Mormon Artist

Marilyn Bushman-Carlton

Marilyn Bushman-Carlton is the author of three poetry anthologies: on keeping things smallCheat Grass, and Her Side of It. She was the Utah State Poetry Society Poet of the Year in 1995 and received the 2010 Award for Poetry from the Association of Mormon Letters. She has contributed to several anthologies, including Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women and To Rejoice As Women: Talks from the 1994 Women’s Conference. Her work has been featured in BYU StudiesComstock Review, Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, Earth’s Daughters, Ellipsis, Exponent II, Iris, and the Wasatch Journal.
Photo by Valen Hunter

How did you begin writing?

I was not encouraged to get a university education after high school, although I’d been a good and interested student. I’d especially loved English, both grammar and literature. I remember learning about Poe and memorizing “Annabel Lee.” After marriage and my first baby, I knew I had missed out by not having had further schooling, and I was determined to get my degree as soon as I could. I had five children in seven years and finally enrolled at the University of Utah the same fall my youngest child began kindergarten. There, I took my first creative writing class. I hadn’t really written, per se, until that time, but I ended up graduating in English with an emphasis in creative writing. I felt that writing was what I had been waiting for. I’d always been quiet and shy and felt that writing would be a good outlet for saying what I had to say. I knew I had plenty of opinions!

When did you begin writing poetry?

I’d written verse now and then, and that came easily, but I had never written free verse, probably because I felt that I needed to learn the proper way to do it. It was President David O. McKay who first introduced me to poetry. I remember from a very young age hearing his conference talks and looking forward to hearing him quote great and—I realize now—some not-so-great poets. My parents had only LDS books in their fairly large library; but when I asked for poetry for Christmas, they gave me some anthologies that had poems by Wordsworth, Burns, and Shakespeare, for example, which I recognized from President McKay. Still, I didn’t try to write at that time. I wrote my first real poems in creative writing classes at the University of Utah.

Why did you choose poetry?

As mentioned, poetry had always impressed me in a way that no other writing had, and I’d always been a reader. I learned in literature courses that I loved dissecting and analyzing great poems—that was probably my first clue that I would move toward writing them myself. I took an introduction to creative writing class and found that, even though I’d always thought I’d enjoy writing fiction, I didn’t. It seemed more like drudgery; I was interested in writing what seemed to me the truth. Writing my first poems in that class seemed to fill that need, and I was hooked from the time I wrote the first one.

When did you begin calling yourself a poet?

That is a difficult question to answer! I graduated from the U in 1989, having taken just a few classes in poetry and with a small portfolio of poems, most of which, regrettably, I didn’t keep. But I got involved in a small writing group, which gave me encouragement and required that I write poems regularly. I compiled a manuscript of poems I wrote during the next few years, enough for a manuscript that was accepted—sheer luck, I thought—by Signature Books, and published as on keeping things small in 1995. I was awarded a research grant for my second book, Cheat Grass, from the Utah Arts Council (UAC), and then an award from the UAC for a series of ten poems from that manuscript. This book—which contains poems about my maternal grandparents, who had lived through the Great Depression and through my grandfather’s jealousy, among other troubles—won the Pearle M. Olsen Award from the Utah State Poetry Society and made me their Utah Poet of the Year for 1999. It took until 2010 for Her Side of It to be published; and during that drought period, I questioned myself continually. Even though I’d received awards and good reviews for both books, I can’t say I yet felt that I could call myself a poet. Being a writer is feeling that you are good sometimes, but other times thinking you are an imposter, most often the latter. Winning the 2010 Poetry Award from the Association for Mormon Letters (AML) for Her Side of It made me think that, perhaps, I really can claim the title of poet. Ironically, I am currently working on a biography—a whole new genre for me, but one that also demands truth—and this process adds to my conviction that I am, indeed, a poet and a writer.

Tell us a little about your writing process—from a poem’s conception to its publication.

I see potential poems everywhere and have never experienced “writer’s block.” It’s just finding the time to sit down and write out my thoughts. I have three or four books of ideas and quotes that are waiting for me to use or refer to in my writing. It seems that one certain idea will start to push itself out from the rest and become insistent in my thoughts, and that is the idea to which I feel I need to give precedence. I begin by writing out paragraphs and/or pages, trying to discover exactly what it is about this nugget I need to learn. I then find in all the free writing certain lines or thoughts that seem to be the truth and try to construct the poem to that truth. This is the most difficult thing for me, along with my biggest problem: trying to keep myself from editing as I go—I have to be careful about editing too soon. Sending poems out is not enjoyable, but I do send a few out once or twice a year and am usually fortunate to have few published.

From the variety of writers you quote or mention in your newest collection, Her Side of It—to name several, T. S. Eliot, Yann Martel, Betty Friedan, Stephen Dunn, Gloria Steinem, Michael Cunningham, Walt Whitman, Nilakanta Sri Ram, Khalil Gibran, and Czesław Miłosz—you seem to have read widely and fairly indiscriminately. Who have been your greatest poetic influences?

First, a disclaimer: I haven’t read every one of those writers I’ve quoted; however, I have read many of them, and I do read widely. I like that I’ve come up with quotes from my reading that are “original,” such as the lines from Yann Martel and Michael Cunningham, just short phrases in the text that, for me, seemed to be starting points for poems. I read late at night, from several books at a time, a ritual that includes poetry, nonfiction, memoir and biography, essays, religion; probably everything but science fiction and self-help books, which I don’t enjoy as much, though there are exceptions there, too. This reading from a broad spectrum is very important to my poetry because of the ideas it generates and because I pay attention to writing styles, vocabulary, ideas.

The poets who have influenced and do influence me are always changing, but to name a few: C. K. Williams, Lisel Mueller, Linda Pastan, Sylvia Plath, Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon, Louise Glück, Billy Collins. There are many more.

This list includes two prominent American feminists: Betty Friedan, author of The Feminist Mystique (1963), a watershed text that laid the groundwork for the modern feminist movement, and Gloria Steinem, prominent leader and spokeswoman for the women’s liberation movement during the late 1960s and ’70s. How have the principles of feminism informed your understanding of your role as a woman, especially as a wife and a mother?

The woman’s movement has been invaluable in my life. The second wave was gaining momentum at the beginning of my marriage in 1969. I read Steinem, Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and many other feminists, and I knew exactly what they were talking about: my life. The beginning poem in the first section of Her Side of It refers to the different views held by my mother and me: she had an empty nest and was offended that anyone could think she hadn’t done enough as a woman, but I was just beginning my motherhood and wanted more. I wanted a voice, to be recognized for something specifically for myself; I pictured, along with Virginia Woolf, a room of my own.

Ironically to some, I thought the ideas of feminism, such as developing one’s individual talents, being the best one could be, etc., coincided wonderfully with what I’d been taught growing up in the Church. This despite the fact that I took my two young daughters with me on the march for the ERA that, incidentally, took place before the Church spoke out against it. But by that time, I was as equally feminist as Mormon. My minor at the university, by the way, was Feminist Studies.

How have these principles informed your relationship with Mormonism?

I have completed the research for a study of the men and women President McKay quoted in his conference talks; and, in addition to this emphasis, I was happy to learn from reading his talks that my memories were correct: he did not speak down to women, he truly respected and admired them, and he knew how important it was for them to develop their talents and intellects. Of course, he believed that woman’s highest calling is motherhood. I don’t disagree with that, but men have always been able to have both (meaning fatherhood and a career), and certainly women should not be treated differently. I also grew up believing in an allegiance to truth; and although I’ve had my years of doubt and anger, I have always stayed active in the Church. I do feel that I have freedom of thought (also from President McKay) and that it is absolutely permissible to have honest doubts and questions as long as one continues to search and pray for answers. I am definitely still involved in this process—and I might add that my husband and I are on the same wavelength in our thinking here, which helps.

Photo by Valen Hunter

How have these principles informed your work as a poet? For instance, I see both on keeping things small, your first collection, and Her Side of It as reflections on womanhood’s intimate spaces: the space between an infant and its mother’s breast, a mother’s mediation between father and son, the teenage girl’s developing body, the intimacies of women’s language. And I see these reflections as meaningful critiques of how womanhood’s intimate spaces are often swallowed up in favor of more masculine ways of being—the episodic “gushes” of anger that can spill out with “great force” into the world, as you illustrate in “When the Rhythm Gets Red.” Did you conceive these collections as part of a broader feminist engagement? Or do you see them as undertaking something more than that?

Yes, I am a feminist and, although I have not set out to write feminist poems, who I am is certain to show up in them. I am a woman first and foremost, and I see relationships first and foremost: I listen to conversations, observe others, especially those closest to me, and see the world in terms of human interactions. I am acutely aware of the differences, so-called and real, between the sexes and notice them whether I’m trying to or not. They are not black and white—I know that from observing my own five children and now my fifteen grandchildren—but I like to try to figure out what’s innate and what’s social, what’s praiseworthy and not, as I write about women, men, girls, boys, and their relationships. I hope my writings show that I am not ashamed of any of the aspects of being a girl or woman; and I want to be a voice for women, for their unique positions, experiences, conflicts, fears, etc.

You were included in Discoveries: Two Centuries of Poems by Mormon Women (2004), edited by Susan Howe and Sheree Maxwell Bench, and in the list of “75 Significant Mormon Poets” compiled by Gideon Burton and Sarah Jenkins; you will be included in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, forthcoming from Peculiar Pages Press; and you recently won an award from the Association for Mormon Letters for Her Side of It. How comfortable are you being labeled a woman poet?

I’ve always loved being a woman, even a girl, from as early as I can remember. From my point of view, being a woman poet is great; however, if there are men or others who think that label is a put-down, I think that’s too bad. I guess I think it’s their problem, not mine, and that they somehow need to bolster their own egos if they think women poets are somehow less than male poets. Of course, it solves the problem if both sexes are simply referred to as poets.

A Mormon poet?

No problem. I am who I am, and that is certainly a product of Mormonism. I read many poets of other faiths who naturally include references to their beliefs in their work. I don’t think much about my Mormonism when I write but just try to write my own personal experiences, and those have to include my faith. My father once asked me if I’d considered writing “religious” poetry; at the time I didn’t know how to answer him. But in the write-up for my recent award from the AML, it points out that “without pinning its Mormon-ness to its sleeve with doctrinal tags, Her Side of It embodies and enacts a pervading and perduring Mormon sensibility tuned attentively to ‘all these things’ that ‘shall give [us] experience.’”

I love that and realize I need to show it to my father! That’s what I’m trying to do: explore these experiences.

As a poet, how do you view your relationship with and responsibility to your audience, including those readers who are also members of the Mormon community?

I haven’t worried much about it. Most of my readers, to my knowledge, are active members who are enthusiastic about my poems even though many of the poems have a feminist bent. I read an article by a BYU professor some years ago, and I’m sorry I don’t remember the author, but she said that about everyone now is in agreement with the ideals and goals of the early—meaning second-wave—feminist movement.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see too much to be offended by in my poems. Well, maybe “The Pulpit” in on keeping things small, but I’ve never heard anything negative about even that one. Hearkening back to President McKay’s ideas on free choice, I think we need to be able to think; well, not just be able to think, but I believe it is necessary that we do think. If I can make someone think about some things they believe are already cut and dried, I feel that my poems are doing what they should be doing.

How do you view your relationship with and responsibility to language?

As mentioned, I’ve always been aware of language. I love music, but it’s the words I hear first and foremost. It’s no doubt the most important way we engage as people in relationships and in the broader world. I am aware of the words I use, trying to use the best possible ones to convey my purposes. That’s perhaps the part of writing I like best: the editing after I think a poem is close to being finished. Sometimes I kick myself when reading one of my poems that is already out there, thinking I should have used a better word or group of words or more closely attended to the rhythm. But language is all the poet has: we need to improve our relationship with it as part of the writing growth process.

How has your Mormonism informed your vocation as a poet—and vice versa?

As I mentioned in another poem in Her Side of It, titled “The Other Women,” no matter what vocation anyone, but especially women, choose, you do have to choose or at least have priorities. I don’t know if I’d feel equally conflicted about what comes first, my family or my writing, if I were not LDS; but as an LDS woman, I inevitably allow family to come first.

At this point in my life when my children are adults with families of their own, I wish I could get over that and allow my writing to sneak a little past family sometimes. I’d like to feel that I have permission to put my writing first. If I can’t do this, I know I will run out of time before I can finish the projects I hope to finish.

How do you view the present state of Mormon poetry?

I think it’s in a pretty good place because I feel that most of the Mormon poets I know are trying to write honestly about their experiences—not to preach, but just to let their religion show, as it will. There are many venues in which to be published, and it seems that more and more LDS are open to poetry, at least as many as non-LDS.

Recently, I had the honor of reading a selection of poems from Her Side of It and of talking about them at a ward Relief Society Birthday celebration; a similar opportunity is coming up in another ward. These are some of my favorite groups with whom to share my poetry: they are bright, receptive, knowledgeable women, and I believe they are the audience to whom I write.

The epigraph to Her Side of It is from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” As I read them, these lines address a process that Eliot pursues (among other things) in his sprawling poem: the human quest for redemption by seeking to understand the past and its relationship to identity, to the present, and to the future. He pursues this quest through various channels; chief among them, I think, are the workings of language, religion, and memory. I also see you engage these workings in your own poetry, though you also take up the idea that the visual arts and music can be powerful ways to commune with others, including God, and to extend mercy to those burdened by a strained sense of justice (as many Mormon women, for instance). Do you view art, including your own poetry, as potentially redemptive? If so, how does this potential inform your approach to reading and writing? And how do you think it should inform the work of Mormon artists and critics?

Yes, I definitely see poetry, my own and others’—with exceptions of course—as redemptive. We always need further knowledge and understanding—isn’t that our purpose for being here in mortality?—if we are to progress. We need to understand and love ourselves, and that is not an easy process; but only as we come to understand and love ourselves can we understand and love others. We need to ask questions of ourselves, and many of the answers to these questions can be found in exploring our pasts. I think we become more the children we were, the pure children we were, as we age, making the past a fertile place for exploration.

Both my reading and writing provide me with an abundance of “Ah ha” moments, and I hope that my poems provide others with those same nuggets of understanding and, even more, with the desire to look beyond the poems and into their own lives in order to better understand and know themselves. ❧

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