George Murray's books of poetry include The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007), The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003), and The Cottage Builder's Letter (M&S, 2001).
He has been widely anthologized and has published poems and fiction in journals and magazines such as Alphabet City, Antigonish Review, Capilano Review, Contemporary Verse, Descant, Fiddlehead, Grain, Iowa Review, Jacket, LRC, Mid-American Review, Nerve, New American Writing, New Quarterly, nthposition, Ontario Review, Painted Bride, Pequod, Prairie Fire, Prism International, Radical Society, Rampike, Slope, and others in Canada, the United States, Australia, and Europe.
He has won the 2003 New York Festivals Radio and Television Award for Best Writing for his poem Anniversary: A Personal Inventory (commissioned by CBC Radio) and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (2003). In 2006, he won a Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative Poetry.
Murray, an Ontarian, now lives in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.
IN: How did you get started writing poetry?
GM: Well, unlike many people who say they've been writing poetry since they were children or teens, I actually wrote my first poems in my mid-20s, for a creative writing class I was taking in university. I had joined the creative writing department thinking I was going to be a fiction writer, but was forced to take a poetry course as part of the degree requirements.
As I remember it, I was in the first round of students to hand in their exercises and was kind of nervous. The professor was laudatory and it was like a dam broke. I wrote 200 "poems" over the school year, and spent hours in conversation with the prof outside of class. I put "poems" in quotation marks because, looking back, they weren't really poems so much as journal entries with line breaks, clever aphorisms, and imitations of my heroes. But they were a start.
IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career and why?
GM: The professor mentioned above, Don Summerhayes, was obviously very influential, at least in terms of starting things off – but the biggest other influence from that time was the friends I made in the program.
Within months it became clear the writing program was a joke, full of people who would never learn to write, and it was only a mutual derision of the entire endeavour that kept our little cabal from quitting. We hung out at pubs and talked poetry and fiction and basically learned our craft by imitating poets we admired and trying not to do what the others in our program were doing. Ironically, we learned more from others' mistakes than from our own.
IN: What approaches or methods do you use when researching and writing?
GM: If I'm researching for an article, I typically start online and move down to source books from there. People deride Wikipedia as inaccurate and prone to sabotage, but it's a great place to start your research. If you end your research there, you're not being very smart. I use the Internet to get an overview of a subject and then move on to proper primary sources in the form of old fashioned books.
The research I do for writing poetry, besides the living of life with an observant eye, is mostly reading existing poetry and essays.
IN: Much of your poetry is quite dark and delves into ex-girlfriends, bloody operations, social decay, children skateboarding on war monuments, and other atypical sonnet themes. What inspires you to write about these topics?
GM: It's funny, because those subjects you picked out come from the Globe review you mention below, and it's likely that any other reviewer would pick a different set of topics to hold up as exemplary. The poetry of my latest book, The Rush To Here, was held together by its formal constraints, which I'll discuss later, rather than its "thematic" concerns or "subject". I put those words in quotation marks here because I doubt that many poets sit down to write and think things like, "Today I will write on the theme of _______," or, "Today I'll write with _____ as my subject." If they do, I suspect the poem 999 times out of 1,000 will seem stilted and unsuccessful.
I write about what strikes me and what I'm pondering at the moment when I sit down to write. Other times, I think of an idea and jot it down in my notebook, then come back to it later, if it still holds up. The vast majority of what I write gets thrown away because it fails to capture what I'd hoped or because it was pre-writing that allowed me to get to my point in another poem.
IN: You write within a sonnet rhyming scheme that you have titled "thought-rhymes." Can you explain for our poets and writers exactly what this is and how it differs from conventional rhymes?
GM: My third book, The Hunter, was a long sequence that became something of a jeremiad – there was this crazy, apostrophic voice declaiming as though from a pulpit or hill. The poems were long and dark, and they jammed seemingly disparate images up against one another to create an atmospheric lyrical narrative. I created a voice that was just crazy enough to speak to the zeitgeist of the moment without directly addressing it.
But, after finishing The Hunter in the fall of 2002, I found I couldn't get out of the voice, and kept writing poems that would be more suited to that book than anything new. So I set myself the task of working in a smaller form, at least length-wise: The sonnet. I had 12 lines to come up with one or two ideas and wrap them up in a couplet at the end. This reined me in, but I felt the sonnet form too often produced a sing-songy, faux-Elizabethan sound that rang false in my ears. So I came up with the idea of "rhyming" thoughts or concepts at the ends of the lines instead of sounds. These semantic pairings would be based on synonyms, antonyms, homonyms (or any combination thereof), as well as across idiom, culture, etc. For instance, the word "nights," could rhyme "days" (antonym), "evenings" (synonym), "knights" (homonym), "soldiers" (synonym of the homonym), "dais" (homonym of the antonym), "the round table" (idiom), "boogie" (pop culture), "things" (anagram), etc.
This allowed me to work within the generative constraints of the sonnet (which for me is often part Elizabethan, part Petrarchan, part Spensarian) without getting that sing-song sound.
IN: Ewan Whyte in his Review in The Globe and Mail of your latest book The Rush To Here describes your with the following: ". . . the language of these poems is aggressive, even hostile, meant to engage the reader in debate and discourse." Is this how you would describe your poetry and would you recommend this approach for others to attempt?
GM: Well, I hope all poetry is meant to engage the reader in discourse, but I suppose what he meant by that was that these poems, like those in The Hunter, often draw the reader in with an inclusive (or accusatory) royal "we" or by asking questions – offering space within the "lecture" for readers to answer as they read.
It's not really for me to recommend any one approach to others. But I would say this: Let's say you spend your entire poetic life trying to capture some ineffable thing, like the smell of the first day of autumn. Every October you think, "Wow, this feels big," and you sit down and try to write everything around it. Of course, you fail, but to paraphrase Beckett, every year you fail better. You try to capture all the intimate details of the moment. Finally, you come up with a failure you can be happy with, and the impulse to write that poem is done. Now, you're 75 and your thoughts turn to how you've spent your life – seeking the right words to describe the smell of the first day of autumn. Did you do it? Was it worth it? What did you miss in your obsession?
Sometimes I wonder if maybe this is where we should start writing poetry – taking the collection of pretty details as a beginning rather than an outcome. Maybe this is what critics are referring to when they say my poems are confrontational.
IN: You have your own, personal site at http://georgemurray.ca/. How important is it for poets/authors to have a website?
GM: I think it's good to have one. I wouldn't recommend it over getting out and writing or reading your work to people who might actually buy it, but it's certainly helpful. And very easy with sites like WordPress.com, and whatnot, to help you along.
IN: What advice would you offer writers about the merits or pitfalls of taking writing classes, attending conferences and seminars, being interviewed, etc.?
GM: Mostly I think creative writing courses are a waste of time. Besides the occasional gem or a writer who just needed a safe environment in which to experiment and learn, they mostly produce scads of people who can't write but who feel as though their certificate is some sort of licence to clog up the world's slush piles.
As I mentioned above, you may or may not learn from the teacher in the class, but you'll definitely learn from your fellow students. Find the ones who agree with your poetics and use the others as a cautionary example of what not to do. It's one strategy, at least.
IN: When dealing with agents and publicists what suggestions and/or warnings can you pass along to about-to-be-published poets?
GM: I don't know that too many poets have agents. And a sad number also don't even have publicists. I can't really offer advice here.
IN: What are the greatest challenges facing new poets today concerning breaking into the market and becoming published?
GM: I don't know that there are actually too many challenges to getting published. It's pretty easy, even if it doesn't seem so at first. There are way too many publishers putting out books for it to be that hard.
The hard part is knowing when it's the right time to publish, or whether to bother publishing at all. I published some poems too early and now regret it. I would advise any young or new poets to hold on to their work for as long as possible before considering publishing. There's no rush. It's not a race. It feels that way when you're starting out and eager to see your work in print, but in reality, once it's there, you can't take it back.
IN: When a poet has a new book out, how important is it for them to tour, sign books, perform readings, and be actively involved in the marketing and promotional side of things?
GM: These days, poets have to be their own publicists, at least as much as they can stomach the job. Once a book comes out, we have to spend some time flogging it, for the sake of both the words and the publisher. Otherwise it will most likely just disappear.
Personally, I hate the whole process, but it's a necessary evil, I suppose. I'd rather concentrate on the next poem than the book currently out, in part because a book is really just a corpse of my thoughts and my mind has moved on. In an ideal world, you would cast aside a finished manuscript for your publisher to deal with while you kept on concentrating on making art. But in reality someone has spent a great deal of time and money making sure people can read what you've written – and the kinds of people who care about poetry often don't have the resources, whether in terms of skills or finances, to promote it. If you're with a smaller press, as I am now, it's polite to step up and help them get it into the right hands.
IN: Over the years your publishers have changed from Exile to M&S to McClelland & Stewart and now to Nightwood. Any reason for the switches?
GM: I started with Exile because I knew the publisher personally and he liked my poems and simply asked to publish a book. It was that easy. However, as much as he was a great patron of young poets, he wasn't much of a salesman – and most of the copies of that book remain hidden in his storage room, I suspect.
I switched to McClelland & Stewart because it was a great honour to be taken in by a large press that, at the time, wasn't really publishing young authors. It felt like a stamp of approval to be accepted into a fold that had so much great history and poetry behind it.
But I left M&S for The Rush To Here because I felt that the big publishing machine there wasn't the right place for this new book. I wanted a smaller, edgier press to do it, and Nightwood fit the bill. Whether they admit it or not, not every press can market every book.
IN: As Founding Editor and Publisher of Bookninja.com, what prompted to you to launch and maintain that project?
GM: Bookninja was really just a way for a bunch of Toronto writers experiencing a kind diaspora to keep in touch. It was clearing house of books news links for us all to comment on – just as we had in the pubs we used to hang out in, but now from our far flung locations in New York, Vancouver, London, Montreal, etc. It snowballed over the years into a very large, very successful endeavour read by between 7,000 and 10,000 people a day. We get cited in the Guardian, Time, New York Times, Globe and Mail, CBC, etc., etc. and are considered one of the top 10 literary blogs in the world.
Bookninja is really a whole separate affair from my writing career. As a poet, I'm serious and deep. On Bookninja I'm light and facetious. Poems can take from days to years to write, while posts on Bookninja are usually completed in minutes and never edited. While the two endeavours are connected in that people see me as the same writer in both worlds, they're as far apart as you can get in terms of content, style, craft, and effort.
IN: What's next for you?
GM: Lots of reading. Parenting. Some chatting with friends. The occasional beer. I am working on more poems and a novel. We'll see how it goes.
Read George Murray's excerpt from The Rush To Here.
The Rush To Here (Nightwood, 2007)
The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003)
The Cottage Builder's Letter (M&S, 2001)
Carousel (Exile Editions 2000)
Backwards City Review
Authors Aloud (Audio)
The Drunken Boat
The Painted Bride Quarterly
Poetry And Tragedy
Julie A. Pierce
Inkwell Newswatch (IN)
Rowdy Rhodes is the Site Manager of The Freelance Writing Organization International and General Manager of Inkwell Newswatch (IN). He is also known to freelance an article or two when the fancy strikes him. If you are looking for written content for your web site, ezine, or print publication, drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and he'll get back to you as soon as possible.