In early June, Dayna Patterson launched a new poetry publication called Psaltery & Lyre. It’s housed under the auspices of Doves & Serpents, a group blog that, Dayna told me in an email interaction, “caters to [the] sort of open-minded/misfit Mormon crowd.” In fact, the blog’s byline is “With open minds and Mormon hearts,” a statement that wants to bridge the gap between mind and heart, faith and doubt, although I’m not completely convinced it does that; that, however, is beyond the purview of this post. What matters at the moment is how the relationship Doves & Serpents posits between mind and heart, faith and doubt translates into the cultural work Dayna hopes to accomplish with Psaltery & Lyre. As she comments on the column’s “About” page,
In the words of Canadian poet Anne Simpson, “Poetry dares us to locate the white heat in ourselves, but that isn’t enough: it dares us to translate that searing heat into language that can burn the page” (www.poetryfoundation.org [scroll down]).
In Psaltery & Lyre, we want to publish poetry that burns the page (or the screen). We want poems that push the borders of faith and doubt, sacred and secular. Above all, we seek excellence.
The monotheists of the Old Testament used the psaltery to accompany religious verses (think Psalms). The pagans of ancient Greece played the lyre while singing passionate love lyrics (think Sapphic odes). In Psaltery & Lyre, the sacred and profane share a bed.
So, while the larger blog project of which Psaltery & Lyre is a part is all about boundary pushing, Dayna wants the column to be, as she’s also told me, “just about good poetry. Period. No matter where/who [the poetry] comes from and no matter what [the poetry] is about.” Dayna herself is quite an accomplished poet and her sense of what makes for good poetry seems rooted in her own poetic practice and passion. I trust this means quality verse will take center stage at Psaltery & Lyre.
In my efforts to highlight the emerging faces and spaces of Mormon poetry and to provide a sense of Dayna’s editorial vision for Psaltery & Lyre, I asked her a few questions to which she graciously responded:
*Why did you launch Psaltery & Lyre?
My good friends, Heather (Knit Together) and Brent (Mormon in the Cheapseats), both write for Doves & Serpents. When they approached me a couple months ago about submitting a guest post from time to time, the idea of launching a poetry column had been germinating in my mind for several weeks. I was wondering how to broach the subject with Heather, Brent, and the rest of the D&S team, when they asked me about guest posts. Everyone was very receptive to the idea of letting me run my own column as a regular blogger rather than as a guest.
The biggest reason behind starting Psaltery & Lyre is that I want to give something back to the poetry community. As a poet myself, I know how difficult it can be to find publishing venues. I want to offer poets the chance to see their work on the web and in print. It feels really good—gospel good—to be shedding limelight on unpublished pieces that deserve to be read.
*You mention in your “Submission Guide” that, although “[a] large percentage of [your] readers are Mormon, [you] look for (and accept) good poetry from anyone (written from any perspective). Excellence is what [you're] after.” Beyond publishing excellent poetry from a variety of poets, including Mormon poets, what vision do you have for P&L? In other words, what role do you see P&L playing in the field of contemporary (American) poetry? And in contemporary Mormon poetry?
Most online poetry journals feature several poems by many different poets and are published monthly (or less often). P&L is unique for a poetry journal because it is published weekly and features 1-2 poems from a single poet (similar to Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry series, but without the introductory editor’s comment). Accessibility is a key component here. Instead of a seven-course meal, P&L readers can enjoy a single slice of pie, maybe with a scoop of vanilla. Also in the name of accessibility, there is a comments section; readers can discuss the poem with each other, and the poet can chip in if s/he chooses.
There seems to be a kind of tension in contemporary American poetry between the simple and accessible verse of best-selling poets like Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, and the more experimental, obscure verse of poets like Matthew Zapruder. Many publications seem to favor the latter, publishing poems chockablock with non sequitur and lines that “resist the intelligence,” to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens.
While I recognize the value in all types of poetry, my editorial tastes favor the clarity of Collins, the directness of Oliver. (See my post on this subject).
As for P&L‘s role in contemporary Mormon poetry, I hope that a broad faith base will be comfortable writing for us. P&L seeks to feature Mormon poets who are making a splash outside of Mormondom, as well as poets from different backgrounds that have something important or interesting to say on issues many Mormons care about, such as gay rights, feminism, church history, etc.
When P&L was launched about a month ago, D&S already had a strong readership of Mormons, from orthodox to ex-Mo, and although I keep this audience in mind when I select which poems to publish, I want to emphasize again that the quality of the poetry itself, its memorable imagery and phrasing, is what P&L will publish.
*And a broader (though somewhat related) question: what role(s) would you say poetry plays in contemporary American culture? And in contemporary Mormon culture?
This is a huge question. In some respects, I feel like I am still figuring out the answer to that question. I can tell you what poetry means to me personally, how writing and reading it has been a saving outlet during these crazy-making years of being a part-time SAHM.
Poetry is the music of language, cutting through the average fluff of words to get right to the core of human experience. Wherever there is culture, there will be a body of poetry and poets trying to sort out life through the lens of that culture. Perhaps that is why “vertigo” poetry, as poet Tony Hoagland calls it, has a major following in American culture because we are so plugged in, dizzy with our digital agendas. But the more we turn to writing this kind of poetry, the more I feel poets will alienate general readers who are suspicious of poetry anyway. I hope American poets will swivel back to the accessible, in favor of wooing more readers to the pleasures of poetry.
Poetry in contemporary Mormon culture? I have a magnet on my fridge with a great quotation: “Mormons: We’re not that bad.” I think as Mormons, in some ways, we are anxious to prove ourselves as sane, worthy, Christians, cultured, etc. Producing excellent poetry is akin to showing off our fabulous choir. Look at us! Look what we can do! We’re still in pursuit of that elusive Mormon Shakespeare.
Also, we have a tradition of using poetry as a medium for praise. Think Eliza R. Snow and W.W. Phelps. Many general authorities quote poetry over the pulpit at General Conference, giving those verses a reverential, even scriptural quality.
As the church grows, more and more poets explore the margins of faith, the sticky issues of Mormondom, through poetry. Wrestling with words on the page mimes the process of wrestling with theological issues.
* * *
My thanks to Dayna for her carefully considered and insightful answers.
Anyone interested in submitting poems to Psaltery & Lyre can find the submission guidelines here.