Where to Begin? Judith Kitchen

by Jeff Oaks

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.

But today, I want merely to remember her when I first met her, in the small space of a green, 4H building in Canandaigua. She and a male fiction writer were making the rounds of the counties around Western New York, giving readings, holding workshops for kids interested in writing, funded by an arts council probably. I thought I wanted to be a fiction writer at that point, but fortunately for me, the fiction writer read his story in an awful monotone and with little joy. When Judy (I never got used to calling her Judith) read, wearing what I remember now as a purple mumu, clearly in love with the language, I was immediately won over to poetry. The poem I remember was a poem about gliders, about the Southern Tier where she grew up. I quietly slipped into the poetry group when it was time to split into workshops. I was struck by how language could work in poems.

When she held another workshop in a library one town away, I drove there to see her again. To write some more. To be excited. I’m sure I brimmed with young enthusiasm. She was kind enough to give me her address, and when I next drove to Rochester, I called her and we had lunch. She invited me up to her apartment, where we talked about poetry, about my writing, about writers I should read. I remember she had a copy of Ted Hughes’ Moortown, and I ran out and bought it immediately. I saw her a couple more times, whenever she ran a writing workshop nearby, and then when I went to SUNY Binghamton for writing, and then at a Summer Writer’s Workshop at SUNY Brockport, where she and Stan invited me to go out with them and the big writers, one of which I followed to graduate school.

She was the one who invited me into the fellowship of writing, and even if I have had other “official” teachers, ones I loved at least as much, ones who have helped me in maybe more practical and professional ways, Judy was the first one to grab me by the arm and bring me into the dance. After grad school, she took my first chapbook for her State Street Press series. At AWP, there was always a hug and her sizing me up. She knew the frightened, thin, ambitious kid almost nobody else even saw. She saw me, she encouraged, she cheered and warned.

All grieving is about the griever of course. I can’t stand that she’s not going to be around this year at AWP. I can’t stand that we’re not going to get to laugh about that little world we both came from, loved and escaped, and that poetry, that writing things down, got us out.

I’m told that she just said she was tired, took a nap, and never woke up. I’m not a person who gives a shit, frankly, about another place where she may or may not have gone. From the outpouring of love and appreciation on her Facebook page, she’s living on in the minds and hearts of many, many of us. And of course, as she would say, the work goes on, growing sweeter and more important every day.