Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Sheila Murphy

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

sheila murphy


Sheila E. Murphy

is an American poet who has been writing and publishing actively since 1978. Her book titled Reporting Live from You Know Where won the Hay(na)Ku Poetry Book Prize Competition from Meritage Press (U.S.A.) and xPress(ed) (Finland). The book appeared in 2018. Murphy is also the recipient of the Gertrude Stein Award for her book Letters to Unfinished J. (Green Integer Press, 2003). Murphy is known for working in forms including such as the ghazal, haibun, and pantoum in her individual writing. As an active collaborator, she has worked with Douglas Barbour on an extended poem called Continuations. Murphy’s visual work, both individual and collaborative, is shown in galleries and in private collections. Initially educated in instrumental and vocal music, Murphy is associated with music in poetry. She earns her living as an organizational consultant, speaker, and researcher and holds the PhD degree. She has lived in Phoenix, Arizona throughout her adult life.


The Interview

  1. Q1: When and why did you start writing poetry?I began attempting to write poetry in my teen years, based on its inherently attractive features I had gleaned from reading assigned in high school courses. I accumulated fragments galore. Later at about age 25, I met an educator who was not a poet but who intuitively understood the arts. This genius looked at a poem I had drafted and helped me shape it to fruition. The experience was life-changing. I began to submit poems for publication at that time. I had multiple acceptances, and It was a dream that began to move forward. 

    Q2: How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

    Very aware. I have steeped myself in reading since an early age and gained formal education in literature. As with all education, attaining each degree is the beginning of taking off into a spree of further reading, deeper understanding, and many facets of application of the learning and experience.

    There is so much to read from the early writers and from people emerging now. We who love literature are lucky to have the bounty we do. Reading is a gift.  

    Q3 Whom of the older poets got to you, and why?

    Although one could go way back and pursue lateral directions encompassing all of history and the known inhabited world, I’ll narrow this to a few people. One true knockout for me is Gertrude Stein. There are other knockouts who bring life to language and language to life and meaning and joy. No one has done this more for me than Gertrude Stein. The integrity and purity of her independent mind and her fluency in language make for a stunner in reading experience for me. Originality wholly unforced and integral creates a power that resonates purely.

    I would add to the list of one so far John Ashbery and Denise Levertov. 

    Q4 What is it about John Ashbery and Denise Levertov that appeals to you?

    Ashbery has inspired a lateral musculature and freeing sense of connecting elements one would not ordinarily think to connect. It is as though a perpetual design of the brain chemistry were in process. The light touch he employed in a wide variety of ways seemed to enhance the speed of energy that propels his work and situates itself in the readers in uncountable ways.

    Levertov comes to purity by way of a plainer speech that is profound. Realizations she captures linger. I think of her hearing a person with different lengths of legs walking, and her asking whether some “blessed deafness” comes with that situation, as though to compensate for the reality.

    Q5: What is your daily writing routine?

    Originally, I had a twofold pattern: taking focused night time and writing in solitude as one way, and the second way involving the integration of writing into any number of meetings, conference activities, and such. Concurrent with other activities, I could grab ideas, formulate them, create something new.

    I have always operated from the view that every moment of experience is distinctive and will not be back. Thus, capture, do a carpe diem, if you will.

    My current pattern is to take whatever time I can to flow. Use Hindemith’s “music for use” principle and write for occasions, as I do the new year’s poem each year that I share with friends. That has been going on for decades.

    The general writing often follows a plan in which I follow a principle such as what I did with the book Teth (Chax, 1991), in which every one of 81 pages had 81 words to a page. The use of the haibun form, the pantoum, the hay(na)ku form include ways I work. See: Reporting Live from You Know Where (Meritage and xpress(ed) Presses, 2018).

    Q6: Use occasions as a motivation for your writing?

    Yes. It is just one of the approaches important one to me. Crystallizing the essence of an important occasion from one view presents an opportunity to create for impact, possibly. I wrote a book called Tommy and Neil (Sun Gemini Press, 1993) about each of my brothers on the occasion of a particular birthday. I have written wedding poems and poems on be the passing of people I have loved who have left us.

    Q7: What else motivates your writing?

    Love makes me want to write. Experience and innocence, likewise. Quiet observation, watching a bigger world around me, humbly perceiving my place in it. And of course, the sound of language and other forms of music.

    Q8: How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

    I’ll take relatively young and go with Chaucer in Middle English. When I was exposed to the sound of the narrative in The Canterbury Tales, and at that time taught to recite it, something came to life for me. I rehearsed the work, spoke it aloud to others with meticulous attention to detail, and discovered therein the flourish of a distinctive strength as the flow came to life. That sound stayed with me. I still relish it. The joy of a structure, the orchestration of characters, the attention to each view that each brought, held itself up to me as a beautiful system that invited my participation.

    The timing of exposure to any learning provides a first step to be renewed and recharged for me later on in successive layers. This is was true of many writers: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Charles Olson, many others. I have found myself rediscovering, as many of us do, I think, such writers as May Sarton, whose At Seventy just found its way into my library. I am lucky to have a massive bookstore practically across the street from me. It is tremendous.

    Q9: Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

    There are so many people doing worthy things these days in poetry. I’ll just answer in a straightforward manner to say that purity in the work has come to mean more to me than it did at one time. I seem to be disposed in recent months toward clarity versus what might seem clutter. Toward that end, work in shorter forms can be dazzling and resonant.  Eileen Tabios is an adventurous inventor, and her work in the hay(na)ku form of her making has spawned wonderful results from Tom Beckett, Mark Young, Tom Fink, and others.

    With the passing of Mary Oliver, there has been a good deal of mention of how she helped us love what is around us and in us. Just so, work in the spirit of Cid Corman appeals to me right now.

    Through my long-term collaborator, the poet Douglas Barbour, I have grown increasingly familiar with Canadian writers such as Phyllis Webb and Robert Kroetsch. These writers are powerful. Most of us in the United States know very well the work of Michael Ondaatje. These authors are important to me for their depth and seemingly miraculous realizations. Visual poets such as K.S. Ernst, Marton Koppany, John M. Bennett and C. M. Bennett, mIEKAL aND, Scott Helmes, Michael Basinski, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, and others do brilliant work in this important sphere. I find discoveries aplenty when I experience their work. Peter Ganick is a master of writing and philosophy and brings a particular and strong intelligence to his writing.

    Q10: Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

    When writing I am being. When writing I am doing my being, creating who I am and transcending that concurrently. Writing is life. I would rather be writing than doing almost anything. I am driven by the feeling of keyboarding, of writing by hand, of feeling the language materialize in my very core. I cannot imagine why anyone would want to do anything else, frankly. I cannot think of anything more exciting than writing as a central purpose. It is pure and infinite. It is joy.

    Q11: What would you say to who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

    The question presupposes desire. If you want to become a writer, you must first follow your own desire to learn whatever you can about what interests you. A writer is more interested than interesting. I would advise anyone who wants to write to be aware, refine awareness, learn, read, listen, and gather all the time. Becoming passionate about what is around one, both up close and at vast distances, is the secret to learning and fostering expansion of the mind and heart.

    Being a writer is a humbling, discipline-based way of life. Learning and embracing discipline for oneself is powerfully important and never ends.

    The best route to joy is in learning and being. Writing as a discipline becomes a perfect companion piece to this dual commitment.

    Q12: Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment. 

    I am actively working on a long-term collaborative sequence called Continuations with poet Douglas Barbour. We have two published books from this so far, both form the University of Alberta Press. We have been working on the long-poem since November 2000. K.S, Ernst and I are beginning a new collaborative book of visual poetry, following multiple book publications and physical visual art pieces we have completed over the years of working together. I frequently write collaboratively with John M. Bennett and have some current poems in process with Stacey Allam.

    I am preparing a book of my own poetry for Luna Bisonte Prods (Edited by John M. Bennett and C.M. Bennett) for possible release in 2019.


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