Interview with Patricia Colleen Murphy on Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press, 2016)
by Heather Lang
Heather Lang: Hello, Patricia. First, thank you for allowing me the honor of interviewing you about your collection of poetry, Hemming Flames. It’s a stunning book, and I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss your creative work with you.
Right away, I have a confession to make. I’m one of those readers; I look at the table of contents and begin by choosing poems with titles that seem to speak most loudly, the ones that call to me and refuse to let me walk away. After I visit two or three selected poems, I return to the first poem of a collection, and I move from front to back.
I’d love to learn about your process behind organizing the pieces within Hemming Flames. The collection’s overall pacing is varied. It’s musical. It’s effective. Despite the heart-wrenching content, I’m ushered through the book. Could you tell us a bit about the order of the poems, the collection as a whole?
Patricia Colleen Murphy: Like most poets I know, I rearranged the order many times over the course of composing the book. I tend to do this both in hard copy, by covering my kitchen floor with pages, but also in Scrivener, which lets me drag and drop individual poems into new orders. In this collection there are so many recurring themes and language such as travel, asylums, fire, hems, and of course brother, mother, and father. I needed to do a lot of shuffling to pulse onto and off of those notions in a way that makes surprising and compelling connections between them. I also have some poems that are more narrative and others that use surrealism, and I wanted to dip in and out of that dream-like state to keep the reader on edge. After trying many different arrangements, I ultimately chose a chronological structure, starting from right after my mother’s suicide attempt when I saved her life, and ending with the title poem lamenting the deaths of both of my parents.
HL: Oh, Trish. How heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing these experiences with us. I appreciate your emotional generosity.
As I mentioned above, I begin a collection by choosing a title, or two, that traps my attention. When I first picked up Hemming Flames, I started with “Scrotum and Bone,” which begins: “You learned to masturbate while I learned / to menstruate. How thin the wall separating / all our adolescent groaning.” Throughout this poem, there are thought-provoking parallels between the “I,” who seems to be a sister, and the “you,” who seems to be her brother. The “obscene arsenal of hygienics” in the bathroom is juxtaposed against the “hard-core porn” in a hallway shelf. Exploring gender in this context, I can’t help but recall Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, Judith, as detailed by Virginia Woolf in “A Room of One’s Own,” and the ways in which, despite being equally as gifted, Judith would have been denied an education and a place in the theatre simply for being female. When writing “Scrotum and Bone,” or any of the other poems in Hemming Flames, did you have Judith in mind? If not, what was the catalyst for this particular poem?
PCM: I have a truly wonderful writer’s group. Ours is an online format we call Ten Poems, and three times a year (spring, summer, fall) we exchange a poem and comments once a week for ten weeks. This has allowed us all to generate a lot of poems (I have written 125 poems for the group), and we get really good feedback. It has also helped to form a strong bond between the poets, who are super encouraging. The group had read plenty of poems about my mother’s mental illness, but after I gave them a poem that hinted at my brother’s mental illness, they wanted to know more about it. So in the fall of 2013 I wrote a series of nonce sonnets about my brother. Many of these appear in the book, though some are no longer sonnets.
“Scrotum and Bone” started as a nonce sonnet although you can see that it was later trimmed. It’s completely autobiographical, so yes you can call it a brother and sister. The concept of the poem does look at gender inequality, but it has nothing to do with education. It’s completely about sexuality. My brother was addicted to pornography from an early age. His pubescent years were full of anguish, I’m sure, as I’m certain any addictive behavior is painful. His need to consume pornography and to masturbate was obsessive, and no obsession is easy.
But my puberty was hard too. I had extremely painful periods from the very beginning of my menses. I was diagnosed with endometriosis at the age of 16, and that was in 1986, before people really even knew much about the condition. So the whole opening image of the poem, where he’s on one side of the wall masturbating, and I’m on the other side of the wall menstruating, was meant to highlight the early contrast between male and female experience. And the “obscene arsenal of hygenics” speaks to how our culture shames girls for becoming fertile, while men are allowed to explore their sexuality openly.
As you might imagine, I felt so threatened and unhappy in that house. When I needed to access certain things like the washing machine or stored winter coats, I was forced to walk past stacks of my brother’s pornography. Those images still haunt me. I begged my parents to do something about it and both of them told me to get over it. It was a “boys will be boys” mentality. When I asked my mother about it later in life, when I told her how terrifying it was for me, she said that she thought it was harmless. As you can see from the poem, my parents at that point had checked out.
Later I understood that my brother was also a victim of their negligence, and I wonder where he would be now if he had gotten treatment. I wanted the poem to show empathy for both me and my brother, because my parents had the power (responsibility?) to do a better job. Instead they chose to be co-dependent, and therefore complicit.
HL: I’m so sorry, Trish. Thank you, again, for talking about these difficult experiences with us.
I was hoping we might discuss the poem “Kitten,” within which it seems that a sister is addressing her brother. The sister recalls vulgar comments the boy made while sitting in a La-Z-Boy watching female tennis players. The speaker states, “When Dad returned from work he’d steal your throne.” She, however, never sits in this chair; she is displaced to the upstairs where she studies.
I’m fascinated by the way in which this poem moves from the interior to the exterior two separate times and all within one stanza. First, “We all drove our separate cars to probate court.” Then, again, we shift from the interior, the home, to a figurative exterior: “Did you fanaticize about walking to the cliff with a sack / of women? Their fists and heels protruding like shifting / balls.” This poem seems, in a way, phallocentric. Could you speak to us a bit about this imagery?
PCM: My brother is addicted to pornography, and my parents allowed him to collect it, display it, and consume it, anywhere in the house. There was no apology, no shame, and no end to the barrage of images of women in compromising sexual positions. My brother developed a true and pure hatred of women, ultimately arguing to me that women should not be allowed to hold public office, and that they should be subservient to men.
My brother is a genius with a 165 IQ and he graduated high school just two months after his 16th birthday. But he was sick even then, though no one ever forced him to seek help. So I spent four years in that house, all of my high school years, and my brother stayed on. He moved into the basement and collected stacks of magazines and tapes. He worked a telemarketing job here and there, but he was an insomniac and would stay up all night, then call in sleepy to work the next day. He cycled through jobs. He never paid a bill.
One thing that happened in that microclimate was that even women doing normal things, like playing tennis, sunbathing, swimming, or cooking, were objectified. The scene in this poem happened. I’m not sure why my brother thought it was a good idea to tell me that watching female tennis players aroused him nearly to the point of climax. But I’ll sure as hell never forget it. A friend of mine once said that you can’t remember Sylvia Plath without the image of her head in an oven. I feel like I can’t imagine my childhood without its endless supply of highly sexualized images of women.
At the height of my brother’s addictions (he is also addicted to food and at this time weighed perhaps 350 pounds? He now probably weighs over 600 pounds) my mother attempted suicide again by setting herself on fire. After she had skin grafts over a quarter of her body, she was being held in a mental hospital, but she wanted out. My brother, father, and I had to run down to probate court every few weeks to remind the judge she was still a danger to herself and others. It was so frustrating. I didn’t understand why they needed us to tell them that she needed treatment. She was psychotic, delusional, suicidal. How could they not see that? And at the same time, I wondered how no one could see what was happening in my own home.
I like your discussion of interior versus exterior here, because the speaker of the poem is completely unsafe in both places. What teenager dreams of spending her time in probate court trying to keep her insane mother institutionalized? What teenager wants to go home to a pornography museum/masturbatorium where women are seen as subservient sex objects?
The title “Kitten” refers to the final image in the poem, which comes from an article I read about a man who killed a litter of kittens by tying them in a sack and throwing them in the river. In the poem, I am one of the kittens, and I am unwanted and worthless because I am female. And then with that last line, I circle back to the idea of gender inequality as it applies to sexuality. That my brother is allowed to flaunt his sexuality, and I’m a female so I’m supposed to be ashamed.
It was a very difficult time for all four of us. Truly terrifying and terrible. Mother in the asylum, brother obese and obsessed and addled, Dad footing the bill, and me learning to hate myself because I had girl parts.
HL: I’m thinking of you and yours, Trish. As I’m certain you know, speaking out about these acts of negligence and these instances of inequality will help future generations avoid these same circumstances.
You’ve visited China, Croatia, Korea, Venezuela, and thirty-four other countries! First, do you read much poetry in translation? Second, how have your vast international travels affected your creative work? Have your travels had an effect on your feminist lens?
PCM: I have some favorites like Rilke and Vallejo that I have read in translation. I have a Bachelor’s degree in French literature so I have read a lot of French poetry in the original, and I still like to do that. I love the surrealists: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Breton. That influence is pretty clear in my work.
I tend to read prose before I go to another country, maybe because fiction allows for lengthier descriptions of people and places that are more tangible, and I love to understand more complex elements of history, politics, and social structures. I love going to a country and vividly remembering a character living and working there.
My international travels have been such a gift, because they become the backdrop for a lot poems that might not have fired had the setting been more familiar. A lot of the poems that include travel like “Reading Sexton in Phuket” or “Night Falling, Czechoslovakia” draw on that feeling of being a little off kilter that is so prevalent when we are moving between unfamiliar spaces. Maybe travel is my own little mental illness? A loss of control. The highs the lows. I’m a super stable, organized, and generally disciplined person. I’m a runner, a joiner, and a leader. I wonder if travel gives me a bit of an excuse to be out of control?
The poem “Songs in Kiswahili” probably speaks best to the notion of how my travels affect my feminist lens. I wrote that poem as a Phoenix story, as a rising from the ashes. It’s my love trumps hate, they go low we go high anthem. My Tanzanian guide, Kapanya Kitaba, was truly a sage. We needed to trust him in ways that don’t come easily in other settings. But in this context, and we climbed the Western Breach and slept at 18,500 feet before we summited at 19,340, there were true dangers. We were helpless even in our strength. I wanted to write that poem to illustrate that we all do impossible things. I have used travel in my life to challenge myself and gain a sense of accomplishment. I’ve used it as a way to say women can.
As you can see, travel to me is everything and anything. It is so important to my life.
HL: You’ve taught at Arizona State University for over two decades. You’ve also written that you “strive to promote an intellectual curiosity” in your students. What do you hope to evoke in or from your Hemming Flames readers?
PCM: I’ve had a couple people tell me they needed a dictionary to read this book. And certainly the allusion is so heavy, which is one reason I tease Elliot in that last poem—because I have spent 80 pages being a prig. But I do want the students and all readers to do the work. I think the payoff is pretty good if they do. One reader called this book “chiseled” and it is times like this, when answering your interview questions, when I see how chiseled it is—how much is packed in. I picked every reference, every word, every image so carefully. It has been a great treat that so many readers have understood the work.
Ultimately, I want readers to treat each other better. I want parents who are co-dependent to step out of denial. I want women who are threatened to escape and be empowered.
HL: Thank you, Patricia, for speaking with me about your brilliant new collection. I fear I’ve done too much of the talking. Is there anything else you’d like to share or to discuss? I’d love to hear more, and I’m sure the Diode readers would, too!
PCM: Well, I will talk a little about the memoir. It’s coming. I have a few very specific things to work on. It’s really hard. The research is there. But please stay tuned for it!
HL: I most certainly will. Thank you, Patricia, for chatting with me about your poignant and important collection of poems, Hemming Flames.
Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, American Poetry Review, North American Review, Poetry Northwest, and others. Her work has received awards from the Associated Writing Programs and the Academy of American Poets, Gulf Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, The Madison Review, Glimmer Train Press, and The Southern California Review. A chapter of her memoir-in-progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review. Her first book Hemming Flames, won the May Swenson Poetry Award Series (2016), and was published by Utah State University Press.
Interviewer Heather Lang is a poet, literary critic, and adjunct professor. Nevada’s NPR member radio station has twice interviewed her about her writing, and in June she served as the Las Vegas Poets Organization’s featured poet. In the autumn of 2016, her writing process was on exhibit at the Nevada Humanities Program Gallery, and she's a member of Nevada State College's Arts & Culture Council. Heather’s poetry and prose have been published by or are forthcoming with Diode, Hoot, The Normal School, Paper Darts, Pleiades, and Whiskey Island, among others. At AWP16, she moderated an editorial panel, and at AWP17, she’ll participate in a nonfiction panel, “No, You Tell It! True-Life Tales with a Twist.” Heather holds a dual MFA in Literary Translation and Poetry from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and she serves as an editor with The Literary Review. www.heatherlang.cassera.net