Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: George Murray

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George Murray

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June and July. In this interview, poet George Murray speaks with students Hannah Casey and Rachel London-Wallace.

Hi George, our names are Hannah and Rachel and we are ecstatic to have the opportunity to interview you; you were both of our top choices for this project. We hope you enjoy our selected questions. Thank you for taking the time, cheers.

Rachel asks: I’ve read that you have travelled around Italy and New York for many years before making St. John’s your permanent place of residence. One would imagine that travels would cause some changes to the writing of the author. How would you compare your writing to before your travels to after? Have your travels changed your writing and is it, in your opinion, better, worse, or just different?

I only started writing in 1996 or so, and had moved to Italy in 1998 and then New York City in 2000, so I was pretty new to it all. I think my writing is much more mature now, but that doesn’t mean it’s better, necessarily. I think travel is the most natural education a person can have, the kind that grants as much wisdom as knowledge, and I think poetry is beholden to both wisdom and knowledge. So I suppose in that regard any success I’ve had does have some relation to my time travelling. I also spent time in Mexico and Paris and Belfast and other places, so I imagine it all kind of comes together in a sort of brain-soup that informs the flavour and consistency of future work.

That said, I don’t think one MUST travel to be a poet. I think it’s good if one does, but one can also “travel” through empathy and thought as well.

Rachel asks: I have found, throughout my many years of testing different voices of poetry, that poets, almost on principle, are incredibly long-winded. I mean, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe’s famous narrative poem is 1,140 words long. The longest poem you have written is less than a page long. I, being a scatter-brained teenager who has had a taste of spring, am incredibly appreciative of how short your poems are. I find that longer poems get boring after the two minute mark passes by of reading. Also, short snippets of humour are easier to remember and quote than long-winded poems about the woes of love. What are your reasons for breaking the tradition of loquacious ballads and sticking with briefer serenades?

I came of age as a lyrical poet in the time of the shorter poem. But I also came of age as a non-poet in a time when things that you take for granted– the internet, email, social media, etc.– were just developing. I learned to be direct and clear and witty in my written communications and I suppose some of this transferred to poetry. I am also a fan of standup comedy, and I love to joke, and some of that is in there as well. I’m a huge fan of the witty reply, á la Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, etc, as much as I am a fan of the great philosophers, so the aphorisms rose out of that.

Someone once said that my aphorisms were the perfect form for the Twitter generation. Tell that to Twitter, I say!

Hannah asks: I have never read anything like Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms; I will admit that prior to the commencement of this project I was particularly close-minded to the world of poetry. I picked up your book expecting to be bored and confused, my usual state of mind while reading poetry. Instead I was laughing out loud and reading lines for my tablemates to hear. The book made me laugh. “On the highway of life each tongue is an on-ramp, each asshole an exit.” It made me ponder the meaning of life. “Sleep is the rough draft of death” and it made me feel appropriately uncomfortable. “Orgies are self-help groups for narcissists.” What was your writing process and how did you engineer the Selected Aphorisms?

I’m so glad you liked it. It’s the book of mine that has sold the most, and I think it’s the accessibility that has done that. Quite often I see people at poetry readings who appear to have been dragged there by their boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever and they’re the ones most likely to come up to me afterward and say, “Man, I usually don’t like poetry, but I am TOTALLY buying that book.”

I often refer to the aphorisms as “poems without all the poetry getting in the way.” They are poetic essences. The idea communicated as clearly and quickly and most memorably as possible. Most often they were just thoughts I found in my journals that never made their way into poems. Many of my previous poems, in my book of sonnets The Rush to Here particularly, had aphorism-like lines in them, particularly at the close. A friend of mine, who happens to be head of Creative Writing at Princeton University, pointed this out and said he bet I would find unused aphorisms in my journals. I went back and looked and lo and behold: about a thousand over five years of journals. So I took the best of them and made a book!

Hannah asks: Glimpse was an obscure book to publish, especially different from your other work. If it was published during 2010 it must have been writing during the height of the financial crisis and world recession in 2008 and 2009. What kind of difficulties did you experience, if any, when returning to your previous style of poetry in Whiteout?

Whiteout was a more sombre and introspective book, and the sad truth about poetry is: it doesn’t sell very well. ESPECIALLY when it’s sombre and introspective. So Whiteout has languished, sadly. It’s a good book too, but it’s kind of like the goth sister to Glimpse‘s perky cheerleader– less popular with the football team.

I didn’t really experience any difficulty going back to that style, in part because I never really left it. I kept writing regular poems all through building Glimpse. The poems in Whiteout come from magazine publications from the last ten years or so, along with a few new ones, so that’s how they were able to come out a year and a bit apart.

Rachel asks: As someone who is aspiring to be in the writing industry, I always admire (and envy slightly (alright more than slightly)) people who can get their act together long enough to write something down. It doesn’t have to be good, just something concrete on the page. My problem is either over-thinking and never writing anything down, or under-thinking, writing a mess down and then getting bored. But you are a published poet, so obviously there must have been actually sitting down and writing going on at your end of the world (kudos for the self control to not spend hours on the Internet). But I guess my question is, do you find it hard to sit down and write, and if you do, what are some of your techniques to get into the right headspace to write down some masterpieces?

Listen, there are all sorts of tidbits of advice for writers– little maxims that are meant to inspire and motivate– but I will tell you now that I’ve only ever heard one that is perfectly true: the only thing that can’t be fixed is the blank page. You can edit the worst writing into shape, but you can’t edit emptiness.

I am now a full-time writer, which I wasn’t for many years. I wrote between jobs and teaching and parenting and editing magazines and other things. The secret about being a writer and “finding time” is this: writers can’t not write. So they always find the time somehow. If you are the sort of person who can’t live without writing, you will be a writer. If you would rather spend your spare time flipping through a magazine or watching Honey Boo Boo, you won’t be. End of story.

Sounds harsh, but it’s true. Start writing. Stop when you’re done. If you don’t start back up, or don’t feel the urge to write constantly, then you should thank your lucky stars you’re not going to be poor and go take a real estate course to get rich. :)

Hannah asks: From a reader’s point of view, you seem to be at the peak of your career, a new book out every few years, a successful literary blog, countless reviews and journals flying around the Internet. George Murray is unstoppable. If this is the case, what can we expect next?

I just released a children’s book called Wow Wow and Haw Haw, about a fox and a crow; I have a new book of poems coming in 2015 called Gloryland; and I am at page 270 in my first novel, which is a big secret, but I’ll tell you the title if you promise not to tell anyone: Jackie Fletcher’s Got A Gun. It’s a literary thriller about a young man caught up in the violence of Belfast in the late 1960s.

Thanks for your kind and thoughtful questions and for your patience with my late reply. If your teachers give you trouble, please tell them it was my fault. I take forever with everything. Poetry gets in the way.

George Murray’s six books of poetry include Whiteout (ECW, 2012), Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms (ECW, 2010), The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007), The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). He has been widely anthologized and has published many poems and short stories in journals and magazines in Canada, the United States, Australia and Europe. He is a former poetry editor for the Literary Review of Canada and has been a contributing editor for several journals, including 49th Shelf, Canadian Notes & Queries, Maisonneuve and The Drunken Boat. He has been on the part time faculty at University of Toronto, New School University and Humber College. He lives in St. John’s with a novelist, four children and a border collie.

Hannah Casey is the daughter of hippy turned analyst, Tim Casey and professional beaches-mom, Paget. She is the oldest of five mediocrely behaved children. Hannah is often spotted at Starbucks chatting with friends or contributing to the family as a slave. Hannah pretends to enjoy long runs and is usually seen sporting sunglasses on such runs to conceal the tears of pain that often gather on her freckled cheeks. She volunteers as a swim coach at her elementary school and works part-time as a cashier at a phone repair store. Hannah currently lives in the Beaches of Toronto but is planning to move to Montreal next year to further her education at McGill University. Disclaimer: she will continue to cheer for Toronto sports teams.

Rachel London-Wallace is the daughter of one editor-turned-lawyer and another high-school English teacher, so grammar pedantry has been like a third parent to her. Her older-by-six-years brother, Jesse, is the antithesis of her, yet still takes the time to play epic games of catch outside their house. She enjoys long walks on the beach, drinking tea, and filling her head with the biographical information of comic book characters. Born and raised in Toronto, Ontario– excluding a year lived in Ottawa that is hardly remembered– she spends her days thinking up wonderful characters and elaborate plots to break them. Also spending far too much time on the Internet to be healthy, and flailing around because the lives of fictional characters are much more interesting than her own. Next year will be spent at York University, where she will be taking Screen-writing and probably drinking more coffee than is advised. She currently resides in the city of her birth, bouncing between school, her bedroom, and Mex-Tex-hipster-bars.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page