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A Conversation with Patricia Colleen Murphy

A Conversation with Patricia Colleen Murphy

Interview by Elizabyth A. Hiscox

Elizabyth A. Hiscox interviews Patricia Colleen Murphy about her award-winning collection, Hemming Flames.

This interview was conducted through email by Elizabyth A. Hiscox, who is the author of Inventory from a One-Hour Room. She served as Poet-in-Residence at Durham University (UK) and is recipient of Arizona Commission on the Arts and Vermont Studio Center Grants. Also selected for the Seventh Avenue Streetscape public-art initiative, her poetry was displayed on a central-Phoenix billboard for a year in conjunction with the city’s First Friday art walks. Hiscox holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. She has taught writing in England, the Czech Republic, and Spain and currently instructs at Western State Colorado University where she is founding director of the Contemporary Writer Series.

Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book of poems, Hemming Flames, won the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award and was published in 2016 by Utah State University Press. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and American Poetry Review, and most recently in Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Smartish Pace, Burnside Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Hobart, decomP, Midway Journal, Armchair/Shotgun, and Natural Bridge. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.

Elizabyth A. Hiscox: You are an educator as well as a poet. What out-of-the-classroom lessons do you think a student might take away from Hemming Flames?

Patricia Colleen Murphy: A main focus for me when composing was the use of surprising turns of phrase, especially in beginnings and endings. So that might be something a student could study.

One comment I tend to get from student readers is how touched they are that I was willing and able to address such emotionally charged topics. And that’s very important to me: for others who might have felt silenced to find a voice.

EAH: What does it mean to have this first book connected to May Swenson (through the award series) and Stephen Dunn (selecting judge)? Do you have impressions of the work of either/both that align with your own?

PCM: I’ll say first of all what a huge honor it is, and how often people have said to me, “If Stephen Dunn likes your work, I know I will too.” Stephen was so kind with me about the collection, and I really am grateful that he gave it this nod.

When it comes to Dunn, we can look at his poem “The Routine Things Around the House,” which is a very tender poem, but charged with sexual tension. It’s brave in its intimacy with the mother. And my collection does have those moments too, though not as sweetly rendered. The relationship is so different. But Dunn clearly values those intersections.

Did I ever tell you the story about the dream I had about Stephen Dunn? I dreamt he sent me a box in the mail that contained one shoe from every pair I have ever owned. That idea was the impetus behind my poem “The Linger Museum.” So you read the lines, “I spend all day in a room / with every item I will ever own.” That came directly from the dream I had of Stephen Dunn.

May Swenson is someone I would consider a generation removed from the poets who influenced me the most, so in a way she laid a lot of groundwork. I read a lot of Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore in my early years as a poet and I came to Swenson later. I think of a poem like “Strawberrying,” that pays such close attention to musicality and line integrity. I certainly focus on those qualities in my own work.

EAH: Can you talk about the formal variety in the book? Free verse, yes, but from the long-lined single strophs to the dropped lines of a poem like “Break in the Chain”—very different on the page; what does this latitude in style provide?

PCM: If left on my own, I’d probably write only in couplets. It’s a habit I’m trying to break. In revision, I always do that exercise where I remove all line breaks then add them back in, and that is one way that I came to some of the dropped line shapes. With “Break in the Chain,” specifically, I wanted the poem to look like a metal chain, or like a human chain, or like a DNA chain. The lines in “What Flickers” are meant to mimic a candle. In “Bridges All over the Room,” I was playing with syllables, really, and wanted that breathlessness of the psych ward, or the hiccups you hear in crying.

EAH: Elizabeth Bishop, Sharon Olds, William Carlos Williams… This book, as well as being very much of the body, is well-read. What role does the poetry of others play in the larger story of these poems?

PCM: A recent interviewer said to me that he reads the entire book as an ars poetica. And I would say that is true, especially thinking of Stephen Dunn’s statement in the foreword, “As if the act of writing were an attempt to hem what can’t easily be hemmed.” So I will take that reading! Although I didn’t consciously do that. But when I do take the book as a whole, it is about making a poem, or making a poem that makes sense of the world. So then it is fitting that I’m so dependent on my literary family within the work. Another way to look at it is that allusion becomes a nervous tic in the book. I can barely go two pages without referring to another writer, and then I tease Eliot for the very thing I just spent eighty pages doing. I intended that contradiction.

EAH: A very personal book, Hemming Flames faces anger, sadness, and frustrated expectation head-on. Was it harder to write or not write these poems?

PCM: Harder to write them for sure. Despite the hardships you see described in the collection, I personally have a very nice life. I have a terrific partner, wonderful friends, extended family that supports me, fun hobbies, a great job, and I also travel the world on adventures like hikes and climbs and races. I love eating and visiting art museums. I’ll be better off on the other end of this material. Although I will say that I’m glad I was brave enough to write these poems because I do feel like it could make a difference for someone else.

EAH: The world of the book ends not with a bang, but—perhaps more powerfully in its implications—“With a Whimper.” The nod to Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” rubs against the speaker’s incredulity for the usefulness of reading him. So there are opposites implicit and implied in the way the poem presents itself. Do you feel that many of these poems contain the negation of their argument or, rather, that there is a bang heard in addition to the whimper?

PCM: Yes, exactly. And thanks for noticing. I’ve said in other interviews that the last couplet of that poem (and of the whole book), “Yesterday I invented fire. Today I’m hemming flames,” epitomizes my mother’s bipolar disorder. Really in every line, in every poem, I want to capture that feeling of up and down.

I intended for that title, “With a Whimper,” to resonate exactly with the notion of bang versus whimper, but I also chose it to show respect to Eliot, who becomes the victim of the speaker’s depressive episode in the poem. Of course the speaker doesn’t feel personally that Eliot is a prig. But when faced with the dominantly male Western canon during a serious depressive episode, it’s too much to handle.

By using Eliot as the trope of the poem, and by discussing an inability to read him while I was grieving the loss of my parents, I’m embodying that helplessness of being wholly unable to exist in any other state of mind than the current traumatic one.

I’m reading this book right now called Capture: A Theory of Mind by David A. Kessler, and he talks about how mental illness and especially depressive states “capture” the mind to the exclusion of all other thoughts or stimuli. He uses David Foster Wallace as an example, how DFW became so engrossed in obsessive thoughts he ended his life.

Hemming Flames is really an attempt to embody mental illness, and part of doing that is to illustrate the bangs and whimpers that plague us.

EAH: A poem like “This Is Not a Pipe” takes the complex concept of Magritte’s visual joke and fits it with the often unspoken and uncomfortable landscape of the witnessed body (“erection,” “pubic hair”). A yoking of the high and low, one might say, although that would imply a privileging of either the physical or the intellectual that I want to avoid in relation to your approach. Would you consider this kind of unexpected connectivity between the conceptual and brash bodily a hallmark of your work?

PCM: Yes, at least I intended it to be. I think of another poem where that happens, “Songs in Kiswahili,” where the speaker’s experience of summiting Kilimanjaro is interrupted by bodily functions that need immediate attention. Even the poem “Break in the Chain,” that draws upon the image of Hands across America, a high concept event that was ultimately viewed as 80s camp, is contrasted with the physical presence of an overdose.

EAH: While the phrase, “reading between the lines,” perhaps falls too close to cliché, it serves to highlight that with some writing the most damning or delightful revelations in language are the clicks for the reader that happen outside of the denotative words: tonal shifts, sly nods to context, or ambiguous conclusions. In Hemming Flames some of this work seems to be done in the literal white space that a stanza provides. While you admit that you gravitate to the couplet, one of the strengths of all your stanza forms is that they say just enough and leave some for that middle ground the reader inhabits between response, writerly intention, and the words on the page. Are there a couple of stanza breaks in the book (or one poem) upon which you might wish to elaborate on that middle ground?

PCM: Well, in “High Hopes, Bad Habits,” (certainly representative of the bang/whimper trope you mentioned earlier), I’m using enjambment to highlight obsessive thoughts and to trick the reader into thinking the speaker is okay when the speaker is not okay. So, “But I end all day in a string/ball.” My goal in that poem is to show the vast difference between normal and abnormal behavior. But the ending leaves a lot up to the reader. Why is the speaker the pig, the snorter? I’m leaving some space there for the reader to interact with other notions in the collection.

And on the next page, too, in “Turkish Get-Ups,” I’m using enjambment to first of all highlight the repetition of “she says,” so that the reader gets a sense of urgency. There’s also some slant rhyme there, which is particularly important in that poem because its meaning comes not only from imagery but also from musicality. And then that enjambment in the last couplet, we get “people incapable of guilt can have a really good time,” which might steer the reader to think of incapability as a lack, which it often is, but here it is not a lack, since if you can’t feel guilt you can do whatever you want. And certainly that concept resonates with so much of what is happening in other poems.

EAH: As an editor for Third Coast, I had the pleasure of seeing two of these poems (“Throwing the Proper Tantrums” and “Midnight at Orca Cannery”) arrive in the world through the pages of that publication. The majority of these pieces previously appeared in the cultivated spaces of literary journals. Hence, a two-part question. What is the process like from both sides of that editorial desk: 1, as a writer who is putting together a book of individual poems that have been—via publication in magazines and online—brought into the larger conversation already; and 2, as, yourself, an editor of a literary journal (Superstition Review).

PCM: I’ve been interested in literary publishing since I was quite young, and in fact, I was the editor of the county literary magazine when I was in high school, and I’ve always been interested in publishing, as both an editor and as a poet.

As an editor, I’m looking for strong voices and technique, and original phrases and language that surprises me. I publish about 20 poets per issue and it’s really an honor that I get to know a lot of contemporary American poets through my work on Superstition Review.

As a poet, I work very hard to place my work in journals that I respect and read regularly. I read a lot of lit mags, so I get a good sense of editorial preference, and I read a lot of poetry collections. I enjoy being a part of that literary community.

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