new Mennonite Life logo    June 2004     vol. 59 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Listening for the "Mennonite" in Poetry

Reflections from Jeff Gundy, Julia Kasdorf, Keith Ratzlaff, and Betsy Sholl, edited and compiled by Ann Hostetler

On February 28, 2003, about eight months before the publication of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry, four poets from the anthology–Jeff Gundy, Julia Kasdorf, Keith Ratzlaff, and Betsy Sholl–joined me for a panel at AWP (Associated Writing Programs, the national organization of teachers of creative writing) in Baltimore, February 28, 2003, to introduce the anthology project to the broader poetry community. Much to our surprise, the session was packed–and only a few of the audience members were Mennonites. The panelists represented a spectrum of Mennonite experiences, and each member spoke for a few minutes about their connection to Mennonite faith and culture before reading several poems from the book. I had asked the panelists to reflect on the following questions:

How has your Mennonite faith/background/connection informed your work as a poet?

Would you write different poems if you hadn't been shaped in a Mennonite crucible, so to speak?

For those who were not brought up as Mennonites, what attracted you to Mennonites as an adult? How has this experience shaped your poetry?

We prepared for the session with a lively email conversation, a few small excerpts which appear below, along with the poets' statements about "their" Mennonites.

I opened the session by reading from the anthology's introduction in which I discuss my own form of Mennonite identity and the experiences that prompted me to create the anthology I longed to read. Because my story now appears in that volume, I will not repeat it here, except to say that the experience of working on the anthology greatly enlarged my sense of the Mennonite community as capacious enough to encompass and welcome the voices of writers from the diverse branches nourished by "Mennonite" roots. Since the publication of the anthology I have met at least half a dozen Mennonite poets whose work could easily appear between its covers. So I hope that this anthology will not be considered the definitive word on Mennonite poetry, but rather will invite more poets into the conversation and make room for more books. Hearing Gundy, Kasdorf, Ratzlaff, and Sholl articulate their Mennonite stories in the context of this panel was so exciting that I have since organized other such panels in other places with these and other writers from the anthology, including Di Brandt, Todd Davis, Jessica Smucker Falcón, Raylene Hinz-Penner, Carmen Horst, Shari Miller Wagner, and David Wright. Next fall I hope to increase that number by organizing a panel on Canadian voices in A Cappella at AWP in Vancouver. I am always interested in learning about new writers and would welcome information and queries as I continue to collect poetry by Mennonite writers.

[Ann Hostetler read her poems, "Resisting Geometry," "Female Ancestor," and "Iconoclast." Please see A Cappella and/or books of poems by each author to find the poems listed throughout this discussion.]

My Mennonite(s)

My personal sense of Mennonite tradition begins in a small, square, plain white church on the open Illinois prairie. The people who gather there look more or less like ordinary rural Americans, especially after the women gave up coverings in the sixties. They don't talk much about their Amish ancestors, mostly from Alsace and South Germany, who went Mennonite a century ago. Inside is warm and sometimes stuffy, but

it's plain that if you need to escape, you can get away in any drection.

We saw ourselves as set apart by our long tradition of martyrdom and persecution and nonresistance, in the world but not of it, but even that got complicated when simple living and pacifism became, almost, mainstream, and it seemed some parts of the world were coming towards us. Dylan and Baez and Hendrix seemed like fellow travelers to me, though my mother mistrusted their hairstyles and lifestyles. Many of the old disputes seemed merely quaint, e.g. adult baptism and the separation of church and state and whether Christians should kill people. Well, OK, adult baptism.

Without really planning it, I've lived most of my life in Mennonite enclaves–mostly relatively progressive ones in the Midwest–except for four years of grad school. I'm still a Mennonite by culture and ethnicity and mostly by conviction, though in many ways not

a very good one. But I still don't write poems with bonnets and buggies in them. Partly because my own Mennonite markers are so tangible and hard to signal quickly, I have written explicitly about Mennonites mostly in prose.

And yet. Three things that matter, not exclusively Mennonite, but important to me. One, the sense of enduring difference, of some irreducible separation from "the world," whatever exactly that is–a great boon for a writer. Two, gratitude for having a tradition, even one filled with anti-intellectualism, patriarchal stiffness, and smug piety along with occasional simplicity, courage, and wisdom, one that can be both bemoaned and celebrated. And three, the sense that we're here for something. As the great Menno poet Bob Dylan put it: "There are many here among us now / who feel that life is but a joke. / But you and I, we've been through that– / and this is not our fate."

[Jeff Gundy read three poems, one of which is reproduced here: "Old Water," "Cookie Poem," and "Epiphany with Sirens and White-tail."]

Epiphany with Sirens and White-tail

Almost dark and I should be going
but it's a green new year, or brownish

at least, even when sirens kick up suddenly.
Will we ever be safe? Not in this world.

In church today I watched the flame
of the candle suck and flicker, blew my breath

at the chimney and felt the old thoughts
of fire and time and death flare up.

Kill the boy-children of Bethlehem,
Herod demanded, and was obeyed

but found himself no safer or more content.
Another siren. Nothing stirs.

Branches still as children playing freeze tag.
Our goal is to secure the peace,

said the one who leads us, voluntarily,
or by force. He will be obeyed.

The sirens are finished for now
and the birds take back the air.

The white-tail floats through brush
like a half moon set free,

like a light on the path to Egypt
where the boy child will live out his exile

and return when the mad king is dead.

Jeff Gundy

The Cultural Work of Poetry

[Julia Kasdorf began by reading the poems, "Mennonites," and "Poetry in America,", then shared her thoughts of the cultural work that Mennonite poets, like those from other ethnic traditions, perform.]

The other day I had a conversation with one of my colleagues, an African-American poet, anthologist, essayist, and scholar of African-American literacy and linguistics. He grew up in Queens in the 60s and 70s and his roots run deep into the Black Arts Movement, so he said he figures it's an Africanist thing to believe that poetry is political, that your poems have work to do in the world. While Hemingway and Fitzgerald were off in Paris being the Lost Generation, the Harlem Renaissance was happening right there on Manhattan island, people writing poems with political meanings. Nothing lost about that. And now, with this war coming on, our graduate students wonder about the place of politics in poetry, but if they came from the tradition he does, they wouldn't have to stop and think about it. It wouldn't be an intellectual problem. Poems would just be doing the work. And writing would be only one of the kinds of work that the person would be doing.

And I said to him, I wonder if Mennonites are Africanists.

Then we got to talking–or, he got to talking–and we agreed that "art for art's sake" is really a middle class Victorian idea. Most people who come from traditional communities, or who live in local communities, don't write poems that are separate from their lives and purposes. Poets in those kinds of communities always do other work for money, too. And it would never occur to them to think that poetry shouldn't have some kind of consequence in the world. (The poems I just read reflect that belief, I think.)

Once after one of my readings, someone asked my embarrassed Dad what it feels like to be represented in my poems, and he replied, "Julia's poetry helps people." In fact, he hates the personal revelations, but he knows there are young women, or Mennonite college kids, or some kind of troubled people for whom my work is useful. That's enough to justify it.

There are sociologists who have made a distinction between Max Weber's Protestant Work Ethic, which stressed individual effort, and the Mennonite work ethic with its emphasis on service, mutual aid, and the common good (Redekop). (It's difficult sometimes to come from a culture that values hard work but downplays individual accomplishment.) I used to reject the austere, utilitarian ethic of my background. I found it hopelessly harsh and blamed it for our 500-year failure to produce publishable literature. But lately I've come to accept it as unavoidable. Whether it's a race thing or a class thing or an ethnic thing–who can deny that there's a lot of work to do in the world, and why not let that desire drive the writing?

I've also begun to wonder if a certain kind of drive isn't partly about the work of creating a minority literature. When I think of the black writers I admire–Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes–I realize they've always done more than one thing. There's the belletristic work alongside historical recovery, editing and publishing anthologies, and critical writing. It's as if they have to write the literature and create its tradition and critical context all at the same time, which is something I see writers from Mennonite backgrounds doing now, too. In the course of editing this anthology, Ann discovered an earlier writer, who she's begun to research and write about–all while publishing her own collection of poems. Jeff has written reviews and critical essays that map the emergence of contemporary Mennonite poetry, as well as family (local) histories. I have published essays about history and culture and spent far too much time researching and writing a biography of an Amish man, first as a dissertation, then as a book. And my work with the landscape and cultures of my background isn't finished, much as I sometimes wish it were. I keep plowing the same fields–and that's one image for work I no longer find displeasing.

Julia Kasdorf

Two Mennonite Stories

[Keith Ratzlaff began by reading "Gospel," "Dill," and "Man Under a Pear Tree."]

In my writing classes I always have my students retell family stories or myths as a way to connect them to material that is uniquely theirs, but also to connect them to issues that are historical, greater, beyond just themselves.

I'm not a church-going Mennonite (forgive me if this sounds like a confession), but I'm still Mennonite in pretty much all other ways. And I'm sitting on this panel today, I think, because of two of my own myths.

First, a personal one–the ur-Ratzlaff myth. The first Ratzlaff we have records of is a Hans Ratzlaff, a Swedish soldier supposedly with red hair, but how we know that is unclear. In 1619 or thereabouts, Hans falls in love with a Mennonite girl in Holland and is converted to the Mennonite faith–or maybe these two events are turned around. Again, who knows? Here's the dramatic and very un-Mennonite part: He takes his sword, plunges it into a fencepost to renounce war, then settles down with the Mennonites in Holland. That act–that renunciation–is crucial for me.

Second, a bigger myth recorded in the Martyrs' Mirror, a 17th-century book of stories about Anabaptists killed–crucified, burned, drowned–by European civic and church authorities. Here's the story: Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist, is being chased one winter's night by what the Martyrs' Mirror calls a "thief catcher," probably an under-sheriff of some sort, a small-time paid bounty hunter. Willems runs across a frozen river and reaches the far side safely, but the thief catcher falls through the ice. Willems goes back and saves his pursuer, who is grateful. But the thief catcher's bosses aren't moved and they burn Willem at the stake. The Martyrs' Mirror graphically describes Willems' death, a particularly slow roasting, since the wind that day kept the flames from consuming him quickly. That's pretty ghastly. But Dirk Willems was one of my very first heroes, along with Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger.

My point here is that Mennonites are a people who live by a very different mythology. Both of these stories have a kind of un-Mennonite drama in them that I love, but also a kind of real-Mennonite holiness that I knew as a kid–and know now–I could never really be capable of. The God of my childhood was only nominally the God of joy and creation; he was the God of peace, of justice, of renunciation; a God of clean, simple lines; a God who didn't put up with much ambiguity; a God who could expect a kind of unobtainable holiness from you. I think often in my poems (and I'm reading my work through my own myths here, is there any other way?) the speakers are beset with ambiguity, but wishing they weren't. They wish the choices they're faced with were clear and clean and holy, and they search for some kind of forgiveness for their wavering. I think this explains my fondness for the work of William Stafford in general and for one poem in particular that I've used over and over in classes and claimed pretty much as my own: "Traveling through the Dark," with its speaker beset with choices he has no control over.

The other side of the forgiveness issue, of course, is the writing itself. Writing a poem seems often like some sort of forgiveness to me. As if someone–God? I guess–were granting me something that I don't earn or attain. Grace. Or something.

Keith Ratzlaff

Learning to Know Mennonites

I am not an ethnic or traditional Mennonite, but someone who came into the tradition as an adult from outside. Because having a spiritual life was always important to me, and for a good while I was on the run from the Christianity of my childhood, I'd been a tourist in several other traditions–you name it, Zen, some romanticized version of Native American spirituality. I read a lot of Jewish mysticism too. But as a tourist, I was always picking and choosing, never committing, never dealing with the difficulties of those traditions. I sensed that to be more serious, to grow in spirit, I had to find a place in my own tradition, where I had the right to wrestle and question, where I'd be challenged and learn. I discovered that Christianity was bigger than the right-wing loud mouths; it even had a left-wing. What the Mennonite tradition gave me was a place in the faith where peace and justice were valued, not just as political principles but as principles of the spirit as well.

I remember describing our church, which was probably not very traditional, made up mostly of people who came from other denominations during the first Gulf War. We sat in the round and felt free to interrupt the sermon with questions and added examples, requests for something to be repeated. We had a wonderful music leader, a man who was primarily a fiddler, but who could play anything and seemed thoroughly inhabited by music. As soon as one of his sons became 9 years old or so, he'd put him on the drum kit and let him whale away. The congregation loved it. Children danced. Sometimes grownups did too. We were about half professionals and half poor folk, though it was rare for that distinction to come up. The church was a place for healing. My husband had been called to minister there after the congregation experienced a split, and the body became a place where others who had been wounded by churches could find a home. We were funky and free; we took on serious issues; the sermons were intelligent.

Two other Mennonite churches I spent brief periods in while visiting other places were the Pittsburgh Mennonite congregation and the Buffalo Valley church in Lewisburg. Both, in different ways, were inspiring and moving places, places which were very welcoming. What draws me most deeply to the faith are the paradoxes: the first shall be last, the greatest will be a servant, the poor inherit the earth, God is mysterious and other, and close as the air we breathe. To me those paradoxes are what keep things open and mysterious; they are, I think, the opposite of fundamentalism. The opposite factors in a paradox seem like the energy field created when you try to put two magnets together, positive to positive. They don't quite touch, and the space between is where energy and faith exist. It's where there's room for imagination and creativity. For me the paradoxes and plain old contradictions keep things open, make Keats' Negative Capability possible, the ability to exist "in uncertainty, mystery and doubt without any irritable reaching after certainty." I will end with a few thoughts from a few wise people.

As Emerson, that lapsed Unitarian, said: "There is a crack in everything God has made."

St. Gregory of Nyssa: "Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees."

Anonymous Egyptian monk: "unawareness is the root of all evil."

During our earlier email conversation, in response to various formulations of "Mennonite poet," Betsy Sholl shared the following words, calling attention to the delicate nature of creating categories–at least viable enough to sustain an anthology. While she challenges poets to transcend categories, she also acknowledges the ways that particular belief systems infuse our poetry just as color infuses stained glass designs.

"I never really considered myself a Mennonite poet–or any particular breed of poet. In fact I tend to assume that all the ways we can define ourselves are partly self-conscious and head-shaped forms of identity, whereas in writing the point is to find out who or what we are when we let ourselves slip loose of those cultural identities, and have to enter into some more shapeless place and see what's there in the messy inner swamp. I assume we discover ways we are and aren't what we thought, ways we're enhanced and limited by both the cultural stuff and the swampy stuff. It seems to me that the interesting thing about the anthology is just this–that we see how a certain belief system is transposed through different souls, how individuality and culture meet and wrestle and wound each other."

Betsy Sholl