the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956

Tinder for a poet's heart

By Ryan Miller ’95

In the autumn of 1970, an intense young man made a beeline through the Goshen College campus, ignoring the leafy maples, seeking the device necessary to complete his quest of love. Upon arriving at his destination, the campus bookstore, he purchased a single notebook and, wielding ink, began to pour his romantic yearnings for a certain coed onto the lined pages.

More than three decades later – with the pursuit of that female classmate having long since ended, unsuccessfully – Jeff Gundy ’75 continues filling pages with his thoughts.

Though known primarily for his poetry, Gundy, a professor of English at Bluffton College, recently published his second book of creative nonfiction, Scattering Point: The World In A Mennonite Eye (SUNY Press, 2003). His fourth full book of poetry, Deerflies, won the 2003 WordTech Editions Prize and is due out in the summer of 2004.

Gundy’s writing has evolved from those early exhortations of yearning and love to more mature examinations of life, faith and Mennonites. The growth process led him through two poetry classes with Nick Lindsay, former professor and poet-in-residence at Goshen College, and published two volumes, Back Home in Babylon and Jonny America Takes on Mother Nature, through Pinchpenny Press. He earned an English degree at Goshen and a master’s degree and doctorate in American literature at Indiana University. But even with the academic background, writing still comes down to placing words together, one by one.

“[The poet] William Stafford had the idea that you sort of accept what comes when you write. Once you’ve started, you don’t say no to the words. You put it down and see where it leads you,” Gundy said.

Having learned to try to look at the world from different perspectives, Gundy turned to closely scrutinize his own communities. In Scattering Point and an earlier book, A Community of Memory: My Days with George and Clara (Illinois, 1996), Gundy delved into the lives of Mennonites in the past and present – drawing on personal experiences, his family history and hometown of Flanagan, Ill., to provide a window into a group that once aimed to be in the world, but not of it.

“There used to be this dualism between the church and the world – us and them – so on and so forth. That dualism, if it was ever really an accurate one, existentially, isn’t really available anymore,” Gundy said. “It’s tempting to say we’re assimilated now, so we’re just like everyone else. … (But) what is there in the world worth cherishing and admiring and appropriating and identifying with in certain ways, and what needs to be resisted? Those questions seem just as important as ever.”

Examining those sticky subjects, especially when writing about existing places and real people, opens a writer to criticism – both from readers who disagree with conclusions and those touchy about the way their loved ones are portrayed. Gundy said one essay about depression among Mennonites, including his grandmother, drew concerns from some family members.

“There is a certain sense that we should not talk about those things. I tried to tell that story with tact and discretion,” he said. “I guess I’m at a point in my life where making a few people unhappy seems less important than trying to tell the truth about some things.”

And truth, in the writing world, changes – depending on the storyteller, Gundy continued; still, he wants to hear more stories told.

“It’s necessary, if we’re going to have a Mennonite writing community, that we hear a lot of different voices and not try to silence any of them. There will be people who are really critical of the tradition (and) people more celebratory and affirming,” he said.

In a nod toward post-modernism, Gundy said he would rather read many minor narratives about Mennonite life than a master narrative that attempts to represent the entirety of the Mennonite tradition. He reflected upon his ancestors, the early Anabaptists, whom he said leaned heavily upon written examinations of faith and life; succeeding generations lost the reliance on, or yearning for, the page until recent decades.

“The (Anabaptist) movement began amongst people who were certainly concerned about using their minds to think about what they were doing in their lives,” Gundy said. But when they were persecuted, they fled their urban homes, where learning was prized, and eventually grew suspicious about education and the world to the point of nearly abandoning the written word.

“People are finally starting to say, ‘We don’t have to live that way anymore.’ To write and tell our own stories is not necessarily to fall into the clutches of mammon. It’s been several hundred years, for those of us in the Swiss tradition, since we’ve been able to do that freely,” Gundy said. “So many people in the last couple of generations of Mennonites have gone to college, learned to read and write and experience the world in a broader way. … It makes people hungry to hear their own stories told in a competent way.”

Competency, for a writer, can only be accomplished through practice in writing and in examining life. Gundy said Lindsay focused his attention on the idiosyncrasies of the world.

“He’d come into class with a ratty blue sweatshirt on, big stack of books in his arms and throw the books on the table and write ‘Tuesday’ on the board and … go into this 10-minute exposition,” Gundy said. “He’d tell us about all these odd things he was reading – Jane Harrison and how mating songbirds define their territories and Russia. He had this sense that you ought to take an interest in everything, especially that which is off the beaten track.”

Gundy said his teaching style, and his writing style, gives a nod to Lindsay’s lessons designed to push students to move beyond what they see as their own limitations.

“So quickly you start to imitate yourself as a writer. You learn certain things that kind of work and you want to do them over and over again. I try to push people to do things that they’ve never tried before instead of sticking to the things they know will work,” he said.

Gundy will push Goshen writers when he returns to campus to lead Goshen College’s annual poetry workshop in January. Teaching, he said, often prods him, as well, to explore new directions in his own work.

And the inspiration of his own collegiate quest – that initial spark that tindered in a young writer’s heart? Well, Gundy moved onto a different muse. He celebrated his 30th anniversary with Marlyce Martens Gundy ’76 earlier this year.