Mormon Poetry, Have You Met TED? The Case of Calvin Olsen

Maybe that should read, in the voice of Robert Pinsky, “TED, have you met Mormon Poetry?” Or more specifically, though still in Pinsky’s voice, “TED, have you met Calvin Olsen, American Poet?”

But I’ll get to Pinsky and Calvin soon enough.

TED is no stranger to contemporary poetry. On the TED stage, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has admitted that Bugs Bunny is his muse; C. K. Williams has read poems about youth and age; and spoken word/performance poets Sarah Kay, Rives, Suheir Hammad, Felix Dennis, and Lemon Anderson have performed poems both personal and political. And in October 2012, Fire in the Pasture contributor Calvin Olsen stood before the TEDx New England crowd to prove, in his words, that poetry is “alive and applicable.” In defense of his proposition, Calvin read poems by American poet and translator David Ferry, Canadian poet Michael Johnson, American novelist, essayist, and poet Julianna Baggott, and American poet-critic Robert Pinsky. The poems he presented thematically cut a wide swathe through human experience: from aging to finding beauty in violence and death to breastfeeding to the possibility that we might live with abundance in spite of emotional and physical privations.

These poets and their poems also serve as the backdrop for Calvin’s own poem, for his poetry in general, and for his appearance at TEDx New England. For my purposes, I’ll pick up on that last point and extrapolate from there: Calvin was invited to the conference based on Pinsky’s recommendation. So Calvin’s work and potential held Pinsky’s attention enough that Pinsky, former U.S. Poet Laureate, has vetted it at least twice: once for TED and once for the Boston University Creative Writing Global Fellowship, which Calvin received in 2011. Now this isn’t to say, of course, that Pinsky has vetted Mormon poetry, just that Calvin, a Mormon, is a good enough poet that one of America’s poetry champions has championed his work. And though Calvin’s experience is unique, I think his case might say something generalizable about how other Mormon poets could (if they wanted to) set their sights—and their lights—on bigger hills.

I’ll venture some (perhaps obvious) observations about just what Calvin’s experience might say:

First, Mormon poets (as all poets and writers, really) ought to read widely. They ought not just stick to books and writers that come from within their own faith (or other) tradition. Calvin read work at TED from four pretty diverse poets and I’m confident he drew those four names from a long list of other poets he’s read. I say this because two of the books from which he read at TED were The Best American Poetry 2009 and The Best American Poetry 2012; each contains poems from 75 poets (although there are some poets who may appear in both volumes). It’s fair to assume that he read both books all through, so that’s exposure to nearly 150 different poets, all writing out of different traditions, and some of whose work he may have tracked down beyond the anthology. Add this to the other reading he did during his undergraduate and graduate work (at BYU and BU, respectively), the poems he read and translated while on his Global Fellowship, and the poems he has read as an editorial assistant for AGNI and a reader for Slate, and the breadth of his poetry reading-base becomes clear.

Second, Mormon poets (again, as all poets and writers) ought to stay apprised of what’s happening in contemporary poetry—or at least they should read what other poets are currently writing. Hence, the Best American Poetry series, which gives a decent (although not a complete) account of what stuff other poets are writing each year. There are also so many online and print poetry journals available that, even if a poet doesn’t want to purchase or borrow the most recent volume of Best American Poetry, it’s easy to find a good sample-size of recent poetry to read.

Third, Mormon poets (once again, as all poets and writers) shouldn’t be afraid to write from their own experience and imaginations. David Ferry wrote about how aging feels from his point-of-view, an exercise that brought forth a unique analogy. Michael Johnson probably hasn’t been eaten by a lion, but he could imagine what that would feel like and write from there. Julianna Baggott wasn’t ashamed to bare herself and her experience with breastfeeding. Robert Pinsky waded through privation, if only in his mind, and wrote from a samurai’s perspective. And Calvin wrote about growing up in Idaho. That’s right, Idaho. He was invited to speak from one of the most dynamic and influential conference platforms in the world, and of all the things he could have shared, he chose poetry and his boyhood in Idaho. Which I think is completely brilliant because a) well, poetry rocks; b) he spoke (nervously) with passion; and c) he wasn’t afraid of his roots.

Although his reading extends well beyond the Mormon tradition and although there doesn’t seem to be much in his poem that explicitly indicates his Mormon experience (even though we could probably make certain connections between the poem and his Mormonism), the fact that Calvin didn’t shy away from speaking the language of his experience catches me as significant. His expression of this experience reminds me of something Javen Tanner said in a 2007 interview with Doug Talley. Doug asked the following: “The poems in [your chapbook] Curses for Your Sake are not overtly religious, yet the reader still senses a religious influence in them. . . . How does your religious sensibility inform and guide your work?” And Javen responded:

As an undergraduate at BYU, I attended a Czeslaw Milosz reading. While explaining why he (fluent in English) always wrote his poems first in Polish and then translated them to English, he said something like, “you must write in the language you learned as a child.”

Later that year, knocked out by poems like “Stone Canyon Nocturne” and “Homage to Paul Cezanne,” I was writing a paper on the poet Charles Wright. Unsatisfied with my sources, I decided to call him. (Poets aren’t exactly hounded by paparazzi, after all.) He was kind enough to answer a few questions. I asked him about Christianity in his poems. He said he was not Christian, but he was raised Christian and so, naturally, the language of Christianity sometimes appears in his poems.

Milosz and Wright were talking about two different kinds of language, but these experiences changed the way I approached my own work. I am a practicing Latter-day Saint, but I was also raised a Latter-day Saint—Mormonism is the language I learned as a child. And what a language it is: visions, prophecies, miracles, and scriptures. It was as if these two poets had given me permission to speak that language. So it’s true, my poems are not overtly religious, but the language of my experience is in them.

I find something similar happens to me as I listen to Calvin reading poems, including his own, from the TED stage. Because all of the poets he reads speak the language of their experience and because Calvin speaks the language of his experience, I’m compelled the more to speak the language of my experience, too. Because that, I think, is one thing that makes poems “alive and applicable”: when a poet writes well from the well of her/his own experience.

And that, I think, is an idea worth spreading.

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