The Burn and the Salve: Interview with Patricia Colleen Murphy

by Caitlin McCann

Patricia Colleen Murphy’s first collection of poems, Hemming Flames (USU Press 2016), won the 19th Annual May Swenson Poetry Award. Hemming Flames charts the familial roots of mental illness, addiction, and trauma. The poems are more than a rehashing of events and experiences, they almost become living things. Alive in the way that, well, fire is alive. More than anything else, Hemming Flames is honest. These poems are not easy ones to read. Murphy takes a battering ram to doors most poets are afraid to knock on. There is an unspoken deal she makes with the reader: “I promise I will tell the whole truth, not pull any punches, if you come on this ride with me and you don’t close your eyes when things get rough. I promise you will come out on the other side feeling better than when you started.” This honesty, and the care and depth of Murphy’s poems, is what gives the book its healing powers. Hemming Flames will burn you, Murphy quite literally jumps into the fire, but it will also give you a remedy for the pain.

CAITLIN McCANN: First of all, congratulations on the publication of your first collection of poems! Could you take us through the process of what it was like to put together your first book? How long had you been working on your first collection before its publication? Is this the book you had in mind when you first began compiling your manuscript?

PATRICIA COLLEEN MURPHY: Thank you so much, Caitlin! The long answer is I have been working on this book for 20 years. Several of the poems here were published in literary magazines in the 1990’s. The manuscript went through many revisions, and it finaled at something like 15 contests and was nearly taken in about 10 open submissions periods. In fact, two of my dream publishers, Copper Canyon and Milkweed, each had it under consideration for two full years, from 2013 to 2015. When I look back at why it was a near miss for so long, I do see that it was never really ready.

The major shift in the book came when I challenged myself to explore some themes that I had not had the courage to address previously. Nine of the poems in this final manuscript were written for my poetry group during fall 2013. I share my work with a group of about 5-8 other poets in three 10-poem sessions each year. This group was so supportive of this hard material and often pushed me to be more specific and more honest even when I felt terrified of what I was already writing. In 2015, when I sent the book off to be considered for the May Swenson Prize, it was more risky and relentless than previous versions.

This is not the book I had imagined at first, mostly because I don’t think I had the courage to tell the truth when I was younger. I think I wrote a lot of big emotions without writing a lot of evidence. I remember something we used to say to each other in graduate workshops, “This line isn’t earned.” A lot of what I was writing early on was not earned because I was withholding detail. With this manuscript I decided I needed to add the detail.

McCANN: How did you decide on what order you would put the poems in? Sometimes the book feels fairly linear, there’s a sense of chronology, but then we slip into these surreal planes or into different perspectives that disrupt the linearism and thus create a lot of tension.

MURPHY: This is an insightful question, and you kind of answer it yourself here! I did decide to organize chronologically. I start with childhood scenes then move into adolescence and adulthood. But I didn’t want the book to be a straight narrative, and I use the surrealism to disrupt reality and to force the reader to feel how disorienting and terrifying it is to be in relationships with people who are so very sick.

I think about something that the wonderful poet and memoirist Kelle Groom said to me. She was helping me try to describe what it was like to live in such proximity to madness. “I need you to get into that burning Oldsmobile,” she said. In other words, I was trying to communicate the experience by stating only fact, which is admittedly pretty terrifying: “My mother got in her car, poured gasoline all over her lap, and lit a match.” But Kelle pushed me to embody the experience. And that’s what I’m doing with the content and structure of the book, too. Everything about those relationships was tense and non-linear.

McCANN: Why did you decide to go with Hemming Flames as the title of the collection? How does it embody the rest of the book, especially since it’s the last two words in the final poem? For me, the most charged poems, and the ones that were most difficult to read in terms of content, were “Is it the Sea You Hear in Me?” and “Meet the Author.” In these poems there’s the mention of hems. Was this intentional, part of a purposeful evolution, or a happy accident fleshed out?

MURPHY: Thanks for this question. It makes me want to really visit those last two words, or the last two lines really.

“Yesterday I invented fire
today I’m hemming flames.”

That couplet sums up my mother’s bipolar disorder. She was always either shining bright or burning bright. I spent so much of my life reacting to her illness, whether I was trying to fix something, or trying to protect myself. In titling the collection, I was focused on the notion that it’s not only impossible to hem flames, it’s also dangerous.

And the lines did resonate with a lot of existing imagery, especially my mother’s suicide attempt by fire (she tried to kill herself in several different ways throughout her life, but the fire was perhaps the most terrifying), and my parents’ endless cigarettes.

The two mentions of hems that you bring up in yes–very highly charged poems–were written before I had the title. But another way it’s significant is that a hem is an edge. So many images in the book are touching edges.

McCANN: The titles of your poems and every one of their opening and closing lines are so strong. What’s sandwiched in between is also fantastic, but I was just so taken aback by how cutting those particular lines are. What sort of work went into the cultivation of those lines? Did you know how the poems would begin and end, or was this something that came to fruition through revision?

MURPHY: Oh hey thanks for that! I did use a pretty unique composing process for many of the poems. It developed partly because I read a lot, and one of the things I like to do when I read is to collect “nuggets.” It’s one of my favorite things about writing and reading poetry, these one-line punches that stand almost on their own. And nuggets work really well as titles, first lines, and last lines.

So I keep a writer’s notebook with a collection of my own: these are usually things that come to my mind at random free-thinking moments. Then before I write, I do a re-reading session of the notebook to gather inspiration. Sometimes I’ll cut and paste lines from my notes intact into the poem. So you’ll see these end-stopped moments a lot throughout the book, but yes especially as first and last lines.

As far as endings go, two of my favorite poets are Franz Wright and James Wright. I often talk about the “big fat James Wright ending.” It is something I have studied and cultivated here. I’ll talk about two examples.

The line, “Think of the courage it took for me to touch a doorknob.” I had this thought one day when walking into a store that was in full sun and here in Phoenix I knew the doorknob was going to be terribly hot. I liked the sound of the line as a sentence and so it went into my notebook. Then when I thought about that phrase within the family history, and remembering that my mother attempted suicide and I saved her by opening her closed bedroom door, the literal became figurative: from the fear of hot metal to the fear of dangerous interpersonal relationships.

Another example is, “Misting the ferns with a mental mister.” I had this thought in bed one night when I had forgotten to water my tomato plants! Do you ever do that? I wasn’t going to get out of bed to go water them, so I kind of just thought about watering them—I went through the whole mental process of it perhaps to punish myself for having forgotten, or maybe to remind myself to do it in the morning. When I used that line in the poem, though, two important things happened. First, the plant changes to something wholly domestic and ornamental, to highlight that feeling of being trapped indoors and needing sustenance but not getting anything real. And second, I wanted the poem to end on the word “mister” to highlight this terrifying masculine landscape.

As far as beginnings go, to get the best one I usually just erase the first two stanzas, which tend to be pre-writing anyway.

McCANN: “Why I Burned Down Namdaemun Gate” is very different from the rest of the poems in the collection. It carries the thread of fire but, as far as I can tell, it’s the only poem removed from this family’s history. How does this poem function in the collection? Why include it?

MURPHY: That is a persona poem in the voice of my mother. I wanted to capture someone else who had set fire to something. I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with my mother over the years that sounded just like that poem. My mother was a genius. But in her manic stages, nothing made any sense. There were these wild associations, these wild accusations and wild actions too.

McCANN: As far as I can discern, not every poem told in the second person is addressed to the same you. Who are the yous in these poems? What do you think the poems gain by being written in the second person as opposed to in the third person?

MURPHY: So true, and not every poem in first person is the same I. Again I want the reader to feel off-kilter and uncomfortable. I want the through-line of the book to be as intense and upsetting as growing up in that atmosphere was. The identity is amorphous. The family is so dysfunctional, the behaviors are so abnormal, that there is no accountability or ownership. It’s a soup of bad behavior. I move back and forth between I and you in part to mimic the interactions inherent in the family. It’s confront and retreat. And many of the poems can be read from any perspective. You could read the I as the mother, the father, the brother, the speaker.

McCANN: Continuing with the topic of point of view, for the most part the poems seem to be told from the point of view of the same person, but “Letter from the Psych Ward, Hospital Kashenko” is from the mother’s perspective and “Liminal” is from the father’s perspective. What drove you to make the choice to shift into their perspectives for these poems?

MURPHY: Both of those poems were composed as a response to texts. “Letter from the Psych Ward” is a found poem comprised of lines from a letter my mother actually sent to me from Hospital Kashenko, the Russian mental institution where she was held incommunicado for 18 months and nearly died. The voice there is her true manic voice. I changed very little about it.

“Liminal” was written in a memoir writing class I took with Laurie Stone. She handed me a photograph of a man and two children at a table, and a woman in the doorway, naked, with dirt at her feet. The assignment was to write for 20 minutes about the picture, and I wrote for 20 minutes and the poem “Liminal” that you see in the book is almost word for word what I produced. The photograph gave me this urge to see things from my father’s point of view. He really loved us so much but was also stuck.

I have a creepy additional note to the story of writing “Liminal.” The last line says “My mother was dead,” and when I read the work out loud the night of the class I got a terrible chill and one of the other students started crying, and it was generally a moving moment. The next morning, I found out that my mother had died the previous day, was actually about four hours dead when I wrote and read the poem. It took over 24 hours for the coroner to contact me.

McCANN: I was intrigued by your use of the word asylum throughout the book. What made you decide to use the word asylum as opposed to mental hospital, or something similar? Were you playing with the idea that asylum can also refer to political asylum?

MURPHY: Yes, you got it. I was playing with political asylum. My mother was an active member of the Communist Party USA and she tried to emigrate to both Cuba and Russia. She spoke often of seeking political asylum because she believed she was being harassed by the US government for her activities with CPUSA. During her lifetime she was held in about 30 different mental institutions in six different countries, including Cuba and Russia.

McCANN: I love that you bring up this idea of literary femininity in “How I Learned That Everyone is Ridiculous.” For me, literary femininity harkens back to sentimental novels and domestic fiction in 19th century American literature, and for one’s writing to lack literary femininity means to not write like a “lady.” Could you talk about what literary femininity means to you and your work, and perhaps this poem in particular?

MURPHY: Oh thanks for picking up on that line and for asking me about that poem. I come from a position of having to defend that poem because it is so heavily steeped in allusion that 3/5ths of my poetry group tore into me and let me know how obnoxiously inaccessible it was, while 2/5ths loved it and said it was hilarious. The poem amused me so much I didn’t revise it much, save for removing the final couplet and an epigraph.

The poem used to begin with this Barthes quote from “Death of the Author”: “. . . quand je parle, je ne peux pas parler sans avoir une certaine idee, une certaine image de l’autre a qui je parle, une image de ce qu’il attend de moi, de ce qu’il est lui-meme.” Which roughly translates to, “when I speak, I can’t speak without having a certain idea or image of the person I’m speaking with, an image of what he thinks of me, and of what he is himself.”

This is the quote that inspired the entire poem, so in essence the poem is a reaction to the ridiculous construct of language. Think of the mockery the conscience makes of communication! To say what I want to say, I need to know what the listener thinks of me, and what the listener thinks of himself. It’s devastating! Crippling! How are any of us still talking to others? It’s an impossible situation.

The week before I wrote this poem I hired a reader for my memoir, and the comments I received made me feel like the reader didn’t just dislike the writing, the reader disliked me as a person. And that’s okay. People are allowed to dislike me, but it wasn’t exactly what I was paying for. The next day I was reading Barthes, and I read that quote, and I thought about how irresponsible it is of us to think that language can communicate anything, because in order to enter dialogue we are already by necessity at once self-conscious and assumptive.

It made me think about how often we hear male critics dismissing writing by women. Even more, Barthe’s explanation highlighted the notion that women can’t speak without already knowing intuitively that many men come from a place of privilege and superciliously assume that women are second class. Okay honestly it made me think of very specific male critics dismissing my writing. And that’s why you see this pile-up of influential men in the poem, authors whose work I adore individually, and whose names I have always admired for the collusion of sounds: Barth, Barthes, and Barthelme. In the poem, they become the committee that decides my literary worth. So “lack of literary femininity” means exactly as you say: that I’m not being lady-like enough for my male critics.

McCANN: What will you be working on next? Your bio mentions a memoir-in-progress, can you talk about that, and also where you are in terms of your second collection of poetry?

MURPHY: Sure! I have two other poetry collections that are in circulation. And I have been working on the memoir for many years as well. I just finished a residency at Djerassi in California where I did some pretty transformative work on that book. I feel like it will be ready to send around after about 40 more hours of work.