Rich Murphy was born in Lynn, Massachusetts and has taught writing and literature for 23 years at Bradford College, Emmanuel College and now at Virginia Commonwealth University. Credits include a book of poems The Apple in the Monkey Tree by Codhill Press; chapbooks Great Grandfather by Pudding House Publications, Family Secret by Finishing Line Press, and Hunting and Pecking by Ahadada Press; poems in hundreds of journals; and essays in refereed journals, including Reconfigurations: A Journal for Poetics Poetry / Literature and Culture. His books Phoems for Mobile Vices published by BlazeVox Books will be out this June, and Voyeur, the 2008 Gival Press Poetry Award winner, will be out in October.
David Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?
Rich Murphy: I am currently working on a few projects.
I am proofing for an early fall release of Voyeur by Gival Press. The manuscript recently won the 2008 Gival Press Poetry Award. I am also proofing a collection of short poems due out in June: Phoems for Mobile Vices by BlazeVox Books. Last month, Ahadada Books published a chapbook titled Hunting and Pecking. The poems are a chapter of an ongoing project, a kind of palimpsest or conversation with writers. I have been busy this past year.
Two essays are forming themselves also. One essay examines the limitations of empathy and the idea of the sublime and explores alternatives to both. The second essay compares Mick Jagger’s “As Tears Go By” to Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” and their relationship to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s understanding of techno-capitalism.
I write poems on a fairly regular basis.
DH: When and why did you begin writing?
RM: I loved words at an early age. In fifth grade, I started a magazine with another student – to show off my wit I suppose. My whole life and education after that (perhaps before that) has been reading and playing with language. As a teenager, I wanted to be a composer. I played the trumpet poorly and thought that was my direction.
By 19, I knew my direction and was on my way with a more mature attitude of a ‘long distance runner.’ I was determined, disciplined, and patient. For about 10 years, I kept a book of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction going at all times. I wrote everyday, and around year three or four I began sending poems out and some were accepted by small magazines. One early one was accepted by LaBas Magazine, Douglas Messerli’s early journal, a few were accepted by Telephone Magazine, Maureen Owen’s early publication, and one was accepted by Chariton Review, where Jim Barnes was editor for a long tenure. We are talking in the early to middle seventies if my memory serves me well.
DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
RM: I was always careful about that. I thought of writing as a sacred activity though I felt that I was one early. In some ways it kept me focused on the work ahead of me, but I think when I began publishing in small journals around the country, I knew that I must be one now. So perhaps around 23 or 24, I knew that was the name for me.
DH: What inspired you to write your first book?
RM: That is a funny question for me. You can write many manuscripts over the course of 35 years and have many of the poems in each published in some impressive periodicals but not have a manuscript published until later. I can’t remember what motivated the theme for the first collection of poems but one of my early manuscripts (1975?) was my response to the transformation of energy that had driven the communal 60’s movements into the grabfest of the “Me Generation.” The manuscript is titled “Apocalyptic Stupor.” Whether this manuscript was my first, I currently don’t remember. My early career included at least another half dozen manuscripts, and then I spent the late 1980s working on poems responding to my search for American culture. I named it “Americana.”
The writing of The Apple in the Monkey Tree, written in first half of the 90s and published by Codhill Press in 2008, was motivated at first by the use of scientific language by some artists to legitimize their work. When that ax was ground, I examined the shedding of religious mythology (or metaphysics) in favor of scientific theory. I realized that scientists borrow from literature also, a kind of cross-fertilization. (I did end up adopting poems written much earlier in my career to build a chapter for the collection.)
Next, after writing on a number of topics for a while, I decided to write on the politicss of relationships. I was hoping to expose a number of popular myths about family and heterosexual power dynamics. I finished the core of the manuscript in 2001, but continued polishing it off and on over the next half dozen years by substituting poems. I titled it “Voyeur.” Overlapping that effort was a new interest in palimpsests and conversing with writers through history.
That has led to a manuscript titled “Stolen Goods” from which Hunting and Peckingby Ahadada Books is taken. In tandem, I wrote poems for a manuscript that has come to be called “Body Parts.” I continue to work on both manuscripts.
This long explanation is my way of saying that I think themes that suggest interest seem to emerge in my writing, and I attempt to develop them for myself.
DH: Who or what has influenced your writing?
RM: I remember how important George Starbuck and Derek Walcott were to my endurance. Both were teachers at Boston University’s creative writing program when I attended. I was 31. Both were so supportive of my work then, encouraging me to innovate, that I was confident in my direction. My writing back then was layered with a dark humor that brought comments and encouragement. I admired Derek for what he can do with metaphor and George for his sense of humor in his poems.
In order to enter the program I had granted to me an undergraduate degree from BU. I had left college at 20 when I became an autodidact and began my disciplined writing and reading as I mentioned earlier. Rumor back then was that Anne Sexton was the only other student to have been admitted in this way. That gave a boost of confidence that I probably needed. How many years ago was that? 27? And I am still at it.
Just as one can’t live in Boston and not root for the Red Sox, one can’t live in Boston and write poetry and not have Robert Lowell as an early hero. He was an early influence, as was e. e. cummings, and then Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley led me to Charles Olsen, and he led me to the poets from NYC. Outside the USA, Apollinaire was exciting to me when I was young, as were the symbolists and surrealists: French, Spanish, South American. Octavio Paz’s poetry and essays were interesting to me around the same time Yeats was exciting.
I came to love and be fed by all varieties of poetry. When I was young, I was amazed at the politics in poetics, and I noticed how some poets and critics simply couldn’t understand other poetics. Amazing! One wonders how that audience member visits galleries or music venues with minds so coarse. I have become inclined to think that different poetics are simply resisted and denied without attempt to acknowledge them so that particular traditions champion their own.
DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
RM: Perhaps because I felt that confessional poetry had run its course by 1971 or at least I couldn’t recognize how I could dress up or strip down my life to make it of interest to anyone else, I shifted my Boston influence early until a reader won’t find much in my poems that gives voice to my personal life: Moods, attitudes, indirect fullness or limitation of experience maybe.
DH: Do you have a specific writing style?
RM: My work is always growing, so any specific style lasts a short while or at least that is how I understand my situation. That is at least how it has been, and I expect it will continue that way. I do enjoy exploring irony. The reader is so hopeful for metaphor that it is expected and hungered for. When the metaphor is broken down, the reader is left only with aporia and possibility. That sublime occurrence is where I am most comfortable. It is where I dance as Nietzsche’s child in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
DH: What genre are you most comfortable writing?
RM: I write poetry and prose poetry. However I have written essays on poetics in the last decade or so and have enjoyed this new territory for its influence on my poetry. The poetry and essays are in a kind of conversation.
DH: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?
RM: My poems are about the process of thinking about ideas or thinking through perspectives, as many as come to my attention while writing. Poetic truth for me is the process of consciousness discovering a new perspective. That may be why metaphor and irony are so important to me. Conventionally, we try to make sense or put things together as in the implications of metaphor. However, I find irony-scape has its way with the conventional thought via chance and atrophy, suggesting that something other than the mind’s convention building technique is having an effect.
DH: What book are you reading now?
RM: I am reading The King in the Tree for the gender issues it seems to explore. I am very interested in the degree to which men can empathize with women, or perhaps better put, play out a woman’s motives and behavior. I am always suspicious, though I have tried myself.
I also recently watched I Have Loved You so Long, a French film directed by Philippe Claudel that plays down the male and makes a statement about Western women, sisters. The beauty of it is its exploration of limits of empathy in literature and life. This limitation is of great interest to me. It seems to me that learning empathy is a finite thing, limited often by the power dynamic involved and the subtle nature of individual life situations that, ultimately, simply demand respect. If viewers were affected by “I Have Love you So Long” and/or “The Girlfriend Experience,” they would be affected by Voyeur when it comes out.
DH: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
RM: I have been reading Sheila Murphy and enjoy what she is doing. I have also been reading Jonathan Monroe and Rane Arroyo with great interest. These poets are newer to me, and I find them interesting for various reasons. Murphy finds aporia in daily living. I admire that ability. Monroe exposes it in historical understanding. It is fascinating to read him for that. Arroyo understands gender in such an open way. The magnanimous tone in his poems demonstrates his international intergenerational reach.
DH: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?
RM: I think that my poems are dense and the density frustrates some readers. In an age of platitudes and jingles, a sound bite itself a sound bite, slowing the reader down, aggravates the quick read of newspaper and blogs and goes along with the aporian reminders embedded in the poems. However, this is a characteristic of the movies, novels, and plays that I most enjoy, the need/desire to read it again.