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
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
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
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
“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,”
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.