Thomas Fink: For almost 40 years, you’ve published many books of solo poetry, and you’ve collaborated substantially with other poets. What motivates you to write collaboratively?
Sheila E. Murphy: Collaboration blends interaction with others and poetry making in a single process that differs from writing alone. The duo or writing group finds a wavelength much like that of speaking in a different language. The spark is palpable. Collaborative projects vary by period of time, intensity of interaction, rapidity of responding, and many other facets.
My collaborative efforts are not restricted to poetry, although these are among my favorites. Working directly with one or more persons on a focused project constitutes a big part of my life. Every part of the process becomes easy, natural, and worthwhile.
I am lucky to enjoy healthy doses of solitude and interaction. This allows me to collaborate without overthinking matters of focus. I enjoy the variety. Some collaborations last for many years.
Fink: How did you and Michelle Greenblatt set up the parameters in 2006 for your collaboration? For example, how did you come to agree the unit of ghazals with 15 couplets each? In your introduction to Ghazals 1-59 and Other Poems (Unlikely Books, 2017), you state: “Throughout 2005 and 2006, Michelle and I were in frequent and intensive contact as we collaborated on several different poems. Again in 2014, until the time of her passing” (October, 2015) “we renewed our work together. Michelle’s illness removed her from writing for several years between those periods of time” (xiii). How did you re-establish momentum after a rather long hiatus?
Murphy: Rather an organic process during both time periods. As an enthusiast of forms, I had written numerous ghazals, and Michelle was interested in this form, as well. Oddly, we did not necessarily state up front that we would do 15 couplets for these, yet that is what emerged. My fondness for the space between couplets and the relationship between them further stimulated interest with two writers involved. We did not necessarily alternate couplets. Each of us added to patches of writing. The same approach occurred with the other poems we created together.
Regarding momentum, we found it by interpersonal engagement and the excitement of the writing itself. It was not difficult to pick up where we left off and go deeper and higher if we could. I know Michelle was not feeling terrific, and that the days differed. When she had a good spell and could write freely, we jumped at that chance. Like dancing, we seized the day and went for it when this happened, and simply expressed mutual gratitude.
As a collaborator, Michelle brought energy and faith to our process. She and I had a very warm friendship that brought forth an uplifting, spiritual connection. Michelle responded to kindness in a way that connected closely to her writing, I consistently felt charged by her amazing capabilities. Together, we had a very fine process that was flexible and led to good results we cared about.
Fink: In the book’s first three poems, “A Tone Endures,” “Tracery,” and “Cresting,” we see nothing of the regularity of stanza and line-length to be found in the 59 Ghazals that follow them. While “A Tone Endures,” evoking the beginnings of our being,” offers “a door, and beyond that, the privilege of chance/ entrances “ that could allow us to discard memory’s “refuse/. . . and to begin again” (2), as befitting a volume’s opening, “Tracery” identifies itself as an ekphrastic rendering of “this photograph” (referred to in the first strophe) that purports to go beyond art to “organism-forms as masterpiece” (3). The flow of the six-page “Cresting” is tougher to pin down; leaps from image to image are close to the feel of a Sheila Murphy long poem, and this collaboration ends enigmatically and spookily with “receptive gene sculpting/ as though// formaldehyde were mainly/ breath” (10). I imagine that you selected these three poems out of a larger group for the book and also decided the order. How do you regard the relationship between these three opening poems and the 59 ghazals?
Murphy: Jonathan Penton, the publisher of Unlikely Books, deserves the credit for inaugurating the book project itself, communicating and navigating through the shock we all felt as Michelle left. Jonathan also sequenced the volume. As I read the opening three poems, then venture into the ghazals, the preliminary opening trio seems to set the stage with much thicker textures along with imagery and energy that differs from that found in the ghazals. In first poem, the reader hears a foundation of commitment to the enduring process of our work. “Tracery” attests to the emerging elements and voices. “Cresting” offers the reader a peak into the living and dying process that is constant in view of the illusory nature of time. This palpable pivoting voices itself in different ranges of tone and sensory awareness. Cut to the ghazals, deceptively quieter, sometimes loose, sometimes taut, always living organic material. Intervals and change mark the direction of these more specific pieces working in the American version of the ghazal with two spirits engaged.
Fink: In “Synesthesia in the Ghazal Garden,” the introduction to Ghazals 1-59 and Other Poems, Vincent A. Cellucci notes Michelle Greenblatt’s “fight with fibromyalgia,” which was responsible for her untimely death at 33 to which you just alluded, “and the myriad ways our first world healthcare system failed her” (viii). While nearly all of the ghazals and other poems in the book feature more than one subject matter, as is true of much of your solo work, numerous poems in this collection touch upon imagery and tropes of illness and medical care. When your collaborator alludes to this extremely personal, momentous subject area, you are therefore called upon to move the poem forward, and this is not easy! Here is what I consider the first relevant excerpt:
Today I leave the dissecting room with star-salt
Latched to trace red from a wide array of sandstone
Promise me that history will still be knelt upon
When the day breaks open with the drizzle of the sun (Ghazal One, 12)
This passage is close to the middle of the poem. I could easily be wrong, but I imagine Michelle writing the first couplet, which is far from referentially transparent about whether the speaker is a bit hopeful or hopeless after leaving the horror of “dissection,” and I think of you responding in the next couplet with the possibility of future affirmation for the speaker of that utterance. Another longer excerpt is the passage that begins Ghazal Fifteen:
Talk brushed into depth perception limits the loved object
To premonition and skepticism in the endless air.
All the doctors agree to the experiment
The patient is a state of mind made into stone.
Penetration becomes not really human as the guesses
Take even hunger for granted and dig deep into the dream.
We construct a heart from tin and a test-pattern
That resembles beating as we have heard described.
Winter on the cusp of spiritual perfection’s drawn
Against the sky’s painted horizon of breaking dawn.
The round corpse lies down in the clichéd grave
Facing and-to-dust-thou-shalt reply in kind. (40)
In this case, the situation is more complex, but it’s possible that in response to Greenblatt’s couplets, you are extending her critique of doctors she encountered and the medical institution that was supposed to be serving her. This critique is similar to what goes on in Ghazal 48—“The patient finds the doctor; the doctor doesn’t/ Smile. The threadbare evidence beguiles the dead”—except that tropes of resistance might be more overt: “The body is never silent. It/ Breathes music, often tempering lines.// Majesty emerges from the sidewalk chalk designs/ Etched across the pavement in skeletal shadow-tunes” (46).
And perhaps the most haunting lines about illness are in Ghazal Twenty-Six: “If doctors could prophesize the recovery of patients/ We would all be dwelling in the safety of our inference”; as if in oblique retort, the next couplet reads: “Gentility remains the sole virtue that transcends acumen/ Unrecognizable to most, like a foreign breed of flower” (62).
I’m not putting you in the difficult position of speaking for another who cannot join us in this exchange, but if you can discuss your recollections and current best guesses about how you and Michelle Greenblatt negotiated the subject matter of illness and medical care in these and similar passages, I think it would be helpful for readers.
Murphy: Your reading of these passages is rich, and the line of questioning is important. Our free-form exchange sometimes meant that one writer went forward with several couplets. This is different from other collaborative work in which I have engaged. Another feature is that we “inter-wrote” as I did at the suggestion of another collaborator, mIEKAL aND, in our book-length piece titled how to spell the sound of everything (Xerox Sutra Editions, 2009). Inter-writing is an intimate way of composing together. Michelle and I used this approach occasionally within this volume. Here, one person writes a passage. The other writer enters the passage, adds to it, amplifies the text, and of course changes it. The mode allows the effect of a very sharp turn left or right, or changing a passage entirely.
This method makes it difficult to remember who wrote what. As you and I have discussed before, releasing authorship becomes almost inevitable and in fact highly desirable most of the time in my view of collaborative writing. It means creating a new presence.
One feature of our work together and how it flowed pertained to Michelle’s imagist inclinations and my own conceptual leanings. These features are particularly interesting when integrated into a ghazal, as the couplets gain a vibrato that evokes another way through the linguistic path.
The painful reality of Michelle’s illness was prominent and thus became material, just as the poem seemed a place for our communing in it and beyond. As you point out, there we were, exploring, building, thinking, feeling together. One of the components was that overwhelming fact of living and dying that exist in writing and being. Michelle brought an urgency to the process. In turn, I brought each moment as naturally and responsively as my sensibilities would work within that sphere.
Health has long since become political in this nation. Michelle struggled with access to pain medication that would mollify to the extent possible her constant pain. State regulations necessitated cutting dosages in half, a frightening and then highly painful reality for her. How does this mean in poetry?
What we live is what we are about, and our collaboration made its way. A shockingly high degree of energy came forward as we worked back and forth. Each of us did what we could do to make the work live. We first had to birth it and understand it after it was here.
Fink: I’m intrigued by your notion that “Michelle’s imagist inclinations and [your] own conceptual leanings” helped produce “a vibrato that evokes another way through the linguistic path.” I have always seen your solo work as including both imagistic and conceptual (abstract) linguistic material, so I’d appreciate clarification of some elements of what you see as the difference(s) between her “imagist” and your “conceptual” emphases. And what does this “vibrato”—as opposed to counterpoint—signify?
Murphy: This characterization would be too cut and dried a distinction for me to insist upon entirely, you are right. I sense a blend of imagery and abstraction in my own work. Ghazal Forty-Four reveals multiple couplets alternately sensory and philosophical proclivities, hinting at metaphysical poetry minus the conceits, perhaps. There seems a connective tissue between lyrical, even Romantic work and idea-based passages. We consciously allowed the work to dissolve into “our” work, rather than recollecting who wrote what. That said, some passages appear to be characteristic of one or the other of us.
Brass instruments erupt against the desert miles
Where for thousands of years one hears limitless space.
Virtues thicken with time, same as anger should thin
Qualms, mud, arpeggios, the makings of cement.
Beatitudes inflect our way of seeing
Not our way of waking to tottering joy. (44)
Examples of this prevail in several other places in the book. In Ghazal Fourteen:
Leverage defeats the levity when all at once
A dawn-colored rose rises from clouds and bows to us.
Meaning means if anything lives to taste and see
It will not be reflexive, it will be dark milk. (14)
The vibrato of which I speak characterizes an energy together versus two sets of beings acting contrapuntally. The distinction suggests to me the aforementioned inter-writing or essence of that joint effort versus separate voices moving and seen from a higher plane as working dual pathways that intersect. Vibrato tends to mean touching the inner note at a deep level that moves toward and away from a single focal point at once.
Fink: Cellucci makes reference to “metapoetic” (ix) subject matter in your book, and this is often so: “A softly yellowing word makes several changes/ To the new sentence it wants to be used in” (Ghazal Forty, 90). This is a good personifying illustration of what painter Hans Hoffman called “push-pull” in the process of abstract painting. I am especially interested, though, in metacollaborative moments. For one thing, there is appreciation for the joy of mutual discovery in receiving communications as collaboration takes place: “How I loved those transatlantic messages you sent me/ Sugar cured, carved into spirit resistant as bark” (Ghazal Fourteen, 38). (Of course, Arizona and Florida do not exist in a “transatlantic” relation, but the two of you had poetic license.)
At the end of Ghazal Two, I see a particular “advertisement” for the complex mixing of two people’s life experiences “in” the poem: “Cursive pages interlace two lives with/ Pencil stem and pieces of human voice” (15). Since readers receive the representation of the “interlacing” as print “pages,” “cursive,” instead, gives the impression of the flux of reading rather than the material quality of handwriting, and “stem” and “pieces” announce fragmentation: the reader is getting traces of the “two lives” and not linear narratives, yet the poems are not without collaged narratives. The intricate troping of Ghazal Five seems, among other things, to record a (discontinuous) narrative of collaborative processes:
In the labyrinths of amnesia we edited and fused
Practice near snapdragon and perennial sombreros tipped down.
Voyages are individual and also threefold
My faces peering quietly at you, waiting for your word.
There was somewhere to go; I half-remember
Threaded passages and stippled wholeness….
Words spoken by a rich voice blister some of the intention
That comes from teetering on the teeth of some other tell-tale. (20)
It’s fascinating that “amnesia” and “half-remembering” are central to editing and collaborative fusion, and the choice of “threefold” rather than “twofold” suggests that, even when there are two collaborators, “pieces of” a third (or fourth or fifth) “human voice” can always surface.
It is a strength that the “space” of the collaborative poem is not “solid” but, as you’ve already indicated during this exchange, full of possibilities: “I dreamed of a space no longer solid/ And that space included you; it was strong” (Ghazal Forty-One, 92). In the collaborative enterprise, chance arising from the interaction of disparate contexts is an enabling condition for the flowering of imagination: “Chance meetings raise the height of expectation to/ Higher than expected because it was unplanned” (Ghazal Fifty, 111).
How and what do you think about these and perhaps other metacollaborative gestures in this book? Do they include hints about how to read the process of collaboration as subject matter or how to read the poems themselves? Or are they just possible interpretations of process and meaning, not necessarily truer than others that might have appeared?
Murphy: In Ghazal Forty, the passage you quote prepares the ground for how Michelle and I worked in this book. It is also accurate to note that the physicality of the writing experience comes together in the word “cursive.” This word possesses nearly magical properties in that the hand movement involved in writing is a dance.
I am struck by what you say about “amnesia” and “half-remembering” in reference to Ghazal Five. The distinctive experiential tracks of the writers is mirrored by the fact of the body’s living somewhat discontinuously with the mind, as though near it but not of and in it. In just this way, the collaborators find new voices as we discover experience that has changed us.
I am glad that you have chosen to speak about metapoetic subject matter as Cellucci does. That the writing was itself experience made calling this out an irresistible temptation. And why not? We live writing. For most of my life, nothing has been this real.
The passages you cite are keys to how it felt to be creating the work of this book. Given the bounty of subject matter in the poems, the two creators working together, and the narrative possibilities, the work is especially obligated to hold up against the temptation to be read primarily as story. After all, the human element and its descriptive-narrative tendency hold an allure that technical information tends to lack.
In Ghazal Twenty-Three, one of the couplets that speaks to the all-in quality of poetry seems worthy of note as we discuss metacollaboration:
Maybe the viola clef is meant to prove that moderation
Is meant for fools with waterproof lives who let music begrudge them. (23)
And earlier in that same poem:
The reed that takes in breath shifts thinking behind music
Into the space between a song’s notes and its pauses. (23)
There is an alone time that is revealed at the precipice of joining in a cumulative experience of finding sounds that ache to be stirred in sound and thereby craft another zone of feeling.
Fink: “The viola clef” is used because the viola sonically entails “moderation” between, say, the violin and the bass, like the alto in singing, right? But I’m missing something: I’d like to understand a little better what the “waterproof” quality of the “fools” signifies, as well as how “music” can “begrudge” them, rather than the idea that they begrudge music.
Murphy: Yes to the midpoint and moderation. The “waterproof” quality refers to resistance or even immunity associated with moderation in relation to what would be likely to enrich. The begrudging intends to mean, loosely, “mind” as in “put up with.” Thus, the music tolerates, if you will, those who would be resistant at least and unable to be affected by, the quality and power of music. Moderation is sometimes, surely not always, mediocre in orientation. Balance would be a better way to consider the word purely. We take some license here in our wording.
The viola clef interests me. The instrument itself seems to represent something throaty and vivid in its low tones, not low enough to be the cello. Depth of a kind. Freedom to vary at the low end, below what the violin can do.
Fink: What new work, whether solo or collaborative, can eager readers like me expect from you in the near future?
Murphy: K.S. Ernst and I have collaborated in visual poetry for many years, creating both large-scale physical pieces at her studio and at mine alternately, and doing smaller-scale works either online or through the U.S. Mail. Recently, we collaborated with C.M. Bennett on a trio piece we liked very much that emerged from Luna Bisonte Prods Press. We continue our exchange and are mid-way into some new pieces as well.
John M. Bennett is another long-term collaborator both in textual poetry and visual poetry. We keep the pieces going, and I always look forward to these exchanges.
Doug Barbour and I maintain our collaboration aptly titled Continuations. We hope to bring out additional books beyond the first two that have appeared from the University of Alberta Press. Each of these books include 25 sections of our long work.
My drawings are being archived right now by Dr. Beverly Carver and her associate John Jeffrey, Jr., who created the archive that is included in the Avant Collections, curated by Dr. John M. Bennett at the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Bev and John are finalizing the collection and preparing for distribution to university collections.
My new solo work in poetry books will be different from prior projects. I am at work now on a collection that involves forms, and can hope to complete this during 2018. In addition, I regularly compose individual poems that I will hope to finish later that same year.
I appreciate this opportunity to work with you, and I thank you heartily for the illuminating questions, Tom!