Whether it’s an unpolished opal or a hardwood cabinet before it’s furnished by a carpenter, I find myself gravitated towards things that remain raw, candid, and authentic. Problematica: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020 (ECW Books 2021), like the wonderfully unpolished-polished gem it is, explores controversy and darkness with palpable sarcasm and wit from its author, the poet George Murray. Murray’s poems challenge readers to acknowledge a more difficult reality. Spans Murray’s career, Problematica brings together work from Carousel, Diversion, and The Cottage Builder’s Letter, and other collections, along new poems. Whether it’s a commentary on religion, outdated traditions, or superficial values, Murray brings the raw and candid to the page.
Over a shared Google Doc, Murray, writing from his home in St. John’s, Newfoundland Canada, discussed his work, Muppet shout-outs, boundaries (and their questionable existence), and poetic form as the Bundt pans.
What led to your putting together Problematica? Did you think you arrived at a particular point in your poems or logical point in your life where this kind of collection would make sense?
The easy answer is: my editor asked me to do it, so I did. A few poets of my generation (those of us with first books around 1999 or 2000) were on tap to do one, so I thought, why not. Maybe it’s time. I turned 50 this year, so I am right smack in middle age and it seemed as good as any time for a mid-career retrospective. Well, I certainly hope it’s mid.
In Adam Sol’s introduction to Problematica, he asks “what does the form itself reveal?” He writes that your use of various forms throughout Problematica—elegy, lyric, free verse, etc.—are of your own unique design. I am curious, what do you hope to reveal within these forms? In other words, what do these chosen forms achieve that others would not?
When I teach poetry, I teach form (things like sonnets, villanelles, etc… the usual M.F.A. exercise fodder) as generative molds into which we can pour our ideas to test them out against the constraints. Sometimes your original ideas survive the mulching they get when being stuffed into a sonnet, but sometimes the idea evolves and goes in unexpected directions, generating new angles and frictions that help give the poem energy.
Each of my books to this point has been radically different from the last—quasi-sonnets as elegies, narrative free verse, apostrophic couplets and tercets, more sonnets but this time in my own form with “thought rhyme,” lyrical free verse, epigrammatic sound bites, etc. Things just worked out that way. When I wrote a book of 50ish sonnets (considering I wrote about 150 sonnets to get 50 good ones), I ended up feeling like I didn’t want to write sonnets for a while. So I set myself the task of writing in a different form. And then that form feels done, so I move on to another.
To my mind, the form helps generate new material and can direct how it develops semantically. For instance, writing two poems that center around the same idea/image will be radically different if one is a two-page narrative sprawl and the other has only the 140 beats of a sonnet. So, the form can really be integral to not just how the poem looks, or how it’s told, but how it means. For people not involved with poetry or literature, I explain it this way: think of the sonnet like a Bundt pan… you can make a wide array of recipes in it, but it will always look like a Bundt cake when it comes out. That doesn’t mean your Auntie Florence’s cherry cake is unoriginal. It just means she was working within a form.
Sol also writes that Problematica includes poems with “objects and observations, characters and conjectures, explorations that try to see the world with the off-kilter clarity that it deserves,” which embody a witty, mischievous, and dark outlook. Do you agree that the clearest way to describe the world and its happenings is through wit and mischief? Or do you find that those techniques are the most attractive to you and your audience?
I love both wit and mischief. They’re hallmarks of the Generation X personality in general, I suppose. But I’m not sure how to approach the world any other way. We live in a time of sound bites and taking the piss out of things. I suppose that’s why that aesthetic gets reflected in our work. If you go to a poetry reading, the most popular reader there is usually the one who puts on the best performance or makes people feel the most comfortable and least stupid. I think our generation really grabbed onto that idea as part of a strange obsessive need to be “liked.”
So, yes, I have poems that rely on humour and wit, but I think there’s plenty of wit to be mined from the darkness as well. And having both aspects in a poem can temper and round out the experience for the reader or listener.
Before the selections from your first book, Carousel, published by Exile Editions in 2000, there is an epigraph that reads “at least I always predicted things would end this way.” What led you to include this quote from the last line of your poem “The Eschotologist’s End”? Can you talk about how this sentiment resonates with you? [Also, in Problematica this line is not italicized but it is in Carousel. Is there a reason for that alteration?]
I wanted the section for each book to start with a quote from one of the poems within, and this quote, written so early in my career (in a poem about a doomsayer who dies after years of saying “the end is coming!”), really tickled me. That kid who wrote that poem—27-year-old me—was pretty confident in the things he was saying. It seemed a good way to start things this time.
I have lived in the same small town of four thousand people my whole life, and feel it restricts the topics I’m able to write about because there is so much of the world I am unaware of. Has living in places like Italy, Newfoundland, New York City, and Ontario impacted or influenced your work?
I have never really considered myself a poet of place—one of those people who really explores the landscape of where they are. I grew up in cow country Ontario, with miles and miles between houses, but I seldom write about it, because that’s not where my mind is. I mean, I can write about it if I want. I can write from anywhere about anything—I just need walls with plugs in them for my laptop. But that’s not what drives me.
I’ve lived all over, and while aspects of these places become part of my thoughtscape and weasel into my work (the bucolic poems I wrote in Italy, the frenetic urban landscapes of NYC, the sea and salt air of Newfoundland), I am not writing poems about being somewhere. I am writing poems about being. And if you’re actively being, you’re actively somewhere. So, perhaps the answer is … maybe?
Problematica’s poems include an array of emotions like anger, regret, hope, love, and faith, which are written about candidly and without reservations. Lines like “were every child given a violin and set before the royalty of Europe, would there still be royalty?” from “Violin” highlight privilege, outdated traditions, societal constraints, and expectations. Some authors may worry that these themes are too risky or controversial, and I wonder if you think there is such a thing as a boundary in writing, or a topic too taboo to comment on? Is it important for writers to explore these concepts and others without fear of crossing a line?
I’m not sure there are boundaries that are universal, but I do think there are boundaries that are personal. When I wrote Diversion, I really tried to let go of the “curation” many writers do when they think of themselves as the speaker in their work. Because it was a work about the nature of interiority and distraction, I tried to let bad impulses and thoughts ride alongside the noble ones. I tried to let the inappropriateness of impulsive thought have its time to see if it contained any decent poetry. And it did. People think things that are shameful and inappropriate all the time. It’s part of who we are inside. And if I’m exploring “what’s inside,” who am I to censor it? To try to set myself up as the heroic exception? And beyond all that, the real truth that many poets and readers of poetry forget is that poetry is fiction too. I do and say things in service of the poem and/or idea that I would probably not do or say in my personal life. But that’s because I’m working on a piece designed to invite thought and evoke emotion, not engaging in a chat at a party.
On your personal website you celebrate Problematica’s official release by reading “Animal Is My Inner Animal.” I can’t help but ask: why did you choose a poem about this iconic drummer muppet to kick things off?
Well, as I mentioned above, it’s funny, in a way, and accessible. And people enjoy funny and accessible. What? A poem about a psychopathic muppet as an avatar for the poet? That’s sort of funny. And the accessibility part comes in two ways: most people older than 20 know who Animal is, and the language is largely chatty and the narrative is straightforward. That sort of poem makes people feel welcome at a reading, and frankly, more inclined to buy the book.
In early December 2020 you opened up Walk the Line, an eight-week online poetry course for all types of writers, beginners and experts alike. Like you, I had a similar thought that creating during the pandemic would be therapeutic, thus inspiring my title idea for Pine Hills Review’s recent F*CK 2020 special feature. Did your experience, and feedback from participants, confirm that the workshop was beneficial in this way?
Walk the Line started as a school for teaching poetry in an online workshop format, but is now evolving to create an online space for poets to seek and give feedback on work, create community (networking), share information, etc. I’ve now taught the two levels of classes there a couple times each and I’ve noticed that the poets who have taken these courses have felt at a loss afterward on how to continue sharing with the community they developed. Most have tried to keep in touch with each other, but things like Facebook and email aren’t conducive to this sort of sharing.
During the pandemic people have felt so isolated and cut off, but even more so after they lose the community of a workshop. That online space (exercises and lectures delivered by video with weekly poetry workshop meetings) gave people a sense of the normal while also providing some structure in a time that had suspended most structure. So I’ve created an online community wing of the site where users can subscribe to a private, members-only forum to do everything they were doing in the course of study, but indefinitely online. It’s sort of like a mini-social media space, but just for people who want to talk about poetry.
In general, I sort of think the slow erosion of the liberal arts degree in the West in favor of STEM streams will mean we’ll see more and more things that were once part of academia appearing in the private sector. My students comprise everyone from absolute beginners who want to learn to understand poetry to seasoned award winners who need to regulate their practice and get a kick in the butt. They don’t need or want a degree. They want to write some poems and meet other poets.
In a 2015 with CBC Radio, you discussed the release of Diversion, your collection of aphorisms detailing how the digital age is a threat to a writer’s creativity. During the interview you said “I think we’ve come into a time where we’re losing the line between what is profound and what is mundane,” and how the collection “flip-flops back and forth between really angry about the world and sort of being awestruck about the world.” It’s now 2021 with the publication of Problematica and in light of recent global events, have your views on the world shifted at all, or do they remain the same?
The example I use around this is: in ye olde days (pre-smart phones and internet, etc.), I used to spend a lot of time daydreaming or trapped in my own head. In line at the grocery store, in a chair at a doctor’s office waiting to be seen, in a park eating lunch until it’s time to go back to work. With the invention of the pocket computer (iPhone et al), I lost most of that time. I noticed this because my note-taking dropped dramatically. I was filling my downtime with scrolling instead of thinking. Where I’d once been filling a notebook with ideas and questions and observations every month or two, I was now taking a year to do the same. And the only place I did have these thoughts was when I was driving. Why? Couldn’t use the phone.
So I wrote Diversion about that: what it’s like to think when you have multiple channels bombarding your senses all day every day (TVs in the restaurants, radios in the car, phone pinging in your pocket, funny cat videos to look at, etc., everyone talking over everyone else.) What thoughts do come when there’s no time to think deeply or long?
Much of this continues. Worry about societal decay, constant failed attempts at restorative justice, economic uncertainty, political devolution, etc. It’s all there, pressing in from a million different channels. Sometimes it feels like the world is a series of chemical and mining plants, the internet a filthy river, and our brains a tailings pond downstream. That said, I love the place. It’s like living in our generation’s version of the Wild West. Horse chases, gold prospecting, and train robberies everywhere. But also everything bad that comes with that.
And it’s a reality we have to live with, because we bought all the way in even though we still have no idea where it will go, or how it will all end up. That’s crazy, isn’t it? But here we are. So I’m getting used to it.
Alexis Stephenson (editor; she/her) is a senior English major at The College of Saint Rose. In the future, Alexis wants to be a freelance content designer and believes being part of editing and publishing will help prepare her. When she’s not writing or reading, she spends her time alpine skiing and playing with her dogs.