NEA Literature Fellowships

Julia Spicher Kasdorf

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(2009 - Poetry)

Swallows over Bellefonte

Look at the birds, she points, as they swoop
        and chirp over our town where every cornice
                    refers to the past and anything that matters

                    has already happened:  seven governors,
        iron ore and the foundries that forged
trans-continental railroads and civil war, wire

for the cables that strung Brooklyn's bridge
        from its arches and stretched the wings
                    of the Wright brothers' flying machine,

                    even Amelia Earhart  stopped here for lunch,
        once.  The swallow's tails, sleek as Cadillac fins
or boomerang coffee tables,  black as pillbox hats

at the wake for a slain head of state. 
        Hear them singing?  I ask.  We lie on our backs
                    on playground slides next to the brick high school

                    built in '42, now used for the younger kids.
        The toxic pie of a fall-out shelter sign,
faded, still hangs by the gym door.

They're having fun! she cries.  I know that whatever happens 
        only happens here, now, in this town where a man
                    guarded the big spring for weeks after 9/11,

                    and a HAZMAT team raced to the mall to scrape
        white powder that turned out to be a breath mint,
crushed under someone's boot.  Not that I can keep the sun

from sliding behind Purdue Ridge, and it already has,
        staining the clouds an uncanny orange. 
                    Good job, birds, she sings beside me, Good job

Julia Spicher Kasdorf is the author of two poetry collections published by The University of Pittsburgh Press: Sleeping Preacher (1992)--which received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and The Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Writing-and Eve's Striptease (1998). Kasdorf serves as poetry editor for Christianity and Literature, and with Michael Tyrell edited the anthology Broken Land: Poems of Brooklyn. In addition, she has published a collection of personal essays, The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life, named the Book of the Year by MLA's Conference on Christianity and Literature, and a biography, Fixing Tradition: Joseph W. Yoder, Amish American. She is an associate professor of English and women's studies at The Pennsylvania State University, where she directs the MFA program.

Photo by Heidi Lynn Photography

Author's Statement

It seems that I've applied for an NEA fellowship quite a few times, but the award could not have come at a better point in my life. I have a new manuscript in the works, but it has been so long since I published a book of poems that I had to gather individual magazine and anthology citations to establish my eligibility, as I did the first time I applied twenty years ago. Now as the mother of a young child, in the middle of a life and middle of a career, I value this fellowship in practical terms. Thanks to the dean of my college, it will buy me a year to write and read, away from administrative and teaching duties at the university. Just as significant, though, the fellowship inspires in me a sustaining sense of gratitude and gives to me concrete encouragement, the kind of affirmation I hope to pass on to my students, but that I often struggle to find for myself.