I’ll begin with some short email excerpts I sent to her husband, Stan Sanvel Rubin. Stan, a first-rate poet and critic in his own right, along with Judith co-founded the Pacific Lutheran/Rainier Writing Workshop, one of our finest low residency MFA programs, a program that Stan directed for 10 years.
In my note, I wrote the following “I’ve always admired Judith’s remarkable, versatile writings as well as her vitality, passion, and dedication to teaching. In the mid-90’s, when creative nonfiction was just beginning to emerge as a legitimate literary genre, Judith was one of the first people who wrote, taught, and could speak with authority on/about what we’ve come to describe as ‘creative nonfiction.
I’ve been recommending and using her anthologies, In Short, In Brief, and Brief Takes in my undergraduate and MFA workshops since the first one came out in 1996. And it goes without saying that today, some eighteen plus years later, I consider Judith to be a pioneer and a highly regarded writer/spokesperson for the genre.”
In his reply, Stan said ‘Yes, she was an early innovator in creative nonfiction/lyric essay– and, as you suggest, was a unique forerunner in developing a critical language to discuss it as a genre with its own purposes and dignity. She stood staunchly for the creative exploration of truth as an important task and challenge.’
Remembering author, teacher and critic Judith Kitchen
I only met Judith Kitchen once. It’s my loss. Kitchen, who died last week at 73 of cancer, was a rare spirit, both on the page and in the world. Teacher, essayist, critic, she and her husband and partner Stan Rubin ran the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., where I spent a couple of days last year visiting.
She was also the author of a novel, a collection of poetry and four books of nonfiction, including the luminous “The Circus Train,” which came out at the beginning of this year. The title piece, novella-length, is one of the most astonishing extended essays I’ve read. Moving back and forth through memories, invoking her literary hero Samuel Beckett, it is a meditation on mortality and meaning from the edge of the abyss.
“Here’s what I want: to stitch it all together,” she writes. “Give it the dilated eye of attention. To make it add up. But of course it doesn’t add up, no more than any other life. We take from the box of photos those that lead, one to another. We leave behind the singular, solitary moments that go nowhere except into, and out of, themselves.”
Where to Begin? Judith Kitchen
When I heard Judith Kitchen died, I couldn’t take it in. Like everyone who knew her, I knew she’d been battling cancer, but still I couldn’t, I think, take in the knowledge that she wouldn’t live forever. She always had plans, was working on something, editing an anthology, talking on a panel, reading, reviewing. When I taught her book Half in Shade last year, a collection of essays about family photographs which include, as all families include, a number of unexplained strangers, her essays about her own mortality provide an essential depth to her “device of writing ‘around’ a photograph.” I recommend that book to anyone interested in reading her, anyone looking for a model of attentiveness or to anyone teaching others how to be perceptive readers of images. Maybe in that way that writers and artists have, in which we quietly convince ourselves that by writing about our lives we’ll somehow free ourselves of the facts of life (because hasn’t working in words sometimes led to real changes in those facts?), I became convinced that she would write away her death by writing about it in that book.
Judith Kitchen—essayist, teacher, critic, poet, and reviewer nonpareil for The Georgia Review for more than a quarter of a century—died on 6 November 2014 after a years-long up-and-down struggle with two potentially fatal illnesses. Judith’s doctors more than once gave her a length of time to live, and more than once she beat the rap with a determination born of her passion for living—and for speaking and writing her piece.
No, her pieces: numerous, various, and oh-so-smart and articulate and loving, but sometimes with an element of the just-plain-pissed-off.
JJudith wrote for us some fifty substantive essay-reviews from the late 1980s forward; she finished revising her latest—and now her last—only days before her passing, and it will appear in our Winter 2014 issue, due out in mid-December. The totality of her intelligent, incisive, and humane discussions runs to some 750 of our pages—enough to fill nearly four full issues—and we are planning to bring out a generous selection of these poetry studies in book form by late 2015.
Judith Kitchen: Despite Body, With Body
As a person who talks to dead people and who has tended toward disembodiment herself, I have some different words to add to the celebration and mourning pouring out for Judith Kitchen —
Wife, mother, grandmother. Cofounder, with her husband, poet Stan Sanvel Rubin, of the Rainier Writing Workshop (the MFA program from which I graduated). Writer in every genre, with a style both limpidly readable and fiercely intelligent. Superbly influential critic, mentor, editor. Supernaturally gifted “matchmaker” of mentors and students, and so inaugurator of many valuable and productive literary relationships. Founder of Ovenbird Press; champion of fine writing in a changing literary culture. Someone who never suffered folly gladly, but who never made a fool out of anyone.
By the time I joined the MFA program, Judith had been dealing with cancer for several years. It’s a low-residency program, done by correspondence (and Facebook!) with a jamboree of Residency (writing, workshopping, discussions, readings, graduation, shenanigans) each August. So unless we’re very lucky and meet up at a conference, or have classmates visiting or local, the periodicity of our meetings is one whole year.
A show about planes aired on PBS last night. Images of early wood-and-canvas aircrafts flashed on the screen. A black-and-white still of a World War I general. The narrator’s deep voice captured the general’s sentiment without irony: These flimsy flying contraptions have no place in battle! One hundred years later, the general seems so distant.
I can’t stop thinking about her. I bought her book, Distance and Direction, but forgot when last I saw her to have her sign it. Another time, I thought. In the book, Judith writes, “The time that’s gone inhabits a realm of its own.” Where? I wonder. How distant?
Last night we celebrated the publication of our 17th issue of Water~Stone Review. It was a happy, festive evening. Patricia Francisco, Creative Nonfiction Editor, noted the winner of the 2014 Judith Kitchen Creative Nonfiction Prize judged by Brenda Miller, “Rainier Valley Notebook” by Jennie Goode, and the Honorable Mention, “A Striking Resemblance” by Chelsey Clammer. Patricia, and the members of the CNF editorial board, were thrilled to publish both pieces.
This morning I woke to the news that Judith Kitchen died on Thursday, at home with her husband, Stan Sanvel Rubin. She had lived with cancer for many years. Beyond the personal sadness I feel for the loss of this beautiful, fierce, talented soul, and my sympathy for Stan, is the sense of loss for our literary community.
Judith was a force of nature. A master teacher—generous and smart and deeply devoted to her students and to writers she believed in; a passionate advocate of literature; a visionary; an optimist; an astute, rigorous, and constructive critic; a writer with extraordinary gifts.
Her essays challenge you to see–and so, to live
Hearing on Sunday of Judith Kitchen’s death, I felt a pang of loss. I’ve recently become a fan. Last June I read her Brevity essay “On the Farm,” a consideration of two archival photographs—a girl with chickens, a child with her father in a cornfield—and modeled an essay on it. And I read her celebrated essay “Blue,” a segmented lyric that moves from her father’s, mother’s, and brother’s blue eyes to her children’s to her high school geometry class. Then, in August, I read her essay collection that opens with “Blue,” Distance and Direction. It’s one of my top books of 2014.
Kitchen’s essays here verge on poetry. Moments from memory; how memory works. The world’s beauty. Her father’s image and his memory everywhere. And grief, loss, regret. Might you wish for more connective tissue? Maybe. Yet how neat to be given bright shards instead of always the mirror’s entire, dutiful brown frame too. Did Distance and Direction wholly achieve the author’s aim as art? Yes, surely. These essays make you want to be more alive yourself—to notice as much—and to write with such clarity and meaning.
I received an email this week with the sad news that Judith Kitchen has died. Her long fight with breast cancer is over. I met Judith in 2008 on the Bemidji Campus. She was teaching a five day Nonfiction Workshop and I was her student. Before the week began, Judith sent out an email.
The main focus will be on the personal—both the memoir and the personal essay. Our goal is open, honest discussion with a focus on new directions, and new techniques.
The workshop was fantastic. We explored the space between memory, photography, and time. We looked at photos and wrote.
Later, a strange thing occurred. I wrote a story called, “There’s Things,” about my Uncle Ray who was out rabbit hunting in the 1930s and got shot in the head. I’d heard that story all my life. After the story came out, I found a photo. So I wrote a blog post for Brevity called “A Reverse Kitchen,” about what happens when you’ve already written a story, and then afterwards, find a photo. I emailed Judith to tell her about the backwards happenings and sent her a link.