Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press, 2016) won the May Swenson Poetry Award and the 2017 Milton Kessler Poetry Award. 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.
“Invite the reader to sit at the table,” an Interview with Patricia Colleen Murphy
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Izzy Montoya. Of the process he said, “Murphy is a bold poet and master of beautiful honesty. Hemming Flames is a great collection and I have enjoyed the hours I’ve spent with it.” In this interview, Patricia discusses the study of poetic forms, the influence of other poets, and reaching her readers.
Superstition Review: Your opening poem, “Losing Our Milk Teeth,” is addressed specifically to the speaker’s mother. Throughout the collection readers encounter epistolary poems, a decision which risks audience alienation, yet nothing is lost in translation. How have you learned to make these intimate moments accessible to a larger audience?
Patricia Murphy: I’ve read a lot of epistolary poems, first of all. It’s one of my favorite forms to read. Studying them gives me insight on how to write them. A key is to use images that transcend the intimate and that invite the reader to sit at the table, as they do quite literally in the poem you reference here.
SR: I think many writers fear the consequences of work that explores their own life honestly, especially subjects that could alienate them from their family or loved ones. Did you find yourself wondering if it was safe to write about the events in Hemming Flames, and how did you overcome that?
PCM: Although it took me a while to open to the idea of writing the whole truth, I did not question the safety of writing the poems. I did analyze the work afterwards, wondering if I was being fair and honest. I feel I was fair and honest and empathetic.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Natasha Trethewey. She read many of the poems in this book. She was so supportive and kind about my work. We were talking about one of the poems she wrote about her own mother and her stepfather and I asked her if she had needed to reposition herself emotionally to examine their relationship.
She stared at me and said, “My stepfather killed my mother.”
That changes the conversation, doesn’t it?
How could I worry about alienating someone who abused me (abuse is not murder, but still)? I guess I could worry and I guess people do. But part of why I wanted to put the book in the universe is to stop the normalization of the bad behaviors expressed in it. And to feel fear that I will be alienated for stating the facts would be to continue to accept the abuse.
I already grieve the loss of the relationship with my brother who is still living, and my parents who are dead. There isn’t much to lose. As far as the family I have left: my one uncle and my 37 cousins, they were very supportive of me and of the book.
I guess I worried they wouldn’t like so much cussing. But part of my mother’s illness was to use really, really foul language. Her favorite phrase was “You motherfucking cocksucker.” She’d say it to the coffee pot in the morning or in a letter to the IRS. That’s just what existed.
SR: The speaker of Hemming Flames often finds herself working through the complicated terrain of familial wrongs and abuses. In “Cutlass Ciera” this leads the speaker into a candid discussion of the resentment and hatred she feels toward her mother. How did you decide to navigate these somewhat taboo confessions?
PCM: I wrote that poem because I had a mentor Kelle Groom who asked me to get into the burning Oldsmobile with my mother. It was a terribly painful exercise. But it helped me better understand what she must have felt during those suicidal moments. I was 15 when my mother tried to kill herself and I saved her life. I was 35 when I told my mother I always felt that suicide attempt was my fault. Her response was, “I’ve tried to kill myself five times. Would you like to take credit for all of them?”
For me it’s not a taboo confession at all to talk about my feelings about her mental illness. It wasn’t a decision. These are the most salient aspects of my life. Not writing them would seem strange to me.
SR: In Hemming Flames there is a poem title “Why I Burned Down Namdaemun Gate” voiced by a man named Chae Jong-gi. I wanted to ask you how you came to this poem, what inspired you? And how do you see it as a part of the larger work?
PCM: I was inspired to write a persona poem about a person who was also mentally ill and who set fire to something. I traveled to Korea in 2007 and was quite moved by Namdaemun Gate and I spent a lot of time photographing it. When Chae Jong-gi burned it in 2008, the image of that fire haunted me. The arsonist’s actions and attitudes reminded me of my mother’s. The poem itself is representative of my mother in her manic state. I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with her that sounded exactly like that poem. It’s a manic voice that can’t focus, can’t accept responsibility.
SR: I was wondering if you could tell our audience a little bit more about the title of your book? In the final poem we see it as part of a beautiful couplet: “Yesterday I invented fire/ today I’m hemming flames.” In what ways do you see this content as a destructive force, and in what ways is the content a creative force?
PCM: The couplet mirrors my mother’s bipolar disorder. She was always high or low. But the notion of hemming flames is important to the book as a whole because it represents something dangerous and impossible. I was handed fire and was asked to tame it.
SR: There are several allusions to other writers in your work. How do you feel writers of the past influence your poetry?
PCM: I guess you could say they raised me. Or at least babysat. I turn to poetry for comfort when I’m confused or upset. Those poets and poems and lines are part of my upbringing.
SR: Speaking of literary allusions, were you ever concerned about reader accessibility? Who is your imagined audience and what is their reading experience like?
PCM: My imagined audience is a highly sophisticated and well-published poet who has read 1000+ books of poems. So, in essence, Stephen Dunn. It did make immediate sense to me that he picked the book because if anyone would appreciate the allusion it would be him.
I do think that anyone who gives themselves over to the book will take something away. Some of the allusions are harder than others, but I think the reader can absorb meaning even from a cursory read. I most appreciate the readers who can enjoy the layers of form, metaphor, and musicality whether they understand all the allusion or not. And notice that I’m making fun of myself in the last poem of the book by calling Eliot a “prig” for essentially doing the same thing I’ve just done for the entire book.
The reviews and interviews have shown that readers are getting it. A recent review by Kate Falvey in Bellevue Literary Review is a good example of an ideal reader. I especially love that she went straight to the source of some of the echoes in the book, for example, this couplet in, “Is It the Sea You Hear in Me,” is referencing Plath’s poem “The Night Dances.”:
so I drop a smile into the tub
near the edge. Irretrievable!
Another ideal reader is Dante DiStefano, who reviewed the book for Arcadia Magazine. I loved that he recognized that “Halloween in the Tank” is really a Russell Edson poem. It’s a fable. It uses humor and fanciful image to take the sting off raw emotion.
It tickles me when readers identify all my poetry-inspired gymnastics but I’m happy to simply inspire an emotional response.
I recently published a short lyric poem in the Academy of American Poets series Poem A Day. I got an email from a high school student in California who said that her teacher read the poem in class, and it really moved her, but that she did not totally understand it. I wrote back to her and asked her for her emotional interpretation of the poem.
I do feel that’s a problem with our educational system, that we ask students to read for one true meaning.
SR: Hemming Flames is your first book. Could you tell our audience a little bit what it was like to get past this huge milestone in a writer’s career?
PCM: It was wonderful. I felt pretty grateful for the response to the book. I’ve been publishing in lit mags and winning awards for my poems for 23 years, but for many people (and institutions) the book is the only true validation, which I still feel is a problematic model even though I entered into a contract with it.
An earlier version of this manuscript was shortlisted during open reading periods at two of my favorite publishers: Copper Canyon and Milkweed. But I’m glad that it won an award and the folks at Utah State University Press have been really gracious and kind. I have heard horror stories from poets who published with small independent presses, so I feel especially happy for my experience, which has been so lovely.
SR: You and Sjohnna McCray went to the same high school and now you have both published your first book in the past year or so. I have already asked Sjohnna this, but I wanted to ask you as well: have you noticed any similarities between your two collections. If so, do you feel that has anything to do with your shared early education? Could you talk about the influence of those early teachers?
PCM: It is such a great honor to share a publication year with Sjohnna. I admire him so much and I do feel like I can see our early education represented in his work and in mine. Our teachers Mary Hennigan and Joyce Yonka gave us many layers of mentoring and training. From intense literary analysis to rigorous workshop sessions, we became disciplined students of writing and learned that reading is as important as composing. But beyond that they instilled a level of compassion and care that created a safe place for us to articulate our emotions. Even thinking about your earlier question about exploring life honestly, that’s something salient in Sjohnna’s work as well, and if I think about how we were nurtured in our high school, it makes perfect sense that our work has been called brave and intimate and honest.
We went to the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, and I remember I was the first person at the school to win a coveted Corbett scholarship for Creative Writing (past winners had represented all other majors such as Art, Vocal Music, Drama, Musical Theater, etc.). Sjohnna was a year behind me and he was the second person to win the Corbett scholarship in Creative Writing. I was so proud of him!
Rapture came out four months before Hemming Flames so I read it while my book was still in production. When I read it, I felt this intense pride and kindred spirit towards Sjohnna. And I felt so freed by the risks he took, since my book was coming out soon and was taking some risks itself. I feel like we were encouraged by those early teachers, and we also read some innovative work that others might not have had access to in high school. I think of Stein and Cummings and Nikki Giovanni. That high school experience was such a gift for me.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
PCM: I’ve been in a new house a year now, so the space I’m in now is different from the one I was in when I wrote the poems in this book. But the spaces have in common big bookshelves with all my poetry books alphabetized. My writing process includes reading a collection of poems before I compose, so I love grabbing a poetry book off the shelf each time I enter my office for a session.
I also have lots of mementos from my travels: a beaded tree from Tanzania, snuff jars from China, a marble candy bowl. I like looking at these objects and remembering the space beyond the desk where I love to fill the well.
I also usually have two dogs at my feet, a true joy.