Category Archives: Commentary

Notes on How to Read a Poem

4.3.14 | | 3 comments

National Poetry Month 2014
(Poster design: Chip Kidd)
Click image for PDF copy of the poster.

I’m of two minds about National Poetry Month.

In one sense, I appreciate the effort (initiated by the Academy of American Poets and institutionalized in April 1996 by President Clinton’s administration) “to highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets; [to] introduce Americans to the pleasures and benefits of reading poetry; [to] bring poets and poetry to the public in immediate and innovative ways; [and to] make poetry an important part of our children’s education” (ref). Even if this official celebration of poets and poetry only happens one month out of twelve and even if people binge on poems during that month but never read another poem all year, at least poetry is being celebrated, right? I can’t complain about that.

In another sense, though, I see poetry as something worth engaging every day. If America can set aside one month a year to advocate for poetry as something that can enhance and enrich “the lives of all Americans” and that “affects every aspect of life in America today, including education, the economy, and community pride and development” (ref), we should be able to make a place (no matter how small) for poetry in our everyday lives, shouldn’t we? Of course, I say this as someone deeply invested in reading and writing and writing about and advocating for poetry. So I may be a little biased.

Whatever the case, and whatever your mind is about poetry and National Poetry Month (prominent poet and critic Richard Howard once called it “the worst thing to have happened to poetry since the advent of the camera and the internal combustion engine,” two contraptions that distanced us from the beauty and rhythms of the earth), I thought I’d share some reflections on how to read a poem, whenever and however often you read one.

The following essay appears as the prologue in my book, Field Notes on Language on Kinship. My ideas (in the essay and in the book) are informed to a great degree by Patricia’s thinking on language and were sparked by her gorgeous poem “Introduction to the Mysteries (or How to Read a Poem).” (Listen to Laura’s stunning performance of Patricia’s poem here.)

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Notes on How to Read a Poem

Some years ago during an undergraduate literature course, a classmate confessed the first time our reading assignment included some poems that “Interpreting poetry is not my forte.” The student’s confession still catches my ear. I hear her/him repeating it poetically in my mind, giving it a lyric ring that comes out more when I write the sentence as if writing a poem, splitting the line after syllable seven:

    Interpreting poetry
    is not my forte.

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Miltons & Shakespeares: a new direction

3.31.14 | | 5 comments

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“We will yet have
Miltons and Shakespeares
of our own.”
Orson F. Whitney
Salt Lake City, Utah
June 3, 1888

“The Mormon Shakespeare
is Shakespeare.”
Terryl L. Givens
Oakland, California
March 29, 2014

Givens was speaking of the Mormon tradition of welcoming truth from all quarters, and specifically referencing something his wife had said earlier in the evening about the Lord recommending to the Saints the works of other wise men in the world. I imagine you can get the details and specific quotations I failed to jot down in their forthcoming book Crucible of Doubt.

Onto Shakespeare who, as Nick Hornby reminds me, wrote for money. Milton, meanwhile, held down a sequence of non-iambic jobs that kept him pretty busy.

Allow me now therefore to suggest a new way of looking at Whitney’s thought. He did, after all, preface his famous line by saying “They [the great writers of the past] cannot be reproduced.” So perhaps looking for a Mormon to “be” Milton or to “be” Shakespeare may be simply wrong wrong wrong.

Also, I’m a little tired of the Orson Scott Card model being promoted over the Darin Cozzens model, or the Angela Hallstrom model being promoted over the Heather B. Moore model. Why should writing that is designed to be commercial be valued greater or lesser than writing that exists without such concerns? Shakespeare and Milton were both great writers, both changed literature, both still matter today.

So maybe instead of stressing about the Whitney prophecy and instead of arguing over whose writing goals are more worthy, we can smile kindly and say, well, Shakespeare (or Milton), good luck out there. I’m glad someone’s writing Hamlet (or Paradise Lost) while I’m working on Lycidas (or Lear). Together we’re making a literature for our people. And it’s going to be awesome.

Replacing Irreantum: Readership

12.5.13 | | 20 comments

This post brings to an end my analysis of the barriers involved in replacing Irreantum, the now defunct literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters.

Other installments: Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions |Financial Models | Starting Up | Readership

READERSHIP

This series began by me thinking through the issues related to replacing a small, now defunct Mormon-themed literary journal (Irreantum). Looking at all the challenges (and choices) involved, it’s easy to see why very few are willing to take them on. But if there’s a reason to do it, then it’s for this — the readership. That’s true of any publication, but I think it’s especially true for the Mormon readership. In my experience, although the readership may be small, the actual readers are delighted to find something on the page that they can relate to. It’s important, rewarding work, and if a replacement could come about that expanded the readership that Irreantum had developed, that would be a great gift to the Mormon people.

And yet, I don’t want to downplay the concerns. Mormon publications have a mixed track record. There are no unqualified successes and the trail has been hard sledding the past few years for outlets that focus on fiction (Dialogue and Sunstone seem to be doing okay, but neither focuses primarily on creative work). Literature has long been in last place in terms of attention from the Mormon Studies crowd. And what readership there is seems to me to be fragmented along several axes in relation to content appropriateness; genre-literary; types of narrative art (fiction, essay, poetry, film, theater); socio-cultural experiences (Mormon corridor – diaspora); cultural aspirations (deseret school – missionary school); etc. more

Replacing Irreantum: Starting Up

12.3.13 | | 6 comments

This is a continuation of my analysis of the barriers involved in replacing Irreantum, the now defunct literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters.

Other installments: Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions | Financial Models | Starting Up

STARTING UP

There’s such a wide range of factors involved in starting up a successor to Irreantum that I almost didn’t do this section, but there are a few items to think about in relation to starting up a Mormon literary magazine/journal that I decided I had something to say about.

Irreantum Assets: I’m not sure what all these would be, but at the very least there’s the Irreantum name itself and associated domain name [irreantum.org, which was never utilized for much]. But there may also be electronic files for previous content and those archives (and I don’t how extensive they are–it’d be awesome if there are electronic files that go all the way back to the beginning) could be leveraged for some value. Of course, anyone who wanted to put together a successor to Irreantum would need to put together a proposal for the board of the Association for Mormon Letters. I don’t know enough about the situation to say whether or not building on the bones of Irreantum is a good idea, but it may be worth exploring.

Minimal Start Up Costs: A domain name and a year of web hosting will cost about $100. Depending on the web development skills of the start up team, you may need to add on a premium WordPress (or other free CMS) theme as well as premium. Prices can vary, but a good premium theme can be as low as $40. That’s the minimum. Let’s say you want to produce 4 issues (I think 6-12 would be better) and pay for cover art (which is a good idea). In my opinion, $100 a cover is the minimum you should pay. And then let’s say you publish 6 pieces per issue and pay a token average payment of $20 per work. That’s $400 for a year’s worth of covers and $480 for content. Or say you were willing to pay 3 cents a word and averaged about 4,000 words per story/essay. That would make for 24k words per issue and 96k words total for the year at a total cost of $2,880. That’s all without paying for layout or editing or any additional services or advertising. But let’s say you operate under the exact submissions model as Irreantum and run a contest. For first, second and third place, Irreantum provided $300, $200 and $100. Assuming you’d do both fiction and essay, that’s $1,200 a year.

Crowdsourcing: One way to cover the start up costs would be to crowdsource them using something like Kickstarter or Indiegogo. The beauty of crowdsourcing is that you are essentially pre-selling subscriptions. The genre community has found some success in funding anthologies and/or a year’s worth of issues of a magazine. Such a campaign could also test whether there is a readership for the magazine. The thing is, though, that Mormon fiction projects don’t have a great track record of being funded via a crowdsourcing campaign. Another barrier is that because crowdsourced campaigns rely on a variety of deliverables to gain traction, often a print product is involved and print versions can quickly eat up funding. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why crowdsourcing is attractive to those looking to kickstart magazines or (more often) anthologies. Let’s say a magazine was able to offer a good range of virtual incentives (no print version) from $5 to $30 and average $15. If you could attract 150 funders (which, make no mistake is a lot in the world of Mormon fiction — it’s certainly no given, but it’s doable), then you’d have $2250 to work with. That’s enough to pay for some covers and token payments to contributors as well as for basic webhosting. On the other hand, what happens if the Kickstarter fails? That can suck the air out of a project. An audience for a fiction publication especially can take a long time to build as potential readers (as well as potential contributors) wait and see if they like the editorial direction of the publication (or just see if the thing is going to make a go of it).

Recruiting Volunteers: based on my experience, here’s how to effectively recruit volunteers.

  1. Have a system in place to manage the work being done. Note that email + attachments is not a good system. Also have a style manual and production manual.
  2. Create a defined list of positions along with the job duties and expected time it will take to do the job well.
  3. Make sure a few of the positions can accommodate a fair number of volunteers just in case they appear (for lit pubs, that’s often slush readers and copyeditors). These are folks who can grow into other positions (either through experience or the ability to commit more time to the cause).
  4. Provide training.
  5. Have people in charge who are responsive and friendly.

Social Media: use it. It’s a must in this day and age. You don’t have to be prolific, but you should be consistent in posting, interact with your followers and have a point of view/unique voice. I’d say that Twitter and Facebook are the place to start, but I’d also play with Pinterest and Google+.

That’s all I have to say in terms of starting up a successor to Irreantum. Any othe analysis would be in response to specific efforts. What did I miss?

And with that, we have one more to go in the series: Readership.

Replacing Irreantum: Financial Models

11.29.13 | | 5 comments

This is a continuation of my analysis of the barriers involved in replacing Irreantum, the now defunct literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters.

Other installments: Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions | Financial Models | Starting Up

FINANCIAL MODELS

Any replacement to Irreantum is going to have to have a viable financial model. By viable, I mean one that allows for the continued production of the publication. There a variety of ways that continuity can happen. Technically I’m mainly going to talk about generating revenue so this post should perhaps be named revenue models, but how much and what types of revenue generation is required for a lit mag/journal to continue to put out issues is driven by the financial model of the team behind it. In brief: the financial model can either be for-profit or not-for-profit. The legal structures (assuming that this is a U.S.-based publication) can be anything from a sole proprietorship to an LLC, LLP or S corporation to a cooperative (informal or legal), 501(c)(3) nonprofit, or private foundation. While the underlying legal structure matters, it doesn’t change the essential financial imperative of any publication: covering the costs of producing each issue. Here then are what I see as the range of revenue models for a lit mag/journal. Note that these can be combined and configured in many different ways.

Benefactor: The advantage of having a benefactor fund the successor to Irreantum is obvious: there’s immediate start up money and (often) money to fund on-going operations. The major disadvantage is that one is almost impossible to find. But let’s say that one could be found. There are very few benefactors who are willing to be completely hands off. Even if they are hands off at first, eventually they want some say in where there money is going (as well they should). In addition, they also usually expect that the organization raise as much money as possible in other ways, which means you still have to undertake some or all of the below. As far as I know (and I don’t know much), there are no major benefactors (note the term major; there have been some minor ones: see the next section) out there who would be willing to fund a Mormon lit mag/journal. more

Replacing Irreantum: Generating Submissions

11.27.13 | | 21 comments

This is a continuation of my analysis of the barriers involved in replacing Irreantum, the now defunct literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters. Other installments:

Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions | Financial Models | Starting Up

GENERATING SUBMISSIONS

You would think that with so few outlets for Mormon short fiction that submissions wouldn’t be a problem for any successor to Irreantum. My understanding is that that’s not necessarily the case. Very few Mormons fiction writers write Mormon fiction that shows the craft and maturity and potential appeal to readership that one would want in a lit mag that publishes more than four or five stories a year. A key reason for that, of course, is that there is little incentive to do so.

Any potential successor to Irreantum is going to have figure out how to increase both the number of submissions and the overall quality of them. That’s may be difficult, but I don’t see why one would even bother to launch a Mormon lit mag if you’re not going to aim to increase the number of stories written, submitted and published. If all the field needs are 8 or so short stories a year and a dozen to two dozen poems then that’s already covered between Dialogue, Sunstone and BYU Studies. So what can/do lit mags offer submitters?

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Replacing Irreantum: Staffing/Production

11.26.13 | | 13 comments

This is a continuation of my analysis of the barriers involved in replacing Irreantum, the now defunct literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters. Other installments:

Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions | Financial Models | Starting Up

STAFFING/PRODUCTION

A literary magazine/journal is nothing without an audience, but it can’t even try to establish an audience without staffing to create the thing. That’s an obvious statement, but in the world of Mormon letters it represents a major challenge to any ongoing attempt to publish fiction. Very few fiction magazines can support a full-time staff. Many rely on institutional affiliation or at the very least on key staff who have faculty positions at institutions that will give them the time and even credit towards promotion/pay increases for their work on the journal. As far as I know there is no institution that would be willing to provide that. I don’t know that that’s the best idea anyway because of the issues I raise in the previous post. Academic or foundation support comes with a certain set of expectations that are often inimical to the more populist scope that a successor to Irreantum probably should attempt. Irreantum struggled with staffing, especially succession planning. In fact it’s amazing that it lasted as long as it did, and I personally am grateful for all of the hours that its various editors and other staff put into it. more

Replacing Irreantum: Scope/Positioning

11.25.13 | | 11 comments

Earlier this month Margaret Young confirmed that Irreantum , the literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters is now defunct. For all I know there may be a crack team of AMLers working to revive it, but I want take this opportunity to think through some general notions of what this unfortunate turn of events means for the field and specifically what (if anything) we should replace Irreantum with. Note that at the moment these are just some musings on my part that are independent of any specific actions I might personally take to help out with any effort that steps up to fill in the vacuum left by Irreantum’s demise. I start with where we should start: scope/positioning.

Links to other installments: Scope/Positioning | Staffing/Production | Generating Submissions | Financial Models | Starting Up

SCOPE/POSITIONING

One of the things that the AML in general and Irreantum specifically have struggled with is positioning, that is, where Irreantum fell in relation to other Mormon culture endeavors. It began as a literary magazine that had low production qualities but was more popular in tone, including author interviews, industry news and genre fiction. In that incarnation, it didn’t really have a competitor, but it also struggled with the fact that it was trying to bring together a variety of very different audiences (to be reductive: the LDS fiction crowd, the Mormon fiction crowd and the Mormons into SF&F crowd). Later it morphed into more of a traditional literary journal with higher production values and a focus on literary fiction/essay and poetry, which competed in the same space as Dialogue and Sunstone. This made it a more natural fit with its parent organization, but also meant that it had little to differentiate itself from the other publications other than it offered solely creative narrative work (while the other two also publish essays in academic disciplines such as history and sociology). It offered more creative narrative work than the other journals, but that wasn’t necessarily a strength as it would seem that the audience for scholarly Mormon journals is skewed (more on audience in the post on readership) more towards the social sciences. This should not be a surprise as the same is true of the overall in the field of Mormon Studies (in terms of courses, fellowships, endowed positions, book-length works, seminars, conferences, etc.). more