A Glimpse: George Murray in Interview
During my run as Writer-in-Residence this month, I plan on occassionally including interviews with Canadian authors. The people at ECW kindly provided a copy of George Murray’s forthcoming Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms — you can find it linked in my “Recommended Readings.” I had the pleasure of interviewing Murray about the book.
His other books of poetry include The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007) and The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). He has been widely anthologized and has published poems and fiction in journals and magazines in Canada, the United States, Australia, and Europe. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and is the editor of the popular literary website Bookninja.com.
AP: Thanks, George, for agreeing to the interview. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying Glimpse and, I guess, the obvious question to begin with is what led you to write and publish a book of aphorisms.
GM: Thanks for the kind words, Alessandro. I can track the decision to both compile and publish this book to one person: James Richardson.
Until I met Richardson, I hadn't read much in the way of aphorisms from contemporary poets, though had looked at those of a few philosophers and assorted other dead guys. Then I read at Princeton a few years ago with James (a great American poet and prof) when I was flogging my last book, The Rush to Here. He noted at the time that many of the closing couplets from those sonnets would work as aphorisms if removed whole from their host poems and left on their own. He figured I was probably writing them naturally and building poems around them, and he suggested I might have many more undiscovered aphorisms nestled in old journals. I looked, and damned if he wasn't right.
I harvested about 1,000 aphorisms from five years of old notebooks and then started to sift through them. During the next few years, I was editing, sorting and also writing more aphorisms (and recognizing them as such) and reading some of the (very limited) available work in the field by other contemporary poets, my favourite of which were Don Paterson's and James Richardson's. Canadians Robert Priest and Chris Dewdney have also published some, and many other poets have aphorism-like short poems, including Irishman Paul Durcan, who has a great poem called Cries of an Irish Caveman, which reads like a sequence of aphorisms.
AP: This brings up a couple different questions: first, what was that process of sifting through the old journals like— what was originally couched around the aphorisms (prose notes, failed longer poems, quotes, phone numbers, etc.)? Second, what was your guiding editorial principle as you worked to cut the list from 1000 to a more manageable 409?
GM: As you might expect, poking around in the embers of one's bright ideas might yield more ash than fire, so it was pretty brutal on the ego. It's painful to be reminded you're mostly not a genius. I'm joking, of course, but only in part. We do this because we think we have something to say or add, but the truth is, nine times out of ten, we don't. But when you find that one gem in the dust, it really does stand out.
My journals tend to be stream of consciousness compendiums, catchalls for whatever I may be pondering when I have a pen in hand. They're also the place I run to when an idea has struck that I need to get down (sometimes I write it first on the palm of my hand and then transfer into the notebook when I get a chance). So it's very much a hit-and/or-miss space in which I feel free to jot down the "anythings" of idle thought as well as the "somethings" of epiphany. Later, I go through and circle or transcribe to computer phrases I like, and either build from individual ideas or collage several into a poem. Quite often poems that are built this way will see all of their constituent parts come from within a couple pages of the journal (in part because of the "stream" aspect of the stream of consciousness writing), but other times interesting ideas or turns of phrase got excised or simply left in the journal because they didn't service the work at hand. As I progressed on through the pages of the book, and then on into the next, they were forgotten completely and left to rot on a shelf. Once I started looking back, I was amazed how many fully-formed ideas were crouched there in the dark. Thoughts I'd had that were either not suited to the form of a longer poem, or forgotten, or simply so complete they'd shut themselves off from whatever creative part of me seeks out the challenge of working words and ideas to a finished poem, which can sometimes feel like "completing" something, or at least having said it as definitively as possible at the time.
In editing the poems down from the 1000 or so that were initially collected, I cut back to about 300 and then wrote my way back to 409 (which is one of several favourite numbers of mine). I basically took out the stupid and obvious (which can also seem complete), the tired and the repetitive, the confusing and the needlessly complex, and allowed myself space to grow as an "intentional" writer of aphorisms. I had the hang of it by then so, over time, I was able to identify the arriving idea that was suited to the aphorism and separate it from the arriving idea suited to a longer poem. They seldom cross in my world anymore. Like the aphorisms themselves, I wanted the book to be leaner rather than bloated, and I wanted each to count toward the enjoyment, and the sub-narrative, of the book. Some of them cover similar territory, but I hope none repeat.
AP: A very generous and honest answer. I have a couple response questions. First, Beyond editing down the sheer volume of aphorisms, how did you go about ordering the aphorisms? As you say, there are those that cover similar territory (e.g. poetry, childhood, existential crisis, death— in particular, I am fond of the “X rhymes with Y” aphorisms). Sometimes, there are clusters of two, three, or four that seem to be riffing off the same topic. The second question, I guess, relates to the first: how do you imagine the book will be read? I can say, in my case, I’ve read it through from start to finish, and a sort of propulsive, incantatory effect is generated; but I’ve also just dipped into it, randomly. And I’ve also sought out the ones I’m especially fond of.
GM: The ordering was the toughest part, actually. It took the better part of six months. I wanted the book to have a cohesion and "readability" (for lack of a better word) that was unlikely to be generated through a random scattering of pieces over pages. On the other hand I didn't want anything so obvious as thematic groupings or a kind of forced sub-narrative, so I decided on five per page, with each set having some sort of through line. (If there's an ebook version of Glimpse, it might be nice to have it contain the option to group by theme or subject, etc., for reference purposes, but that just wouldn't work for what I was trying to generate on the printed page.) Now whether that through line is thematic or linguistic or rhythmic or even rather elliptical was up to me at the time. Then I started to set them together to create what I hope is a rocking tide-like motion, easing the reader from thought to thought and somewhat mimicking the wandering of a mind.
Looking back over what I've just written, I see it reads kind of corny, but there's some good truth in there. I wanted the book to read like the mind. It was less a sub-narrative and more a sub-sub-narrative.
Further, within all of that, there are also little things here and there that contributed to the ordering, but were really just for me: pairings/groupings, certain numbers of significance, allusions and references, etc. Like my other books, most of these hidden things are private games I play with myself and needn't be ferreted out by a reader to enhance the experience, but if they're found, I hope they entertain. Most are pretty oblique. I'm the kind of guy who counts his steps to work and notices mathematical patterns in brickwork. So little games like these are just what get me through the writing of something.
To answer your second question, I don't really know how the book will be read. The books of aphorisms I've read have gone through the same two phases you've experienced with Glimpse: a full read and then a sort of perpetual "drinking bird toy" dipping over time. I like your description of the entire book of poems as having an "incantatory effect". The lone aphorism that strikes you right can be quite a stunning thing, but I find that in a large grouping each loans meaning, depth, and weight to the last and next, making for a greater, more subtly satisfying experience.
At the same time, I'll be happy to find them on coffee tables and toilet tanks. However people dig it best.
AP: It’s been wonderful chatting, George. To end, I have another two-parter. First, some of your aphorisms aren’t afraid of leaping into moral critique, e.g. “The line between stupidity and bravery is memoir” (#317) or “Everyone works in sales now” (#303). This is the sort of tone I associate with the epigram, but I recognize it as part of the aphorism, too. I guess I’m curious about any reservations you might have had about that moral tone, which is a tricky one to pull off. (To be clear, I dig it— in your book anyway.) Second, do you have one or two favourite aphorisms (either your own or by others) you’d like to end with. My favourite of yours, by the way, is #401. I’ve read it countless times now and, depending on when I read it, I find it incredibly comforting or totally debilitating: “Nobody will ever know who I am, and that’s okay, because in the end it’s the same with everyone else.”
GM: Yeah, that one sort of does the same thing to me too. I wrote it in the hopeful sense, if it's any consolation. But that's how I know it's good: it screws with my head.
As for your moral critique observation, I hadn't really thought about it. All my work has an implicit, if not explicit, moral authority to it that sometimes gets me into trouble. The Hunter (M&S, 2003), especially was such a book—an apostrophic Jeremiad that was chockablock with declaratives and moral grandstanding. But that was intentional. With Glimpse I didn't try or not try to control the moral compass. I just wrote and ordered, wrote and ordered.
Personally, I very much enjoy poetry that has a point of view outside the act of its construction and its eventual beauty. I don't always agree with it but, if it's done well, I engage with it. So I hope it's done well here. And I think it is, in part because it's simply as honest as I can be. There's not a lot of artifice in there, which was another part of the process, I suppose.
I like the more serious collected aphorisms of philosophers like Nietzsche and Adorno, and the more off-the-cuff or unintentional riffings of people like Oscar Wilde, Yogi Berra, and Woody Allen. The most brutal aphorism I've ever read I use as an epigraph at the beginning of Glimpse: "The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass" from Adorno's Minima Moralia. Ouch and ouch.
As for a favourite of mine, that's pretty hard, especially when you're trying to give people a sense of the book—the range is so wide any one on offer here can't be truly representative of the whole book. The funnier ones ("Writing the erotic poem is like ironing in the nude—sexy for women, dangerous for men") are easier to read to audiences, of course, and the more serious ones require a moment or two of thought to tease out even the first level of meaning ("Nows are the molecular form of fundamental thens") but generally I tend to most enjoy the ones that read clever, but also have a much deeper level of commentary ("Solipsists should mind their own business.")
I think the closer is an apropos dandy, but I'll let your readers buy the book to find out what that is.