Holy fools wrestling with god

Somehow I missed that Eugene Woodbury had posted an essay titled on his Web site. Or perhaps I knew about it and then forgot about it and then rediscovered it. Whatever the case it’s a fantastic read. So go read it.

It was written as a response to an essay by Stephen Carter and Stephen and Eugene did their duo-presentation at a Sunstone Symposium and the back in 2007.

Eugene (summarizing Stephen) begins with:

We propose that narrative fiction constructed in a Mormon context and for Mormon audiences often strays from conventional storytelling in several ways. Principal among these is the negation or diminution of the “second act.” These stories skip from the first act (the set up) to the third act (the reassuring resolution), leaving out the struggle in between. Continue reading “Holy fools wrestling with god”

Nothing Forgettable Here

Nothing Forgettable Here: The Human Meaning of Irreantum‘s Recent Poetry

I.

In their introduction to the poetry section of A Believing People (found online here), Richard Cracroft and Neal Lambert comment that “much [early] Mormon poetry,” like “most of the popular poetry written during that era [the nineteenth century],” is “derivative and didactic” and thus “regrettably forgettable.” Indeed, they continue, because such poetry is “[s]tiff, cliché-ridden, and sing-song in its verse, much of it [really] offers little to the modern reader.”

Not so with the poems collected in Irreantum‘s past two issues, 9.1 (Spring 2007) and 9.2/10.1 (Fall 2007/Spring 2008). Rather, this recent gathering of Mormon poetry breaks loose from poesy’s “traditional shackles” in an effort to weave the varieties of personal experience and lyrical voice around a more individualized aesthetic. Of course, this tendency is nothing new: poets have been experimenting with free verse (and beyond) for decades–at least since the rise of modernity–and many Mormon poets have followed suit. (If you want a sampling of Mormon poets writing in mostly non-traditional forms, take a gander at this somewhat outdated listing of names from Harvest‘s table of contents).

Such general movement away from the strictures of traditional forms has allowed contemporary Mormon poets to focus increasingly, in the words of Cracroft and Lambert, “upon the human meaning of Latter-day Saint history.” To me, such a varied and personal focus allows Mormon poets (as Mormon writers of other genres) to develop a deeply individual aesthetic witness of the story of the Restoration as played out in the flaming mundanities of the poet’s life, a testament called for years ago in President Kimball’s compelling vision for Mormon arts and letters.

Irreantum‘s recent gathering of poetry represents some of the ways this poetic witness is being borne by just a sampling of contemporary Mormon poets. What follows is my review of Irreantum‘s poetry year (section II is a slightly revised version of this response to William’s review of Irreantum 9.1). Continue reading “Nothing Forgettable Here”

Reading Until Dawn Update

Some exciting things have been happening with Reading Until Dawn over the past week (at least I think they’re exciting) as I’ve made some changes and tried to get this bird off the ground.

First off, Reading Until Dawn has evolved forms, from “journal” to open-ended “anthology.” Though this is basically just a semantic switch, it means at least two things: a) there will be no issues–although as volume warrants (yes, that’s optimism you smell), the essays may be split into volumes–and thus b) no hard deadlines. Instead, because we’re not dealing with a publisher and don’t have costs to keep down, submissions will be read, accepted, and published on an ongoing basis. For me, that’s part of the excitement of publishing something like this online: not only can it be more dynamic and open-ended than print publishing, but it has the potential (potentially) to reach a larger, more diverse audience.

Due to the foibles of human nature, however, this lack of deadlines may present certain difficulties, as in a decreased number of submissions. Hence the following–a soft deadline and an incentive: Continue reading “Reading Until Dawn Update”

Critics as readers and Mormon literature

With the new year, I’ve been going through drafts and notes for AMV posts, and decided to begin by finishing this one which I started back in October 2007:

I recently read Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the text of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he presented at Harvard. There’s a lot that could be said about the lectures, which focus on questions of reading, fiction, truth and narrative. But what delighted me most about the book is that it confirmed (for me) something that I have long thought and experienced: criticism doesn’t kill the reading/viewing experience.

In 1984, at Columbia University, I devoted a graduate course to Sylvie, and some very interesting term papers were written about it. By now I know every comma and every secret mechanism of that novella. This experience of re-reading a text over the course of forty years has shown me how silly those people are who say that dissecting a text and engaging in meticulous close reading is the death of its magic. Every time I pick up Sylvie, even though I know it in such an anatomical way — perhaps because I know it so well — I fall in love with it, as if I were reading it for the first time. (p. 12) * Continue reading “Critics as readers and Mormon literature”

Failed metaphors of failure

After looking back at some of the embarrassing language I use in my review of Irreantum 9.2/10.1 — words like “trinket” and “cul-de-sacs of meaning” — it occurs to me that I should just get all these failed metaphors of the failure of Mormon letters out of my system now so I won’t plaque you with them in the future.

So here it goes:

1. Mormon literature is like that Kafka quote about the axe and the frozen sea, except with a tub of Jello and a rubber mallet instead.

2. Mormon poetry is like the cute but slightly overweight girl (or guy) you meet at youth conference and end up hanging with the whole weekend and then make sure to dance with several times at every stake and multi-stake dance that year, but never contact or really even think about in between dances. Continue reading “Failed metaphors of failure”

A look at Irreantum 9.2/10.1

Irreantum 9.2./10.1 is a double issue, containing the fall/winter 2007 and the spring/summer 2008 editions. Edited by Angela Hallstrom, it contains seven pieces of fiction, two critical essays, two creative nonfiction essays, 11 poems and four reviews. It also features art work by Maralise Petersen.

With the abundance of short stories, the two critical essays and especially the original art, this double issue, in my mind, is the closest Irreantum has gotten to becoming the refreed, (utterly) literary journal that it claims it wants to be. These changes culminate a process that began several years ago when Laraine Wilkins took over the reins from Chris Bigelow. I have very mixed feelings about this process — and my reaction was made all the more complicated by the fact that this issue marks my debut in print. Continue reading “A look at Irreantum 9.2/10.1”

Caitlin Flanagan on the Twilight series

I don’t necessarily look to Caitlin Flanagan to explain, well, much of anything*. But I do think her recent The Atlantic article about the Twilight series is worth mentioning for the simple reason that she notes that reviewers of the books always mention Stephenie Meyer’s Mormon-ness but never quite know what to do with that fact.** And because I think she possibly gets at the appeal for some (especially teenage) Mormon female readers.

Here’s the relevant excerpt:

The erotic relationship between Bella and Edward is what makes this book–and the series–so riveting to its female readers. There is no question about the exact nature of the physical act that looms over them. Either they will do it or they won’t, and afterward everything will change for Bella, although not for Edward. Nor is the act one that might result in an equal giving and receiving of pleasure. If Edward fails–even once–in his great exercise in restraint, he will do what the boys in the old pregnancy-scare books did to their girlfriends: he will ruin her. More exactly, he will destroy her, ripping her away from the world of the living and bringing her into the realm of the undead. If a novel of today were to sound these chords so explicitly but in a nonsupernatural context, it would be seen (rightly) as a book about “abstinence,” and it would be handed out with the tracts and bumper stickers at the kind of evangelical churches that advocate the practice as a reasonable solution to the age-old problem of horny young people. (Because it takes three and a half very long books before Edward and Bella get it on–during a vampiric frenzy in which she gets beaten to a pulp, and discovers her Total Woman–and because Edward has had so many decades to work on his moves, the books constitute a thousand-page treatise on the art of foreplay.) That the author is a practicing Mormon is a fact every reviewer has mentioned, although none knows what to do with it, and certainly none can relate it to the novel; even the supercreepy “compound” where the boring half of Big Love takes place doesn’t have any vampires. But the attitude toward female sexuality–and toward the role of marriage and childbearing–expressed in these novels is entirely consistent with the teachings of that church. In the course of the four books, Bella will be repeatedly tempted–to have sex outside of marriage, to have an abortion as a young married woman, to abandon the responsibilities of a good and faithful mother–and each time, she makes the “right” decision. The series does not deploy these themes didactically or even moralistically. Clearly Meyer was more concerned with questions of romance and supernatural beings than with instructing young readers how to lead their lives. What is interesting is how deeply fascinated young girls, some of them extremely bright and ambitious, are by the questions the book poses, and by the solutions their heroine chooses.

What’s interesting is that although technically Flanagan is correct about Bella making the “right” choices, there are also Mormons who are uncomfortable with some of the other choices she makes. In addition, I’m somewhat amused by all the people who have felt (or been) compelled (and that includes us here at AMV) to write about Twilight and how much our reactions betray our attitudes towards certain feminist issues as well as literary value and Mormonism.

* This is no knock on those who do. We all have varying tolerance levels for gadflies c.f. Camille Paglia, Ben Stein, Noam Chomsky, etc.

** It’ll be interesting to see if Reading Until Dawn can get us beyond some of the basic reactions that tend to come up repeatedly.

Science, Art, and Spirit at the Bluff Arts Festival, Part One

On Saturday, November 29, I participated in activities at the Bluff Arts Festival in Bluff, Utah.  This little town of just a few hundred people really knows how to throw a party.  I took my eighteen-year-old son, an aspiring writer, to this celebration of the arts, sciences, and the human spirit, and having him with me deepened my pleasure in the event immensely.  He’s already a part of the unusual Bluff community via his participation in a Shorinji Kempo class held there weekly, but this was his first experience with a writing workshop and open mic reading. Continue reading “Science, Art, and Spirit at the Bluff Arts Festival, Part One”

OSC’s heirs: The Runelords and Mistborn series

If you are the type of reader who enjoys the Mormon-tinged/themed elements in the speculative fiction of Orson Scott Card, the best two post-OSC series to read right now are David Farland’s Runelords quartet* and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.

I would love to read some in-depth explorations of both of these works (and maybe even write it), but in the interest of sparking some discussion and hopefully getting more Mormons to read these books, I thought I’d post a few things. These are sort of spoilers, but not really. Continue reading “OSC’s heirs: The Runelords and Mistborn series”

If you can “Queer” a book can you “Mormon” a book?

Thanks to the recent mention of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in the last conference I pulled out my old script. See, I got to play in Emily in our high school’s production and it was a transformative experience for me. When I first read the script I was blown away by Wilder’s wisdom, especially in those last moments between George and Emily in the graveyard. Being the dramatic teenager that I was, I read Emily’s last sentence over and over. After the other dead admonish George for his emotional display at Emily’s tombstone, Emily looks at George and says, “They don’t–understand–do they?” As I rolled the words around in my mind I thought about forever families and how George and Emily could eventually be together forever and I knew, I knew, that Wilder knew–or at least guessed– it too. Why else would he have Emily admonish the dead for the flippant way they treated George’s emotions?

It wasn’t until one particularly difficult rehearsal near the opening of the show that my director told me my interpretation was wrong. Emily was saying George didn’t understand. When you consider her earlier monologue with the line, “Do human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” her comment about “they” failing to understand was obviously geared at the humans. I privately decided my reading was better  and stuck to it, but I realized for the first time that I had “Mormon-ed” a book. Continue reading “If you can “Queer” a book can you “Mormon” a book?”