Carrie Murphy is a poet who blogs about food and you can find her poetry and non-fiction all over the place, online and in print. Her first chapbook, Meet the Lavenders, was published by Birds of Lace, and her first book, Pretty Tilt, is newly released from Keyhole Press. The 25th issue of Columbia Poetry Review included one of her poems from Pretty Tilt. We talked about first books, graduate school, and other poetry-related things.
CPR: Hello Carrie. Long time no see. I just finished reading your debut book of poetry, Pretty Tilt. I have to say, I couldn’t put it down. Each poem is its own moment, examining teenage life through a young-adult’s voice. BUT as a book, it’s seamless; it accumulates. Can you tell us a little about the book? Maybe how these poems came into being? And how you started forming them into a project?
Carrie Murphy: I guess I started writing some of the poems that ended up in this book beginning in the fall of 2009, which was my third semester in the MFA program at New Mexico State. I was kind of figuring out what I wanted to write, researching feminist poets and the gurlesque and thinking about women and anxiety, and kind of wanting to write outside of my comfort zone.
I’m a very nostalgic person, and I sort of got thinking about my teenage years and how incredibly intense and strange and awful and forceful and full of feeling they were. I remember being drunk at a party and saying something like, “Remember how intense it felt to even like, have your body within a few feet of the body of someone you liked?” and thinking about how much I wanted to write poems that captured that confusion and intensity. So I just kind of did that for awhile, wrote poems that were rooted in my messy teenage girlhood, and got carried away by it.
CPR: I remember that semester (as some people may know, we studied together for a year at NMSU, before I left for Columbia College). I think everyone could tell there was a project brewing in these poems. And the speaker(s) are so much in those moments you’re putting on the page. What I love about Pretty Tilt is how you drop these artifacts in each poem, from The Weakerthans references to Spice Girls to clothing, but beyond the specific pop culture references, the reminders of those feelings of youth, young sex, and that throb of young desire. What strikes me is the way they take the reader (not just the speaker) back to the moments when those artifacts anchored in their lives, or maybe, even just passed through. So, that feeling of nostalgia passes through everyone involved in the poem. I’ve heard some poets say that in poetry, nostalgia is not enough. How might you respond to that?
CM: I’d agree overall, but I also hope that, in Pretty Tilt, nostalgia is only one aspect of the book. I think nostalgia was one of the driving starting points, the impetus of some of the poems and of their references, and what initially hurtled me into the project, but not necessarily what kept me writing the book. I hope that Pretty Tilt resonates in other ways, as well. I associate a stricter sense of nostalgia with confessionalism, Plath and all that, and I wouldn’t call my book a confessional book. Post-confessional, maybe. The fact that I’m only about ten years out of teenagehood made all of those crazy heady feelings we talked about easier to access, but I think I also had enough distance from them that I could look at the bigger ideas with some objection.
I should add that I took a lit class at NMSU called “Representation of Girlhood,” so that semester of looking at girlhood through an academic lens also helped to conceptualize the book and what I wanted to do with it. The class, combined with my interest in the gurlesque, made me want to write a book that was in some ways rooted concretely in my own experience of girlhood but that also was about a kind of generational positionality in regards to attitudes and privilege and sex and gender and feminism and femininity.
CPR: I think there’s a lot more going on than nostalgia. Without a doubt. One thing that’s really interesting about the book (and the poems) is that there’s always something more when I come back to them. Your work continues to surprise me, even when I come back to each poem. I like calling these poems post-confessional. That fits. Though, I wouldn’t limit it to that. I remember you talking about that class, and what that influence produced is some very smart poems about something that might be hard to pull off seriously. But you do it well. In fact, part of what really works is the way you reference things. They’re not namedropping. They’re nonchalant. They’re artifacts of the speaker’s youth. They’re paths for the reader to find meaning, or even to connect with the speaker. What can you tells us about how you chose the artifacts of youth? Were they organic? Planned? Accidents?
CM: “Artifacts of youth,” that’s a clever way of putting it. Well, I wanted to have the book pretty clearly situated in a cultural moment, so I used a lot of specific mentions from music and movies and pop culture. I’m hoping that the book is at least somewhat reflective of the kinds of cultural messages girls were receiving in the early 2000s, or at least the ones received by the relatively sheltered, relatively privileged girls I knew (and was). So some of the references were more deliberate, and some were more organic. And some of them, I just felt like “My book totally needs a mention of Baby from Dirty Dancing,” so I would just work it in somehow. I’m actually really sad that I didn’t manage to get Kimmy Gibbler, LiveJournal and Hot Topic in there anywhere.
CPR: That cultural moment is clear, and your choice to include or not include certain references create these cool conversations between your poems and that era. But it feels like your poems are speaking not only with that era/that youth, but also with the texts that informed that time (and, I think, the reader’s in many cases). But what’s really cool about these is that they require a certain reader. That said, even someone who wouldn’t get the Dirty Dancing reference, can still understand the poem, because of the voice and the way these references are made. When the editors for Columbia Poetry Review were looking at your submission, there were these interesting moments when people would say, “Is this a Clueless reference?” or “No way, she just dropped Spice Girls.” (I think it was Spice Girls). But people would turn back to the poem and go, “Ooooohhhh.” And like that there was this meaning opening up that the reader didn’t get before.
Can you tell us a little about how Pretty Tilt came into what it is today, from drafts to acceptance, to publication? What’s your relationship like with Keyhole Press?
CM: Pretty Tilt is largely my MFA thesis, which was called Like The Little Lightning. The poems are revised and there are some new poems, but overall the book is pretty close to what I had at the end of my 3rd year at New Mexico State. The program at NMSU has a thesis-intensive third year, so I had the opportunity to really dig into the book, both in workshop with Richard Greenfield and with my thesis advisor, Connie Voisine.
I had some poems published in Keyhole back in 2009, and the publisher, Peter Cole, seemed to like my work. He asked me to send him my thesis when it was finished, which I did, and he expressed the desire to publish it. I was initially really nervous because I knew the book wasn’t quite up the level that I wanted it to be. I told Peter yes but that I wanted some time to work on the book, so I revised quite a bit (with lots of input from friends and teachers) and finally finished up last November. Probably the most difficult part about getting the work ready for publication was finding a title I was happy with. Pretty Tilt arose after I scrambled the entire manuscript and went through looking for pretty/interesting/weird word combinations. It was really important to me that I have a title that sounded good to the ear as well as that was reflective of the book’s overall concerns, but I really hemmed and hawed over it for ages. Here’s a blog post I wrote for Uncanny Valley about how I arrived at the title.
CPR: You mentioned Richard Greenfield. A couple of his poems appear in the same issue of CPR. I love his work and we at CPR were stoked by what he submitted. His books are insanely good. What kind of direction/advice did he offer you in putting the book/thesis together? He was instrumental in shaping my book and his thoughts about poetry and how a book should work was challenging and brilliant.
Also as a follow up: Connie Voisine: (Currently, I’m sitting in her apartment in Chicago, in her chair, typing this—strange) Can you tell us about working with her. Her books were the reason I went to NMSU! How was her direction/advice different and/or similar to Richard’s? When you get notes from faculty (or other poets and friends) how much do you end up taking? How much is just wrong? How much is so right, you can’t believe it?
CM: My experience doing my thesis at NMSU was pretty awesome all around. You should never have left, Josh!
Richard, as a Master’s Workshop instructor, was helpful on big-picture concerns like the title, sectioning, and interplay between the individual poems. I worked with him for my entire last year in the MFA program, so he saw the manuscript from the very beginning stages to what I eventually turned into the university. He’s really smart and he really digs into your book both in class and in written comments. Connie was a very hands-on advisor; we met weekly and emailed alllllllll the time about the manuscript during the semester I did thesis hours. We ordered the thesis together one day, spreading out the whole manuscript on the huge table in the workshop room (ordering was something I initially felt very unsure about, so I was thankful for the direction). Connie also did lots of work with me on more micro concerns: how a specific poem should be lineated, taking out unnecessary verbiage, stuff like that. That’s in addition to, of course, just answering all my questions, advocating for my work, and generally being awesome and helpful. I can’t tell you how many one line emails I sent her that said stuff like “This poem: should I put it in?” or “This title: is it crap?”
It would be remiss of me not to mention the other poets who mentored me at NMSU, Carmen Gimenez Smith and Sheila Black. Although I didn’t work with them on my book in an official setting, both read the manuscript several times (after my MFA, even) and gave me great feedback and advice that I used throughout the process.
Generally, I find that reader reactions are really important to me when I’m revising my work. I don’t know what percentage of suggestions I’d say I end up taking, but other people’s thoughts are certainly a big factor for me, especially seasoned poets who know me, my concerns, and my work and its trajectory. It’s about picking and choosing what works for the book you want to make, right? Ultimately, though, your book has to be yours.
CPR: I’m glad I went there, if even only for a year. The only thing I regret is not being able to work with Connie :-( Richard, however, helped me with my first book. I gave it to him the second week of classes and he said, “What is this Paradise Lost?” But he read it, and I went over to his house and talked for a couple hours. He was really hard on me, but really encouraging too. I miss him a lot. (I miss Carmen too, she was integral for my growth during the program, and after—I still quote her in craft classes!). Richard SAVED my book. Plus he’s like one of the coolest dudes I know, so…
Connie sounds like a great advisor. I have to say, that is one fine group of poets down there! Students and Profs alike. Actually, reading about your experience is something people need to see. There are a lot of stories out there about people who went to an MFA and just floated through and the profs just laid low. Your experience sounds like an ideal place to finish a book–with lots of support and attention. What you said about not knowing what percentage of notes you end of taking is interesting. We’ve been talking about ideal readers here a lot, and when do you need to go against the comments and trust your gut. I think that’s great advice for poets working on their thesis or first book.
CPR: Is there any other advice you’d like to give readers? Maybe something about putting together a first book/thesis? Maybe about what to seek in an MFA program?
CM: Hmm, advice. Well, I’m not sure! I mean, I was incredibly lucky that I went to an MFA program that was a supportive environment and that worked well for me and my writing, but everyone and every writer and every writing program is different.
As for creating a first book, I feel like I just got particularly lucky with mine: I had a focus I was excited about and I had a supportive community in which to work, plus the drive to just get the book to where I wanted it to be. It’s a lot of work, for sure, a lot of trials and near-misses and a few moments of holy shit this might actually work! I think that the end goal—a polished manuscript that you’re happy with—is the most important thing, right? So however you can get there, be it by going to an MFA program or by attending workshops in your community, by having tons of drafts, by overhauling your book ten times, by reading books on ordering and revision or what have you, that’s what you do. Keep chipping away at it. Keep giving the book to people to read. Try different things and give yourself permission to get outside of your comfort zone and do weird shit. And then see what directions that weird stuff might take you in. This sounds very woo-woo, but let the poems have dialogues with each other without your interference. Amass some work and then shove it together and then pry it apart and see what is sticky or what fissures have arisen.