The sixth Mennonite/s Writing conference took place on campus this past weekend, featuring a wealth of poets, playwrights, and assorted authors who spoke and shared their work in seminars and workshops. Among these were Jean Janzen, celebrated poet and former teacher of poetry at EMU; Vern Thiessen, Canadian playwright and winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award; Rudy Wiebe, distinguished author of several books and collections of short stories; and Gregory Orr, poet and founder of the Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of Virginia.
Kirsten Beachy, Assistant Professor in the Visual and Communications Arts department and advisor for the Weather Vane, organized the event alongside poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf. “Kirsten did a phenomenal job of creating opportunities for the EMU community to recognize how broad the field of Mennonite writing is,” said Marti Eads, Professor of Language and Literature.
The conference officially began Thursday at 6 p.m. with a welcome by President Loren Swarzendruber, followed by personal introductions and readings by Todd Davis, Julia Spicher Kasdorf, Keith Ratzlaff, and Jeff Gundy. A spider hanging by its thread from the microphone during the event proved to be a recurring point of interest to the speakers.
The next day featured several events, including a Theopoetics panel, a State of the Art address, a short story plenary, and a performance of Thiessen’s “Back to Berlin” at 7 p.m. in Lehman Auditorium.
During the short story plenary, Dora Dueck, Canadian writer and author of This Hidden Thing, read passages from her short story “My Name is Margareta.” This was followed by a reading by Rudy Wiebe, author and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, from one of his latest short stories, “Broken Arm,” which is based on the historic life of a Plains Cree Indian and his journey towards pacifism later in life.
Ann Hostetler and Hildi Froese Tiessen spoke in the State of the Art address, where they detailed the current place of Mennonite Writing in contemporary literary culture. “In Canada, Mennonite literature has been perceived as an ethnic form of writing,” said Froese Tiessen.
Hostetler delved more into the psychological state of Mennonite writers. “For the Mennonite writer,” said Hostetler, “the freedom to voice the self is a relatively new freedom, not yet worn out by constant use.” She described the transition of Mennonite writing to topics centering on the self, and the conversation growing around the topic of identity.
The conference featured presentations from a wide array of disciplines within the writing universe.
“I thought there was a pretty good diversity of ideas and perspectives,” said Senior Adella Barrett.
Some of the less-attended events included a Theatre playwright workshop featuring Thiessen, in which he exposed some of the inner workings of the life of a playwright, and answered questions pertaining to his process of writing plays and the difficulties of gaining traction and publicity. JMU graduate Ivaco Clark led a slam poetry workshop on Saturday as well.
Many students who attended the conference were pleased with what they found. “[The conference] helped me to take myself seriously when writing,” said Barrett. The slam poetry workshop proved to be one of her favorite events of the weekend. “It made me think of writing less as a confined and difficult task, and more of a spontaneous process that can just come to me,” she added.
Later that night, at 9 p.m., a poetry slam was held in Common Grounds, which featured an open mic and poetry/short story readings from students and community members. “The fun part of a poetry slam on a campus like this,” said Junior Abbey Carr, who performed some of her poetry as well, “is that you know the people sharing the work.”
Eads, who served on the Synthesis/Response panel on Saturday, commented on the direction that Mennonite writing as a whole is heading. “There is a lot of talk about… Mennonite ethnicity – food, customs – those things are all interesting, but the gospel goes beyond interesting,” said Eads. “I appreciate most the Mennonite writers who are exploring what it means to walk with Jesus.”
The conference ended Sunday morning with “The Seven Words of Silence,” a Words and Worship celebration by Wiebe, and featuring music with Ken J. Nafziger.