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OUT LOUD! Spotlight: 6 Questions with Mennonite Poets Ann Hostetler and Jeff Gundy

Outloud

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133 North Allegheny Street Bellefonte, Pa 16823

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By Serge Bielanko

“Making music together is the best way for two people to become friends.” ― Hermann Hesse

You know, in my humble opinion, anyone who wears the hard-earned proverbial tag of 'Poet' ought to probably be treated with a little more reverence. Once upon a time they were, but those days are long gone, man. Still, here we are  in a world of people that sure could probably use 5 minutes a day to sit down, turn off the phone, and bask in the illuminated glow- in the subtle loveliness- of a simple little poem. One poem a day, every day a different one. How hard would that be?

Probably not that difficult at all.

But we both know it will never happen. Heck, we barely have time to snarf down a sandwich anymore, we're so busy. And as it happens, and you know this is true, if we in fact ever were going to entertain even the SLIGHTEST possibility of allowing the power of poetry back into our lives (we all knew poetry/WERE poetry when we were kids, running through the grass, all dirty elbows, all evening sun) then surely in the midst of all this chaos we don't have any time at all to to figure out one poet from the next, do we?

No, we don't.

So - like so many other aspects of culture anymore- we'd need help in that particular department.

And we'd look to the labels help us out.

Which is likely why, I'm guessing, two midwestern Poets coming to Bellefonte this weekend are described, quite uniquely, I might add, as 'Mennonite' Poets. It's certainly not a term you hear all that often, and I'm also guessing it's not necessarily a term that causes big lines at the poetry box office either. And yet for Ann Hostetler from Indiana, and Jeff Gundy from Ohio, it's often the way they are depicted.

Mennonite Poets.

Google them, you'll see what I mean.

Mennonite Poets.

It could almost be the name of one of the best Lancaster, Pa punk bands of all time, if you think about it.

But it's not. Not at all. In our case here it's a genuine term with no irony attached whatsoever. See, Hostetler and Gundy are American Mennonites, a couple of midwesteners whose lives have been spent pursuing the written word in all of her ephemeral glory. They are both long-time professors committed to helping others study the ways of poetry and creative writing, but beyond all that they are something rarer, something scarcer than we ought to be comfortable admitting. Because they're both true-to-life poets, the real thing...like a dang stegosaurus standing out there on the beach in the Friday night moonlight. Each of them has authored of a number of volumes showcasing their own poems down the years. Each has won a bunch of national and international poetry awards, traveled far and wide giving readings, and been lauded three ways to Sunday by just about every notable poetry rag this side of Saturn.

Which is to say: they are each ridiculously accomplished poets in their own right.

So then....why the extra little ID, you know? Why add that 'Mennonite' word to the already solid 'Poet'?

Maybe- just maybe- all will be revealed at their joint reading this Friday night. As part of Bellefonte Historic and Cultural Association's beloved Out Loud! Series, Ann Hostetler and Jeff Gundy will be bringing some of their latest work to life in the wonderful live setting of the Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County, 133 N Allegheny St. This is a rare opportunity to listen to and meet a couple of cherished American poets, which- let's be brutally honest here, Potters Mills- this is a chance that doesn't come along every day to those of us living around here.

So.

Mennonite Poets.

What will they say?

Who will they be?

What does it all mean?

Ha. I'll be darned if I know. But I gotta tell you: I'm wildly intrigued.

And that's exactly what the best poets do at the end of the day.

They make you curious.

Sometimes even before they ride into town.

This week I reached out to them both and here's our talk.

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You are billed here in Bellefonte (and elsewhere, I'm guessing) as a 'Mennonite poet'. How would you describe what that means exactly?

Jeff Gundy: The simple answer is “I’m a poet and a Mennonite.” A few of my poems are explicitly related to the church and various Mennonite markers, but more of them are informed by the tradition in various indirect ways—concern about peacemaking, social justice, the mysteries of God in the world. A reader might or might not think “Oh, this is ‘Mennonite poetry,’” and that’s fine by me.

Ann Hostetler: I’d say first of all that I’m a poet. I do come from Mennonite background, which inevitably shapes my world view and my thinking. About 15 years ago I published an anthology called A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry. I created it because I was surprised to discover that so many great writers a from a variety of Mennonite backgrounds were writing and publishing terrific poetry and I wanted to learn more about it.

Jeff Gundy: I should add that some of my closest friends and poetic allies are also Mennonites—Julia Kasdorf from right there in Bellefonte, Keith Ratzlaff, Jean Janzen, Ann Hostetler who’ll be reading with me on Thursday, and lots of others. In the last few decades “Mennonite writing” has become a real thing, and there’s a wonderful community of Mennonite writers, spread across the U.S. and Canada. Among many other things, we talk a good deal about the question you asked . . . with no neat answer so far!

Do you think your religion informs your art more...or do you think your art informs your religion more?

Ann Hostetler: Great question! I write out of who I am, which includes all of my experiences, including reading and writing poetry, as well as being a person of faith. My tools are language, a love of imagery, and the magic that happens when certain words and rhythms come together. I’m not trying to get across a message or a belief system, per se. Thus I was startled when poet Rebecca Gayle Howell called my recent book, Safehold, a true work of Christian poetry. Yet I was also honored. I didn’t set out to write such a book, but my belief system must’ve shone through in the language and subject matter of my poems.

Jeff Gundy: Well, I want to question this dualism. Making poems is something I do as a human being, who reads poems, who goes to church and reads in all sorts of traditions, religious and literary and both and neither. Both religion and art, from one point of view, are ways in which human beings reach for what is greater and more mysterious than ourselves—and, perhaps, ways that what’s great and mysterious beckons to us as well.

You're both professors, you've each spent much of your life teaching and listening to a younger generation try to find their own particular 'voice'. Has that influenced your own work...and if so, how?

Jeff Gundy: Of course. I spend much of my time working with students who are mostly just starting out, but that also means I spend a lot of time talking with them about fascinating and worthwhile texts. Those conversations are one of several streams that feed my own writing.

Ann Hostetler: I love working with students, because I’m always learning something new as they respond to literature and create their own work. Some of my students have been or are incredibly gifted, and it’s always a pleasure to see how that develops. I’m especially moved by students who are discovering that they have stories and the ability to express them.

Do you think- in this day and age of swift technology and disposable art- that poetry remains vital and necessary?

Ann Hostetler: Yes. More than ever. Poetry is compatible with the Internet in a number of ways. First of all, it’s a form that can concentrate a lot of power into a small space. There are some great poetry archives on the internet, such as the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American poets. And the forms and algorithms of the Internet offer new tools for playing with words. And courses such as Al Filreis’s Modern and Contemporary Poetry at the University of Pennsylvania, offered as a highly successful MOOC through Coursera, has brought thousands of people from all over the world into lively conversations about poetry. Poets are incredibly active on social media, particularly Twitter.

Jeff Gundy: Poetry keeps happening, in a multitude of forms and contexts, because it meets a deep need that we have for beautiful things made of words. The poetry embedded in songs, as well as in slam poetry and more traditional forms, seems to me certain to continue, though its forms will continue to evolve.

What do you like best about live poetry readings?

Jeff Gundy: At their best, there’s an energy that passes back and forth between reader and audience that’s marvelous. It’s human communication at its most immediate and intense.

Ann Hostetler: I love to hear the poet’s voice and experience their physical presence, gestures and energy. It grounds the poem and reminds us that all language comes from a particular body.

If you had to pick one volume of someone else's poetry to give to every human being on Earth (paid for by someone else, of course!)....what would it be?

Jeff Gundy: What a question! The first one that came to mind was Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But that should immediately be supplemented by fifty or a hundred more books, or at least poems. There are so many good voices, from all over the world, from every time and up to our own moment.

Ann Hostetler: Wow. That’s a tough one, because I have so many favorites. One book of poetry most people have in their houses is the book of Psalms, if they would open and recognize it as such. Every kid should have a big poetry anthology with lots of great illustrations. And if you‘ve got a computer you can go to poets.org, poetryfoundation.org, poetry daily, etc and find what you love for free. A book I’ve particularly loved this year is Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic.

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Out Loud! - November 8, 2019 at 7:30 p.m.
Jeff Gundy and Ann Hostetler - From Ohio and Indiana, Mennonite poets read from their new books.

Bellefonte Art Musuem for Centre County
133 North Allegheny Street

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