Sunday, April 07, 2019

Semi-Official Report on AML

("Semi-official" because it will include an awful lot of not-very-official asides.)

It was an event worth reporting on in more detail, so I will.

First of all, by "event," I'm not referring just to the official meeting, which was fantastic. I'm also referring to the whole experience for ME, which included a separate dimension, since I spent four years in Berkeley about 20 years ago and still consider it--or, at least, the ward and its members there--a sort of intellectual home for me. Maybe not "home"--maybe "breeding ground." The point is that I wouldn't have begun writing again if it hadn't have been for my Berkeley experience. While living there, I was introduced to AML, for one thing (though not, ironically, by a Berkeley person). And while living there I had conversations, and CONVERSIONS, that led me to think in the ways and on the subjects that have informed my writing ever since.

So before I jump into thoughts about sessions, let me just put this here:

(Matathias Westwood and Lynsey Jepson)
This is the Berkeley ward church building. Here's what the chapel inside looks like:

It has amazingly managed to resist efforts at conformity (well, in more ways than one). In particular, there is no carpeting under the benches, which means that it continues to have good acoustics. I have enjoyed singing in many choirs there.

Another aspect of the conference weekend that I need to report on is the wonderful interaction with old and new friends. The conversations "in the halls," as an old AML friend once put it, is as important as the sessions themselves. And my great conversations took place in the halls of the conference setting, which was the Berkeley Institute (another place I used to hang out in):
(me, Karen Rosenbaum, Angela Hallstrom)

And in the restaurants we went to:
(Scott Hales, Matathias Westwood, James Goldberg)
(Rebekah Call, Andrew Hall, Rachel Hunt Steenblik, James Goldberg, me, Matathias Westwood)

And, not least, in the car on the way to and from Berkeley (11 hours each way--and we talked for ALL of it):
(I let James do all the driving in traffic. I'm nice that way.)

OK. So now let's talk about the actual meeting.

1. Harrison Paul talked about anger. His paper was called, "'Can Ye Be Angry and Not Sin?' (Ephesians 4:26, JST): Developing a Latter-day Saint Christian Account of Anger." I haven't met Harrison before, but I found his subject fascinating. He spoke of a useful and virtuous kind of anger, "compassionate indignation," in contrast to the kind of anger that is not Christ-like. Very intersting.

2. 2 papers looking at the scriptures as literature. Kylie Turley examined the use of the phrase "as if" in Helaman 5, and what we can learn about sources and narrative because of that phrase. McKayle Turner examined the use of "in" in the phrase, "thrust your hands into my side" in 3 Nephi. I found this approach to narrative analysis intriguing. It opens up way of learning from the scriptures that is probably unfamiliar and therefore invigorating to many who might be looking for ways to invigorate their study of the same old books.

3. Jake Johnson spoke about "Mormons, Musical Theater, and Belonging in America," focusing on the musical, Promised Valley, and its affect on LDS and American culture. I can't believe I'd never heard of this musical before. It was apparently a pretty big deal in its time (and starred the actor who had originated the role of Curly in Oklahoma--which wasn't its only nod to that musical).

Then Mason Allred spoke of the how Elfie Huntington and Susa Young Gates used technologies (Elfie, the camera, and Susa, the typewriter) to "reveal their creativity."

4. Jacob Bender gave an exciting presentation about the work of the author Mark Z. Danielewski, whom I had never heard of. Danielewski isn't LDS but spent some time in "the cultural epicenter of Mormonism." I didn't find the connections to Mormonism all that convincing, but I found Jacob Bender's presentation fascinating; he's an energetic speaker!

5. My session! 3 friends (Eric Jepson, Scott Hales, James Goldberg) and I read from poetry we produced as a part of MoPoWriMo, which I wrote about here.  I thought we were fantastic.

I was very happy to get that over with on the first day so that I could relax after that. It was also nice to be able to talk about my work on subsequent days with people who enjoyed it. I love the work that James, Eric and Scott shared. I'm especially proud of Scott, who branched out of his usual historical work to write some autobiographical poems this year.

6. Scott went on to present on a poet whose work he's been interested in, Ina Coolbrith. He also got an Ina Coolbrith scholar (and author of her biography), Aleta George, to present on her. The two papers were a great combination, George's focusing on Coolbrith's life and work in general and Scott's on her Mormon connections and history. Fascinating.

7. Gabrel Gonzalez Nunez did my heart good by reading a paper on some "forgotten" poets who published LDS-themed work in a small church publication in Mexico in 1937-1955. I kept imagining those poets, pouring their souls into their poems, never knowing that a bunch of us would gather and think about their work nearly a century later.

Then Rebekah Call wowed everyone by presenting a song/poem she had written about Eve, to be sung as a lullabye. She took us through the poem line by line--no, word by word--first, which was important, because nearly every singly word was loaded with cultural context that we wouldn't have gotten without knowing things about the Hebrew language and the Mishnah. Then, as if we weren't already impressed enough, she sang the song (to which she had composed the tune). She is a highly-trained singer, and her performance was so haunting and beautiful that we asked her to sing it again, which she did. Shivers!

8. After dinner, we reconvened for a panel on the work of our Lifetime Achievement award winner, Carol Lynn Pearson. A well-deserved award, of course. Then she read to us from various books. She's a performer at heart, so we got the full experience. She has done so much work, of such variety, that I'm sure each of her fans loves her work in a particular way. For me, she was the first poet I ever read, and the first writer to show me what a Mormon-centric literature could look like (outside of the scriptures, of course). I read her even before I discovered Jack Weyland. Watching how her poetry was read, and quoted, in my church and community taught me that people are hungry for this. I'm very grateful.

(Carol Lynn Pearson)


1. Because of some poor planning with breakfast, we missed the opening remarks by AML President Eric Jepson, but he has kindly posted them here, and I enjoyed reading them just now. Eric has been a contributor to AML for years, and I'm especially grateful for the work he put into this conference.

2. A session on "Reading the Book of Mormon as Literature," which consisted of papers produced in undergraduate "scriptures as literature" classes at BYU. I know that Kylie Turley teaches the course, from which most of the papers were drawn, and that she supervised the preparation and preparation of these papers. She must be an amazing teacher, because the papers were wonderful. Her son, Niels Turley, presented on the brother of Jared and is interactions, through faith, with the Lord. He pointed out how we can see the brother of Jared's growth over time, and what we can learn about what faith is and isn't through this story (my favorite in the Book of Mormon, by the way). Kaitlyn Day showed how the principles of peace psychology can be applied to King Benjamin's efforts to bring the Nephites and Mulekites together as a community. Maddi Landrith demonstrated the poetic structure of Ether 2:16-18. She had broken up the verses into lines to show repetition and a "spiritually significant architecture." All three students were poised presenters and their papers fresh, accomplished, and interesting.

3. Bob Reese brought slides showing drawings, cartoons, daguerreotypes, and written descriptions of what Joseph Smith really looked like, several of which I hadn't seen before. We keep trying to find some kind of artifact that can communicate the charisma that Joseph Smith reportedly radiated, but it's surprising what a wide variety of interpretations we can get, even when we have the death mask (which might not be all that reliable anyway, Reese pointed out, since it's possible Joseph's face was disfigured in the fall out of the window).

4. One of my very favorite sessions: Kathryn and M. J. Pritchett told of their experience as consultants to Berkeley Repertory Theater in its production of Angels in America. The Pritchetts were asked because they were LDS and also theater people, a happy combination that allowed them to function as defenders of the culture to the theater people, and defenders of the theater to their fellow Mormons. This was my first time meeting the Pritchetts, and from what I can tell, they were the perfect people to do this consulting.

5. Shannon Soper presented a compilation of animated GIFS she had created in response to a challenge issued by President Jepson just for the conference. She was to apply popular culture gifs to an LDS theme, and she did it very well--or, at least, I'm told she did by those who know. I personally didn't know the TV whose scenes appeared in the gifs, so a lot of the joy of the jokes passed me by. Looked fun, though!

6. Margaret Young spoke of the process of creating The Heart of Africa. She wrote the screenplay but then felt strongly that the Congolese people deserved their own movie, made BY them in their country, so she handed the camera off to Tshoper Kabambi, a Congolese filmmaker. There are not even any cinemas in the Congo, so Kabambi is doing pioneering work (as is Margaret). She showed us an excerpt.

7. A panel of authors read and spoke of the trend of Heavenly Mother poetry, much of which can be found in the anthology Dove Song (Rachel Hunt Steenblick, Bob Rees, Carol Lynn Pearson, Tyler Chadwick). I liked that Tyler read some older poems from the early days of the church.

8. Four historian/writers who have worked on the Saints project (Angela Hallstrom, Melissa Leilani Larson, James Goldberg, Scott Hales) spoke about the work of gathering stories and fitting them into a narrative structure for the church's history series. I am astounded at the amount of meticulous work it takes to produce even a paragraph for this book. I don't think many people realize just how big of an emphasis has been given to writing only what can be documented historically. Even just saying that something happened on a cold day requires documentation before it is allowed to be put into the story.  I know these writers personally, and it gives me great joy to see how well they are qualified for this work because of their skills at storytelling and historical research. The project is in good hands.
Scott Hales, Melissa Leilani Larson, Angela Hallstrom, James Goldberg)

9. After dinner, we had a panel about the work of Melissa Leilani Larson, the deserving recipient of the Smith-Pettit award for Outstanding Contribution to the field of Mormon Letters. The panel (Matathias Westwood, Janine Sobeck Knighton, Shelley Graham, Chantelle Squires) demonstrated well why Melissa deserves this honor, something that no one who has seen any of Melissa's work would dispute. I especially enjoyed Shelley's discussion of how well Melissa creates moments of "awkardity" between characters--moments that make the audience writhe and push characters to more vivid interactions.

10. The AML Awards for 2019 were announced. The awards continue to be probably the most valuable purpose AML serves. I have seen writers who otherwise don't seem to care at all about the field of LDS literature display the award proudly and make sure it is included in their biographies. The award still means something, and I am deeply grateful to Andrew Hall for the work he does keeping track of what is being produced and leading the awards committee.

  (Carol Lynn Pearson, James Goldberg) 

     (Eric Jepson, Melissa Leilani Larson)

11. Some of the award winners or finalists were present, so it was a sweet dessert to hear from some of the winning work. (I snuck in a reading of a poem by poetry winner, Lance Larsen, from What the Body Knows.) 3 of the panelists from the Melissa Leilani Larson panel produced a dramatized reading of one of the moments of "awkwardity" in The Pilot Program. I really enjoyed hearing a personal essay from previous award-winner Karen Rosenbaum. (Hoping she'll publish some of her essays someday soon.)

And we're still not done!

After a wonderful day on our own (many of us showed up to Berkeley ward for church), we assembled again for a screening of Melissa Leilani Larson's Jane and Emma. This screening was also sponsored by the Bay Area Mormon Studies Council, and was followed by a Q&A session with Meilssa and two others who produced/directed the film. The story, screenplay, and directorial choices occupied me and my carpool-mates for the first hour or so of our ride home the next day.

Here is where I would write a paragraph summarizing the entire experience, but I think I've said it all. So this is what you get for the summary: SO GLAD I WENT. And THANK YOU, ERIC.

There. Now you feel like you've been there.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

She Ain't Dead Yet

 Oh, my dear, sweet, old, AML. Maybe you've got some kick in you yet.

What a wonderful weekend I've had in Berkeley, my old haunting grounds, with AML, also my old haunting grounds. I'm grateful the stars aligned to combine so many of my favorite things in one weekend. I got to share a hotel room with my dear friend Angela Hallstrom, who has been too much missing from my life since she moved away. I got to spend many hours in the car with people whose minds and work fascinate me. And then I was nourished all day long by thoughtful talk about the intersection of art and faith.

I'd love to go session by session, as I used to do, and maybe I'll take some time to do that later. But, for now, here are the thoughts yipping at my heels.

1. I was sitting in a session of student papers. By "student papers," I mean papers that were originally written for undergraduate sections of "Scriptures as Literature" classes at BYU, and tended and coached by the amazing Kylie Turley (one of the best professors at BYU, I'm convinced). Anyway, sitting there, learning about another way to see the words "as if" or "thrust" as used in particular passages, and how that might inform doctrine, or at least an interesting light in which to interpret, I was overwhelmed by gratitude that God has given me a mind. THIS is what a mind is for, I thought. A mind can be used to sing praises to God. I, as someone whose body is limited in its capacity for exertion, was able to experience the joy of exertion in a way I imagine my husband experiences it when he is deep in competitive play with a ball or frisbee or racquet. I'm blessed in that I have the stamina to follow an essay or argument or story, written or oral, to its epiphany. I know people who do not, some of whom recognize what they're missing and mourn, and others who do not and therefore sometimes become unwise in their decisions, beliefs etc. because they assume they've gotten the gist of subtle arguments (I'm talking about people susceptible to believing that a soundbite has informed them on an issue).

Yuck—I'm thinking that might have just sounded like, "I’m grateful I'm smart! Because some people are dumb!" I just mean that I'm grateful God has given me access to this particular joy—that of reasoning.

2. WOW! Eric Jeppson, and James Goldberg, and Andrew Hall, and William Morris (and I'm so sorry if I'm forgetting someone) have managed, by sheer will power, to resurrect AML once again. Simply by making sure the awards, Irreantum, and the conference happened. Well, I guess it's not that simple. But they cared. And they pulled it off. I have at several times in my life been sure that AML was over with for good, and I'm so, so grateful that they have proven me wrong once again. Congratulations, and well done!

3. Berkeley seemed the perfect place for this. Let's just do it here every year, OK, Eric? (Which means you doing all the work, I guess.)

4. There is, of course, still a need for AML, and still a group of people who are nourished by it, exhilarated, even, to find each other and to come together and talk. And I remain convinced that there are more of us than we know but we just have to figure out how to find each other. How can we get the word out about who we are and what we do? How can we find our likeminded and thirsty fellows? This is the recurring question we have struggled with for years, and I don't mind being less responsible for finding the answer than I used to be. But I still care quite a bit. Nothing has been as nourishing to me for a long time. Surely there are ways to share it with others, but I just don't know how. And I'm too old and tired, I guess, to be a big part of solving this.

5. I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it forever: there IS such a thing as rigorous, interesting, challenging art that is actually ART but which takes within it an attitude of faith. People are creating it. It's worthy. It deserves an audience, and support (and awards). Taking this more personally, I remind myself again and again: it is worthy and worthwhile to write for and about Mormons with all my heart and skill.

Some pictures:

Sunday, March 24, 2019


A Pen

So, I invented this thing.

I have to give partial credit to James Goldberg, who gave me the idea years ago in some AML (Association for Mormon Letters) session or other, or maybe it was at a New Play Project talkback. The thing he said, which I remembered while pondering the relationship between talent and consecration and the "building up of the kingdom," was something about the concept of "tithing" talent. What this might look like for a writer, he suggested (or I remember him suggesting, or I thought to myself at the time), would be to try to make 1/10 of one's writing projects spiritual in topic or theme. Writing a gospel-centered poem, for example, every ten poems. Or (and again—I'm not sure if this was my own thinking in response to his suggestion or his suggestion), another option is Sabbath-oriented. For example, a writer would commit to writing something spiritual every Sunday, while writing other stuff on other days.

Whatever it was he meant, the concept behind it—that of setting aside time to use my talent to explore spiritual things as opposed to trying to write a killer poem that I could publish in the world (in order to get national exposure, perhaps, or to build my CV to make me more employable)—has sat on a stool in the back of my mind, clearing its throat every once-in-a-while, just to let me know it was still there.

So I got an idea. I have, at times, participated in NaNoWriMo (you can read about that here on my blog) and variations thereof. One of the variations that has proven very successful for me is having a goal to produce a poem a day for 30 days. So I decided to take a month and dedicate it to spiritual writing. The goal was to produce a poem each day which arose from my spiritual beliefs and culture. This was going to be good! I always produce better when I have an assignment. I also produce better when I have someone to be accountable to, so I asked James and a few others if they'd like to take up the challenge with me. And they asked a few friends. And they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on.

I started a facebook group and invited everyone interested to join. As far as reporting to the group was concerned, the goal was simply to post each day. If you want, I said, you can post the poem you wrote. Or you can just report on what you did. But check in each day, if possible.

That was all the instructions I gave; everyone was welcome to set his or her own assignment and report as he or she wished.

What happened was monumental, at least for me. First of all, I produced a lot of work. In fact, after I was done with the month and began revising, I saw that, with my new work added to stuff from my thesis and before, I finally had enough work to make a collection, and went on to spend the next six months assembling what has become my first book. During the month, I didn't produce a finished draft each day, but I did so on many days, and on other days I got some good prewriting done that later led to poems. Of the 30 efforts I made during that month, I've gotten at least 15 solid, finished poems, and a bunch of other work that still might end up being used in some way. That's a fantastic percentage, I think.

Another thing that happened was that I felt more creative, more skilled, and more productive at the end of the month than at the beginning. Something happens when I am working hard and regularly. The more I write, the more ideas I get, the more "poetic" I feel, and the more "poetic" my first drafts feel. (By "poetic," I mean, in part, "surprising." As in, "No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader" [Robert Frost].  And surprise is a difficult thing to "work on" as an artist.) I found myself more interested in my work, and my work more interesting.

My favorite thing that happened was the sense of community that arose among the participants. There was a synergy. I believe that we were all writing better because we had each other to write for. It was not a critique group; it was simply a group of people who were an appreciative audience for each other. For me, anyway, there was a great sense of excitement, as I worked on my daily poem, in knowing that I would be sharing the draft that very day with others who would comment on it (but not critique it).

An audience is powerful. I think back to the time in my life when I felt ready to try writing seriously, and what a big impact the AML List played in that decision. (I've written about that here before.) I will be forever grateful for my AML friends who became the people I wanted to write for as well as about. They have always been the ones I have in mind as I write. Anyway, this group of people that came together for what I named "MoPoWriMo" (Mormon Poetry Writing Month) gave me a reason to write, to keep generating every day, to push myself to greater freshness. I loved the results.

So we did it again this year. Between the two events, President Nelson asked us to use different words to indicate members of the church, but I've kept the name the same because I want to communicate that we are talking about the culture in general, not anything official regarding membership or doctrine. We've switched from May to February, because May was a crazy-busy month for many, and February is just always in need of a reason for existing, right? (Being shorter helps, too. We don't mind being done a day or two early.)

This year, I put less pressure on myself to make the topics directly relevant to the church, its doctrines and culture, though I usually consider those topics first. The fact is that most of my life is infused with my worldview and beliefs, so most poems end up being spiritual in some way. But poetry is better with energy behind it, so I've learned to seize whatever impulse is strong and run with it. This year, especially, I've become more aware of the importance of taking care of my reading while I am participating in this project. Just as a runner training for a marathon needs to pay attention to nutrition, when I'm doing MoPoWriMo, I perform a lot better if I increase the quantity and quality of my poetry reading each day. I found, this month, that reading poetry that is quite different from my own style was especially helpful. It pushed me new directions, infusing energy when I was lagging in the last week or so.

One of my favorite things that happens during MoPoWriMo is what I call "sparking." It's when a line or image or subject from one person's poem sticks in the head of another writer and then makes an appearance somehow in the second writer's poem. One example I can think of actually happened as the month ended. Eric Jepson, eager for the hard work of the month to be over, posted one day about being glad that, come March, "trees will just be trees," not symbols for anything. I loved the phrase and the idea, and wrote a poem the next week about it. Someone else took a line from one of my poems complaining about February and wrote an entire poem about February. I love this synergistic phenomenon.

I recommend that all artists find ways to create challenges and assignments for themselves, but doing it within a community for a set period of time has brought me joy and greater productivity. Also, it has brought me new friends. What's not to love?