Billy Collins on Mormon Literature

How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer
wandering her cities and ascending her torrid hill towns.
How much better to cruise these local, familiar streets,
fully grasping the meaning of every road sign and billboard
and all the sudden hand gestures of my compatriots.

Those five lines, the first stanza of Billy Collins’ poem “Consolation,” introduce him as well as any might. Collins is not afraid of being appreciated by ordinary people, he uses humor to illuminate more weighty subjects, he is at once beguiling and profound.

I attended a reading Collins gave recently. He did not actually say anything about Mormons or Mormon literature. (Indeed, Collins represents middle-class, suburban America–where many Mormons are comfortable, but also where a majority of the inhabitants likely still think Mormons strange or even dangerous to the extent that they think about Mormons at all. Nobody’s perfect.) So apologies for my misleading header, a lame attempt at disguising the tenuous link between this post and AMV’s purpose. Hopefully the link is not too tenuous: introducing works and answering questions afterward, Collins said many memorable things about writing. Some of them follow, accompanied by my attempts to “liken them” to would-be authors of Mormon literature that speaks to a broader audience.

He said that it was important for a poet to understand that there is wide gulf between how seriously the poet takes himself and how little others naturally care about what he thinks, feels, and has to say. Elaborating further, he talked about poets who are presumptuous in terms of what they impose on readers–poets who are oblivious to the reader. He criticized poetry that relies too much on authors’ psychic traumas or general state of misery. He said he no longer reads such poetry, joking that it makes him feel like he is in the ambulance with the writer on the way to the mental hospital and they haven’t even been introduced.

For Mormons writing for a larger audience, the advice to remember how little others may naturally care seems particularly important. It may be tempting to start with assumptions about Mormonism and its importance that the average reader may not be willing to buy. And it may be tempting to write Mormonism in a way that is off-putting, presumptuous, too reliant on unintelligible “inside” material. The challenge is to give the reader access–and to demand appreciation with good material and excellent craft.

He discussed humor in poetry. He argued that humor has a long history in poetry and that the “light verse” ghetto to which a poet with a sense of humor is now likely to be relegated is a relatively new thing (since about 1800). He does not try to be funny, he explained, but his poems reflect how he sees the world. He called humor a tool that creates a safe place to engage people; that draws from them an involuntary and disarming response. If you just stay there and laugh your head off it is not worth much, he said, but humor can be a door to the serious.

People have asked whether Mormons are even capable of humor. No doubt we have legitimate reasons to claim humor-impairment: we are a hierarchical church run by solemn older gentlemen, mostly retired from the corporate world, pressure to be or at least appear perfect pervades the church, we have a history of persecution, and we maintain a strong missionary impulse. And yet to the extent that Mormon authors want to create literature that engages a broad audience, can we afford not to disarm readers, not to draw them with wit into safe places where our stories can be told?

Regarding the poet’s relationship to other poets or perhaps “the tradition” in general, he talked about being a thief. The title poem from his latest collection, The Trouble With Poetry, addresses this:

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti–
to be perfectly honest for a moment–

He said that when he was younger he was much more discrete, doing the poetic equivalent of breaking into other poets bedrooms to steal rings off bedside tables. Now, he said, bolder and with a higher profile, he likes the rush of walking into a jewelry store at lunch and taking a hammer to a glass case, taking what he wants and casually walking out.

Of course, we must know both the wider tradition and our own. And steal judiciously.

He also talked about succeeding as a poet, praise, and criticism. He said he was indifferent to praise, but that he responds to harsh criticism. He said that he has a keen sense of revenge: that when the Librarian of Congress called to name him the Poet Lauriat of the United States, he thought of all the teachers who dismissed him, told him his poetry was pointless and that he should get back to more serious work.

It is not a stretch for a Mormon artist to see herself as embattled: many within the faith may be indifferent or suspicious; the larger literary world may not notice what they do or care. Perhaps Mormon authors can be motivated by their own keen sense of revenge. To show the world what they’ve got.

5 thoughts on “Billy Collins on Mormon Literature”

  1. The challenge is to give the reader access.  I agree, and when blogging LDS topics it is more of a challenge than one would think. I now tend to write my posts with the goal that a non-LDS reader could understand everything in the post without feeling either confused by references or puzzled by odd LDS terminology. But it results in such a strangely objective tone (strange at least to the standard Mormon ear that is used to hearing in-group talk) that I sometimes get emails from people who can’t tell whether I’m LDS or not. 

    Posted by Dave

  2. Dave: you make an interesting point. Whether it is fiction or blogging or other non-fiction, it seems that there are both rhetorical and substantive reasons to seek the kind of objectivity you discuss. It gives the “other” access–it is inviting, hospitable. And as a matter of substance, it requires both the inside writer and inside reader to evaluate “inside” assumptions; to view themselves with a measure of objectivity 

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  3. Stephen: I’m glad you liked hearing about Collins. Of course, he was just making a humorous point on motivation and dealing with criticism. Neither he nor a struggling Mormon author would ever compare such so-called “embattlement” to the rare-blood-disease kind of suffering.

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