EXCHANGE WITH SHEILA E. MURPHY ON REPORTING LIVE FROM YOU KNOW WHERE

by Nathaly Herrera and Thomas Fink

 

 

Thomas Fink: Reporting Live from You Know Where (Meritage/ i.e. press and xPress(ed, 2018) is a long poem that posits various speech acts and contexts of articulation. The title, of course, teases those “reported to,” your readers, with the location, and this title is reiterated as a reverse hay(na)ku on p. 14. If your text is a report, it includes critique, not just observation. Your speaker asserts at the outset that “this is/ all about you”—a large constituency: “him, her, them/ versus party/ line” (7). The two common meanings of “party line” knock against each other, as a certain kind of telephone arrangement can facilitate communication among a large number of people, whereas a political party’s dogma, the meaning you seem to be referring to, keeps people “in line,” crushing dialogue.

Murphy: What would be a constituency is much deeper: the reality of a connected species at varying states of vibration operating as one. We are unlikely to perceive just how much we are a species and how automatic this all would look from a higher state. From “down here” it seems fractious, splintered, a morass of disarray that feels like an assault. Present tense, albeit the soul of incompleteness, offers the potential for connection, for attunement, for touch. The polis has been poisoned, it would seem. And yet. And yet. There are simultaneously so many things going “right.” Attention is expensive, and warped, maneuvered attention feels like a criminal act. All of this is very real, and all of this is very false. The word worker sounds out what s/he perceives, and here it is.

Nathaly Herrera: You are known for musical tones in the flow of your poems. I think you’re intertwining your love of music and how you’re “reporting” or “conducting.” In this poem, there are references to “overture by rote,/ quelled, strapping// symphonies” (10), to “Bach attain[ing] perfection” (19), and even the “tocking ticks” (20). I am intrigued, especially, by this passage:

The only one
I can
hear

said
the conductor
is Sheila Murphy

an epidemic misunderstanding
my musical
weltanschauung. (58)

Who is the conductor? Why can the conductor only hear you? The use of the word “epidemic” is intense; if your (musical) worldview is misunderstood, why is that cause for an epidemic?

Murphy: In this real-life narrative, the conductor is the literal person guiding the choir in its musical delivery. In the midst of important work, she notes and shares a deviation from what she seeks to create with the group. She envisions in her mature musical knowing that what is being made is a whole performance of many voices, not a cluster of solos. The wholeness of blended diverse voices is the essence of what the choir and she the conductor can make together.

The younger, much less mature performers are learning. The one the conductor hears exclusively does not grasp the goal properly (yet). The solo voice that “sticks out” amid a rehearsal for wholeness reflects an immature zeal for being heard, something that happens when young vocalists see themselves separately somehow, albeit without malintent, but likely due to youth and the yet-to-be-grasped nature of what we can be and do together in music and in many other things.

Curiously enough, this improper circumstance, a misunderstood goal, mirrors what indeed in present tense today has grown to an epidemic misunderstanding of human focus. What seems innocent in the story referenced in this poem now has magnified into a horrific power locus of abuse. An absence of the whole, a violation of the sacred linkages among us we depend on to become the system of connectivity we need to be. The “all about me” syndrome now harms millions of individuals whose voices are sidelined.

Fink: Indeed: “All about me” and “I’m great and why doesn’t everyone realize it?”

Since there’s an infrequent use of proper names in this poem—precisely three names: Ricky Seals-Jones (20), an Arizona football player, “Dee” (57), and “Sheila Murphy” (58), and tellingly, no mention of President Twitter—what is the purpose of using these names at all?

Murphy: Proper nouns are odd, aren’t they? There is a gravitational pull about their use. As a rule, I steer clear of them, yet found the poem landed on three names in this book. Ricky Seals-Jones was focal in my peripheral attention at the time of the poem’s composition as I found myself among football fans. Dee was a magnetic presence, too, who lifted off too soon. As for my own name, it seemed to clarify the self-examination that seemed only fair on the emergence of the pattern of misdirection to which I cannot justly claim blamelessness. Such recognition is part of what using names can achieve.

Why do I avoid names typically? Simply stated, code. I prefer poetry to code.

Herrera: I know that late night shows “make fun” of the political atmosphere and the people in it. They’re bringing to light how crazy it all is. Joking about it is masking the actual problem. You write:

Miles, pounds,
words

offering
countless sold
conditions served apart

from manufibbed unpolished
sitcoms broaching
tiny

patterned
grief (12-13)

Would you say that you’re portraying the media circus that is Trump and the news station (“minions”) supporting him (Fox) as “manufibbed… sitcoms”?

Murphy: So many angles of horror here, including of course the requisite attention paid to the center of this chaos. The fact of the abusive reality itself is painful enough. A de facto feeding frenzy exists in many spheres. There is a temptation, it would seem, to draw to the painful reality. You aptly speak of the masking, which does nothing to soothe the feeling in the body and spirit of what has happened, is happening.

As a big fan of comedy and as a person who feels and lives in humor, I have been rather shocked by the effect of perpetual “out-uglying” that seems to prevail. It is hard to laugh when it is so unfunny. Most of the time, there needs to be some access point, some common ground, that provides a path to shared laughter. Too little (nothing, in fact) seems funny about the abuse we see now. The stripping away of the backdrop on which so many of us counted as a platform from which we could pursue our lives.

Many of us love our work, want to dig in. Now we are forced into politics, whether we like it or not, for the purpose of self- and shared protection.

I would hasten to add that my critique here in the poem is less centered on those humorists seeking survival than on the ugliness itself.

Herrera: One aspect that she really stands out for me is the sexual imagery in the poem: the combination of “history” and “erected” (9); “does/ the carpet/ match the drapes” (19); “sixteen seconds left/ best overall/ orgasmic” (24). Does the use of sexual description have to do with the obsession and distorted view of politics? Or is using scandalous imagery a way to make people pay attention?

Murphy: Yes, it does. What is referenced is just exactly as you say. This imagery is atypical of my work, and the impetus that brought about the poem resulted in what you quote here.

Very unfamiliar territory has taken over the airwaves, and the perpetual sense of assault lives in the background of many people now. Along with those others, I have observed over the past 600+ days that people who are drawn to kindness, Appreciative Inquiry, valuing of diverse strengths we together bring to shared experience are not inclined to engage in long-term warfare.

Every moment of time invested in self-defense is a moment not available for development. This means robbing our common good of what might be possible as shared wealth and excitement. Splintering the public and suggesting that selfishness is necessary for economic well-being is just not accurate. Yet the 24/7 selling of this lie seems unceasing. The noise is too much.

Herrera: There are many references in the poem to religion: “free fallen/ temple// sole” (10); “godspeed” (14); “you are/ not yet God” (18); “lord” (25); “father, forgive/ them for/ whatever// (t)reason” (42). Are you actually referring to a specific God or a false “god” or something else?

Murphy: I am speaking from my upbringing in language I intend as transliteral. The impulse to recognize any power greater than the selflets we hear from seemingly perpetually is urgent beyond apparent desperation. As beings co-occupying a planet together, we can find communion when we imagine then embrace a higher state of vibration together.

The process of envisioning higher essence can work in many ways, and such diverse listening and interpretation is what I hope to inspire here. The question is deeply appreciated.

Fink: When stretched over the big frame of a long poem by a poet with an acute sense of formal possibilities, the hay(na)ku form foregrounds a tension between the end-stopped and the enjambed line and especially tercet. If Eileen Tabios had been around when William Carlos Williams was working with his triadic foot in his late poems, the good doctor may have given Eileen’s form a try. Of course, your use of the form involves climbing stairs and going back down. How did the selection of the (up and down) hay(na)ku form facilitate and/or complicate and/or create generative surprise in your process of production?

Murphy: I value the way you characterize the formal stretch and reach potential in the hay(na)ku, and concur with your hypothesis of Dr. Williams as a kindred spirit in this triadic flow.

My own proclivity toward forms in general has a great deal to do with the preliminary decision to let the form discover the work. I typically fix in mind the form I plan to employ, practice it, think in the form, as one does in the language lab when learning a new language. The form then performs its work and I act as an intermediary, bringing the poem to fruition.

What I describe occurred in the poem Teth (Chax Press, 1991), comprised of 81 pages of 81 words per page. My immersion in that writing grew to the extent that I was thinking in groups of 81 words and could create precisely that way.

The hay(na)ku works especially well this way. The wonderful form invented by Eileen Tabios is pliable while anchored in an attractive structure that invites imagery, ideas, and passion. I love the way that brevity plays into the making of a long work.

I fastened on the opportunity to submit a book in this form about a year before the deadline was announced, and I kept focusing on the book that was to be before its birth. Once I was ready, the hay(na)ku form found me bringing it to fruition.

 

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