NORTH NEWTON, KAN – Jeff Gundy, poet, essayist and professor of English at Bluffton (Ohio) University, is fascinated by the fringes.
Or, more specifically, the Mennonite and Mennonite-related creative writing to be found there.
Gundy was at Bethel College Nov. 1-2 to give the annual Menno Simons Lectures on the overall theme of “Wrestling with Mennonite/s Writing.”
“What draws me and has for a long time is work that comes from the fringes, outside the hierarchy of the Mennonite church,” Gundy said in his first lecture, “Imagining Mennonite/s Writing.”
He noted the “irony” of himself as the speaker being “a privileged white male in a tenured university position, whose works have been published and read, speaking in the series named for the European white man who gave his name to the church.”
In addition to six books of poetry, Gundy has also published several volumes of nonfiction, two of them on Mennonite writing, Walker in the Fog (2005) and Songs from an Empty Cage (2013).
“In both, I wrote about a lot of Mennonite, and other, writers,” he said, “and about categories for writing, including desire, heresy, defiance, doubt – often the dark sides of the binaries we set up – indispensable to both creative work and true faith.”
In his first lecture, Gundy opened with a brief look at two previous Menno Simons presenters who had also considered Mennonite creative writing and what it meant.
One was John L. Ruth, 1976. “[At that time], Ruth could find very few examples of Mennonite creative written work beyond Rudy Wiebe and Warren Kliewer. He claims [in his lectures that] every Mennonite distinctive is in tension with the creation of art.”
Second was Al Reimer, 1991. “The flowering of Canadian Mennonite writing was well underway,” Gundy said. “Reimer found many writers to celebrate – for example, Rudy Wiebe, Di Brandt, Patrick Friesen. He was much less interested than Ruth in ‘maintaining the tradition.’
“Reimer raised a different but important issue: What kind of attention do Mennonites actually pay to Mennonite writers? Often the only time is when they do something objectionable or manage to sell a lot of books to a secular audience.”
Since then, Gundy noted, there has been considerable growth and evolution in “how people are talking about Mennonite/s writing. The critics are joining in with increasing depth and complexity.
“There is so much material now, both creative and critical, that I don’t think anyone has read it all.”
Gundy noted that he wasn’t sure if his lectures had one thesis, but one way to at least cast for one was this: “If there’s a single thread running through Mennonite writing, it’s hinted at in Rudy Wiebe’s title Peace Shall Destroy Many. [Peace is] not just being opposed to war. We’ve failed in loving our neighbors, loving as Jesus said we ought to.
“This especially emerges from the writing of those whose voices have been stifled – women, LGBTQ people, rebels of all kinds [whose] work exists as ‘transgression,’ a violation of the authority of God, the Bible, ‘the Tradition.’”
Noting the deep feeling almost inevitably present in this writing, Gundy said, “Why this anger? Take a step back and realize that most of this resistance writing comes from those who have been marginalized … by the white men in power.
“Much Mennonite experience has been underrepresented, with voices unheard, or unlistened to. Attention must be paid not only to creeds and doctrines but to the lived experience of human beings.
“I have no interest in proscribing one true way to create a text. We need to keep nosing around, listening to each other, seeking to make new and beautiful things with words.”
Gundy’s second lecture, “Hearing Mennonite/s Writing,” was a reading from his two most recent books of poetry, both published in 2015, Abandoned Homeland and Somewhere Near Defiance.
The latter title “invites being read more than one way,” Gundy said. It’s geographic, because Bluffton, where Gundy has lived for more than 30 years, is near the town of Defiance, Ohio.
But it also asks readers to “unpack what it might mean to live and write that way, ‘near defiance,’ [in the context of a] culture that’s fascinating and rewarding in many ways, but that also seems to deserve some resistance.”
Gundy’s final lecture, “Looking for Mennonite/s Writing,” was a brief survey of some recent Mennonite and Mennonite-related creative writing.
“The Bible and the Martyrs Mirror are great books, even irreplaceable, [but] there are good reasons to think God’s work in the world can be found other places as well. It’s harder than ever to return to the old simple days if there ever were any. The question now is: What aspects of the world will this work engage and how? – no longer whether it will.
“Most of the most vital, energetic recent Mennonite writing comes from voices that haven’t been resting comfortably within the community for generations.”
Gundy offered “several categories – imprecise and overlapping – of current Mennonite writing. I’m most interested in presenting them to you and inviting you to experience [for yourselves] some of the best work being done.”
Gundy’s first category was “Bestsellers,” with the “two most visible to emerge in the last decade being Miriam Toews [A Complicated Kindness, 2004, and All My Puny Sorrows, 2015] and Rhoda Janzen [Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, 2010].”
The second category was “Memoirs,” with “three recent memoirs from well-known, high-profile Swiss Mennonites” as examples: At Powerline and Diamond Hill, 2010, by Lee Snyder; Blush, 2013, by Shirley Hershey Showalter; and Branch: A Memoir with Pictures, 2013, by John L. Ruth.
Gundy next looked at “Theopoetics,” which “really has to do with exploring theological issues and ideas through various literary techniques.”
His examples were volumes of poetry: Jean Janzen’s What the Body Knows, 2015; Keith Ratzlaff’s Dubious Angels, 2005; and Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s Poetry in America, 2011.
Gundy’s fourth category was “Innovative Forms,” including “speculative fiction, magical realism, surrealism. The emergence of Mennonite/s writing in these genres is one of the most exciting trends of the past several years.”
Here, his examples were Keith Miller, The Book on Fire, 2011; Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria, 2013; Jessica Penner, Shaken in the Water, 2013; and Emily Hedrick, Confessions of a God Killer, 2014.
Gundy’s final category was “LGBTQ Writing” with the examples Husk, 2012, by Corey Redekop; The Boneyard, 2012, by Stephen Beachy; and A Safe Girl to Love, 2014, by Casey Plett.
“Many Mennonites will pay no attention at all to this wild, sad and bitter writing and that is sad,” Gundy said. “Writers have always been under-appreciated – usually the best writers.”