Interview with T.L. Murphy
Interview with TL Murphy, on the occasion of the publication of his poetry collection titled “Up Cape Fear” which can be purchased on >> Lulu <<
T.L. Murphy is a retired carpenter, a published poet, and an avid skier. He grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A. and emigrated to Canada in 1978. He lives in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, on the east side of the Canadian Rocky Mountains about 20 miles from the Continental Divide. He is a performance poet and has shared the stage with many prominent Canadian poets and was recently appointed Poet Laureate of Canmore, a position he will hold for one year. His poems, fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies and have been translated into Greek and Chinese.
What was the inspiration behind ‘Up Cape Fear’?
The Cape Fear is a river that flows from central North Carolina, south to the port of Wilmington, North Carolina. The river is named after the treacherous barrier island of the Outer Banks just off the coast. Wilmington is the only navigable port in North Carolina because of the Outer Banks and the Great Dismal Swamp to the north that cover the rest of North Carolina’s coast line. All the land that forms the drainage into the Cape Fear is called the Cape Fear River Basin.
I lived much of my youth near the headwaters of the Cape Fear and my dad had grown up in a small town about 30 miles inland from its mouth at Wilmington. Thus “Up Cape Fear”.
The collection is poems that centre on my early childhood in North Carolina. While the state is a diverse culture of tobacco farming, mountain culture, leading Universities, evangelist bible belt and deep south Jim Crow. My dad grew up in the Bible belt, Deep South, Jim Crow part. The culture there was distinctly different than the college towns at the headwaters of the Cape Fear. All the poems in the collection centre around my need to make sense of those contrasts and contradictions that I experienced in early childhood and adolescence and the residue of those years that has followed me into adulthood.
Do you have a favourite poem in “Up Cape Fear”, and if so which one and why?
It’s impossible to say which of these poems my favourite is. But I really like this one:
When We Decided to Run
It was on a windswept beach.
North met South in clandestine sun.
The heavy foot
skimmed white sand,
England just out of sight.
Mexico too hot.
California fairy tale.
The trick was to cover our tracks,
but dry seaweed when the dust cleared,
a plausible story for the border,
a bottle of rye and a bag of weed
to get us through desperate nights.
All that remained was consensus on direction.
We would change our names,
forage for sustenance,
keep relationships short and wet.
Our righteous destiny at hand
we paced in spirals
until stars came out and tide
filled in our footprints.
Then we went for sushi.
This poem talks about the somewhat estranged relationship with my father through my adolescence. The beaches near the mouth of the Cape Fear, like Carolina Beach, Wrightsville Beach and Topsail Island are all long strips of white sand with fishing piers and big surf where my dad liked to take us for summer vacations. In this poem, the beach becomes a kind of neutral ground or DMZ where I would meet with my dad to discuss his wild plans of making a new life for himself that he wanted me to be part of. By adolescence, of course, I had my own ideas about what kind of life I wanted.
What first inspired you to write poetry?
I had a few enlightened teachers. In grade five, I wrote a poem that my teacher, Mrs. Blain, got pretty excited about it. In grade seven, my English teacher was a real free thinker. She had us writing plays and performing them. She would create media events that were collages of sound and video (this was in 1968, way before computers) and have us write our impressions in any form we wanted. My grade eleven English teacher had us writing journals and I think that’s when the poetry really started.
In college, I took all the creative writing classes. My poetry professor, Peter Meinke, was already a well-known poet and he was fantastic. He got me excited about poetry and his classes were fun. He was so encouraging, and there would be lively discussions that covered every subject you can imagine. That’s when I realize how expansive and liberating poetry could be
Growing up, my family was spread out over 1500 miles along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. II thought nothing of hitchhiking 700 miles to see my grandmother for the weekend or twice that far to visit my dad for Easter break. In summers I would hitchhike to Canada and twice, I hitchhiked to the west coast and back. After college I traveled around Europe for a year. All this time I kept the journals going. I wrote about the places I visited and the people I met and about my own inner life. It was really poetry I was writing.
My dad moved to Canada in the mid-70’s and bought a bankrupt magazine for one dollar. After traveling around Europe I came back to North America and went to work for him on the magazine in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At first I just ran errands and made coffee, but gradually, I got into the writing and editing for the magazine. My dad always complained about the poetry. He said he couldn’t understand it. So I showed him some of my stuff . He got a kick out of it and published a couple of my poems in the magazine, mainly, I think, because he could understand them. Then he made me the poetry editor. I got to decide what poems went into the journal. That was pretty cool.
You are a passionate skier. What emotional correlations are there between the rush of intense skiing and poetic inspiration? What impact would it have on your poetry if you weren’t allowed to ski anymore?
That’s a very interesting question. I have always been athletic but I didn’t learn to ski until I was 36 years old. I was coming out of a very dark period in my life. I had three small children and my marriage fell apart. My oldest child was seriously disabled from a rare illness. I had not been writing, just focusing on family and work. I also had a serious knee injury that crippled me for several years. I had surgery and a long recovery with lots of physio. I was in a new relationship with a woman who lived on the opposite side of Canada from my kids and we had decided that we wanted to give it a go. I was reinventing myself. I started writing again. I moved to Alberta which is where the Rocky Mountains start and she introduced me to skiing. I was hooked from Day One. Skiing became part of my new life. We are lucky to live in an area where it is easy to ski. It’s part of the culture so you can always find good deals.
Skiing is a very Zen thing. It’s all about focus and working on tiny moves. I’ve been skiing for almost thirty years now, and though I am not as strong as I used to be, I’m still getting better at skiing. It’s like poetry in that way. There is no end to improvement. I’ll be skiing for as long as I can stand up. It took me about ten years to get good enough to ski the cool stuff. Then I took up back country skiing, which is a whole different thing than skiing at the resort. In the backcountry, it’s just you and the mountain. You’re out there and no one is coming to get you if things go wrong. You are always with partners but there is also a lot of solitude. You climb up the mountain on your own steam and then you ski down. You’re so far out there, you see no signs of human beings other than your own tracks. There is a lot to learn to keep yourself and your friends safe. You have to be alert all the time. But there is nothing like it. The pristine, winter alpine is the most beautiful and dramatic landscape I have ever experienced. It is so vast and you are so small. It keeps you humble.
I don’t write about skiing that much. I don’t need to. But the activity is very conducive to writing poetry. There is a lot of silence. There are hours of climbing on skis when your mind wanders. I do think about poetry but more than that, it is just the mental freedom of not being immersed in civilization and its concerns. The mind expands. There is a sense of being part of the infinite which is probably a paradox but that is something I try to capture in my poetry. And then there is the downhill part, the sense of free-falling through deep powder. It’s the closest thing to flying I have ever experienced and that is something that’s very difficult to explain in words but poetry is about feelings, so I try to capture that, too.
The second part of your question is difficult. How would it affect my poetry if I couldn’t ski anymore? Honestly, I don’t think it would. I wrote poetry before I could ski. I could still write poetry if I did not ski. Poetry is part of me and skiing fulfills a need. If skiing were not there I would fill that need with something else, music probably.
Can you tell me about the connection between carpentry and poetry? What mindset/qualities do you need to succeed in any direction that combines craft and creativity.
I fell into carpentry as a means of survival. I had been working as a journalist but it did not pay well at all. When I met my first wife and we had a child, I had to put food on the table and pay the bills. It wasn’t just about me anymore. Her family had some land in the Southwestern part of Nova Scotia, so we went there and I built a house with a chainsaw mill and salvaged lumber. It was a rural, fishing area and the work opportunities were limited. It was either fishing or carpentry. Fishing was not for me but I loved carpentry. It’s incredibly hard work but I was young and strong and I enjoyed the physical challenges and being outdoors.
Carpentry has it all. It is physically invigorating. It’s creative. It’s full of mental challenges and problem-solving. And you have to develop good people skills if you want to be independent and not work for others. You have to be organized. You have to keep immaculate records so you know the cost of everything right to the penny. Otherwise, you don’t make any money. I was also lucky to develop my carpentry skills in a rural area, working on very old houses.
There were many challenges, like jacking up church steeples and moving buildings with chains and manual winches, working without electricity, cutting roads through the forest and carrying lumber in on your shoulder. I learned a vast array of skills, because in that area there were no specialists. If you were a carpenter you had to do it all, from foundations to framing to finishing. Even tile work, roofing, making windows… all of it. So, when I moved to the west where everything is based on efficiency and specialization, I had an advantage. I knew how to do all of it, so I could jump into any specialty and after one or two jobs I’d have it figured out. Soon I was building houses from start to finish. Almost no one did that, so I had a unique skill and there were clients who wanted a carpenter who could build the whole house himself.
What did all this teach me about poetry? I’m not sure. It taught me discipline. It taught me that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. It taught me to trust myself, that I could figure things out, make them work and that if I made a mistake, it wasn’t the end of the world, I could fix it.
Carpentry also gave me an interesting perspective on life. I came from an academic family. Both parents were college professors. I had a good, liberal arts education. So I have an intellectual background. Carpentry is all about the physical. It’s very left brained, in that it is built on definite steps and procedure. You always have to be thinking ahead about your next move and keeping in mind the final outcome. It also requires tremendous precision. There’s no fudging. You have to be exact. Otherwise your mistakes compound on each other until it’s out of control.
There was also the class thing of being a blue-collar worker. Getting dirty every day, and working with very capable people who were not necessarily well educated but had gotten where they were with hard work and had a kind of instinctual intelligence that cannot be taught. It can only be developed through continual self-improvement and dealing with real-world problems.
I think all of this has given me a unique perspective for writing in general, but poetry specifically. I write about the mystical but I also write about the gritty side of life, a perspective that I could not have obtained without spending years in the trenches.
How does your personal life enter into your poetry? Can you give an example?
In all kinds of ways. I’ve written many poems about my dad and my relationship with him. My parents separated when I was six, and I grew up with my mother, so my dad took on a kind of mythical status. He was also a complex person and I’m still trying to sort out who he was and what our relationship meant.
I write about people in my life, my ex-wife who I was devastated to have to leave, my oldest son who suffered brain injury at the age of nine. These relationships represent loss to me which is a universal human condition. For me, it is a way to express that condition in stories or images that others can relate to.
I also write about friends and family members as characters who represent other aspects of the human condition. It’s a way of creating the universal through the concrete, to take a personal experience and show how it is something that everyone goes through in one way or another. I think it is very liberating to read about someone else’s experience who has been through something like you have and expresses it in a unique way that gives you new insights into your own experience. I also think that in writing about people we have known well, we can show interaction and revelations that happen below conscious awareness. We can show the deeper forms of relationships which are not so obvious in the moment but only become revealed through reflection. This is the real goal of writing, self-discovery through reflection.
Do you have a certain discipline when writing? I mean, certain times set aside especially for poetry? Certain conditions that need to be in place? For example when no one is around, or?
This seems to be the essential question in every writer interview. I know that the correct answer is to say that I sit down at the same time every day with a cup of coffee and write for exactly three hours and produce X number of words and that this is an essential discipline to my practice.
Well, I’m sorry, it doesn’t work that way for me. I write all the time, often late at night, sometimes early in the morning, on the chair lift at the ski hill, or sometimes when I’m driving, I hear a song on the radio and I have to pull over and write a poem on my phone. It can happen anywhere at any time. Two years ago, I took up yoga, and I have found that right after a yoga session is a good time to write. The meditative qualities of yoga relax the imagination and open the creative mind.
I am more regular about reading. I read poetry in the morning for an hour or two. This is when I write most of my critiques and when I explore the internet for new work. And I read at night before I go to sleep. I tend to read fiction or investigative journalism at night. But I always have a notepad or i-pad close by when I read because that is generally the greatest source of my writing… other people’s writing. More of my poems are inspired by other poems than anything else. I’ll read a line that triggers something and I start to write. It could be a fragment or a whole poem, but I try to get a whole idea down in one shot. It is rarely a finished poem at this stage but the whole structure is there – the whole idea, followed out to some kind of conclusion. I find that if I only write half the poem then the rest feels contrived. I think it’s good to push yourself to keep writing while the idea is hot in your head, even if it means forcing yourself through some lines. You can always cut those lines later. The main thing is to keep pushing the words out while it’s hot until you feel like you’ve gotten something that is more or less complete. Then you put it away and go back the next day or a week later and refine it.
You are also a performing artist. Your Spoken Word poetry, how does it differ from written poetry?
After my father died in 2009, I started writing poetry again. For two decades previous to that I had mostly written fiction. I published a poem in 2010 and have published at least one piece every year since then. In 2011, I joined a writing group and they encouraged me to participate in some slams in the city about an hour’s drive away. The slam scene wasn’t for me. There was a lot of clowning and shouting and bitching about being different… which is all fine for some folks, I just don’t happen to be part of a marginalized segment of society (other than poets), so I felt like my poetry wasn’t appealing to that crowd … but I did like performing the poetry.
As I focused more and more on writing poetry, I developed different directions. One was a very minimal, image based style that grew out of perusing various Eastern styles of poetry and their western spin-offs. The other direction was a kind of raucous, profane, story based narrative style that used a lot of humour and gritty, counter-culture imagery. The latter tends to be more popular at readings. It’s often irreverent and easier for the crowd to grasp than sparse poetry and long enough for an audience to sink their teeth into before the poem is over.
So I eventually found myself writing different kinds of poetry for the page and for the stage. Sometimes they cross over and that’s great. But the work I specifically write for performance tends to be more prose based and uses more repetition and often includes musical soundscape, all designed to increase its “entertainment” value. The work I write for the page is more minimal and image based. Sometimes I take a bunch of these minimal poems and string them together in a medley to make a long poem for the stage. That can have interesting effects. I started organizing my own performances, inviting poets that I like, to share the stage with me. I’ve performed with some great poets, like Robert Kroetsch, Shane Kroyzan, George Bowering, Mike McGee, Richard Harrison, Steven Ross Smith, Michlene Maylor, Derek Beaulieu and Sherri de Wilson among others.
Do you use the voice of a poem to loosen inhibitions? whether in yourself or your audience.
The poem’s voice is rarely me, even if it is in the first person, although I do use my own experiences to build the poem. But the poem isn’t me, it’s an entity unto its own and deserves its own life. Once I start writing I try to find out what the poem wants, where it wants to go, and I try to serve that. This helps to remove the ego from the poem but it often doesn’t come until the rewrite or maybe the fourth rewrite. But in the end, the voice in the poem is almost always a persona. This gives me enough detachment from the poem to let it start to speak for itself. I listen to what the poem is trying to tell me.
How does your poetry challenge your readers?
I hope to challenge readers to think outside the box, to think beyond what they perceive on the surface of things. I want images to create an apparent paradox, which upon reflection, or deeper reading of the poem, turns out not to be a paradox at all if you can step outside the normal parameters of thinking like the lineal perception of time, or the sense that space is necessarily about distance, or the conventional perceptions of cause and effect. I want to surprise the reader into seeing something in a way that he or she has never considered before. I would call that an epiphany or revelation.
One of the themes I work with is the idea that everything that happens has an infinite number of causes. This translates to the reality that all events are connected in some kind of invisible thread or matrix. Everything affects everything else. Something like the “butterfly effect” which is a hypothesis put forward in chaos theory, that any state has a sensitive dependence on initial conditions but any small change within the deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.
I use a lot of hyperbole and surrealism in my poetry to achieve this effect, meaning, I sometimes stretch metaphors to an extreme in order to suspend the reader’s disbelief. This allows the poem to escape perceived reality by creating a surreal context within which the rules of reality are mutable.
What is your favourite/least favourite part of the writing process?
I think I am happiest when I am writing. It’s the business of writing that I can’t stand. I find it very hard to choose what to send out for submissions, or to actually devote time to submitting. I get hung up on what to send out. (Ha! I’m laughing at myself). I’m so close to the work, I don’t know what is good and what isn’t. I would really like someone else to do that for me… just take my poems and decide what to send where. I’m also terrible at marketing.
When did you first feel like you were a “real writer” and why?
What is a “real writer?” Who knows? Maybe you are a real writer when you decide you are a real writer. That’s as good a criteria as any, isn’t it? I guess if you make a living at it, you’re a real writer. But I know people who make their living at writing and they’re terrible. I wouldn’t publish them. But they’ve figured out how to get published on a regular basis which is more than I have done, so, good for them. Or maybe a real writer is someone who has published at least one piece, or maybe they have been paid for one piece. Or maybe a real writer is someone who thinks about writing all the time. I’m not sure.
I think the first time I considered myself a real writer was when I was accepted to a poetry workshop at The Banff Centre for the Performing Arts and the people there called me a “poet.” And I thought, “Yeh, that’s right. I’m a poet.” I had already published a number of poems but for some reason I had to hear it from someone who I considered part of the inner circle.
Name a book that made you think differently about poetry or fiction, and why?
“Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut is probably the first book that blew my mind. The way Vonnegut deals with time is completely unique and it is obvious in reading the book that this was the only way he was able to deal with his own PTSD from WW2. It’s a remarkable book. One of the best of all time.
“Riddley Walker” by Russel Hoban, published in 1970, is an obscure book and hard to find. It has an amazing premise: basically sci-fi, set in the distant future after some kind of nuclear apocalypse. Humans have lost all modern technology. They live in a prolonged “dark age” and a bizarre religion has evolved from some obscure corner of Christianity. But most important of all, the English language has changed radically (as it would after 1000 years or so) into something almost unrecognizable. Yet the novel is narrated by a 9 year old kid in this evolved English. The first hundred pages are almost impossible to understand. It’s harder than reading Chaucer. But the story is so fascinating it pulls you along and you go back and read the beginning again. After you finish the book, you’ve figured the language out and you have to read it again right away. I’ve read it about five times and each time I find new stuff in it. It’s my favourite book of all.
Charles Bukowski gave me a lot of courage to write poetry as I see it and by my own rules. Many scholars don’t consider Bukowski to be a real poet. His poetry is very prosy, but he is one of the bestselling poets of the last century. So he’s a populist poet, like Shakespeare. Nobody says Shakespeare wasn’t a real poet.
On the other end of the spectrum, I developed an online relationship with a poet from India (writing in English) named Satish Verma. He is in his eighties. (He is still active on Linkedin as far as I know). We exchanged poetry on a daily basis for over a year, building on each other’s poems. Satish’s poetry was the opposite of Bukowski, extremely minimal and entirely image based. There was never a storyline or narrative. It was very obscure stuff and mystical and it resonated with me. I learned to pare my work down to its essence.
So now I have these two different directions that my poetry takes that is largely influenced by these completely different poets.
I am also very impressed by David Jones’s novel length poem “In Parenthesis” about his experience as a private in the trenches of WW1. The book mixes prose and line and is a remarkable synthesis of metaphor and story-telling. Some scholars consider it a deconstructed novel, which it may be, but there is no doubt that it is great poetry.
Name an author you disliked at first but grew into later, and why?
I didn’t like William Faulkner or Joseph Conrad at first because I found their writing so dense but I persisted. “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad and “As I Lay Dying”, “Light in August” and “Intruder in the Dust” by Faulkner are among my favourite novels.
What are you working on next?
I am currently working on a collection of “god poems.” One, titled >> “The God of Chimneys” << was recently published at >> spillwordspress <<. I’m also working on a collection of blue-collar poems, largely about my career as a carpenter but it also involves blue-collar POV. In addition to that I am always looking toward the next performance or community program. I’m organizing an open mike series for the fall and some workshops in Spoken Word. I also want to do an exhibition pairing photographers and poets in ekphrastic works and put the show up in a gallery. I was appointed the Poet Laureate of Canmore last May so I’m also talking to the poets laureate of Banff, Calgary and Edmonton about doing a live show together. That should be fun. We might take it on the road.
Why did you self-publish to LuLu as opposed to Amazon?
Amazon wanted all my banking information before I even started. I was not comfortable with that. Lulu allowed me to create the book first and then decide how I wanted to sell it. I can sell it through Lulu.com but they are willing to mail me cheques. I didn’t have to give them any banking information. I also found them very helpful with the publishing process. There’s a lot to learn
You created an author website
where you share your poetry and fiction. What importance do you place on author websites and why?
This is a place where I can send people to see samples of my work. It’s free and there are no obligations to join anything. I don’t post my newest work there because that would disqualify it from being published elsewhere, but I’ve posted a lot of my published work there and a lot of early poems.
TL, I want to thank you for your willingness to reply to all the questions. And for your openness.