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22 young Mormon writers
(for a certain value of "young")
In 1974, Cracroft and Lambert put together perhaps the seminal anthology of Mormon literature, A Believing People. Covering Mormon lit from the beginning to the (then) present day, it was situated as evidence that a Mormon literature existed and here it is. Tada!
It's not a book I've ever ready through because . . . I'm just not likely to ever do it. But I'm glad it exists and it should be part of any serious Mo-lit collection.
But that's just intro to today's book, 22 Young Mormon Writers, which the same editors (but a different publisher) released a year later.
Three of the writers appear in both books: Ann Doty, Clifton Holt Jolley, Linda Sillitoe. And if you know any more about Ann Doty, please let me know. Other writers from 22 have names you'll recognize, but others have utterly vanished.
— UPDATE ON ANN DOTY : (it's not a happy one) —
The book is illustrated with photographs by Paul Fletcher, Mike Nielson, and Mark A. Philbrick, with one additional photograph from the olden days.
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"I Just Don't Think Anymore that It's Such a Big Deal: A story about ClayBoy and Jeanie" by Ann Doty
So many positive things to say about this story—it's voice is fresh and honest, the setting and characters are alive, the moments of epiphany are wise and simple and earned. But my favorite element is what I want to talk about and that is the story's unusual frame.
The first half of the story takes place when ClayBoy and Jeanie are twelve, the second half when they are high-school seniors. The story begins with them walking down the road then into some trees where an unknown second-person loses sight of them as they continue on to the lake. At the end, Jeanie comes out from those trees and that you catches sight of her once again.
Who is this you that sees two kids enter trees and does not notice them again until one exits those trees six years later? Who is the narrator talking to?
I have no idea. But it's a light touch and magical and beautiful wrapping paper for a story lovely and sad.
"The Provider" by Bonnie Howe
This pagelong poem is an ode to a father; a specific, beloved father. That it ends in death so plainly feels like a betrayal. But maybe that's the point.
"The Gift" by Don M. Sharp, Jr.
This concrete poem (shape of an apple) has terrific language but—and I read it more than once—seems to be a weird take on Eden, taking Mormon visuals and language and turning them back on Eve, who is "evilly / Beguiled." Dunno that I love making Satan more of a good guy than stupid old Eve.
Maybe a better reader should give this a shot.
"Nearly Blanched" by Giles H. Florence, Jr.
It's always fun to see progressive thinking at an earlier state. In this case, the speaker is trying to be empathetic to the "Red" man and doing an okay job at it. But I'm not sure it's making the cut to an anthology in 2022, you know?
"Sheep Crossing" by Jed A. Bryan
This is among the most thrilling five pages of (roughly) blank verse I've ever read. The story of a cattleman who, seeing the price of sheep, unloads his calves cheap to buy sheep. But then a herding mishaps leads to them getting stuck on the traintracks and—
I don't know how many times I said "Oh no!" as the inevitable approached.
And when it arrived, how horrifying.
The ending maybe doesn't fall as well as it could for a more urbanized audience, being more about the economic loss and the cattleman's feelings thereon than the sheep bits spread across the country side, but it does give the poem its proper form.
"Visiting Hours" by Bonnie Howe
I don't know if these are the same two characters as in the last poem, but this time the younger person visits the older person and, well, he ain't doing so good. She cries in her soup on the way home. Still a bit pedestrian.
"For Mary-Frances Who Daydreams in Physics" by Susan Chock
In this poem we are allowed to imagine that Columbus does sail off the edge of the world, embarrassing the queen but allowing her a beautiful repentance and redeeming the world's wonder as her adventurer is released from the mouth of the mapedge dragons.
"Fitzgerald, My Comfort" by Peggy Wiseman
This too is about a famous dead man though I'm less certain what to make of this novelist or how restrained he was or why he was "More bitter for what he withheld." It has a similar loveliness to the previous poem but is not as fully developed or at least makes less sense to me.
"Poems Too Short for Title" by Jan Lalli
Four poems in a two-by-two grid. Reading down then down, the first two are charming little dating poems from quite different (but still sadfaced) perspectives. Then one on pick-up sticks which can be read metaphorically as still being on topic but it's a bit of a stretch. Then another downer but now we've arrived at a place where, if the poems all share a speaker, she's not looking for love in a very healthy way.
"The Lord" by Susan Chock
It's starts off seeming like it'll be a litany of via negativa—the Lord is not a cup of tea, for instance. Then it took a turn into the harsh I did not expect. And then it combined those two into a rather powerful closing statement. I can see using this in a talk.
"The Aardvark" by Jed A. Bryan
This poem is just a dumb joke that has fun with sound—sort of like if Ogden Nash wrote free verse.
"Untitled" by Cathy Gileadi
This poem about was pregnancy (the evidence of sex) looks like to outsiders, virgins and mothers both, is perhaps the most pagan work I've read passing (successfully) as Mormon.
"Released" by Susan H. Aylworth
"Released" makes interesting conversation with other bichops-getting-released stories (who knew there was an entire genre!); as in Brian Evenson's "The Care of the State," serving as a bishop becomes an unbearable burden, and as in William Morris's "Release," being bishop infiltrates every moment and sense until it is part of every thought and moment.
Happily, this is a much happier story than either of those; happier because it ends with some transcendence and a sense that not only is God pleased but that tomorrow will be better for our released bishop thanks to his having served. It's not an easy story, but it's a lovely story.
"By the Rivers of Zion" by M. D. Palmer
It's Isaiah! It's nuclear war! And a shame-on-you finger rub! Wait, it's not nuclear war—it's a metaphor! Hang on. No.... I'm not sure. Anyway, it definitely is Isaiah and was neon before things went down.
"Every Man's Prayer" by Kris Cassity
What marvelous fun this prayer is to read aloud. It's a mouthful of auditory pleasures in prayer form, starting with a spin on the Hail Mary and dancing across the language as if in tap shoes.
"Mamo" by Clifton Holt Jolley
A two-page poem, tribute to a grandmother, made of vignettes, some of which more successfully build to the conclusion and some of which seem included because they simply could not be left out.
Jolley wishes for a like death if he is "ever eighty-three"—five more years, pal! Five more years!
"Still-life Study of an Ancestor" by Linda Sillitoe
I'm not sure what the title means unless it's because this list of facts about a dead guy just kind of lie there on the page.
"A Psalm of Praise and Thanksgiving that the Universe Is Not a Magnificent Mechanism" by Stephen O. Taylor
Not sure about this one either. A triptych I guess about how there is meaning in stuff ever-changing and not necessarily for the better? I will mention that I think it's supposed to be "powdered" in the lines "The pale of evergreen contrasts too gently / With the powered white of earth." Snow comes up later so surely, right?
"Mission Bound" by Jed A. Bryan
I didn't realize the significance of this title until I was into the second half. In short, part one of this poem is about how the house will not miss him when he goes on his mission; part two says his dog will—but she's busy chasing her puppies so it's not like she'll be moping.
It's an indirect and thoughtful look at a person on the edge of adulthood, about to set out on their life-altering quest, learning that their story is not equally huge when seen from another perspective.
"Of Age" by Peggy Wiseman
Because of that last poem, I assumed this secret this protagonist was hesitant to share was leaving on a mission. It was not that. Quite the opposite in fact.
This is a rather startling work of fiction. For something so, so quite and so absent of supernatural elements, it ends up providing profound commentary on faith and faith crisis, family, trauma, honor, loss, and more. It's a deeply complex work and one wonders, if we had Norton anthologies of Mormon literature, this mightn't be one we all read freshman year, part of our shared cultural vocabulary.
I don't really want to say more, but here you go: birthday, BYU student, inactive father, old photographs.
"To Compose a Poem" by Stephen O. Taylor
Kind of a basic ars poetica of the sort you've read before but with a deeply mormontheology undercurrent.
"Days of Winding Roads, Mum" by Michael B. Fillerup
This one feels like a kid playing with language. Why are last full names only capped in the first word? Because! Plus, it's fun to use dialect when it lets you say things like "jes jess." Fillerup, of course, is still with us and just came out with a new book, so I figure he can take the ribbing. Which is good because this is amateur work and there's not much else to say.
"The Mustard Seed" by Béla Petsco
I got mixed up reading this, swapping two families' identities in my mind, but that's on me. The story is classic midcentury-American excellence. And it's perfect for an Oscar-bait film, which got me thinking. Can you imagine BYUtv putting on an anthology series of classic MoLit stories? The end of each season (or perhaps the beginning) would be marked with a nice hardcover publication for folks to package with the dvd set and give to their grown children for Christmas. How awesome! I'll put together a list of stories, just ask me, starting with a couple from this book.
"The Way to a Man's Heart (is through his stomach?)" by Ann Decker
I love this one. Only seven lines. Mixes food and sex with a deep ambivalence. A winner.
"Together We'll Be" by Judd Turner
This paean to a full-bloooded all-encompassing childhood friendship ends with one of the most deflating final lines I've ever read. Is it sarcasm? Is it a punch in the gut? Is it despair? Is it resignation?
"Prodigal" by Ann Doty
This poem relies on a technique I find annoying (spend most of the poem talking about "it" without ever telling us what "it" is, but it's an appropriate part of what the poem is up to. The final two lines are excellent and the title hangs over the whole poem like a threat.
Like the previous poem, this one is about childhood and about what is lost when you leave it behind. It is about nostalgia. But there are a couple lines that allow for an alternate reading, that our narrator is a god recreating the world she was once human on. But even for a god, somethings cannot be recaptured. Once mortality is gone, it is gone forever.
"Schoolrooms" by Marla G. Smith
Two nostalgias—classrooms in 1955 and 1975. The things said about (complained about?) 1975 seem impossibly modern ("computer-programmed teaching methods"?). And suggesting elementary school is "Harvard in miniature" sounds like me wringing my hands about full-day kindergarten and kids being pushed to read before first grade.
I suppose this is universal experience too. Kids these days—they are not only spoiled, but, as we see here, they also have childhood torn from them too soon.
"Lula Joe Richardson" by Jill Carter
Okay. This two-page poem (three really, except they cheated on the page design) is, if I'm reading it correct, about Lula Jo who works as a stenographer but does not love it and would rather do something else.
But her options seem limited by her physique, which she finds unimpressive. But the hallway of her life is filled with doors, most of which contain other last names hers might change to, but also sad loneliness and a life as Sinner.
I had to read this more than once to figure out what was going on, but what emerged was a portrait of a woman trapped in liminal space without great tools to progress through life or even to see the full spectrum of life's possibilities. I came to really like Lula Jo. I don't think she is this poem's target at all. The target is the society limiting her perspectives.
Now, before we get to the final story, let me share with you this, from the page before it begins:
This is cool, right? It's cool that they intended to make volumes like this one a regular occurence. And that's also what makes it sad, in the same way Best of Mormonism makes me sad, even though I loved it. Sustaining things like this is so difficult! Imagine if one of these had come out annually or even every two or three or five years. What a resource that would be!
I've been imagining that these writers were students of the editor or otherwise known to them, but now I wonder if there was a more traditional submission process or something else entirely. I don't know. Maybe there's some papers deep in the HBLL, but it's a mystery to me.
Anyway, on to the best!
"A Season and a Time" by Kent A. Farnsworth
Is this the best piece in the collection? Who knows. There's real competition going on. But this tale over maybe twelve hours wherein a couple missionaries visit a dying member of their branch is strong stuff. One elder is preternaturally beautiful and the other is obsessive about scriptures and how to wield them. In the course of the night, they meet their landlady, a vicar, a young conductress, and a sister who will become a widow before the night is o'er. It's an impressively compact work. We are inside one elders mind and this night will force him to address many concerns, from the petty to the existential. I'll need time to think about that final line but my experience with the story was such that when I closed the book I was moved, both happy and tremulous. Let's not forget, within Mormon letters, that "A Season and a Time" exists.
If I remember correctly, I found this book during a visit to Utah at the Provo DI. Though it may have been given to me by someone unloading their Mormon-books collection.
My copy was made out to "the Bryce Pyttings" (or possibly Lyttings or possibly Cyttings) "with love and admiration, and with best wishes for a joyous life together" in "December 1983, eight years after the book's release, by "Janice and Richard Cracroft." My guess is they had a box full of them in a closet or the garage and gave them away like Christmas cards that year. But who knows.
I suspect Brother Cracroft knew the husband first as my bookmark, a half-sheet of paper, may have originally accompanied another book. It says, "To my buddy Bryce, with genuine affection / Dick Cracroft / 1977."
I don't know the full story, but I do like knowing something of the history of my copy. This book is old now—and has been older than me my entire life—but didn't find it's home until I was seven. I have no idea if it had been read before I found it, or how many time, or how many hands it had passed through. Had Bryce and his wife downsized, prepping for a move to St. George? Had they passed it on to one of their children who could not be bothered? Perhaps they, like Dick himself, are dead. I don't know.
But books live on. And although some aspects of this book do feel like "young" writers flexing their wings, sometimes that's what makes this collection sing. Overall, it's a pretty great collection. I wish I knew the fates of more of these writers. Most of them I'd never heard of before and may never hear of again. But, for a time, they were young and believed in themselves, and had some measure of ambition. And, if nothing else, this book exists because they did.
May we all leave such fossils behind.