the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

‘A Cappella’ draws on many voices in Mennonite poetry

An interview with Associate Professor of English Ann Hostetler by Rachel Lapp

In the fall of 2003, the University of Iowa Press released A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry, the culmination of eight years of work – a labor of love – by Associate Professor of English Ann E. Hostetler. Hostetler joined the GC faculty in 1998, teaching a variety of courses and special seminars while continuing to write and publish. Her first volume of poetry, Empty Room with Light, came out in November 2002 (Dreamseeker Books, Pandora Press U.S.). She has also published literary criticism and essays.

Reviewing A Cappella, Publishers Weekly stated: “This unique and rewarding collection brings together for the first time an enticing harvest of poems … Skillfully edited with attention to balance and variety, this highly readable book includes work from award-winning writers in the United States and Canada as well as surprising and accomplished new voices. …”

The anthology was also published one year after Goshen hosted the second “Mennonite/s Writing” conference, which Hostetler characterized as retired Professor of English Ervin Beck’s “work of love and genius that has created a community of Mennonite writers.” Attended by many of the poets included in A Cappella, the conference yielded a second issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review devoted entirely to Mennonite creative writing and literary criticism (October 2003). It was the idea of a collection of excellent poetry by Mennonite writers that inspired Hostetler.

Lapp: How did you begin thinking about a Mennonite poetry anthology?

Hostetler: When I was inspired to do the anthology, I had been living outside of Mennonite circles for a number of years. I couldn’t figure out how my Mennonite identity could play a role in my writing; in fact, I kept the Mennonite self and the poetry self very separate. I had become acquainted with the work of Julia Kasdorf, which so artfully brings both together, but I was not aware of other Mennonite poets until I attended a Cincinnati Mennonite Arts weekend in the mid-1990s. I was astounded to discover a network of Mennonite poets and wished for a way to access their work – many were published by small presses, and the work of Canadians was hard to find in the United States.

not about Rudy Wiebe, but for him

Rudy Wiebe, wiping the sweat from his brow,
calls a spade a spade.
He has a spade in his hands.
He is digging a hole near Winnipeg
in the middle of a potato field.
He has blisters on his hands.
He has roots on the brain.
He is looking for his roots.
One foot down he unearths
a nest of potatoes.
Two feet later he has an aching soul
and a sore foot.

His spade has struck a bone.
It is a dry bone.
It gets up and walks around.
Rudy is not sure if it is an ankle bone
or a hip bone.
It may be the bone of a buffalo
dropped by an Indian’s arrow or of an Indian
killed by Mennonite good fortune.
Perhaps a Mennonite died here
of overwork and too many potatoes.
Most likely it is the bone of a cow
that choked on a potato.
Rudy Wiebe cannot tell for sure
what kind of bone it is.
He watches the bone walk out to the road
and head toward town.
The people of Winnipeg ignore the bone.
To them, it is just another drunk Indian.

After the bone
Rudy Wiebe takes a lunch break.
He sits beside the hole and eats
rollkuchen with watermelon.
After lunch he continues his search.

–David Waltner-Toews ’71

David Waltner-Toews, who holds a doctorate in epidemiology and is a professor at the University of Guelph, brings his interests in science, ecology and language together as a writer of poetry, stories and essays. He has published five volumes of poetry, including the Pinchpenny Press book That Inescapable Animal, and most recently The Fat Lady Struck Dumb (2001) and The Impossible Uprooting (1995).
After wishing for quite a while that someone would put together such a book, it dawned on me that perhaps I was being called to do this work. I did this anthology for the students – for the young Mennonite writers who should know that they have an emerging literary tradition of which they are a part.

As I began to research the anthology, I discovered the pioneering work of Mennonite poets in Canada, who have established a strong presence in the Canadian literary community and have been publishing in literary journals there since the 1970s. I wanted to include a significant portion of Canadian voices in this anthology because these writers have been so instrumental in creating a sense of space for Mennonite poetry. A number of these Canadian poets have been educated at Goshen College. Several of them – including Patrick Freisen, Di Brandt and Sarah Klassen – have given readings on our campus, and Brandt taught the Poetry Workshop on campus. One hope I have for the anthology is to make the work of poets from both North American countries more accessible to each other.

Reading the poems and discovering the poets has been some of the most rewarding scholarly work of my life thus far. This anthology was also a way of reconnecting with a faith community. The poet and scholar in me could work together on this project.

Why Mennonite writing?
Many of the poets I contacted for the anthology asked me the same question you are asking: Why Mennonite writing? I felt I had to make a distinction between writing done by those of Mennonite background and writing that actively seeks to shape Mennonite identity. I was interested first in good poetry. I wanted it to be read for its literary merit. I was also curious to find out whether common themes would emerge in the poetry of writers from various Mennonite contexts.

In today’s literary world – with the understanding that stories come from multiple communities, rather than from a universal body of “great” literature – the context of a particular poem or story matters a good deal. I am interested in the degree to which writers from a common cultural and religious background share assumptions and values. But I didn’t want to limit these poets by any definition of Mennonite poetry. It is the business of the poet to be in the world, to write with honesty and vision. A Mennonite heritage or faith will inevitably be reflected here, though perhaps subtly.

Many Mennonite values are hard to represent. Most Mennonites don’t have obvious markers of dress or transportation anymore, as do the Amish, but there are intangible values that remain. One way they are expressed in this poetry anthology is through an emphasis on relationship, community, a primary connection to the earth and a desire to love the created world and to embrace goodness in earthly existence.

Readers of the anthology have remarked on how accessible, conversational and moving these poems are. I wonder whether this quality reflects the value that Mennonite culture places on the relational – on genuine encounters with others as a manifestation of divine presence in our world. This is, in turn, connected to our pacifism in a profound way. Peace is present in the poems, but poets tend to ask hard questions – especially about such dearly held values. For example, peace as a subject is often explored in relation to issues of interpersonal conflict.

One of the poems that does this poignantly and eloquently is from Barbara Nickel (’88). Spliced into “Lines” – a long poem framed by a lie she told to her father and the punishment that follows – are the words of martyrs, the history of her family’s flight from Russia to Canada, the values with which she had been entrusted. Jessica Smucker Falcón (attended GC) also meditates on the legacy of a community which has relied on patterns of order to control its members in her poem “Hemispheres.”

But while these poets explore community with a critical eye, celebrating life’s abundance is also a common theme. The rural roots of many of these poets are reflected in a holistic appreciation for life lived in connection with the land and the cycle of the seasons – in Jean Janzen’s “Chicken Guts” for example.

The importance of encountering and sharing with people from other cultures, and the value Mennonites place on global connections, is richly explored by poets in this anthology who share the heritage of a GC education. Carmen Horst (’94), who grew up as the daughter of missionaries to the Argentine Chaco, writes both of Argentina and of her experiences as a translator. The translator’s experience of invisibility, of taking in all of the words and emotions of others and exchanging them, is vividly portrayed in the poem “Interpreter.”

She is tired of their lips
It is important work. But
it has nothing to do with mission.
It is more like preparing the egg for Pysanky,
that beautiful, intricate Ukrainian art.
She sits alert, and painted for the occasion,
smiling parents and teachers on either side;
they take turns blowing in the hole at her top.
Whatever they request spurts out in gasps,
in intermittent bubbles and bursts…

David Waltner-Toews (’71) playfully joins Salman Rushdie and his Russian Mennonite Grandmother figure “Tante Tina” in “A Request From Tante Tina To The Mennonite Women’s Missionary Society To Put Salman Rushdie On The Prayer List.”

…I have on the radio heard
how the Ayatollah in Iran is wanting
to kill this Salman Rushdie
because he is telling stories
that the Ayatollah doesn’t like.
I am thinking then about how John Friesen
has once a letter in Russia written
during the time of Stalin,
and after, how they took him away
just as he was reading the Bible
at the supper table,
and his wife Elsie and the five children
have never seen him again…

Waltner-Toews also does international consulting on environmentally conscious development. His global perspective and his concern for the earthly are reflected thoughtfully in his poetry as well.

In “Rook,” Shari Miller Wagner (’80) explores cultural differences she was introduced to as a child when her family went to Kenya and Somalia as missionaries.

Describe the process of getting this book published. Was there interest in the literary world in a collection of work from Mennonite poets?
Getting this book published was a very long process. It required vision, perseverance and resilience. I was fortunate to have the constant support and encouragement of a number of people along the way to get me through the rough spots. And the positive responses of the poets I contacted and who contacted me also sustained me in the work. While I was the book’s editor, this is a project that is interdependent with community.

It is a long journey from discovering an interest in something and collecting materials to becoming knowledgeable enough to write about it and make solid judgments, then building the confidence of a publisher. But I felt very strongly that this was a necessary book. The University of Iowa Press, well known for its poetry anthologies, did a beautiful and careful job.

In terms of interest from the literary world in Mennonites writing poetry, I should say that Julia Kasdorf, who attended Goshen College for several years, was a big inspiration to me in the creation of this anthology. First of all, her poetry established a Mennonite voice in U.S. mainstream contemporary poetry in a way that no other has done. From the beginning she encouraged me in the creation of the anthology, introduced me to Ervin Beck, told me about the work of Hildi Froese Tiessen, of Conrad Grebel University, in anthologizing Canadian Mennonite fiction, and read several drafts of the introduction and afterword.

Kasdorf’s poem, “Mennonites,” anthologized in numerous places, appears in A Cappella with a selection of her work. This poem seems to address, more than many historical explanations, the complexity of Mennonite experience. It blends the stories of both Russian and Swiss Mennonites as it probes the stories they carry with them as part of their identity.

We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.
We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear
we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father.
We clean up his disasters. No one has to
call; we just show up in the wake of tornadoes
with hammers, after floods with buckets. …
Growing up we love the engravings in Martyrs Mirror:
men drowned like cats in burlap sacks,
the Catholic inquisitors,
the woman who handed a pear to her son,
her tongue screwed to the roof of her mouth
to keep her from singing hymns while she burned…

The narrative of history piles up until Kasdorf poses a daring question:
This is why we cannot leave the beliefs
or what else would we be?

At the poem’s end she portrays the earnest singing of Mennonites in four-part harmony, voices lifting “as chaff lifts towards God.” Kasdorf compresses Mennonite narratives and symbols in this dramatic and devastatingly ironic poem.

But another approach to the subject, characteristic of Jeff Gundy’s lighter touch in debunking sacred symbols, calls into question the ethnic Mennonite poem itself. Gundy wrote “How to Write the New Mennonite Poem” as a spoof when signs of Mennonite ethnicity began to show up in Mennonite poetry with what he felt was a disturbing regularity. It begins:

Choose two from old Bibles, humbly beautiful quilts,
Fraktur, and the Martyr’s Mirror in Dutch.
Get the word ‘Mennonite’ in at least
twice, once in the title, along with zwiebach,
vareniki, borscht, and the farm,
which if possible should be lost now…

Kasdorf’s poem articulates the earnest pride Mennonites take in the narratives of their heritage that are larger than the self, the self-deprecating humor of Gundy’s poem articulates another facet of the Mennonite voice: one that refuses to take itself too seriously. Canadian Mennonites have yet another series of stories about community and the struggle of the artist from Mennonite roots to find a voice for poetry.

Most of the poets in the anthology explore contemporary themes that reach beyond specifically Mennonite concerns. Kasdorf’s most recent poem in this anthology, “Poetry in America,” indicates a broader concern for the telling of stories; she works with new imagery and expresses many social issues Mennonites care about.

What is your hope for the book?
I hope it will be read by both Mennonites and non-Mennonites, and lovers of poetry. I hope it will show readers outside of the Mennonite community a whole range of images and voices that go far beyond some of the “tourist” images that have served to represent Mennonites. And I hope that Mennonite readers will open it and discover a complex mirror of Mennonite realities in which they will recognize some familiar thoughts and feelings.

Mennonite artists and writers who are devoted to their work are opening up new possibilities in the church. A Cappella is a work of loving service to the vast array of Mennonite poets who have inspired me. I was awestruck to have discovered so many – and so many recent award-winners. It’s time for Mennonites to take stock of this wonderful new literary productivity. The anthology offers us an opportunity to listen to each other, honor the differences and rejoice in our common humanity, while offering to the world a sampling of our voices.

What is surprising about this anthology, which includes 24 poets, is how many very fine poets there are who hail from Mennonite communities across the U.S. and Canada. And a significant share of them are connected to Goshen College.

You’ve talked about the link in your own life between faith, heritage and writing – and now, you have this intersection with Goshen College, where the “Mennonite/s Writing” conferences have been held.
I came to Goshen College during the time I was editing this book. So my life has changed significantly because of it.

GC has a long tradition, dating back to S. A. Yoder and earlier, of writing as “Culture for Service.” At first it was the genres of history, sociology and theology that received the most attention. When creative writing burst on the scene at GC, and with the arrival of Nick Lindsay, something new happened. Swiss Mennonites started writing poetry! And many of Lindsay’s students have become outstanding poets in both the U.S. and Canada. The S.A. Yoder lecture each year has allowed us to hear, on campus, voices from Yevgeny Yevtushenko to Denise Levertov, from Seamus Heaney to Edwidge Danticat and, this fall, Li-Young Lee.

What is key about writing as “Culture for Service,” especially creative writing, is the sympathetic imagination. This exciting new understanding of imaginative literature as “Culture for Service” was deepened with the introduction of the International Literature class at Goshen College in something like 1970, the first of its kind, to focus on literature from the Third World. Our students – and the world – discovered that literature could offer many voices the opportunities to speak. Through these culturally inflected, highly artistic voices, we began to hear messages from across the world in new ways that resonated with our own experience, yet maintained their distinctiveness.