Mormon Artist

Lance Larsen

Lance Larsen, professor of English, currently serves as an associate chair in the BYU English Department. He specializes in creative writing, especially poetry. He is the author of three collections of poetry: Backyard Alchemy (2009), In All Their Animal Brilliance (2005), and Erasable Walls (1998). In 2007 he received the Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts. Website
Photo by Scott Morris

What are two or three key events that led you to pursue art full-time?

The first would have to be working a summer job in Denver as a rate clerk for a freight company, 8 to 5, five days a week. It was a good job: air-conditioned office, pleasant co-workers, decent pay for a college student with no skills. Still, it felt like an early grave. When Sunday afternoon would roll around, I’d feel myself sliding towards the abyss of Monday morning—a dead, hollowed-out feeling. At work my co-workers didn’t know what to make of me. During lunch, while they were chatting each other up in the break room, I was reading Hemingway or Emily Dickinson or James Baldwin or Joy Williams out on the grass. Clearly I was better suited to literature than calculating the rate of trucking detergent from Reno to Peoria.

The second thing that comes to mind actually occurred earlier—my first semester in a creative writing class. Fall of my sophomore year, I think it was. I experienced for the first time the electricity of good writing. I remember reading James Wright’s description of a horse’s ear, “delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.” I’ve never fully recovered from that sentence.

What is a typical workday like?

Like luring wild birds to eat out of my hand. Like collecting leaves that have blown off during the night and reattaching them to the right trees. Like herding water uphill. Like trying to play a recital piece on a baby grand with muffins for hands… Like—

I meant, what’s your schedule like?

I know, I know.

For me, early is always better: before a shower, before breakfast, before I’m awake enough to remember how hard writing is, before it’s time to go downstairs and make sack lunches for the kids. You’d think summer vacation would be a little less chaotic, but this morning, while I was in the middle of a poem, I remembered that my daughter was supposed to pick up a baby bearded dragon from a neighbor. Apparently, the cat my daughter already has isn’t enough of a pet. Now she needs a lizard. Which meant I had to search out an old tank in the garage, clean it up, add reptile sand, and find a decent rock for Baby Dragon to lounge on and digest his daily greens.

What do you most enjoy about writing?

The invisible fuse it lights within and never knowing exactly where it will lead. Anne Sexton said that “God is in the typewriter keys.” I like that. The sensation of the known world colliding with the unknown can become quite addictive.

Photo by Scott Morris

Who have been some of the biggest influences in your practice and what about their work has influenced you?

The poetry list could go on and on. Many of the usual suspects you find corralled in a good anthology—Stevens, Neruda, Bishop, Kenneth Koch, to name a few. Shakespeare in his off-handed quips. Contemporary writers, of course. But I’m also influenced, I believe, by other traditions. Collage artists, for instance, like Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as my wife, Jacqui, whose pieces, by good fortune, fill my office and our home. I love the way collage artists use castoff materials everyone else ignores. I’m a collector of sorts, I suppose: ocean detritus, metal animals, stones, flea market finds, nineteenth-century copy books, cast-off roof tiles I found along the Thames during a recent study abroad. Historical junk waiting to be animated by imagination. Some of my poems carry out a similar project.

I also listen to a good deal of jazz, mostly trios and quartets, from the fifties and early sixties: Miles Davis, Grant Green, Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon. Also Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets. Moody, melancholy tunes mostly. Each take brand new. Those guys manage to squeeze emotion out of the simplest of melodies, or they’ll re-work an old song you’ve heard a hundred times and give it new legs—remarkable.

Lately, I’ve also become obsessed with aphorisms and have been trying to sneak them into my own work. Lines that are quick and devastating. For instance, “Would you rather eat a bowl of question marks or a plate of exclamation points?” That went straight into my notebook. Who cares that my thirteen-year-old son came up with it? Or here’s an Alan Watts quote I saw on a community college wall: “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.” And here follow a couple by Carlos Edmundo de Ory, as translated by a friend of mine, Steve Stewart: “Birds are perfected thoughts.” “Lunatics are crazy in both legs, poets crazy in one.”

In what ways do you feel the project of your latest work in Backyard Alchemy differs from the project of Erasable Walls?

In writing Erasable Walls, I was canvassing personal experience for poems, trying to carve out the perfect lyrical moment, even if I invented a lot. In my latest work, I find myself composing more by juxtaposition. Today, I rarely sit down and write a poem. Instead I will collect intriguing sentences. Always hunting, always gathering. Eventually, when I have sufficient material, I will shape and winnow.

Image courtesy Lance Larsen

That’s an interesting idea, gathering sentences. How do you know which sentence to graft to another? Do you graft according to sound, content, meter, etc.?

Yes, all of the above, as well as syntax and alliteration and irony and other devices. I like the up-close, magnifying-glass-and-tweezer work that goes into a poem, but one also has to step back and see what kind of larger argument a poem makes. I keep rearranging till I can intuit structure, as well as some sort of emotional arc from beginning to end. I like poems that have strictness line to line but enough bagginess from beginning to end to accommodate inessential but pleasurable material. Not that I’m always able to write such poems.

How would you describe the overall effect of your current method?

I suppose my poems are more surreal and less autobiographical, but (cross my fingers) more immediate. Of course, one will find continuities of voice and sensibility between early work and new, but I hope now there’s more contradiction, more associative leaping. Certainly, I’m more enamored of the lovely broken-back sentence, of a certain fretted jaggedness in a line. I’m more interested in petting the nap of a cat the wrong way, just to see a few sparks in the dark, than grooming her for a show.

In a recent article in Mormon Artist, Glen Nelson said, “I think it’s commonly known that we’re experiencing something like a golden age of Mormon poets.” How would you respond to that statement?

If he means that there are more LDS poets publishing good work in mainstream literary journals, then I heartily agree, though I might quibble with the term “golden age,” which perhaps overstates the achievement. But who knows, maybe he’s right on that front as well. Earlier generations of LDS poets tended to be parochial, even isolationist, publishing in local venues for local readers. Today, LDS writers are more willing to throw themselves into the national maelstrom. Which is a good thing for both poets and readers, but especially for the poetry itself.

What advice would you give to an aspiring poet?

Always try to write for the larger tribe and you’ll pick up local readers along the way. If you reverse that, you get into trouble, whether you’re writing principally for Catholics, or Muslims, or Jews, or Iraq war veterans, or the Panguitch PTA. If you write principally for those who share your worldview, you run the risk of taking shortcuts, of not interrogating your assumptions, of merely telling readers what they want to hear. The result? A poem that is a little on the lazy side, or smug.

What do you hope your audience will experience when they read your poetry?

In a perfect world: epiphanies, eureka moments of epic proportion, revelations that old religions were once founded on. In our current world: I don’t know, maybe a sense of linguistic adventure, or vividness. Perhaps I’ve proposed an intriguing question, or freshened the language just a bit, or sent a reader back to his or her own life with new eyes. Poems, I believe, are always a transaction between the world of words and the world of things.

What do you think distinguishes a poem from an essay or a short story?

In the fall I’m teaching a seminar in which we’ll ask that question for fourteen weeks. By that I mean we’ll be writing lyrical paragraphs in all three modes. As for differences, I can make generalizations that hold true much of the time: stories tend to rely on plot, essays have a ruminative quality to them, poems ratchet up the language and music. But the most interesting pieces work the liminal space where rules break down.

Image courtesy Lance Larsen

And you can’t exactly tell one genre from the other?

Exactly. My friend calls pieces that play two genres off each other “double agents”—an essay heavy in narrative, a story that eschews plot and tastes a lot like a poem, that sort of thing. Maybe an example will help. Several weeks ago, while revising a lineated poem, I realized that it had potential as nonfiction, since all but a detail or two was autobiographical. So I pushed it in that direction: did away with line breaks, loosened it in other ways, then sent it off to a nonfiction journal called Brevity. A few weeks later, an acceptance. I still feel a certain elation at switching genres like that, as if I’ve gotten away with something. A benign transgression. In my mind, that piece remains both poem and essay. Why choose?

What does it mean to be a Mormon poet?

Rita Dove, who is African-American, once answered a similar question about race by saying she resented being considered a hyphenated poet. I feel the same way, I suppose. If we end up emphasizing the adjective “Mormon” rather than the noun “poet,” we run the risk of ghettoizing the whole project. I guess I’m dodging the question. I don’t know what it means to be a Mormon poet. Maybe that’s a good thing. Let each writer find out for him or herself. One thing I do believe: the work almost always suffers when you start playing the official spokesman or carrying an evangelical torch. Poetry as a genre is simply not very accommodating of such impulses.

And in all these projects, just who is your ideal reader?

While I’m writing, I’m not thinking of a specific reader, only after. Maybe my reader is someone who has just wakened in a subway car after falling asleep. She has fifteen minutes to kill and has a choice between the poetry anthology her friend lent her or a game of Sudoku. I’d like to win out over Sudoku once or twice. Or maybe the reader is a multitasking dad attending another interminable Little League game. Sure, he’s there to support his son, who can’t hit a thing and prefers to pick clover in right field, but there’s plenty of downtime: why not liven things up with poetry? (In this example, I admit I’m speaking from experience.) Or maybe the reader is a student at the back of the room—most likely the obnoxious one snapping her gum who also happens to have ambition. Reading through a literary journal perhaps she happens upon something I’ve written and says to herself: “Sheesh. Is that all you got? Move over, poet man. I can do this.” I want to watch her try. I want to watch her succeed.

How does reading your poetry aloud, either while writing a poem or while giving a poetry reading, play into your creative process?

To some degree, rhythm and voice are content, so reading aloud is indispensable. It also helps immensely to hear a poem in the mouth of someone else, which is why the writing group I attend favors reading a poem twice: first the poet reads, then someone else reads. This simple practice objectifies the poem in helpful ways, emphasizes its “not me” aspects, and moves it from abstract marks on the page to a performance, albeit a small one. As for poetry readings, trying out new work on an audience helps me to know how to fine tune—what to cut, what to clarify.

You talk about sentence-hunting and engaging with the language that others use. Do you find yourself engaging with the language and imagery of Mormonism in your poetry?

Absolutely, though usually in an unconscious way. I mean, who can resist the cadences and imagery of the King James Bible? As I mentioned, I grab up interesting sentences wherever I find them, whether in Macbeth, or on a billboard, or in Sunday School. A teenager in my neighborhood once described the next life as “All puffy and white, goldy, harpy, and angelonic.” Though clunky, this description has a vernacular freshness to it, so I wrote it down. At the same time, one has to be vigilant about not simply repeating the idioms of a culture. Use the past, yes, use traditions, but also make it new.

In Terryl Givens’s book People of Paradox, he outlines three paradoxes of Mormon culture: searching and certainty, the disintegration of sacred space, and isolation and integration. Do you see these paradoxes coming up in your own work?

It would be all but impossible not to touch on these paradoxes, especially the first. For me, every new piece is a search that begins with an itch or a question, as inchoate as it may be. The resulting poem is not necessarily a certainty, but “a momentary stay against confusion,” as Frost puts it. Still it is a clarification, which is no small achievement. Sadly, that feeling of satisfaction, of having written something that sticks to the page, rarely lasts more than twenty-four hours. Then you have to gear up and jump into the next crocodile pond.

As for isolation and integration, my poems are always juggling these contraries. In a handful of poems, the backdrop is identifiably Mormon: baptism, a boy passing the sacrament or collecting fast offerings, a missionary interviewing a young woman, etc. In these poems, the narrator is faced with a crisis of not belonging, then works towards some new integration, if not with the community, then with God or himself. These days I tend to write fewer overtly Mormon poems, though the paradox of belonging versus standing apart remains a subterranean thread. In a more general sense, any writer trying to find a place to write—whether an actual room or a viable psychic space—experiences that isolation every day.

Image courtesy Lance Larsen

When the editor of Irreantum died tragically several years ago, the Association for Mormon Letters asked you to write a memorial poem for her. Have you had other opportunities to support your local and religious (and even family) culture as a poet?

When Leslie Norris passed away, I wrote a collage piece, an elegy, that appeared in Irreantum and has been reprinted a couple of times. I found that very therapeutic.

On a more mundane note, I visit school classes and poetry groups when invited, including my daughter’s first grade class a few days before Halloween. The teacher was pretty skeptical about the ability of these kids to compose anything, but we showed her. Together we composed a pretty decent pantoum about vampires and phantoms.

Overall, I suppose I keep a pretty low profile as a poet, mostly because the average joe on the street runs the other way when he sees line breaks. On the other hand, I try to be an advocate of the liberal arts whenever I can, and I celebrate the benefits of journal writing.

Anything new on the horizon?

Well, I’m working on a fourth collection, with a working title of Kittywampus, which I’m sure someone wiser than I am will talk me out of.

Further down the road a collection of prose poems, and maybe after that I’ll try to jump-start a prose memoir I’ve largely abandoned.

On the more immediate front, I’m collaborating with Jacqui on a show that will go up in November—her collage paintings, my poetry, or at least snippets of poems. We’ve collaborated before, but informally, me helping to title her works, her art showing up on my covers, someone else pairing our work together.

By contrast, this show, which will hang in the Harold B. Lee Library from November till January, will be a more holistic and sustained collaboration. Content is still partially up for grabs, but will likely gather under the umbrella motif of animal life.

Any questions you wish I had asked?

Let’s see, how about, What is your least favorite punctuation mark?

Okay, consider it asked.

The semicolon, hands down. There’s a place for the semicolon, certainly, as when you want to show connectedness or the relentless advice-giving of a maternal figure, the way Jamaica Kincaid does in “Girl”—a story (or is it nonfiction?) that is one sentence long. But most of the time, especially in short lyric poems, the semicolon comes across as academic—stuffy, or bookish. I agree with Donald Barthelme, who said, “the semicolon is ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly,” and Thomas Lux, who describes it as “a period that leaks.” ❧

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