Welcome to Terspischore’s Atrium, where the Hermeneutic Chaos editors find delight in the elfin task of confronting their contributing authors with some really tough questions.
The author to grace the pages today is Christina Murphy, whose poem ‘Echoes of Unavowed Rivers and Valleys’ was a part of our Issue 2. She will be interviewed by Shinjini Bhattacharjee.
1.“Echoes of Unavowed Rivers and Valleys”, like most of your poems, displays a metaphorical complexity within a precipitated imagery, which adds to its sublime aura. How would you describe your poetic style?
I am drawn to philosophical poetry, or the poetry of ideas as it is often called. The poets who captivated me and caught my imagination were poets working in this mode, like Jane Hirshfield, Jorie Graham, T.S. Eliot, John Ashbery, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, and many others who sought to explore consciousness and subjectivity. I’m fascinated by Gertrude Stein for her ability to peel away or decode the cultural conventions that affect consciousness and to focus on a direct experience of consciousness with those common barriers removed. Another poet I admire greatly and truly love is E. E. Cummings, who was doing much of what Stein did in examining the limits of language and expression but adding to that a great gift for lyricism and imagery. Some of the most beautiful and imaginative poetry ever has been written by Cummings, who was able to express so much about consciousness by understanding and writing about emotions as if they were multi-dimensional objects of Romantic and of Abstract art.
So, in my writing, my sense of what I wish to express is highly subjective in origin. The literary critic Roland Barthes calls the origin of any writer’s thoughts “the methodological field.” And in my methodological field, I am seeking to shift the lens from traditional realism to an exploration of reality as complex, multidimensional, and subjectively indefinite. I seek to express in my poems an indefinite sense of “reality” as being even more indeterminate and of experience itself as inviting multiple modes of interpretation. In writing my poems, I work to have each image add to this indeterminacy, as well as to the ideational progression of the poem itself, by engaging the reader in a highly subjective act of experience and interpretation. In a way, I am always seeking larger and larger contexts into which to place my ideas and for my ideas to explore, and that exploration itself forms the core of the poem and also invites the reader into exploring these ideas and their contexts, too.
2. Many readers are of the opinion that David Foster Wallace’s writing is extremely reserved in nature, and often reluctant to mingle with others. How did you manage to persuade it to collaborate with your poem?
Yes, David Foster Wallace can be a bit intimidating to read—a tough nut to crack, as one of my friends describes him. His most famous work is the novel Infinite Jest, which is over a 1,000 pages in length, and that alone can make the novel and Wallace seem formidable. Wallace had such a fascinating and energetic mind, and he was passionately dedicated to, and had training in, mathematics, physics, and philosophy in addition to creative writing, and his work shows the interweaving of these fields. I think Wallace is hard to draw large-scale insights from, not only because his works are so dense and mammoth, but because he covers so many areas and moves so rapidly amongst his scenes and characters as he creates his complex narratives. That said, though, I do think there are elements of Wallace’s thoughts and descriptions that are quite powerful and stand out almost like jewels in a setting. And these elements speak to me, in a sense, as a reader and especially as a writer. So the quotation from Wallace that prompted my poem began as an experience like that. I was reading The Pale King, and that sentence—“There are secrets within secrets, though—always” just stood out for me. And it got me thinking about how this idea played out, not only in the realities of life, but across all existence. I started to wonder—how might this concept apply on a cosmological level, and how might that awareness be expressed through images that conveyed a similar or related sense of complexity? That was the beginning of thinking about and creating the poem I wrote, and, in a sense, Wallace’s sentence was the start of my “methodological field” for the poem. So the collaboration between Wallace’s quotation and my eventual poem was very much like the proverbial rock dropped into water, in which the initial idea started the thought processes as the ripples that, over time, became the poem.
3. How important do you think are mirages to a desert?
Mirages are one of the most spectacular effects of a desert. The open spaces and heat waves of a desert enable the optical illusions that mirages represent to form. And that is a key image for many aspects of life in which the real and the imaginary, or at least the distortions of the real, co-exist and define our experiences of what is, or what might be, true. Edgar Allan Poe wrote about that life was a dream within a dream, and perhaps the same can be said about human perceptions. Perhaps what we know, or think we know, is an illusion within an illusion, and what we see is real to us even within those limitations. An important point, too, is that what we see as an optical illusion still must be interpreted by our minds, and so what we see, or think we see, is highly personal, highly subjective, in that regard. It is all refracted light, but the effects refracted light creates have different effects upon different people. So the basis for the experience of a mirage is highly individual. I like to think that a mirage is a lovely image for poetry itself as it is real and imagined, actual and interpreted subjectively, all at the same time. And as enticing as mirages can be in their unusual beauty, so it is with poems that capture the imagination and engage the subconscious in these mystical and mystifying ways.
4. Do you think introverts write better poetry?
Well, introverts do tend to write a certain kind of poetry, which I would call reflective or philosophical. I wouldn’t say that absolutely every introverted poet writes reflective poetry, but, from the descriptions of their lives and of their writing styles, many do. The term “introvert” correctly applied means someone who needs and seeks a great deal of solitude. And there is something about solitude that can prompt in the creative mind a certain way of feeling and contemplating that creates writing of a reflective nature. “Better” as a value judgment or as an assessment tool might best be applied to evaluating the work of each poet within a given style because, obviously, some poets write better than others; however, I would be hesitant to say that introverts write better poetry than extroverts, only that the styles might vary between the two groups, and that the concept of “better” would apply to individual poets within each group versus evaluating one group against the other.
5. Pick up any book lying closest to you, choose a random page and a random line, and describe it as a sound you are hearing right now.
The book I picked up because I was reading it earlier this afternoon and had it nearby isMrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. And the random page and line I came upon was: “But to whom does the solitary traveller make reply?” The sound I am hearing when I read this line is like small waves gently lapping against a shore.
6. You are lucky to be living in a house that boasts of a rich history. Has it inspired your aesthetic style in any manner?
I do feel fortunate to live in this house. It was built in 1918 in the Arts and Crafts style, and so it is its own testament to history. The Arts and Crafts style was known for its focus upon the interrelationship of form and function and emerged in reaction to the ornate styles of the Victorian era. It emphasized a respect for traditional craftsmanship and respected the craftsman as an artist who could create and implement a vision and a style. The movement emphasized simple forms and sharp lines, and it rejected the exaggerated ornateness of architectural design in the mid-nineteenth century. In its day and in its own way, the Arts and Crafts movement was revolutionary, and a number of its ideas found their way into the arts with numerous transitions from overly wrought literary works and paintings into a more direct and available style.
When I am writing here in this house, I am often reminded of how a given style is expressed by a vision of what “art” and “reality” should look like. And I do consider the interaction of form and function. I am prone to examine each word I use in a poem and thus to understand the grounds upon which a word stays, or goes, or is replaced by another word, which must again undergo the above considerations. I am reminded, in this regard, of Gertrude Stein’s statement in her 1935 essay “Poetry and Grammar”: “Poetry has to do with vocabulary just as prose has not.” And what she has in mind is that the vocabulary of poetry has to do with the noun, and nouns carry the weight, so to speak, of what a poem is and what it becomes. I think about this idea quite a bit, as well as her statement: “One of the things that is a very interesting thing to know is how you are feeling inside you to the words that are coming out to be outside of you.” I love that statement, and I do consider the concept of what she is saying to be essential to me for understanding the impact of my writing. That impact can only occur through form as it would be impossible to express any idea without some type of form or some type of form mediated through vocabulary as Stein puts it.
So living and writing in a house based upon a movement that thoroughly examined form and function as the interrelated constructs of art is a tremendous boon—and spur—to looking at my poetry as a form that is being created, being sculpted in a sense, to show or reveal something by design. And I do combine that examination with realizing the wonderful truth of what Stein said in saying that it is important to know “how you are feeling inside you to the words that are coming out to be outside of you.” The words that are “coming out to be outside of you” and the ways you feel about those words as they come into existence “outside of you” constitute the vocabulary, the form, and the essence of poetry. And I think of that often as I write and especially after I have written and begin the process of seeing what I’ve got and how it is functioning as a poem.
7. Have you ever felt intimidated by your literary outpourings?
No, not really. Mystified, delighted, surprised—or frustrated, exhausted, stuck on a poem or a revision. But not really intimidated, which, to me, would mean being frightened or nervous about my writing or undertaking my writing at a given point in time. I have felt many emotions about my writing, but I have never been intimidated by it.
8. What do you think is the guiltiest pleasure of your writing notebook/laptop (wherever you compose your work)?
Having the time and freedom to write are guilty pleasures in themselves. It is such a joy to me to write, and I can totally immerse myself in it and be carried along by the delight for hours. Even when the work is not going well, it is still an intense and meaningful feeling to be working hard at something I love to do.
I write mostly on my laptop and only occasionally in longhand in a notebook. I get a true sense of mystical delight, perhaps even insight, to know that, when I am writing on my computer, I am writing with light. What could be more wonderful than that? And the capacity I have when writing to rework a text, save drafts, look things up quickly on the Internet when I need to know something—all of these are enormous delights and guilty pleasures. And, because I have terrible handwriting, it is also a delight to see the words typed legibly on the page and not have to spend eons of time trying to figure out what it was I scribbled so quickly in my notebook that now I cannot make out some of the words.
I have a friend who told me he hates to write on a computer because he gets distracted by the words as they are forming on the page, and then he stops writing to become a reader and to evaluate, perhaps even edit, his work in midstream. I told him that, once he is in his document and ready to type, turn off his monitor so that he cannot see what he is typing, and just create away. I do that sometimes, typing away and not seeing the screen as I type, and that is a guilty pleasure, too. Just as it is to see what I’ve got when I finish typing and turn the monitor on again. It’s always a type of surprise—good or bad—and interesting to see what is revealed.