Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Breathing out, breathing in: Some book-and-arts tour highlights!

A "Creative (M)othering" workshop in Kidron, Ohio (July, 2012)

The past six months sent a blur of unfortunate (and sometimes sad) events. Imagine black walnut trees falling on houses, beloved grandfathers passing away, broken ankles, cat's tails getting accidentally cut off, and cars deciding to stop working in the middle of a city highway... At one particularly low point, my husband started muttering about Job.

But something happened in the midst of our long season of weighty matters: for the first time in our 4-year marriage, we laughed in the midst of constant chaos and loss. We laughed a lot. We held on to each other. We let the day end, and we started over when we took long swigs of strong coffee the next morning. Last night, we walked to the end of our driveway'a hill to watch the clouds lit from behind with melon-gold light. It felt good to be standing there, still and still standing after the storm, in a light we could not explain or take for granted.

Sometimes, after I finally (finally!) finesse a poem onto paper, after I've arm-wrestled images, revised a line thirty times, can see a bit of myself--or, on a good day, the world I want to be part of--in a strange new light--I get a similar feeling. Some of the hard part is over (until the next hard part surfaces, at least).

In June and July, I zig-zagged to book-and-arts tour events that gave more to me than I could ever give in a reading or workshop. I met people who have changed me. I read in the Big Apple with extraordinary friends, visited Vermont and New Jersey, and sang for peace at a folk festival. I came to rest in the fields that raised me, surprised and elated that Ohio's Amish country can draw 30 people to a poetry reading!

What's next? That's the exciting question. Some things are in the words (ha! what a slip--in the works) but I'm always on the look-out for ideas.

A few summer book-and-arts tour highlights:

WOUB radio interview with poet and host Wendy McVicker. (Link to show.)
Photo by Elliot Nicolson.

Signing a book at Orrville, Ohio reading.

Performing at the 2012 MennoFolk Festival as "strange light."

                                                      My mom and I both offered workshops
                              for Mennonite teens at the Ohio Conference Youth Retreat.

Bennington College Alumni House w/ some MFA classmates. O second family.

Program from a June reading in NYC at the Cornelia St. Cafe--what a night! I still get shivers.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Feeding Community: What Undergrads Taught Me This Quarter

After treating my body to its first Thai massage across town yesterday, I meandered home in the sunshine, passing an organic/local-vore bakery, road-side piles of garbage and old furniture left by hordes of exiting undergrads, a couple of left-over students tanning themselves in their front yard while giving their dog beer, and, just as I crested our hill, something I'd never seen before: hummingbird roadkill (!)

This rich and zany diversity often marks a typical day in Athens, Ohio. As a writer, most of the time I am incredibly grateful to live in a place that continually surprises me--even if it happens to also be home to this year's "#1 party school."

I had a tough quarter of teaching undergrads this spring. And I mean tough. Mostly blank, angry stares and deliberately mediocre work. I began to doubt this town, the power of words, the point of a college education. And while I hope at least a few of my English students will take something with them from their required composition course, I know that others were quite happy to get their C+ and just move on.

Here's what saved my sanity this spring, not to mention a belief that there are people out there--even undergrads, perhaps especially undergrads--who can change the world for the better: an Arts for Ohio grant project called "Feeding Community" that I co-wrote/directed with my amazing artist neighbor, Danielle.

Our project paired student papermaking artists with literary artists and had one goal in mind: tell the local food movement story through collaboration.

Over 135 hours of student work later, here's some proof of the end results:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Singing for Peace: An Interview with Wendy Chappell-Dick

Wendy Chappell-Dick

When I first met Wendy Chappell-Dick, I was an elementary school camper with a blonde bowl haircut and coke-bottle glasses at Michigan’s Camp Friedenswald. Wendy was often on staff, and I found myself drawn to her luminous and confident spirit. As both my parents will attest, I was in awe of Wendy because she treated me as a creative equal—and because she sang with more emotion than anyone I’d ever met.

I reconnected with Wendy at a 2002 Mennofolk music festival she helped to coordinate at Friedenswald. In my early twenties then, I felt distanced from my faith community. But the experience of that Mennofolk affirmed that artists and musicians have a place at the Mennonite table.

This year’s
Mennofolk Bluffton, slated for July 6-8, will donate proceeds to The Iraqi Student Project, The Wounded Warrior Fund, Military Counseling by the German Mennonite Peace Committee, and military recruitment counseling here at home in the hopes of helping to heal the wounds of war.  I wanted to know more about this annual event, so I turned to Wendy Chappell-Dick. She graciously answered a few questions in the midst of planning and publicizing for Mennofolk Bluffton.

Sour Cherry Pie

Becca: How has music helped to shape your faith and to live that faith out in the world?

Wendy: When I was a little girl my mother always told me that I never needed to be afraid to sing in church. She told me to look out into the congregation and to remember that everyone there is loving me, so I didn’t have to feel shy or embarrassed. That was extremely influential and allowed me to develop a deep love of sharing singing and playing as a form of worship. It also shaped my faith in that I learned to see church as a loving place, a place where a community of people is there to accept and embrace you rather than to judge or reject. I think this is a very Anabaptist way of seeing music—not one person up there as an individual singing about their individual faith, but it is an act that happens within the congregation as part of the whole body of Christ.

Becca: Today, there are several different Mennofolk festivals and concert series in Canada and the U.S., all organized by separate groups of people. How did Mennofolk originally start?

Wendy: In Southern Ontario in the late 1980s, there was a lot of talk about community among young Mennonites, and lots of music and art happening. But those ideals and activities weren’t happening within churches. Many young people didn’t choose to be involved with a congregation at all. A young adult pastor named Fred Martin envisioned a weekend gathering of Mennonite and ex-Mennonite young adults and their friends in a festival setting where their ideals could be expressed through music and art with no stipulations. I was a college student at Conrad Grebel at that time, and I attended the first festival Fred organized. It was a beautiful weekend of camping and sharing ourselves as we really were— with no mandated theology or religious expectations. The odd and magical thing about it was how spiritual it ended up being. When people were invited to share what was within them, Mennonite values and echoes of their spiritual Anabaptist roots were undeniable. Now, almost 25 years later, many of those early Menno-folkers are involved with Mennonite churches and institutions. However, at that time, Mennofolk was the only space within the church where we felt we belonged.

Becca: Mennofolk is taking place in Bluffton, Ohio this July. I’ve noticed that the information describing this event immediately reminds us that Mennofolk is not just for Mennonites. Can you expand on this idea?

Heather Kropf
Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover

Wendy: Although Fred Martin thought of Mennofolk as a space to reach out to disenfranchised Mennonite youth, it has really grown beyond that as a form of outreach. As much as we as Mennonites want to be friendly and welcoming, our theology and history of being “separate from the world,” and our tendency to cling to our ethnic traditions and focus on intellectual development can be off-putting to regular folks looking for a church home. One of the most effective ways to break down barriers is music. And one of the most special and marvelous gifts Mennonites offer as a faith community is their music. Even though Mennofolk transcends music written only for church, the musicians that come from the cradle of the Mennonite church are usually steeped in a unique harmonic sensibility and a value of group singing over individual glory. Whether our musicians are playing bluegrass, folk, or rock and roll, the same thing happens at Mennofolk today as did at the very beginning: a sense of spirituality, a love of peace, and the warmth of community dominates the festival. Anyone can be part of that experience, even those who would have no interest in going into a church service or looking into Mennonite history or theology. And the fact is, though they rarely are full time professionals, Mennofolk musicians are incredibly good at what they do. The music is fantastic, and the public responds to that. On the last day of the festival attendees will be invited to hear more from their favorite performers by joining several local church services structured around the hymn “When in Our Music God is Glorified.”

Becca: In your opinion, what can the arts (and music especially) offer the larger Mennonite church?

Wendy: I think music has already enhanced and helped create the Mennonite church, from the early hymns of the martyrs to the four-part singing and chorals that were adopted later and embraced as central vessels that help our spirits soar. However, I do think it is interesting that most of the musicians who are involved with Mennofolk do not have a space to share their music in church. They are playing in coffeehouses, farmers markets, recording on their computers, but they are not being utilized in worship settings. We have so many excellent songwriters, yet very few Mennonite composers and writers are represented in our hymnals and Mennonite camp songs.

Becca: What have been the most rewarding parts of being involved in Mennofolk?

Wendy: I have been part of organizing seven Mennofolk festivals over the years. And I have hundreds of stories of grace and love that have manifested themselves through the events and music of Mennofolk. I remember the young Shawnee woman who saw the publicity about Mennofolk and contacted me to try to learn about her mysterious Mennonite ancestor and ended up doing a concert with her Native American flute. Or the young man I met playing in a bar whose music I loved… I said to him “too bad you’re not Mennonite, because I’d love to book you for a festival!” He shyly told me that he had recently started attending a Mennonite church, was feeling many changes in his life, and was desperately trying to find venues to play his music that were alcohol-free and songs that were not focused on objectification of women. He went on to play at several Mennofolks and found a network of other musicians through the experience. I’ve seen great bands such as The Steel Wheels and Over the Rhine that have gone on to commercial success, and I’ve enjoyed some of the best music I’ve ever heard from people who only sing in their living rooms.

Readers can find out more information about Mennofolk Bluffton, including performers and registration, at

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Poems Behind the Pulpit & Other Cincinnati Adventures

Last weekend, my older sister gave birth to her second daughter.  With my sister-in-law getting closer to her late summer due date, I've been ruminating over the role of motherhood more than usual these days. Truth be told, I'm in complete awe of biological mothers. And as I seek out friendships and my place within community as an adult and developing artist, I gratefully lean on the fact that to mother can also mean "to author, to give purpose, or to protect." 

I'm a visual learner. Maybe you are, too. I tend to (sub)consciously internalize, even replicate, the actions and emotions of those closest to me. Not surprisingly, this has both saved and seared me. When I think about learning how to shape my own story in poetry and song, I give thanks for the many people, particularly women--Mennonite and otherwise--who first opened their mouths and picked up their pens. 

Perhaps there can be such a thing as creative mothering, then: the practice of affirming and mentoring one another’s originality and truth. As part of a book-and-arts tour, I'm offering poetry writing workshops around the country for intergenerational groups of Anabaptist-affiliated women, mostly to encourage safe public places where stories can unfold and be collected as a community, and to highlight the positive role artists can play in this process. 

We so rarely take the time to tell stories without a screen of some sort these days (both literally and figuratively), yes? And most of us don't go out of our way to start a meaningful conversation with a stranger. Heck, most of us probably have phone messages from dear friends and relatives that we can't seem to find the energy to answer.  

So why not make the time to sit down with each other, say "I want to hear your story. I'm ready. I'm listening." Creative Mothering workshops ask participants to consider questions like 

o  What stories in my family have gone or still go untold, and why? 
o  What stories do I choose to live out? 
o  What stories have changed me most?
o  If you could tell one story for the betterment & growth of a future generation of women in the church, what would that story be?

Twelve women attended my first official workshop, and the two-and-a-half hours we spent sharing, freewriting, and reading contemporary poems together felt fleeting. Chocolate may have been involved. Singing too. I assumed I was asking these women to sacrifice their time, a pristine Saturday afternoon. But the #1 suggestion I've heard so far: make the workshop longer. 

Last Sunday, I read my poetry in a Mennonite Church for the first time at the invitation of Joel Miller, pastor and arts advocate. My "sermon" consisted of telling the stories behind my stanzas, then sharing the poems themselves.  The poems were projected on the sanctuary wall, allowing the congregation to visually interact with the words as they listened.

I felt wobbly up there at the microphone, like an out-of-body experience. I expected at any moment that my great-great grandmas would shush me down from the pulpit or hand me a hymnal, get me to sing someone else's words in a voice Swiss-German ancestors would recognize. But at the same time, I felt the rooted presence of generations of women in my family holding me steady, keeping my voice from cracking. They were there, and so were their stories. They were there, and so were the stories they had always wanted to tell.

Many thanks to Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship for further inspiring me to be my whole self, even--and especially--within my faith community. And to Greta Holt-- for the photographs, baklava, and hospitality.  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Earth Day Arts Salon at Good Earth Farm: ATHENS, OH

This past Earth Day, an intergenerational group of local folks gathered to share their love and awe of creativity and creation. We sat in a living room warmed by a wood stove. We shared songs, photographs, stories, and poems. We sang together, oohed over the joyfully taut art of juggling, and took an afternoon to ponder how the arts often ask us to see the world differently--then to live in that different world.

For me, art is ever-evolving proof of the Spirit moving among us. Since I was a wee thing, I've thought about creation/creativity as a gift from the ultimate Creator--not only something vast and remarkable God gives us, but an ongoing conversation God expects us to join. Our Earth Day celebration reminded me that, despite too much evidence to the contrary, there are people of faith who care deeply about the natural world and sustainability in the name of a Greater Good.

By the end of the afternoon, after the potluck with blue corn cornbread and local honey, chocolate popcorn, chevre, and hearty casseroles of red beans and rice--after the table had been laid with visual art and after a quick visit out to see the new lambs, I felt as if we'd lived out a new psalm. Selah.

A Trio of Poets/Reading at Arts West: ATHENS, OH

So grateful to live in a town that brings out a crowd to hear new poetry and where reporters write full-page write-ups on new poetry books! In a dangerous move, I will compare poetry to football and say that the Arts West reading in April felt like a big home game, and poetry won. In this photo, we're surrounded by Wendy McVicker's haunting imagistic poems (on the banners!) before our Arts West reading.

Please do yourself a favor and check out the work of Wendy, Carrie Oeding, and Kent Shaw. They are making this world better and brighter. & to hear their work, listen to this joyful interview:

Look Now

April's been flinging about her poetry dress, a flamenco dancer that leaves me awed by cadence and color as she blurs off the stage. For the first time in four years, our irises are having a purple party. No more tall green stalks that taunt but don't deliver. All that storing up for the final last week of April in Southeastern Ohio.

And yes, I'm also reveling in the last few days of this National Poetry Month--especially as I try...and try again... to better envision/embody a National Poetry Life.

This week I signed a publication contract with a journal I've been submitting to for five years. I sensed a real inner shift when I found myself thinking, "That's not that long of a timespan. You've got a lot to learn, girl. You've got this whole life." 

Spring reminds me of the difference between grace and expectation, also, how each year Mother Nature forgives us for our neglect and gluttony. With red bud trees blooming along the highway or fawns on the front lawn, Gaia tells us there's still time.

These irises will fade in a few days, shrivel up to be slippery knots of petals. Now, now. Look now, they urge as I stop to stare at them, only a blip in my day as I cross off my to-do list and try my hardest to keep in touch with the people I love and the life I am daily building. Why must we always feel so behind?  

In a week that's also brought a towed car, harsh words said in haste, angry emails from strangers, little sleep--and, as usual, not enough time to be the partner-writer-teacher-daughter-in-law-sister-friend-child-of-god I want to be--there's been plenty of opportunities for deep exhales, nevertheless, for large portions of self-forgiveness, for small bursts of (purple) celebration. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012



March 17th: Lawrence, Kansas
Writers' Salon with local creative writers

March 29th-April 1st: Harrisonburg, Virginia
Eastern Mennonite UniversityMennonite/s Writing Conference:
Readings March 30th & 31st

April 1st: Official Book Release

April 10, 11 a.m.-1:00 p.m: Athens, Ohio
Book signing at Little Professor Book Center

April 12th: Athens, Ohio
7:30 Reading & reception at ARTS/West with poets Carrie Oeding & Kent Shaw

April 22nd: 4:30-7 p.m., Athens, Ohio
Earth Day Arts Salon + local foods potluck
at Good Earth Farm w/ local artists--anyone's invited to share!
Theme: Creativity and Creation
Reading, book signing

May 19-20: Cincinnati, Ohio
Cincinnati Mennonite Church
Reading (as part of May 20 Sunday morning worship)
"Creative Mothering" workshop 3-6 p.m., May 19

June 25: New York City, New York
Cornelia Street Café, 6-8 p.m.
Reading with fellow Bennington poets

June 30: Bluffton, Ohio
Ohio Mennonite Conference Youth Retreat
Writing workshops for high schoolers

July 6-8: Bluffton, Ohio
MennoFolk Bluffton Music Festival

July 18, 5-6 p.m.: Orrville, Ohio
Orrville Public Library
Reading with poet Jen Kindborn

More to come!

*Would you like the book-and-arts tour to come to your area? Contact Becca.

Backer Thank Yous

So many folks to thank since it's official as of an hour ago: the book-and-arts tour's officially funded with the help of more than 50 backers!

Here's a thank you toast to the following folks who are making this tour monetarily possible (There are many, many more who are sending notes of encouragement, buying the book, hosting and attending tour events and workshops, etc. etc!). So in no particular order:

Rolf Potts
Jayne Byler
Laura Grimm
Reyna Clancy
Carol Beale
Willa Carroll
Denise Vigneron
Donna Lofgren
Sarah Green
Bob and Trisha Lachman
Dennis Davenport
Aimee Anderson
Heather Frese
Kevin Haworth
Kelly Cooke
Sarah Einstein
Sarah Ellen Mitchell
Laura Kung
Amy Juravich
Joel Miller
Ashley Seitz Kramer
Sarah Kraybill Burkhalter
Angela McCutcheon
Patti Rossiter
Adel Wang
Hank and Marilyn Rossiter
Ruth Lapp Guengerich
Heidi Bender
Ben Lachman
Kathy Mast
Ruth Amstutz
Helen Horn
Wendy McVicker
Caitlin Mackenzie
Peter G. Jarjisian
Julia Lichtblau
Jen Hinst-White
Joe and Ashley Dallacqua
Kari Gunter-Seymour Peterson
V. Hansmann
Hillary Dorwart
Jen Colatosti
Deborah Michel Rosch
Sara Gilfert
Eric and Kristin LeMay
Michael Lachman
Heather Frese
Elizabeth Witte
Annah Korpi
Ada Tseng
Amanda Remnant

Mennonite/s Writing: HARRISONBURG, VA

Easter Sunday, and more perennials--wild ginger, phlox, daffodils--are happily tucked into our land. Every year, we plant spreading greenery, hoping one day not to have to haul out the clippers and mowers on our San-Fran-like hills. (We're even considering getting a goat to help us with this job.)

Yesterday, we tended to our acres for blissful hours, cancelled social plans, felt the sun remember our faces. Slow down, our lives had been tea-kettle-whistling. Why must we wait until a Holy Day to listen?

Today we ate breakfast--local eggs and donuts, strong coffee--and read aloud from Mary Oliver: "Don't bother me. I've just been born." We ducked into the old cemetery right across the street to remind ourselves of our living. Later, I will listen to a podcast from my home church three hours away, mostly to hear the hymns and to recognize the voices of people I know. (I sang my favorite Easter hymn in the shower this morning-- "Up from the grave he arose!"--but it's just not the same without that jovial bass line.) Soon, we'll go to restorative yoga to remember how the soul is planted in a body--on purpose. The late afternoon sun shines through blue and green bottles in our side windows, and Beef Bourguingnon (OK, the cheater's version of it!) bubbles away at the stove.

There are many kinds of redemption.

Last weekend, I was honored to read from my book and to give a lecture on "creative nonviolence" as pedagogy at the 6th Mennonite/s Writing Conference, held at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, VA. (Check out my Mennonite World Review post about the conference here.) The conference ended on Palm Sunday, the same day my book of poems officially released.

I'm finding that having a book out there makes you look at your own creative work with a transformative eye. I was that person, I find myself saying to myself. My life has taught me this..., and Look how the Spirit moved. I also find myself wanting to make revisions to these now-published poems--to stretch a line or delete a word. Who knows: when I read them in public, they may show up wearing something a little different--another ending, an alternative line break, a slight twist of adjective. Does the transformation process ever really end?

The poet Gregory Orr offers this line: “Praising all creation, praising the world: / That’s our job—to keep / The sweet machine of it / Running smoothly as it can.” Mr. Orr spoke at the Mennonite's Writing conference about the ethical responsibilities of lyric poetry, which means the "I" can be transformed, move beyond the individual and out into the world. Selah. Alleluia. Whatever slows you down, may it help you step out into the bigger world, renewed.

With poet Gregory Orr

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kicking off the Book-&-Arts Tour!

Though this may come as a shock to some purebred Mennonites, I just took my 1st trip to Kansas. Why? I accompanied my 82+-year-old grandma to visit relatives, an adventure that let me see her feistier side (and that indeed, one can fit several wheels of baby swiss cheese and rings of Trail bologna into a carry-on).

Sometimes, things just align in life. When they do, the best reaction is to enjoy the bridges built, not to fight or ignore them (though we sometimes do, yes?) For me, what I will eternally call "The Kansas Weekend" was proof of such Greater-Than-Me alignments. Not only did I have the chance to take a trip with the family matriarch and to see distant cousins, I also reconnected with literary friends who now make their home in Lawrence.

What do writers and lit folks do when they haven't seen each another for years? We have a writers' salon! We add a voice to our Voice! We eat good food and words! We say, "Wow. That was great. I want seconds." We remind each other that writing, in the end, is not a solitary act if we want to live out a rich life of letters. Now mind that word "rich" --please think of the best dessert you've ever eaten instead of dollar bills or tenure contracts. Let's be real here--I'm a poet and songwriter. The work I love most is not done for the sake of a steady paycheck. And yet, when you find yourself in community with artists & writers, your life doesn't walk away empty-handed.

The Lawrence Writers' Salon (filled with some wonderful people I met for the first time and also some dear friends) was my first stop on a book-and-arts tour for my first poetry collection and in celebration of the role of the artist within community, a tour that's been generously (generously!) funded by over 40 folks--friends, family, even strangers--who care about the role of story and mentorship and who want to see contemporary poetry thrive. (MORE ON THESE TOUR BACKERS LATER!) Funds raised will help me travel to different Mennonite-affiliated communities to teach free storytelling and poetry writing workshops for intergenerational women. Many, many other folks are contributing to the tour through buying the book, "holding it in the Light" as the Quakers say, and spreading the word.

Feeling already uber supported among the KU writers' community, I had one more stop to make. The cherry on top of "The Kansas Weekend" came in the form of a special collections library. KU has a pretty great sampling of William Stafford material (Stafford is a poet and human being I greatly admire, and he earned his masters at KU.) I got to hold letters he wrote on his typewriter in Oregon, with his tilting cursive signature in blue pen at the bottom. I got to meet poems of his I'd never known before.

And isn't that what life is all about? Piece-by-piece and person-to-person, we fill in the blanks we never knew were missing. Sometimes, even, we begin to see a bigger picture, start walking in a different direction, simply because suddenly we can. "Step-by-step," the old social justice tune sings, we march the march of the day. And word-by-word, we make a poem out of something that wells up in our living. "To live poetry is better than to write it," Basho said.

I copied and brought back with me several new bits of Stafford wisdom from the KU research library. In "Notes for the Refrigerator Door," he muses, "In any house there should be much reading that has never been published, that is in all states--notes, a start, a stop, the pieces that got said without presuming to be more than they are. Most things aren't finished, and most things haven't yet found their right beginning. Beyond poetry, there is a prose of the way things happen."

I have no idea what to expect from the book-and-arts tour that's only in the brainstorming stages. But I have faith in the gravity of unfinished work--and in bridges of all shapes and sizes.

Special thanks to Jana Tigchelaar for the KS photos

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Some things just need time to bake, and the end result is worth the wait. This is a lesson I've learned as an adult who often views cooking as a form of everyday meditation and mindfulness.

It's also the lesson I learned while putting together my first poetry manuscript, THE APPLE SPEAKS, which is now available for pre-order on Amazon and other online sites. Some of the poems in this book were started when I was 19, what seems a life-time ago. In the course of revising and editing the book's pages, I've had the opportunity to add my now 31-year-old voice to many stanzas, asking my many "selves," if you will, to sing together.

I'm excited that this collection has been published by an Anabaptist-afilliated press, Cascadia/Dreamseeker Books. This puts the book into the hands of the audience it's possibly most meant for--and the audience I tried NOT to imagine reading it. Ah, yes. The old question of opening our mouths in public--or rather, in publication.

I'm planning a book-and-arts tour of sorts starting this spring--after April 1st, the book's official release date. More news to come, more songs to sing...STAY TUNED!