Some notes on Mennonite/s Writing VI

by doradueck

It was a privilege to attend, and be a reader at, the Mennonite/s Writing VI conference held in Harrisonburg, Virginia this past weekend.  What a rich and stimulating event! The schedule was full and there were many concurrent sessions. Here follow some informal notes and observations on the sessions I attended.

Biggest personal takeaway: I was informed and inspired by the presentation of keynote speaker Gregory Orr — “Ethics, Aesthetics and the Lyric.” Orr is a poet, something of a master of the short lyric, and while I don’t write lyric poetry (which can be defined as a poem or song about experience, often involving an “I”, a form omnipresent in history, he said) his words offered much to me also as  a writer of fiction. As writer, period. He spoke of the reality of disorder, and the human need for some kind of order. There’s survival value in poetry, he said: “you can and should make a poem.” If you can’t, well someone else has; there’s a “lyric invitation,” and “the classic caress of author and reader.” Orr championed the power of subjectivity to determine beauty, to bestow meaning.

Gregory Orr

I’m looking forward to reading Orr’s memoir, The Blessing. At Facebook, Shirley Showalter alerted to a guest post by Orr at the blog Narrative, in connection to memoir, and I’m passing on the link  as well if you’re interested in his thoughts on the topic above, including references he made in his talk.

Notable quote: “I, I, I is not the same as me, me, me.” The I stands (in, under, against  the “over-culture”?), is a position, a naming in one’s own words, calls the other beautiful. The me grasps.

Orr’s presentation dovetailed well — as if they’d planned it, though they hadn’t — with “state of the art” addresses by Ann Hostetler (for the U.S. side of the event) and Hildi Froese Tiessen (for Canada), especially Ann’s on the memoir trend and the “self” in a Mennonite context. Questions both raised included “where does the writing come from,”who is the self in Mennonite garb?”and  “to whom or where does the writing go?”

Most electric, stimulating:  the theopoetics panel of Peter Dula, Jeff Gundy, Scott Holland, and Jean Janzen. I confess I’d never heard of theopoetics, though we were told that Google references abound, and I can’t say I have enough grasp even after the session to articulate properly what I heard, except to borrow from Jeff Gundy who spoke of it as writing birds instead of birdcages. And, written for “those whose brows sometimes furrow.” But quite apart from the limitations I brought and take away, it was exciting to hear the presentations of the panelists and the brisk, dynamic discussion between them and later with the audience. For the theologian sitting beside me, the best moment was probably Peter Dula’s passionate statement during the discussion that theology isn’t quite as hidebound and rigid – I’m paraphrasing here – as perhaps some of the conversation supposed, but vigorous and beautiful too!

Notable quotes: “The creator God of Genesis is not a moralist but a poet and a potter.” (Scott Holland) “As theopoet I’m not missional.” (Jeff Gundy)

Second best takeaway:  One of the best things about any conference such as this is the people – the people I already knew and met again, the people I knew virtually and now met in the flesh, the people I learned to know. I won’t mention names for fear of forgetting someone, but it’s these conversations, lengthy or brief, these exchanges, that will probably stay with me most strongly.

Notable conversation quote (to me): “Yes, yes, you should go to Moscow, see those dachas where the Mennonites gathered in 1929. You should write that story.” Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful… Going to Moscow, I mean, and seeing those dachas.

Best performance and proof that we’re not running out of stories: What a treat to see Vern Thiessen’s one-man play, “Back to Berlin,” a 40-minute contemporary journey with the narrator, a young man, and his father, back to Berlin, to re-visit some of the sites of the father’s experience as a courier in World War II. It was a father-son encounter both funny and poignant. A lively discussion with the audience followed, in which Thiessen admitted his anxiety over what his father may or may not have “done” on the German side in the war. “That generation is culpable,” he thundered.

In the synthesis panel that closed the conference, a number of people mentioned the “apocalyptic” tone they’d heard in places thoughout the conference, fears about where Mennonite writing was going, whether we’re running out of stories, etc. Panelist Ervin Beck noted this concern but answered it too by saying Thiessen’s work on war/postwar themes was one example of new places to mine creatively. I agree with Beck. I heard enough poems, stories, memoir throughout the conference to indicate there is still plenty of ground to cover – new ground, in fact, no matter whether the “Mennonite” in it is explicit or implicit.

Two scenes, and “drudges”: It was obvious in this conference, as it has been in earlier ones, that the American and Canadian Mennonite writing scenes differ – in their histories, in their questions around ethnicity, identity, church. To generalize (always dangerous, I realize), American Mennonites seem to be flourishing in the areas of poetry and memoir and remain somewhat more connected to the wider Mennonite church, and Canadian Mennonites are flourishing in the areas of fiction and some have moved to a kind of post-Mennonite stage (to borrow Royden Loewen’s expression) as per, say, Miriam Toews or David Bergen. In both the truths of this generalization, and the significant exceptions to it, there remains a need for the conversation and mutual learning such a bi-national conference provides, as well as plenty of ongoing work for the work of the “drudges.” The latter word is not mine, but was used in the synthesis panel to indicate those who support, undergird, shape the entire enterprise. People such as publishers, critics, editors, bibliographers, and so on.

And speaking of critics, Rob Zacharias, a young scholar who is doing some interesting work on Mennonite literature, noted that as we continue to look at the history of Mennonite writing, we should also look at the history of critical work around it. “Who are the Mennonite critics?” he asked. “Why are they interested in these texts?” Critics, he noted, are also trading in “Mennonite currency.” A good point, I think.

Most startling good book/author discovery: In an earlier version of the schedule, Stephen Raleigh Byler, author of Searching for Intruders, was slotted with me and Rudy Wiebe, so I ordered his book to acquaint myself a little with his work before meeting him. Unfortunately, he was not able to attend the conference after all, but I’m hooked on the book, about two-thirds done. It’s grim, it’s dark, but this is fine, fine writing. I also appreciated hearing a paper by Erwin Beck at the conference, “Searching for Intruders revisited,” which is informing my reading of Byler’s novel.

And my reading? Yes, it went well; thanks for asking. :) It was a great honor to read alongside Rudy Wiebe, who has been so influential on the Canadian Mennonite literary scene, and to me personally through his work, his example and encouragements. He read from his story “Broken Arrow,” in his Collected Stories, and a number of times his voice seemed to break, not from age, I thought, but because of the power and witness of the words. Interesting how what is set down and then let go of has that power, not just for the reader, but also for the author who is reader. A gift turning back to bless the giver.

Session I wish I could hear again: the opening evening of poetry by Todd Davis, Jeff Gundy, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, and Keith Ratzlaff. I’d been up since before five that morning, Manitoba time, and I was dismally tired. I sat there and their poems washed over me like the gift of a long hot shower, but I wasn’t catching anything besides how good it felt. I’d wish to hear again, and catch.

Freshest: I slept between sheets, pillowcases, and coverlet that were moss colored, as if the spring blossoms and loveliness of the Eastern Mennonite University campus weren’t enough to remind me I’d come into a green place, and woke to begin Friday’s day of conferencing with “Visual and Popular Culture” – a session on cooking, Amish quilts, film in Irma Voth, and the Amish romance novel. Each paper was delightfully fresh with insights and information.

And fresh again, closer to the end: readings in a session titled “Life Writing and Healing,” especially Connie Braun’s poems and Jessica Penner’s autobiographical essay “Mustard Seed.”

Notable quote: Silence is passed on. “I took away… so many questions.” (Connie Braun)

Sorry to Miss, A Disappointment, and The Travel Bracket (a.k.a, this post is getting too long and it’s time to wrap it up): I was sorry to miss the final conference “Words and Worship Celebration” Sunday morning because of flight requirements, but I’m borrowing this from the conference report:

Speaking at the final event, a service marking Palm Sunday, [Rudy] Wiebe touched on the way writers work in silence, enveloped in the mystery of writing. Yet when writers and readers meet, their “mutual silences open to listening.”

I was disappointed, for her sake, that attendance for Carol Ann Weaver’s American premiere of “Paraguay Primeval” was so sparse. I know it was nothing personal, and no reflection on the really interesting work Weaver does, just the late-evening slot at the end of a very full conference. Sometimes these things can’t be helped, but a disappointment, nevertheless.

And the travel bracket? Two days both ways, actually, in the company of Paul Doerksen, professor at Canadian Mennonite University. I came to know him first as the history and Bible teacher of our children at their high school and in numerous connections since. The conversations were good, on a range of things churchly and cultural, as well as debriefing the conference. And – huge relief to me – he was willing to drive the rental car. I helped by holding the GPS.

[Should any participants of the conference read this report of “my” Mennonite/s Writing VI conference and notice errors, please comment to correct me. April 8 note: I did a few edits on the post, per a note from Ann Hostetler; thanks!]