Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene

When Magdalene was nominated to be considered by the Whitney committee for the 2011 awards, Jennie Hansen, a well-known LDS reviewer and writer, posted a review on Goodreads that caused quite a stir in our little LDS writing community. Her review was short and to the point. She wrote:

“Disjointed, sloppy writing. Lacks real knowledge of Mormons and leadership in the Church. Too much vulgarity for vulgarities sake makes this story crude and amateurish.”  If you are interested, you may read and/or comment on this review here. Continue reading “Rectifying by Review: my take on Moriah Jovan’s Magdalene”

Scott Hales joins A Motley Vision

A post welcoming Mormon literary critic and scholar Scott Hales as he joins A Motley Vision.

I’m pleased to announce that Scott Hales has joined A Motley Vision. Most of our readers will know Scott as a regular commenter her at AMV, the proprietor of the excellent The Low-Tech World, and from his contributions to Dawning of a Brighter Day and Modern Mormon Men.

I’m incredibly pleased by this development and am kicking myself that I didn’t extend the invitation months ago.

Please join me in welcoming Scott Hales to the AMV team.

Poetry, asters to zeppelins

I started to comment on Tyler’s post, “Preach on, Sister Meyer.  Preach On.” But–look out–the comment mushroomed.  Adam G’s comment especially caught my attention. His question seems to be, is it possible to talk about poetry–especially in terms of hierarchies and other high-falutin’ standards for determining a poem’s worthiness–with language that doesn’t float above us like a leviathan, bomb-totin’, gas-filled bag of pretension?

If that’s his question, I think it’s a good one. Continue reading “Poetry, asters to zeppelins”

Evolution, useful fictions and eternal progression

I have some more speculative, more specifically Mormon thoughts that follow up to my post about Michael Austin, useful fictions and anxiety.

Let’s assume, and I realize that not everyone is going to agree with all of the following assumptions, but assuming that the LDS worldview is correct and that God created the world as a mortal probation for his spirit children to become embodied and progress and assuming that evolution as currently understood is the mechanism by which physical creation was accomplished and assuming that most or some of the current thinking on cognitive science as it relates to narrative is correct, what does that tell us about the importance of narrative to the plan of salvation?

Okay now that I lay it all out like that, I’m not entirely sure that I have a tidy answer. But a few things occur to me:

1. Progression is bound up with narrative. Narrative is essentially translation so that we can make sense of things and then because we are human, we try to take that translation and make it operative in our lives so that we are better suited to exist in mortal, time-bound, physical life. I suspect that that act of translation is important not only in how we relate to the physical world and society but also how we relate to the Holy Spirit. In fact, I suspect that the difficulties of translation are both connected to and emblematic of the difficulties of translation between spirit and body (I use between, but it very well may be “among”). The mechanics of evolution both demonstrate and interfere with (hopefully productively interfere with — there must be resistance or there is no growth) that process. The fleshy tables of our hearts must be inscribed and such inscription somehow also inscribes our spirit, changing it (if we are doing it right) for the better. Continue reading “Evolution, useful fictions and eternal progression”

Why the inherent subjectivity of art is a good thing

The following is from a rejection I received  a short short story I wrote for a contest:

“Among judges’ general comments are:

Undeveloped characters, clever dialogue, weak plot, preachy tone, rhythmic prose, well-presented conflict, predictable resolution, nicely-established scene, unbelievable narrator, argumentative style, lyrical voice, little action, problematic point of view, entertaining.”

I wasn’t expecting to get any feedback on the story so it was a nice surprise to receive it. It was also initially a bit confusing. The messages seemed decidedly mixed; the list of phrases like some schizophrenic Zagat’s review. But then as I thought about it, I was quite delighted. I can’t begin to read the tea-leaves of these various responses. There’s just not enough to go on. Yet, I think that from various points of view, they are all quite valid (except for “predictable resolution” — that one I seem to bristle at, which, of course, may mean that it’s the one that is most valid). And I think several of them are quite invalid. So much depends on what one is expecting from a short short story; on how much experience one has reading short short stories; on how much one is in love with modern American literary discourse; on one’s attitude towards Mormonism; one what one values in relation to prose, plot, characterization, etc.

And I think is a very good thing. You know, as authors we tend to get tetchy when someone criticizes our work in certain ways — and tend to blow critics off as just not getting it or as being mean (because of some defect in their character). And as readers, we tend to get irritated when critics seem to invalidate our personal readings of a work or when we feel that by attacking a work they are attacking an author we hold dear in our hearts.

That’s all (usually) nonsense.

But so also is the notion of critics being able to establish some objective reading of a work that is definitive, that is absolute.

The simple truth is this: ones experience with a work of art relies on an entire fabric of personal histories, emotions, attitudes, personalities, educations, ideologies and aesthetic preferences. No matter how authoritative one tries to speak, all commentary on art begins with an I. And the more art I experience, and the more I write about art, and the more criticism and theory I read, the more I realize that what matters is the willingness to engage soulfully with works of art; the desire to situate oneself in conversation with works of art and the fields they are embedded in;  and the ability to conduct that conversation with civility, precision, poetry, elegance, honesty, and self-awareness. A myriad of ways how one can go about it, yes. Better ways than others, of course. Better immune from dispute, no way.

What this means is that authors and readers who cut themselves off from criticism are missing part of the conversation. And critics who seek to control the conversation are boors. We should all be authors, readers and critics and swirl between those identities and among the conversation of works with enthusiasm and elan. And if in doing so we send or receive mixed messages. Well, that’s all part of the fun.

Mormon Poetry Now! Marie Brian, “Spindrift”

Series intro and Mormon Poets Roll

Wading through Segullah‘s archives some time ago, I found a poem that really caught me off guard: “Spindrift” by Marie Brian. The thing that struck me first about “Spindrift” is its (Emily) Dickinsonian style: seemingly random, mid-sentence capitalizations, the hyphens, the brevity. The tone, however, is considerably more hopeful, more reverent as the poet’s mind reaches through the sea spray, contemplating redemption, contemplating God.

The opening image, punctuated as it is by alliteration, is especially striking, setting the stage for the rest of the poem:

Harpooning—the Undoubtable
Shot from your sea-swept eyes,
Frothing mouths—
Bobbing, billowing
On the world’s flood tide (lines 1-5).

I take this Undoubtable stare of the sea to be the gaze of God shooting, harpoon-like, from the windswept waves. This “spindrift” (6) cuts to the marrow with its chilling mist, its clarifying ambiguity. Divine paradox this, that the “good news” (6) often comes to us most clearly, often catches us with its barb, in the moments when we’re wading (faithfully, perhaps) into the darkness of the unknown. I think of Lehi wandering through the mist of darkness before an angel parted the black veil and led him to the Tree of Life. I think of Boyd K. Packer’s commentary on “the leap of faith”: “the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two.” I think of the piercing insights that sometimes come through the disorder of sleep.

While these piercings may at times wound us, they also, I think, mark us (as we come unto Christ) as the fruits of His wounded body, leaving their imprint on the soul, a place where the “tissue thickens, binds / Fast-barnacled hooks / Of scarring Divine” (18-20) that tells us we’re God’s, that labels us heirs of His Being, of His Place. Maybe such Divine scars are part of what it means to have His image engraved upon our countenances.

Just maybe.

In addition to “Spindrift,” Brian has at least two other poems online: “Pangaea Lost“ and “Orisons.”

Happy reading.

Mormon Poetry Now!

Something Old, Something New, Something . . . Stolen

Since April 2009, as part of my (meager) commitment to raise the profile of Mormon poetry, I’ve been investing off and on in what I’ve called my Mormon Poetry Project, offering short readings of poems by Mormon poets on my personal blog. My ground rules: 1) the poets should be Latter-day Saints (of whatever stripe) and 2) the poems should be accessible online to provide my (meager) audience the chance to read for themselves and talk back with my interpretations, to the end—says the idealist in me—of sparking greater awareness of, interest in, and conversations about poetry by poets who are also Mormon.

Because I think these poets deserve exposure and because the traffic at my blog is a trickle—okay, maybe a slow drip—I’m giving those readings a new beginning (and in most cases, expansion and revisions) here at AMV under the series title “Mormon Poetry Now!” I’ll also be posting additional readings of poems (not included in the original list) and poetry reviews as I see fit. This introductory post will also serve as the new home of the Poets Roll: the list of poets, poems, and reviews I’ve posted so far.

Before I dive in, though, a note about the title: Twenty-five years ago, Dennis Clark, then poetry editor for Sunstone, began a four-part series for the magazine called “Mormon Poetry Now!” In his column published in four installments between June 1985 and August 1989 (1985, 1986, 1987, 1989), he set out, according to his purpose stated in the series opener, to survey “the state of the art of Mormon poetry,” to examine “the best of what Mormon poets [were] trying to publish” at the time. I’ve deliberately tied myself to these efforts to highlight the new Mormon poetry by stealing Clark’s title for my own and by following his example of close reading (though his readings are likely far more astute than mine promise to be). My hope is that migrating this ongoing project to AMV’s more fertile blogging grounds will reveal something of the varieties of Mormon poetic experience and open the way for our continued harvest of the field.

* * * *

Mormon Poets Roll

Marie Brian: “Spindrift”

Linda Sillitoe: “Encounter”

Beyond Prescription, Part 4

Liberating Paradox(i)es: Tensions, Texts of Comparison, Twitter, and Emma Lou Thayne

After finishing with a reading of Timothy Liu’s short poem, “The Tree that Knowledge Is”—a reading based in and flowing from a nodal model of Mormon culture—I fully intended to move into an extended exploration of Waterman’s suggestions for Mormon criticism: 1) read with an eye toward the plurality of modern identity, focusing particularly on the tensions this multiplicity creates within the text and between the text and the culture it springs from (which opens the way to engage Terryl Givens’ critical taxonomy from People of Paradox) and 2), “[i]nformed by cultural studies/new literary historicism methodologies, […] place […] [Mormon literature] in conversation with a number of other contemporary texts to examine ways […] [this literature] help[s] explain Mormon—and […] [any other aspect of cultural identity]—experience at a certain historical moment.”

But my intentions have changed, partially because of several Twitter-sations I’ve been involved in lately with MoJo (@MoriahJovan), Theric (@thmazing), and William (@motleyvision) about Mormon lit. In fact, Saturday I came to this realization (in a series of Tweets): after wondering how the Mormon literary community has “been having the same critical conversation for 30 years,” I pursued the thought that part of this may stem from the relative invisibility of the community’s non-prescriptive critical cache—that is, the offline venues through which Mormon literary criticism has developed/been presented and published. Dialogue, Irreantum, and Sunstone contain some of this work, but I sense I’m missing something because I don’t have access to the thirty years worth of proceedings from the AML annual meeting. Continue reading “Beyond Prescription, Part 4”

Beyond Prescription, Part 3

I take up today where I left off .

Liberating Paradox(i)es: Nodes, Networks, and Timothy Liu’s “Tree”

I recognize I may be preaching to the choir here (in the radical middle) by advocating such a pluralist view of Mormon culture–one, I should confess, that I hope can encourage more space in the Mormon critical community for the whole spectrum of Mormon identities and literatures, to the end:

a) of fostering critical dialogue that transcends, while leaving room for, prescriptive polemic; that moves beyond, while acknowledging the potential validity of, readings that justify (or not) the virtue, praiseworthiness, etc., of texts that push the Mormon moral envelope; and because such (con)textual expansion exposes critics/readers to varying forms of literary greatness and goodness of character, beyond the Mormon letters almost singular obsession with turning to the historio-cultural singularities of Shakespeare and Milton as the standards against which to judge whether or not our literary community has arrived (will we ever overcome this Mormonized anxiety of influence?) Continue reading “Beyond Prescription, Part 3”

Where Twilight Studies Meets Mormon Studies: Setting the Record Straight

Some time ago, I started following John Granger‘s Twilight studies blog, “Forks High School Professor” as a corollary to my own academic interest in Meyer’s books. Granger made a name for himself as Dean of Harry Potter Studies when he took J.K. Rowling’s books as subjects worthy of academic study. And now he’s trying his hand at Twilight, an effort I heartily applaud as I think of my own haphazard attempts to do the same thing.

And yet, sometimes he just rubs my believing-Mormon-skin the wrong way with his cursory engagement with Mormonism, something that’s simply secondary to and arising from his academic interest in literature, faith, and culture. Since he’s a newcomer to the still-blossoming field of Mormon studies* and an outsider to the LDS faith, I can’t fault him for this engagement and for getting some things wrong every now and then. Heck, cultural Mormons are a peculiar lot with an equally peculiar history. Putting things together about the religion can be difficult even for those with a lifetime commitment to it. Continue reading “Where Twilight Studies Meets Mormon Studies: Setting the Record Straight”