She is a partner in the consulting firm Work. Transformed. In that sphere, she blogs at https://www.worktransformed.com/
Murphy lives in Phoenix, Arizona.
Douglas Barbour is Professor emeritus, Department of English & Film Studies, University of Alberta. His books include Fragmenting Body etc, Breath Takes, &, with Sheila E Murphy, Continuations & Continuations 2; & the critical texts, Michael Ondaatje & Lyric / Anti-lyric: essays on contemporary poetry. Listen. If was published by the University of Alberta Press, spring 2017. He was inducted into the Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame in 2003.
Their poem “Continuations XCVII:” appears in the thirteenth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about the poem “Continuations XCVII:.”
Sheila: This piece reflects our long-term creating as a team on the poem sequence aptly titled Continuations. For the past 16 years, we have been writing this work daily together, sharing each six line passages electronically. As I listen to this segment, I hear a more mature linguistic entity. I hear language take on the properties of living being that inflects and shifts its weight as situations spark in situation rooms all around us.
We activate our syllables in the midst of constantly changing political winds, sputtering lifelines, and people grabbing toward ropes that might evoke survival. Still, there is play. There is activation of our own souls, working as one, being in each instant separate from the other, and finding the threads that mean we are invoking an equivalency in atmosphere and yield.
In this piece, I hear admitting the anchoring effect of structures we depend upon in our breathless lives. I sense the flecks of tone that might preempt some other tones, maybe dangers, maybe just unwanted noise. Our sounds agree even as they signal turns onto less expected lanes. We move the piece by willing syllables then answering another tiny or immense wave.
I wonder who we were then, even this little space of years when this section was birthed into the ether. We sound different, yet recognizable to me as we lob recognition over a net that might be invisible, might be agreed upon as such or as some other mysterious thing.
We reflexively have spoken, sung, revealed ourselves perhaps a little as we heard what was to come from the passage each just read and answered here.
Doug: Sheila has summed this up nicely. It’s interesting to go back & look at this one, as we are quite a bit further along, but to where? As there’s no narrative here but for the ongoing writing practice, what occurs/occurred is just what happened at the moment, then, of writing. Certainly, as each of us played off the previous stanzas, especially, each time, the one before, all kinds of snaky connections just happened.
I do note that for some reason (though it happens elsewhere too) popular music allusions keep popping up (in). As well, the ‘method’ (if we can use that term) invites play, continually. I’m not sure what year the was written, but too the political of each country made itself felt, though we try (I think) not to mention it specifically; it’s just that we’re aware, & the allusive venture allows it to play into the ongoing verbal play. We did make the conscious decision, after #L (50), to start playing the lines out across the field of the page more, & the can be seen here, as adding to the move(meant)s of the language, & the little silences we wanted to register line by line.
We continue, & so as we change, it does so with us.
Q: How does your collaborative work relate to your individual works? You’d both been writing and publishing for some time before you began your collaborative project. Do you see your collaboration as an extension of your individual works, or something else entirely?
Sheila: Something else entirely, rob. I recognize that our work together involves a distinctive stepping-off point that has evolved over the 16+ years of our process so far. Therefore, although I am insisting upon something different from “an extension” of what we write individually, your question of “how,” is the point here.
I have been changed as a writer and a person in ways that I suspect are variously conscious and unconscious as Doug and I work together. One way that I find to be highly conscious is in the regularity of our contributions to the long poem. The frequency and the excitement of what we make is part of my life, an important one. Further, the attention to a 6-line piece of writing that begins from a structure means an element of discipline. Such discipline, added to other formatted boundaries I make for myself, generates focus. For me, focus and discipline comprise the framework for many wonderful parts of my writing life and with that my life in general.
Doug’s perception and writing surprise me all the time. The different turns, the viewpoints, the language, the context, deepen how I perceive. The early quiet of my receiving what he writes, then answering, makes it possible to go places I don’t expect to venture.
My own writing is something I forget about during our work. That’s good, I think. I don’t want to think about myself or different work from what we are doing. I pay attention to our flow and our responsorial movement. It’s a pleasure. Imagine the gift of having wider range and being part of something larger, and being inside of that, not just an observer. That’s only part of the gift.
Unconscious features no doubt play a role in this, but I don’t really know what they are. I believe that we’ll find out as we proceed, both together and individually.
Doug: Like Sheila, I say, Something else entirely. She makes a number of important points here that I agree with, & I certainly feel the same gratitude to her & her poetics for the way they push me into the next stanza, next section of this ongoing project, that certainly continues partly as (& because of) an aspect of growing friendship. When it began, I was in a bit of a block, & hoped that the pressure of a collaboration would help to get my own writing going -- & I think it did. But, as Sheila says, the format & the nearly daily push send me (us) into a kind of writing that does differ from what each of us does individually. (On the other hand, the whole reason I approached her had to do with my coming across the title of her Selected Poems, Falling in Love Falling in Love with You Syntax, & then the poems within; how could I resist?)
So, yes, there is a discipline attached to both the structure, that 6 line stanza, & the quick turnaround as we pass the poem back & forth via email. And that, of course, is something only possible in the last few decades (by 1999 email allowed for the quick turnaround; had we been trying to do this via regular mail, it just would not have taken off).
Like Sheila, I don't think consciously about my own writing when writing Continuations. But I do think that what happens there certainly affects my other writing, though I’m not sure exactly how. The sense of letting language lead occurs in both, but here the language leading is always other. On the other (other) hand, what I face with each new iteration is a slew of possibilities, & with the very first word I choose they start slimming down (but there’s always a sense of the other possible stanzas left out). And, I think certain themes begin to make themselves felt in each part as it proceeds, never blatant but nonetheless still hovering. Moreover, & this is one of the exciting aspects, Sheila continually surprises me with where she takes my last stanza, & then a kind of renewal begins again as I respond. I like the sense inherent in the process (which I hope comes across in reading them) of never knowing exactly what comes next: her gift to me in the ongoing action of the collaboration.
And, like Sheila, I really enjoy the sense of being part of something larger, some movement of language which stretches my awareness & craft, & in which a friendship continues to grow.
Q: I’m curious, had either of you any models in mind when you first began this project? Were there other collaborations that struck you as possible influences upon what you ended up doing?
When we began the project, both of us had experience in collaborating with others. I also had responded with interest in a collaboration between Dan Davidson and Tom Mandel. This seamless work was particularly good and possessed the sense of a single author that Doug and I have come to value increasingly over the years.
So far as influences, this was not a part of my own experience, in that the fact of collaborating is a very general jumping-off point. It is not inherently a model per se, but a practice. Thus, writing styles that each of us may have admired or admire now might be relevant, especially unconsciously. Doug has used the word “hovering” with respect to themes. That might be just the way to speak about influences. We know they are there, and then we don’t. But so they remain.
It may make sense to say that as one grows in writing, what others are doing become less immediately relevant, but the fact of almost constant reading means that there are mutual influences happening all the time. As social animals, as our mutual (now departed) friend Mary Rising Higgins frequently reminded me, we are functioning in concert with one another all the time. That’s just the way we humans are.
Doug: maybe it’s because we have been collaborating for so long, but I agree with Sheila here. Mostly. My only collaboration had been with Stephen Scobie in performing sound poetry, in which the act of collaboration was in the performance, while the writing of performance pieces was something we each did separately, essentially, & then worked on the performance together, an action that continually developed & changed as we did it. In Continuations, Sheila & I are writing in a kind of jagged tandem, &, as we’ve mentioned before, the ‘voice’ (or ‘sound’) of what emerges is a ‘third voice,’ somewhere in between what each of us does individually, though certainly carrying something of both.
On the other hand, I feel, & I think Sheila’s response points to a similar awareness, that in a way, unless one has never read anything (not a good way to approach any kind of writing), in a way you are always in a kind of collaboration with earlier writing (what that comment from Mary Rising Higgins points to).
In terms of having a model in mind, well, I certainly didn't. Just the concept of finding a way to work together to construct something interesting (to us anyway). And the structure we chose seemed to allow for a give-&-take, the necessary back-&-forth, that (utilizing email) would let us create this ongoing poem.
Q: You’ve very much taken the title “Continuations” as an extended catch-all; when you started the project, what made you decide to build something so potentially large and ongoing, as opposed to working on a series of singular one-off collaborations using different forms?
Sheila: rob, I did not envision any particular term for this project. Doug wisely titled the poem a reasonably short time following our start of co-creation. The continuity that is present represents something important to me. The recent and current mainstream culture lacks connectivity and flow, in my experience. Our work encompasses features of constancy and innovation in response.
Now that we have been moving on our work together for many years, there has been evolution. There have been changes that fit the time we are in. Cultural and political changes are evident in our poem. We are part of our environment, certainly. And within such environment, our thinking and feeling have the possibility of bringing about some shifts in each other and in readers.
Doug: I was going to say, It just growed. Certainly, I didn't plan that it would continue so long; neither did I (nor, I think, we) initially assume any binding ending to it. In fact, as Sheila says, the act of collaboration became an action-in-time, a continuing one, & so an act of continuing friendship as well. Part of what continues to happen is the fluidity of improvisation in a world always changing around us (possibly the fact that Sheila is in the US & I’m in Canada affects both of us in our doubled responses to each other’s new stanzas & to whatever is going on each passing day; the language always shifting gears around us undoubtedly acts as part of the surround within which we write, day by day). And, yes, the poem itself has developed, again not because either one of us deliberately & consciously attempts to impose a change, but because the poem-as-act keeps us on our toes, reacting, writing.
Q: You’ve published two full-length collections of your collaboration to date: Continuations and Continuations 2. How easy or difficult was it to decide where the first volume should end and the second begin (or itself, end)? Was it a matter of a particular number of pages or pieces, or were you attempting to find some kind of natural “ending” to close off each volume?
Doug: I would say that once we decided to try a publisher, we took a look at the general length of each section, & realized that about 25 would make for a fairly long book of poetry. Once the University of Alberta Press generously took the project of the first Continuations on, & we received some feedback from the readers, we fine tuned what we had written, editing down a bit, again in a spirit of collaboration, it ended up being the 130 or so pages each volume is. More or less in agreement, we seem to reach a certain length for each ‘Continuation,’ & so the pattern of 25 sections per book will likely continue, if we are able to publish further volumes.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
Doug: an intriguing question, as I suspect we both read a lot of new & good poetry (& one is always energized by new & interesting work [& the longer I took to answer the more names came up]). But I certainly go back & read some of a number of poets who were, & remain, important influences: Phyllis Webb, of course (& that marvelous recent Collected is just beautiful to ramble through); bpNichol; Creeley, Duncan, Levertov, & Olson, the New American poets (whole Pound-Williams line) who first excited me. Since the huge Collected came out, I spend a lot of time with Lorine Niedecker. Among the next generation, I keep up especially with Susan Howe & Michael Palmer. The tangled beauties of Basil Bunting. And in Canada: Marlatt, Moure, Newlove, Robertson, Wah, & others; some really intriguing poets of Australia (Robert Adamson among others) & New Zealand (especially Dinah Hawken, Michelle Leggott, & Bill Manhire). I’ve read Paul Celan for years, but am spending time with the huge Pierre Joris translation of his last books. So many younger writers, I can’t keep up, but a lot of them excite my interest. Then some of the elders gong way back (Dickinson, Keats, Wyatt). I’d better stop now.
Sheila: Gertrude Stein’s energy remains a source of magnetic energy, in addition to dazzling my sense of hearing and thinking via sound. Numerous poets captivate me. I read a great deal of brand new work by younger authors in addition to people whose work I have come to know very well. These days, the slower and more deliberately that I read, the more I grow into the work.
Middle English sonority, specifically Chaucer, enriches my hearing. I pride myself on reading Middle English aloud, a process I began in graduate school at the University of Michigan, where I haunted the language lab, practices for adjunct sessions for my Chaucer class.
I am an avid reader in a wide range of fields, including aesthetics, art history, behavioral economics, and statistics. Living at this time in history offers availability of texts due to electronic access and gloriously archived work shared by university and other libraries.
Humor is a huge part of my life, and I deliberately read many mysteries with eccentric characters just to become acquainted with individuals and ensembles who frame life in a shimmering way. I am not particularly interested in what happens, but I am interested in who is doing it.