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

Writing Out of the World

by Melanie Zuercher

Melanie Zuercher is a freelance writer and editor from Hesston, Kan. She edits PeaceSigns, the on-line e-zine from the Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA and will begin in June as editor of the Mennonite Health Journal.

In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes of his parents: "They were in the world, but not of it--not because they were saints, but in a different way: because they were artists. The integrity of an artist lifts [that artist] above the level of the world without delivering [the artist] from it."

Certainly those words must resonate with any Mennonite familiar with her religious history, which is populated by a relatively small group of people--a minority in whatever social, cultural and/or religious context they find themselves--determined to be "in the world but not of it," according to their interpretation of the Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus. And Merton's words also describe members of a minority within a minority--artists who also consider themselves Mennonite in some fashion.

The anthology A Cappella gives us a cross-section of those (North American) Mennonite or Mennonite-affiliated artists whose medium of choice was--in the case of Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr, the only poet in the collection who is no longer living--or is words. I doubt that Mennonites have produced, per capita, an unusually large number of poets, but since the Mennonite world tends to be so small, it sometimes seems like it. And given Mennonites' traditional "otherness," it also seems little wonder. If art is made through the tension between the artist and his or her world, then perhaps a Mennonite artist could be said to be doubly blessed--or cursed. An anthology like this one has been due for a long time, and it is no curse.

Especially overdue is the recognition of Ediger Baehr and Jane Rohrer as two of the foremothers of so-called Mennonite poetry. Both of these women found their vocations outside of the Mennonite world, but it is clear from the strength of the poems in this collection that, for both of them, growing up Mennonite helped to shape their art. I was not familiar with the work of either of these women before I read the anthology, and after reading their selections, I have no doubt Hostetler was right to include them.

Hostetler has been criticized for not including the work of some of the "forefathers" of Mennonite poetry--e.g., Nick Lindsay, Elmer Suderman, Dallas Wiebe, Yorifumi Yaguchi. Probably on account of Ediger Baehr's and Rohrer's work alone--and this is not even to mention Jean Janzen and Sarah Klassen, the other two foremothers in this volume--I have little patience with this criticism, since I think their poetry is stronger than Wiebe's or Suderman's. Yaguchi, as a Japanese writer, is in a class by himself in relation to this particular anthology. I expect there is a place for a collection of Mennonite voices from outside North America (Hostetler has also been criticized for not including these in A Cappella), but I see no reason for one anthology--especially since it is the first that I know of--to try and do everything. As for Lindsay, even though Goshen College has "claimed" him for the Mennonites and even though he is a fine poet, he doesn't belong in a Mennonite anthology like this one.

Although the chronological lines are not that neatly drawn, I think it's fair to say we're seeing the third generation of Mennonite poets, represented in A Cappella by Carmen Horst and Jessica Smucker Falcón. If that's true, it may seem like it's time to stop agonizing over the question of identity and "otherness." But as long as there are artists, there will be this struggle to define a place and a name, and as long as Mennonites seek and desire to nurture their Anabaptist roots, they will be counter-cultural. The older I get, and the more I see of a world that increasingly allows itself to be held captive to fear in the name of "security," the less do I see "counter-cultural" as being a bad thing.

Hostetler sets the tone in her introduction when she recalls a lunch she and other graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania had with poet Galway Kinnell in 1989. The conversation turned to one of Kinnell's star graduate students at New York University, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, a Mennonite--and from there, the talk eventually moved to yet another misperception of "Mennonite" being the same as "Amish," not to mention to the whole group of descendants of the early Anabaptists being (once again) conflated into a homogeneous, horse-and-buggy driving mass who refuse to vaccinate their children.

Hostetler, her palms beginning to sweat, kept quiet in that gathering about her own Mennonite heritage and identity. But now she knew that there was at least one Mennonite poet whose work had won a prestigious award (the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh) and had been published in The New Yorker, and who, "unlike me, …seemed so unapologetic, so dispassionately curious about the marvelous details and particularities of the culture that was her heritage" (xviii). Gradually, Hostetler became acquainted with Kasdorf's work and with that of other Mennonite poets such as Jeff Gundy and David Waltner-Toews, and learned that there was a well-established community of Mennonite writers and visual artists in Winnipeg.

I am not a poet, but I'm a writer, who dearly loves words and how they can be used to evoke places, memories, feelings and deep truths. I grew up in a Mennonite home but a non-Mennonite community. I loved books but I knew no writers, and I existed within two cultures--Mennonite, Appalachian--suspicious of fiction, poetry and the messy ambiguity of artistic truth-telling. My awakening that might parallel Ann Hostetler's experience at the lunch with Galway Kinnell was discovering a "Mennonite arts" magazine called Festival Quarterly and the creative arts issues of With magazine--the latter subscription coming from the first writer I ever personally knew, Evie Yoder Miller (author of the recently published novel Eyes at the Window; Good Books 2003). I went on to be, after college, an assistant editor of FQ (no longer published), which is how I first learned about the fiction of Rudy Wiebe, the poetry of Jeff Gundy, David Waltner-Toews, Jean Janzen, Patrick Friesen and Di Brandt, and about Winnipeg's community of Mennonite artists.

I've heard it said that an anthology is not very satisfying because it doesn't give a well enough developed picture of individual poets and because, of necessity, it reflects the bias of the editor. While the latter is certainly true and the former may be also, I don't see either as a problem. I have been editing other people's work long enough to know that good writers are few, but eager readers are many. Perhaps the dedicated writers and poets have the will and desire to go out and read everything by their favorite(s), but most people don't know where to go without some direction. I would rather see readers dip into an anthology, get enough of a taste to distinguish styles and approaches, and perhaps then be motivated to look for more work by the writers who speak to them most deeply--better that than missing out on poetry altogether. One thing this book is sadly lacking is some kind of bibliography that gives the titles and publication information of the books by all these authors, although you can get some of that in the Permissions at the end.

I see this anthology as a milestone in the progression of Mennonites in the arts, a tribute to those whose writing is contained within its pages and to a community that has at last begun to recognize the value of its poets. Will A Cappella give non-Mennonite readers a skewed view of who Mennonites are? Perhaps. However, I think it's more likely to show that Mennonites are not Hollywood stereotypes--they're not Amish, although it's not all negative that the two are mixed up in the perceptions of postmodern society. Mennonite poets are engaged with and thinking about their society, their faith, their culture and heritage, their history, and with the natural world around them. They are, to paraphrase Merton, writers with an integrity that lifts them above the level of the world without delivering them from it.