Open Alphabet welcomes Ginger Murchison and her book a scrap of linen, a bone,
published by Press 53 (ISBN 978-1-941209-33-2).

Ginger Murchison

Ginger Murchison's poetry has appeared in Atlanta Review, Chattahooche Review, Terminus Magazine, Poetry Kanto, Southern Poetry Anthology and in her chapbook Out Here.

Ginger is Editor in Chief of Cortland Review and is on the Board of Trustees of The Frost Place. With Thomas Lux, she helped found Poetry@TECH at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where she was Associate Director as well as one of the McEver Chairs. She served six years as a member of the conference faculty for the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. She lives with her husband Clyde Mynatt in Ft. Myers, Florida.

everything about the South boiling over
        like another consequence
                in the heaving night air

pungent with mildewed magnolia blossoms
        ripened to rotting, dank end
                of the blooming season

— from "Every Last Time"

Open Alphabet: In your bio, it is noted that you "started writing poetry after a thirty-one year teaching career". What prompted you to pick up the pen at that point? a scrap of linen, a bone

Ginger Murchison: Teaching seemed to require everything I was and all the time I had. The first year I taught, I was given the challenge to teach the first creative writing class in Texas. I was told to pick out twelve students by going through the files and “make it up.” Even though I had no idea what a creative writing class should do, that class had everything to do with the kind of teacher I’d become.

Since that class, I placed a heavy emphasis on writing in my classes and — always — in a volunteer creative writing class after school. After moving to Georgia and spending the last 13 of those 31 years in the 8th grade, I was absolutely sure I wanted to read something an 8th grader hadn’t written, but though nudged to write something of my own, I didn’t know what I could possibly write… something non-fiction, maybe, something inspirational, about how the days went with a special-needs daughter. I had the first sentence, but past that, a blank page.

My desk-top computer was brand new and somehow I stumbled into a poetry workshop online. I didn’t know what a poem was at that point — not really — but I could tell there was something going on in some of those “poems” that I couldn’t find in the others, and the discussion in that chatroom, one day, about line breaks intrigued me. This was an art form, something that could be learned — a kind of writing that would require more of me and more of the language than anything I’d done so far — something like play, and for the first time in a long, long time, I had time to play.

OA: I have a recurring vision of poems spontaneously organizing themselves into a book, lobbying for placement, shamelessly self-promoting, etc. How did these particular poems come together for a scrap of linen, a bone?

GM: Well, nothing “spontaneous” happened in the organizing of a scrap of linen, a bone. I’m sure I’m not the first, first-book person who’s said that arranging the poems is more difficult than writing them. I knew I wanted “The Failure of Archaeology” to be the first poem from the beginning, but from there, I always lapsed, somewhere in the process, into my literal, chronological self. No matter how much thought I gave to the process, what struck me as perfect at midnight seemed insane in the morning. I rearranged the poems at least a dozen times. My friends helped, too. I (almost!) laughed when one publisher’s rejection kindly advised I might consider re-ordering the manuscript.

Then, the exciting phone call from Tom Lombardo: he was accepting the manuscript for the Press 53 Poetry Series. Because he’s a hands-on editor with extraordinary skill and commitment to both the book and the poet, he verbalized his own vision for the book. I had to explain why I was laughing when he told me he wanted to open the book with “The Failure of Archaeology.” From there, the book took shape around Tom’s vision. That’s what a really wonderful editor does. I give Tom Lombardo all the credit for how the book, finally, morphed into its published shape.

OA: Given your extensive background at Georgia Tech and Cortland Review, and your previous chapbook, I suspect that you knew what to expect when publishing a full length book. Were there any surprises?

GM: Tom Lombardo and Press 53 were amazing help with a timeline: what should happen in what order and by when. Still there were things I wasn’t fully prepared for. I knew about end papers, but somewhere in the early proofing process, Tom Lombardo encouraged me to write notes far more extensive than what I’d offered. These were real-life poems and I was excited about enhancing them with notes. The notes add a depth that I think enriches the book. I advise everyone now to consider notes to a manuscript.

OA: Do you have a regular writing practice that you can share? Has it evolved over the course of writing and publishing your book?

GM: I’m the wrong one to ask about a “regular writing practice.” I write when I can’t not write.

Even now, just as when I first started writing, my brain tells me I have to get everything else done first, my house in order as it were. That’s a great cop-out. Because my house is almost never in order, I have this wonderful excuse to keep from facing down a blank page. I don’t write every day. I don’t even write every week. Actually, I “avoid” writing until something starts muscling its way through my mind and I can’t ignore it. The more poetry I read, the more often that happens. What’s evolved is the level of my comfortability with that. I used to panic when I wasn’t writing. Now I know it will come. I spend far more time revising than writing.

OA: I'd like to ask you about time. Some of your poems use temporal compression / expansion, especially in section iii of the book. For example, the historical torsion in "I don't know yet" projects an intimate threnodic retrospection onto the screen of the future. Can you say something about the ways that time operates within your poetics?

GM: Thank you for this question. I didn’t have a complete understanding about how time works in poems until I read Radiant Lyre: Essays on Lyric Poetry, the most important book on my poetry shelf, that, in one chapter, addresses “The Problem of Time” in essays by David Baker, Ann Townsend, Stanley Plumley and Linda Gregerson. Everyone trying to write poetry should read this book. In it, Baker writes,

"Poetry is about the varieties of measuring, telling and thinking about time. Thus the nature of its stories varies from poem to poem. The interesting question is not whether a poem has a story in it, but rather what kind of time-telling the poem undertakes. Time may be suppressed, elongated, distorted or abbreviated. It may be spotty, circular or linear.” (p. 242)

Over my English-teaching years, I’ve developed a heightened awareness of the verb and how it moves us in time (in tenses) and the verbals that are verb forms but perform in sentences like adjectives, adverbs, and nouns and don’t advance story forward. Theodore Roethke understood verbals perfectly. “Child on Top of the Greenhouse” is a verb-less poem with seven participial phrases that freeze the child in a moment of fear:

            The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,	
            My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
            The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
            Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
            A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
            A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
            And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!

A preoccupation with time guided Roethke’s work, for sure. “Every Last Time” is a poem of mine that makes a nod to Roethke. In one sentence, its two verb-less subjects, “everything” and “me,” are caught in the continuous present of 17 participles that create a swirling guilt. There’s a contortion of time, too, in “Not Quite Ever After,” where

            The rest of us, still wearing
            the heavy afternoon into evening
            the floors still unswept,
            watch commercials to remind us
            what it was we used to want 
                               No surprise we end up
            unzipped in a hotel downtown
            unsaying I love you the marriage over
            everyone always already knowing
            the mistake it had been. 

OA: In a recent talk introduction, David Biespiel said that "All new writing begins with a call. Like a whistle to come home, you get a call to write something new, something specific, peculiar, particular..." When you get that call, what does it sound like?

GM: It’s a nudge, as I said before, a nagging, a kind of background noise that eventually muscles its way through and I can’t do anything else until I’ve written something down. It’s not until after something’s on the page that the poem starts. The revision is the authentic process to a poem.

OA: Choosing from the contemporary landscape as well the canon, who are your main influences? Is there a particular poet who has earned permanent residence on your desk? desk

GM: Kurt Brown’s and Laure-Anne Bosselaar’s (they were married until Kurt’s death a couple of years ago) books stay on my desk. And Robert Fanning’s, and his newest book just arrived and has its place here now, too. They write poems that never fail to speak to me. Just a word here, a word there, a turn of phrase reminds me how to remember myself. W.S. Merwin and Galway Kinnell inspire me, too. And Ellen Bryant Voigt—those perfect poems. Some Thomas Lux book is always here. I open any page in one of his books and remember why we write poems. That’s why a scrap of linen, a bone is dedicated to him.

OA: What is next for you? Is there another book or project waiting in the wings?

GM: The Cortland Review has priority, but more poems, certainly, and more teaching. I love teaching, especially watching someone come alive in their own poems when he or she recognizes the importance of craft. When I discovered poetry, I read 50 to 60 poems a day. Some I liked, some I didn’t like. After some of that, I started wondering what one poet did to manipulate my feelings that another didn’t do, and I started looking harder inside poems — at the composition and grammar — where the art is. That’s when I stopped reading like a reader and started reading like a writer. The reading has to come first. Every poem we read is a textbook.

Thank you, Maurice, for these smart and thoughtful questions, for giving me the opportunity for this conversation. There’s nothing I’d rather talk about than poetry and the making of a poem.

Book Review: a scrap of linen, a bone by Ginger Murchison
Press 53, 2016

Danielle Hanson Reviewed by Danielle Hanson

Ginger Murchison’s debut full-length collection, a scrap of linen, a bone acts as a photo album into the writer’s past and present, a distillation of memory from personal and family experience. The natural world serves as a reflection of and backdrop for the human experiences. The book begins by showing us how to interpret the book, as a work of family archeology, with a poem entitled “The Failure of Archeology”:

             . . . the scholars 
            will, inch by inch
                        dig down
            to a bracelet, a scrap
            of linen, a bone and write
            the story without us—

Many of the pieces present a dusty sepia reflection of the writer’s parents and grandparents. The family is recreated from the exterior — they are poems of resurrection. These poems reflect a hardship of life in a dry Kansas. A grandfather’s death, is described in “Vocabulary” with:

                        Carved faces
            looked at him, then at the wall,
            the flowers there dead-brown as he was.

Everything is brown and dry, the living and the dead. The author’s own childhood is presented in similar tones, as in “Hardwood Floors” where the work of laying floors with her father leads to “he and the house all dust.”

As the book progresses, water seeps into the poems and the author’s life, but not always as a comfort. Water is a life of the writer’s own, children, found moments of leisure, but also danger. In “From the Deck in Mid-November” this dichotomy is summarized by “The hydrangeas have one-by-one died from drowning or thirst.” There are moments spent on the banks of a river, catcalling to rowers or watching a son drift off on a raft. These are peaceful, easy moments. The rain can also be joyful, as in “Lesson with Flashcards” in which the author watches her daughter with the family dog:

            I know I’m as close as I’ll ever get
            to how grass feels in the rain.

Or in “Connemara” where “The kiss of rain rinses the road.” There are also images of the “bothersome river” and over the South “boiling over.”

Several of the poems in this collection utilize language itself as a self-reflective symbolism. In “Small Craft Advisory,” as the writer’s son is preparing for a trip on his homemade raft, the following advice is given to him:

            Take some water, bread and honey,
            apples, too, and, especially, a friend.

            It will take both of you to untie the language
            and discover the insignificance of speech.

Speech might be insufficient but words are powerful. Again, from “Vocabulary” as the young author is living her first experience with death, it’s the word that is substantial:

            but that whole farmhouse tilted toward the casket
            with the weight of my new word.

Or, alternatively, in “At the Holy Well of Tobernalt,” in which we find a woman bringing her disabled son to a well for healing, the boy’s name, a word, is a potential talisman:

            His name, he says, is Evan,
            his hands, knots in his jacket pockets
            as if Evan were a stone hidden there
            for making wishes.

Another theme within the collection are the uses of color and birds. These are welcome escapes from the dusty, hard world of survival. Their presence in the brown and yellow tones of personal history stand out even more brightly. An orange is dropped on a lap, yellow bananas greet East Berliners visiting the West, bluebirds dive for berries, a crayon-bright purple orchid blooms brilliantly after being thrown in compost. These moments startle and give us hope.

a scrap of linen, a bone is ultimately a book about personal history, memory, connection with the natural world, us. Ginger Murchison is a poet to keep an eye on. We’ll be seeing her again.