Category Archives: Criticism

Guest Post: D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints: An Irreantum Review

5.29.14 | | 3 comments

Before Irreantum folded, I’d recruited a few people to write book reviews for what I thought would be the last issue. Among the reviewers was Emily Harris Adams, winner of the 2013 Mormon Lit Blitz. Emily was given the assignment to review D. J. Butler’s City of the Saints, a Mormon steampunk novel that was originally serialized and published through Amazon. After Irreantum‘s no-more-ness became manifest, Emily contacted me and asked what to do with her complimentary (i.e. FREE!) review copy. I told her to keep it and forget about the review. Not wanting the book to go to waste, though, she wrote the review anyway and sent it to me to post on A Motley Vision.

So, in memory of Irreantum, I post Emily’s review…with hope that the journal will find a new beginning sometime soon.

****

After reading City of the Saints, I couldn’t quite figure out a succinct way to describe the overarching, grand picture of what I had just mentally ingested. Not until I ran into Dave Butler himself.  When he asked me what I thought of his book, I said,

“It’s history cake, isn’t it?”

And it is. There’s an unabashed reveling in the historical yumminess.

This book isn’t history candy. If you are looking for something enjoyable but without density, a fun read that happens to take place in a historical setting, turn your handcart around because this is not the right place. This story is rich and indulgent but still substantive. In other words: cake.

more

Alex Caldiero’s Performative Poesis:
Making, the Makar, and Mormonism

4.28.14 | | 9 comments

Earlier this month, I presented some of my research on Alex Caldiero’s sonosophy at the AML Conference. After I posted my presentation proposal here, Scott also posted his, and Th. expressed his hope that we would record our papers “for the internet since that’s the only way nonattendees can be assured of hearing them later.” Th.’s request solidified my intention to record my presentation and post it online. So I packed my Samson Go Mic (love that thing!) and my laptop and sound-captured my presentation using Audacity (in case you were wondering). When I listened to the presentation later, I realized I had left some stuff out the day of and made a few additions to the audio to make up for my neglect; I also made some minor cuts where there was too much empty air or where I commented on how slow the classroom’s computer was (O, so slow!). Then I combined the audio with my Prezi, screen-captured the presentation using Open Broadcaster Software, and uploaded the file to YouTube.

I mention my post-conference presentation-revision process and the digital tools I used to create the video I’m sharing because I wanted to show one way in which those tools can potentially augment (and disrupt) the historical modes of critical discussion that are favored in the humanities (i.e., sustained arguments made in writing). In his introduction to the BYU student-produced anthology, Writing about Literature in the Digital Age, Gideon Burton argues that we ought to welcome such disruptions because they can awaken us to the “ongoing vitality of literature as ‘equipment for living’ in the digital age.” They can help us see and experience and share and discuss literature differently, opening the mode of literary conversations to something (potentially) more dynamic and engaging than a monograph published in a print journal with a necessarily limited base of subscribers.

My thoughts on the state of academic publishing aside, I was both excited and disheartened to learn at the AML Conference that next year’s meeting might be held in Hawaii. The move excites me because it’s an attempt to break the Jell-O Belt’s hold on the Association (and the Association’s favor for the Jell-O Belt), to move its focus beyond the continental U.S. I just hope the attempt doesn’t, Humpty Dumpty-like break the Association. Which leads me to why the move disheartens me: as I mentioned in the post where I shared my AML proposal, my wife and I look forward to our annual pilgrimage to the AML Conference; but with the conference in Hawaii next year, we can’t afford to attend. Chalk it up to student loans coming due, a pending move, a mortgage, four kids, and so on. Whatever the case, I’m sad I won’t be able to be there. Yet, our impending conference-nonattendance has had me thinking about alternatives to the time- and geography-bound conference, about ways to approximate or augment the knowledge- and community-building aspects of such conferences, to potentially include more people on the program and in the conference discussions, to move MoLit’s critical culture beyond the ways critics have traditionally made their work public. Sharing my conference presentation online (in video and audio formats) is a gesture toward those alternatives, which I hope to address more later.

Your thoughts on such alternatives and on the content and form of my presentation (which at ~43 minutes is, I know, fairly long) are welcome in the comments.


Follow this link for the audio version.

(Cross-posted here.)

Culture and being in, but not of the world

4.23.14 | | 17 comments

As I was reading the comments to Scott H’s recent AML blog post Moving Culture, I had the following thought:

In modern Mormon American communities when the notion of “be in the world but not of it” is raised in relation to culture, it is almost always the “not of” that is emphasized rather than the “being in”. And so most Mormons draw their various lines (which, as I wrote almost 10 years ago, I don’t have a problem with as long as they are honest with themselves about those lines) for what they will and will not consume, enjoy the works that fall within their lines, and then (perhaps) look askance at those who draw their lines in different places than they do.

But the problem is that this method (which I will admit to employing myself quite often) is actually addressing neither the “being in” nor the “not of” because:

1. Any culture you avoid means that you are cutting yourself off from those parts of the world and thus are not being in it. Now, obviously, there are places (and in this case I mean cultural places as in: specific works/creators and/or communities that form around those works/creators) we should not be in. And there are places that some of us can be in without causing major damage to our souls while others can’t. But we are not called to cloister ourselves, and if we have no frames of cultural reference with which to approach others, we can’t really claim that we are in the world.

2. I think (and this is based on my reading of Christ’s ministry on Earth) that being not of the world is less about not partaking in things and more about how you approach your presence in and interaction with the world. “Not of” means that the world doesn’t override or distort your Mormon worldview (at least not too much — I also believe that no one is untainted by the world). And it means bringing your worldview into play in an active, interrogating, subversive, filtering, enveloping way.

What I think that adds up is that to be “in the world,” one must be engaged with culture, and to be “not of the world” is to act upon rather than be acted upon by culture. This is easier said than done.

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.)

* * *

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.

more

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #87: Orson F. Whitney on Oratory as Milk

3.16.14 | | no comments

OFWhitneyIn the past 40 years the descriptions of Mormon literature published by Eugene England and his successors have designated oratory as one of the primary forms of our literary output, one that Church members are most familiar with. It is in oratory, as well as the personal essay, that Mormons are sometimes thought to excel. Given the pattern of Mormon worship, that makes sense.

But we also might ask whether a strength in oratory is best for our literature. Are some forms of literature inherently better than others? And does the Mormon view differ from that of others who have examined literature?

Its no surprise that Orson F. Whitney had has opinion about oratory:

more

The New Mormon Fiction: Post-Faithful Directions of a Post-Utopian Form–Scott’s 2014 AML Conference Proposal

3.13.14 | | 20 comments

Following Tyler’s lead, I’ve decided to post the proposal for my AML presentation, which will be an expansion of my DBD post on “The New Mormon Fiction” from a few months back. Glenn Gordon is accepting proposals for the conference until March 20th, so if you are interested in presenting, there is still time. Based on Tyler’s proposal, and other proposals I’ve heard about, it’s going to be a great conference. 

See you there.

Mormonism has undergone significant changes over the last twenty years, leading sociologist Armand Mauss to declare that the LDS Church now has a different “feel” than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among the changes has been greater transparency from the Mormon hierarchy on controversial subjects, an increase in open dialogue within Mormonism via the internet and social media, an apparent spike in faith crises, and the emergence of new sites of cultural tension.

What effect have these changes had on Mormon literature? In my presentation, I will argue that these conditions have contributed to what I call the New Mormon Fiction. Like earlier works of Mormon fiction, these works are “post-utopian” in the way they continue to reflect Mormonism’s desire to assimilate with its host cultures. However, unlike earlier examples of Mormon fiction, these works are essentially “post-faithful,” or largely unconcerned about fiction’s role as a vehicle for Mormon propaganda (of any stripe). Rather than bearing testimony, they seek to capture both the euphoria and anxiety of Mormonism in the information age.

My presentation will outline several trends that characterize the New Mormon Fiction. For instance, some works of the New Mormon Fiction are absurdist and darkly comical. Others are comprised of fictional documents, document fragments, and interviews that call into question what we know about history and narrative. Still others foreground conflicts between individuals and information rather than between individuals and the Church, its members, or the dominant culture. Collectively, my presentation will argue, these works comprise a new Mormon fiction that foregrounds acts of discovery and recovery, creative production, and paradigm subversion to disorient readers and force them to configure new realities, question long-held assumptions and notions of truth, and confront the challenges having “too much information.”

The Makar, Making, and Mormonism: Tyler’s 2014 AML Conference Proposal

3.11.14 | | 3 comments
Muta Poesis

Muta Poesis, from Le vite de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti moderni by Giovanni Bellori (Rome, 1672)

Each year, my wife and I look forward to making a pilgrimage to Orem, Utah to attend the annual Association for Mormon Letters Conference. I’ve also made it an annual practice to share my conference proposal once I’ve submitted it. In 2012, I proposed and presented “Situating Sonosophy: De/constructing Alex Caldiero’s ‘Poetarium’” and in 2013 I proposed “Performative Poesis and the (Un)Making of the World,” although my presentation was eventually titled “The Tongue as Tree of Life: Meditations on Words and the Word and the Making of the World.”

This year the conference, which will be held April 11-12 at UVU, is titled “New Faces of Mormonism: Are We Changing the Way We See Ourselves?” (*) Yesterday I submitted the following proposal, which is relevant to the Church’s recently released statement on what it means to become like God:

Alex Caldiero’s Performative Poesis: The Makar, Making, and Mormonism

Alex Caldiero’s work emerges from a rich performance ecology that consists of many different influences. One of these is the figure of the pre-modern bard, whom Caldiero calls a makar (mah-ker). Makar is the Middle English antecedent of maker, although makar is still active in the Scots language where it’s used in reference to a poet or bard [see here, especially]. Caldiero may have assumed the title in an attempt to establish kinship with a primitive (prime-itive) culture, its language, and its poetics. He may have also taken the name to skirt around the social and cultural limitations related to calling oneself a poet, including the stigma attached to practicing an art that some say is dead and that others associate with greeting card sentimentalism or the horrors of high school English. By moving to avoid these limitations (albeit at the cost of having to endure others [like being what Scott Carrier calls a "categorical conundrum"]), Caldiero becomes better able to critique common conceptions of poetry while he at the same time foregrounds the term’s origins: the word poetry derives from the Greek concept of poesis, which signifies the process of making.

Caldiero’s self-affiliation with Mormonism brings an additional level of signification to his focus on making. In particular, his poetics seem to be in conversation with Mormon theology’s teachings about Deity; these include the following:

  • First, that the Gods are Makers: they create and they procreate.
  • Second, that God isn’t a singular Entity acting as lone Creator but is part of a coterie of creative Beings acting in concert, a Community of Gods.
  • Third, that the Makers have created and peopled not just this world, this universe, but many worlds and many universes.
  • Fourth, that Creation doesn’t occur ex nihilo: rather the Makers build things from materials extant in expansive cosmos.
  • Fifth, that Creation unfolds in an eternal round: the Makers’ creative acts occur in the present progressive tense, that these Beings haven’t just created, they are creating.
  • Sixth, that humans are the Makers’ offspring; as such we have the making gene in us and by virtue of heredity and training, we can emulate our Parents and become Makers ourselves.

My paper will explore the relationships among Caldiero’s performative poesis (which he calls sonosophy) and the figures/ideas I’ve described above: the makar (the pre-modern bard), poetry as the process of making, and Gods as Makers.

(Cross-posted here.)

Sunday Lit Crit Sermon #86: Ramona Wilcox Cannon on the spiritual in literature

3.2.14 | | one comment

Literary theory often leaves out any spiritual element or claim—something that separates religious thinkers and writers from others. I believe that the role of spirituality in literature is particularly important in Mormonism, since we believe in personal revelation and that such revelation is relevant to everyday tasks, such as writing and consuming literary works. I believe, therefore, that spirituality must be an important element of any Mormon literary theory.

Nor is my belief unique. For example, Ramona Wilcox Cannon decried the lack of spirituality in the following article in 1926.

more