Lyric Essentials: Patricia Colleen Murphy Reads Terrance Hayes’ “Fire” and “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals”

Trish Murphy’s book, Hemming Flames is a deft exploration of trauma and incredibly difficult topics with a rich topography of image and language. Pretty much, I consider her a true adept at wielding her words. And this is exactly what she had to say about why she admires Terrance Hayes as a poet as well as loving his work. We got to talk about the surprise of his lines, and the way his stance makes the poem completely trustworthy.

 

 

 

Black: What draws you to Terrence Hayes as a poet?

Murphy: Terrance is a brilliant, generous, and funny human being. I love how many times his poems surprise me with unique phrases, strong images, but also deeply personal touches. In a reading he gave here in Phoenix in 2016 he said something that really moved me. He said that when he writes poems he keeps, “one foot in reality and one foot in imagination.” That is the way I like to posture myself as a poet as well.

His poems are full of musicality, masculinity, sensuality, whimsy, insight, AND moments of profound tenderness. How does he do it? He is a poet I read and wonder, how does his mind work? A line like, “Has your memory ever been / an unfenced country?” or “I know decent lies in the word descent.” There are so many moments in his work that I am thankful for. I picture him sitting at a desk—do these lines fall from the sky? How does he access them!?

Black: What is it about these poems that draw you to them? Do you connect with them personally, professionally, both? And in what ways?

Murphy: I’ll start with “Fire.” Now let’s be honest. I love dropping what I call the “M” bomb. There is no word quite like “mother” to stir emotion in the reader. It’s a cheat word in some ways because it’s so heavily weighted. I write about the mother a lot.

But I love the way the mother appears in Terrance’s work. In “Fire,” she is part of the landscape, but she is also a mythic savior. The way he reaches the mother as a topic is subtle and quiet and natural.

I do connect with this poem personally and professionally. When I’m reading submissions for my magazine [Superstition Review], or even when I am teaching writing of late, I talk about the 3 C’s: content, craft, and composition. In this poem there is a mastery across the board—the poem paints an image of a dream scene that allows the poet to portray the mother as a mythical hero. The poem is full of sensory detail and image and metaphor. And the writing at the word level is stunning. I love the line, “There was the calm & discretion / of giving up.”

In “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals” we get even more evidence of craft—the language here takes on more sophistication and playfulness. I love the line “I will remember my / brief career as an infant.” I love how socially aware this poem is without being self-conscious or self-important. These poems are so deeply personal that the reader is drawn into the experience on an intimate level. In this particular poem, I am attracted to the use of repetition, the play with words, the imagery, the refrains. I have tried to write a poem like this.

 

 

Black: Do you see connections from “Fire” or “Whatever Happened to the Fine Young Cannibals” with your own poetry? And if so, how so?

Murphy: I can only say that I wish I could write like this. Maybe I have succeeded a few times with a few lines here and there.

Black: What are your feelings about the use of the first person in a poem?

Murphy: I write mostly in first person, though I do have several epistolatory poems. When I talk to students about first person in poetry, I talk about the main problem as I see it: that overuse of the “I blank” construction becomes repetitive and it also can indicate a level of self-centeredness. So in revision (or in editing even), I also recommend a ctrl-F for “I.” A lot of times sentences can be reworded so that they are simply more interesting.

What I like about these two poems and the way they use first person is that I feel so connected with the speaker. I believe the I. I believe the poet.

Black: What else would you like to point out about these poems? The language, the use of imagery? I’m interested in knowing what else moves you about his craft? What do you want students to take note of?

Murphy: It strikes me that the poets I admire most are the ones who take the time to imagine through to image. Perhaps that’s why I feel that these poems are so generous and thoughtful. The poet works through concept, “For house pets being American / is a cinch.” But also through image, “what I have eaten of you tastes like mint and damp clay, tastes exactly like the soil / I ate in my grandmother’s yard as a boy.” I really appreciate work that feels intentional and genuine, and Terrence Hayes is a poet who delivers every time.

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Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press) won the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award judged by Stephen Dunn, and the 2017 Milt Kessler Poetry Award. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, and most recently in Copper Nickel, Black Warrior Review, North American Review, Smartish Pace, Burnside Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Hobart, decomP, Midway Journal, Armchair/Shotgun, and Natural Bridge. She lives in Phoenix, AZ.

Terrance Hayes is a MacArthur fellow, a National Book Award winner, and the author of six poetry collections including his newest, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assasin. Hayes has been awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, won the National Poetry Series in 2001, and has achieved many other landmark accolades. In 2017 he was made a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.

 

Links to some good stuff:

Terrance Hayes at the Poetry Foundation

Terrance Hayes’ Website

Terrance Hayes at the MacArthur Foundation

Trish at the Academy of American Poets

An Interview with Trish at Diode

 

Anna Lys Black is the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is a Virginia G. Piper global fellow, a graduate excellence awardee, and mere weeks from completion of her MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others.