Three Women Poets and the Beginnings of Mennonite Poetry in the U.S: Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr, Jane Rohrer, Jean Janzen

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Abstract: This paper explores from a cultural studies perspective the pioneering contributions of three women poets--Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr, Jane Rohrer, and Jean Janzen--to a growing twentieth-century body of U.S. literature by writers from Mennonite traditions. Baehr, Rohrer, and Janzen were among the first U.S. Mennonite poets to publish work in major literary venues. All three poets began publishing poetry in later middle age as their children were grown and their desire to write led them to cultivate themselves as poets through reading, workshops, and in one case an MFA program. This essay explores poems in which these writers express their personal narrative of "coming into voice" as poets from a culture in which such voices were rarely, if ever, heard. It also explores the ways in which the materials of experience--especially of marriage, family, and loss--were transposed into art in their poems.

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In his poem "A Noiseless Patient Spider" Walt Whitman sets forth a theory of literary production concerning the lyric poem. A spider hanging from a lonely promontory spins her thread, casting outwards for a foothold on which to anchor the other end of her silk. Whitman compares his soul to the spider, ever casting out thread in hopes of finding a receptive surface on which it will catch hold. While editing A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry, I found in Whitman's spider an image of the first Mennonite poets who worked without a literary tradition or context in the Mennonite community. As I decided on a chronological (by date of birth) order for the anthology, I discovered three women poets who were among the first Mennonite writers to find a literary venue for their work outside of Mermonite circles. Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr, Jane Rohrer and Jean Janzen--connected only by their solitary endeavors as poets (they did not know each other personally)--emerged as some of the first U.S. poets to do significant literary publishing. (1) Their poems appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s in such journals such as American Poetry Review, Poetry and The American Scholar. All of these poets were deeply shaped by the Mennonite community, but as adults they wrote without an awareness of a literary community among Mennonites.

A narrative of Mennonite literary production and context has gradually emerged since the publication of Rudy Wiebe's first novel Peace Shall Destroy Many in 1962. (2) During the late 1970s and the 1980s a Canadian literary arts community developed among writers from Mennonite origins, primarily in Winnipeg, and this Mennonite literary network was strengthened and fostered through three Mennonite/s Writing conferences sponsored by the University of Waterloo and Goshen College in 1990, 1997 and 2002. (3)

Mennonite writing in the United States did not become visible to mainstream American culture until nearly three decades after Wiebe's first novel, when Julia Kasdorf's award-winning volume Sleeping Preacher was awarded the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1991. Her book was preceded by the publication of four poems in The New Yorker, a coveted honor and an unprecedented one for a Mennonite poet. Sleeping Preacher not only brought a representation of Mennonite consciousness and community to the attention of the U.S. literary community, but its explicit Mennonite and Amish subject matter attracted the attention of Mennonite readers as well, and many of her poems have also appeared in Mennonite publications or have been set to music by Mennonite composers.

Kasdorf's success and sudden visibility at the beginning of the 1990s has done much to spark an awareness of Mennonite poets in the United States. But like Alice Walker, whose essay "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens" details her search for Zora Neale Hurston and the expression of an artistic legacy among her mother's generation, Kasdorf was also in search of literary forbears (she has written a biography of fellow Big Valley, Pennsylvania writer Joseph W. …