Today I have something special to offer: an interview with poet Patricia Colleen Murphy, whose new collection, Hemming Flames, won The May Swenson Poetry Award and has just been published by Utah State University Press.
First some biographical notes: Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, North American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Natural Bridge and others. Her work has received awards from the Associated Writing Programs and the Academy of American Poets, Gulf Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, The Madison Review, Glimmer Train Press, and The Southern California Review. A chapter of her memoir-in-progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review.
And now, our interview:
FRD: I am writing these interview questions just after reading your new book, Hemming Flames, and the images that are stuck in my mind are so intense and thought provoking that it’s hard to know where to start. Let me start here: congratulations on winning the 19th annual May Swenson Poetry Award from the Utah State University Press and the Literary Estate of May Swenson. How did it feel to have your manuscript chosen by the judge, Stephen Dunn?
PCM: It was so special, really. The book has finaled in a lot of contests, and two other publishers were considering it in open reading periods. But to win this award, and to get this nod from Stephen Dunn, it is really important to me. In fact, there is a line in one of the poems “The Linger Museum,” that is inspired by a dream I had about Stephen Dunn. Randomly, years ago, I dreamt that Stephen sent me a huge box in the mail. Inside there was one shoe from every pair of shoes I had ever owned in my life. I’m a seriously vivid dreamer, and I remember the shoes so clearly, like it was yesterday. Anyway, the line became, “I spend all day in a room/ with every item I will ever own.” So I love that connection. I also feel like Stephen really GOT ME.
FRD: The book, though it’s a collection of poems, reads to me like a memoir. Are the poems all autobiographical?
PCM: Yes all of them, even Namdaemun Gate! I visited the Gate in 2007 and when I heard the story of its burning in 2008, I wanted to try to write a poem about someone who was sick and setting things on fire, to mirror my mother’s story. So that’s kind of a persona poem, where I imagined my mother as the arsonist.
Now I should say that some of the poems blend surrealism with reality. I think of something Terrance Hayes said when he came to read here, “I have one foot in reality and one foot in imagination.” So, for example “Halloween in the Tank.” I’ve not been in a drunk tank, but my mother was, often. She got arrested in LAX once for urinating on the floor. During her deeply psychotic stages, she was picked up in so many different locations, and it always took a minute for the officers to figure out if she was drunk, on drugs, or having a manic episode. So in that poem I’m imagining what it was like for her to be in the drunk tank.
FRD: Many, if not all, of these poems were first published in literary journals. Because many of my blog readers are writers themselves, I’m sure they’d be interested to know about the process of creating the book-length poetry manuscript. How long did it take you? Did you always set out to write a book?
PCM: I’ve been publishing in pretty major national journals since 1993, when I had a poem in The Iowa Review when I was a senior in college. I went straight from undergrad into the MFA program at Arizona State, where I wrote a thesis that I immediately started trying to get published. I got some early finalist and semi-finalist acknowledgements, and I continued to write and publish individual poems. I always wanted the book out, but it just wasn’t landing. Then in 2011 I made some major stylistic shifts in individual poems, and that seemed to resonate a bit more with editors. And then in August 2015 I spent a month at Ragdale where I really sat down with Hemming Flames and made some major decisions with it. I sent it out right after, and that’s when it won the May Swenson Poetry Award. There were many years when I didn’t send out the manuscript, even though I was revising it and working on others. I have two other poetry manuscripts still in circulation now.
FRD: Do you have a particular process for writing individual poems, or do they come to you in separate and unique moments of inspiration?
PCM: I have a very disciplined writing practice. First, I read a lot; at least 104 books a year. And of course I read every single submission for Superstition Review. I also keep an extensive writer’s notebook. When I sit down to write, first I journal, then I read a full collection of poetry, then I journal again with reactions to that (I also review the book on Goodreads). Then I look at my writer’s notebook and I decide on a line or image to drive the composing process. So the well is full, and I add a “starting line” that gets me going.
Sometimes I’ll have a strong emotion and I use the poem to make a sweeping gesture to address that–like “Songs in Kiswahili,” a poet friend had asked me to write about summiting Kilimanjaro, and I ended up seeing that event in contrast with my brother’s situation. He had a 165 IQ and graduated high school just after his 16th birthday, but he was addicted to pornography and to food, and he never left my father’s basement. In fact I tried to help him move in 2009 after my dad died, but he freaked out and begged me to let him stay in the house. I couldn’t fight him anymore. So now he hasn’t left that house since 2010. I found a doctor to go see him once a month. I helped him get on disability. I don’t know how heavy he is now. But what more can I do? What more do I want to do? He’s not kind to me.
But usually the poems are image based or line-driven.
FRD: Some of the poems in Hemming Flames are written in experimental styles. I’m thinking, for example, of “Bridges All Over the Room,” which looks visually like a table with words occupying rows, columns, and cells. As a reader, I felt as if the speaker was in her own kind of cell. How did you come up with the format and title for this poem?
PCM: One of my favorite poets is John Berryman–you will see a lot of what I call Berryman “ticks” in my poems. Not only do I admire him as a poet, but I feel a personal connection to his life story because his dad shot himself when John was 12 (I saved my mom’s life after she attempted suicide when I was 15). John lived in Minneapolis, and killed himself in 1972 by jumping off a bridge in the dead of winter. My mom grew up in Minneapolis and lived there until she went to Stanford in 1957. There are other intersections too; my mother had a family friend who was a professor of English at U of M where Berryman later taught. Anyway, the form of that particular poem is meant to give you the feeling of hiccups; that stop-start jerking of crying. I wanted you to feel how I felt: the idea of suicide took over my life because of my mother’s many attempts. And the title means, every room is full of things you could kill yourself with. It’s meant to show how terrifying it is to be in a relationship with someone who is suicidal. It’s a terrifying position to be in to have to beg someone not to kill themselves.
FRD: Although the entire family in the book is both an object and source of pain, some of the most painful poems in the book revolve around the speaker’s mother. As I read it I wanted to reach into the pages and grab the narrator out of the toxic universe she was living in. These are some of the lines that shimmer with pain and anger:
How many blue volts before
Mom’s in a better mood?
Mom would stop at McDonald’s for shakes
so she had something to swallow her Lithium with
I remember our mother feeding us malice from cans.
Assuming you were describing your own mother, was it difficult to write about such a complicated parent and such a painful relationship? Or did it help you release the pain in some way?
PCM: Yes, these are about my mother. Just some background on her: she graduated from Stanford in 1961 with degrees in Political Science and International Relations. She worked as an IRS auditor for three years in San Francisco until she disappeared and her brother had to go find her in Mexico. He brought her to Cincinnati to live with him and his family. She was a brilliant woman who also suffered from Bipolar Disorder. She had several nervous breakdowns, she attempted suicide many times (including once when I was 15 and I saved her life), she received electroshock treatments, and she was locked in over 30 mental hospitals in 7 different countries including 18 months in a Russian mental institution where she was tortured nearly to death, lost 60 pounds and many teeth.
She traveled to Russia in the first place because she was a communist and wished to emigrate because she believed she was suffering from dirty trick harassment in the US. I do have her CIA and FBI files and she was certainly a person of interest, but it was more because of some of her other actions than her political beliefs. For example, she was arrested trying to climb the fence at the Russian Embassy in DC. She also sent a fax to the White House saying that Hillary Clinton was being flown in by medical helicopter. The Secret Service showed up on her doorstep that day! After she got back from Russia she found a therapist and a drug that helped her, and she was able to live pretty normally for the last 15 years of her life. She eventually became a Treasurer in the Communist Party USA before she moved to Las Vegas, where she thought her emphysema would be better. I remember she called me to complain that there was no CPUSA in Vegas. We just laughed and laughed!
I have to say my mother gave me a gift later in my life. She really had an amazing sense of humor. And once I could get past the notion that she had no idea how to be a mother, I was able to have a relationship with her that was more like a kooky auntie. So that’s where some of the humor in the book comes in.
It’s still difficult for me to understand why my parents spent so much energy pretending things weren’t happening that were just unacceptable. I’m writing a memoir, and I did some work this summer that has gotten me closer to an answer to that.
FRD: I noticed that cats and dogs appear and reappear in different poems. From heartbreaking images of new-born kittens that have died to pets that seem both disappointing and dearly loved, the animals seem to be an important part of the narrator’s life. One poem is even titled “Kitten,” although it does not directly mention any cats. As an animal lover myself I have to ask…did the dogs and cats symbolize something specific to you as the writer?
PCM: Well, I think the dogs and cats were just part of the cast of characters, to be honest. Mom really did breed Persians, and one of the litters all died. I had two cats for the majority of the time I was writing this book (they both passed a few years ago), and I have two dogs. I work mostly from home and I’m by myself with the animals, and I tend to talk to them a lot.
Two of my favorite dog moments in the book are, “There is the dog I loved despite his dogness.” That line appeared because I have one dog who is so affectionate, and we loved him so much we got his sister but she ended up being much more traditionally dog-like. I had the thought one day that I still love her but it is her dog traits that annoy me sometimes. Which to me is hilarious, because, she IS a dog.
And then the line, “You, the dog who stares at my finger even when I point to the bone.” Again, my dog really did that and it just worked its way into the poem.
Another line, “Cat, you are a failure as a cat.” I wrote that line in my journal one day about my sweet kitty Felina, who sometimes behaved more like a dog.
In the poem you mention “Kitten,” the cat resonance comes from that final image. I read an article about a man who tied up a litter of kittens in a bag and threw them into the river. My brother had so much contempt for women, so much contempt for me, that that final image is meant to show that he would love to toss me, toss all women, off the edge of a cliff. I’m the kitten in that poem.
FRD: The book jumps around in time and place; poems discuss Paris, a Russian asylum, Czechoslovakia. For me as a reader, taking the narrative to distant lands created a feeling of general displacement, almost like the speaker was being dragged around in a world that felt out of control. Was that your intention?
PCM: Yes, certainly, but also all of those places were truly where we were. I’ve personally traveled to 39 countries. My parents traveled to about 20 countries each as well. They lived for 2 years in the Philippines, and while they were there they explored a lot of southeast Asia. My father worked for GE Jet Engines as a customer support rep, and was always off to Rio or Amsterdam or Caracas.
FRD: Addiction and mental illness play central roles in the dysfunction of this family. Will you describe why you wanted to reach out, through your book, to those who have lived with, experienced, and/or survived addictions?
PCM: I have several goals here. First, I want families to understand the dire consequences of normalizing deviant behavior. In my family, the gaslighting, the denial, and the lack of consequence was unconscionable. But also, I want readers to understand what untreated Bipolar looks like. My mother refused to take medication because she enjoyed the highs of mania, but then during manic episodes she behaved in dangerous and unacceptable ways. So I want others to see how quickly that can turn really wrong.
FRD: I know you are the editor of the wonderful literary journal Superstition Review. Switching hats for a moment from author to editor, can you tell any readers who might be interested in submitting their work what you look for when you choose pieces to publish?
PCM: Well, let’s see. I read every submission. But I also have wonderful Faculty Advisors who read in Poetry, Fiction, and Nonfiction, and then we have a new student editor in each category each issue. All three of us give each submission a “Vote & Note” then we have discussions once a week to decide on the submissions that “bubble up” to the top. That’s one reason we sometimes accept so quickly. If we happen to receive your submission and we love it and we’re meeting that day, we send an acceptance right away.
It’s really difficult to give a description of what we look for that doesn’t sound pat. I might say it needs to be clean, meaning perfectly edited, but that’s not true: we have accepted work before that we put through several revisions with the author. Let me think of three tips. 1. Read the most recent issue. If we’ve just published a lot of stories about police officers, we might stay away from them in the next issue. There really are larger editorial questions like content and form. 2. We like imagery, figurative language, and musicality. 3. We don’t mind laughing. Humor is good!
FRD: Thank you for your time and for sharing your work and experiences with the world. I feel like I could ask a hundred more questions, but as this is an online interview, I’ll keep it short! Readers, you can purchase Hemming Flames from the publisher, the Utah State University Press, at this link:
or at this Amazon link:
Or, ask your local independent bookstore to get copies!