Annual Janzen writer series brings Mennonite poet to FPU

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Todd Davis to speak on the gift of nature

Beginning in 2007 local poet Jean Janzen and her late husband, Dr. Louis Janzen, began the Jean and Louis Janzen Endowed Writer Series by donating a sum of money that they had received from selling inherited farm land to Fresno Pacific University, as a way to bring poetry to students and hopefully expose them to the art for the first time; this was all done in the hopes of instilling a respect for it in their young minds. Prior to their efforts, there has been no outlet of public speaking, much less poetry reading, available for students. The money was used as an endowment for the new poetry series and has since collected interest over the years, allowing for it to become a thriving cultural event on campus.

Originally it was focused entirely on Christian writers; however, Janzen decided to redefine it as being about “excellent” writers, so that the scope of those who could be invited to speak was not limited to those with Christian roots. Coincidentally, each writer has been Christian (and most of them, to be specific, Mennonite) anyway.

English program director and Humanities Division chair Eleanor Nickel, Ph.D., joined the leadership of the program in 2012. She approved that most of the writers and poets coming to speak at the event were Mennonite, for good reason.

“I feel like most students here have no idea who the Mennonites are,” said Nickel, “I really continued with the Mennonite writer idea because it’s something that students aren’t really exposed to around here.”

Todd Davis, speaker at the upcoming Janzen writer series

Nickel explained that something fascinating about the event is the audience: half of it consists of the students and faculty, while the other is made up of the local Mennonite community, who know the Janzens and return year after year to show support. The event is advertised all over town, especially in the bulletins at Mennonite churches.

In the organization and preparation of each event, Nickel meets with Janzen to choose which writer will speak. Janzen, having known many Mennonite writers and poets throughout the community during her involvement, has many connections to potential spokespersons for the event; however, Nickel tries her best to find a specific type of poet.

“I try to pick people that are accessible to freshmen,” said Nickel, “I don’t want people to come to this poetry event and not understand it, and have a reinforced stance of ‘I don’t get poetry’ or ‘I hate poetry’.”

She went on to explain that the negotiation comes down to finding someone who can be understood by a wide variety of audiences. She is in charge of getting in touch with the speaker, making travel arrangements and hosting a dinner for  both the Humanities faculty and the writer at Janzen’s home.

“She has this incredible, huge and beautiful house,” said Nickel, “however, this year will be the last dinner at her house, because she is selling it and moving to a retirement village.”

This being the last year of the dinner being hosted at Janzen’s home already makes it a monumental year for the Humanities staff and the writer series; this holds true especially for Todd Davis, the Penn State Altoona professor they have chosen as special guest this year. Deciding on a more eccentric topic, Nickel has big hopes for what he has to share with those who attend.

“Todd is actually a convert to Mennonitism,” said Nickel, “He didn’t grow up Mennonite, so he is going to speak about why he became a Mennonite.”

Surely this will be a treat to the attendees of the event, as Nickel has previously expressed her desire to educate the FPU community on Mennonitism – the topic Davis chose satisfies both this desire, and her wish to introduce students to the art of poetry. He will also speak on his deep appreciation and love of nature and the wilderness. He lives in Pennsylvania, and oftentimes spends most days in the “wood” and on the “steams,” even if only for an hour or two.

“My poems grow out of my love for the Earth, my reverence for all the species with whom we share the planet,” said Davis, “I know how fragile this place is- I write as a way to say we must be careful not to lose this gift.”

Davis further explained that he loves to visit other colleges and universities, as a way of meeting new people and talking with students and faculty about “the literary arts, about environmental issues, about how spiritual matters are often behind the arts and our relationship to the earth”.

Davis leaves us with this parting note: “Too many people are scared of poetry; they think it’s a puzzle that’s difficult to figure out. I don’t want anyone to be scared away by the fact this will be a poetry reading. My poems tell stories. My poems are accessible and fairly plain spoken.”

Davis’ time in  the Jean & Louis Janzen Visiting Writer Series will take place on January 31, and will be held in North Hall 123 (the Seminary Chapel).