Between the Lines: Eco-Dementia

Oct 20, 2017

Janet Kauffman
Credit John Klein

Poet Janet Kauffman sees similarities in her father’s Alzheimer’s disease and the way humanity treats the earth. She says it’s a kind of mental illness to destroy the planet we call home, the place that sustains all life. Kauffman writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her new poetry collection is Eco-dementia (Wayne State University Press, 2017).


Kauffman says her writing style can be called experimental and contemporary, but she says it's really physical.

“I think of language as coming out of the body, into the world, and connected to air, connected to breathing, everything that makes us human,” she says. “It doesn’t matter so much to me that things make sense in the usual way, but that you hear sounds, that you feel like you are in the midst of language. So some of my poems are just words piled together. As you read through them, for me, it’s like looking at a forest floor. There’s all this density, all this vegetation. You can isolate certain things but you can’t say it all. It’s just all there together.”

Credit Wayne State University Press

Kauffman says the confusion readers might find in her poetry can translate into whole-body immersion, much like a walk in the forest. She also likens it to enjoying an abstract painting that brings visual pleasure through colors, shapes, and composition. Or, she says, it may be similar to listening to music, which doesn’t really “say anything,” but often provokes an emotional response.

Kauffman lives in Hudson, Michigan, where she farms and works as an environmental activist. She says both occupations are strong influences on her poetry.

“I farmed hay for a dozen years before restoring wetlands on the farm and putting the land in a conservation easement as a sanctuary for ecological study, and for generally letting things go,” she says. “In thinking about the natural world, we are kind of insane in the ways that we damage it, and we have done this for centuries. When I see some kind of destruction of the landscape, I feel as bad as I do about my father, who has Alzheimer’s. I feel that same sense of loss.”

Like many people with dementia, Kauffman says her father repeatedly asks to go home. That makes her think about what is the deeper meaning of "home."

“We forget that our home isn’t just the house and the family,” Kauffman says. “It’s a wider thing that supports us and sustains us. In some ways, we have all lost that profound sense of home that we protect and care for. So I really identified with my father wanting to find home, which didn’t exist for him anymore. He wasn’t even sure what it was.”

Janet Kauffman has published three collections of poetry and many books of fiction, including the award-winning collection of short stories, Places in the World a Woman Could Walk. She has a collection of creative nonfiction: Trespassing: Dirt Stories and Field Notes.

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