new Mennonite Life logo    December 2002     vol. 57 no. 4     Back to Table of Contents

The Eight-Year Road of a Poet-Scholar:
An Interview with Ann Hostetler

by Raylene Hinz-Penner

Ann Hostetler is a poet and professor at Goshen College. She recently published her own book of poems, Empty Room with Light, and looks forward to the publication in 2003 (University of Iowa Press) of an anthology of contemporary Mennonite poets, a project which comes to fruition after years of work. The anthology will be called A Capella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your own career. How did your past lead you to writing poetry yourself and editing a Mennonite collection of poems?

I wrote poetry all through high school and college. I studied creative writing at Kenyon College, but my major was Studio Art. Even though I was trained as a visual artist, I considered myself primarily a poet. Afterwards, when I worked in New York City in publishing and then went to graduate school in English, I lost my voice for a while. New York was overwhelming, and the myriad voices around me seemed to stifle my shy desire to write. In graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania I wanted very much to get through the course work, so I could go on and become "someone," but I was also very afraid of the self I was becoming. Something had been denied. Then, becoming a mother in graduate school–the growing pains of marriage and family–gave me so much to write about that I couldn't fit into literary criticism. I began to re-evaluate what was important, writing poetry out of necessity, in order to find or create a voice I needed to make sense of my life. At the same time, I shifted my primary academic focus from the nineteenth century novel to contemporary multicultural literature–African American and American Indian Literature in particular–and found a writing self in academia as well.

One day while showing my class a tape of Mary Tallmountain and Joy Harjo reading poetry, I asked myself, Who are my female ancestors? What does who I am and where I come from have to do with my interest in these voices, these women? I had never gone to a Mennonite college, so I hadn't had the experience of thoroughly interrogating my identity that such an experience can provide. Rather, I kept my religious identity private as it was often misunderstood in the secular circles in which I moved. But while watching these American Indian poets read and talk about the ways in which they had imaginatively claimed their heritage, it seemed as though my Mennonite self was trying to speak to me through the voices of other groups marginalized in American culture. I was suddenly overwhelmed by images of the backs of heavy, burdened farm women scrubbing floors and cooking dinner for their families. Why was I carrying these images around from several generations before? My mother was the first person in her Alberta, Canada, community to go to college. And I led a privileged life in a white, middle-class, educated Mennonite family. But there was only one generation between me and generations of women who had not been able to use their voices–either in church or in poetry.

Being Mennonite, especially in urban settings (Edmonton, Philadelphia, New York, Milwaukee) where I was distanced from the Mennonite community, had given me a sense of double-consciousness that made cultural studies and deconstruction very familiar to me in another guise. I was also brought up as the daughter of an anthropologist, and was used to visiting people from other backgrounds during my summer vacations when my father did field work. That stance of "participant observer" was a familiar one. But it was a long, circuitous route that led me to embrace what was Mennonite in me as well as the poems I had to write, and to discover that perhaps these different aspects of my psyche were connected. It was also a long and difficult journey to embrace the personal voice. Neither traditional anthropologists nor good community-oriented Mennonites are encouraged to speak from personal perspective. But with feminism and postmodernism in the academy–and even the church–all that is changing.

How did the A Capella project come to you and grow in your mind?

When I was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was not part of a Mennonite group, I heard about the Cincinnati Mennonite Arts weekend and decided to go. I was curious about meeting Mennonites interested in the arts, since I had never received any nourishment as an artist from Mennonites, other than through my recent discovery of the poetry of Julia Kasdorf.

Kasdorf's poetry was like a door for me. She did something I had never seen anyone do: take the experiences and images of being Mennonite–hers are rooted in my father's home community of Big Valley, Pennsylvania–and bring them into conversation with the discourse of poetry–and an alternate life in New York–in a lyrical, moving, and skillful way that astounded me. I felt an overwhelming sense of coming home at the Cincinnati weekend, spent hours talking with Kasdorf, whom I had met before only briefly, and sang hymns with a wonderfully musical congregation, led by Mary Oyer and accompanied by Brad Lehman on soprano sax and Carol Ann Weaver on the piano. I should say I tried to sing, because every time I opened my mouth, I found I was weeping. I also met some serious Mennonite visual artists for the first time.

When I returned to the Cincinnati Arts Weekend two years later, I met more poets, including David Waltner-Toews, and learned that there was going to be a Mennonite Writers' conference at Goshen College in 1997. People were talking about Di Brandt and Patrick Friesen, and I realized that there was a whole Mennonite poetry scene I didn't even know about. I left the Arts Weekend that year thinking that surely someone ought to put together an anthology of these writers. How useful such an anthology would have been to me, I thought, as I sought to integrate my art and my origins. I was finishing up my dissertation at the time, and didn't need a new project, but the energy from the Arts Weekend stayed with me, and it suddenly struck me that perhaps I was being "called" to do this anthology. At the very least, I would get to read the poets from Mennonite circles that I hadn't even imagined existed. Now it strikes me that the anthology was a way of reconnecting with a community through a kind of discourse that was meaningful to me. Without the arts weekend, without Julia Kasdorf, without an awareness of other poets, without the blossoming of interest in multicultural literature in the larger culture, none of this would have happened. Although I have been a single editor, it is really a project that is interdependent with community.

It's a long road from discovering an interest in something and collecting materials, to becoming knowledgeable enough to write about it and make discerning judgments, and then finally to gaining the confidence of a publisher and finding one who will commit to the project. The whole process of the anthology from first inspiration to finished product (this coming spring) will have taken about eight years. . . .

I was fortunate to have the support of the Center for American Places, which served as editor and agent for the project, and ultimately found me my current publisher, the University of Iowa Press. While many readers of the manuscript were fascinated with the project, it took a while to find a press that was willing to commit to a trinity of what they perceived as risks: poetry (it doesn't sell), an anthology (they don't necessarily sell), and Mennonites (a small market). I am delighted that the University of Iowa Press, known for the quality of its poetry anthologies, is publishing the work. I am also grateful to the 24 poets and their publishers who have given me permission to include their work. . . . Finally, I was forced to come to terms with myself as a Mennonite and a Mennonite writer, a subject that I would really rather have avoided for a significant part of my adult life. The poet and the scholar in me found a way to work together on this project, though it wasn't always easy, and was often bewildering, even painful. But there were unexpected joys. I even ended up moving from Wisconsin to Indiana and taking a job at a Mennonite college while working on the anthology. So you could say it changed my life, in a sense.

What is your "thesis" about Mennonites writing, or perhaps your guiding principle for organizing the book?

From the very start, my first priority was to get the best poems from as wide a variety of writers as I could find. This is not a folk anthology, or a doctrinal anthology, or a devotional anthology. It's an anthology of poetry that is good writing, first and foremost. The many outside readers I have had for this anthology have all been impressed by the quality of the poems, which makes me very happy. (I hope the reviewers will feel the same way!) I cast my net as broadly as possible, partly in order to get the greatest number of good writers. But as the book took shape and went through various editorial hands, some shaping took place. I was very happy that a U.S. publisher agreed to include both Canadian and U.S. writers. Obviously, the focus is U.S. writers in a U.S. publishing market, but I felt that the Canadian writers, who published first, were a crucial part of the volume.

Were there surprises in the bringing together of the project?

The best surprises were the many writers whose work I came to know and love. Several of the writers actually joined the Mennonite church after I talked with them about their work. So there are some very "new" Mennonites in this volume. I like to joke about bringing people into the church community through the arts. But it's really not a joke, because it was this new flourishing of the arts and the embrace of artists that brought me back to the Mennonite community as well. Poetry offers a broader, more inclusive language than does dogma or doctrine. There is a sense of grace in reading poems about very human experiences–from ordinary moments to transgressions, from suffering to celebration–written by someone from one's ethnic and religious community, where so often one feels compelled to maintain a veneer of righteousness.

How does your own work on Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr grow out of this project?

Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr was one of my most exciting discoveries while working on the anthology. I had read her poem, "I am Dancing with My Mennonite Father" in The American Scholar when it was published in 1985, but had never heard of her afterwards. Both Julia Kasdorf and Ervin Beck mentioned her when I was putting together the anthology, as they had seen this poem, too. But neither of them knew her personally. After a few unsuccessful tries I put her on the back burner. But before I sent the anthology to press, I called The American Scholar and got her address from them. Unfortunately, she had died two years earlier. I was surprised to discover how old she was, as her poetry is so bold and innovative. Her sister, Hilda Ediger Voth, gave me the name of her daughter, Beth Bullard, who was trying to figure out what to do with all of her mother's papers. We began a fruitful email correspondence, and I spent four days this summer in Carlisle at Beth's home sorting through poems, journals, letters, diaries, and other records. Anna Ruth was an amazing woman–a fount of energy in her retirement years. She read widely in poetry, feminist theory, literary theory, American Indian Studies, and Religious Studies. In her last decade she subscribed to every Mennonite periodical published–including Mennonite Life–where she published a poem, "Archives"–in December 1981.

Beth Bullard has graciously donated her mother's papers to the Archives of the Mennonite Church USA at Goshen, where I am fortunate to be working with them. Anna Ruth spent her first 18 years in Clinton, Oklahoma, as the daughter of Mennonite missionaries to the Cheyenne. She was a student at Bethel College for three years and left in 1938 to marry Karl Baehr, a Bethel graduate. The two of them spent most of their adult life on Long Island in Garden City, New York. There they both made many ecumenical connections with other artists and writers and formed a strong tie to the Jewish community through their work and social life, but always considered themselves Mennonites. It seems to me that they modeled a way of being in the world and still holding on to Mennonite identity while remaining in conversation with others. Discovering Anna Ruth's lifelong connection to the Cheyennes was a great delight for me; my pursuit of a Mennonite poet brought me again to my great interest in Native Americans. This fall I visited her birthplace, now the home of Lawrence and Betty Hart, in Clinton, Oklahoma. I also spent time at the Mennonite Archives and Kauffman Museum at Bethel, to which her family has donated many artifacts given to them by Cheyenne people. I am working on a C. Henry Smith Peace lecture about her which will be given this March at Bluffton and Goshen Colleges.

What criteria did you develop for inclusion and exclusion in the anthology?

The book went through several sea changes as different publishers considered it. In its current form it is first and foremost an anthology that readers of good poetry will enjoy. It will also, I hope, have a religious and sociological interest, as well as a niche in cultural studies and Mennonite studies, but I want the poetry to be read first for its literary merit. So that criterion guided my judgment. There is poetry before this that is Mennonite, but it is most often not the kind of poetry that would have caught the attention of readers in poetry circles beyond the church. The writers in my anthology are contemporary poets. All of the work has been published in the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, you've published your own book of poems, Empty Room with Light–is that project related to your editing of the Mennonite anthology?

The poems in Empty Room with Light grew out of a desire for wholeness in my own life. Each poem is a moment, a fragment, perhaps, which grows into a meditation that either seeks connection in fragments, or seeks to accept the fragments as they are. I take an empty room, the image of a child patting her hands in delight on a linoleum floor I can't wait to get rid of, a shopping errand, a memory of reading with my mother, the weary time spent waiting exhausted at the end of the day with small children for my husband to return from work, the tension of the classroom, and use it as a spring board for exploring hidden connections, my own suppressed desires, the presence of connection–or spirit, or the breath of life, or love–whatever you might call it– even in the most secular and mundane-seeming moments of life. In fact, it was the ordinary moments, discounted in the "secular" realm of work and academic achievement, that I came to hold as sacred. Later, as a teacher, I was even able to embrace the time in the classroom as sacred time, as well. This has more to do with my reading of Thich Nhat Hanh and contemporary poets such as William Stafford and Susan Firer, than with my Mennonite upbringing, although it also connects back to Christopher Dock.

Do you have a comment on Mennonites and the arts, especially poetry?

I really believe that while some Mennonites are busy working on the mission front and others are busy working on the bureaucratic front, that Mennonite artists and writers who are truly devoted to the arts–not as Mennonites first, but as artists first– are opening up new possibilities in the church. Poems demand honesty, poems are about wholeness, poems are about getting at the contradictions of life. While much official Mennonite discourse these days seems to me about presenting a unified public front to the world (a project I'm afraid is doomed to fragmentation), poetry explores the broken-ness, the contradictions, even the fictions we catch ourselves living in. For me, it was the honesty and the deep love for the community underlying the critique in Kasdorf's poems that attracted me. While she is no longer a practicing Mennonite, her writing is so invested in Mennonite community that I don't really see the church membership definition as important in this case. One of the gifts of art is that it allows us to cross such boundaries and connect as human beings.