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Sheila E. Murphy Interview  


Sheila E. Murphy is a prolific poet who has published numerous individual and collaborative books of poetry. Her book Letters to Unfinished J. appeared in 2003, and received the Gertrude Stein Award from Green Integer Press. Recent titles include Collected Chapbooks, Permutoria (with K. S. Ernst), How to Spell the Sound of Everything (with mIEKALaND), Quaternity (with Scott Glassman), Circumsanct and Reverse Haibun.

Since 1993 Murphy has led a consulting firm ( now Sheila Murphy, LLC) that provides Customized Artistic Designs for public and private spaces; keynote speaking; and corporate consulting in Strategic Corporate Communication; Individual and Team Executive Advisement and Succession Planning.  



Chris Mansel is a writer, filmmaker, epileptic, musician, photographer and a permanent outsider for some reason. He is the author of While in Exile: The Savage Tale of Walter Seems, Soddoma: The Cantos of Ulysses, Ashes of Thoreau, Interviews and two books of photography entitled, No Burden and Ahisma. Along with Jake Berry, he formed the band Impermanence who have released one album, Arito. He releases music under the name Dilation Impromptu who have released four albums and have just released a new CD, The Strange White Odor of Octaves Becoming Animals. His writing has been published on the web in many sources. 




CM: If the prophetic voice of a writer doesn’t exactly need to find a voice, it already has one at the moment of creation then why do we seek to change or curb our interests to invite others to our work?

SEM: Chris, you post a challenging question. In some cases, there may be a prophetic quality in a writer's being that spawns a creative act. In other situations, this may not prevail. I believe that some writers change, at wink speed, their impulses to fit or to respond to others who are hypothetical readers. Other writers may move steadfastly forward. I suspect that this may differ even within a given writer, who possibly perceives different situations; different creative acts as necessitating varying impulses and offerings.

I am going to infer in your question the word "should." That is, should a writer make the adjustment of which you speak? I think that the issue is worth considering, and is a very individual thing. For me, I'm sure that part of the impulse to create carries with it a hypothetical audience in many instances. I may have that built into my psyche. I do not believe that this always implies a compromise. It might mean a way of energizing whatever self there be to provide something, to offer a text, to press to the floor a figurative accelerator and DELIVER!

Whatever happens during the early portions of the creative process, I think that I'm best served by recognizing that my own work will be very free to vary, as the statisticians would have it. The particles of my oeuvre will differ and maybe result in a whole that is not immediately easy to classify. There certainly will be differences among the parts. I am not concerned about changing what I'm doing or not changing what I'm doing in a given piece, about whether I've bowed to some invisible reader. What I must make sure to do, though, is to do my best work and not "write off" something as inconsequential. I might decide to throw something away or edit it significantly, to where the original impulse may no longer be recognizable. If I do, that's what we will have, unless someone manages to locate the early versions. (And given the Ohio State University Libraries Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection, curated by Dr. John M. Bennett, someone may!)

CM: Writing can be an escape and even in some instances a method of therapy, but where in private writings should one in those words become, “Perfectly suited for a mood of quiet regret”?

SEM: The way that each of us experiences time is worthy of considerable study. Perhaps in part a cultural thing; some people have a stronger relationship with the past than others. Some individuals live very vividly in the moment, even in the second. Still others live in dream of what may be created up ahead.

I often think about "The Dead," the final story in Dubliners, by Joyce. The story depicts perfectly the degree to which the Irish culture provides for a continuing relationship between the living and the dead. People who are gone from this earth may remain very real, even more real than those who continue to be physically present. My own heritage derives from Ireland, as I am a third generation Irish-American, 100% of that ethnicity, most recently on my paternal side, hailing from Castle Townshend near Skibbereen in County Cork.

I use this personal context to make my point that one can be positioned via cultural background to perceive the past in certain ways, to feel vividly the ancestral and friendship lines, therein sensing what has come before, how it was, how adjustments might have been made, and the like.

As for "quiet regret," this may accompany the territory, but not necessarily. My own version of what I have described runs to the optimistic, to having made an eternity of some profoundly important relationships that continue to thrive in me, inevitably as inventions of my making. But there are countless examples of people whose relationship with the past is one that fuels and propels the mood of quiet regret to which you refer. A relationship with alcohol, by the way, can intensify such a proclivity, engendering, if you will, a state of being "stuck" in a cyclic past than cannot be redeemed and that defines one's fate. Many of us have known people who perpetually recycle old stories in a manner that shows disappointment and that reinforces a particular message of disappointing inevitability.

Your use of the word "should" here, could be highlighted in terms of there being a kind of mandate for making a place for the quiet regret. I suspect that rather than needing to incorporate such a perception, one simply may find it in one's being to do so. One equally may not. In either case, quiet regret may not do full justice to one's engagement with the past. There might be an alternative. That alternative would be, in my view, a discovery of what is most lasting and most powerful and loving and engaging, if one has that to draw upon.

CM: Georg Trakl wrote, “Soul then is purely a blue moment.” You’re a musician as well as a writer so I ask you: does language have color? Where is the soul in writing?

SEM: Language certainly has color and taste and touch and aspects of all the senses, plus some we don't yet know how to talk about. Writing occurs like music, and can be equally pure. Writing possesses so many features, and chief among them, for auditory types such as myself, is its inherent music, be it percussive, edgy, powered-forward pulse, melodic riffs, harmonies like big, lovely quilts . . . New awarenesses have come to me in recent years that teach me the elegance, even the dance, in an individual letter or symbol of just mark. I'm sensing the visual more than I ever have (I know I'll always hear writing, but I'm getting the paint in the sound now more than previously).

The soul in writing is infinitely present, and expresses itself through the multiple features that are a part of writing: the text; the subsets of the text (syllables, pictures, tone); the potentially sun(g) (sprung) moments; the voicing in multiple (voice choir); the theater, as in the powerful staged presence of a Kirk Wood Bromley play.

I could cite many examples. But one thing is for sure. The soul is the only reality. And it can be found everywhere.

CM: This is a question I ask of everyone because I think it is important to know what avenues they too might go down, so what to you is required reading?

SEM: We're glutted with books, with texts, with beauty, with less-than-beauty, with essentials that make scars, with. So am I trying to be evasive when I answer that part of our world is now so vast, our cultures so diverse, that to pin down a curriculum (as in Great Books, Great Ideas that Mortimer Adler has advocated) is laudable in one way in inherently limited in another, and perhaps just plain IMPOSSIBLE? I hope not. I just have to acknowledge the challenge.

This whole issue threatens to parallel the gesture of parents who expose their children to NO beliefs, saying that their children will adopt their own. It's a vulnerable position to take. People can benefit from guidance and exposure to something.

For me, personally, reading philosophy is key. That means taking courses, reading early writers, middle, current, and so forth. Reading science is critical, such as texts by Brian Greene. I read the most intelligent blogs and magazines I can find to help me through current political crises. I read economics. I read poets like crazy. I read novels, such as Henning Mankell (because it's an obsession). I read quality work most of the time. I'm not an advocate of junk reading, because that isn't fun to me. It never has been.

I love beautifully crafted novels. I'll do a scattershot rendering: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Works from other cultures. I read regionally interesting things like Going Back to Bisbee by Richard Shelton.

I am always reading and marveling at the elegance of other people's texts, and I'm reminded constantly that the human mind has infinite capacity for creating and for appreciating!

CM: What do you feel is the anatomy of a poet? What makes some write, and others not?

SEM: I used to wonder what people who didn't write poetry did. I guess that I still do. In my world, writing is more natural than not writing. I believe that having an "inner license" is a real beginning. As to the question of where this originates, well, all I can conceive of are examples:

First, I have a little tiny relative who is soon to be seven years old. She is a wonder. She writes herself silly. She's very good with plot. She illustrates her work. She is full of writing, full of stories, and she is a great enjoyer of language, pictures, life . . . I believe that this gift is equivalent to great joy. When she laughs, she really laughs. She is all for fun, and I believe that language is a deep part of her. Her mom taught her about alliteration when the little girl was about three, and she made us all jump when she identified its use somewhere in speech.

Second, I recall in high school having the most stupendous English teachers one could have. They were clearly quite engaged with poets. I realized early on that what I wanted to be was a poet. This happened while everyone who knew me considered me the personification of the flute. I was drawn to writing, even its trappings, such as portability and flexibility, its potential to go “everywhere,” and the low level of instrumental requirements (not that the flute is exactly a tuba to carry, but . . .). There's nothing quite like enculturation. I wrote in secret. I was afraid to show anyone anything. That revelation would begin in my twenties.

In addition to the production side of poetry, the process itself, the beauty of pens, the leisure and luxury of the keyboard, the screen, the printing activities; all of these things make me feel wealthy. The bounty of opportunity still excites me greatly. I cannot imagine what would make that stop.

CM: Finally, is it possible or necessary for a writer to be political and not use their personal beliefs in their work?

SEM: When it comes to writing, anything is possible. Your reference to 'political' means to me 'beliefs' in general, and I think that, depending upon how one's perceptions, feelings, beliefs occur, how they have emerged, one might very well write parallel to them without any direct reference to them within the work. That said, everyone's worldview is present in each of his or her practices, even if such views are not immediately evident.

Subtlety may be at work in many writers. When some pure and strongly felt conviction is a part of one's being, that core belief will likely be palpable to some percentage of readers. Even if the belief does not come through as obviously as would a statement, per se, at least the many derivations of it would.

There are also choices/decisions about this matter. Let's say that I hold a very strong belief that there should be universal health care for citizens of the United States. Let's also say that I have thought through very carefully the extent to which I feel this belief, and have taken multiple actions to help bring this vision to reality. Writing may well be a direct part of my action. Perhaps I write letters to members of congress, to other elected officials. Let's say that I am active politically. But let's look at the possibility that I do not refer to this belief directly in my poems.

At the same time, I may (seek to) accomplish a number of things in my poems, some of them conscious, some of them no less vital, but less directly conscious. What MAY come through in the poems, even if it is not a direct plea about the issue I've referenced, is a deep feeling for the welfare of fellow human beings. Let's say that there's even a reverence about that feeling. We could even go further and say that if I hold humans and their breathing to be sacred, that someone might even read what I write, begin to feel differently about humanity or about his/her friend or family member or congressional representative. Perhaps by being and living, in addition to direct, evident political acts, my writing, indirectly, might have had an influence about which I might only have guessed.

The miracle of living and talking and writing and relating is that we control some things and do not or cannot control others. Or so it would seem. At the same time, what we MAY do is be in a position of greater strengthen when we are simply BEING and focusing on the many things worthy of our reverence.  



copyright © Sheila E. Murphy & Chris Mansel