:: Interview with Judy Kronenfeld
By Dominique McCafferty, Librarian
Judy Kronenfeld's poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared in numerous journals, and online publications [anthologies] including The Sow’s Ear, Passages North, Hubbub, Poetry International, Chariton Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Manhattan Poetry Review, The Evansville Review, Potpourri, Literarymama.com, The Mississippi Valley Review, The Louisville Review, The MacGuffin, Pearl, The Portland Review, Spillway, Poetry Midwest.org, Pebble Lake Review, Hiram Poetry Review, Snake Nation Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and The Women's Review of Books, as well as in anthologies including So Luminous the Wildflowers: An Anthology of California Poets (Tebot Bach, 2003), and Red, White and Blues: Poets on the Promise of America (Iowa U. P., 2004). [Mosaic, California State Poetry Society Quarterly, Crosscurrents, The Crescent Review, The North American Review, Pearl, and Literarymama.com.]
She is the author of Shadow of Wings (Bellflower Press, 1991), King Lear and the Naked Truth: Rethinking the Language of Religion and Resistance (Duke University Press, 1998), Disappeared Down Dark Wells and Still Falling (Inevitable Press, 2000), and Ghost Nurseries (Finishing Line Press, 2005). She teaches in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. She and her husband David Kronenfeld live in Riverside, and are the parents of a grown son and daughter both of whom live and work on the East Coast. Visit Judy's web page at the University of California, Riverside. Judy has also graciously provided the library with a list of "a few" of her favorite contemporary poets. "There are so many!" she says.
Dominique McCafferty: I'd like to begin this interview with a few biographical questions, starting with your childhood.
Judy Kronenfeld: I was born in Manhattan but I grew up in the Bronx. It was a little provincial society, a totally immigrant neighborhood. There were immigrants from various places. I remember lots of Italians and Jews. And there have been successive waves of immigrants ever since. The street I grew up on was largely Hispanic the last time I drove through. When I was little, there was a synagogue next to my house that we never went to but I could hear all the prayers from. When I drove through, in the early '80's, I think, another synagogue around the corner had a marquee and appeared to be a hot gospel church. You know, there's just been a change in the culture. The neighborhood actually seemed to be in a good period my last time through. The street didn't look as bad as it did on a prior visit.
DM: Where did you go to school?
JK: I went to the local elementary school, and junior high school, and then I went to an all girls' high school on 68th Street in Manhattan. This was during the Cold War. The fun thing we all used to do was run across the street to Park Avenue and ring the bell of the Russian Embassy, and then they would open the door and throw us USSR magazines. Oh, that was very exciting.
The school was very good, as were the teachers. It was very language-oriented. They taught Greek and Latin! I was actually admitted to the Bronx High School of Science. Although I didn't do that well on the entrance exam, they knew that I could do the work because I was so studious, so they called me in for an interview. They were willing to grant me entrance, but it's a good thing I didn't go because I'm not comfortable with the sciences, and it was a very rigorous science and math school.
But it was fun to go to my high school. On the way there I would meet people on the subway. It was a great education to be in New York when I was a kid. It was moderately safe.
DM: Did you have any good friends as you were growing up?
JK: I remember a friend in high school who was a ballet groupie. She just loved ballet, and so we went together to the New York City Center Ballet. We sat in the balcony. It was maybe two hours at $2.50 per ticket.
We went to Off Broadway, and to all the museums, which were fabulous. My mother didn't understand a lot of those things, but she encouraged me. It was an interesting place to grow up. I was very New York-centered as a young person and in my teens. At the time I couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I thought it was the center of the universe. There's something so exciting about the city, although I couldn't imagine living there now.
DM: Where did you go to college?
JK: I went away to college. I was an only child, and my mother was extremely protective. And of course some of the things she wanted to protect me from I was more interested in running headlong into, so it wasn't a very comfortable situation for me. I kind of wanted out. I had an African-American high school teacher whom I adored. She was probably the only black woman at Smith in the forties. In fact, she was president of the student body at Smith. She was my English teacher. I just adored her. I would write poems for her. She was a wonderful woman. Well, and she told me, "You should go to Smith." You know, if you love your teacher, and she says you should go to Smith—
DM: You go to Smith, of course!
JK: Though I applied to Barnard in New York and Brandeis, which is also in Massachusetts, I just had to go to Smith.
DM: So you went away to college.
JK: Yes, and I remember the whole experience of being interviewed for college. It was probably not that bad, but bad enough. It was highly embarrassing.
DM: How do you mean?
JK: Well, my mother spoke with an accent, but it wasn't really that at all. She just didn't have a good sense of different cultural patterns. She followed the dictates of her own cultural mandate and pushed full steam ahead. During my interview, she brought out plate after plate of fruit until there wasn't any room left on the coffee table around which we sat. She would still tell them, "More! More!" But I knew the upper classes would only politely accept one cookie, so it was awkward. I thought I had to say things that were ingratiating, and I did. My mother was very good at that. It was really awkward.
DM: Would you talk about your experience at Smith?
JK: I think Smith was a totally strange place in the sixties. They had these bizarre rules which I like to tell my students about. I remember that they had this "three feet on the floor" rule. Anytime a gentleman enters your room, there must be three feet on the floor at all times. I could swear there was also something called the 45-degree rule, where we weren't allowed to lie in the grass unless our backs were making a 45-degree angle on the ground. They had all these little rules. Not that I was a wild one because I wasn't. The school was attended by the daughters and granddaughters of Smith alumnae. It was corporate wife training. "Almost all of you will get your MRS degree and you will like it very much," as Adlai Stevenson apparently said, without a hint of embarrassment, at a commencement prior to my own.
DM: So would you say that Smith wasn't very stimulating for you—or?
KLD: No, I don't think that's really true. It's not that it wasn't stimulating. It's more that it was the end of the fifties which ended in the mid-sixties, so it was "in loco parentis." They were very oppressive times. There was this protective attitude towards women—men controlling women, controlling their wives. The teachers were excellent, but one felt that there were some constraints in the cultural ideal, constraints on womanhood.
And for a person from a lower-middle class background—it was a school where a lot of wealthy people went—it was intimidating. It was hard to find one's place in that sort of environment. My husband and I were talking about this. He went to Harvard. After feeling alienated for most of his career there, he began to feel some little confidence of belonging only at the very end. It's not that anyone ever said anything cruel about social class, but it was an adjustment to go to school with people who lived in twenty one-room mansions, people whose fathers made millions of dollars.
DM: Where did you go for your PhD?
JK: Oh, Stanford. My husband and I finished our coursework at Stanford and then we went to Ghana for fifteen months where my husband did his field work in anthropology. And then on to England, where I had a Leverhulme dissertation fellowship to work at the Bodleian Library.
DM: Would you talk about your book of criticism, King Lear and the Naked Truth.
JK: Yes, I have a book of criticism which took me many, many years to write.
DM: It's quite a departure from your other work. Will you talk about that book?
JK: It was a totally different kind of endeavor. Some people might say I'm schizophrenic and that one part of my brain doesn't talk to the other part very much. That's probably true. Except that I do try to bring them together. It's really academic criticism. It was kind of my farewell to English because I have a Ph.D. in English. But I'm still interested in the whole critical historical side of the study of literature which is much more intellectual than, say, writing first drafts of poems.
I was in the creative writing department at UCR when I wrote and published the book, so it did me absolutely no good in terms of career. But I realized I had nothing to lose. I was essentially attacking some aspects of postmodernism that are so politicized that the theorists or critics lose sight of the beauty of the language and the appeal of language across political barriers, across audiences of different types.
I have a very elaborate theory in the book which deals with why it's foolish to simplemindedly politicize the appeal and subjects of Shakespeare and his approaches as if they were only understandable in one or another way by people of the left or the right of the time.
DM: Yes, it's quite a book. Incredibly dense language.
JK: You read it?
DM: I confess I didn't read the whole book.
JK: You read parts of it.
DM: Yes. I remember thinking as I read it that it was very different from what I was accustomed to reading. It's extremely difficult reading.
DM: It was obvious that you had a very specific audience in mind. You seemed to be speaking very pointedly to a few individuals.
JK: I had to. There would have been no way I could have published the book. I was trying to make it possible to be heard by people who pursue certain trains of thought, to write so that they would attend. So that it would be published, I mean. Because what I was saying in the book was violently opposed to many of the critical practices at the time. It was a lot of work accumulating the kind of evidence that would make an overwhelming showing.
DM: How do you think your training in New Criticism has affected your poetry? Do you find yourself torn between both worlds? I would say your poetry is incredibly sensory. It's an utterly different experience from reading Naked Truth.
JK: It's a complicated question. The training was totally different than the process of writing poems, and yet the New Critical approach—which refers to an incredible emphasis on the language of the text, and on the sound of the text, and on the rhythms of the text—that kind of training did influence me as a poet because I absorbed poetry root and branch. All the gristle, everything! It was very bodily. So that was preparation in a way.
I have never been able to give up the idea that you have to pay attention to every word of the text. You can't skip around. You can't selectively use parts. Aside from the problems of New Criticism, I still think emphasis on the text is a good thing—as opposed to the theory first and then the text. People should read and they should understand the meaning of every word in a Shakespeare play, for example. My training ultimately allowed me to do historical research in a way that allowed me to take account of the texts. There's a connection to my creative life in my training, because that training also resulted in this very visceral connection with poems.
It's complicated. In one sense it's a schizophrenic relationship. The way a person writes a poem is by not being too studied, not knowing too much about where it's going to end up. And of course with research, you go with your hunches, too. But what happens when you're actually writing my sort of historical criticism is you're assembling and thinking logically through reams of material. With Naked Truth, I was sifting through the religious material that was fifty percent of what was published in the early modern period—sermons and books on how to behave, how to raise your children, how to treat your parents—an endless amount of stuff like that. As you're reading, and taking notes, and trying to reassemble the material at the same time, you're rethinking it and coming to new terms about it. You're putting it into these different frameworks in your head. I moved around sheaves and sheaves of paper as I was writing Naked Truth, and the process didn't feel very much like the will-o-the-wisp thing--the way one would follow a hint for a poem, and create a first draft. I think the disciplines have been so disconnected in academia until recently. Criticism and writing about literature and thinking about literature and trying to write literature, poetry, or whatever, were so disconnected in my day. The people who were in criticism looked down very, very much on writing poetry. The idea was that if you were teaching seventeenth century poetry, your job and your promotions depended entirely on the criticism you wrote on the poetry. If you should happen to write poetry as well, it could hurt you. So there was a schizophrenia in the profession.
DM: Have you ever taken a course in poetry writing?
JK: No, I've never had formal study in the writing of poetry. I took one creative writing course in fiction when I was an undergraduate. And I certainly didn't think of myself as a creative writer then. And I never had poetry teachers in that sense.
Well, that's not entirely true I guess. When I started writing, I became a member of an informal group that met on campus at UCR. It was really a writers' discussion group and anybody could come. A friend of mine, Ada Schmidt, who was instrumental in shaping the creative writing program at UCR, used to go to those workshops all the time. She was the informal leader. So in a way she was my first reader, a very sympathetic reader. And in fact, it was because I was in that workshop that I wound up teaching creative writing. That writing workshop went on for quite some time. And I was leading it sometimes, along with Ada. It was a really significant source. I was trying out my poetic wings.
So that was the first stage. Not too long after I'd gone back to creative writing, I was teaching creative writing. Which inevitably means that the teacher teaches herself. Teaching creative writing has been very useful. I'd always read and loved poetry. But I learned a lot about fiction and how to put it together.
And after that I met with my colleagues in the creative writing department. I exchanged work with them. I've exchanged poems with Maurya Simon. And then in 1988, I began to exchange work with Frances McConnel, who became a very close friend of mine. She's a wonderful poet, too. She joined the department. We exchanged poetry for a really long time, and still do. I think all poets have someone they can show their work to.
Oh, and I've trained my husband, too. He's brutally honest which can be a killer, but now he's so well trained that he can read my poetry out loud in the way that I expect it to be read. He's almost reading it with my cadences because he's heard me so many times. He comes to almost all of my readings. Sometimes when he's reading my poetry aloud he'll say, "No, this doesn't work. I'm stumbling over this part."
So my husband is tough, but he's very helpful. I can listen to him now, but it was so hard for a while.
DM: Sounds like the writers' group at UCR was a good resource for you
JK: Yes, although it eventually disbanded. But not long after it disbanded, a really sweet guy named Marine Robert Warden who used to come to the workshops at UCR started another group. And another sweet man, Glen Maguire, got involved too. Both Bob and Glen are a couple decades older than I am. We met for a few years. Other people would drift in and out. Then that sort of fell apart. And then just a few years ago, Glen moved back to Oklahoma, so it was back to just Bob and me.
Oh, and now I have a writer's group of my own.
DM: Do you really? Who's in your group?
JK: Let's see. Gayle Brandeis is in it, and another woman named Lavina Blossom. She's a fiction writer and a poet. I think she's really good as well. Sometimes we exchange work outside of the group. I just showed her a short short and I read part of her novel. Then there's Lucia Dick who lives in Claremont, and Cati Porter, a young woman who's a friend of Gayle's. And Charlotte Davidson. Charlotte and Lavina both have MFAs from Irvine, and Gayle and Lucia have MFAs from Antioch. Everyone's talented and serious. We have supportive and fun, but also thoughtfully critical meetings.
DM: Speaking of MFAs, what's your opinion of writing classes? I suppose you must be favorable to them to some extent, considering that you teach them. I do like to ask because I've always found that creative writing classes are fraught with suffering.
JK: Well it is very hard. It's kind of a scary experience. Although I did go once to Squaw Valley—the Writer's Conference there—and that was a good experience. I got a lot of positive feedback. But if you're sensitive about it, that's certainly understandable.
Did you know that Gayle Brandeis is teaching an online course through UCLA?
DM: Oh, that's right.
JK: I think online writing courses are a nice alternative.
DM: You can avoid being directly in the line of fire.
JK: Definitely. One of the young women in my writing group just took a poetry course online and I think it's been really good for her. It's a good alternative. It eliminates the whole problem of the comparison of self to whomever. You can focus on the work and what you get out of it. You don't have to sit next to that person. And if you want to curse them, you can!
DM: What about the performance side of poetry? I'm thinking specifically of poetry slams, and there's June Jordan's book Poetry For the People. You just about can't get out of it.
JK: That's another thing writing groups can help with.
DM: Oh, what a wonderful point. I hadn't considered that angle.
JK: I've learned a lot about presenting work in my writing group. When you present work, you get much more serious with yourself, rather than if you're writing it in a notebook at home. You know people are going to be listening, so you get a little harder on yourself. It sort of forces you to be more objective and imagine people listening. And you don't get out of it.
DM: But writers weren't always expected to do the tours. I remember reading Doris Lessing's comments on the subject. She was very indignant about it. It's not the writer's natural state of being, she said. Writers treasure their privacy and don't appreciate having to put themselves in the public eye.
JK: Absolutely. It's very hard. I have to think about how I'm going to find something different to talk about each time I give a reading. I have to think about a different angle. It's kind of like teaching. I'm always thinking of ways to make it interesting. Readings are like theatrical performances. I think of them as the same kind of work.
I have to find some way to connect with the material every time I read or it goes dead. I can't just mouth my lines. I have to find something that I can emotionally connect to and rediscover. The way I usually do it is by rehearsing.
DM: And how do you go about rehearsing?
JK: Well, I create a structure, just as one would create a structure when putting poems together in book form. You're looking for an implicit relationship between them.
The same is true when I put together a reading. I'm creating a fresh picture of myself. In order to be interesting, I find I have to ask myself, "Who am I today?" This is a legitimate question because who we are is always changing. "Who am I today?" leads to a kind of faith in the collection in the order you've put it together on that particular day.
I used to start my readings with the poem "What Shall I Wear" which is really about that. So I construct a self that I'm in tune with in a given moment in time. This process allows you to be a good actor because you're connecting with the material again.
Not everybody does it this way. Surely it varies from person to person. I know some people prepare a little spiel beforehand—never exactly the same one. But again, it's that presentation of self. It's the same with writing. Who am I today? Having written a number of poems doesn't mean you'll know what to do about the next one. It's always a leap in the dark.
DM: Do you think the promotion end goes too far?
JK: It's not a question of promoting something that has been picked up by the press and now they want to make their money on it. Poetry is not a moneymaker. But I have found that some people lead their lives in such a way as to make sure they make as many contacts as possible. I can't do that. If people interest me they interest me, but I can never self-consciously rub shoulders with all the right people. I think Pearl Magazine published an article about that some years ago.
DM: I agree that it's artificial. To some degree, all the arts are mired in this.
JK: Well, our whole society is always selling something or another.
DM: Most definitely. I'm in full agreement with you on that point. Will you talk about metrical considerations in your poetry? How do you make the decision to break a line, for instance?
JK: The metrical thing. I usually don't write in any strict meter. The visceral business of getting the sound of earlier poetry into my head means that a lot of times there's a good strong ghost of iambic pentameter in my lines. And I think that today, some free verse approaches meter, and some supposedly metrical verse is so loose that it really approaches free verse. So there's really a meeting there that's going on. So I don't really write in meter unless I'm writing a villanelle or playing with some fixed form during a class exercise. But as far as line breaks, I'm a lot better at those. When I was starting out, I was doing something I now warn my students against which is syntactical line breaks—always breaking your line at the end of a phrase, at a prepositional phrase, or a longer clause. Or even a unit like "the red house." The thing about line breaks is that I think a lot of it happens when writing a first draft. If you're thinking about them, and looking at them, and hearing poetry, eventually you start taking advantage of the lucky chance in the process of writing, where you let the line break on a word that then gets additional meaning from being in the final position in the line. Now I don't think that can happen in every single line necessarily, but it's nice that some of the endings add a little shade of meaning because you're mentally pausing there. Sometimes it's not even something you can call meaning. It's a kind of emphasis or nuance. You can't even translate it into meaning. It gives a subtle rationale to the breaks. But it's not something you can do with a yardstick. You can't say, "Oh, I want to rewrite this and make every line break count." It's very hard to do in a rewrite.
DM: You revise your work a great deal, don't you?
JK: I do lots and lots of revision. There are some poems that are gifts. Every once in a while it happens, and you know you've been given a gift. "Names of My Mother's Friends" was a poem that came to me almost whole. I made some changes, but relatively few. It's mysterious when that happens. It's like you've got the right combination of odd things in your head. There's enough built into the impetus, and you're tentative enough about the language, and you just luck out. With many poems, I'll get something going, but two days later I think it's terrible. That's usually the worst moment—two days later. Because I've been feeling ecstatic, and then I get sucked into the depths where I wonder, "How could I possibly write this crap?" Maybe two weeks later, when I've established enough distance, I can get to work on it. Sometimes I just trash it. Although I work with it for quite a while before I give up on it. So I do a lot of revision. I have a pile of folders, and most of them are stuffed full. They're pretty thick. There are the occasional poems that are gifts, and I'm so thrilled when that happens, but most of them are not.
DM: What about your writing process?
JK: I just recently tried to give up a process because I'm tired of it and I'm trying to see if I can do something else. I've just started working in a different way, and I have no idea if it's going to work out. For a long time, I've kept notes on things. You know, early morning stuff that occurs to me. Sometimes I'll write in my journal, but often they're just scratches on paper and I put them all in one spot. So after a few months I've collected quite a few scraps of paper in addition to some general writing.
But what I was doing until recently (depending on the time I had available to me), was that every month or two or even three months, I would type up all the notes, and in the process of typing up all the notes, some of them would really grab me and they would kind of start a poem. I would find that as I was typing up the notes, I was looking at disparate ideas that didn't go with another all on the same page. Having all the notes in crazy conjunctions with each other in turn forced my mind to make some interesting leaps. That's really the best thing. You need some space in a poem. Charles Wright said something about the synapses of a poem. Let the synapses speak. Let the spaces in the poem speak.
It was only recently that I thought I would try working without this method. I thought I would "just sit down." And so the last few poems I've written I've just sat down. I don't know. I'm not at all confident.
DM: How interesting. Why did you decide to change your method?
JK: Well I'll go back and forth, perhaps. I've used that old method for a long time.
DM: You want to try something else for a while.
JK: Well I'm not good—some people are fabulous—but I'm not good at the exercise poem. Now I've written a few with my classes. When I've assigned an exercise in class, I'll do it with them, but I tend not to be good at it. I'd rather take my own notes. I'd rather take a grab bag of notes, drop them on the floor, and pick up a bunch. I like to get the odd shaping parameters that way. What is it about exercise poems? I don't know. They make me self-conscious and I find myself thinking, "Could I come up with a really good line for that?"
DM: I think your method is great. I have this image in my head of notes in various places. They're wedged in the corner of your mirror, nestled in a pretty porcelain bowl with all the paper clips.
JK: Oh I have them in my bedroom. I keep them by the bed. And then I have them in my study, and some in the kitchen. I just collect them.
DM: I've got books stashed everywhere. I usually have several books going at once.
JK: And do you read them all at the same time, because I do.
DM: Yes. I can't imagine doing it any other way.
JK: I sort of think it's bad though.
DM: You think so?
JK: Well, I think it's because of the way our lives are. I mean at one time I was able to focus on one book at a time because I had gone with my husband--who is an anthropologist--to Africa. He was doing fieldwork in Africa—in Ghana—and there was no radio, no TV, nothing. And so we had a lot of Penguin paperbacks and we just read, read, read, read.
And then when I would read a book, I'd be totally immersed in it because nothing distracted me. Now, it's terrible. I find I get more magazines than I can handle, for instance. They pile up beside my bed and I'm slipping on the covers when I get up in the morning. I never ever really finish anything in the way of magazines—an article here, an article there.
With novels—I'm frustrated at not being able to give up everything and sit down with a novel. And I find that I lose the atmosphere of it when I put it away. And then sometimes I don't get to it for a number of consecutive nights. Right now I'm partway through Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and I find it's really something one has to focus on. The language is very inventive. I'm about three fifths of the way through and a lot of things have come up, and I don't like that because I find I lose some of the atmosphere.
DM: Poets whom you admire.
JK: Oh golly! There are so many!
DM: Oh, I know it's hard, but it's such a delightful question, too.
JK: Yes, I agree. But I just know I'm going to forget someone. I love so many for so many different reasons. C.K. Williams: I love him for his meditative voice, his awareness of the world, his honesty, his attention to consciousness. I love Charles Wright for his sublimity. He aims for the sublime, and his is intensely gorgeous writing. Mark Strand: I'm attracted to his themes. I love the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. His poetry is often surreal. It's very tender and deeply steeped in his feelings about all the wars that his country has been involved in. He was a soldier. It's beautiful poetry. I like James Wright, too. Sometimes he leaps to this conclusion, this rapt epiphany. His is passionate poetry.
DM: I imagine you have some advice for aspiring writers.
JK: Oh, yes. The same advice almost everyone gives: go to the library, check out books, read. Read what you love. If you don't understand it, or you don't see the reward in continuing to read it even if you don't understand it, put it aside and read something else that does resonate with you. Read everything. Read the ancients. Read the current material. But don't feel that you have to proceed in a regimented way. Writers read, but they read what they love. And the more you read, the more things you will love, too. There's always a degree of spontaneity. Writers read that way. I do like the idea that if you don't like something, you stop.