Bully Love: An interview with poet Patricia Colleen Murphy

Bully Love by Patricia Colleen Murphy book coverPatricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Bully Love (Press 53) won the 2019 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was published in 2019. 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 has received awards from Gulf Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, among others. She lives in Phoenix.

How would you describe your poetry collection in 2-3 sentences (as a novelist or screenwriter might offer in an elevator speech)?

This book examines how location informs identity, loss, and love. With images drawn from a difficult childhood in Ohio, and a subsequent rebirth in the wildest areas of Arizona, Bully Love delivers a portrait of one woman’s struggle to make sense of disappointments caused by both people and places.

Which poem did you most enjoy writing? Why? Also, which poem gave you the most trouble, and why?

My favorite poem in the collection is “Plucked.” I enjoy the whimsy of the opening, which contrasts with the content later in the poem: the tragedy of my mother’s mental illness. I wrote this poem after a hike in the desert during which I was feeling very emotional. That is usually how a poem starts for me, with a strong emotion. The images in the poem presented themselves in order and on time. And that is a true blessing! Because so often that does not happen. The poem also served an important purpose in the collection as a whole, by showing a strong reason why I wanted to escape Ohio, and what the desert offered instead.

By far the hardest to write was the poem with the title in its last line: “Day Trip, Cave Creek Guided Tours.” The poem describes a ride my girlfriends and I took with a typical Cowboy Wrangler Outfitter. The activity is designed to delight tourists and let them dip into a culture few of them care about. The line in the poem that includes the title describes the horses as, “quietly suffering our pats of bully love.”

My editor, Tom Lombardo, nudged me to make that theme more clear and more relevant to the collection as a whole. I think I sent him something like six versions of the poem. I had such a hard time getting it right. But then one day I realized, my god I’m one of those horses. My mother used me as a means to an idealized end. She wanted me to be perfect, part of a package that suited her and others. I got next to no pats from her, and those I received were insincere.

You’re the founding editor of Superstition Review, an online literary magazine, and you’ve been a poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. Could you share your insights on how the arena of literary magazines and publishing is evolving, especially for poetry?

It is my observation that many literary magazines are currently reaching for out-of-the-box content and forms. One way I measure this is by looking at Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. That’s pretty much the first thing I do each day is read the poem in the newsletter. This year new poets are curating each month, so it has been an interesting year getting to see what poets prefer—it is so instructive.

As an editor, I like to evaluate poems in terms of their craft, content, and composition. I’m finding that content has really changed—fewer pastoral poems and more political poems. Composition has changed dramatically. The shape of poems is no longer dictated by the limitations of the printed page.

Work is getting shorter and more punchy. If we’re looking for realism, we require the language to be tightly packed. We are used to word counts being so much more strict, which in some ways I find to be a good thing, although sometimes I miss more meditative wanderings.

What role did literary magazines (traditional, hybrid, or online) play in your book’s development and publication?

It is difficult (impossible?) to read every literary magazine in existence, but I have read a lot and published a lot. Before Internet publishing became acceptable, I used to sit in the ASU library and the Hayden’s Ferry archives and study back issues of magazines to glean editorial preferences. In those days Internet publications were not as esteemed. That has changed dramatically.

Part of this shift occurred as web design improved and online outlets gathered resources. I believe a big part of the acceptance and proliferation of online literary magazines came when academic poets were able to use them in promotion and tenure decisions. In the early days of online publishing, online mags were likely to disappear, and thus the publication credit with it. A CV with broken URL links to defunct magazines does little to help create a case for promotion.

This has led to a proliferation of online magazines, both independent and university affiliated. These days wandering the Bookfair at AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] has become an all-day affair. But, today’s writers can quickly drill down to what they find most important in a publication: format, frequency, design, previous contributors, previous publications. It’s easier than ever to research markets.

I published much of my work in literary magazines before collecting it in books. That is partly because the theme and structure of each book occurred separately from the composition of the poems themselves.

What is one of your favorite pieces of publishing advice?

This fall I’m teaching a graduate level class in literary publishing for our Masters of Narrative Studies program here at ASU. I will dole out all manner of advice in that class, much of which I hope will be useful. The most important note I would give to anyone poised to send work out is to make sure that the market fits. Read the most recent issue, the most recent book, the most recent bios. You can get a super good feel for editorial preferences by studying a publication or publisher.

Are you involved in a writers’ group? If so, could you describe your group and/or its format? How has your group influenced your writing, productivity, and so on?

Oh, I’m a huge fan of writers’ groups! I had a long-standing poetry group we called “Ten Poems.” We live all over—California, Omaha, Colorado, Arizona, etc.—and for a long while we shared work in Google Drive. What a wonderfully sustaining community that was. It helped not only with composing, but also with revising and editing. We have all moved into busy positions—mostly teaching at universities—so we haven’t had a “Ten Poem” session in a while. But we all keep in touch.

My current writers’ group consists of fiction and memoir writers. We all attended a Writing X Writers manuscript bootcamp in Tahoe this year, and we really connected. We have been meeting about once a month through video calls and exchanging small sections of writing.

What’s among the best/worst advice you’ve heard or followed about writing poetry or the writing process?

Absolutely the worst was that I needed more Instagram followers.

The best was this revision exercise: take the first and last stanza off the poem. See. Isn’t it better now?

Read more about Patricia Colleen Murphy and her work at the following sites:

Clearing the Writerly Mind

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Vintage postcard: From Rim o’ the World Highway to Lake Arrowhead, California. (Mt. San Bernardino, Greyback, and Mt. San Jacinto)

You have time to write, the computer is on, but your mind keeps straying because:

  • There are bills to pay.
  • Someone needs you to do something for them.
  • You want to order that thing before you forget.
  • Someone else’s writing, posts, messages, etc. suddenly seem like must-reads.

Quiet the nattering

You can stage your own intervention: a breathing exercise.

“Breathing exercises can lead to control over the mind,” writes Arthur Liebers in Relax With Yoga, which was published in 1960. Liebers shares an exercise from a Sanskrit text dating back to 1893.

Here’s a streamlined version of the breathing exercise. (I’ll share some of the more intense instructions later in this post.)

Start in a comfortable sitting position (this can be done in a chair at your desk) or assume Lotus Pose.

  1. Inhale through the left nostril
  2. Hold
  3. Exhale through your right nostril
  4. Hold
  5. Inhale through your right nostril
  6. Hold
  7. Exhale through your left nostril
  8. Hold
  9. Repeat steps 1 through 8.

Recommendations:

  • Feel free to use your hands on the sides of your nose to shift the breathing from side to side.
  • Use whatever count for the breaths and holds that you find comfortable (for example, a count of eight).
  • Repeat the pattern several times (maybe, four times).

The combination of the rhythmic breathing, the concentration needed to move the breath from side to side, and the length of four cycles helps me find my focus.

Original from Liebers

If you’re wondering what I consider “intense,” the prep work in Liebers’s book calls for one to “Cleanse the gullet with a strip of cloth, the width of four fingers, by swallowing it and then withdrawing it” and “Cleanse the nostrils by putting up a thread and drawing it out by way of the mouth.”

Also, here are the original instructions from Relax With Yoga :

“The Yogi assuming the Lotus Pose should draw in the prana (breath) through the ida (left nostril), and, having retained it as long as he can, exhale it through the pingala (right nostril). Again, inhaling through the right nostril, he should hold his breath as long as possible and exhale slowly through the left nostril. He should inhale through the same nostril by which he exhaled and having retrained the breath to the utmost (until he is covered with perspiration or until his body shakes) he should then exhale slowly, as exhaling forcefully would diminish the energy of the body.

“These exercises should be performed four times a day—in the early morning, at midday, evening, and midnight—slowly increasing the number from three, each time, to eighty. Their effects are described as ‘to render the mind and body slender and bright.’ Although in the direct translation from the Sanskrit, the ida is named as being he left nostril and the pingala as the right one, these words more properly designate the two supposed conduits which connect with the nostrils, and thence conduct throughout the entire body the vital air (the prana) that enters with atmospheric air.”

Liebers, Arthur. Relax with Yoga. New York: Bell Publishing, 1960.

Worst Writing Group Ever

mine postcard2

Vintage postcard: Dumping ore into a pocket at a shaft station, Cliff Copper Mine near Phoenix

For the past decade or so my writing group has, on average, taken months to get back to me. In a couple cases it has taken them more than a year. Good turnaround is about six to eight weeks.

When they do respond it has usually been brief and vague. These may sound familiar:

  • “After careful consideration, we’re sorry to report…”
  • “We enjoyed reading it, and though it doesn’t quite…”
  • “We read your submission carefully and regret…”

Time

A benefit of continuing with this group has been time:

  • Time for my own work to become distant enough that I can read it like a laser-eyed stranger
  • Time for me to read other writers (both successful and less so)
  • Time to further develop the craft of revision, storytelling, structure, line, and so much more

Encouragement

Another benefit has been encouragement, especially when editors include personalized notes, more detailed rejections, or invitations to submit to them again.

Nonetheless, I still had a strong reaction when I read the following quote in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer:

“[G]etting rejected by a magazine repeatedly and then, finally, getting work accepted is, actually, fairly normal. It’s a little frustrating for an editor, [said an assistant editor at The Missouri Review], when a writer submits to us five times and then just stops and we never get the chance to read the writer’s work again. She noted that TMR has published several writers who sent manuscripts to us for over a decade before we published their work.”

Friedman went on to describe the social media response to the original blog post, “Stubbornly Submitting to a Literary Magazine is Good” by Michael Nye. “His post provoked a significant backlash from writers who felt tired of banging their heads against the wall—pursuing success within a system that never seemed to work that well in the first place,” Friedman wrote.

While rejections no longer sting as much as they used to, I connected to this conversation and not just because I have rejections from TMR dating back to 2002.

Paying for feedback

I’ve found a couple bright spots. One is the “in progress” designator in Submittable, which may indicate when my work has made it past the first readers.

A larger one is the feedback option offered by some publications, such as Tahoma Literary Review. Sometimes it’s a small fee for a few paragraphs of commentary. Other times it’s a lot more money for an in-depth critique. I’ve paid for an in-depth review on a project that was especially important to me through the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Continuing Studies. Faculty member Christine DeSmet offered concrete feedback beyond what I’ve received from family readers and writer friends, who might have been concerned about hurting my feelings.

Persistence

One thing my continued participation in this “writing group” shows is persistence. In the face of years of rejection, I continue.

Distractions: Don’t let Mr. Facebook and Ms. Phone keep you from your writing projects

Aquarium Bar postcard 18_0930b

Vintage postcard for the Aquarium Bar in Milwaukee. “Everything in the bar is alive—fish, frogs, alligators, turtles, lizards, etc.”

The first month of the fall semester is in our rearview mirror, and it’s about time for the first big papers and projects. So I thought I would share a couple things about writing productively that I reacquainted myself with over the summer.

“The writer is the person who stays in the room.” This is from fiction writer and teacher Ron Carlson, who is currently at the University of California, Irvine. (He served on my MFA committee at Arizona State University.) This quote comes from his craft book Ron Carlson Writes a Story: From the First Glimmer of an Idea to the Final Sentence (Graywolf).

Carlson also advises writers not to stop, not even to look up a word in the dictionary or a detail online. Move forward with your draft, and only your draft. Go back and clean it up later.

If Carlson is any indication, his advice works. He has published eight books of fiction, and his stories have been included in the Best American Short Stories series, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and more.

None of this is easy. The forces pulling you away from your writing include “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Refrigerator, and oh, there in the other room is Mr. Television, and there’s Mr. Bed,” writes Carlson.

When talking with my students about distractions I add Mr. Facebook and Ms. Phone and Mesdames et Messieurs Friends who want to hang out, drift, eat, and more. Then there’s Ms. Puppy and Mr. Kitten who need your attention so viscerally they will knock your laptop to the floor after walking across the keyboard. (The eating of homework is so ’80s.)

When I ask my students to write during class, it amazes me how weak their bladders become. One or two at a time, students saunter to the bathroom. Sometimes they pass the closest restroom and opt for one farther away. I rarely sense any urgency, except that they’ve been told to write and we all know how hard that can be.

So stay in the room. Stay in the chair. Stay away from technologies that may have been designed by marketers and psychologists to pull you deeper and deeper into their thrall and further away from your own thoughts.

“[T]he Internet is the enemy of the writer’s day,” writes Carlson, and I see this in my own productivity as well as in that of my students.

Stay on task. On goal. Focus on your own thinking and your own writing. Fight for it. You’ll thank yourself later.