, “physicality is much more important than meaning.” Meaning being the universal sign, the rationalist logic of the prevailing sexist, racist, homophobic, and imperialist social order. The body is in opposition, always & already, to this logic of domination. The body lies still in a thicket, in wildflowers and wild weeds, laying still beneath the sound of geese flying south in October. Delayed migratory patterns. Delayed apprehension of the materialist logic of late capital, misunderstood best in the deep seat of the thicket.

“Caught between rocks, the blue

mud ushers in

glacial till.” (p. 4)

Language is an aural medium for Kauffman. Perhaps she herself is a medium of sorts; her poems are best understood as spells, operating w/in a magical logic of associative verse and making something happen in the world that otherwise is imperceptible. Kauffman previously worked with an environmentalist group in lower Michigan that lobbied Lansing politicians to change pollution laws (her farm is somewhere along the watershed of the Maumee river, which connects to Lake Erie, and experiences huge algae blooms due to industrial pollution). although k=Kauffman knows her poems won’t change policy, she begs the question: on what level can they effect change, on what level are they affecting? Kauffman’s poetry, in her own words, is an assemblage of language tantamount to the “collections of talismans people places on their windowsills”—for Kauffman, poetry is memorious and felt, guiding our way, like crystal magic does, through the loss of contact with the physical world (home reduced to 4 walls and a front door) into the expansiveness of the planet as home, where our shared ethic is invisibility.

Kauffman’s poems are also informed not just by the loss of contact with the world, but by her own loss, the death of her father, who lived at the end of his life with dementia. her father would never know where his home was, and neither do we. place is not the highway, not the car, not the suburb, or the city. it is the ecosystem that underpins our artificial environs, the biosphere that sustains us all, that we are currently placing in peril. what grows at the side of the freeway? herbs and flowers and bushes and waterfowl and wildlife and kinds of trees. someone once told me St. john’s wart, an herb to ward off depression, is often found at the sides of Midwestern highways. the earth responds, poetry responds, but do we? only under conditions of immense psychological change, do we begin to respond differently. Kauffman felt less in grief about her father than she spoke about him in awe. The way he saw the world was not inaccurate, but less easily understood to humans living in present reality. Rather, Kauffman suggests, he may have seen the world in a less filtered, less mediated way. He would see things that were not “there,” or comment on things “not going on.” The poems respond similarly—to that which we cannot see, but which are, in fact, part of our reality.

—> in this sense, the poems are interventionary.

“because nothing makes a sound not one of us

animals in the end behind walls even the air

drowned out mouths open in every cell” (p. 47)

This poem (c. 2004), written under conditions of personal illness, rampant corporate pollution in lower Michigan, and the horrors of U.S.-sponsored torture in Abu Ghraib overseas, in particular, not just responds to these events, but if we take the poem as a discrete spell, a discrete aural and linguistic event, intervenes in our reality (or in reality), shaping our heads and twisting our brains, giving us new sense, like all good poems ought to do. My question now is: who do these poems ask us to become?

Upcoming CW Faculty Readings

Catch Christine Hume reading at the William P. Faust Public Library in Westland on Wednesday, 4/23, at 7PM.

William P. Faust Public Library of Westland
6123 Central City Parkway, Westland, MI 48185 / 734-326-6123

Next month, Christine will join Janet Kauffman for a reading at the Schultz-Holmes Memorial Library in Blissfield on Tuesday, 5/6, at 7 PM.

Schultz-Holmes Memorial Library
407 S. Lane Street, Blissfield, MI 49228 / 517-486-2858

BathHouse Reading Series – Janet Kauffman and Jeff Parker – Wednesday, April 2, 5:00 pm

Please join us for the last BathHouse Reading of the year featuring Janet Kauffman and Jeff Parker (Co-sponsored by Campus Life).

Apr. 2, 5pm (NEW DATE)
Student Center Auditorium, Eastern Michigan University campus
Reception to follow at Frenchie’s in Depot Town

Janet KauffmanJanet Kauffman will read from her new book Trespassing: Dirt Stories & Field Notes, which combines stories and nonfiction pieces to illustrate the impact of modern factory farms—confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs—on her rural community.  More about Trespassing:
She has published three previous books of short stories: Characters on the Loose, Obscene Gestures for Women, and Places in the World a Woman Could Walk, which won the Rosenthal Award from the Academy-Institute of Arts and Letters; three novels in the trilogy Flesh Made Word: Collaborators, The Body in Four Parts, and Rot; and four collections of poems, including The Weather Book, which was an AWP Award Series Selection, and Five on Fiction (Burning Deck Press, 2004). Her mixed media work includes a series of recycled plastic hand/books: Telescopic Heavens (1998), This is the House That Jack Built (1999), and Armed Bug-Women and Other Planetary Forces Confront the Lenawee County Road Commission (2000). She has collaborated with artist Nancy Chalker-Tennant on several visual/hybrid books, including X Amount of Time/Lines, and Another Account: A Water Project.

Jeff ParkerJeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman (Tin House Books, 2007). 
He collaborated with artist William Powhida on The Back of the Line (DECODE, 2007). His short fiction has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Ploughshares, Tin House, Hobart, and other pubs. Formerly the Director of Creative Writing at Eastern Michigan University, he teaches at the University of Toronto.

“Trespassing” – New Release by Janet Kauffman

Trespassing by Janet KauffmanTrespassing, the new book by our own Janet Kauffman, will be released April 25 through Wayne State U. Press.  A combination of essays and short fiction, her book examines the impact of modern factory farms on a rural Michigan community.  Anyone interested in envrionmental issues and/or creative fiction/nonfiction will want to take a look at Trespassing.

 Read a more detailed description of Janet’s book here.

And don’t forget about Janet’s Bathhouse reading (with Jeff Parker) on April 2 at 5pm in the Student Center Auditorium.

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.