INTERVIEW: Equilibrium’s Suitcase // Ginger Murchison
interview by Jon Riccio
Ginger Murchison’s is a voice comprised of narrative vulnerability that embraces the “pulpit to all our falterings.” I’m fortunate to have worked with her at various junctures over the last two years, Murchison’s brand of literary mentorship equal parts scholar and ambassador. Her collection a scrap of linen, a bone (Press 53, 2016) encompasses the archaeologies of bloodlines in tandem with the convergences and temporalities intrinsic to the natural world. Each orchid is balanced by a father’s “old friend, skin dry as the hot-sand bottom/ of that river,” each birdsong falling on the ears of women who “kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.” Over the course of our discussion, she reflects on the equilibrium that transpires between writers and readers, illuminates “what art in the dark wants to become.”
Jon Riccio: There’s a compelling orchestration of the descriptions throughout a scrap of linen, a bone, so much so I’d call them a portraiture of words. Take the poem “Gravedigger:”
shouldering his way to the bottom of every grave,
his shirt black-wet either with sweat
or the slow rain crusting the dirty snow, every day
digging down to a place just like this—
another hole in another pewter-gray day
Do you prefer an accrual or a cascading of details?
Ginger Murchison: I want to be able to do both. I write most often with a formal pressure that controls the details. . . the release of information, grammatically orchestrated as it is in a scrap of linen, a bone’s “The Fish Houses,” a poem about those strings of nearly century-old shacks on pilings in Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor, built by the fishing industry as ice houses, net-mending stations or just shanties where the fishermen bunked.
Like seeds cracked open, blooming in the ooze of fish and mud
the blast of rain and hurricanes, they’re the story of wet boots, wet nets,
wet nights, outlasting the fishermen who smoked, drank, cursed and slept there—
their metal roofs stars in a galaxy turned upside-down, burning
its slow way to collapse, wordless as an offshore fog, a patience
in the wind’s rushed syllables coming forth and forth.
In another poem, “Mandatory Evacuation,” the circumstances of hurricane Charley don’t permit a controlled orchestration of detail. In this kind of poem, the details pour forth in a torrent down the page to overwhelm the reader, mimicking that swirl of the storm. It’s a 26-line sentence fragment with 17 participles—adjectives—all descriptively holding the focus in a continual present for the whirling effect, instead of the subject-verb march of a narrative.
thrown out of the water
trees piled up Tinker Toys roofs
paper airplanes households
split wide like the lightning-strike sky
blown-wet curtains flapping
where a wall had been
and even with the waves quiet again
anything living lives on some mercy none
of the reasons for staying remembered
all around drowned
keeping on being gone
and the birds complaining
in the sore air
The poem will dictate how it wants to be written.
JR: “From the Deck in Mid-November” brings us to “that safe way my sister and I had of testing/ whether the house was too nervous for noise” before reaching one of the book’s strongest lines, “Names hold sisters together like grass holds a hillside.” What empowers you in writing about the familial?
GM: A long memory, for one thing, but more importantly, the enormous emptiness I feel desperate to fill since I’m the only one of my family still living. My mother and father are in the book, too. We were one of those uncomplicated families where my blue-collar dad worked hard, proud of everything we did and anything he could buy for us, and my mother one of that first generation to work outside the home. In the case of sisters, it’s easy. While we were normal sisters as girls, and I was, she’d be quick to tell you, every annoying thing little sisters are known to be, we were best friends as adults. We grew up with the Arkansas River virtually in our back yard, in a really small house where it was impossible to have secrets. I inherited the clothes she grew out of and I tried every way I could think of to be like her. I keep writing poems, now, to leave something with the mark each of them left on me.
JR: “Gravity” features the Niagara Falls barrel traveler Annie Edson Taylor, whose sojourn occurred on her 63rd birthday. It arrives at a “relinquished equilibrium,” as if relinquishment somehow implies there was an initial option of control – something artists wrestle with from one draft to the next. When does the Annie approach work best? Did you find yourself identifying with Annie during this collection?
GM: I’ve never thought about that before. My first reaction would be to say I’m the antithesis to Annie, but I see aspects of her in me, especially early on. She contemplated every detail of her circumstance and how she would respond, even to her invented dead husband and the lie about her age. She designed her own barrel, oversaw its construction, deliberated every precise detail of her day, even to whom she would speak the calculated responses she’d scripted for herself. My earliest poems were hatched out of something like that strict control. I’d been a teacher for thirty-one years. I knew the last line before I’d written the first one. I wrote poems that carefully guarded an image I thought I needed to protect. I was good at syntax, and I screwed those poems down so tight, grammatically, they couldn’t breathe.
I read 50 or 60 contemporary poems a day, and I knew the kind of poem I wanted to write, but my finished poem was always a disappointment, nothing at all like the poem I’d hoped to see on the page. People said things like “Trust the process,” but I had no idea what that meant or how to do it. It was after I got into workshops that I realized the really good poems were open ended, while mine were shut down at the end. . .well, not just shut down but nailed closed. I started tearing the last three lines away from all my poems and left them hanging open. One by one, I discovered endings that instead of shutting the door on the reader, actually invited him in, a participant. When I got an ending right, it felt good.
After about seven years of poems, I began to see the work grammar could do, and I finally gave my English-teacher self permission to write a sentence fragment in a poem. The freedom of that was exhilarating, and I went a little wild, writing poems without punctuation, poems that didn’t behave on the page. Those, I guess, were the poems of my “relinquished equilibrium.” I’ve settled down a bit from that, but I don’t manage the poems any more. I let the poem tell me whether it wants to be a one-sentence poem, a syllabic poem, a chunk pouring down the page traditionally punctuated or not. I couldn’t have understood that in my “Annie approach” days. And putting this collection of poems together? At first, I had trouble letting go of seeing the manuscript as a strict chronology, but after throwing it against the wall and starting over at least a dozen times, it began to loosen up. Friends helped. Tom Lombado of Press 53 determined the final order, and I was more than glad to relinquish that job to him, and it was enlightening to see his vision at work, shaping it. Note: It wasn’t until the third pass through this paragraph that I spotted that word “relinquish.” There you go!
JR: You reference the future in ways thought-provoking (“on this chair, in the larger shadow/ he will one day become”) and ironic (“commercials to remind us/ what it was we used to want/ someday”). Mortality aside, why are we so preoccupied with time?
GM: I’m glad you asked this question. It gives me one more opportunity to tell poets about one of the most important books in my library, and I’ll let those brilliant author-poets answer for me. I had just finished my first semester in Warren Wilson’s MFA program for poets when I went to AWP and listened to the panelists, David Baker, Stanley Plumly, Linda Gregerson and Ann Townsend, talk about Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry from Graywolf Press. Each of these four poets contributed an essay on time in that book that changed my whole way of seeing poems and gave me a new way of talking about them.
Listen to what David Baker says in his essay, “To Think About Time.”
Time defines us. Time binds us. Yet time is not an element of nature. It does not exist in and of itself, as a material substance, like a sycamore does or a muon. It is an immaterial measurement of the relationships of material substances and—this is important—it is an entity wholly of our own making. It is a figment, a metron, a device by which we measure the elements of nature. Or, more exactly, it is a device by which we measure the changes among natural substances. The tides sweep in and out, our hearts beat, atoms fuse and decay, and all the great galaxies spin around at unimaginable speeds across unimaginable space. Space, the cosmologists remind us, is merely another word for time. . . .
(David Baker, p. 235)
Poetry is about the varieties of measuring, telling and thinking about time. Thus the nature of its stories varies from poem to poem. The interesting question is not whether a poem has a story in it, but rather what kind of time-telling the poem undertakes. Time may be suppressed, elongated, distorted or abbreviated. It may be spotty, circular or linear.”
(David Baker, p. 242)
“Time provides the subject, the story, and the style of lyric poetry. . .if. . .the temporal engine of a poem is its verb, then what happens to time in a poem without a verb?
The apparition of these faces in the crowds;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
In the place where a verb would likely reside, Pound substitutes a semicolon (originally a colon, in an earlier draft). He wants the poem to be an instant of recognition or epiphany, an instant of likeness, so he snips out the temporal marker and puts in something like an equal sign. Thus the image in line 1 is like the image in line 2. The poem doesn’t seem to advance, or evolve, without a verb to enact. . . .[and] thereby embodies Pound’s interest in a “pure image.”
(David Baker, p. 239)
And listen to Stanley Plumly in his essay, “Lyric Time.”
Time, for instance, as a measure within and without the poem: that is, the conceit of the amount of time implied or covered within the “action” of the poem; the actual time the poem takes, say sonnet time as opposed to fifty or eighty lines or the hundred-and-thirty-two lines required to cross the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn; or timing time, the rhythm, the cadence, the metrical time, the length of line time across then down the page, pacing time. Then there is the time after the poem, relative to its displacement, density and resonance, the reading and reflective time, the breadth of time necessary to absorb the time of and with a lyric poem.
(Stanley Plumly, p. 264)
Whitman’s “Brooklyn Ferry” is eternal—past, present, and future—and. . .we, its passengers, are, in the best sense, interchangeable with those who have traveled and those who will travel this well-worn path.”
(Stanley Plumly, p. 267)
And there’s the best possible answer to your question: “What empowers you in writing about the familial?” I am interchangeable with the members of my family who traveled here with me. I hear my mother’s voice when I speak. I make my sister’s hand gestures; my father is always there in his quiet moral stance, modeling who we should be.
I’m embarrassed I’ve taken so long an answer, but I actually wish I could type all of Radiant Lyre’s essays for you. I hope everyone reading this will get a copy. I taught English 31 years, so I’ve developed a heightened awareness of the verb and how it moves us in time (its tenses) and the verbals that are verb forms but perform in sentences like adjectives, adverbs, and nouns and don’t advance the story forward. Read Theodore Roethke’s “Child on Top of the Greenhouse.” There isn’t a verb in the poem, but rather seven participial phrases that freeze this moment of fear for the child, “the wind billowing out the seat of his britches,” on top of those “crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,” that “streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,” those “white clouds all rushing eastward,” that “line of elms all plunging and tossing,” and “everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting.” Even the child, the poem’s subject, is not mentioned in the poem. Mimicking the events in the poem, he’s suspended on top of it in the title. A preoccupation with time? It guided Roethke’s poem, for sure. “Mandatory Evacuation” gives a nod to Roethke with its maybe 17 participles. “Every Last Time” is another one. Its two verbless subjects, “everything” and “me,” are motionless in a swirling guilt, produced by about 20 verbals.
JR: “Asylum’s” epigraph haunts me in my tracks: “for the mental patients and the hundreds of unopened suitcases found after New York’s Willard State Hospital for the Insane closed in 1995.” as do the lines:
light laid down in a cockeyed pattern, the grain of Venetian-blind slats
a labyrinth that will swallow it, an insistent hum the numb oblivion
of naked light bulbs, where it will pay to learn to be dead,
where the living stand over the dead to make sure they stay dead.
Is tone easier when you have a specific location as your poem’s subject?
GM: For me, tone is less about a specific location as the poem’s subject, as it is about the location of the poem in the poet. I’ll need to explain that. In an interview with Billy Collins for the 10th anniversary of the Palm Beach Poetry Festival https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NW_c_3vRcQI, I mentioned that not enough poems I read for The Cortland Review have a reader in mind. They sound like an exercise between the poet and the page. . .an attempt to be clever. . .some kind of verbal gymnastics, some attempt to appear brilliant. I’m outside that kind of poem, the kind of poem that comes out of the poet’s head rather than from some deeply human place in him that connects him to me emotionally. Billy responded similarly, that when he reads poems for a contest, he becomes impatient. “No one is talking to me! Will someone just please talk to me!” When the poet considers his reader in conversational language in an intimate setting as at a café table over coffee, everything changes. He voice will come from a more intimate place in himself. He’ll choose different words, project an authenticity I can’t help responding to. Laure-Anne Bosselaar, in an early workshop I took, said we should write the word LISTEN! at the top of the page to keep us from forgetting our reader.
The intimate place in me that produced “Asylum,” that poem you reference, was deeply affected by the fact that the Willard State Hospital for the Insane didn’t close until 1995. My husband and I have a mentally challenged daughter who, after public school special ed. programs until she was 21, went, in 1997, to live at the Stewart Home School in Frankfort, Kentucky. That’s just two years after the close of the Willard State Hospital that, at its peak, housed more than 4,000 “inmates,” with the average stay being 30 years. Most never left, and some 5,000 are buried in numbered graves on the property. Tone is inherent (not planted) in a poem that registers from this deep in that authentic place in the poet.
The tragic story of those suitcases is told in The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from A State Hospital Attic, by Darby Penney, Peter Shastny with Lisa Rinzler, photographer (Bellevue Literary Press, Reprint Edition, 2009).
JR: I loved line two of the closing tercet in “Vocabulary” for its relationship between object, place and the verb that links them:
I couldn’t tell where death began and ended,
but that whole farmhouse tilted toward the casket
with the weight of my new word.
Did you write this from a micro- (beautiful connections via parts of speech) or macro- (penultimate encompassing the entire poem) perspective? Do you think current poetry favors one aspect over the other?
GM: I think this is the third poem I ever wrote. I didn’t know a thing about writing poetry, but I bumped into a poetry group online. It was 1997, and my personal computer was about a week old when I found poems online—not the kind I’d been teaching in textbooks, but contemporary poems in chat rooms, some written a whole 10 minutes before they were posted. I wanted to do that. I couldn’t have understood your question then, and in “Vocabulary,” I wrote out of my remembered 5-year old’s confusion about what the word “death” meant. I couldn’t reconcile that casket in my grandparents’ farmhouse dining room with
[h]omemade bread [rising] in the kitchen
with choruses of Inka Dinka Do
and Won’t you come Home, Bill Bailey,
my own mother louder than the rest.
Even the priest who bowed his head
beside the body grabbed a beer,
pressed its cold against his face, sang, too.
I’m not sure I can answer your question now about what I was trying to do then, but I’d have to say that my years as an English teacher would most likely have had me leaning toward the “micro- (beautiful connections via parts of speech) perspective,” but then, trying to put down that 5-year old’s recollections as an adult seems to have required that “macro- (penultimate encompassing the whole poem) perspective,” too. Endings are difficult. I love what Mark Doty said recently: “One ambition of poetry is to create a reverberant silence in its wake, one that means more or differently than the silence that preceded the poem.” I think I just deftly wormed my way out of this question without answering it, but I’m thinking every poem is the examination of our macro-humanity expressed with a micro-focus on what makes that expression art.
JR: Of the mothers in a scrap of linen, a bone – “Mid-Western Madonna” (“Little more than a child herself. . .belly-soft with new birth, her flimsy skirt/ wadded between her legs) and the matriarch from “Wartime Measures” (“Weekdays, she donned coveralls,/ rode the bus an hour each way/ to work the night shift/ in Boeing’s assembly plant) – who leads a harsher existence? Who are your favorite writers on the subject of motherhood?
GM: Who leads a harsher existence? Hands down it’s the Mid-Western Madonna in that “Kansas dust the color of struggle,” that “back-alley, brick-oven heat.” But the even harsher existence may fall to the infant daughter at her breast,
not much to suckle there
but the knowledge of breast and thigh.
All it will ever pay her to know.
In “Wartime Measures” my own mother, after her “coveralled” week of the night-shift in Boeing’s assembly plant, was full of singing. And she was (we all were) infused with the cause of World War II.
all those mason jars
labeled and lined up like soldiers
on shelves in the cellar—
every jewel color of summer preserved
head to foot berry stained,
bent to the purple boil
in the weekend-sweet kitchen heat.
The idea of “mother” I grew up with was that woman described in “River”
patiently waiting for what happened next,
the way women have always waited for hunter husbands,
kept vigils and prayed at the entrance of mines.
One of the first images of mother I discovered in a poem was in Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” where even the word “glass” connotes a cold and fixed edginess at which nerves bristle, where the idiosyncratic punctuation and line breaks make the simple words and short sentences feel like a mouthful of broken glass, where the mother offers her visiting daughter nothing personal, warm, or welcoming, but rather launches into a laundry list of concerns that, while they are endowed with highly charged emotion, they serve as small talk, pointing perfectly to the emotional distance between mother and daughter. This is not a place to come for sympathy, and the outside, just as cold as the mother, is “paralyzed with ice.” That may not be my favorite image of “mother,” but in Anne Carson’s hands, it’s certainly the most poetically artistic.
The most passionate mother poem I’ve discovered has to be Rebecca Foust’s scathing “Apologies to my OB/GYN” in her third book, winner of the 2008 Many Mountains Moving Press Poetry Book Prize, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song.
Sorry that my boy birthed himself
too early, took up so much room. . . .
Sorry we were such pains in your ass,
asking you to answer our night calls like that. . . .
Sorry about how he defied your prognoses
skyrocketed premiums, weighted the costs
in your cost benefit analyses. . . .
Sorry he took so much of your time
being so determined to live. He spent
today saving hopeless-case nymph moths
trapped in the porch light, one matrix-dot
at a time. Now he’s asleep, blue wingbeat
pulse fluttering his left temple—there,
there again. Just like it did then.
JR: You mention the late Steve Orlen (co-founder of the University of Arizona’s MFA program and a faculty member at Warren Wilson) in your acknowledgements. What impact did he have on your work?
GM: Everyone at Warren Wilson loved Steve Orlen and wanted to work with him, especially on the essay. It was the first day of my essay semester, and I’d come armed with a subject—even a title: “ALL THE TIME THERE IS: An Interrogation into the Function of Sound, Syntax, and Grammar Across the Career of Larry Levis.” Warren Wilson students were never encouraged to request a supervisor, the idea being that the faculty knew better who should be paired with whom, but I’d decided I wanted to work with Steve Orlen for two reasons. One, he’d been Larry Levis’ friend, and I knew he’d have anecdotes to help me humanize Levis. I also knew he was famous for helping students throw open poems to digression, disjunction and surprise, something Levis was famous for, and something I still wasn’t doing in my own poems, so I wasn’t shy about dropping hints that I was hoping to work with Steve Orlen. Milling around that opening-day reception with a drink in my hand, I overheard Steve say, in that voice that kept few secrets, that he wanted to work with Ginger Murchison. I wheeled around, put out my hand and said, “I’m Ginger Murchison, and I just told three people that I wanted to work with you.”
Steve, very early on, got bored with the whole idea of reading one more sentence about syntax and grammar and suggested by the third packet that we “just work on poems.”
He called me out for the “matter of too much control” in my poems. Syntax, he said, was the only formal strategy that would help me break open my imagination and explore more than, say, two avenues at a time in a poem. He asked me to look at how Levis’ digressions did not lead him back to what he was already talking about but into new territory.
Seamlessness and perfection, he said, don’t necessarily strengthen a poem.
Avoid the grammarian’s tendency to tie the poem up in its own syntax.
Create poems out of speech instead of writing, and passion instead of intellect.
The closer to speech even a form poem comes the stronger its expressiveness.
As to repeated gestures, remember Jon Anderson: “Say it once and move on.”
In that one semester’s letters, Steve had direct influence on at least six of the poems in a scrap of linen, a bone. I still feel the easy way he coached me and coaxed me into another way of thinking about a poem, especially its ending. I just want to go down as evidence of the huge difference Steve Orlen made out here.
JR: You’re affiliated with Palm Beach Poetry Festival, The Frost Place and, in years past, Bread Loaf. What factors should one take into consideration when exploring writers’ conference options?
GM: Cost and proximity are always factors. The quality of teachers, and by that, I don’t mean “top tier poets.” We all love hanging out where those guys are, but conferences where they are regular fare are going to cost more, and the younger practicing poets are great teachers, too, and often a lot more energetic. Who else is going to the conference? Are most of the participants your age? Are at least some in graduate programs? Are they serious or part-time poets? It’s the level of discourse you’re after. You’ll likely be sleeping in dorms and eating together. It’s always best if there’s a varying demographic. Find poet teachers who come out of the aesthetic you ascribe to. If you’re an experimental poet, look for the conference where you’ll fit in best. If you want to write only in forms, look for the place/teacher most likely interested in helping with that. Ask every poet you know. Ask every teacher you know. Ask poets you don’t know. Ask me. I go to the same conferences every year and make it a point to study with someone I don’t know, someone about whom I have no previous notions or expectations. I’m always pleasantly surprised.
JR: The final couplet of “Small Craft Advisory” states “It will take both of you to untie the language/ and discover the insignificance of speech.” When did you make this discovery? Does it cast an interpretative lens over the book?
GM: I wrote that poem in one night at the Iowa Summer Writers’ Workshop where I went three successive years to study with Richard Jackson who taught at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, just up the road from Atlanta, where I lived at the time. It was a response to an “assignment,” a prompt that I can’t now remember. I made that discovery that night struggling to find an end for the poem. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any other poems that came that easily. But making it about Huck and Jim made it easy for me. I hold the (probably) unusual distinction of having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn aloud 79 times to 8th graders and that once to my son. Those two on that raft, Huck and Jim, called in another poem in the book “those two strange shapes of grace,” communicated in a language more honest and more sincere than any conversation that happened on land, whether by the ignorant, the authorities or the righteous. I wanted Jason to know that kind of honesty in speech, but Huck and Jim communicated, too, in their silences when they drifted “solemn and slow.”
I don’t think there’s an interpretive lens over the book from that, but there is likely an influential one. I guess you’d never know it by the long-winded answers to these questions, but I’m selfish about words, in conversation. I’d rather listen. In the poem “from the Chicago Train,” the mother figure is “too tired to think all the way to words.” That’s how I feel most of the time. That’s why the poems are mostly short, the sharp syntax keeping a deliberate watch against telling and overwriting. If I have done my job with the images, the rest is insignificant. I don’t know if that’s why I love Huck and Jim, or if Huck and Jim helped fashion that in me. Either way, I’m richer for knowing them.
Thank you for these wonderfully thoughtful and smart questions, and for the time you spent with my book.
Ginger Murchison earned her MFA from Warren Wilson College. Together with Thomas Lux, she helped found POETRY at TECH, where she served as associate director for five years and as one of its Visiting McEver Chairs in Poetry. She serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of The Frost Place, is a member of the conference faculty for the Palm Beach Poetry Festival, is a regular guest at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is Editor-in-Chief of the acclaimed Cortland Review. She has two grown children, Arienne and Jason, and lives with her husband Clyde Mynatt in Ft. Myers, Florida.
Jon Riccio studied viola performance at Oberlin College and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Current and forthcoming poems appear in Carbon Culture Review, Mead, Yellow Chair Review, Bridge Eight, Cleaver, Hawai’i Review and Pamplemousse, among others. He received his MFA from the University of Arizona. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.
Beautiful interview !! Beautiful Poet !!