Interview with Joanna Kaufman

September 01, 2021

An interview with Joanna Kaufman, 2021 Alumna of PNCA at Willamette’s Low Residency Creative Writing Program

What drew you to PNCA in the first place? The school, the low-residency learning model—how did you get here? 

A friend told me about the program. I’d been looking at graduate programs in visual studies. My friend didn’t know I was looking into schools. One morning, she sent me information about PNCA’s new creative writing MFA. When I read the beautifully written description, I was immediately drawn in. It resonated for me with a memory of an encounter with a violin. I knew right away.

The violin encounter was about four years earlier. My aunt had organized a benefit auction to raise support for her students and their orchestra programs. I went as her guest, and there was a violin that had been donated by a luthier in Salem named Henry Strobel, whose student, Thomas LaDuke, had made the violin. In his last wishes, Thomas bequeathed the violin back to his teacher. And so the violin became an ongoing conversation—a remarkable gift, really—exchanged from teacher to student to teacher—between friends—which extended beyond the two of them out into the world. I didn’t know any of this when I saw the instrument. It was beautiful, made with Oregon maple and hemlock, wrapped solemnly in a green cloth, resting in a black case on a long card table at the auction. We belong together, the violin seemed to say. I’d never experienced the voice of an instrument come alive in that way. 

It was that same inner voice that resonated for me when my friend’s email came in letting me know about the program. 

What has this worked well for you, throughout your time at PNCA? In what ways has this program challenged you? Surprised you? 

The low-residency model was a good fit for me. Before entering the program, I had an established practice in painting and illustration and so was able to open, or enter into, that practice in new and surprising ways through creative writing. With a cross-genre track, I was able to work in translation, prose and poetry. Having the space to focus on making new work while being supported through ongoing correspondence with mentors was invaluable, and provided a way of working I’d not experienced and that elevated the work. Being able to come together within community for the more intensive residencies created an inspiring overall rhythm. The structure of this particular low-residency model is visionary and the faculty mentor’s dedication to their craft and to the students is extraordinary.

Tell us something you’re learning right now. Or perhaps something you’ve learned, throughout your time at PNCA, that continues to resonate with you.

I learned to pay attention to intuition and to work with it creatively. My mentors held generous ground that allowed for challenging and fruitful encounters to take place. The world we live in is not structured to allow us to slow down and pay attention to all of the signs. I think this is work that artists must do and in order to do it we have to learn to hold a kind attention that often works against the outside pace. It seems community is at the heart of this work because intuition learns to see with the eyes of many, with everything from stones to silence.