Introduction to 11/3/04 Kelly Writers House Reading
by Debra Gingerich
The anthology, A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry, was published in 2003 with works by 24 poets. Publishers Weekly writes, "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." This kind of statement may not seem unusual, but to many of us in the Mennonite community, it comes as a pleasant surprise that such a substantial collection of well-written poems could come out of our subculture.
The Mennonites trace their beginnings back to 1525 with the protestant reformation. Mennonites, as a part of the Anabaptist movement, differed from the other protestant reformers on three main issues: (1) Instead of baptizing infants, Mennonites believed in baptism of adults when they could choose whether or not they wanted to be a part of the church, (2) Mennonites believed in the separation of church and state, and (3) Mennonites were pacifists and rejected military service. For these reasons, Mennonites were persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike. This persecution led Mennonites to cling together in tight knit, protective communities. Over the years, through their migrations, Mennonites and their religious cousins like the Amish remained in secluded communities. Because of this, Mennonites developed an ethnic and cultural identity along with their religious belief system. This distinct culture has fascinated the dominant culture because of the unique dress, cooking and simplicity.
But this culture has not been supportive of artists. Mennonites' strict understandings of work, humbleness, respecting the needs of the community, and honesty have clashed with artistic endeavors. Editor Ann Hostetler writes in the afterward of A Cappella, "Mennonite suspicion of the arts is rooted in a literal interpretation of scripture that raises a number of questions. Does a disciple of Christ have time for art? Doesn't art elevate individuals at the expense of the group? And doesn't art (figurative language and metaphor included) lead us away from truth rather than toward it?"
Because of this, poetry by Mennonites, at least in the U.S., has taken longer to develop than many other cultural groups. The last half of the 20th century saw a lot of changes in the Mennonite community though. More and more Mennonites have gone onto higher education and moved away from their communities of birth. Mennonites have moved to urban settings and chosen non-traditional careers. Poetry by Mennonites started appearing in literary journals in the late 1970s. The 1990s saw the publication of a number of books of poetry by pioneers in our community. More of us started to imagine writing as an option for our own lives. This made A Capella possible.
The complex Mennonite identity that includes religious, ethnic and cultural affiliations offers a lot of possibilities for subject matter. The poets in this anthology explore identity, spirituality, customs, farming, memory and family. They face the tension between individuality and the needs of the community, between change and tradition. But it is as much the differences between these poets as their similarities as Mennonites that make this anthology a good read. Jeff Gundy writes, "Individual poets of Mennonite extraction have radically varied experiences-almost one per writer, I am tempted to say." And Gundy is a good example of an individual voice in this book. His poems are unpretentious, free-flowing conversations. In the midst of his contemplative searching, he does not disregard the humor in life. How else could he write a poem that includes the word "cookies" 59 times?
Another unique voice in this anthology is that of David Waltner-Toews. Actually the voice is Tante Tina, the narrator of the poem, "A Request from Tante Tina to the Mennonite Women's Missionary Society to Put Salmon Rushdie on the Prayer List." Waltner-Toews opens a window into the Russian Mennonite culture as Tina speaks English with a twist of words so common to those who grew up speaking Low German, epitomized in lines like "Sometimes when I am the chickens feeding" and "And if we the leaky pails are making silent."
But this book does not stop with the inflections of traditional Mennonite culture. Instead A Cappella ends with poems by Jessica Smuker Falcon, whose writing has been influenced by her Native American ancestry as much as her Mennonite ancestry. She does not shy away from subject matter that would have once only been whispered between Mennonite women in the seclusion of church kitchens. The first part of "Indian Locks" is an example,
Mama had hips the shape of Iowa
A uterus as spacious as Wyoming
fetuses grew so comfortable
they dammed the birth canal
tied themselves to the uterine walls
to keep from being born.
And as a choir needs a range of voices to reveal the full musical score the arranger had in mind, the voices in this book blend together to offer a fuller image of poetry with Mennonite sensibilities. The title of this anthology, A Cappella, is the perfect metaphor, named after the four-part harmony singing without instruments that has been an important Mennonite cultural identifier. This is a metaphor not lost on Mennonite writers and one I've used myself in the poem "Diversity."
Mennonites know something
about beauty, though there may be
no hand-carved crucifix,
no gold-dipped Jesus, no colored glass
to pull the sun in, shining opaque
designs on carved cherry pews.
My uncle sings high and visible
in tenor, his head cocked slightly
to the right, as if the sound
is coming to him from above.
And I learned young that
I would never match my mother's
soprano, how it curved about
the voices in our country fellowship,
too small to be called a church.
I accepted alto and listened
for the sounds of other women
drifting below the melody,
like shadowing on a pencil sketch.
No one had to tell me
that God somehow can hear,
that he loves four-part harmony.
Otherwise, voices could never
fit together like that. And when
the octet serenades those who sit
through weddings and funerals
on the straight birch benches
of Lowville Mennonite Church,
just the way their parents
sang in the congregation
on Sunday mornings, their voices
sweep paint brushes
along the white washed walls
with more color than eyes
could ever see. And we should have known
that folks who once all wore
that same cut dress, the same plain coat
couldn't also sing in unison.
Somehow it had to be told that
we are not all made alike.
It is this wonderful mixture of voices combined in this anthology that gives me hope that there will continue to be ways for all of our Mennonite poets' voices to be heard even in the midst of the cultural tensions and stereotypes. Tonight we get to hear from four authors included in A Cappella-all who speak with very individual and powerful Mennonite voices.
Di Brandt has won numerous awards in Canada for her five books of poetry. Her first volume, questions i asked my mother, explored her Mennonite heritage; her most recent books, Jerusalem, Beloved and Now You Care take on global subjects--the Middle East conflict and ecology. She is the author of several works of criticism, Dancing Naked and Wild Mother Dancing. She is at work on a non-fiction account of her recent stay in Berlin, a poetic sequence called Sweet Sweet Blood, and a collection of essays from the conference/festival, Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women's Poetry. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. Brandt's poetic writing with little capitalization or punctuation creates an urgency and passion necessary for the harsh realities that she tackles whether it is about her conservative Mennonite community or the tragic situation in Israel and Palestine.
Ann Hostetler is the author of Empty Room with Light and the editor of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She is also a scholar of American ethnic literature and received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently she is working on a series of poems about the artist and model Suzanne Valadon. She teaches English and Creative Writing at Goshen College in Goshen, IN. Hostetler's precise and visual writing makes a reader feel he could actually pick up the paintbrushes or slip into the Easter coat found in her poems.
Julia Kasdorf is the author of poetry collections Sleeping Preacher and Eve's Striptease, both published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry. She is also the author of a book of essays, The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life and a biography of Pennsylvania writer Joseph W. Yoder, Fixing Tradition. She is currently editing an anthology of poetry about Brooklyn, New York. She directs the M.F.A. program at The Pennsylvania State University. Kasdorf weaves together the past with the present, the rural with the urban, and the innocent with the sexual in an unflinching voice that demands self-discovery of the poems' narrator as well as the reader.
Jane Rohrer is the author of Life After Death. Her poems have appeared frequently in the American Poetry Review and have been anthologized in The Body Electric: America's Best Poems from the American Poetry Review, Parallels: Artists/Poets, and A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry. One of her recent projects involved helping to organize a retrospective show of her late husband Warren Rohrer's paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She lives in Philadelphia. Rohrer's poems dance between stark honesty and beauty in a way that fully interprets how life interlocks heartbreak and hope.