Be vulnerable. Most of us put up a variety of barriers to protect our feelings, and in an increasingly online world, we curate our personal brands like full-time marketing departments. This is fatal to effective poetry. The work that matters reminds readers that few of our thoughts or feelings (particularly ones involving fear or insecurity) are unique; we all have relatable struggles, and poems that either address these or suggest ways to overcome them will connect with an audience.
Poetry is growing in popularity and millions of people spanning the globe have a renewed passion for embracing the creativity, beauty, and art of poetry. Poetry has the power to heal and we make sense of the world through the human expression of writing and reading. Are you wondering: What does it take to become a successful poet? What is the best medium and venue to release your poetry? What are some techniques to improve or sharpen your skills? In this interview series about how to write powerful and evocative poetry, we are interviewing people who have a love for poetry and want to share their insights, and we will speak with emerging poets who want to learn more about poetry either to improve their own skills or learn how to read and interpret better. Here, we will also meet rising and successful poets who want to share their work or broaden their audience, as well as poetry and literature instructors.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Murphy.
Sean Murphy has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and been quoted in USA Today, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and AdAge. A long-time columnist for PopMatters, his work has also appeared in Salon, The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, The Good Men Project, Memoir Magazine, and others. His chapbook, The Blackened Blues, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and served as writer-in-residence of the Noepe Center at Martha’s Vineyard. He’s Founding Director of 1455 (www.1455litarts.org). To learn more, and read his published short fiction, poetry, and criticism, please visit seanmurphy.net/ and @bullmurph.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what first drew you to poetry?
The first poet (and writer, really) who made a profound impression on me was Edgar Allan Poe. Some of his celebrated poems seem repetitive and overwrought to older and more experienced readers, but for aspiring writers, they open up the possibilities of using words to express feelings; his exuberance is liberating for young or aspiring poets, and Poe remains an ideal gateway to the great poets who came before and after him.
Can you tell us a bit about the interesting or exciting projects you are working on or wish to create? What are your goals for these projects?
My collection, The Blackened Blues (Finishing Line Press, July 2021), is part of a larger, ongoing project that explores artists and cultural figures who remain far less celebrated than they deserve to be. As it happens, many of them are musicians, hampered in various ways by discrimination, ranging from racism to indifference. This project seeks to capture something essential about their lives, bearing witness while paying homage.
I’m happy to recently learn that my poem “Sonny Rollins’s Bridge” (which appears in The Blackened Blues) was nominated by Burningword Lit Journal for their Best-of-Net awards.
Wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. What is your definition of poetry? Can you please share with us what poetry means to you?
Having written, read, and even judged a great deal of poetry (for 1455’s annual Teen Poetry Contest), I’m happy to report that my definition of poetry is ever-expanding. I think all art forms are in a constant state of evolution, and the best poets are at once very familiar with the traditional masters while finding their own styles and voices to push the medium forward. I believe the key to a superior poem is consistent with excellent writing in general, and metaphors in particular: finding ways to describe things in fresh, occasionally revelatory ways. The poetry that moves me helps me understand something or someone on a deeper level; a superior poem stays read, and remains indelibly inside the mind — great writing literally becomes part of you.
What can writing poetry teach us about ourselves?
Poetry has the possibility of teaching us so many things, and in ways that cut across economic, geographic, and even historical barriers. An exceptional poem can present the lived experience of a life we don’t know or could only imagine, or it can remind us that most human beings are desperate for the same things: love, peace, understanding, justice, compassion, connection, beauty. Poetry works on macro and micro levels: it reveals recurring themes (good, bad, ugly) in human history, and homes in on what makes kings, soldiers, parents, orphans, the working poor and the wealthiest one percent identical: we all, on some level, are seeking meaning in our brief time on this planet. There is a quiet power in the ways poems unite communities.
Who are your favorite poets? Is it their style, the content or something else that resonates with you?
My favorite poet is the great Czeslaw Milosz who, for me, is the Platonic ideal of an artist in an increasingly disconnected world. He was an intellectual of the old school and could compose and appreciate poetry as both a writer and teacher. His poetry of witness epitomizes what’s noble about great art: it strives for profundity and beauty, but is rooted in an appreciation — and acknowledgment — of our shared humanity. Having seen some of the atrocity mankind is capable of, his work uses words to elegize, accuse, and above all, remember. He came to deploy an almost godlike wisdom and virtuosity, but he remained humble, relatable, refreshingly human. There are so many others to list, but Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats are ceaseless sources of inspiration, and with delight I’d point people to 1455’s 3rd Annual Summer Fest: our panel “Inspiration Information: Black Women Poets” showcases some of the best and most brilliant contemporary poets, and seeing them read their amazing work is electrifying (that reading, and every other session from the festival, streaming free at this link: https://web.cvent.com/hub/events/09e46134-4022-438e-9297-72ee3f323a1d/sessions)
If you could ask your favourite poet a question, what would it be?
Everything I’d need to know I can glean from his poems, so if I’d been able to sit down with Czeslaw Milosz I would have enjoyed hearing him talk about his influences and literary heroes, as well as his artistic and spiritual sources of inspiration.
Poetry can be transformational. Is there a particular poem that spoke to you and changed your life or altered a perspective you held in some way? Can you share the story?
A poem that changed (and continues to change) my life is “When I Have Fears” by John Keats.
This particular work resonates with each successive generation because it grapples with the most profound fear any of us will ever experience: the acknowledgment that we will inexorably perish, not knowing what actually awaits us once we’re gone.
If you are a certain age, or a certain type of person (or both) when you first encounter these lines, they lodge themselves somewhere deep and remain there forever. That is the gift the poet gives you; your gift in return is to read and receive the work and by never forgetting it you ensure the artist never dies. John Keats will remain immortal as long as humans are capable of reading words. Had he been aware of this while he struggled with tuberculosis that would take his life at 25, perhaps it might have offered some consolation that money, fame, and even health could never approximate.
Today’s world needs so much healing. Can you help articulate how poetry can help us heal?
Like the best art, poems inspire dialogue: they seek understanding, they inspire solidarity. In a time where we’re seeing a general lack of courage and common sense (by our elected leaders, by our neighbors), poems are at once an indictment and an aspiration to our better angels. As always, we hear our politicians and self-appointed spokespersons eager to opine (but seldom enlighten or console), and as ever, it’s our poets, whom Percy Bysshe Shelley famously declared “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” who best explain and interrogate our lives. Poetry has the magic that technology can’t touch — it connects our ancient culture to our possible futures and is informed by the impulse to communicate, connect, enlighten, and inform.
We’d like to learn more about your poetry and writing. How would you describe yourself as a poet? Can you please share a specific passage that you think exemplifies your style or main message?
That’s a great (if challenging!) question. I will say that, while I’ve written a great deal of fiction, it’s difficult to isolate where certain ideas come from, or what one is hoping to “achieve” other than tell an interesting story. With poetry, my goals are more concrete and deliberate. Much of the non-fiction I’ve written the last two decades has focused on music, books, movies, and politics. I still love writing essays, as it’s a direct way to engage, and it keeps certain intellectual muscles sharp, but in the last five or so years, I’ve channeled these desires to interrogate the intersection of creativity and humanity in a more artistic way. As such, many of the poems from The Blackened Blues utilize my knowledge of and passion for jazz music (and specific musicians) to somehow integrate biography, commentary, and a celebration of their genius. The final poem in the collection (“Henry Chinaski’s Horses”) concludes with the lines below, which I feel simultaneously explore what it means to be an artist in a world that often doesn’t understand or certainly doesn’t encourage art, and how to keep faith (in one’s art; in oneself) no matter how the work is received. Not least, it’s a gesture of solidarity to underdogs, whether artistic or just the human being trying to get by during tough times.
Success is a salve that quenches a cultivated kind of thirst, and what matters, finally, isn’t how you walk through the fire, but the resolve to put your feet forward in the first place, urging all those ideas to sneak up like solved secrets: Reminders that even Long-Shots need somewhere to go.
What do you hope to achieve with your poetry?
So much of my poetry is inspired either by other artists (particularly those who are no longer with us and weren’t particularly appreciated while they were here) or injustice of some sort; if I can, in a creative and inviting way, stimulate some curiosity, or initiate a dialogue, or simply point people toward personal heroes whose art might change their lives for the better, I believe that’s a worthwhile use of my time and talent.
In your opinion and from your experience, what are 3 things everyone can learn from poetry?
This is a fantastic question, and entire books have, understandably, been written hoping to address it. It’s difficult to pick just three things, but it’s also easy to narrow my list down to the ones I feel are most essential.
- First, curiosity: what can we learn from the poet about a person or place or situation we don’t have a personal understanding of or connection to?
- Second, humility: very often poets are writing (for themselves or others) and giving voice to those who can’t account for themselves — because of political oppression, economic or cultural factors, or because they passed before they had an opportunity to complete their work. In a world where we spend so much time in our own heads, worried about our own concerns (trivial or otherwise), it’s always useful to be reminded how many people are struggling just to survive; how many people are working harder than they should while a small percentage of obscenely wealthy people carve out more for themselves.
- And connecting the first two is empathy: if our perceptions are challenged, they’ll often expand; it’s healthy and necessary to question what we’re taught, things we’ve read and heard, and how our lived experience is not universal or even typical compared to how the vast majority of human beings exist; I’d humbly suggest that humanity suffers from a profound lack of empathy, and that accounts for so much needless confusion and suffering. Poetry can’t necessarily remedy these things, but as the great William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there.”
Based on your own experience and success, what are the “five things a poet needs to know to create beautiful and evocative poetry?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Be original! George Orwell’s writing can never be recommended enough, but his writing about writing is invaluable. One piece of advice I’ve never forgotten involves cliches: if you’re using a description (or especially a metaphor) you’ve already seen, you’re not being original.
- Be honest. Are you using words, images, or ideas that come from a genuine place, or are you trying to appear profound? The best way to avoid pretension is to come from an honest, authentic place.
- Be vulnerable. Most of us put up a variety of barriers to protect our feelings, and in an increasingly online world, we curate our personal brands like full-time marketing departments. This is fatal to effective poetry. The work that matters reminds readers that few of our thoughts or feelings (particularly ones involving fear or insecurity) are unique; we all have relatable struggles, and poems that either address these or suggest ways to overcome them will connect with an audience.
- Be generous. A curious and empathetic poet is a generous poet; it’s impossible to write narrow or self-indulgent work if the poet is fascinated by other people and has a compulsion to connect dots that speak to our shared experiences. The best poets can make two people separated by country or race or sex or even generations understand and appreciate what makes them both human — which is at once humbling and empowering.
- Be relentless. The more difficult it is for the poet to be satisfied (which involves honesty, originality, vulnerability and even generosity), the more likely they’re pushing themselves to create meaningful work that will stand out from the uninspired stuff that’s easily forgotten. The poet should ask: have I expressed these thoughts as clearly as possible? Have I used images that seem fresh and real? Is this poem too obviously in debt to certain influences? Am I seeking to cultivate or develop my own style? Is this something I will be able to read (to myself, to an audience) a month or year, or a decade from now? Artists with integrity often know when a work is ready to present to the world because they’re unwilling to share it until it feels complete.
If you were to encourage others to write poetry, what would you tell them?
See the answer(s) above, but I’d say the first rule of writing is to write! Write often, write poorly (trust me, it’s inevitable), write with the goal of always improving, and write as though nothing else is as important. If you aren’t writing work that you feel is vital, how can you (how dare you) assume anyone else will be interested? And, we hear this a lot because it happens to be true: read, read, read.
How would you finish these three sentences:
Poetry teaches…us what makes us unique, and also what connects us, as human beings.
Poetry heals by… forcing us to ask questions, understand that there are often many answers to each question, and that by seeing ourselves in others (and vice versa) we’re less likely to be intolerant, or lazy, or unkind. To be a poet, you need to…love words, love the world, love other people, and always remember that you have to love life and yourself.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Entertainment , Business, VC funding, and Sports read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I’ll cheat and name two!
I’m certain I’m not the first writer to say this, but I’d love to give a shout out to President Obama. I appreciate that he is not only an exceptionally gifted author, but he uses his influence and platform to encourage reading, provide a showcase for worthy artists, and encourage the types of meaningful connections that art can facilitate. I’d love to chat with President Obama for a number of reasons, but I’d especially love to hear more about the artists who have helped him on his path, and what he’s learned as a writer and reader from being the most powerful person on the planet. I also think he might enjoy some of the poems in The Blackened Blues!
I include myself as one of the countless apprentices who declare appreciation of and allegiance to Stephen King. I discovered him at the ideal age (is there a wrong age?) and he was the first writer who made the art of writing at once magical and somehow approachable; the fact that he was alive (as opposed to, say Poe, or some of the other legends I’d encountered) made him a hero to emulate. I owe him the debt of being inspired and awakened, in some way, to the myriad possibilities of the creative life. I’ve continued to watch, amazed, as he perfects his craft, leading by example: he puts in the work, seemingly without pause and always with undiminished passion — and his devotion to the craft is a model for any artist to emulate. I would love to talk with him about the works that changed my life, including some of the stories and scenes I’ll always carry inside me, equal parts touchstones and talismans. I’ve been writing long enough to appreciate there are no short-cuts or secrets to exchange, but I’d still savor a chance to hear him describe what drives him, and what works he has internalized for solace and inspiration.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can see what I do every day at my nonprofit’s website 1455litarts.org (and discover a ton of talented and incredible writers whom we’ve interviewed or profiled); you can read my blog at bullmurph.com, or see a bunch of my fiction, non-fiction, and poetry at seanmurphy.net.
Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success.