Saturday, March 12, 2005


Thomas Fink: This weekend, I’ve been reading the selections from your formally diverse, book-length poem A Clove of Gender (U.K.: Stride Press, 1995) in Falling in Love Falling in Love With You Syntax: Selected and New Poems (Elmwood, CT: Potes & Poets Press, 1997). The collision of ambiguous concreteness (cinnamon clove? garlic clove? “clove” as a past form of the verb “to cleave”?) and provocative abstraction in the title, A Clove of Gender, is marvelous. What did you have in mind when you chose this title?

Sheila E. Murphy: I was thinking at the time of a concentrated, aromatic bulb, an essence that would belie artificial diametricies. The word clove asks for its cousins to come by: glove, love, for instance. I hoped to play upon the fact of something very defining in our culture as a still somewhat less-than-defining thing. Essence/not-essence. A taut title still intrigues me. I wrestle with poems, including titles, that invite themselves into my head and have arrived. I sense them and I want to take them home, except they are already there.

TF: Feminisms have done much to make patriarchal views of gender “a . . . somewhat less-than-defining thing,” yet masculinist viruses—like those circulating in D.C. now—remain nearly as perilous today as they were in the fifties. You suggest that the title A Clove of Gender enacts the tussle between definitive assertions about gender and gender-de-defining gestures. In “Would be a Father Noiselessly” and “The Lullaby of Sun,” two parts of Section 1—one could give other examples—the poem itself, though never reducible to any single, double, or triple thematic, also seems to mimic or enact this conflict. Does my intuition jibe with the sense of how you “wrestle” with those visitors?

SEM: Your intuition is firing on all cylinders, Tom. I have been pondering the poems you reference in light of the different layers of experience that spawned them and now evoke my rediscovery of these pieces. I see reflected in these two poems my deeply felt participation in the anchors of gender in my early life. The father portrait is of a devoted, loving individual in full possession of all 88 keys of the piano. In "The Lullaby of Sun," the mother figure reflects active protection that inspires safety and the sense of peace. In a later poem I acknowledge the phenomenon of sleeping most deeply in one's mother's house.

My earliest consciousness undoubtedly was steeped in conflict over mixed messages I perceived regarding women and men. With pure love as the foundational heart of family members' existence, I still saw many women serve as undervalued shut-ins, held back by a giant game of keepaway that compromised their growth.

Full faith in our infinite capacity as human beings requires courage in context of the slivermindedness into which our mainstream culture appears to have diminished. It would also seem, however, that the number of freethinkers remains strong and perhaps is rising, despite the claims of an infected press.

TF: Instead of "slivermindedness," let's hope for internationally burgeoning silvermindedness. Before I move on to other poems, I should note that another important aspect of A Clove of Gender is "the swish glissando lovemake. Wordless" (125), "Exactly as you say open my heartlight" (157)-- to cite the beginnings of two different parts in Sections I and V. The representation of erotic encounter is never documentary, never literal; I sense that the stretching of the linguistic imagination in the poem is analogous to the transformation of two porous "selves" in "the . . . lovemake." But I'm sure there's more to how you constitute eros than what I'm sketching.

SEM: I like the turn toward "silvermindedness," and share your hope.

These passages from Clove seem to function at a high frequency. I especially appreciate your characterization of them as non-documentary, non-literal. Where eros finds my writing, the senses have already combined in a surpassing (or surpassion) of would-be literalness, which amounts to alleged reality that is skinnied down to just one sense. I often question the validity of what's purported to be literal experience. The imagination is inevitably more accurate and complete than what would be rendered in a report.

Last night I did a reading at someone's home, where 20-some people, most of whom I had not met before, were in attendance. I had been asked to read and to speak about my writing. In reflecting on that rich experience, I realize that the music I consciously gave up (in favor of writing), ironically plays a bigger role in my written work than it would have in flute performance.

There is an interesting and seemingly quite individual timetable for the arrival and full flowering of the individual senses for each of us. For me, the sense of hearing happened early, perhaps while I pursued a kind of preliminary sabbatical in an incubator for the first six weeks of my life. Only in the past several years has my sense of sight come (fully) to life, and that's been great. The more acute the manifestation of each sense, the more powerful the blend of senses can be.

TF: What you’re saying about the effect of the incubator is remarkable. Wow!

Regarding the music of your poetry (as opposed to prose-poetry, where different considerations obtain), one aspect involves where to break the line. I imagine that you have different strategies for different poems. Could you comment on this, perhaps with reference to particular poems? I think, for example, of the distinctive, multifaceted use of verse in long poems like “Agenda” and “Octaves” in Proof of Silhouettes (Stride, 2004), as well as in Pure Mental Breath (Gesture, 1994), with its heavily enjambed eighteen-line stanzas.

SEM: There are strategies aplenty, many of them emergent, to fit the different poems. Upon hearing sounds begin to find their way into my consciousness of their being a poem, and concurrently feeling their pulse, I may decide upon a container size. Not always. But in a book such as Pure Mental Breath (1994), I was continuing my phase of nines (see: Teth, Chax Press, 1991), wherein the number nine revealed its importances to me. Teth has 81 pages of text, with 81 words per page. Pure Mental Breath is 81 different pages of text with 18 lines each.

Pure Mental Breath is intentionally meditative in nature, and thus the format of those 18 lines has a high frequency of containment that offers enjambment as part of a strategy of concentration. The being of this sequence seemed to match an approach characteristic of running in a continuous fashion within boundaries. Notice, though, the fairly straightforward effect of discovered statement, found meaning, as it were, in the meditative lines of this book. The musicality seems to be relegated to statement, rather than a less conventional flow such as what occurs in Teth, for instance. Within Falling in Love Falling in Love With You Syntax: Selected and New Poems (Potes & Poets Press, 1997) is a segment of Pure Mental Breath. A poem that begins "Compose a white chenille bedspread . . . " (p.109) exhibits a conscious chanting through the repeated use of the word "Compose." The assonance of the long "o" sound further recurs. The line breaks occur two different ways here. Early in the piece, line breaks match the statements. Line 5 of the poem takes this fairly predictable pattern and breaks it open into enjambment. After a series of repeated lines beginning with "Compose," the piece transitions to "Compose wood for hobbies meaning balsa/Catches underwind so perfectly,/The glide is easy on enduring shadow." Toward the end of the piece, a conscious effort was made to slow the piece to its conclusion. The alternation of intact lines and the use of enjambment do this. The effect facilitates framing of a direct statement.

The poem "Agenda" in Proof of Silhouettes uses a similar approach to very different effect. Litany enters the picture here, with the use of chant, collage, and run-on statements alternately where they seem to fit. In this poem as in some other long pieces ("Iff" in Falling in Love, for instance), lines and their style of breaking shift a variety of times and in different ways. This has to do with attention, as well as with the fullness of what is being discovered. A kind of breathlessness seems inevitable at times. At other times, a more potentially poised moment is being addressed and experienced, yielding an inevitably quieter line.

In "Octaves" the use of italics along given line segments, as well as within parts of successive lines, provides another point of hoped-for fluency. Overall, I would say that any or all of these devices is located as a part of the discovery of what a given poem is, and what I am discovering.

TF: I'm interested, too, in how your enjambment often features a double jointed syntax to double the signifying. Take, for example, the two lines directly after the enjambed lines you cite from Pure Mental Breath: "Part of this world awaits cleansed/ Miracles to feast on" (109). "Cleansed," an adjective emphasized by going at the end of a line, modifies "Miracles," and yet, if "cleansed" can be considered an adverb indicating how "this world awaits" the "miracles," then the "miracles" can be raw, since the "world" has already eliminated excessive impurity. So perhaps the ambiguity thematizes the problematic of purity/impurity in spiritual experience. Is such a reading abusive, or does it fall within the range of your possible conscious and unconscious intentions?

SEM: This is an astute recognition of potential meaning in the poem. The particular type of consciousness that releases me into creating, or perhaps finding, a piece of this ilk is particularly conducive to such double-jointed syntax to which you refer. There is a quality of flow that leads naturally to pivot points.

In my view, the nature of intention becomes central to a feeling about one's work. An overly prescriptive sense of this would preclude a reason for writing at all. I want to write in ways that surprise me just as much as they might surprise another reader. Richness or a spare feeling can provide this.

I would add that the ambiguity associated with purity is less a problematic than a broader and more accurate definition than one would usually expect. We're glutted with examples of would-be purity that is zilch but a forcing, a pressing of the concept.

TF: As a poet, one way in which you re-Joy(ce)-fully expand linguistic surprise is to develop new words—for example, cognates—or to ask one part of speech to behave as another: “muscleshirting” (Falling 52), “mooncoins” (105), “Harvard” as a verb (163), “Abscondily” (197), “vortext” (Proof 47), “precidentistrate” (52), “firecrack” (61), “diverticulate” (85), “divviance” (101), “Denise” as a verb (106), and many others. What impelled you to start doing such “vortextual precidentistration,” and why do you keep doing it?

SEM: The most natural way for me to answer this question is by assuring you that this wordmaking always occurs as part of a fluid rush of words that come to me. That there is nothing staccato in the gesture seems worth mentioning. I have no idea how or why this started, but it continues because of my way of perceiving. So much of that is auditory, and for some reason, I receive these waves that include as key pulse points these unusual syllable sets.

In the poem that starts "Come Harvard me . . ." the use of the University name came with the perception, and spoke itself into the phrase I wanted. This seemed the most charged and simultaneously economical way of saying "comprehend."

"Mooncoins" by itself possesses a different texture from what that word becomes when it is situated beside "dripped into her hand," bringing together magic and an enhanced version of something palpable, savored, and remembered.

I think that when a word originally functioning as a noun is used as a verb, there is a possible sharpness or enhanced precision about the word that can accentuate the exact meaning better than a more predictable word use.

TF: Yes, your verbed nouns possess that kind of exactitude for me as a reader.

We’ve talked about the music of line-breaks and the structures of Teth and Pure Mental Breath. Another set of formal choices is really intriguing. Tommy and Neil (Tucson: Sun/Gemini Press, 1993) is both formally innovative and thematically rather accessible in the ways you offer childhood memories and psychological portraits of your two brothers and of their relations with others. In Falling in Love Falling in Love with You Syntax, which has generous excerpts from the book, you include a note saying that the “first section: Tommy,” “written in honor” of your “brother’s 36th birthday” has “36 poems . . . written in three passages, consisting of 54, 13, and 6 words, respectively, to celebrate the date of his birth: June 13, 1954” (69); another note speaks of the “second section: Letters to Neil” consisting “of 36 individual letters” (85). I have a few questions about this. Since the 54, 13, and 6 word strophe-pattern is a very challenging constraint, how did you manage to maintain your attunement to verbal music and your sense of relatively spontaneous process while dealing with these strictures? Why does Tommy get poems and Neil letters? Is it arbitrary, or does it have psychological significance? Were the individual letters, relatively free of formal constraint (as far as I can tell), easier to write? Why or why not?

SEM: A couple of elements enter the picture about the Tommy section of the Tommy and Neil book. Setting a framework that was consonant with Tommy's birthday represented a set of rules that I committed to finding, using, and exploring. I never saw this as an obstacle; rather, it was a given, a starting place. By landing on a self-imposed rule, I then allowed perceptions and language in whatever mix to occur for the sake of the project. I let the processes work, and scrutinized the results. I wrote more passages/pages than the ones I included in the book. This mode of working necessitates the willingness to throw something away when it clearly does not work.

The Neil section emerged after the Tommy section, and I decided at that point to do freer, letter-based pieces. Reasons may have to do with our style of relating, although both relationships are quite intimate and certainly a joy to me. It's a gift to be able to say that both of my brothers are extremely close, beautiful friends of mine, and each relationship is unique.

Interestingly enough, the poems and the letters were probably about equal in difficulty or ease to create. I don't know why. The writing process had a good flow in both cases. I brought such concentrated feeling to each of the two works that having some kind of format to follow made the writing seem natural.

TF: So when you say, “I let the processes work, and scrutinized the results,” I take it to signify both a trust in the constraints’ ability to take your language to interesting places (a good deal of the time) and in your editing processes.

One more form needs to be mentioned. Over the last 21 years, you’ve written more American haibun than anyone in the known universe. Have you found that the relationship between the prose-paragraph and the single line of poetry (often a sentence) after the white space has changed over the years? And what keeps you coming back to the form?

SEM: Yes. Trust is imperative when one preselects a formal arrangement for writing. I have discovered that a deepening familiarity with a particular process builds fluency. Equally, a recognition of what has not succeeded. I have considered pieces that I eliminate to serve as bridge material, without which the passage kept might never have existed.

To the best of my knowledge, I coined the term "American Haibun" in a work of mine that appeared in Mudlark #8 - A Sound the Mobile Makes in Wind: 50 American Haibun. I've heard the term several times since.

I distinctly remember carrying with me during job-related travel in April, 1984 a then-current issue of Sulfur Magazine that included Six Haibun by John Ashbery. Apart from liking the pieces very much, bells went off as it occurred to me that I might try to write one. I subsequently purchased or borrowed a copy of From the Country of Eight Islands that Ashbery referenced in a note accompanying the Sulfur publication, and I read a great deal of the book.

The space between the prose passage and the final single-line haiku of varying syllables is a wonderful white place. In my own application of the form, this line is phrasal, rather than a sentence. Yet, as you suggest, the sense of the final line does take on properties of a sentence, only without quite approaching that level of declaration. The essence of the haibun itself certainly requests (it's a polite form :)) a delicate, intuitive, or at least a complicated connection.

To move with this form, rather than to attempt to "conquer" it, one can benefit from a good deal of listening, and a willingness to accept subtle presence. Risks inherently present in the form include the temptation to employ it as a little essay or to emerge with a final "statement" or "point" in the final line.

Over the years, I believe that I've felt several stages of change as I look at completed haibun. I suspect that I'm more open now to quite surprising phrases or transformations in the the new line. That would be attitudinal, rather than necessarily evident from the poems themselves, however. So I must say that I'm unsure of how the work itself has shifted over time.

I find myself writing new haibun sometimes now, but I write fewer of them than I once did. With House Silence (1987), my first complete book of poems, published by Stride Press in England, consisted of all haibun. The American form of the haibun is different from the feeling in the Japanese translations I have read. Whatever the shared qualities and differences, I find the form a rich and wonderfully inclusive one. I'm also rather demanding of the haibun that I read, as a result of being so involved with the form.

TF: Sometimes, the politeness of your haibun form strains against representation of justifiable frustration with other people. I consider two haibun in Proof of Silhouettes , “Nary a Ration” (86) and “At the Moment When I start to Say Goodbye” (91) among the very best critiques of the social disease logorrhea (conversational narcissism) to be found in poetry.

Also, the way the last part of the haibun plays against the paragraph may be comparable to the dialogue between a title and one of your texts. Wonderful titles like “Aggravated Asphalt” (87) and “The Shelf Life of Assonance” (101) in Proof of Silhouettes don’t solve thematic riddles but challenge us to ponder how they address the haibun that follow them.

And that leads me to the question of how disjunction or non-sequitur or discontinuity or interruption or distraction—whatever you want to call it—functions in your writing. How does this dynamic animate, refine, haunt, imperil, or grace your scriptive adventures and the text on the page or in the air?

SEM: Your response to these haibun in Proof of Silhouettes is greatly appreciated, Tom. As I reflect upon the haibun, it strikes me as surprising that social critique has made it way into this form, but that is what has happened. As for titles, I cannot be definitive in discerning which came first, title or piece, with many of these, as the sequence varies. In any case, each element, in turn, is found to be paired with the other.

Just there, I'll turn to the issue of disjunction, the ultimate expression of freedom in my writing, that is the beginning of discovery. It is almost as though something underneath all the activity pursued actively challenges me to put two things together and to find out how they match. Because, of course, they do. They fit together or at least work together in some way. I may not know how until they are there together. And when they are, and I learn how and maybe even why they fit or match or mutually enhance, then I've begun to learn something that ensures that I'll move forward in some way I do not know until I have.

TF: Yes, in identifying disjunction as the freedom that launches discovery, you send an excellent retort to those who feel that they can dismiss experimental poetry with the silly label “incomprehensible.”

I’m going to finish with a twist on an old chestnut-bearing question: what traps (in poetic thinking, process, and/or interactions with others) should fledgling poets flee?

SEM: Bullies, groupthink, permission-seeking. Anything that violates the purity of process. Anything that gets in the way of devoted perception time. And of course, the potential for missing the fact that every part of experience is fodder for the work. Thus, missing the opportunity to be mindful. Thank you, Tom, for extraordinary questions and insights. This has been a joy.

TF: For me, too. Thank you, Sheila.