Criticism: Michael Collings’ The Nephiad

Michael Collings, professor of English at Pepperdine, was kind enough to respond to an e-mail request for more information about his Book of Mormon-inspired epic poem The Nephiad, which A Motley Vision referenced in a recent post on another Book of Mormon-themed epic — Peter J. Sorensen’s The Mormoniad.

Collings is a rarity in the academic world — a scholar who is doing serious work on popular fiction (rather than just dabbling in it, or using it in the service of some cultural studies agenda), specifically the works of Stephen King and Orson Scott Card. Some of his work on OSC and other topics is available at Starshine and Shadows.

The Nephiad is not the sole example of his creative work, Collings is an incredibly prolific poet with a special interest in (yes, such a thing does exist, and, yes, some of it is quite good).

Here’s what he has to say about The Nephiad:

“It was a pleasure to receive your email. The Nephiad isn’t everyone’s cup of… [fill in an appropriate word], but occasionally it draws some interest.

It began about 30 years or so ago when I was in graduate school. My Ph.D. advisor, John Steadman, was an authority on Milton, on Epic, and on pretty much anything else he was interested in… a true Renaissance man and a generous and gracious scholar.

Anyway, as part of the Epic seminar (year-long, 25 epics read and discussed), he gave us a generalized list of epic conventions and warned us that some of them would appear on the final exam. It seemed to me that the best way to explore how the conventions worked would be to DO them, to write an epic.

I’ve always been fascinated by Milton and Paradise Lost. I discovered the poem when I was about 18, fell in love with the language, and later discovered as well that Milton was extraordinarily close in his thinking to Joseph Smith (later, I found that almost everything Joseph Smith taught as part of the Restoration was believed by at least one splinter religion during the 17th Century, and most of them between 1640 and 1660, roughly the time Milton was working on the poem). He seemed, if not a kindred spirit, then at least an intriguing mind.

So I decided to write a Miltonic epic, mostly for practice. I had to choose a topic, and since Milton had taken the best one, I tried to find a single moment that defined the LDS perspective on the universe.

For various reasons, I chose the BofM episode concerning Nephi and the Brass Plates of Laban. That was the point at which Nephi had to make a crucial choice — to kill or not to kill — and also the moment from which Book of Mormon history, and subsequently OUR history, became unique.

It seemed as well that, as a poet, I could work freely within the framework of scriptural truth… again using Milton as a model, who incorporated a number of elements into his poems that were not directly biblical. So I added an angel. The evil angel urges Nephi to follow the laws of Moses and of God and NOT kill; the good angel must paradoxically urge Nephi to disobey one law in order to maintain another. Externalizing the debate made it more dramatic… and provided a key scene for the poem.

Most of The Nephiad was written over an 18 month period; it was finished long before my dissertation. It ended up about 6,000 lines long, 12 books, in Miltonic blank verse. I tried a couple of time to get it published, but — as expected — there was little to no market for such a poem.

Then about 15 years ago, I began transferring all of my poetry to computer. Over a year or so, I entered about 1,000 poems into the file so that everything would be available.

Everything except The Nephiad.

It just seemed too long, too complex, too difficult to re-type. I stalled for another year or so, then decided that I really wanted an accessible copy. As I began, I discovered that in the two decades that had passed, I had learned a great deal about Milton, about poetry, about LDS thinking, about myself, about everything that a Renaissance epic had to touch on. So I began revising as well as transcribing, adding about a thousand new lines, tinkering with a number of old ones.

At about the same time, I taught myself book-making, especially cloth-bound books. Since no professional publisher was interested in the project, I published/created the book myself.

It has received some strong responses from several readers, including a couple of BYU professors specializing in Renaissance studies — and, to be honest, it was pretty much savaged by a BYU religion professor who simply wondered why I had wasted my time writing it… after all, the Book of Mormon had already told the story more directly, more simply, and more accessibly.

But I’m gratified by the comments it has received. It’s been compared favorably to other 19th and 20th century LDS attempts, which I much appreciate.

At any rate, that is the story of The Nephiad. It is an attempt at re-creating one of the most complex and versatile idioms in English verse; it does reflect my own beliefs as member and as poet; and it is a real challenge to deal with.”

Thanks, Dr. Collings. A Motley Vision will feature an excerpt from the epic in an upcoming post. Copies of The Nephiad are available. E-mail Collings for details.

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