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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.