Mormon Artist

Mark Bennion

Mark Bennion teaches writing and literature classes at Brigham Young University–Idaho. He recently published his first book, Psalm & Selah: A Poetic Journey through The Book of Mormon, a collection of narrative and lyrical poems that bring the lesser-known characters of the Book of Mormon to life. He and his wife, Kristine, are raising their family in the Upper Snake River Valley. Website
Photo courtesy Mark Bennion

How did you first come to write poetry?

One afternoon as I sat in my third grade class, Mrs. Fallows, my teacher, introduced us to a poet. I don’t remember his name, but he had shaggy black hair and a thick mustache. My imagination says it was the poet Larry Levis, but in reality I have no idea who it was. He simply worked for the Utah Arts Council and conducted poetry workshops in various elementary schools across the state.

He encouraged us to write and said something about describing a person or place. At the time, I remembered the room my little brother, Brian, and I had shared. I no longer lived in the house with the room. However, the place was, and still is, cemented in my mind, primarily because Brian had passed away in that room only two years earlier. Consequently, I wrote the following poem, “The Dark Room”:

I sit here in the dark room.

It is so silent

it makes me think

I’m under a shadow.

I turn the music on

a little ways

and lie down like a dead bird.

All the colors start to change.

I remember the thrill of making the poem, and I consciously use the word making as opposed to writing. At that young age, I barely knew how to write, yet I had made many things, such as clay bowls, sandcastles, thank you notes, etc. In the act of making the poem, I felt connected—in a way I could not explain until years later—to the process of artistic creation. That moment of creation, as well as many others in the context of theatre and visual arts—was pivotal for me.

Later, the poet returned to our school and said he wanted to publish this piece and some other students’ works in an Arts Council publication. All of the hoopla surrounding the event made an impact on me; however, not until high school and college did I start writing on a more regular basis. By the time I graduated from BYU, I knew I wanted to write poetry and possibly essays.

How do you balance your writing, teaching, and family responsibilities? How do they influence each other?

I’m not sure I have found an appropriate balance, even though I do strive for some semblance of it. Something constantly needs attention, and something invariably suffers because I’m working with too many proverbial irons in the fire. This juggling act can produce some guilt and stress, but I try not to let either paralyze me from being productive in the aforementioned spheres of influence.

I tend to write most consistently in the summer months. Once the school year begins, I spend time revising my work. Usually, I don’t produce a lot of new material during the academic year because my focus tends toward my teaching duties. I also have plenty of demands due to my administrative load. In short, what it all boils down to is that I’m a lousy multitasker.

For the most part, though, I tend to privilege my family duties above writing and teaching. My children are young and need plenty of support during these formative stages. I don’t want to look back on these years and have regrets about not being there for them. They think poems and writing are great, but more than anything they want my time and undivided attention.

Nonetheless, their creativity plays a huge role in my work. Children embody poetry. They fiddle around with language nearly every time they open their mouths. For instance, kids are not afraid to make up new words. For the longest time, my daughter called some place “the livering park.” It took me about two years to figure out what she was talking about. Today we still call that place the livering park. A few days ago, my dad regaled our daughters with stories of his mission in Scotland. While he was sharing a tale, my four-year-old piped up and asked, “Gramps, how do you speak Scotlish?” At face value both of these examples seem ridiculous. Yet, the point is that kids experiment with language. They constantly use nouns as verbs. They drop articles and could care less about the difference between a subordinating conjunction and an adverb. They do not feel confined by rules, guidelines, and parameters. Consequently, they are not afraid to fail. My own children’s creativity and honesty fuels my desire to write. They remind me that failure is a critical component of the creative process, and failure is okay.

Your book of poetry Psalm & Selah is subtitled “a poetic journey through The Book of Mormon.” What inspired you to take that journey?

In 2004 I remember reading about Ananias in the New Testament. This Ananias was the one whom the Lord asked to heal Saul. While reading in Acts 9, I remember thinking how brief Ananias’s time was upon the biblical stage. He shows up for a few verses and then we don’t hear much about him. He had a tough assignment. He had to heal a heretic, a persecutor of fellow Christians. In fact, Ananias, at some point, may have been persecuted by Saul.

At any rate, after my experience reading this story, I subsequently started looking more closely at those individuals in scripture who are mentioned briefly. I especially took an interest in Book of Mormon folks like Abish, Sariah, the daughters of Ishmael, Lehonti, Emer, etc. The epiphany I had was that these people contributed just as much to the Book of Mormon narrative as those who are discussed frequently. I started seeing parallels in my own ward. So many go about helping others without seeking the limelight. The bishop’s wife deserves just as much commendation as her husband.

The following fall (2005) I had a leave of absence. I spent the majority of that semester writing the initial drafts of the poems in Psalm & Selah. This was also the season when President Hinckley asked us to read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year. His challenge coincided perfectly with this project.

There are a number of Hebraisms in your poems, and there is an effusion of Book of Mormon language. What was your experience like engaging with the language of the Book of Mormon through writing poetry?

From 1997 to 1998 I spent a year studying Hebrew and Israeli literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. My studies there provided the groundwork for many of the Hebraisms in the work.

Moreover, as I began writing drafts, I wanted to create a diction that echoed the scriptures. Thus, I mulled over various phrases and tried to identify cadences and words that would cause a reader to reflect on a particular passage or idea.

The overall experience was electrifying. I came to appreciate well-worn phrases such as “And it came to pass” and “As the Lord liveth.” I came to understand, too, that there is no way that Joseph Smith could have written the book by himself. The Book of Mormon’s complexity—on both the macro and micro levels—is akin to a deep well. I look forward to further investigation of this marvelous book of scripture.

You highlight some less famous Book of Mormon figures, such as Sam and Abish, who haven’t traditionally had their stories told in such a thoughtful, intimate way. Why did you choose those characters, and what was it like writing their stories?

I chose these individuals because their experiences speak to me. Most of my life, I have enjoyed and, at times, struggled with playing a supportive role of those in more visible positions, regardless of the context. Imagining a possible backstory for Sam and Abish made these individuals more human. I started seeing people differently and recognizing the story in everyone. I felt my empathy enlarge a bit for strangers, acquaintances, and even close friends.

Many people’s stories we simply don’t get to hear, and the reasons for why we don’t hear them are vast and various. Ultimately, though, when the great scrolls of Life are opened up, we’ll hear these stories in all their complexity and beauty. My book, I think, is an exercise in trying to understand and imagine their stories in the here and now.

What was the publication process like for Psalm & Selah, and how has it been received?

I submitted the work for possible publication to a variety of places before it was accepted at Parables Publishing. When I submitted the work to Parables, I received a quick response back stating that the publisher was tempted to dismiss the work; however, she also happened to love serious poetry. She and a second reader scoured through the poems and sent a response back about three or four weeks later.

When I received notification that the work had been accepted for publication, I nearly started to hyperventilate. As a writer, I have grown accustomed to bracing myself for rejection. My first inclination is to go down that path. Having the book published has allowed me to see the alternative, and it has been excellent. Consequently, I have loved working with the folks at Parables.

To be honest, the collection has not made a huge splash in the LDS market. Most LDS outlets won’t take a chance on selling poetry because they’ve had negative financial experiences in the past. However, those who have reviewed the work (Jeffrey Needle, Doug Talley, and Doug Gibson) have been kind and generous with their sentiments. I appreciate their willingness to read the book closely and carefully. The work is meant to be read slowly, and I think that tendency goes against the grain of our contemporary culture.

As far as book sales go, I have been pleased that a variety of people have been willing to take a chance on the book.

What have you gained as a poet and also as a Mormon from your poetic journey through the Book of Mormon?

I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the importance of writing consistently. Discoveries and epiphanies happen for me when I push and pull and grimace. Doing the pushing and pulling daily brings about a greater ability to observe and articulate the intricacies of life. Sweating over a single word or punctuation mark on multiple occasions has made me grateful for the work of many, many writers.

As a Mormon, I feel a greater kinship with my community. I think I appreciate the many gifts that all individuals in a ward have to offer. I have tried to be more discerning of these talents and appreciate them verbally. I am sure there were times when Sam and Abish did not feel appreciated in their own communities, just as there are some in LDS circles who feel undervalued and underutilized. Nevertheless, their commitment to the gospel allows a bishop or a Relief Society president to do his or her job well. I believe the Lord rewards openly the lives of those—like Sam and Abish—who support those asked to carry heavy spiritual burdens. Perhaps a test for most of us is to see how we’ll act when we live life in the shadows of others.

What advice do you have for Mormon writers, particularly aspiring poets, who are interested in writing about their faith?

The first bit of advice I’d give is to be true to your spiritual life and be true to your aesthetic. Allow each one to complement the other. I realize this is easier said than done. Sometimes it is easy to pit art and belief against each other. Unfortunately, though, I have had too many friends fall away from the Church because they felt they had to be true to their art at the expense of the gospel. They did not see how their lives could connect spiritual and artistic principles. When I have felt the tug of the world, I have taken solace in and found strength from the following words of the Lord. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33)

Secondly, I would simply encourage writers to be patient in the writing process. Our culture screams impatience, and this quality can be very damaging to a writer. Take time to step away from your work—say, a month or two—and then, I believe, you’ll return to your work with a different perspective. You’ll be able to discern the good lines from the riff-raff, and you’ll make new discoveries about how you work and about what images succeed and which ones don’t.

Finally, gather around you the love and honesty of other writers. Share your work with those who have a clear eye. While what they share may hurt at times, they’ll give you advice that will push your work to the next level. When I play tennis, I notice that my game rises to a new level whenever I play with a person whose skills are better than mine. If possible, work with writers whose talents exceed your own. They’ll discern patterns in your work that you’ve missed due to your limited perspective. In short, they’ll make you a better writer. ❧

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