Psalm & Selah: new poetry from an old source (an interview with Mark Bennion)

4.20.09 | | 20 comments

I’ve always loved the story of Abish. I love it because it’s about a woman–a righteous woman, a woman with a name–who makes a big difference through her small acts of righteousness. I also love to tell people it’s my favorite scripture story and watch for traces of panic while they try to figure out who I’m talking about. That’s how I knew Mark Bennion was the kind of poet I could relate to. When I picked up my most recent Irreantum and found Bennion’s poem about Abish (and her father) I was intrigued and, while Bennion’s work is not the only poem written about her (Emily Milner’s poem featured in Segullah is an especially nice one), it brought new relevance to an old story. Bennion has a collection coming out in June from Parables Publishing and he graciously agreed to tell me more about it!

LC: I love the title of your collection, Psalm & Selah. What can readers expect to find in it and how does the title reflect on that?

Mark Bennion: Thank you for the compliment regarding the title. In my mind, I connect the word psalm with a celebration. And yet psalms are/were also sung on serious, sacred occasions. The poems, I believe, reflect both of these associations. And while there is much to celebrate in scripture, we are told repeatedly in holy writ that we have so little of the record, not “even a hundredth part” (3 Nephi 26:6) of the history. Consequently, there are ambiguities and uncertainties. This is where the other half of my title comes into play. The word Selah, according to the Bible dictionary, is some kind of musical term. The meaning remains a bit uncertain. The word may mean to pause the music or to start it up once again (See p. 771 in the Bible Dictionary). Scripture usually causes me to celebrate and sing, yet it also makes me pause and slow down. I love the certainty and the ambiguity found in the word of God.

LC: In the most recent Irreantum you have several poems published, all voicing thoughts of people from the Book of Mormon. What drew you to those people and stories? How does your personal relationship with scripture influence your writing?

MB: I feel a connection to those folks in scripture who receive relatively little air-time. For every bishop in the church, there are hundreds of people quietly working out their salvation in the corridors of their homes and fields. These individuals help those in higher profile positions to carry out their responsibilities. We need the Nephi’s and Ammon’s, yet we also need the Sam’s and the Abish’s. Their callings and roles are no less important to the kingdom of God.

As I’ve read the Book of Mormon and other works of scripture, I have been intrigued by those individuals who show up in a few verses and then are never mentioned again. Some poems in Psalm & Selah try to imagine the inner lives of these individuals. Other poems connect to places in scripture, such as Zarahemla, Bountiful, the Waters of Mormon, etc. And still other works in the collection don’t necessarily connect to a specific person or place; rather, they reflect various thoughts I’ve had as I’ve studied the Book of Mormon.

In his poem “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent,” Milton notes, “They also serve who only stand and wait” (14). My poems, in part, pay homage to this idea.

LC: It has been said that poetry is the most subjective kind of literature there is; so much depends on guiding the right reader to the right poet. As a teacher and as a reader, have you found this to be true? As a poet, how does that idea affect your writing?

MB: On one level, I have clearly connected with some poets’ works because my writing aesthetic aligns in some way with theirs. I start every one of my classes by reading a poem. I read it and don’t elaborate or explicate it. On more than one occasion, I’ve had a student come up after class and ask for a copy of the poem. Regularly I introduce the writings of particular poets to students. In these moments, I am trying to lead the reader to the right poet. By the right poet, I mean an author whose work will inspire the student to become a better writer. Sometimes this process works; other times it doesn’t.

I try to read a variety of poets, even those whose work baffles me. I believe that as I improve as a reader, I’ll be led to more and more of the right poets. When I first encountered T. S. Eliot’s poetry, I felt like I had a head-on collision with a truck. And yet, as I continued to read his work, I found delightful surprises. I saw how he paid such close attention to rhythm and sound. His diction seemed so even and measured. Even now, each meeting with his verse yields more insights. After reading his work for the tenth time, I can go back to the writing desk and experiment with language. I don’t know that I can pinpoint all of the particulars regarding how reading his work has influenced my writing. Yet, I feel the influence. The work of Eliot, Neruda, Bishop, and others steadies and encourages me in the writing process.

LC: What advice would you offer to aspiring LDS poets (like me!) about the craft of poetry?

MB: As I mentioned to someone the other day, I still feel like an aspiring LDS poet. In that spirit, I’ll  relate something the poet Bob Pack said to me several years ago. He looked at me in a workshop and said, “Mark, the first fifteen years of writing poetry are the poet’s apprenticeship.” In the youth and arrogance of the moment, I dismissed his comment. Subsequently, I have relearned the truth of his words. Writing poetry requires a high degree of commitment, humility, and patience.

LC: Thanks for the interview. I can’t wait for your book! Anyone who would like to preorder a copy for $5.95 can check out the Parables website or if you would like to be notified of it’s release send an email to parables@parablespub.com.

Mark Bennion grew up in Wisconsin, Utah, and Idaho. In his undergraduate days, he studied at both Ricks College and BYU. He majored in English and minored in Korean. Upon graduating from BYU, he lived in Jerusalem for a year and studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When he came home he attended the MFA program at the University of Montana and graduated from there in 2000.

For the past nearly nine years, he and his wife, Kristine, have lived in the Upper Snake River Valley. During this same time he has taught writing and literature courses at Ricks College/BYU–Idaho. Psalm & Selah is his first collection of poetry.

20 comments: “Psalm & Selah: new poetry from an old source (an interview with Mark Bennion)

  1. Emily M.

    Thanks, Laura! :-)

    This is a great interview; I enjoyed Mark’s writing in Irreantum, and I will look forward to reading more of it.

  2. Th.

    .

    I will often run across names of minor characters in the Book of Mormon and hit the index to see how often they appear and in what contexts and who they share a name with, and from there extrapolate connections, filling in the blanks.

    It is a rich source.

  3. Tyler

    I like the idea of writers being able to give voice to people who’ve had none. That’s one reason (of a few) that I especially liked Bennion’s poems from Irreantum.

    Thanks for this interview, Laura.

    I’m anxious to get a hold of the book now.

  4. Beth Bentley

    I’m afraid I’m not the webmaster, and I don’t know how to put up a PayPal button for preorders. I suppose it’s something I’m going to have to master, but for the time being, a check to PO Box 58, Woodsboro, MD 21798 will do the trick. Or go back to the website in a week or so to see if I’ve finally figured out the tech stuff. Or just email me at parables@parablespub.com, and I’ll let you know when the book is actually out. Sorry for the inconvenience.

    Beth

  5. Doug Talley

    Laura:

    Thanks for the post. Interviews with poets and writers can be pretty fascinating (although I believe Emerson said once that all conversation between literary men was mud). I’d agree with the anecdote related about Bob Pack – the first fifteen years of writing poetry is all apprenticeship. I hate to say I’m old enough to have been through the shop twice. Bob Pack, by the way, is a terrific poet, particularly poignant on issues of family life – I’d recommend “Nothing But Light” and “Keeping Watch”.

    I’m curious to know if the AMV contributors are circulating their own poetry among themselves for feedback. Any decent apprenticeship can benefit from insightful commentary. I’d be happy to serve as a reader.

  6. Th.

    .

    I’ve noticed that some of the writer-collective LDS blogs (like Blogck and Frog) spend a lot of time discussing the need for a good writers group to gain criticism and just plain readers. And I couldn’t agree more. My own group has been invaluable. Without frank and frequent comment, it is impossible to gauge one’s one skill and development.

  7. William Morris

    The craftsmanship part of me very much agrees with and respects the 15 year truism.

    The part of me that doesn’t like the mystification of literature is skeptical. In particular, I can see a certain “poetry is more demanding than fiction” attitude arise.

    So here’s my question: why 15 years? Why not 5 or 10 or 25?

  8. Doug Talley

    Wm:

    It’s a rare, rare talent that can articulate his or her young heart without getting soggy. Keats comes to mind, and Lorca. Most of us early on are bloated with grandiosity and naivete. Time, I think, is required not just for craftsmanship, but for a certain level of humility, soul searching, and life experience.

    That said, some will bloom into their true, original work earlier than others, and maybe 5 years will be a sufficient gestation. Horace advised poets to lay aside their drafts for 9 years – why 9? Don’t know. Probably his own personal bias. I’ve got stuff that has been percolating for 20 years that still should not become public.

    I’m aware of the attitude that “poetry is more demanding than fiction”. For some that may be true, particularly for the common reader who may have received a wretched schooling in “how to read a poem”, but can lap up a good story without effort. For the writer, however, truth will out. Anyone who has tried to write poems and short stories both knows that each genre is equally demanding, each governed by its own aesthetic and sensibility that must be learned and cannot be short cut. Hence, the apprenticeship.

    And maybe this is all just a quibble. Apprenticeship for the artist who wants to keep developing is probably life long. After long years Michaelangelo announced he was still learning.

    I wonder if even God, after all his eternities, might still see some refinement or two possible in the crafting of daffodils?

  9. Wm Morris

    Thanks, Doug. I heartily agree.

    I’d say that part of the problem with the current state of literature is that novelists are too much allowed to display their sogginess and grandiosity and naivete.

    Of course, at a certain point, some of that stuff needs to be published, and I’m actually a proponent of erring on the side of publication rather than letting young writers languish. On the other hand, publication — by any publisher — should be seen by writers as an invitation to humility and soul-searching rather than as a validation of genius or talent.

  10. Mark Bennion

    William and Doug,

    Thanks for your discussion and comments regarding Bob Pack’s admonition. Commitment, humility, and perspective were all part of what Pack wanted me to understand. I believe Bob mentioned 15 years, as opposed to five or ten, to drive home the importance of patience in the creative process. The number of years is less important than simply the idea that a writer can and should use time as an ally, a partner to help him/her learn the writing craft.

    Unfortunately, our society screams impatience. Our fast, busy, technologically-savvy culture works against the creative necessity to slow down, contemplate, imagine, and wait. I constantly look for effective ways to balance the demands of both forces. More often than not, I come up short but suspect there’s something gained in the struggle.

  11. Doug Talley

    Wm:

    I agree there is a real epidemic of young, talented writers languishing because they have no publication outlet. The Internet may help with that issue, but may also spawn another problem which is an inundation of so much literary work that no one can possibly sort through it all to find what has lasting merit.

  12. Tyler

    The Internet may help with that issue, but may also spawn another problem which is an inundation of so much literary work that no one can possibly sort through it all to find what has lasting merit.

    While I agree that the Web provides an outlet through which a new generation of writers (and wannabe writers) can find easy publication, I don’t necessarily see how an inundation of literary work on the Web is entirely different from the loads of work that’s been published/is being published in print. That is, I can walk into a library or bookstore and find loads of books that aren’t work the paper they’re printed on (how they get past the gatekeepers is beyond me) just as I can surf the Internet and find site after site of writing that just plain sucks.

    One real strength of the Internet vs. print publication when it comes to finding or making a market/audience, I think (and I may be way off base here), is that it exponentially increases the possibilities for connection and networking between people who may never physically meet and who have networks of their own through which they can pass word. I think specifically of the outlets I’ve found online through which to share and receive feedback on my own writing and through which I’ve been introduced to writers whose work I wouldn’t otherwise know. These networks, these niche areas, can act as sieves, in a sense, helping people sift through the junk to find that which is of value.

    For example, I think of AMV and other places where Mormons really interested in the progress of Mormon arts, culture, and letters gather to engage in dialogue, as essential starting points for anyone searching for engagement with “the best books.” A diverse (enough) crowd gathers here to create a valuable grouping of sources on which to build new generations of quality work.

    Of course, no one network can gather everything in its web, especially as the sprawl you suggest exponentiates, but belonging to a network such as AMV, etc., is a good place to start.

  13. Th.

    .

    I agree with Tyler wholeheartedly as to the Internet’s merits, but my worry about the Internet is that it provides instant gratification. My blog, for instance, shows little craft because there is but little rewriting. (On the other hand, it contains a thousand rough drafts, so that’s a lot of practice.) My learning of craft (and here I’m speaking of perfecting a work, not the original vomit) has to take place off the webs.

  14. Tyler

    I agree with that point as well, Th.

    I also see my blog as a way of getting feedback, especially on the poems I post, many of which now exist in different forms either because of feedback I was given or because the act of taking them public changed my perception enough to help me re-vision what I was trying to do.

  15. William Morris

    It provides instant gratification if you self-publish. Obviously the Internet itself can be fed via the same or even more stringent editorial demands and gatekeeping as any print journal.

  16. Th.

    .

    Back to the issue of poetry.

    I myself bring very little poetry to a point where I think it might be worthy of others’ attention. And yes this is muchly because I don’t practice the craft, but this in turn is due to a lack of aptitude.

    I don’t often have ideas that would be best expressed through poetry. And many of those ideas would best be expressed through a regular form and that’s certainly not a strong point for me. So I don’t polish much poetry.

    I do, however, like to think that my prose is poetic and that is something I dedicate plenty of hours to.

    (It occurs to me that I am also responding to Stephen Carter’s recent post. To give full disclosure here.)

    Anyway. What I’m getting at is not that poetry is superior to prose or more difficult, nor that the opposite is true. Rather that it takes all kinds or some such jazz.

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