In case you haven’t been following the Mormon Poetry Slam at home and have an interest in Mormon poetry (I mean, who doesn’t, right?), here’s an update (which I initially posted here):
The final performance in the slam—which I’ve been hosting on FireinthePasture.org and which as far as I know is the first online competition of its kind—posted last Friday. (You can find the event archive here). Now it’s time to determine the winner of the Audience Choice Award and we need your help with that because, well, the participants need the audience to vote. So, if you would: Take several minutes to consider the slam performances, then vote for your favorite before Wednesday’s end (voting rules are outlined below). For your consideration and reviewing pleasure, here are the fourteen entries, listed in order of appearance: more →
Over the past couple weeks I’ve received two emails from Alex Caldiero announcing projects he’s involved with. The first is a Kickstarter campaign, the second a new book.
First: the Kickstarter campaign.
As a native of Sicily, Alex spent his childhood in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe. Using the funds to be raised by their Kickstarter campaign—titled “Living with Etna”—Alex hopes to return to Sicily as the tour guide for emerging filmmakers Laura Kisana and Isaac Caldiero (Alex’s son), who hope to document the relationship between the mountain and the people who inhabit its slopes.
When I first watched their project video and read through their proposal, I recalled the instruction God gave to Joseph Smith in March 1833 that those involved with building his kingdom ought to make it their “business and mission” to “study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.” There are, of course, many ways to fulfill this counsel. One of them may include supporting (however we’re willing and however we can) projects like the one Alex and Co. hope to undertake with this trip and the documentary that would flow from it. more →
Proposal 1: Live Poetry Anthology: Mormon Poets Read (Two full sessions)
Based on the success of the two poetry reading panels I organized for last year’s AML Conference, I approached my poet friends to see if there was any interest in organizing more readings for this year’s conference. I have around twenty poets* who said, “Heck, yeah! We’d love to read at AML in 2013.” So this proposal is for two (2) sessions (preferably back-to-back sessions) filled with poetry read by a range of Mormon poets. Each session would include approximately ten poets reading for around five to six minutes each. Michael Hicks has called this event format “a live poetry anthology” because it allows space for many poets to voice their poems and shows how the community of poets so involved is a living community whose canon of texts is constantly expanding.
Proposal 2: Performative Poesis and the (Un)Making of the World
In the days following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, I came across or remembered several texts that were composed in response to this event and to other violent events in contemporary America, including 9/11 and the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. The first text I encountered was an article published by The Onion, satirical online news rag, the day of the Sandy Hook shooting. The article, “F*** Everything, Nation Reports,” is short—it comes in at only 456 words. But as the title suggests, its language is potent: of the many profanities included, 16 are the f-word. The second text was a poem called “In the Loop” by Bob Hicok, who explores with the poem a response many people had to the Virginia Tech shooting: to say “how horrible it was, how little / there was to say about how horrible it was.” The third was Alex Caldiero’s “Poetry is Wanted Here!,” a poem dedicated to his friend “Bob Heman, in New York, Oct. 2001 re. 9/11.” And the fourth was a poem by Shane Koyczan: “People are Getting Better.” Unlike the other three texts, Koyczan’s poem isn’t a response to a specific event; but it does reference “kids who turned their school into a shooting range,” kids who “play Russian Roulette with guns . . . they found on their playground,” and “airlines [that] plummet from the skies.”
Beyond similarities in subject matter—all reference violent events that have received national, even global, attention—the one thing that connects these texts in my mind is the way each shows how four very different writers turned to words in response to violence as a way to mediate the ongoing effects of violence. These movements toward language in the face of destruction jibe with the understanding I’ve developed as a Latter-day Saint that words are an act of faith and have a profound, creative influence on the world. As noted in the Lectures on Faith, faith works by words; indeed, faith’s mightiest works have been and will be performed with words. These works, of course, include God’s eternal performance as World-Maker (his poesis), which proceeds through his Word, who is Christ. Through personal and scholarly reflections on the texts cited above, this paper explores my LDS-informed view of words and the Word, especially in terms of how we mirror the World-Makers’ creative performance in our own word-making.
Like so many works of literature, Mahonri Stewart’s play The Fading Flower began as a “bizarre and beautiful” dream. It descended on him during his mission showing him, “an old photograph or portrait of Joseph Smith and his family. Joseph Smith was a ghost in the portrait, while Emma and the children were alive. They were all in black and white, except Julia who was in bright color . . . When I awoke I had this powerful, beautiful feeling and all of these impressions were running through my head about writing a play about Emma” (source). It was from there that Stewart began cogitating on the stories of The Prophet’s wife and children and where they must have ended up.
The result of that dream is a sort of Mormon morality play–but not in a bad way. The stage is set with two pulpits on either side and various characters take turns espousing their versions of the truth. Of course, when Brighamites (the term that RLDS members used to refer to Mormons out in Utah) speak from their pulpit they are content to blame Emma and condemn her children. When the sons of Joseph Smith Jr. take to their pulpit they lay right into the Utah Mormons. Both sides are convinced of their own righteousness and the others’ devilish nature. Almost all the characters represent a firm worldview and tend to speak in frank, agenda-driven dialogue thereby becoming the proverbial devils and angels baring down on the shoulders of the youngest Smith son, David. The only problem is David (and the audience) can’t be sure which is the angel and which is the devil.
David was born after Joseph Smith Jr.’s death and carried the fateful burden of being the subject of one of his last prophecies (see this somewhat dubious Wikipedia list for more info). Perhaps because of this prophecy, it is David’s character that struggles the most and follows the only discernible character arc in the play.
Emma, of course, has a sort of character arc too although most of takes place before the play starts. As the title implies, she is fading. Her character is driven not by the men yelling behind pulpits but, just as it was in life, by her husband. Joseph haunts Emma, making the audience wonder if, like Emma at the end of her life, anyone around The Prophet ever truly saw him.
Although the debate in the play hinges on the practice of polygamy (and it’s readability suffers a bit by the didactic nature of that debate), what’s really at stake for the characters (and for modern Mormons as well) are the questions of ultimate truth and infallibility. Can two people holding opposite viewpoints both be right? Can they both be wrong? What if they are a mix of the two? If a leader, whether of a family or a religion, is imperfect does that make her or him wrong in all aspects? What do you do when the story you’ve been told all your life turns out to be much more bizarre–and beautiful–than anything you ever could have imagined? Emma’s slow death and David’s search for truth and subsequent descent into madness are a cautionary tale. As Julia Smith tells her brother, Joseph III, “David did not lose his sanity because he was told the truth in the end, David lost his sanity because he was not told the truth from the beginning. If he hadn’t had a false world constructed around him, he would have been able to endure the real one. . . That’s why when it was our turn to be strong we utterly failed [Mother]. We never let her be fallible” (Kindle location 1636-1638). It is the posing of those questions that make this script work as both a story and a drama.
Swallow the Sun, interestingly, follows an almost opposite story arc. It is the story of C.S. “Jack” Lewis’ early adult years when he was an avowed atheist feeling the pulls of Christianity. Lewis is, of course, a tantalizing individual for Mormons. Besides being an excellent writer of fiction, his skills as an apologist have granted him favored status in the LDS cultural cannon. Stewart’s play pays homage to that by dropping many hints at later Christian-themed writing endeavors. For instance, early on in the play Jack (Lewis’ preferred name in life and Stewart’s choice of character name)–who is seeking to antagonize an avowed Christian–says, “You know, Arthur, what you Christians really need is an advocate. A real, hearty, intellectual strength of an advocate, somebody who can stand up to the bullies likes me” (Kindle location 2208). The line is enjoyable in the banter of the script, but is also funny because the reader knows that this is precisely what Lewis later becomes. Then near the end of the play, as Jack draws up to acceptance of Christianity, he says, “I went on a bus ride the other day. On it, I had this. . . this voice, this feeling come upon me,” which is an obvious allusion to the pivotal bus ride in Lewis’ The Great Divorce (Kindle location 2208).
Because the reader knows the end from the beginning, Swallow the Sun has a much lighter feel to it. The characters function as ideologues egging each other on. Which is one reason that, for me, this play was not as strong as The Fading Flower. Perhaps because it wasn’t as weighty but also because I think it could have benefited from scenes that didn’t center directly on Lewis questions of faith. Or perhaps it’s because in reading this instead of seeing it performed, I missed a lot of context and the resultant characters were flatter. But either way Lewis comes off not so much as a person but as more of a means to an end. I couldn’t help but compare it to Shadowlands and find it wanting, just a bit. The book version of this play (both plays actually) would have benefited from some notes citing historical sources and a few pictures of the productions, just to aid the reader in the imaginative journey. However, I am excited that this play is being made into a movie because I think it will work well in a cinematic style.
Stewart is rightly one of the leading voices in Mormon theater right now. He has a vast body of work and is doing exciting things with his theater company, Zion Theatre Company. Reading his plays maybe never be as good as seeing them performed, but is still worth the effort.
Since I’m behind and won’t have my weekly post on the History of Mormon Publishing this week, I thought I’d pass along the news about the Mormon Women’s Literary Tour that starts this coming Monday in California and proceeds to venues in Arizona and Utah through the end of the month. more →
For the rest of August, A Motley Vision’s companion blog Wilderness Interface Zone is hosting “Vox Humana Week” as part of its “People Month.” For an explanation of what “People Month” is, you can go here:
If you have a podcast or mp3 you’ve made where you’re reading your own work–poetry, blog posts, or essay or fiction excerpts–and if you feel inclined to share, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your reading doesn’t have to be “nature-oriented”–it is “People Month,” afterall–but if it is, that would be cool. Also, I’ll be putting up podcasts of my own readings. I have barely adequate recording equipment, but everybody will get the idea.
If you do come by WIZ, you might like to read some of the wonderful guest posts published over the last two weeks, including a poem by Tyler Chadwick and an essay about flying from a 12-yr-old reader.
I hope some of you will feel moved upon to contribute to “Vox Humana Week.” It could be fun.
I recently prepared a Christmas package for my missionary son and hit upon the idea of searching past Ensign magazines for missionary Christmas stories to add to the package. I’m not sure if these stories are typical of other missionary Christmas stories, but I can say that the stories I found included two broad themes: stories of missionaries caroling (or giving other musical performances) and stories of missionaries overcoming loneliness. [I do believe there are other themes in these stories, I just didn't come across them in my very limited search.] more →