In 2005, the CLR published Patricia Colleen Murphy’s poem “Days After.” This year, she won the May Swenson Poetry Award for her poetry collection Hemming Flames. We had the chance to interview Trish about her writing process and what inspired these poems. Enjoy!
What is the background and inspiration behind this collection?
I’ve been writing about my complex family history for as long as I can remember. Poetry is helpful in articulating that history because I can use an objective correlative to show what happened, rather than trying to explain it. I think about how many times I’ve summarized the conditions of my nuclear family–how often do any of us answer the questions, “Do you have siblings?” or “What do your parents do.” I spent years and years (on an airplane or at the dentist) flat out lying. I had to lie. I couldn’t stand that look of pity when I told the truth. In this book I tell the truth about everything: madness, violence, hostility, and chaos.
What difficulties did you have writing about the mental illness and more disturbing aspects of your life? Did you have any reservations about publishing this work?
The difficulty came from having to relive so many of the painful events that render the characters and actions on the page. My mother’s mental illness made me timid and insecure throughout my lifetime. It was always going to be bigger than me. And for so long I thought her illness was my fault. This is not an uncommon occurrence for a child of a mentally ill parent. But the feeling was exacerbated when she attempted suicide when I was 15 and I saved her life. She went on to attempt suicide many times. I was never in control of anything.
I don’t have reservations about publishing this work, but I do wish I had something more uplifting to say. It’s hard to give readings from the book because it’s so intense and it’s not really fair to take an audience to the same dark place that I had to go to write it.
How do you begin a poem, generally, and how did you begin to approach this collection in particular?
I have a very disciplined writing practice. I read a lot. At least 104 books a year. And I keep an extensive writer’s notebook. When I sit down to write, first I journal, then I read a full collection of poetry, then I journal again with reactions to that. Then I review my writer’s notebook and I decide on a line or image to drive the composing process. Every once in a while I’ll have a strong emotion and I use the poem to make a sweeping gesture to address that. But usually the poems are image based or line-driven.
For this collection, I wanted to have a satisfying arch. Most of the poems were already written, but I did decide to write a series of nonce sonnets about my brother that rounded out that topic in the book. My writer’s group read and commented on them all–for many years we exchanged a poem a week for ten weeks, on and off throughout the year–and they encouraged me to be brave and detailed.
Your poem “Days After” was published in the CLR in 2005. What has changed about your writing craft—the ideas or characters you explore, how you approach them—over the last ten years?
That poem is about a different death–the death of my partner’s father in 2001. We really spent the aughts with sick parents, losing all four between 01 and 09, before I was 40 years old. I do have some love poems, and a lot of travel poems, and some conservationist poems, and some nature poems, etc. But over the course of those years we took a lot of hits! So it was asylum, cancer, death, death, hoarding, asylum, death death, etc.
What advice do you have for writers and poets working on trauma-related pieces?
First, I would say that every poem has a little trauma in it. If not, then it lacks tension, and it’s not really a poem. Second, find a group of people who love you and support you and who will read your work and tell you when you are being honest. Third, I would say read everything you can. There are so many amazing examples of poetry collections that deal with traumatic events or conditions. I’ll list some here:
After Urgency by Rusty Morrison
Self-Portrait with Crayon by Allison Benis White
Temper by Beth Bachmann
Rising by Farah Field
How Beautiful the Beloved by Gregory Orr
Wheeling Motel by Franz Wright
How can readers discover more about you and your work?