21st Century Mormon Lyricisms

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From Mikey Angels on Flickr

I originally read this essay, in which I officially announced the publication of Fire in the Pasture, at the 2011 conference of the Association for Mormon Letters, held March 26, 2011. I read and commented on several poems in part II of the essay, but I’m not transcribing those readings here; if you’d like to hear them, you can listen to the mp3. I will, however, link to the poems I read that are available online.

(Listen to me read the essay)

I. Mormon Poetry Now! Already to Harvest . . . Again

[In 1985], Dennis Clark, then poetry editor for Sunstone, began a four-part series for the magazine called “Mormon Poetry Now!”* In his column published once a year over the next four years, he set out, according to his stated purpose, to survey “the state of the art of Mormon poetry,” to examine “the best of what Mormon poets [were] trying to publish.” I’m sure his survey of the field dovetailed nicely with the work he was doing alongside Eugene England to gather poems for the anthology they were editing together, Harvest: Contemporary Mormon Poems. Taken together, these projects may well compose a unique moment in Mormon literary history—a conscious move to place Mormon poets center stage, if only for a moment; to “definitive[ly]” represent “the new Mormon tradition of poetry” that had developed over the preceding thirty years and that continues into the present. As England has it [in his editorial commentary from Harvest, those working within this contemporary tradition tend toward “an unusually healthy integration of skillful form and significant content,” toward the marriage of formal poetic training and the moral “ideas and values . . . they claim to know through religious experience.” It’s a union, England concludes, that leads them to “act with energy to communicate those ideas in confidence that they will be understood” and accepted by both their peers within Mormonism and within the field of mainstream American poetry.

I’ve deliberately tied myself to those definitive efforts to represent the new Mormon poetry by stealing Clark’s title as my heading. My essaying here, however, is anything but an authoritative attempt to illustrate the expansive breadth of Mormon poetry as it has developed in the twenty-plus years since Harvest was published. That would require far more than the space of a single paper. My more immediate project, rather, is to elaborate on Glen Nelson’s somewhat, in his words, “over-the-top” claim made in passing during his recent Mormon Artist interview with Randy Astle: while discussing the Mormon Artist Group’s recent “Song/Cycles” project—a collaborative effort facilitated by MAG and several Mormon composers and poets to set the poets’ work to music—he mentions that it’s “commonly known that we’re experiencing something like a golden age of Mormon poets,” that Mormon culture has certain “name poets” who are finding some degree of acknowledgment and success in the national poetry market.

I asked Glen what he meant by this “golden age” and to whom this idea was “commonly known.” In response to the first question, he echoed England’s comments about poets who are, to his knowledge, believing Latter-day Saints and whose work is stellar enough to garner national attention on its own merits. For instance, he mentioned that he had a phone conversation with the poetry editor of the New Yorker a while ago. He said, “I was curious whether she was aware that such-and-such a poet in their magazine was Mormon. It made no difference to her. And I’m fine with that. It did, however, make a difference to me.” As it does to me, especially because there seems to be an increasing number of Mormon poets making names for themselves beyond the Mormon journals and publishing houses. Taken together, these poets compose a concentrated dose of our literary kin who are making noticeable splashes in the American mainstream, such as may or may not be happening in the more visible genres (the novel, for instance).

I’m not certain whether this increasing movement of our poets into the national spotlight (a) warrants the “Golden Age” appellation or (b) is “commonly known” among a broader audience than the few devout followers of contemporary American poetry who happen to have an interest in those poets who are also Mormon (or is it those Mormons who are also successful poets?). However, I am certain the field of contemporary Mormon poetry is “already to harvest” (D&C 4:4)—again—and that this trend and these poets deserve more of our community’s attention.

II. Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets

Lest you think I’m just a whiny poet pining for someone to take up another Harvest, hear this: while England and Clark’s anthology may never be equaled as a watershed collection of Mormon poetry, an effort to represent the best poetry written by Mormons since Harvest is long overdue. To fill this gap, Peculiar Pages—an independent publisher of Mormon literature—has commissioned a new anthology. Peculiar Pages’ proprietor and editor-in-chief, Eric W Jepson, asked me to head this project. It will be released June 30, 2011** under the title Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets.

As the editor of this collection, my intention is to showcase poets who have emerged or established themselves in the past two decades, with special emphasis on poems written or published since the turn of the millennium (from 2000 to the present). I’m set to include a range of published and unpublished work from eighty-one poets, including new poems from the seven on the tail-end of Harvest: Patricia Karamesines, John W. Schouten, Laura Hamblin, Lance Larsen, Philip White, Danielle (Beazer) Dubrasky, and Timothy Liu. This vanguard joins seventy-four established and up-and-coming poets to provide an expansive account of the field of twenty-first century Mormon poetry. The poems range from artfully crafted traditional forms—including sonnets, sestinas, and villanelles—to free verse to prose poems to light verse to dramatic monologues to translations to cowboy poetry. All of these represent the varieties of the contemporary lyric voice; and the range of poets speaking here represents the varieties of the contemporary Mormon experience.

I’ll give a brief glimpse into the anthology by highlighting several poets, reading their poems and offering brief commentary as I go. I’m sure you’ll recognize some names; others, perhaps, you won’t. I share them in no particular order:

Talley’s poem—which will serve as the frontispiece to this anthology and from which the anthology’s title was drawn—speaks deeply to the intersection of religious/spiritual/moral experience and the aesthetic experience inherent in well-crafted poetry. By pointing to and employing the metaphors we often use to describe and to connect with God’s kingdom (fire and light, the serpent, wind, gardens, planting, reaping, etc.), the poet takes up and seeks to liberate language as a form of worship and as a means of experience through which we can find/make a place for ourselves in the world, through which we can make peace, through which we can create and understand God and his kingdom on Earth—even through which we can create these things as partners with God, working alongside him in the field. As I read it, the title Fire in the Pasture is intended to invoke these associations—and more. But it’s neither my intention here nor my place to elaborate fully on these themes. Rather, my purpose today as editor has been to introduce and to promote that collection—to spark a desire that, come our anticipated June 30 release date, will blossom into a multi-hued flame as you read Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets.


* Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.
** Okay, so I was a bit off. It was released in 2011, though.


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