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A Chat with Poet Jim Murphy

A Chat with Poet Jim Murphy

Editor’s note: Negative Capability Press publisher Sue Brannan Walker chats with poet Jim Murphy on the eve of the publication of his new collection, The Uniform House.

Sue Brannan Walker: Jim, Negative Capability Press is proud to have published your new book, The Uniform House, and we look forward to your Workshops at the Alabama Writers Conclave conference, July 11-13 (2014). Any preview of what you’re going to cover in these workshops?

Jim Murphy: I’m really grateful for the opportunity both to publish with Negative Capability and to work with the Conclave. This book is more local, more rooted in Alabama than the others I’ve published, so I’m probably going to look at place–setting roots, uprooting, transplanting–wait, maybe I’ll do something on botany! No, they’ll have to do with place and culture, and how we all have authentic places that mean a lot to us, sometimes places that are more psychologically or spiritually home than the place we find ourselves. Poetry lets us explore all these places, and more.

SBW: Why does poetry matter in our time, in 2014?

JM: I believe it matters just as it did in 2014 BC, and back to the dawn of human history. It’s the most ancient and most spiritual of all verbal and written arts. It has music and shapeliness and some very complicated forms, but at heart it’s a primal expression of what it means to be a human being, reckoning with the world around you. Whether that world contains wooly mammoths or the Internet is immaterial. It’s the reckoning that matters in poetry, I think.

SBW: Why does poetry matter to you?

JM: It allows me to sing! Believe me, you wouldn’t want to hear my actual singing voice. That sounds really silly at first, but lyric poetry is my main mode, so it does let me explore culture and history through song, as it were. I’m very glad to be a part of that tradition that goes back to Dickinson, Whitman, and the Psalms–way back.

SBW: What advice might you offer to someone interested in writing and publishing poetry?

JM: First, read all you can. And read poets from all times and places, all backgrounds. There’s no one you can’t learn from. Duke Ellington once said there are only two kinds of music, “The good kind, and the other kind.” That’s how I feel about poetry.

Then you can write with as broad a palette as is available. As for publishing, start local. That could be a school magazine, a city paper, or maybe a small local online journal. I’m impressed at how terrific the options are. You can find editors who are passionate, educated, and open to your good work in your town. You don’t have to send your first packet off to The New Yorker.

SBW: Tell us a bit about your own poetic journey? About teaching poetry?

JM: You know that little thing about singing before? It’s pretty much true. I got into a lot of “poetic” rock and rollers when I was a much younger guy, maybe thirteen or fourteen: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger–the usual suspects. I couldn’t sing or play, but I could write, at least a little. It doesn’t take long to find out that Robert Zimmerman took the name Bob Dylan in part from Dylan Thomas, and suddenly you’re in poetry proper.

As for teaching, I was a terrified graduate assistant at the University of Cincinnati in 1995 when I first started that. I’ve gotten pretty good at it since. It’s also a great art, of course. I’ve done academic teaching, writers’ conference workshops, one-on-one critiques–the common denominator is trying to understand the writer’s vision and to respond to that, not to try to change that writer into someone who sounds like you. No interchangeable parts in poetry, you know?

SBW: What are you working on now?

JM: I’ve been working on geography for a while, but I’m likely going to shift into history more deeply, both cultural history and my own.

SBW: Is reading an important aspect of writing?

JM: Essential. No doubt about it.

SBW: What is your favorite poem in The Uniform House and why is it important to you?

JM: There’s one that’s my favorite at the moment called “By the Banks of the Mighty...” And it’s about this really heroic thing my father did way back around 1993, when the Mississippi River flooded huge swathes of Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky. We were living in central Illinois then, and I remember he went down and joined a sandbagging crew way down in the heart of that flood-stricken area. He was sixty-one years old at the time. He just suddenly decided to go, and was down there with these people for what I remember as quite a while, sandbagging and digging. That poem is about this experience, about everyday heroism. It means a lot to me now because we lost my dad a couple of years ago, and this book is dedicated to him. It’s not entirely about him, but of course you know how it is with fathers and sons. There’s a good bit of that relationship, told or re-told one way or another, all the way through it.

SBW: Thank you, Jim.

JM: Thanks, Sue. It’s a pleasure.

Jim Murphy is the author of two prior poetry collections, The Memphis Sun and Heaven Overland. He teaches creative writing at the University of Montevallo in central Alabama.

(Photo courtesy of Jim Murphy.)