DD: In her essay, “When We Dead Awaken,” Adrienne Rich writes: “For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is in no way passive. And a certain freedom of mind is needed—freedom to press on, to enter the currents of your thoughts like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not be suddenly snatched away. Moreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at the moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be so sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming.” Could you begin by talking about poetry as imaginative transformation and writing as renaming?
MS: There's no doubt that Adrienne Rich is right. Epistemologically, writing is always a transformation — an active transformation, to rephrase Rich. And in the action of it, one hears the Greek sense of the word: Poets are makers; writers are makers. May Swenson often referred to making her poems, as opposed to writing them. And, as I think any poet might agree, this work is not finished in a single poem. The task is really to rename and remake the world. That’s why Mary Oliver points out that one doesn't exactly achieve closure at the end of the poem, even when it's is an especially good poem. The making of poetry is a long-term commitment. In Oliver's world, happiness does not arise from “a job well done, but good work ongoing.”
DD: For the past twenty years, Utah State University Press has published poetry through the May Swenson Poetry Award competition. Patricia Colleen Murphy’s collection, Hemming Flames, is the latest and final book in this series. University Press of Colorado will continue to publish poetry books through the Colorado Prize for Poetry (open to all poets) and the Mountain West Poetry Series (open to poets living in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, & Wyoming). Can you give us some highlights from the history of the May Swenson Poetry Award?
MS: The original idea for the series emerged from a conversation I had over burgers and coffee at a local restaurant here in Logan, Utah, with Kenneth Brewer, a poetry professor at Utah State University. Ken would later become poet laureate of Utah. After we talked our way through a possible structure for the competition, I took the idea to R.R. (Zan) Knudson, who was the executor for the literary estate of May Swenson and May’s partner for the last 20 or so years of her life. Zan was well connected, especially in the New York poetry scene, and she provided introductions for me to the long list of first-tier poets and critics whom we invited to judge our competition over the years. It was important to me as director of the press that the competition not drain resources from the academic books we publish. Financing poetry is always chancy; except for the work of a handful of poets on the national scene, poetry generally could not be described as a serious profit center for any publisher that I'm aware of. We didn’t need it to turn a profit, but I wanted the competition to be self-supporting, and fortunately, it has been. Between the response of our contestants, the charity of our panel of readers, and the willingness of our judges to lend their names and labor out of love for May, we were able to build a series and make it last for 20 years.
DD: What titles do you most admire in the Utah State University Press catalog?
MS: Ha! You can't really ask an acquisitions guy to make choices among his authors. We have published many hundreds of books that I admire across several different disciplines, including poetry. I see them all as worthy.
DD: Tell us about Patricia Colleen Murphy’s debut collection.
MS: Stephen Dunn, who selected this book, calls it “wonderfully disturbing,” and I don't think I could put it better than that. One thing that works for me especially well is Trish’s sense of the body – how concrete the body is, how inarticulate. She says in one poem that it lacks language any more complex than thirst. She calls it a dog, and this reminds me very much of May Swenson's famous line "body my house, my horse, my hound.” This embodied sensibility, I think, is somehow important to the whole collection. Because thirst, if we're still thinking like Adrienne Rich, is one way to rename “sensation” or “urge” or “pain.” And there is plenty of all of these in Hemming Flames, as Trish unspools the inarticulate and animal language of the body. Wonderfully disturbing, indeed.
DD: Trish, you are currently working on a memoir that deals with much of the same source material as your poetry. Can you talk about the differences between writing in prose and poetry?
PCM: I’m trained as a poet, so the prose does not come as easily to me. I find it really difficult to work with the longer form. I keep repeating things on page 5 and page 205. Even to re-enter the work after a time away requires a six to eight hour commitment to re-read the entire piece. The reason I started the memoir in the first place, though, is there are so many details I don’t have room for in poems. Lots of facts, too, that fall flat when narrated in a poem. So the memoir really takes what you already see in Hemming Flames, and embodies it in scenes.
The memoir is pretty close. I really just have some glue work to do, and a small amount of generative work on a later chapter. I hope to have a clean draft by the end of the semester.
DD: In the world of reality television, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, the boundaries of the personal and the private have blurred. The forms of confession practiced in contemporary social media are staged and superficial, contingent upon spectacle, less concerned with discovering truths than they are with generating celebrity. Shocking confessions may abound in social media today, but little retains the power either to shock or to foment meaningful change. The poems in Hemming Flames, however, are electric. You cannot read them without being changed. Can you talk about writing in the confessional mode today?
PCM: I would argue that all contemporary poetry is confessional. The details of my life happen to be pretty spectacular. I could write some pretty poems about the wind and love and puppy dogs and creosote. But that would leave quite an elephant in the room.
DD: How has your work as an editor of Superstition Review influenced your life as a writer? In what ways has your writing life, in turn, influenced your editorial work?
PCM: Being an editor has been so fulfilling; such a gift. I worked really, really hard to create a magazine with a national reputation because I wanted my students to have a professional experience that meant something on MFA and PhD applications, and in job interviews.
Being an editor has made me more thick-skinned as a writer for sure. I’ve been submitting to major literary magazines, and only top tier mags, I must say—my own standards for submissions are very stringent—since 1990. I have hard copy rejections from those years that I used to re-read and organize and catalog. Being an editor has shown me that sometimes choices are arbitrary. Like I might get three great poems about toads, and I can’t have three toad poems in one issue.
I also have become a better curator of my work. You’d be surprised how many submissions we get with five poems that seem like they were written by different people. And I would rather see a submission with three strong poems than one with three strong and two weak poems. I’ve learned that including poems that aren’t ready make the strong poems seem weaker.
Reading poetry submissions and discussing them with editors (and I read every single submission to SR) has helped me to better understand when a poem is doing surprising and delightful work that a reader will connect with. I love the feeling of reading a submission, and feeling progressively more excited with each strong line or phrase. Due to the volume of submissions, we are often reading towards a “no,” meaning we are waiting for the poem to fail at some point. We only accept something like 1% of poetry submissions, so we know most submissions are going to have a “no” moment. So when we get to a sub that is “Yes!” it is really exciting. So as a writer, I find myself writing towards that “Yes!”
My writing life affects my editing work this way. I hop into my Submittable account, and I look at the work I have out in the universe, and how I treat editors, and I expect a similar amount of respect from our authors. I also know how meaningful it is to get a little bit of love and support from an editor, so we work very hard to support our contributors even years after they have appeared in the magazine. We offer guest blog post spots, we share good news on our networks, and we’re always looking for new publications by our contributors to review on Goodreads or discuss online.
DD: What is the most encouraging experience you have had as an editor and a poet?
PCM: Well, at SR we get a lot of fan mail. I have a folder of it and I love to read through it from time to time to remind myself of best practices and best ways to focus our time and energy. As a poet, I’ve had so many encouraging moments it’s hard to pick just one. Every publication is an encouragement, since it means I have at least one reader who gets what I’m doing. I’ve been publishing very consistently since I was young.
DD: What is the most encouraging development you’ve witnessed in contemporary poetry?
PCM: I would have to say Literary Citizenship. I see a lot of poets being kind and supportive to other poets.
DD: What is one thing that American poetry needs more of, in your opinion?
PCM: Readers. And teachers. I would love to see a movement to change the poetry curriculum in middle schools and high schools. Many young people would be more interested in poetry if the course readings included poets who are alive. There is so much good contemporary poetry, and it’s a lively field, but too many students aren’t even introduced to it at all.
DD: If you could only read and say and remember one poem (written by someone else) for the rest of your life, what poem would it be?
PCM: Oh my goodness! That is such a hard question. May I list 100 please? Okay. It’s too much pressure. I’m going to say “Dream Song 4” by John Berryman.
DD: You have several other writing projects either underway or completed. I mentioned the memoir above. Can you tell us about these projects? What does the future hold for your writing life?
PCM: Yes, I have the memoir, and that’s the big one. I’ve been working on it for years and am finally really pretty happy with it and just need some final finishing hours.
I have two additional poetry manuscripts currently in circulation. One, titled Bully Love, examines the intersections of culture and capitalism in the desert southwest. It’s personal but focuses a lot on my experiences as a transplant to Arizona from the Midwest. The second is called Rot and it does have some highly personal moments, but with a lot more leaning towards surrealism.
I might not be in the same hurry as other academics, simply because I have such a great position and I’m not chasing the job market the way some emerging writers are. I chuckle because a writer friend and I were talking about “the machine” that is an emerging writer trying to get a job or get tenure. I get it completely. But I’m glad I don’t have to do a lot of those gymnastics.
In the next decade my life is going to change a lot because I am going to retire and move abroad. So let’s see. What’s my ten year plan? I would love to write some really good poems. Publish the memoir and the two other poetry ms’s. I’d also like to do lots of travel writing. I teach Travel Writing for ASU Online, and I’m teaching it as a study abroad in Cuba in summer 2017. It would be nice to have travel writing as a freelance gig after I’m finished with my teaching career.
DD: We’ll end with a poem from Hemming Flames. Could you pick one out and introduce it?
PCM: Sure! I’m picking a poem that I wrote after my parents both passed away five months apart in 2009. My mother dropped dead of a heart attack on June 2 of that year, and then my father became very ill with cancer but decided not to treat it and not to tell me he was sick. I called him on a Wednesday in the end of October and he couldn’t talk. He told me he had a cold. I flew to see him the next day. He weighed about 100 pounds and had baseball sized tumors on his eye and on his chest. He was dead within the week. I was so disoriented and shocked and sad and devastated and alone. I had trouble processing language and simple concepts. So I wrote this poem about a shirt. And really, if you think about a shirt for an hour or two, it’s a ridiculous and confusing object.
On Being Orphaned
I find a shirt in my hand but can’t remember
the word for shirt or hand. Or how to put it on?
Something about its four holes and my four limbs.
It’s too colorful. It’s too angular. Hold it up to the
light and it’s too threadbare. It’s a heap but somehow
it is supposed to encompass my body? Should I cut it,
then tie it back together? Or burn it and spread the ash?
I find a shirt in my hand but it might be a saucer
for my cup. It might be code for a special type of humor.
It might be music. Or an elephant’s ear or a stingray.
I find a shirt in my hand and it could be political.
It could be asleep and will wake if I shake it. Will it
break if I drop it? Or will it bounce? I find a shirt
in my hand. I think my shadow should wear it.
For a review of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s Hemming Flames, go here.
For an audio interview of Patricia Colleen Murphy, go here.
For an essay on lyric narrative poetry and the legacy of Confessionalism, go here.
Founding editor of the May Swenson Poetry Award, Michael Spooner is associate director of the University Press of Colorado consortium. His published scholarly work has addressed such topics as collaboration in writing, the poetry of May Swenson, editorial response, and the role of publish-or-perish in academe. He has worked in scholarly publishing since 1984. Michael is also the author of three novels for middle grade readers.
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.
Dante Di Stefano’s collection of poetry, Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Obsidian, Shenandoah, The Writer's Chronicle, and elsewhere. Most recently, he is the winner of the Red Hen Press Poetry Award and Crab Orchard Review’s Special Issue Feature Award in Poetry.