A look at Irreantum 9.1

It’s good to see the Association for Mormon Letters working to get caught up with publication of its literary journal Irreantum. I always find it a bit puzzling and sad when a new issue is published and is not mentioned in the Bloggernacle, on the AML-List, etc. So I’m going to take a stab at a quick, subjective review of Volume 9, Number 1 (which I guess would be the spring 2007 issue).

Short Stories

I admit it. The major reason I keep my AML membership (and I did let it lapse for a while because I was unhappy about the delays with Irreantum and the lack of AML Annuals — which are very important to me because I’m not able to attend the yearly conference) is because I want access to short stories written for the Mormon market. I would be very happy if every issue, regardless of theme/focus, published 5-7 short stories.

This issue features four — the winners of the 2006 Irreantum Fiction Contest* (there was a tie for third place). I enjoyed them. I wish that there wasn’t such a bias towards your standard American literary realism short story. But I can’t really complain — two out of the four stories knocked my socks off, and I think that’s a pretty good ratio (the other two were just okay).

“Light of the New Day” by Darin Cozzens is the first place winner. It’s easy to see why. About a middle-age unmarried man who lives with his ancient, irascible, well-meaning-but-controlling mother on a farm, it is a polished, complete story with a couple of amazing images and all those small details and moments that literary readers enjoy. It’s a very good story that has some interesting things to say about the Mormon experience. Very anthology worthy. But it doesn’t really break any new ground in terms of Mormon literature — or rather it doesn’t do anything with form or content that really surprised me. And yet,  I really like it.

“Fish Hut” by Pawl Rawlins was awarded second place. It’s about an older, engaged Mormon woman who lives in the Wasatch Front who isn’t sure she wants to marry her solid but boring Mormon fiancé and her encounter with a busboy named Ramon. It’s a small story, lacking the completeness and polish of “Light of the New Day.” It relies on a sorta extreme event for it’s full effect. And yet it left me rather lukewarm. I learned very little about the Mormon experience from it.

“Deviations” by Laura McCune-Poplin tied for third place. I liked it better than “Fish Hut.” It’s about two sister missionaries who visit a cathedral in France. I like that the two sisters and two elders that we encounter in the story are funky and interesting and that the story isn’t about companionships falling apart or proselyting, but rather is about how these missionaries feel about their mission and their place in Mormon culture and doctrine. At one point while thinking about meeting a nun at the cathedral, the point of view character Soeur Lucy Stanley asks one of the elders if he could be a missionary for his entire mortal existence. That’s the kind of question missionaries do think and talk about, in my experience, and you answer that question can be quite revealing. On the other hand, I thought the title of the story overreached as did the brief section where Lucy thinks about the ways that she deviates. Perhaps it’s just that I’m out of touch with Intermountain West Mormon culture, but I found Lucy to be much more conventional than she, or even perhaps the author, thinks she is. I needed either a bit more exploration of why she thought that way and the implications she thought that had for her or for that to happen in a way that showed deeper irony.

“Scattered” by Katherine Woodbury is the other third place winner. It is my favorite story of the four (and, in my opinion, the clear second place winner). The story continues Kate’s fascinating attempts to explore Old Testament characters through fiction. This time it is Elijah, Jezebel and Ahab — the three alive and playing out their stormy relationships in modern-day America. I suppose it’s speculative fiction. But Kate meshes everything perfectly. Elijah is a homeless guy with a backpack full of books. Jezebel is a fiery would-be radical activist. Ahab is a lawyer, of course. On the one hand, there are echoes of Angel/Buffy the Vampire Slayer — crazed relationships with too much sexual tension that have built throughout history. On the other hand, the non-realism of the story doesn’t go beyond Old Testament details and the concept never wears thin or stretches too far. It’s a very good story, and very well-written (although it lacks the extra patina of literariness that Cozzens brings to his story — a lack that I don’t feel, but that I can understand others feeling).

Poetry

I don’t do well with poetry — mainly because of a lack of patience on my part. But I did like “Coming to Birth” by Susan Elizabeth Howe. It’s a concrete image filled look at spirits and bodies and birth: “They wrap themselves in flimsy,/ see-through bodies… want to push, jostle into existence.”

The other poem that stood out for me is “The World’s Lap” by Lance Larsen. But really, when taken as a whole it’s one of the better sets of poems that Irreantum has published (other poets represented are Javen Tanner, Stacy Moisant and Carolyn Howard-Johnson) because the poems are approachable and trenchant and all rather Mormon.

Essays

A strong batch of essays in this issue. There are four of them and all of them very much worth reading. But it still would have been nice to have had a couple more reviews.

“Learning to Write” by Henry Miles is a painful but fascinating relating of the author’s efforts to complete a personal essay about his father’s suicide. He bounces from BYU professor to BYU professor and each one points out a deficiency and suggests a new direction to try. The experience is painful and a bit annoying and exhausting, but Miles shows us how through it he learns more about writing and about how he feels about his father and mother. I only wish that the essay he was working on was also included (although it sounds like it may be expanded into a book).

“Magnified Callings” by Rodello Hunter is pulled from her 1972 memoir A Daughter of Zion and is about her work with a Mia Maids class. It’s both funny and touching and has some interesting details about church life in the mid-twentieth century.

Randy Astle continues his fine work on Mormon film with a historical survey of LDS children’s media. As one might guess, there was and is a lot more going on than I was aware. Astle’s goal is to briefly cover a lot of ground — which he does well. I look forward to further studies in this area.

The final essay is by AMV’s own Eric Thompson — “Tyler Ford’s Anxiously Engaged and the Intrusion of Mormonism in Mormon Cinema.” Anyone who has read Eric’s AMV work knows that he brings a rigorous approach to his film criticism, and that he backs his criticism up with specific examples. This essay (which is a slightly modified version of this AMV post) is no exception. And what I really like about it is that Eric is not afraid to really interrogate the Mormon-ness of the film.

*Note: This post originally said that the winners were of the 2007 contest. It was actually the 2006 contest (see Angela Hallstrom’s comment below).

9 thoughts on “A look at Irreantum 9.1”

  1. .

    I’m with you, William. What I want from Irreatum is fiction, and it’s utter failure in that regard is why I let my membership lapse. I keep trying to renew my AML membership (and thus subscription), but I’m having a hard time renewing my faith — and that must come first.

    I hope the comments that follow mine will offer the buildup I need.

  2. Thanks for the positive review, William! I enjoyed writing “Scattered,” but the constantly shifting viewpoints has occasionally triggered the thought, “Who will *ever* read this?” It’s nice to know someone has!

  3. William, an excellent review. Thank you so much for doing it. And I’m glad you enjoyed Katherine’s story, too; I admit, it’s a different story compared to what Irreantum usually publishes, and not everyone will like it, but I knew that some people would LOVE it. So I’m glad you did. (Oh, and just to clarify. I was fiction editor at the time this story was chosen, but this issue was put together by Scott and Valerie.)

    I also need to point out an error in that issue. The stories represented are the winners of the 2006 contest, not the 2007 contest. It was an inadvertent typo that reflected how embarassingly far behind Irreantum had fallen. But by the end of 2008, we should be on track.

    And for you fiction lovers, you have a bonanza coming your way. Scott will be publishing his issue soon (the last I heard it will be going to press in a week or so) and my double issue will come out in November. Here is a sneak peak of the fiction you’ll see in November:

    -Darin Cozzens “Reap in Mercy”
    -Jack Harrell “Calling & Election”
    -Arianne Cope “Saltwater”
    -William Morris “Speculations: Trees”
    -Mark Brown “Cause”
    -Bruce Jorgensen “This Afternoon”
    -Kristin Carson “Gypsy Holiday”

    Yes, SEVEN stories. Count ’em. And one of them is William’s. I predict that Darin Cozzens will once again fail to disappoint, and the other stories are full of surprises and all kinds of literary goodness. There’s some excellent poetry and great essays and reviews, too. So if you haven’t subscribed, now is the time to do it.

    Irreantum will stay on schedule from here on out and publish the best fiction and poetry and creative nonfiction and critical essays if I continue to have anything to say about it. I can promise you that.

  4. Sounds good, Wm. I look forward to checking out these four stories. For some reason, I haven’t seen mine yet. I assume it’s coming …

  5. I have to agree with you about the short stories, Wm. Cozzens poignantly captures the tugs and pulls of the parent-child relationship, creating a very real experience. “Scattered” also deals brilliantly with an intense and passionate relationship and, as you say, it should have been the clear second place story, especially since “Fish Hut” and “Deviations”, though interesting, are just okay, whereas the other two really “knocked my socks off.”

    I also think the poems in this issue are very effective and affecting. (If you don’t mind, I’ll pick up where you left off and breeze through the poetry section.) This was my first experience with Javen Tanner (I’ve been trying to hunt down a copy of Curses for Your Sake because of it) and he has become one of my favorite poets because of the way he uses language to viscerally engage his subject and his readers (to make us listen viscerally) and because he speaks so clearly the language of his human experience. I’ve always been moved by the story of the moving of the water and Tanner’s “Bethesda” deepened my appreciation for that moment when the afflicted bodies wrestle with themselves to find healing and peace in the spring.

    The corporeality of his verse also comes through in “My Mother Says I’m Buried in the Wasatch Mountains” as the speaker explores, in vivid imagery that points to the Atonement, death and the renewal of life in the relationship between a mother and her miscarried child.

    Relationships seem to be a common theme in all of this issue’s poetry. Stacy Moisant’s “You Taught Me White” is a brief exploration of life and language, of the power of a name, and “Your Hands” follows the speaker’s body as a lover’s hands trace its curves into the erotic “truth [we] create with [our] fingertips.” Susan Elizabeth Howe’s “Coming to Birth”, as you mention, delves into the aching spirits have to be joined with bodies of flesh and blood, to cross the “watery” threshold into the proving processes and relationships of embodiment.

    Carolyn Howard Johnson’s “Prevailing Winds” is a poignant illustration of the way nuclear winds can ravage a person–their body and their blood. And then there’s Lance Larsen who never fails to delight with his explorations of the parent-child relationship and the human connection with the natural world. Finally, Jim Papworth expresses a similar sentiment in “Death: Aspen” as the speaker wrestles with the memory of a lover? a wife? that is brought to him in the objects he engages with in the natural world.

    All in all, I found the poems published here great examples of the skill and courage Mormon poets have as they engage their craft and write about and from their varied experiences with mortality.

  6. .

    I haven’t reviewed it yet because I haven’t been able to bear the thought of reading his story. Otherwise I’m ready to go.

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