Janet Kauffman, Five on Fiction, Burning Deck Press, 2004.
"From her early stories on, Kauffman has redefined terms — of literature and of human nature. Here, short paragraphs cut across genres to assemble a poetics of narrative. She shows us fiction’s elements grounded in the materiality of language: plot as ground, action as just what it looks like, one word after another. Five on Fiction sets out the bones and flesh of narrative, in bits and pieces, evidence of its connections to the physical and natural world."
“ This gathering of stories [Characters on the Loose] leaves little doubt that Kauffman is a formidable if unruly talent, contorting narrative into teasing and surprising shapes.”—Bill Marx
"Janet Kauffman’s latest book, Five on Fiction, consists of five sequences, each composed of ten very short prose pieces. Each sequence is ostensibly about one aspect of fiction writing. These are odd, tentative pieces, operating somewhere between prose poems, essays, and short fiction. The titles, such as “On Eliminating Characters from Fiction” and “On the Transportation of Background to Foreground,” read like section titles from a perverse creative-writing handbook. At moments there are what feel like fragments of essays on writing: “If you don’t say the name of the person, a good many things are possible in a sentence...” Other moments offer what feel like bits of lost plots, meditations on the natural world (and its relation to narrative), reflection on human and animal territories, lost voices, commands, and hats made out of sticks. Five on Fiction thus demands that you read between the genres you are used to, making brief forays out of but always coming back to the mulchy space that exists beneath the formation of genres. This is mixed-genre work, but it has an unexpected modesty to it. And in addition Kauffman seems to be operating by touch rather than with clear purpose. The majority of writers become complacent, falling back on what has worked for them in the past. Kauffman is one of the few writers I know who consistently takes more chances with each new book. In Five on Fiction these chances pay off remarkably well." —Brian Evenson
Janet Kauffman, Rot, New Issues Poetry & Prose , 2001.
"This is a story that tracks a father whose wish is to die in the open, open to the elements. He's a Mennonite, a pacifist, obsessed with Stalin and other tyrants, and he's determined to redefine power, rethink what it is to be good. With his daughter, and with his friend Irene, he finds collaborators in his passion for trespass. This book has moments where the writing is both beautiful and grotesque: fitting, as the book itself tackles the fantastic contradictions of the human experience. Janet Kauffman writes with a clarity of voice that cuts clean through the brush of language but leaves no trail we couldn't turn back even if we wanted to."
"Rot, Janet Kauffman’s third novel, completes the trilogy Flesh Made Word, that she began with her first two novels, Collaborators and The Body in Four Parts. Like her other novels, Rot welcomes us into an odd, but nonetheless mesmerizing world in which the lines between self and other, human and nature, as well as flesh and word are eroded. ...What’s delightful about this novel is Kauffman’s imagery, her tender, concise language, her characters, and perhaps most of all, her sincerity." –Michelle Ross
"Janet Kauffman’s new novel confronts the near–impossibility of a simple, nonviolent death as she quietly examines the forces of evil and the nature of simplicity. She is in her element here, having grown up among the Mennonites on a tobacco farm in Pennsylvania, and having written an unusual breed of morally and ecologically concerned fiction without a drop of preachiness. ...Humor, sadness, and calm hang in perfect balance here, and it’s heartbreaking. ...Through her novels and stories, including the watery, shapeshifting The Body in Four Parts and the playful but provocative Characters on the Loose, Janet Kauffman has created a voice that is always recognizably her own—and yet it’s never the same. Here she takes on the gravity of death with characteristic levity, using as few words as possible to wrangle with the contradictions of life on earth." – Carolyn Kuebler
"Eccentric, poetic, both high-minded and tough-minded, this novella is intermittently successful. When the author goes off the beam, we are left with a mere collection of oddballs, but when she is on, we behold something quite rare– dying as we hope it can be, a last embrace." – Richard Lourie
"In Rot, Janet kauffman writes a reverie whose mistily voluminous main character, death, is regarded as a predator to be met calmly and equably, not tricked or resisted by the anxious, enterprising victim-to-be. ...Kauffman assays questions and yet avoids dictating answers. Instead, as she suggests, 'Moral ground is geologic – exist, be present as long, as harmlessly as possible, and then disappear.'" – Molly McQuade
"In Places in the World a Woman Could Walk, author Janet Kauffman showed herself to be an author of great talent. In Rot she fulfills all that was "promised" by the earlier book. (Not that the intervening books are bad, they simply don't meet the high expectations set by the earlier work.) Rot is the final installment of a trilogy Flesh Made Word that includes Collaborators, The Body in Four Parts and Rot; however, Rot stands alone equally well.
Rot is an exploration of the death of a father, and an exploration of what death means to this particular father - a tobacco farmer, a pacifist, a Mennonite, a reader of biographies especially of dictators ... He is a man who does things "his way" whose friend and granddaughter are equally independent. He is philosophical but in a quiet, unobstrusive way - with a physicality of thought. And example: "My father tells me a person should not take longer to die than to be born. You slipped in, my father says. Your mother didn't blink."
The book plays the father-daughter relationship off Stalin/Svetlana (Stalin's daughter), off the relationship with the daughter revealing the complexity of the relationship and the variety of ways love is expressed and recognized/not recognized as well as how the same external actions may express power rather than love.
This a pure gem of a book, an excellent evening's read." - M. J. Smith
Janet Kauffman, Characters on the Loose: Stories, Graywolf, 1997.
"Perhaps like olives or Brussels sprouts, minimalist fiction is an acquired taste. Flat, telegraphed accounts of lives so ordinary as to be practically invisible are the provinces of the minimalist writer, and in such stripped-down environments, one misstep is enough to send a story spiralling into the abyss of bad writing that is both affected and ridiculous. Fortunately, writer Janet Kauffman has an excellent sense of balance. In earlier collections, she has written eloquently, if sparely, of the inarticulate lives of farm families; a farmer herself, her hardscrabble stories are as real as the earth her characters tilled. In her short-story collection Characters on the Loose, Kauffman has decided to venture from the starkly real into the experimental.
In "26 Acts in 26 Letters," Kauffman presents an erotic alphabet, describing letters performing various sexual acts--complete with illustrations. In "Signed Away," she imagines Emily Dickinson on a bike trip. Not all of the stories in Characters on the Loose are quite as unusual as these, and several are vintage Kauffman. There's enough of the old Kauffman and the new in this collection to satisfy both her die-hard fans and those readers unafraid of something different." - Amazon.com review
"Kauffman here continues to employ the innovative prose that made her previous writings (e.g., The Body in Four Parts, LJ 9/1/93) so enticing. Aptly named, this collection is less about place than about people. The characters share a deep sense of intimacy, presented without heavy reliance on context that readers are thus invited to imagine. Some stories feature characters with simple idiosyncrasies, such as a boy who can write with both hands or a woman who continues relationships with deceased loved ones in her dreams. Others reveal a thoughtful use of Kauffman's lucid prose, as when a naive young mother burying her dead infant observes that "the dirt is gravely." At times humorous, sad, or sexually charged (the most original tale narrates erotic moments between letters of the alphabet), these stories have the rare ability to describe subtle emotion within the minds of selected characters." - Judith A. Akalaitis
"It takes fifteen years to know where you are, and to know if it makes sense to be there."" So says Baku, leader of an immigrant support group in Battle Creek, Mich. In ""Baku's Theory,"" as in all of the pithy, minimal stories in the latest collection from Kauffman (The Body in Four Parts; Obscene Gestures for Women), even lifelong Midwesterners need help making sense of where they are. All the characters are looking for roots, for rituals to order their lives. Yet they impart the sense that everyday life in the rural Midwest can be as flaky and layered as a Danish pastry. In ""Red At Risk,"" a couple spends a mid-summer's day not ""really celebrating anything... just having a day when nobody had to go anywhere or do anything and we weren't in a war zone either and we weren't starving."" Lighthearted sketches like the giddily pornographic ""26 Acts in 26 Letters"" alternate with poignant pieces like ""What Lies Ahead,"" the tale of a child-woman learning about life unwittingly, thanks to a pregnancy. In ""The Ocean With Everything In It,"" a newspaper feature causes a man to reconsider his vision of humanity. The deceptively complex vision Kauffman expresses in this slim collection, some pieces of which have appeared in various literary quarterlies, will coax readers into territory that is not as homely and familiar as it seems." - Publishers Weekly
Janet Kauffman, The Body in Four Parts, Graywolf, 1994.
"Kauffman’s language is right, luxurious and heaped-on, a slurry of earth and water." – Jim Krusoe
"This strange little novel is narrated by the body in the persona of the element, earth. Each of the four elements is an aspect of the narrator and is independent of, but a part of, the whole. Earth's sister, "water," is named Dorothea (she inexplicably calls herself "S."). "I turn to mud when I am Dorothea," says earth; and she has the same symbiotic relationship with brothers Jack (air), who is "a juggler" who "assumed the spaces between the bodies of things," and Jean-Paul (fire), who "fuses." With her friend Margaretta, a fishmonger who gets her hair done once a week, the narrator heads East in a Plymouth Horizon in search of watercress for Dorothea who, meanwhile, remains (in) water and writes (in cursive script) sketches involving Jonasine and the whale, God's lips, and a balloonist named Andalusia. The watercress gathered, Margaretta and Jean-Paul, whose hair burns underwater, plant it in a muddy section of "the channel" in a small cove. This eloquently written failure is needlessly abstruse. Not recommended." - Ron Antonucci
"Kauffman has a mage's weakness for mysterious utterance, the goddess-persona, and a tendency to approach each of her slender, poetic but usually freighted works as though she's revising Ovid along feminist lines. Here, she plays with the conceit of multiple personalities to extend and simultaneously concentrate her mythologizing. Broken into the thematic elements of Water, Earth, Fire, and Air, Kauffman's "story'' concerns a woman with an aquatic alter-ego named Dorothea (as well as a sub-alter-ego named Jonasine, adventuring femininely in the belly of the whale); two male counterpart-elements named Jean-Paul and Jack; and a fishmongeress best friend named Margaretta - with whom the narrator takes a car trip east. The trip makes up the only trail-able narrative element in this swoony mash of metamorphosis and stylistic self-indulgence, and hardly seems worth the effort: tepidly comic, recounted in secondhand flashback. Gender wisdom rather than narrative generosity seems the goal. Pretentious deluxe." - Kirkus Reviews
"Novelist, short-story writer and poet Kauffman has a way of re-envisioning what prose is able to be, casting toward an expanded consciousness that can take in almost any human element; as a writer, she is a convinced democrat, evoking characters, metaphors, physical things and relationships in an inclusively imaginative assortment of words. In her prose, words and perceptions are infinitely changeable and intimately linked; to read (or write), it seems, is to live. Kauffman's talent is ably demonstrated in this novel, which resists its natural boundaries. The Body in Four Parts is organized, as its title suggests, in a quadruple structure: its ``parts'' are titled Water, Earth, Fire and Air, and Kauffman does not limit her experiments to that framework. Instead, she explores ``the dream of the body,'' which is ``to know a place bodily and to say so. To take words into and out of itself.'' The body, ``recalcitrant in the extreme,'' must be fathomed in words and in the experiences of her characters: Babe, the narrator; her sister Dorothea (aka S.); her friend Margaretta; her brother, Jean-Paul; and a few others, knit in a physical and verbal community of "simultaneous weathers'' that keep shifting in brief blocks of text. Kauffman's multivocal, multimodal experiment is rewarding, and the design of the book - simple and expansive - strengthens it." - Publishers Weekly
"For a long time now, fiction writer and poet Janet Kauffman has been lyrically and imaginatively inscribing a world of women absorbed by their own physical beings. In her short stories, in her novel COLLABORATORS, and in her poetry, Kauffman has consciously located her women (and sometimes her men) in relation both to their bodies and to the natural world of which those bodies are a central part. This new novel, THE BODY IN FOUR PARTS, disassembles one of those bodies in order to reveal the ways in which the physical parts link themselves to the most elemental aspects of our existence.
The novel, like its protagonist, is divided into four sections, each section associated with one of the traditional four physical elements of nature: Water, Earth, Fire, Air. The body of the protagonist separates itself, likewise, into four distinct personalities: the “I” who is the nameless narrator; a woman named Dorothea, who lives beneath the surface of a river; a man named Jack, who is the narrator’s lover; and a second man named Jean-Paul. Each of the novel’s four sections then focuses on the relation between the narrator (or narrative Self) and the separate entities which cohere to shape that Self.
Kauffman takes her narrator on journeys both literal and figurative, though the two are often only vaguely distinguished. Such vagueness is purposeful, however, for Kauffman wants to challenge our readerly expectations with strange and wonderful twists of language and action; reading a fiction by Kauffman means reading a prose that revels in the richness of linguistic and dramatic possibility.
Kauffman challenges, as well, our personal visions of what is natural in this all-too-often unnatural world. Like her protagonist, we come to celebrate all that is elemental, all that is essentially wild in our natures. We look to reaffirm our lost connections with the world, to reclaim our political and physical passions, to reinvigorate our diminished imaginations. Kauffman’s fiction convinces us that we have not yet wandered beyond our own reach." - eNotes
"This small novel displays a new vision of language to describe human nature. It is highly readable - one is seduce by the simple beauty of Janet Kaufman's prose. The central character is a woman, and in her multiplicity of selves she is air, earth, water and fire. The language meanders slowly and gently like the barely-noticed tributaries of a small stream. There is delight in every image, as physicality is restored to language, and "lost geographies" are recovered." - Amazon.com review
"Her vocabulary is pure elastic; her actual words aren’t strange, but their usage and arrangement are wild, wild, wild; I thought my mind was pretty stretchy, but, in my friend N’s words: my mind has been doing yoga with the elderly and this book was like doing sweaty young-folk yoga, and it kind of kicked my butt (in a good way). The read is arduous and enjoyable; the tone is no-nonsense, warm, humorous and affectionate, as if Kauffman’s Margaretta and company have agreed to take you under their wing and show you the ropes—Kauffman does whatever she wants to do with her prose, and her characters follow suit:
“It’s a good wind blows nobody ill, an ill wind blows nobody good, whichever it is, a Jack-proverb turned to confuse and make itself strange. I won’t take proverb tests. Jack is ill, good, wind, a kite, the buzzard on the silo, wings askew, hello there Jack.” (30)
This book doesn’t go deep with empathy, though; it’s not that kind of book; it stays with the intellect and wows the reader with image after image and with some of the best dialog I’ve read for compression and character-development; in general I prefer her short fiction because, for me, it’s a form better suited to JK’s punchy syntax, but I’m so glad to have read this. I would put the book down and say, “Dang, woman,” because the prose is really all muscle, and I was carried through to the end, even through the parts where I had no idea what’s going on, as in Dorothea’s story-within-the-story – I was clueless but I loved it (I do think Dorothea’s stories offer a little bit of comment on writing itself: she lets the pages go soggy and fade away because maybe permanence isn’t the point; but the commentary is loose and flyaway, as is the political, feminist statement in the book, which is both dreamy and anchored in the physical body’s experience, as I’ve seen it in other work by JK).
Check out the stretchiness of these sentences:
“Well, it is like the smell in the air before rain—the Guernsey cow smell over the gravel road, the outspreading diesel fumes, the faintest purpling.”
“I can say this about myself, and it could be said across the board: she is piecemeal, she is not herself, she’s numberless, not numb, she cannot be counted out, she’s gusted air, open fire, she is not watered down, she’s dirt and debris. Also, she is a hank of hair, hacked.”[regarding Margaretta’s hair]
“Or else it is tinted towards blue, a dark gray going on dark glue, and then the hairdo swoops up, defies the gravity of Margaretta’s wrists, up and back in a stern wave so that, were Margaretta not wearing fishbone earrings spray-painted chartreuse, she would stand there, agèd fishwife, the hair colors and angles suggesting, in the abstract, decrepitude.”" – Jessie at goodreads
"The Body in Four Parts is like visiting the intricacies of thought and depth representated in four sibling relationships personified in four parts; it is who we are and where we go and how we move on the earth. The book felt like a fluid exploration into the crannies of the physical world and of thought and behavior. However evasive this book review is, I highly recomend giving it a shot. It's a meditation on the powers that drive us." - Sidney at goodreads
Janet Kauffman, Obscene Gestures for Women, Knopf, 1989.
"Fifteen short stories, some written as prose-poems, focus on female characters. "Other than a few instants of crystallized perception, very little occurs here, and the sameness of tone becomes wearisome," PW complained." - Publishers Weekly
"In these 15 stories, Kauffman presents a quirky panoply of characters: a woman who grinds her teeth, a book burner with a megaphone, two farmers who ride a combine at night. Kauffman's language is rich, sensual. She has a poet's ear for metaphor and a pragmatic view of modern life: husbands take lovers, the environment is being ravaged, but still there is joy in the moment. Ultimately, Kauffman writes best when considering life's contradictions. The stories are short, several no more than sketches that could have been left out, but the author's exquisite use of language, her whimsical humor, and her philosophy of life. "Some passion, some ease. The knowledge of terror, but no terror" keep the reader absorbed." - Doris Lynch
"Perhaps it is her confidence in that power of the imagination in a broken world that allows Janet Kauffman to write stories so haunted by wise forgiveness." – Robert Kelly
"3 1/2 stars as a whole since some stories come through too chiseled for me, too spare, but several individual stories get 5 stars; I learn from the spareness here, all the things JK can leave unsaid; the stories are lyrically muscular, the characters (mostly women) strange and wonderful; JK lives in Michigan and gives real life to the machinery of the Midwest farmer, the language of tractors and combines and velvetleaf (esp in the story “Machinery”).
Here’s a good sampling of her prose, so windy & devilish, from “In the Discorruption of Flesh”:
“Brethren in church washed feet, he says, in the discorruption, devotion of disciples. Men took off their socks. Women took off anklets. It was plain from the start that stockings and then later, so much later, panty hose, white in the spring and smoke in the fall, would not slip easily into the ritual, would not contribute to discorruption, until much later, in autumn, someone would wind them off, they would be smoke, and wash the feet carefully, even between the toes, and then hold the toes, still wet, to his mouth.” – Jessie at goodreads
"It's difficult to review a short story collection, because not every story in here's a gem, so my rating's splitting the difference. Some just didn't hold my attention (like "Anton's Album" - loved the structure and idea behind it, but the pieces didn't add up to compelling writing for me). I did really enjoy a lot of these, though, especially "Machinery," "Obscene Gestures for Women," and "The Easter we Lived in Detroit" ("The dark, which is like a shelter around each person, is a lovely thing to see, once you see it.")." - Caroline at goodreads
Janet Kauffman, Collaborators: A Novel, Knopf, 1986.
"Against a landscape composed of and by women, men hardly register in this thin, elegant novel by the author of Places in the World a Woman Could Walk. Dovie (formally named Andrea Doria) listens closely to her Mennonite mother, who seems to carelessly transcend the conventions that circumscribe their lives, substituting her own strict rhythm and a personal catechism that she imparts to her willing pupil. As a child, Dovie believes her mother fiercely, uncritically absorbing her views on sexuality, God and men, while the farmwork of the long tobacco season unfolds around them. It's only in retrospect that she concludes, "My mother lied to me about everything . . . She crooned and ranted and cooked up powerful storms of lies that held like uncalled-for weather over my childhood." Yet in her turn, betrayed by the stroke that steals her mother's memory and then her life, Dovie conspires to pass on the lessons she learned to her own daughter. Although the novel cannot transcend its fragmented structure, those who savor rich cadences and the unexpected, beautifully turned phrase will find much to satisfy the senses." - Publishers Weekly
"Kauffman’s prose, more here than in her stories, is so precise, so elegant, that you have to stop and go back and reread various paragraphs two or three times.
The narrator is Dovie, or Andrea, as she looks back on her relationship with her mother and the quiet life they led on the Mennonite farm. The mother admits to a number of harrowing, shocking things such as an escapee from the nearby prison who raped her mother (and could be Dovie’s real father), to her mother’s dark secrets of incest:
'The child in me then that crouched, small and jubliant, the part of me that assumed an indistinct shape in my mother’s mind — that child was the daughter she talked to about her lovers, her three lovers, grandfather, father, and son, whom she loved equally, she insisted on that, and dreamed oif equally, whom she had coupled with compassionately, each in his sickness, and each in his righteous self. I asked her which was my father, and she said the man who took is in the summer to the ocean, who walked on the beach with my brother, he was my father.' (p. 16)
They farm tobacco, which has its pluses and minuses, and it is a hard way of making a living. As Kauffman stated herself in one of her art exhibits:
The vision of farming as a peaceful way of life, surrounded by idyllic and pastoral landscapes, is a deeply-rooted dream in American life. That dream has turned nightmare where I live, and in many areas of the country." - Gordon Lish Edited This
"Dovie's mother said that "goodness was passion," and the Mennonite farm girl believed her, seeing the world of Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, through her mother's eyes. This 12-year-old also knew that "daily life was no idyll." One glimpse of the State Penitentiary across the fields was ample proof. Yet good and evil seemed lost in the slat-sided tobacco barn where a doodling finger brought words to life in the amber dust, transforming the ordinary into shimmering dreams. Kauffman's first novel adroitly traces the symbiosis of imagination and curiosity between an extraordinary mother and her awe-struck child. Although its male characters and Mennonite trappings seem mere expository asides, Collaborators is rich with the rhythms that distinguished Kauffman's short story collection, Places in the World a Woman Could Walk ( LJ 11/15/83), its language as sharply fresh as the salt Dovie licks from her mother's bare arm." - Paul E. Hutchison
Janet Kauffman, Places in the World a Woman Could Walk, Knopf, 1983.
"The women in Janet Kauffman's spirited stories are unafraid to look closely at their flawed lives. Burdened by the struggles of a rural existence, they are determined to embrace the simplest pleasures with a true heart. Whether slaughtering a favorite cow or leaving a violent husband, these characters make tough choices and live with the consequences."
"Places in the World a Woman Could Walk is deeply felt and bitingly precise. The author's dual professions of farmer and poet give the stories two gifts: an intimate, gritty sense of life on the land and a skill with language that amounts to alchemy." - Anne Tyler
"A distinctive voice both quirky and down-to-earth, totally unsentimental and capable of rendering reality's baffling undertones." - Library Journal
"Places in the World a Woman Could Walk is an intriguing collection of lyrical, humorous short stories. After reading this collection, I can see why Janet Kauffman, a professor of creative writing and English at Eastern Michigan University, has won numerous awards including the Pushcart Prize twice. The stories are about strong women who have to make difficult decisions in rural settings. What I enjoyed most about these stories was Kauffman's experimental style and language play. The character names were humorous, even sarcastic, poking fun at life and its absurdities. For example, a farm woman who is worried about slaughtering her cow, has the name "Lady Fretts" and her cow's name is "Suzie Hey Suzie."
The language is sharply lyrical and amusingly poetic which is what I enjoyed most about the collection. There is an ironic no-nonsense feel to her writing that screams all nonsense. At times the language has simple childlike rhythms, almost like nursery rhymes, yet there is an underling sarcasm and intellectual wit pervading. The contradiction is very entertaining. In the story "Harmony," Kauffman describes a character by all her exaggerated flaws and then says "...otherwise she'd be very beautiful." The narrator says, "Sherry has thick brown hair. Each strand is separate and crinkled. Her hair stands out from her head as if she's got herself over a sidewalk grate where a steady air is rising. What I like best about her is the gap between her teeth... otherwise she'd be very beautiful."
Overall, if you enjoy language play and laughing about the absurdities in life in bucolic settings, you might give this experimental collection a try." - jenny.loves.fiction
"Years after first reading this collection the image of a woman baling hay, taking off her shirt and tying it to the tractor as a flag still remains in my mind. These short stories are far more conventional than her novels e.g. Body in Four Parts. Her characters, however, are already strong females - in this case rural females - who love and loose. The plots of the stories are common but the voice of the author, the characters she builds already show the strength apparent in her later works." - M. J. Smith
"In this world of the farm, where women do men’s work and children become adults’ confidants, even the animals (even the enemy animals, like a grain-eating rat named Ratzafratz) are given the dignity of proper names. The people of Mrs. Kauffman’s passionate rural society do not draw the line between intimacy and strangeness. They name even the creatures they plan to kill." – Wendy Lesser
"The Body in Four Parts, published in 1993, signalled a renewed awe for the literary stylings of Kauffman, who writes about multiplicity of the mind in this more recent work as if there were no bounds - psychiatric, scientific, even corporeal. That sense of boundless merging and floating pervades the novel with the searing luster of an expansive mind and honed craft brought fortituously together as one, seamlessly.
So it is with great enthusiasm that we announce, more than ten years after the original 1981 publication of Places in the World a Woman Could Walk, that Graywolf has brought one of Kauffman's earlier works back to a wider readership. Simple beauty, sharp intelligence, and an indefatigable wit shape and infuse every story in this collection. In each work, Kauffman stitches together a central female character who, eventually, no matter what, stands on solid ground. Sometimes it is the dialogue that pieces together these portraits; other times, it's the point of view of a cagey narrator; and, as often as not, the women in these stories arise as much from what Kaufmann does not say, in her graceful style of understatement, as in what we find to lead along on the page.
The staunch heroine of the title piece, Lady, is a bit over-concerned about cows. "Lady Fretts drew herself on with sentiment," the first-person narrator tells us, "She had no reason for anything -- but sure-fire emotion. She'd lived her life like the unblemished blind, by feeling." When a change of events turns Lady's world upside down and inside out, however, a new self emerges, one who can surpass even sentiment. "Lady rode a sofa for years; I should have seen it would be no trouble for her to take it from there," the narrator concludes. "I should have known there would be places in the world a woman could walk, sure-footed, and look powerful."
In "My Mother Has Me Surrounded," the aqueous metaphors pool around the central character, a child re-discovering the wide berth of her mother's reality in remembrance. "My mother," the narrator notes, "is not the distinctly drawn mothers of magazines; she is not clear cut." Instead, this is a mother who loves the sea, and who envelopes her child and husband with a yearning that has become certainty. In this world, her daughter stands little chance of being noticed in her own world. The tender urging in this story brings the two together, and a remarkable woman is again borne to the page.
Like the narrators who can be surprised by the irony of action and complexity of the misunderstood, readers will be drawn in to this quilting of the traditional with its stylized edges, as each woman character in this collection finds her place to walk in the world." - Canéla Analucinda Jaramillo
"I wasn't initially won over by these spare stories, but Kauffman's style grew on me as the collection progressed. These stories circle around familiar themes, some which I found tiresome: rural life, relationships (usually abusive and stymied by a chasm-like division between the sexes), and most interestingly, women who simply look for silence, solace, and respite in the natural landscape and/or each other. Her terse, carefully-tuned prose deserves praise. Descriptions such as this kept me reading: "It was zero all day, the sun round, the light like knives. Winter is mean metal in Michigan." - Kirsten at goodreads
Janet Kauffman, oh corporeal (chapbook), Coldwater Press, 2010.
"This collection of poems focuses on a father's struggle with Alzheimer's dementia, drawing on many of his own words."
Janet Kauffman, Trespassing; Dirt Stories & Field Notes, Wayne State Univ. Press, 2008.
"Trespassing is composed in equal amounts of short fiction and essays that illustrate the impact of modern factory farms—confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—on a rural Michigan community. Michigan author Janet Kauffman debunks the myth of the idyllic “clip art” farm of decades past by giving readers a close-up look at mega-meat and mega-milk, the extreme amounts of animal waste and barren countryside CAFOs produce, and the people who live in the midst of this new rural landscape threatened by agricultural sprawl. Trespassing considers the consequences of violating nature’s limits, giving readers a vivid impression of the irreversible damage that violation causes to our habitat.
The writings in Trespassing range from ground-level realism to hallucinatory surrealism, from mindful discussion to poetic incantation, from vehicles of outrage to portraits of grief. The rural landscape includes a range of characters, and Kauffman’s stories and essays are populated with CAFO owners, immigrant workers, neighbors mired in pollution, greenhouse growers, environmental activists, water monitors, drain commissions, and agency officials. As a resident of rural Michigan and part of a farming family herself, Kauffman approaches the subject matter with a sensitive and informed eye. Her detailed writings take readers into this landscape of modern rural communities to experience the smells, sounds, and sights of a brutally changed world.
Those interested in environmental issues, as well as fellow Michiganders, and fans of creative fiction and nonfiction will appreciate this moving and informative collection."
"With heart and mind Janet Kauffman writes of the land rape perpetrated by industrial agriculture in the region where she farms. A remarkable fusion of art and advocacy, Trespassing s beauty and power stem from its south central Michigan locale, but its consequence and merit know no bounds. - Stephanie Mills
"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower drives Janet Kauffman s pure green rage in this great, grave book of purposeful prose. Kauffman innovates, hybridizes, intuits, makes new not like God but like the humane human she is. The force that drives the water through rocks does indeed also drive her red blood and her black, cleansing, sighted, and insightful quenching ink." - Michael Martone
"In Trespassing Janet Kauffman has found a new form of literature and of advocacy: she combines environmental essays of description, narration, and the history of assaulted watersheds with short stories that imagine the lives of the people who live most intimately with these assaults. The result is eloquent rage and despair, always tempered by a deep love for her southern Michigan landscape and even by the tenuous possibility of hope." - Keith Taylor
"The classic free range farm that is so happily depicted in children's books is not how the majority of modern farming is done - it is instead done much like a factory, and there may be some ill effects from it, which "Trespassing Dirt Stories and Field Notes" looks to examine, combining essays and short fiction to discuss these farms, which while producing great amounts of meat and diary products, have other less obvious penalties to the environment. "Trespassing Dirt Stories and Field Notes" is highly recommended for anyone concerned about animal rights and a good pick for any community library environmental studies shelf." - Midwest Book Review
Trespassing is composed in equal amounts of short fiction and essays that illustrate the impact of modern factory farms—confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—on a rural Michigan community. Michigan author Janet Kauffman debunks the myth of the idyllic “clip art” farm of decades past by giving readers a close-up look at mega-meat and mega-milk, the extreme amounts of animal waste and barren countryside CAFOs produce, and the people who live in the midst of this new rural landscape threatened by agricultural sprawl. Trespassing considers the consequences of violating nature’s limits, giving readers a vivid impression of the irreversible damage that violation causes to our habitat.
Janet Kauffman's Trespassing: Dirt Stories and Field Notes combines short stories (Dirt Stories) and nonfiction essays (Field Notes) to illustrate the impact of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, as well as other environmental issues, on rural Michigan communities. Janet Kauffman is a resident of rural Michigan, and in fact, has lived her whole life on farms. As a result of this, she approaches the environmental issues she writes about as an informed participant.
While the CAFOs produced great quantities of meat and diary products, they have some very real negative effects on the environment that are far reaching. While many people don't live in the country near a CAFO, you may very well live down stream from one. These issues actually should concern not just those living in Michigan, but everyone.
This fight concerns Kaufman personally. She lives daily with the effects of a CAFO. In the article "Farmer Turned Activist Fights Manure-Spreading Faults" we read that:
"The farms are home to 20,000 cows and produce as much waste as a city of 200,000 people. Waste from the barns where the animals live -- a stew that includes antibiotics, blood from births and cleaning solvents -- is washed into lagoons, where it sits until it can be pumped into trucks and spread on fields. When too much manure is applied to fields, it forms puddles that run off into streams."
If you've ever been in the area where a lagoon from a large farm operation is located, you know how awful the stench can be. Now imagine that in your water supply.
As part of the Eco-Libris campaign, allow me to point out that "this book is printed on 50% postconsumer recycled paper and 30% postconsumer recycled cover stock." "Recycled paper requires fewer trees to produce, is more energy efficient, results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions and hazardous air pollutants, and generates less solid waste and water pollution."
Janet Kauffman hit several hot buttons from some of my past personal crusades.
Those of you who know me in real life, know that before I started She Treads Softly, several moves and states ago, we lived on four acres outside a town in rural South Dakota. We liked living in the country and some of our fondest memories are of our huge garden, orchard, and watching the night sky for meteor showers or the Northern lights.
While living there, the community, still full of small family farms where cows did graze in fields, was fighting against a huge hog operation starting up in the area - and it was a fight. As Janet Kauffman would well know, the owners who wanted to start the hog operation weren't "farmers." They came from out of state. They didn't live on or even near their operations. They already had operations stinking up rural landscapes in nearby Nebraska and causing environmental problems. They also had some well paid lawyers on their side.
During that time we also were attending county commissioner meetings trying to keep a huge cell phone tower from being erected right by us. The representative from the company that wanted to erect the cell phone tower was from Boston. He had a condescending attitude toward those of us opposing the tower, not realizing that most of the neighbors were well educated. (It was a pity we never had a say about the new guy who moved out there the summer before we moved away and put in a high-watt night light, ruining the night sky.)
I've experienced a city (small town outside of the city) engineer (not trained) deciding a road needed to be straighten which resulted in the removal of two beautiful maple trees in our front yard. And, why, no, their actions did nothing noticeable that improved the road or the drainage; all it accomplished was the removal of several healthy trees and a whole bank of irises.
Finally, I have a real hang-up about watering grass. I have refused to water grass when I lived in places where water is generally plentiful and rains frequent. I especially refused to plant large areas of grass and water it when living in the high desert, where rain and water are not plentiful and people fight over water rights. I always found it absurd that many HOAs required a high percentage of grass in the landscaping. When we landscaped our front yard, our plans made it clear we were using xeroscaping.
Hey, don't even picture cows in green pastures. No, they walk on concrete, and their knees bulge like your grandmother's, crawling on cobblestones for whatever crimes. pg. 3-4
She does not perk coffee for the EPA guys. But she assumes they'll show up, and when they do, she says, "Sit down. Here are the maps. Here's Child's Drain. This is what's happening." pg. 21
We've been sitting outside every day for a week, sort of guarding the maple tree, but mostly just watching everything else get ripped up, and trying to adjust our eyes to the new views. pg. 28
But the machinery's past Barry's house now. The trees are gone and so is what Eddie calls brush - all wild cranberry, bittersweet on the fenceline. pg. 32
Maggie told Arthur the red blinking light was as bad as his eye tick, he winking he did in meetings. It wrecked the scene. The lost dark was the worst, but daytime wasn't much better. In sunlight, the eye winked silver. pg. 43
Tatia would have said those words, too, tread lightly. She who treads lightly is kin to the sea. pg. 72
The livestock operations that surrounded my Midwest town, Hudson, Michigan, still call themselves farms. Most are dairies, and they're all huge, all built within the last few years. In the language of the law, they're CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) with more than one thousand "animal units" - that is, seven hundred or more confined cows - and open-air waste pits that hold millions of gallons of liquefied feces and urine. pg. 79
Despite the CAFO's wishful claim of "zero discharge" to surface water, we've had more than 140 discharge "events" and violations between 2000 and 2006 - animal waste over-applied, drained, dumped, or sprayed onto frozen ground, polluted liquid that flowed into drains and streams.
During one discharge, E. coli bacteria in a county drain reached 130,000/100 ml, a contamination level 130 times the acceptable level for partial body contact. pg. 95
...the idea that tillable ground should all be tilled - and idea that is clearing jungles and "bringing life" to some deserts today and causing desertification elsewhere. We have an arsenal of ideas about land use clearly as dangerous to human life on the planet as the use of nuclear arms. pg. 106" – She Treads Softly
Read it at Google Books
Janet Kauffman, The Weather Book, Texas Tech University Press, 1981.
Janet Kauffman, Writing Home, with Jerome McGann, Coldwater Press, 1978.
"Janet Kauffman was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and raised on a tobacco farm. She lives in Hudson, Michigan, where she has restored wetlands on her farm and works for sustainable agriculture with Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan.
In addition to mixed media projects, she has published nine books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, most recently the novella Rot; a collection of prose poems, Five on Fiction; and Trespassing: Dirt Stories & Field Notes, a collection of short stories and essays centered on the pollution from industrial livestock operations in her area.
This interview was taken from the Question and Answer session between Janet Kauffman, guest writer for the Creative Writing Visiting Writers Series, and Interlochen's Creative Writing students on March 5, 2009. - Edited and compiled by Victoria Elliott, co-editor.
When you have an impulse to write, how do you assess which genre the piece is going to become?
- That's a difficult question. I think it often takes several forms, for me at least. I mean, I just start writing and I often start with just a beginning statement, like a line. I started writing poetry originally, so in many ways I think I write more like a poet than a traditional fiction writer. So I start writing a sentence, and sometimes it goes along like a poem or a prose poem and other times it really leads to something a bit more meandering that can go into what looks like a story. Since I don't write in extremely traditional structures, and I don't care too much what it is, or what it's called.
The only writing that has a specific shape is when I'm writing about an issue, like a political issue or an environmental issue, and then I know I really want to make it clear to people. So it takes a more decisive prose form. Or, if I want to write about the issue's dark side, you know, the side of it that's irrational, that's when I use fiction or poetry. I don't know if it's a decision except for when I know I need to write an op-ed. It's more of a need: I know this needs to be said.
But in the old days, when I was just writing out of my own requirements, the writing took multiple forms and sometimes the same thing would appear in a couple different ways. It's probably the same process all of you experience. I've never separated the genres. I feel like I don't have to make a decision so exactly.
Can you talk about how your process and your objectives in writing have changed since you realized what was happening with the environment around your home?
- Well, its changed drastically, because I never liked to write essays. I did it in college, but the structure of essays always made me a little crazy - to be reasonable, to be clear, you know? It always seemed false. I'd draw conclusions that always seemed false.
I've had to compromise some of my basic beliefs in order to be understood. I've learned a lot and I've learned not to feel that it's compromising my whole being because I really do want to communicate with people and I really do want to be able to talk to people and have them experience or understand what all this is about. So the process has changed.
Now I do a lot of research and I never liked to do research. I got a PhD in Lit, but I always swore "I'll get this degree and I will never write another scholarly article again." And I never have, but I did learn how to research stuff. For some of the essays in the book, I spent a lot of time in libraries and online, and also at the drain commission, looking up old files. I have come to like that part of the process - documenting things and talking to people.
I wouldn't have anticipated that I would ever write like that because I worked one summer as a reporter for a newspaper. It was writing for weddings, that kind of thing. And I hated that job so bad. It took me half an hour to write a little paragraph. (laughs) Do you put the description of the gown before this? I was fretting like a writer and I shouldn't have been spending all that time. So I never thought I would want to do anything close to journalism but now I do. I like it.
It's still important to think about how you choose words, how you have to help people read the language as closely to the way you want it to be read as possible. So all those parts of the process are still there.
Did you write when your were young and if you did, did you write about these issues?
- I wrote for many, many years. I didn't write when I was your age. I liked to read, and I studied poetry as literature, but it wasn't until after I got out of graduate school that I started "writing." And then I did write poetry. The first books I published were poetry books and then I wrote short stories once I realized short stories don't have to have a beginning, middle and end. It was a revelation to me, so then I could write short stories.
I've written three novels. Really little ones, real short. Everything I've done is relatively short because I really don't like to read big books, I like to read little books. So, in a way, I was prepared to do any kind of writing. By the time I got to this, I'd been doing some other stuff.
What are your primary influences?
- Oh, I'm so terrible at remembering what has meant anything to me. Isn't it terrible? I have a very, very bad memory; this is true. Now let me think a minute. Actually, its funny to think about this, but there are prose writers that I somehow feel closest to.
I'm thinking of a woman writer - she's dead now - but she was writing about twenty years ago, Grace Paley. Her stories. When I started writing fiction, her stories really made me have the confidence to write because they didn't have beginnings, middles and ends. It would be a couple women, mostly Jewish women in New York City, sitting around talking. That's all they did, talking. Talk, talk, talk. And I thought, you know, I can write fiction if that's fiction. And so most of my characters sit around and talk mostly. Or walk. They go outside and walk. Her characters sat other places and walked. So Grace Paley's fiction, I still think is... I'm thinking of people I reread because they seem valuable to me and Grace Paley I reread frequently.
Another is Joseph Conrad. I don't know why, because they're kind of cumbersome novels, but he has a global sense of things. It's really a political view of the world, I think. And grim. Really grim. I like that. I hated The Heart of Darkness the first time I read it, and now it's, of course, one of my favorite books. It's really murky and miserable.
But poetry, I don't know. I did my graduate work on Theodore Roethke. He's a Michigan poet, died in the 1960's. He grew up near Saginaw, Michigan, and his family had greenhouses. I think in the earliest days of writing poetry his work meant a lot to be me because he wrote really short poems that were just about a shoot or the root of some plant. Roethke's writing was based very much on plant life and the natural world. They were just strange, just twisted slightly, in ways I liked.
Would you talk about the poet side of yourself and how that figures into your work?
- I really think of myself as a poet more than anything else. Even though I haven't written as much poetry, probably, as other things, especially now.
The poet's thought process about language, with language being what you're working with - not just writing something that tells something but playing with language - that is what I love. I love to play with language. Not always for a purpose; I just like to fool around with it. I change words and see what happens. I think of language as a really physical material, like it's air coming out of my body, that sound. And when you put it on paper it has lines and shapes. Letters have a shape. If you write a whole line that's got an awful lot of L's, it's very visible; there's a lot of vertical lines. I just love that physicality of language." - Interview at Interlochen
Janet Kauffman's web page
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