Patricia Murphy is an American writer and teacher based in Arizona. She teaches at Arizona State University and is the founding editor of Superstition Review. Her first book, Hemming Flames, was published by University Press of Colorado in the summer 2016 and went on to win the 2017 Milt Kessler Award for Poetry. Bully Love, her second collection, won the 2019 Press 53 Award for Poetry. I spoke with her about the process of crafting a collection decades in the making.
A. Poythress: This feels like a book that’s taken years to write, but at the same time as if you could have sat down and banged it all out in one day just to finally get it out of you. How long had you been constructing Bully Love before you decided it was “done”?
Patricia Murphy: First, thank you so much for your careful reading and thoughtful questions. A few of these poems are from my MFA thesis, so over 20 years old. They have been revised since then, and the book went through a lot of revisions even after it won the Press 53 Award for Poetry.
The process for publishing this book was very different from the first collection. For my first book, the editor wanted zero changes. For this book, it won the award, but the series editor wanted to develop the collection a lot. He and I went through several rounds of comments and revisions. I guess you could say this collection took about 20 years to construct.
I wasn’t working on it nonstop during that time. I’ve done a lot of different projects. But this collection got attention several times over the years. Can I say I am still not sure it’s done? There is always the editor in me who tweaks lines while reading!
AP: In a class I took with [Columbia College Chicago’s] Patricia Ann McNair called “Flash Forms”, we studied many different types of short and very short fiction. A lot of us had trouble distinguishing between prose poems, flash fiction, segmented essays, etc., because the definitions seemed to blur into one another. I felt that way reading Bully Love; like I was at times reading personal essays, at others narrative non-fiction. I think this is because of how many different structures you utilize with your poems. Was this a conscious effort on your part? Or did the poems just decide what they wanted to be for themselves?
PM: Patricia’s class sounds wonderful. Flash is becoming so popular right now. I do believe our brains our changing in the way we process narrative. Flash seems to be a response to our interactions with technology.
I am very conscious of form as I compose, but especially as I revise. One of my favorite revision activities is to take all the line breaks out of a poem and create an entirely different shape. In Bully Love many of the forms are used to carry forward the main themes. So, you have the four dying poems, and the five hiking poems—those are used as a refrain in the collection.
AP: How did you decide on the order for Bully Love? I thought maybe it was chronological at first, but then I realized there’s a very subtle weaving of threads of time together, to give us something that’s more like multiple timelines coalescing into one. How did you come about this technique?
PM: This was a very fun activity that my dogs loved. I wanted the different themes to lay adjacent to each other, and also to recur in the book often enough that the reader could react and interact with them. So I laid the poems out on the floor. Once I had all the poems out, I put a colored post-it on each poem to highlight its theme, then I rearranged them over and over again to get them to make sense. I did try to make the individual theme poems chronological. My dogs love when I join them at their level so we had lots of snuggles as I moved poems around the floor.
AP: Do you remember what poem came first? Which was last?
PM: Oooh. What a fascinating question. “Morenci, Arizona” was a very early poem. I’m going to guess I wrote that in the mid 90’s. “Three Pound Cutthroat” was early too, and was the title of my MFA Thesis. “Underneath the Tamaracks” won an Intro award for poetry from the Academy of American Poets when I was in grad school in 1994 and was published in Indiana Review, one of my early important publications.
Much later poems are “Plucked” and “The Same River Twice.” Those both came out of my writer’s group, Ten Poems: our group of poets who workshopped poetry online together for many years. We produced ten new poems each spring, summer, and fall. That was really great generative work.
AP: I know it’s hard to pick a favorite, but is there a single poem that you love the most from Bully Love? If I had to choose—it’s extremely hard for me, and I didn’t even write it—I would probably pick “Dog-Eared”, probably because of how cruel and painful it is. Then again, maybe tomorrow I would pick “Good Fences” and yesterday I probably would have said “Velvet Ash Cross-Cut”. I think that’s the beauty of Bully Love—there are too many exquisite poems to count.
PM: I keep wanting to choose “Plucked” when I am asked to read so I would have to say that bubbles to the top for me. A fellow poet recently shared “Tell Your Story Walking” on her Twitter account and it got a lot of attention. When I re-read that poem I just kind of weep like a baby so I don’t know that we should call that “favorite” or simply “most impactful.”
AP: What made you write Bully Love now? What planets aligned to make this the time for it?
PM: I’ve been writing and publishing for a very long time, and this book has been circulating at publishers for a while. I think it finally just connected with an editor and therefore found a home in the world. I do feel that its themes of climate change, choosing to be childfree, and family structure are important now, right this moment. I also think the desert has become more accessible. When I first moved to Arizona it was a lot more foreign and exotic to others. Now Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the US.
AP: You discuss your mother’s madness somewhat frequently, but lightly. We get small inklings here and there, mentions of new asylums and apologies, but no poem solely dedicated to it. Is there a reason you don’t delve deeper into it?
PM: My mother’s mental illness, at first, was not in this book in any glaring way. I didn’t want it here because I addressed it so head-on in Hemming Flames. The focus of this book seemed different to me and I didn’t want to explain too much about what happened to her. My editor Tom Lombardo felt it added an important layer, so I added a few poems and even a few references within poems to make it more prominent. That was such wonderful advice, because honestly my life story isn’t complete without it.
AP: Did writing Bully Love feel like a catharsis?
PM: More than anything, I think it was a way to reflect in a glorious way on the people and places that have meant the most to me. I feel formed by experience, and this book captures so many snapshots of life that truly shaped who I am. Hemming Flames was more of a catharsis than this book, which feels a bit more to me like a celebration.
AP: How do you move from writing poetry to writing a memoir? Is the process similar? Is it harder? Easier?
PM: Memoir is going to kill me, frankly. It’s so hard for me to write prose. I tend to write very flat almost like a scientist. The poems help me find image and metaphor and play. I will challenge myself this summer (I have a six week stretch of writing time) to use the poetry to play with the prose and vice versa. I’m really looking forward to it. My memoir is written in a series of 80 scenes and many of them are quite finished. But some need to be embodied, so I plan to dip back and forth between prose and poetry to make both stronger.
AP: Does Bully Love exist as a pre-memoir?
PM: Yes, maybe it is a pre-memoir. It’s also a memoir companion. Many of these poems were written concurrently with working over and over on the scenes in that book.
AP: Poetry doesn’t fall under the categories of either creative non-fiction or fiction. It exists somewhere between and outside the two altogether. It can be a combination of both without ever revealing what pieces it’s taken from them. Do you consider Bully Love fiction, non-fiction, or a combination of the two?
PM: My favorite discussion of this notion comes from Terrance Hayes, who says that when he writes poems he keeps, “one foot in reality and one foot in imagination.” I am certainly doing that here, though I would say that it’s more in reality than imagination. For example, I clearly remember getting into my mother’s basket of tomatoes when I was a child! And watching the bridge being built. And visiting the barber shop with my father. And talking to my hair stylist David about the desert. Funny story—David retired years ago and I was telling my current stylist about the poem. It turns out she used to work for him! We had a nice chat recalling memories of his life and personality. Yes, there are lots of real details here.
AP: How do you find the time to write between teaching, grading, managing and editing Superstition Review, and somehow having a life?
PM: Oh, I don’t find nearly enough time to write. Early on I decided I would dedicate time during the semester to the “administrative life” of the author—submissions and revisions and organizing—and that I would compose in the summers. I do teach Travel Writing in the summers, but my load is greatly reduced and my email also quiets down. Some writing practices I use are journaling, Pomodoro Timers, and keeping track of productive hours using Chrono Plus to see where I’m wasting time. But I know authors who get so much more done than I do.
AP: You are a heavily awarded poet. The May Swenson Poetry Award, the Milt Kessler Award for Poetry, among others. Bully Love received the Press 53 Award for Poetry this year. Does that put pressure on you as a writer?
PM: I think it puts more hope on me than pressure. I am so thankful to have received recognition for my craft. I have this third poetry collection and this memoir still stewing and some days I feel like it would be so much easier to simply walk away from them. But then I think about the people who put so much faith in my work that they chose my manuscripts out of some very tall piles. That truly gives me hope that I can get these next two books out into the world.
AP: The title, Bully Love, comes at the tail end of “Day Trip, Cave Creek Guided Tours”, a little over halfway through the book. Why did you decide to use a phrase that could’ve been lost in the collection as the whole title?
PM: Mostly because I love that phrase. And I love the way it interacts with so many other themes in the book. Choosing that title felt generative. We (Tom and I) worked on that poem a lot to make it make more sense in the collection—it was my toughest revision. I love that it grabs the notion of bullying the land, bullying loved ones, bullying animals, and bullying cultures.
AP: Do you think you could ever live in Ohio again? Or is Arizona your forever home?
PM: I’m not sure if Arizona is my forever home, especially with climate change making the weather here so weird. I imagine weather everywhere is getting weirder, but I am not tolerating the sheer heat much anymore. A friend wrote to ask me about the line, “We traded winter’s triplets for summer’s twins,” because we now really get four unbearable months in the summer, not two, versus those three brutally cold months in Ohio. I really want to live near water. I don’t see that happening here or in Ohio. But we will keep a home here since so much of our life is here. Phoenix is the fifth largest city, but I rarely go anywhere without seeing someone I know. We plan to try to live as many other places as possible too.
AP: You explore so many different relationships in the book; your mother, your father, your romantic partners. I’ve read in previous interviews about your brother, but I don’t know that I find him in the pages of Bully Love. Was he more deeply hidden here because he featured more fully in your previous book, Hemming Flames?
PM: I took focus off him here to shed light on my mother. Really, it is so painful to write about him. More than anyone else in my life. There were a few poems that mentioned him, and I revised him out. I have been feeling very conflicted about him. He invited me not to have a relationship with him because he knows how much his choices disappoint me. I was helping him, and he was lying to me, and I told him I couldn’t tolerate it. It’s too painful. So, he said, “I will not change, so if you can’t tolerate this behavior you should not have a relationship with me.” That was a gift, I felt at the time. But I do feel worried about him. Not one of our family members is in touch with him. He’s really on his own. I have so many loved ones who support me. He doesn’t.
AP: In a previous interview, you mention a poet collective/writer’s group that helped you develop hundreds of poems and provided you with good feedback. Do you still work with the same group?
PM: We are all still very close friends, but we haven’t been able to get in our routine again due to jobs, kids, and life. I now have another group and we are meeting every other week in Google Hangouts and sharing prose in Google Docs. I met them at the Writing X Writers retreat where we all worked on our book-length manuscripts with Ramona Ausubel. In our group of four, we have two memoirs and two short story collections and we are supporting each other towards revised drafts.
AP: What would you say is the most difficult part about writing autobiographical poetry?
PM: All the weeping.
AP: Have any of your family members, current or already passed, ever had a problem with you writing about them?
PM: I do feel my dad (who passed away in 2009) got very hurt by an early draft of my memoir. My dad had this big Irish spirit, and part of that meant he told himself stories about the childhood he thought he provided me. He drank massive amounts of alcohol and perhaps didn’t even remember a lot of what happened. I think he expected that my account of my upbringing would show him as a hero. And in some very important ways he was a hero. But he also said and did terrible things when he was drunk. He hurt me as a human in irreparable ways. I think he revised that history in his mind, and when he saw it on the page he was hurt. We did get past it and our relationship regained its power after his hurt. And he remains one of my great protectors, even though he is gone.
Dad was an only child, so on my paternal side I only have two of his cousins who are both in their 70’s and live in Ohio. I adore both of them and see them as often as I can; I was just back with them in February. Cousin Peggy once mentioned that she thought I had portrayed her negatively in a scene when we were at dad’s deathbed. That was helpful feedback because I was actually trying to show just the opposite! She was so important and helpful and meaningful to me so I revised to make that clearer.
I have 36 living maternal cousins and a maternal uncle (my mom’s younger brother). The group of 36 maternal cousins is quite tight—lots of family reunions and weddings and celebrations. In fact, I just missed my cousin Parker’s Army promotion to Lt. Colonel! He had a big celebration but I was out of the country and was so sad to miss it. Another set of cousins just came to visit me in Phoenix and when I asked a question about family history my cousin said, “Everything I know about our family I learned from your poetry.” I had to chuckle!
My family is SOOOOO supportive of my writing this history. My mom’s brother has sat for countless interviews as I try to piece together her mental health. My cousin Kathy has sent letters and documents she found in her parent’s house after both my Aunt and Uncle died (my mother’s older brother). My cousin Betsy was the great family historian—tracing the family tree on Ancestry.
My brother once said that my story is mine to tell, but I haven’t spoken to him in many years and I don’t know if he has read my published work.
AP: Do you find your travel poetry easier, or harder to write than the poems about your family?
PM: Interesting question! I guess it does take a different hat. I think it has been historically harder, but I might be more adept at the travel poetry now. I have been teaching Travel Writing 4-6 times a year since 2012 so that is a big influence on my interest and focus.
AP: I want to talk about quartet of poems “Dying, Four Ways”. What was the process like, writing these four poems? It’s hard for an outsider to sometimes know which poem represents which parent, but there are some assumptions one can make about who belongs where. What compelled you to write not only about the death of your own parents, but the death of your partner’s? We don’t often talk about it, but at some point, a lot of us do become orphans. What did that label feel like for you?
PM: That started as one poem in the original manuscript. I can’t remember if it was me or Tom (my editor) who decided to split them up and spread them out, but it was a brilliant idea, so I would bet it was him. I wanted to write all four stories because truly from 2001-2009 we felt our parent’s illnesses so keenly. It informed everything we did. All our decisions.
I was quite conflicted about being an orphan. In one way, I was free from my parents’ terrible choices. But I also felt immediately and tragically alone. I have a poem called “On Being Orphaned” in Hemming Flames, that starts with the line, “I find a shirt in my hand but can’t remember the word for shirt or hand.” The rest of the poem goes on to describe how disorienting it is to find yourself alone on the earth. I wish I had known, literally, that no one would ever love me as much as my mother and father, even if they had a difficult time showing it.
AP: There were many times when I had to stop and look something up during the reading of Bully Love. Animal names or places. I think it’s important that you don’t talk down to your readers, that you make them work a little bit harder for their understanding. Is this part of your process as a teacher?
PM: I have to chuckle because when my cousins were here this weekend we were having a grown-up conversation about retirement at the breakfast table and the nine-year-old asked, “What’s a pension?” I love talking about retirement and I launched into a definition of pensions for him (he is literally the cutest human on the planet) and he listened intently while I explained.
As I was talking, it became clear that I had used another word that he didn’t know (prevalent) and I had to enlist his momma’s help to find a synonym that would resonate with him (common). He caught on right away with the simpler word.
This happens to me all the time—everywhere I go. My family was maniacal about vocabulary and about facts. My brother has a 165 IQ, and my mother graduated from Stanford in 1961—not an easy feat. My father was an avid reader and exacting engineer.
In my house, if you used a simple word when a complicated one would do, you were ridiculed for months. It was brutal. So, I use the words that come to me, and when I notice that my message is not received I struggle to find another.
AP: Were there any books, movies, music, television shows, anything that you found yourself going back to again and again during the creation of Bully Love?
PM: Such a fascinating question! Yes. I worked with Nick Flynn and Kelle Groome and Gregory Orr and Terese Svoboda while writing some of these poems. So those are all authors I read over and over again. I can’t recall salient music, movies, and shows but I promise I’m always consuming those in great quantities.
AP: What comes next? I know there’s your upcoming memoir, but is there another collection of poetry after that?
PM: Let’s hope I can get some good composing time in this summer on the two books still waiting to be born!
Bully Love was released by Press 53 in April, 2019.