Q & A with poet Christina Murphy, interviewed by Joanna C. Valente
“Some pieces just come to a writer almost whole and are like a gift; other pieces require enormous effort to get sections written at all and then to get those sections into a structure that works cohesively in conveying the experience a writer seeks to create for the reader.”
How long have you been writing for? What was the age you began to write at?
I have been writing for about twenty years, and I started writing with a personal focus and commitment when I was twenty and in my senior year of college.
Do you have a writing process? For instance, some writers only write at a specific time or place. Or can you just write anywhere, anytime?
My writing process is that I write every day. There are rare exceptions in which something comes up in life that demands my attention and time and thus interferes with my writing, but I am quite steadfast in working on my writing on a daily basis. I put a number of hours into my work—usually around 6 – 8 hours each day. I write exclusively on a laptop, which literally is on my lap as I write. I write at home and only occasionally head out to a Starbuck’s or other coffee place to work. When I do that, I usually am not creating a new piece but putting the final touches on a manuscript and getting it ready for submission to a journal.
What are your influences? Are there certain things that facilitate your writing, such as music?
I write both poetry and fiction, and so my influences reflect that structure to my work. I read widely and enjoy a number of writers, and I always find I learn something from each author, not only in terms of the structuring of his or her work, but in terms of tone, style, technique, and the author’s world view. In fiction, I write in both magical realism/surrealism and traditional realism. Among the magical realists, I really admire Donald Barthelme, Lydia Davis, and Carol Emshwiller. Among the realists, probably too many to list, but I do admire Andre Dubus and Alice Munro. In poetry, again way too many to list, but I do find the ones who continue to capture and hold my imagination are Jane Hirshfield and Bruce Beasley. And then, of course, there are the people who seem to do everything in all styles and in all forms, and who also create new forms, too. I would put Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett in that category, who both have been major influences for me.
As for what influences me directly in the process of writing, I really value quiet and solitude. I find it very important for me to be alone so I can be totally focused. Writing requires a great deal of concentration and patience, and so I value being able to isolate myself from as many interruptions as possible.
I have tried to write with music on, and I admire those writers who do this regularly and are successful at it. It does not work for me as I find the music more or less getting into my head and interfering with my thoughts. Pretty soon I am either absorbed in the beauty of the music, or listening to the lyrics, or humming or singing along if I know the piece. I have tried a range of music, thinking perhaps classical music might work because of the absence of lyrics, but it is always the same effect. Essentially, music distracts me from my concentration rather than enhancing my ability to focus. I am probably unusual in this regard among writers, but that is what works for me.
Was there any period of time that you stopped writing? Or had a very long dry spell? If so, how did this make you feel?
I have never had a long period in which I was not writing. I have had periods in which my writing does not go as well as other times, and that can be frustrating in its own way. Some pieces just come to a writer almost whole and are like a gift; other pieces require enormous effort to get sections written at all and then to get those sections into a structure that works cohesively in conveying the experience a writer seeks to create for the reader. I find some measure of frustration in this process if I write and rewrite numerous times and that wonderful piece I am seeking to create continues to elude me. However, I think this is always a measure or test of a writer’s dedication, and so I generally hang in there for as long as it takes until I am satisfied with the piece. This can be hours, but usually it is days or months of rewriting—which is actually a process of re-envisioning the piece. Often it involves putting the piece away for awhile and coming back to it with a fresher perspective. I am very dedicated to my writing, though, so generally however long it takes, I will hang in there and keep working at it until I am pleased with the piece.
Was there a specific experience that made you want to write?
No specific experience. I think it was the overall enjoyment I got from reading wonderful writers, and that made me feel I wanted to write, too.
What is your current profession? How does it affect your work?
I am a college professor by training and experience, and I stepped away from academics almost four years ago so I could write full time. At this point in my life, my profession is not affecting my work.
Other than writing, what are some of your other hobbies and interests?
I love rock hunting and fossiling as my favorite hobby, and I have made several trips to the West, especially to Texas, Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming to pursue that interest. The landscapes of those areas have taught me, too, how form influences and expresses beauty. Being in the canyons around Amarillo, Texas can really make you aware of how Georgia O’Keefe recognized those canyons and the broad desert expanses of the Southwest as cognates for her own artistic vision.
If you weren’t a writer, what else would you be pursuing in its place?
I would return to my career in college teaching as I love to teach, and there are so many wonderfully bright and talented students out there to interact with.
You mention you live in a 100 year-old house. Describe it. What is its history?
I live in a 100 year-old Arts and Crafts house along the Ohio River in Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington is the largest inland port in America in terms of the amount of tonnage that comes into and out of Huntington on the Ohio River. Huntington started out as a railroad town and a river barge town in the 1830s, and it has retained that identity ever since. It is an interesting town for its varied architecture that reflects each period of its history. There are many beautiful Victorian homes of the nineteenth century, and there is a range of architectural styles of the early twentieth century, of which my house is one example. When Huntington was founded for rail and river commerce, a number of the people associated with building the Central Pacific Railroad, including Coliss P. Huntington, for whom the town is named, built large Victorian houses along the river in the mid nineteenth century. The next wave of industrialists built houses along the river at the turn of the twentieth century and embraced a number of popular styles in those days.
Interestingly, even though the Arts and Crafts movement was at its strongest from 1880 through 1910 and continued to flourish into the 1930s, there are only two Arts and Crafts houses in Huntington, and mine is the only one along the river. Living in this house has given me a great appreciation of simplicity in its complex artistic forms. The Arts and Crafts style emphasizes clean-cut lines in a non-decorative fashion that is true to the material being used. An artist who was influenced by these same ideas is the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who painted on a white canvas with a grid of horizontal and vertical black lines and using only the three primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. You can’t get any more elemental than that. Yet his paintings are gorgeously complex and engaging, even in their overt simplicity. I am reminded of Mondrian’s efforts and of the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement as I write in my house each day. I am also captivated by the Ohio River itself as an enormous river that makes its way through much of the American East and heads westward. The River has its own long history, too, and, of course, its day-to-day beauty as it reflects the seasons and also sustains the movement of so many boats and barges along its over 900-mile length. I grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and I was always captivated by the Atlantic Ocean and its beauty. So I am aware that I am influenced by oceans and rivers on many subconscious levels, and that these influences also tend to find their way into my writing as metaphors and images.
Do you enjoy performing your work?
No, unfortunately for me, because I think it would be fun if I could do it. But like many writers, I am rather introverted, and the idea of performing my work for an audience makes me feel uncomfortable. Basically, I am shy, and so I let the work speak for itself.
* * *
JENNET ICE // Christina Murphy
“What’s madness but nobility of soul
at odds with circumstance?”
—Theodore Roethke, “In A Dark Time”
Ah, this paradise business. It is a complicated thing.
Have you been up all night?
Yes, reading. I am in mourning. I have not made my wanderings plain to the sea, nor thanked the rivers that made me wise.
You are too unsettled for your nature. I think your reading disturbs you. What are you reading about?
Paradise. I have given much thought to Paradise.
So have I.
Yes. In between the daily audits, I wonder if the numbers might mean more somewhere else.
Tell me of your speculations.
I wouldn’t say they were speculations.
You might call them vain hopes.
I call no hopes vain. Vanity lies only with the perverse, and they do not dream.
Well, I have thought that heaven would be a place of rest.
And my soul would no longer need.
It is so hard for me to imagine that particular state. What is your God, or who?
I don’t know about God but I accept Him as He is.
Do you have a choice? No, let it go. Forgive me. After all, it is your God, and I am sure your God would give you choices.
And I suppose your God would not?
No, only the appearance of choices. Just as a cloud looks like a mound of snow
but is only vapor. Examine the vapor and what have you got?
My God isn’t vapor…or snow.
I know. He is the God of the solid world. I never think in three dimensions. I am afraid to, and
fear feels so much different than doubt.
You are too deep for your own good. Brooding is like a disease, and it can fester.
Fester! Why, it can strangle! It is the boa constrictor of all man’s emotions.
This is no jungle, only a simple little apartment.
Don’t remind me.
You can be cutting.
Forgive me. I forget your shell isn’t harder.
And I forget you are all shell, or at least would like to be.
I would rather be a diamond than a shell. They are both in the jungle, you know.
I must get ready for work. One of us has to work, you know.
I think I shall make myself a pot of tea today. Yes, I shall drink the tea as if it were wine
and needed me to caress it. I shall…
What? I can’t hear you.
Go to work. There is no work for you here. There is only sorrow in the vineyard.
I’d like to ask you not to think today, but it would be like asking the sky not to be blue.
No, don’t ask, for I am blue like the sky today.
Go to work. The sky will try not to storm.
I am not prepared for a storm.
Yes. More than you realize.
Go to work. Do your work. But it is not your Father’s business you are about.
I know that better than you do.
Would that we knew why we dance to distant harmonies.
I’m leaving now.
Goodbye. May you know only Paradise and not the serpent. But then, maybe you already do.
Tea is the bastard of indecision, but oh how soothing to the soul. As my divine grandmother said, God bless her soul, “It flows through the veins like honey.” But then, grandmother, will there be enough flowers for the bees? And what do the bees know of honey any way? It is the flower that has been besieged, and all rewards taste sweet only to the taker.
I shall sit here and sip my tea. A cup of tea, yes, shaped like the eye of the beholder. And what is in the eye of the beholder? How many scarecrows must be crucified, oh Lord, before you will tell us if we are real?
It is so difficult to be crucified. To get crucified is easy, but to live with it is a terrible thing, indeed. Even the nails must turn to rust some day. Even the nerves must sit like watchdogs,
fierce only in the night.
Good tea, indeed. Mellow, soft, a good counter to the darkness that even the candlelight cannot bear. Ah yes, the darkness makes timid beings of us all. Where then is our Paradise if even the nails cannot hold us? Are we all in a shooting gallery where only the unmarked can survive?
What makes you think there will be any survivors?
Ah, it is you again, my nemesis, my sorrow. I rather expected you, but I thought at least you would have the courtesy to wait until I finished my tea.
Time and tea wait for no man.
Are you going to be insolent again? I won’t stand for it! I will not!
I don’t think you are in a position to demand anything.
I never get myself into positions. Positions are a false honey, a sweet but temporary illusion. I long ago gave up trying to build anything. I’d rather settle for my own decay than be forced to build against my will.
You fit so many parts, and all so poorly. You are not exactly an easy person to know.
Remember that it was you who chose to know me. I could have lived my life quite well without you, but you insisted, like an oyster. And it has taken me this long to realize that you are not the pearl, but the grain of sand.
Not even a mustard seed?
A mustard seed? Why you don’t even have faith enough to be a Judas. That takes faith, you know. You have to believe that you are right in order to betray.
That’s just fine with me. I hate Last Suppers. I’m much better at beginnings. I have been pondering lately how all beginnings get begun. You for instance…
I am not an instance.
I am not an example.
Well, what are you then?
Only a knot tied to a mooring. The ship long ago sailed to sea.
What of the captain?
What of the sea?
My, aren’t we glum.
Glum, sir, is not a particularly educated word. I should think a third-degree burn of the mind would better bespeak the cause. I have opened too many closets lately where skeletons laugh or moan. I had forgotten what night-moths could do behind one’s back or…within one’s skull. No, I have known every second of this year’s hour, and I do not expect to hear from them any more.
The spaces between the seconds where tock is tick and all the world is one. I have been reading of that harmony before the lost days, and I have decided that Paradise is only the gaping wound of eternity.
Do your wounds gape? Is that why you read of others’ wounds because you cannot stand your own?
I read so that I might see beyond the reach of the jaundiced eye. It’s the only decent thing to do, for on the other side of one’s eyeballs might be Paradise. Paradise, indeed. A storied land where God and man communed through angels and had much to say.
I wish I had time to discuss the virtues of Original Sin with you, but fortunately I am not fixated with God and the Devil as you are. I keep my jaundiced eye in my pocket and only take it out when it is time to pay another fare. You’d be doing the same thing if you weren’t always lost at sea.
Newport! The tide rushing in. I remember it so well. The night was frosted with salt air. I was young then and just beginning. I believed I was a child of the sea, suckled by the sunset. I lived for the nights. I believed in the King of Hearts and the Tin Man. Surely, I must have known…
You did, but you wouldn’t listen to reason. You were too in love with your own explanations, so you were always alone.
You were with me then…in those days, too?
In those days, too.
Heart and mind?
Only you know that. Who really knows?
Certainly, not the sea.
What becomes of the sea when its graveyard is full?
It freezes from forgetting how to cry and dreams in iceberg memories.
I wander in a desert where the sun’s heat tastes only of thirst and longing. What strange roots try to bind me to the sea? I must know!
The sea is a wound that never heals.
But my dream is of the sea!
You are disgusting. Your pain is like a foul dust.
But how can I believe what you…what I know isn’t…
Pretenders to the throne always marvel at the king.
What flame ever burned that did not fear the darkness?
What darkness that never feared the flame?
But I must prove to you that this harvest is yours, not mine. I will show you!
You will show me nothing because you are nothing.
I knew the dance once. I knew the tune. If only I could sing the breeze into a shining light. Then I could show you. Then you would know. I would have proof,
Proof is your only hero, but this is a war without victories.
But you see, don’t you? You see.
I see only that you are a fool.
Angels of gold, of broken hearts and disappointed dreams, the threads of my beliefs have fallen away and I have crawled on my heart to you. I bleed only sorrow and cannot believe that it is divine.
Only frozen fire is despair. Hold it too long, and it will try to free itself to destroy itself.
Miles of wounds have lit the way. Darkness can make no other progress. I have never felt the burden of the dagger lift. The sound of suffering is hollow.
There is a legend of the Cross, when all the world is autumn, and life peels away in the colors of death. This was the time of Jennet who lived in silence, fearing his own words. His love he held to his heart like ice, wishing never to lose it, fearing its spell that made man need completion. Tight against all storms, tight against all threats, all needs, until he had carved his own crosses in the ice that melted like acid upon his soul. Too long had he waited for rain.
Am I then but a well, hollow with shadows?
And is your love rain, or Jennet ice?
Is it only a futile hope to believe that… I…?
You are the tree that ice deforms and nothing now touches your roots. Your leaves echo with pain. What shaped you has harmed you. Even the sky becomes a victim of its own reflections.
I have never known the baptism of fire. Emptiness, to me, has been the color of lead.
What you see is through dead eyes, frightened of the sun and the sea.
The sea, the sea. Let us go down to the sea in what…despair, insanity? What thought is the seed time of the harvest? What thought that yields the blessing? I have been thinking about Paradise, and I have struggled to comprehend. But what frightens me about Paradise is the thought of the thinking without end.
Answers are only the solace of sin, and they are such strange currency. Beliefs are so much simpler.
Paradise is not the child or the father of sin. Beauty was graceful once, before it withered on the vine like a scar. I had not thought of Paradise as a flower, the thought of the blossoming and the dying without end.
Home from the hill, home from the hill you come.
Yes, home. And what of your day? I see you’ve finished reading.
The day was wonderful and the rainbow never ends.
Look, I have had your coat mended. I had the hole you wore in the sleeve patched. I don’t want you to be cold and unprepared for the winter.
I need more preparation than a coat for winter, kind sir. Maybe your God will anoint me with oils and my heart will be strong against the cold.
Why must you be like this? I don’t understand it. It’s blasphemy to always rail against the universe so. It’s blasphemy to…
You are so busy defending your God that you can’t even see where the heavens end. I have no business in your world, nor you in mine.
You must let the hatred go. Forgiveness is a balm…
A balm that Solomon would have cleaved in two. You know, Jesus could have been a bomber pilot if he had wanted to. He had the aim. We could have wised him up quickly—you with your love like the tyranny of a gentle rainfall, and I with my distrust of salvation. Between the two of us, he would have known what it was really like for his Father to send Abraham into the mountains with his son. Unlike the Father, we only play real games here.
Stop it! Stop it! Your bitterness is an insult to God.
Effrontery is the sincerest form of gratitude. It is perhaps the most human of emotions, coming as it does with equal sincerity from friend or foe. God should be pleased I know his paths so well.
God must know you because I am sure that I don’t.
Your concern for me has taken a fortuitous turn. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow you all the rest of your days.
What path are we walking now?
This path is the journey of the stars, a constant fading. I have fled from Jerusalem screaming, looking at my palms for any kind of wound, any sign.
Is there to be a new mystery at every turn? Is this what I am to expect now?
I am tired of your questions. They fall on me like tears and make me weary of knowing that my answers will come only as thorns. I do not have the piecemeal patience of Van Gogh, else I would chop my ear off not to listen.
I am going to make you some tea. That will help settle you down. I should have thought of this sooner. Maybe then I could have done better by you. I lose my patience sometimes, that’s all. I forget I have to…
Have to what? Not feel, and see, and hear? There is a destiny beyond the reach of mortal eye that is not glimpsed except by pain. The river that we swim in has us swimming back to our homelands to die. What else springs from the loins of despair but mountains that no simple traveler can climb?
Is that what you think I am, simple?
Only like the rose which was once the morning star. Ah, the sensuous ecstasy of blooming.
I wish you would talk to me so that I would know how you feel.
My words are like pillows to cushion the fall. I wish you could think of them as your lovers that once bathed with you in the sun.
Talk to me, truly talk to me.
I tire of this game. What would you like? That I talk to you of omelets made of daffodils, or of a castle wide as Spain? Would you eat of an apple knowing that it must be reborn?
I can’t go on like this. You have put so much distance between me and your pain that I am nearly lost to you.
I have built my barricade with thorns. You may come to me in pieces, but you will never come to me whole.
I would gladly come if I could feel that even a part of me would soothe you.
Ships are not made to soothe the storm. We all know the way to the bottom.
I have tried so to love you, but you will not let me reach you where I know you must be. You hide from me like a dream that fears the telling.
Or the teller.
How I have ached to understand you and longed that my touch could soothe you. If only I knew what you were afraid of.
I fear most the stench of burning flesh. Mine eyes have not seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, and we have looked in all the wrong places for the Messiah.
Please let me touch you…reach you. I’m afraid. This is the only world we know, and it is cloaked in fear. But somehow I must believe that there is some higher purpose here. To draw each breath is a miracle that a loving God lets us feel. To have loved once but one living thing is to know that God is truly divine…truly merciful.
Enough of this outrage! You speak to me of a loving God? Your God never felt the fire he threw Satan into. He never dreamed that Hell could so easily overflow with human flesh and human bone.
Only love can lead you from the darkness.
This is foolishness. Nothing changes. Do you think wishing makes it so?
Nothing reaches you. God perhaps, but not me.
Leave me alone, both of you—you and your God. I am on a branch of my own making.
Just once I wish you could see with me, not around me or through me. I believe in hope. All regret is futile.
I do not regret so much as mourn the loss in me of what once only you could find. A mirage perhaps, but was it yours or mine?
I do not believe in mirages any more than I believe in devils.
That’s right. Your God is definitely not the God of devils.
I don’t care to be discussing my God any more with you.
No, neither do I. I think I shall read more of Paradise. How simple it seemed to this fellow Milton. If only he had understood that Eve did not hear God talking to her but only took Adam’s word for it. But, it is his story, and I won’t interfere with it.
Very wise of you. One should never meddle with grand designs.
I shall read to you. “Rather than be less, cared not to be at all.”
Ah, arrogance at its finest or worst. What do you think?
What did Christ die for if the crucifiers could only jeer?
The fullness of mercy. Don’t ever forget the power of forgiveness.
Forgiveness forgives evil. One depends upon the other, the bridge and the water, the stars and the night.
Forgiveness is like a seed very carefully planted.
Even the Devil was once only a plant in somebody’s garden, but what of the vine that fears its own flower?
Fear is your burden, not mine. I will make some tea for us both.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not know why I needed to feel so alone.
You are not alone.
So would your God say, but not mine.
I think it’s going to be a cold winter.
Snow, cold, wind, and pestilence. When will it ever end? My soul aches to be free.
Do you believe in freedom?
But you still desire it?
Of all the great illusions, freedom is the most alluring. Would that freedom were not itself a victim of circumstance.
We are out of honey. Shall it be lemon and sugar with your tea?
Circumstance shall dictate the taste of my tea? Why are we never free of circumstance?
Fate. In your universe, even your tea is destined to suffer.
You are angry again.
There is no again.
You are wrong. Again and again is all there is.
There is no assurance then, no better end to the journey?
There is only what always is, the aloneness, the emptiness, the loss that is no more than an echo in the night.
Are you alone with me?
As I am with myself.
Why is that?
Ask your God. Tell me when you hear.