Sheila E. Murphy is the recipient of the Gertrude Stein Award for her book Letters to Unfinished J. (Green Integer Press, 2003). Murphy’s book titled Reporting Live from You Know Where (2018) won the Hay(na)Ku Poetry Book Prize Competition from Meritage Press (U.S.A.) and xPress(ed) (Finland). In 2020, Luna Bisonte Prods released Golden Milk. Broken Sleep Books brought out the book As If To Tempt the Diatonic Marvel from the Ivory (2018). Initially educated in instrumental and vocal music, Murphy is associated with music in poetry. She earns her living as a management consultant and researcher and holds the PhD degree. She has lived in Phoenix, Arizona throughout her adult life.
Three poems from “October Sequence” appear in the thirty-fifth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Tell me about “October Sequence.”
A: I have for many years balanced my love of writing prose poetry, most notably what I term “American haibun,” and lineated poetry, including the pantoum and ghazal forms, as well as the more recent hay(na)ku used in Reporting Live From You Know Where. Writing free lines in sections unassociated with a particular form is something I also love, but have not done recently..
October Sequence began without a particular plan except to welcome the sections as I heard them speak as I facilitated them into being. After writing several of the early numbered sections, I realized that October Sequence would become a book or series of books. As of July, 2022, one of these books is scheduled for publication, while the second, longer portion of the work is under consideration by a different publisher.
I was glad to welcome October Sequence into my life and have loved watching it take on a life of its own. Many of my books began with a plan including rules I set for myself to propel the emergence. The autumnal month of October as we know it in the northern hemisphere has been important to me for its quiet reality that seems to invite reflection. This project seemed just right for the moment of conception, and here it is.
Q: How do these poems compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?
A: These poems are more immediate and inclusive than primarily emotional, in contrast to some of the highly experiential work in Golden Milk that appeared in 2020. While there is some emotional content, I have deliberately and freely emphasized a fast-paced language that allows connections among a wide range of perceptions, including political and sociological realities.
We are living a very strange time right now in stark contrast to recent decades. That means listening differently and discovering something within situations that might not be of one’s choosing, but certainly affording a vast array of learning.
Q: How do you approach form, moving from project-to-project? Is each manuscript a self-contained idea, or do you see your work as a series of threads that weave in and around each other from book to book?
A: The range of discoveries as perceptions and their matching styles has required me to write in a variety of ways. I seek to shape each set of discoveries into a distinctive artistic endeavor. My world view, itself transforming all the time, might be a unifying factor.
I must distinguish between two different types of book manuscripts: the planned project that assumes a particular form, and the collection of individual poems, often including many different styles. For the former, the comments about form apply most directly. For the latter, a collection needs to cohere, but there may be greater breadth in style. In both instances there is the opportunity to discover how form and context mesh and mutually reinforce the possibility of rising above any planning and crafting.
Q: How did this process emerge? How did you evolve into a poet that works book-length projects alongside manuscripts that are accumulated out of individual poems? Is it simply a matter of working multiple styles and forms simultaneously?
A: Perhaps most relevant to this question is the fact that I have refined multiple styles of writing, including forms, over a period of years. I have trained myself to write in patterns in a way that builds on their frankly infinite capacity to house particular poetic adventures. That provides a foundation on which to build projects. Having gained fluency in several modes, both lineated and pose poetry, and more specifically in forms I’ve referenced earlier, has made it possible to craft in different directions simultaneously with different projects. Writing is after all a highly disciplined pursuit and treating it that way respects its best essence.
Throughout my working life in a sphere other than poetry, I juggle multiple projects at a time. I fasten my attention on a particular effort while perceiving how that fits into a larger whole. This works just as effectively in poetry. I have patterned my listening to what is around me and capturing that in such a way that stimulates the find patterns and propels them. For example, listening to conference proceedings provides fruitful materials that I capture and collect and rearrange.
I prefer working on more than one poem at a time. I keep a flow going and my mind accommodates this better than working in a tiny mode on one single poem at a time. During the gestation period of a poem, whether a long or short period of time, I avoid hypercriticizing the effort in a way that could risk refining it out of existence. Once the poem has life, I edit extensively. The same is true of books in a range of styles.
Q: With multiple books and chapbooks over the past forty-odd years, how do you feel your writing has developed? Where do you see your work headed?
A: As I look at my Wikipedia page where I track publications, I am reminded that a lot of work has been done. Once I found my wings in poetry in my twenties, I was writing very accessible poetry that blended intellect, depth of feeling, and humor. Having found that groove, I wrote constantly, and this persisted as I morphed into a more abstract direction. For a long time, the abstract and formally inventive work likely underplayed my personality and essence. As I became intrigued by what I could do in writing, I proceeded to structure a wide variety of poems, chapbooks, and full-length collections.
It's important to mention, too, that another parallel track has been my collaborative work with many people, including Douglas Barbour, with whom I created two volumes of Continuations that The University of Alberta Press published. Beyond those two books there is a great deal of work. We collaborated daily (except Sundays) over more than twenty years, and the process of writing and the friendship remain very important to me. I miss that experience greatly.
In addition to my constant work with Doug Barbour, I created book-length collaborations, most of them published, with John M. Bennett, Michelle Greenblatt, Scott Glassman, K.S. (Kathy) Ernst, Lewis LaCook, mIEKAL aND, and Charles Alexander.
My writing is quite various, and I see the idea of development more as inclusion of different very necessary styles that accommodate what comes to me. In other words, there is not a single trajectory forward, but a more systemic reality to my work. I sense what else needs to be created and then get to work.
I will continue to write more work in lines and in prose. I will continue to create visual poetry. I will very likely expand my range to create plays and scripts, some of them collaborations. There is so much to be done, and to call it a privilege to work in this way is an understatement. Of great importance to me is the poetry community, the source of inspiration and friendship that are sustaining.
Q: I’m curious about your collaborative efforts. What has collaboration been allowing that might not have been possible otherwise? Do you see the process shifting your work at all?
A: Collaboration is a different universe from individual work. I have always suspected that it influenced my psyche more than it has my individual work. That said, collaboration resembles a conversation by allowing layers of transformation based on the shared vibrations and connectivity that emerge from being in any form with another person. Coexistence is what collaboration can be about.
I have been fortunate to collaborate with many people. Douglas Barbour and I steadily worked for more than 20 years, sharing stanzas included in Continuations six days each week. I loved the integration of music in Doug’s thinking and writing. He was a remarkable person. The tangible yield of two books published by The University of Alberta Press Continuations and Continuations 2 was satisfying to both of us. In the material we created, there likely are multiple additional books. That’s a subject for another day. Working with Doug was a beautiful experience, both for what we produced together and for the great friendship that emerged during this process.
When you mention shifting the work, I suspect that many shifts are not readily perceived by us, yet perhaps are revealed later as we reflect on what we have created. I love collaboration for its power, its purity, and for the unlimited potential for making new discoveries in writing.
Q: Have you any particular models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting lately? Any particular authors or works in the back of your thoughts as you write?
A: Inspiration of what is possible is most important. A simple example is the word portraiture that Gertrude Stein engaged in. Her determination to transfer what we consider the province of painting to the literary sphere for me has brought a sense of confidence that I can do what I recognize is proper for whatever I am exploring. The plays that Stein created, for instance, do not resemble at all the traditional idea of plays.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: Stein is fundamentally important to me both literarily and personally. Her mind, who she was, how she lived, and the bounty of joyful discovery Stein continues to bring is unsurpassed. Books by Stein possess osmotic properties for me. I can touch a book, especially a first edition of Stein’s work, and feel the mind and its power.
Many years back, Beverly Carver began gifting me first editions by Stein. Since that time, we have assembled quite a number of these treasures. The idea of acquiring and maintaining a collection of anything is daunting from a monetary perspective. Very sharp, single focus and planning make collecting in a limited sense possible We integrated the fact of collecting first editions by Stein into our life, and I am glad.