George Murray’s three previous books of poetry include The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003) and The Cottage Builder’s Letter (M&S, 2001). His poems, fiction and criticism have appeared in many publications in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, and Europe. Murray won the 2003 New York Festivals Radio and Television Gold Medal for Best Writing for his broadcast poem “Anniversary: A Personal Inventory” and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is the editor and publisher of the popular literary website Bookninja.com and a contributing editor for several literary magazines, including Canadian Notes and Queries and The Drunken Boat. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Dani Couture interviewed George Murray in May 2007.
Your new book marks your return to the small press world. After publishing two books with McClelland and Stewart (chapbook with Frog Hollow Press aside), you are now with Nightwood. What were your reasons for making the jump?
Well, it’s long and complicated, but comes down to a change in my basic philosophy around the relationship between writing and publishing poetry.
When I first approached M&S in 2000, almost as a lark, with the manuscript that would become The Cottage Builder’s Letter, I was awestruck that they’d consider me, much less take me on. I had only been writing poetry for about four years at that point, and had been with Exile Editions for my first book, Carousel, and watched it rot in the publisher’s basement. So I was hoping to write a book that someone would have a chance to actually read. Needless to say, when M&S offered I was star-struck and jumped at the chance. It seemed at the time like a vindication of my work that I would be on the same list as some of my heroes like Don McKay.
The Cottage Builder’s Letter, while not necessarily my best work (being edited together from loose poems in about a month from the date of acceptance to handing in the proofs), had a gorgeous cover and paper. It was literally the prettiest book of poetry I’d ever seen. I was ecstatic.
I was living in New York City at the time, and shortly thereafter went through the whole 9/11 crap and ended up writing The Hunter, a much darker, crazier, fractured, but ultimately better work. Several small presses, including Nightwood approached me at this time with offers, but I stuck with M&S in part because they were my publisher and in part because the first book with them went so well.
That’s when things tanked slightly. Due to some publicity deficiencies and production problems, and my distance from the market I would normally sell to (ie, Canada or, more specifically, Toronto), the book was dead in the water sales-wise a month after it appeared. There were many reviews, and they were positive, even laudatory, but there just wasn’t a sales machine behind it.
This set me to thinking about what I wanted from both the art and business of writing poetry. I’m never going to make any money off this, surely. And it’s too early to tell whether I’ll end up on a few course lists one day. So what do I want? I want to write poems and occasionally send them out into the world to see what they do. Basically, I want a pretty book that gets into stores, is submitted properly for reviews and awards, and has at least some backing in the publicity department.
Nightwood publishes good, beautiful books and has a roster of exciting young poets. They also promote their books and support their authors. If I was going to leave the premier poetry publisher in Canada, it seemed a logical choice.
In a previous interview in The Danforth Review, you commented that “New York was breaking my concentration and disintegrating my thoughts. I was writing notes, but not composing poems.” Did you leave Toronto for Newfoundland for similar reasons? Have your writing habits changed since moving to Newfoundland?
In New York I craved and wallowed in anonymity. It was great to sit in a bar or cafe there and have no one recognize you. Of course, in Toronto this was less the case. Between friends, co-workers and neighbours, you had to keep switching watering holes to stay ahead of the crowd. In St. John’s I can’t even begin to expect to be anonymous. Even when I head to the corner store I have to expect to tack five to ten minutes of incidental chatting onto the walk. I wasn’t here a year when I’d had two interviews on CBC radio and a cover story on me and my work appeared in the newspaper. In what other city in the world does that happen? A poet on the front page. Above the fold, no less! Scandalous. So all this is to say that the physical and mental geography haven’t affected my writing, but I think the social geography eventually might.
Recently at the IV Lounge you mentioned that “The Rush to Here” is your “most overtly experimental” collection to date. Can you expand on that?
Since the beginning of my career in poetry, I’ve written many works people would consider “experimental” or “avant garde”, but have declined to publish these for personal reasons. My books to this point have worked in a lyric and/or narrative vein, with The Hunter being the closest thing to overt experiment (and that is just really a fondness for American poets such as Geoffrey Hill and John Ashbery).
My fourth book, the recently released The Rush to Here, is a set of 57 sonnets (four sections of 14, with a single poem “epilogue”) with about 140 beats to the 14 lines and usually incorporates a volte at line eight or so, and final, encapsulating couplet. The unique thing about these poems is that in place of a sonic rhyme at the end of a line, I’ve used what I call a “thought rhyme”. Thus instead of rhyming “night” with “fight”, I can “rhyme” it with any of a series of a associations. So, the synonym “evening”, the antonym “day”, the homonym “knight”, the anagram “thing”, a synonym of a homonym “soldier” (for “knight”), a homonym of an antonym “dais”, across phraseology and idiom “silent”, etc.
A bit of back-story before I go further: my third book, The Hunter, was a book of excess and ranting declamation. It was an apostrophic response to times I felt weren’t being responded to well. The poems were longer and jammed images and thoughts up against one another in a disconcerting fashion, sometimes several to a line. It was like a Hieronymous Bosch painting in words. It was, in essence, a Jeremiad. One reviewer referred to feeling slightly “hectored” by it, which was part of the point.
Anyway, when I finished the manuscript and handed in the pages in September of 2002, I found myself adrift. When I did write new poems, they seemed to be a continuation of The Hunter‘s voice and tone. I often liken it to Dustin Hoffman after his role as the autistic savant in Rain Man. Legend has it he had gone so deep into the character (in the way Stanislavski school actors seem to think one can go) that he couldn’t get out for a while after and was shuffling around for months, still playing the role long after the movie had opened and ended. I felt this way after The Hunter.
I’ve always prided myself on treading new ground and had sworn I would never write “the same” book twice. So I set myself a restriction. I could only write sonnets. The idea of 140 beats in 14 lines with only two thoughts and a couplet to work with seemed like a good antidote to the ranting poison of The Hunter. I found the formal constraints to be invigorating and generative. Every time I sat down to write, I was taken in some unexpected, but interesting new direction. But the more I wrote, the more I didn’t like the faux Elizabethan sing-song sound that comes from the linguistic acrobatics necessary to complete the rhyme contract.
At some point in this process, I was stuck for a rhyme with for something like “night” and I noticed that a placeholder word at the end of the corresponding line was something like “day”. I realized that while this wasn’t a sound rhyme, the concepts did “rhyme” in a way, through their associations. So I left it in. As I progressed, I started finding the thought rhymes not only more compelling than the sonic rhymes, but more successful poetically. That first poem was eventually discarded, as were all the other sound-based sonnets (about 45), and I started over writing totally in thought rhyme. And so, The Rush to Here was born.
At one point I even translated all of Canto XXIV (Thieves) from Inferno from 151 lines of end rhyme terza rima to ten sonnets in thought rhyme. (You’d be surprised how successful this was. Dante tends to end a thought every 15 lines, so they’re basically sonnets already…) I didn’t include it in the book because it didn’t jive thematically, but it was a real demonstration of the versatility of the form, and a vindication of what I was doing.
Ironically, it’s now hard to get out of the thought rhyme impulse. I’m seeing connections everywhere, and its getting a little schizophrenic.
You are the founding editor and publisher of Bookninja (www.bookninja.com), a Canadian literary site. The site has garnered quite a bit of attention over the past several years. How has your relationship with the website and your involvement with the literary community chanced since Bookninja’s humble beginnings?
Well, this is a tough one. I started Bookninja as a place for some friends to hang out, but it ended up becoming a pretty big thing that’s somewhat overshadowing my poetry career. It’s natural that more people would know my name through Bookninja, which reaches about 5,000+ people daily, than through poetry, but it still stings a little at times when people say, “Hey! It’s the Bookninja guy!” I don’t know how it will affect sales of The Rush to Here, which is the first volume of poetry I’ve released since Bookninja began. It’s too soon to tell, but I suspect the answer will be “not much”. Poetry sales are a depressing thing. Unless you get the backing of a powerful publicity machine and/or a powerful cadre of tastemakers and/or a powerful education system, you’re basically a nobody who’s famous among his friends.
People think of Bookninja as a clubhouse, I hope — a place for releasing steam and chatting in an off-handed way about things they hold dear. I enjoy providing that space and setting the tone. The character I pretend to be on Bookninja isn’t necessarily me. Sure, I make a lot of wisecracks here and there, but the acerbic, cynical, bitchy tone is something I do as a character. It’s funny and it takes the stuffing out of the seriousness of arts journalism and self-righteous author/publisher types. I don’t approach poetry or writing that way outside of Bookninja, mostly because I am dealing with it on a more personal level.
I’ve always been one of those people folks tell things to. Strangers confess life secrets to me in bars. Everyone tells me everything. I don’t know why. Sometimes it’s annoying, but generally I’m fascinated by it. But one of the things I regret about Bookninja becoming so central to the dissemination of lit info in Canada is that sometimes overly-cautious people seem to think that they can’t reveal things to me because it might appear on Bookninja, as though we’re some sort of gossip rag. I assure all and sundry that if it doesn’t come in through the website, I won’t post it. My personal correspondence and conversations stay personal.
What is one question that you wish an interviewer would ask you?
Do you mind if I don’t ask you about Bookninja in this interview but concentrate wholly on your poetry, which I think has matured greatly between books and deserves a rousing reception and a continent-wide readership?
Please answer said question.
Not at all. Go ahead. 🙂