Following the publication of George Murray’s Glimpse in late 2010, Rob Winger began a conversation with Murray to hammer out some truths—about constraints of form and space, distillation, and whether it matters if anyone gets it. With Murray’s new collection, Whiteout, just released, Winger revisited the conversation to see if those truths still stand.
Rob Winger: While your new book, Whiteout, seems expansive, comprised of pieces collected over a long period, it’s tough to tell if your previous collection, Glimpse, was created by gradually accumulating aphorisms or composing them back-to-back. Can you say something about the genesis of that project?
George Murray: I had been invited to read and give a talk at Princeton, and while there I read with James Richardson, who was the head of the Creative Writing Department at the time. He had written several books of aphorisms and what he calls “Ten-Second Essays,” and after the reading he suggested that many of the couplets from my sonnets in The Rush to Here would work as aphorisms if removed whole from their host poems. He also suggested that I might already be writing aphorisms and not know it, and that I should check my journals. I looked and was shocked to see that I’d been writing them for years. I harvested about 1000 aphorisms, or aphorism-like lines, from five years of journals, and then whittled them down (cutting for quality and repetitiveness) to about 300. Then I wrote back up to about 500 and whittled back again to 409. So they weren’t written back-to-back at all, though they were all part of the stream-of-consciousness flow of my journals where I feel basically free to riff, fail, and experiment. When I started to organize them into a book, I tried very hard to make them flow page-to-page and throughout the book. There’s a sort of sine wave of thought and sub-narrative that runs throughout that is mostly there for my own enjoyment, but others might pick up on as well, if they read the book sequentially. But I imposed the sub-narratives and structure and constraints on the aphorisms of Glimpse not because it was in any way required or part of a tradition, but because I tend to crave sub-narratives and structure and constraints. I play all sorts of games with myself as a poet that have no bearing (at least in my mind) on how a book is read by others.
RW: Some folks think that there’s a resurgence of formalism in the contemporary lyric. Do you buy that? And, whether you do or not, how do you think the formalism of The Rush to Here, which intentionally interrupts the old tradition—kind of an evolution of the Jackpine sonnet—differs from the formalism of both Glimpse, which, it seems to me, approaches the aphorism in a way that I guess is more traditional, and Whiteout, which imposes form quietly, maybe in the service of lyric narratives?
GM: Good questions. While I’m still aware of the kinds of things people are saying about surging and re-surging in contemporary poetry and poetics, I’m not really sure I care to be part of that anymore. I think there’s a good deal of arrogance in being the flea commenting on the pattern in the rug, if you get my drift. I’m content to let my kids or grandkids figure out where I stood once there’s some perspective to be had on how things went, as opposed to how they’re going.
That said, I wrote the Rush to Here sonnets in their modified, thought-rhyme form because I had been trying to write in traditional structures, but didn’t feel as though I was very good at it. The linguistic acrobatics I had to perform to convey contemporary thoughts in an ancient form were driving me insane and rang false in my ears. The thought-rhymes allowed me to work within most of the other constraints of the sonnet while staying truer to my spoken cadence and vernacular.
With the aphorism, I wasn’t really aware of any formal constraints other than the need for brevity and to be true to the word’s root, which includes “distinct/distinction.” I basically tried to eschew all extraneous “poetic” artifice and head straight for the thought or epiphany at the core of what in someone else’s hands might have been a (more typical) poem. So, if there’s a formalism there, it’s more in adhering to the basics of an ancient form that was already pretty loose. I added my own constraints when building the book, but on the level of the individual piece, I stayed largely clear of playing around.
I appreciate the generative help constraint can provide in creating a work, but sometimes the stranglehold is a bit much and you have to know when to let it go. In the case of sound-bonding and the sonnet, I had to let it go; and with the aphorism the constraints were loose enough to almost feel as though they’re not there. So if I am part of a renewed formalism in the Canadian lyric, it’s both accidental and backhanded.
RW: I couldn’t agree more about the dangers of obsessively categorizing things. And what you say about a poem feeling “true” is definitely different than that sort of thing. How did you know, though, when writing your aphorisms, that what you were saying was “true”? Was that the measure you used to tell if one of the aphorisms was done?
GM: I wasn’t exactly concerned with truth, so much as the essence of truth, as I had experienced it. People think a lot of things they don’t believe and believe a lot of things they don’t put much thought in to. That firing of the mind still happens and the moment of having had a thought, right or wrong, is still important, even if you talk yourself out of it later.
There were “truths” in Glimpse I had thought my way toward, like walking against a strong wind, and then distilled down to something substantial and succinct. There are others I just declared, and the declaration itself was brief and pithy and raw enough to be, in some way, “truthful,” if only through its arrogance. It has the power of confidence behind it, which is really just what turns fiction into truth.
And because of this, I hope the readers finds a range of access points to tease out their own truths, as the aphorisms seesaw back and forth between pithy declaration and considered thoughts, even contradicting themselves at times.
RW: That kind of contradiction and multiplicity is part of what makes the book compelling, I think. It mixes the general and the specific. And the aphorisms, after all, were numbered. Why 409?
GM: It was important to me to number the aphorisms but not the pages. I wanted the reader to think of them in terms of a continuous whole, but also as individual units, separate from the book as an object. I wanted them to reside in a thought-like space that still had the book-like narrative of order (in terms of ordinals), but could be moved to any other medium and retain that order, separate from the leafs of paper.
It’s going to sound improbable, but the reason for 409 is because it’s my favourite engine size. Pretty mundane, but true. Like the Beach Boys song, “She’s real fine, my 409”. All the parts coming together to drive the whole.
RW: That kind of privacy, coded language, an artist creating art for her/himself continues to be a hot topic of debate, I suppose, especially for those most entrenched in a defined poetics. There are those that would say, well, no, art is not a private experience, but a public one, that it’s a reader that completes a poem, not a poet, and that an important part of all art is entertainment, after all. What do you think?
GM: I don’t see how art (at least art that’s made and distributed by the artist) can be anything but both those things: public and private. In the act of creating, I am private; in the act of publishing, I am making-public.
I’m not sure how I feel about a reader “completing” anything in any real way, but for that matter, I’m not sure how I feel about an artist completing anything either. I know that there’s some point at which I let things go, and that’s complete enough for me. Complete, in functional terms, means “passed” or “past.” It’s just what happened and was made public. That said, I wouldn’t feel at all strange about going back to it later, and changing things if I felt it warranted. So this makes “complete” a bit of a joke.
Also, I feel no obligation whatsoever to explain or handhold a reader through anything. It’s one of the reasons I avoid “explain this” questions from audience members or critics, if I can. Some people complained that The Hunter was a “difficult” book in this regard. One critic referred to it as “hectoring,” as though it was teasing you by withholding literal, easily-glossed meaning. My answer to that is: “feh.” Reread it, if you feel compelled. Don’t, if you don’t.
I have elliptical references in my last four books, and a few before that. I don’t really care if anyone finds or decodes them. What does it matter? They were there just to help me as I explored the thinking-places I needed to for the sake of the poems. Some get cut out because they don’t serve the final product, others get left in because they add, in my estimation, to the worth of the poem.
Basically, I am glad to have readers and, in fact, I court them; but they are incidental to what it is I’m doing when I’m creating.
RW: Last question: how does Whiteout relate to your previous books? Are certain poems in this new collection especially important to you given how many of them tackle tough real-life dilemmas from post-divorce life to 9/11?
GM: The poems of Whiteout were written over the last ten years or so in the spaces between the other projects we’ve been discussing. In most of my books, I have worked with some sort of guiding narrative, constraint, or thematic concern. Before Glimpse, I had been considering collecting these into a volume, but wasn’t particularly excited about it—at least not as excited as I was about the aphorisms. Something was missing. I was also going through the final stages of a marriage, and during times of massive stress I am wary of making public what I’m writing. The poetry-as-therapy school of creative writing kind of makes me squidgy, so I need time and perspective to ensure that any poems that come from that space are worth saving. A few years later, turns out several were, and they act as interesting signposts in the book.
It’s a book about change and the containment of chaos and, as such, contains many turns of subject, form, and aesthetic. There are poems that are wholly lyrical and narrative and others that are much more daring in their use of language. I hope these oscillations are invigorating rather than disruptive, but on the other hand, they mirror a time in my life—post-children, post-twenties, post-marriage, post-moves, post-divorce, post-9/11—when things were insanely crazy. I’m not much of one for direct autobiography in poetry, but this is probably as close as I come.
As a person, I am at a time of change and rebirth. I’ve been through the negative chaos of disasters, grief, and heartache, and am now going through the positive chaos of new love, new priorities, and new people. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize that a whole lot of good happening at once can be stressful, not like a whole lot of bad, but not unlike it. It’s still chaos. Lovely, lovely chaos. Whiteout is about finding order in that—sometimes imposing order on it—and about allowing that chaos to rage, but in the spaces I have designed, and therefore control.
Rob Winger is the author of the poetry collections Muybridge’s Horse and The Chimney Stone.