An in-depth discussion of the text and creation of The Nephiad

Yesterday I provide a snapshot review of Michael R. Collings epic poem The Nephiad ( Amazon ) and tried to capture what the poem accomplishes for the modern Mormon reader. Today, Michael and I discuss the poem in depth.

In The Nephiad you draw on classical (as in Classical Greek and Roman), Biblical, and Book of Mormon imagery, language and allusions. Why use all three? How do you see them playing off of each other? And did you have any guidelines or limits for when and how to deploy each set of traditions?

I probably should begin by noting that the quick answer to most of these questions might be “because Milton did it.” That is, The Nephiad really began quite directly as an out-of-class exercise designed to help me understand Milton and Paradise Lost more completely. As noted in “On Writing The Nephiad“ (Starshineandshadows.com) I was taking graduate seminars in Milton and the Epic and knew that there would be comprehensive final exams for each and figured, hey, the best way to figure out what Milton had in mind would be to try it. Initially, I don’t think I quite imagined writing a full-scale epic–just enough bits and pieces to get a feel for the process. But the project quickly expanded and took on a life of its own, outgrowing that first impulse and becoming a serious attempt at becoming an independent poem.

That said, the question of the role of Classical, Biblical, and LDS imagery in The Nephiad entails both that short answer–Milton blended Christian and Classical imagery to enhance each other–and a longer consideration. One of the functions of allusion in epic is to expand, to broaden the canvas of the poem. A poet might refer to a character from Homer, for example, or a passage of Scripture, and by doing so invite into the poem all of the echoes, resonances, nuances, meanings implicit in that character or passage, augmented by the centuries of analysis and exegesis that might exist. The invited elements would be intended to amplify the seriousness, the significance of what the poet was trying to say.

As poet, I see myself in some senses as an amalgam of many cultures; and as a result of my upbringing and education, blending classical, Biblical, and Book of Mormon enabled me to explore and articulate ideas beyond the scope of my own words.

Some of the themes remind me of the epic poetry of Orson F. Whitney (in particular the opening that compares Joseph Smith to Milton, but also the mixing of literary traditions). Is The Nephiad at all in conversation with Whitney’s work and if so, how?

I’m sorry to say that at the time I did most of the work on The Nephiad, I did not know of Whitney’s work. And if I had, I would most likely have still written the poem as it stands. My dialogue was primarily with Milton–learning to know him and understand his perspectives. In later revisions, elements of other influences might have entered in, but by and large not. I’m pleased to note, however, that in the intervening years since The Nephiad was completed, I’ve looked at Whitney, Cracroft, and others, constantly amazed and impressed by the varied directions they followed in their works.

Tell me about the various invocations of Muses that occur. Yes, if one is writing epic poetry that sort of thing is likely to be in the text, but what makes The Nephiad unique in its invocations?

Okay, I probably overdid the Muses”¦starting nearly every book that way does get a bit wearing. But again, there were reasons for my choices.

I once had a two-hour debate with a fellow graduate student about Paradise Lost, one that seemed to be going in circles. I finally decided that the problem lay in the fact that my friend approached the Invocations as structural elements of classical epic; I approached them from the idea that Milton actually believed them–not in the classical gods per se, but in their metaphorical, allegorical, and imagistic connections to the Holy Spirit and Inspiration. When he invokes Light in Book III, it is partially for a structural purpose–to provide a transition from the darkness of Hell in Books I and II into the supernal brightness of the Celestial Council in Book III. The invocation provides a buffer, as it were, between two opposing landscapes. But I think it also serves a rather literal purpose; after being in physical darkness (through his blindness) and a kind of spiritual darkness (through having to imagine Pandemonium and its inhabitants, Sin and Death, and Satan), the invocation creates a purgation, a cleansing that allows Milton, as poet and as believer, to enter into the presence of the Father.

The Nephiad tries to incorporate several similar approaches. Many of the invocations are structural–shifting the reader in time and place, moving the narrative to a new perspective. Others are mimetic, paralleling Milton’s in language and purpose. But still others reflected the sense I had–more frequently than I would have anticipated–that I wasn’t exactly writing The Nephiad on my own. I recall coming out of a sort of trance one day to discover that I had just written over 200 lines of blank verse without consciously pounding out rhythms in my head. Other times, I would write a passage, then wonder how I knew that, or at least how I had been able to remember that I knew it. Once I wrote the phrase “Amram’s son” almost automatically, then had to take time off to ensure that Amram was indeed the name of Moses’ father. I know I must have read that or learned it in Church, but I would have been willing to bet that I couldn’t come up with the name on the spur of the moment if asked. So at least some of the invocations are as much offerings of gratitude as they are poetic coventions.

One of the pleasures of the poem is the use of archaic and/or unusual words. Are there any that are particular favorites? Mine is “Lepidopteran” (line 1 on page 115).

I don’t really have specific favorites–I simply enjoy the sounds of some of the words, the challenge of fitting them into rhythm and meaning, the experience of exploring new possibilities for language (like Milton, I made up a few of them just for the poem).

On a larger level, however, the language–especially the archaic and unusual words–is a means of developing one of the major characteristics of Renaissance Epic: a “˜grand style.’ The Renaissance was far more interested than we are in problems of form, in definitions of genres and their specific conventions. An epic had to have a certain kind of Fable, a certain kind of Character, a certain kind of Action”¦and a specific level of diction. Language was divided into three levels: high, mean (middle), and low. Each literary genre virtually required that the appropriate level be used: “˜low’ for comedy and for prose; “˜mean’ for lyric verse; and “˜high’ for epic and tragedy. Simply reading the first lines of a poem would immediately verify for the Renaissance reader that this was indeed an epic; and therefore the reader could justifiably anticipate certain other elements: division into books (usually ten, twelve, or twenty-four); councils of heroes; cataclysmic battles between warriors and their gods, and encyclopedic re-creation of the world and culture of the poet. And, perhaps more importantly, would know the standards against which the poem was to be evaluated and judged. Since epic represented for many of the poets and critics the most elevated level of human artistic endeavor, the language had to be equally elevated. (Many of them were familiar with the story that, at his death, Virgil had requested that The Aeneid be destroyed because the Latin was not yet perfectly polished).

Since The Nephiad consciously followed Renaissance critical theories and models, the appropriate language was among the first considerations. Besides which, it was just fun to write.

I think that when the Nephi story is brought in to epic form several things get highlighted. One of the most noticeable to me was that Laman and Lemuel aren’t just disobedient sons — they are disobedient cowards. Can you talk a little about how cowardice and courage operate in the Nephiad?

The epic Character is a hero, elevated above others by the nature of his actions and choices. Otherwise we would not be interested in the Fable (remember now, I am talking Renaissance poetics, not modern, in which we are as often as not intrigued by an anti-hero). He (and it is almost always male) must act in ways that others would not, his actions must have repercussions not merely for self but for nation, race, people, perhaps even species. He must save the world–at least the world that surrounds him. In general, opponents must also be heroic, otherwise they would not represent legitimate opposition. The stronger, the greater the enemy, the greater the glory when the hero proves victorious.

This presented a serious problem for Milton. His heroes in Paradise Lost represented to his readers the two greatest failures in human history–all they had to do was obey a simple command, and they failed at that. Other potentially heroic characters actually follow the classical Homeric models more closely–certainly Satan in Books I and II comes across as a magnificent figure”¦except he is Satan, the Father of Lies, and cannot be considered the hero (a mistake many modern critics make). God is ineligible since he is superior to us in both kind and degree; the epic hero must be superior in degree, but of the same kind as humans. And the Son really doesn’t have much to do in the poem; it remains for Paradise Regained to explore his unique kind of epic Character.

What Milton in essence did was turn classical epic on its head, creating a Christian anti-epic. The more martial and warlike the hero, the less he would represent the true Christian values of humility and obedience. Yet a humble, obedient hero would not be seen as “˜epical’.

The Nephiad tries to grapple with this issue. Nephi’s one great act–an act of obedience upon which the entire narrative rests–is not to defeat an enemy in great battles, but rather to kill a helpless man”¦really the epitome of the anti-heroic. Yet by doing so (the poem contends), he proves himself “by merit more than birthright” a hero.

Similarly, his opponents could not be Achilles types, brave and martial, arrogant and boasting (although they do their share of the latter). They had to seem to be obedient at the surface level, but remain essentially disobedient. This level of dissembling would go hand in hand with cowardice: they possess the superficial characteristics of courage that dissipate when the question is called.

How much of this was conscious in writing, I am not sure. But I do appreciate that chance to think this through”¦an interesting question.

I’m fascinated by the section in Book V where Lehi’s exodus is compared with that of the Restored Church (e.g. the LDS Church). How did that come about? Why have the author jump forward in time to depict that parallel?

When I first read this question, I wasn’t sure how to answer–composition took place quite a while ago, and memory is one of the first things to fail. But when I considered it, a couple of points emerged.

Part of what The Nephiad was designed to do (and this I do remember clearly) was demonstrate how much depended upon a single action”¦perhaps the most important human action in Church history. Without the Brass Plates, there would be no record of Lehi and his people. Without that record, there would be no Book of Mormon. Without the Book of Mormon”¦.

That forced me to thing about Lehi’s journey in a typological, symbolic way. Why do we, today, need to know about it? How might that journey resonate within our own system of beliefs. And there was the answer. Lehi was commanded by God to perform a specific action (just as Nephi would be). He sacrificed everything to carry out that action. The Restored Church, caught in an equally hostile environment as Lehi, was commanded by God to perform a specific action. They sacrificed everything to carry out that action.

Viewed this way, Lehi’s journey becomes a type and foreshadowing of our journey–literally our ancestor’s physical journey (for those of us whose genealogy goes back that far) and figuratively our spiritual journey. At this moment in the narrative, the poet would intuit those parallels as Nephi responds to his brother’s intransigence and use them as arguments for obedience.

Finally, I have a question about authoring: what is it like to live with a project like this for several decades? Was it something that you regularly thought about? Was there an ebb and flow to the intensity of your engagement with the work?

Another intriguing question. The Nephiad is not the only project that has spanned several decades. I recently published three novels–The House Beyond the Hill (horror), Singer of Lies (science fiction), and the two volumes of Wordsmith (also science fiction)–and have just finished reading galleys for Three Tales of Omne (prequel stories to Wordsmith). All have appeared in the past three years, all from Borgo/Wildside Press (which also published The Nephiad). And all are the products of around three decades of composition.

But The Nephiad differs from the other four. I re-wrote each of the novels several times over a number of years, even submitting them to an agent–but each time, once they were finished, I could let them go. I didn’t mind them resting unheralded in my drawer. With The Nephiad, that sense of lassitude never hit. Even when I wasn’t actively revising (which I did about four times), the poem percolated through my mind. I would see a line in Milton while teaching my survey course in English Literature, and it would suggest a possible alteration. Or I would lecture in my Creative Writing classes about poetic forms and structures, and find myself referring to the poem for examples. About fifteen years ago, I even taught myself how to hand-bind hardcover books (since the publishers weren’t beating down the path to my door), with the express purpose of making The Nephiad available, at least to a few friends.

Having it finally appear as an “official” book was a great relief, accompanied by a sense of accomplishment and an odd sense of loss. It was over. The whole adventure. I might write more and different things (and I am), but that phase of my development, of my life, was over.

Writing The Nephiad was an exhausting task”¦and I loved every moment of it.

Thanks, Michael

7 thoughts on “An in-depth discussion of the text and creation of The Nephiad”

  1. Thanks to both William and Michael for an interesting and thoughtful interview.

    Has anyone written a comprehensive critical account, article, etc., about the epic impulse in Mormon literature — by which I mean, specifically poetic epics (not “epic” novels)? Ideally, such an account would not only look at specific examples (now including the Nephiad) but would also look at the impulses that lie behind attempts to recapture this form — and whether those are particular to Mormonism, or if we see parallel attempts elsewhere in American society (and particularly American religious life).

  2. Kent Larsen put together an excellent bibliography of Mormon epic poetry for AMV.

    I previously dealt with The Nephiad here and here and with Peter Sorenson’s The Mormoniad here. In the comments to Kent’s post you’ll also see a comment from Angela H. about an issue of Irreantum devoted to the epic.

  3. Great interview, thanks to both.

    Frankly, I’ve been waiting for years, wondering when an epic on Book of Mormon content would be done.

    It sounds very interesting.

    And thanks for the list, Kent.

  4. Probably no Joseph Smith epic from me…I think I learned my lesson with THE NEPHIAD. As Stephen King once commented about the ms. for IT, never write a book that’s bigger than your own head!

    Short stuff from me for a while…but a fair amount of that in the works.

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