October 8, 2018KR Conversations

Brian Michael Murphy

Brian Michael MurphyBrian Michael Murphy’s poems have appeared in Narrative, Waxwing, Birmingham Poetry Review, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and elsewhere. He is a faculty member in Media Studies at Bennington College and an instructor in the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop. He holds a PhD in comparative studies from the Ohio State University, where he was a Presidential Fellow and is currently writing a nonfiction book titled We the Dead. His poem “The Memory of Teeth” can be found here. It appears in the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “The Memory of Teeth”?

I wrote the poem late at night, after watching a very long documentary on the history of the global oil industry, then falling into a rabbit hole of articles about World War II, the US oil embargo on Japan, and related topics. I learned a number of things that never appeared in my textbooks in middle and high school social studies, even though it seemed like all we learned about was war.

In a way, the poem was a meditation on this divide within my intellectual development that began back then, when in high school I learned the whitewashed and watered-down Texas-controlled textbook fantasies about US history, as well as the counter-narratives offered by books I examined on my own time, like James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, and revolutionary rap lyrics by KRS-ONE, Paris, and Chuck D. In order to earn the good grades I craved, I had to totally absorb the textbook history and reproduce it on tests; in order to have some sense of reality about myself and the country I lived in, I had to weave the hip hop revisionist versions of the world into my consciousness.

Even though I’m much older now, I still occasionally encounter something that takes me back to those early days of feeling that divide form within me, when I realized that the authoritative institutions that distribute knowledge in this country are not trustworthy. The material that inspired “Memory” definitely transported me in that way.

Can you talk a little bit about the imagined audience for this poem? There are a series of questions directed at your reader, a repeated “you know . . . right?”. How did you come up with this structure? Are there other poems written in questions that you’d especially recommend?

The poem is directed at an audience that, like myself, has been taught to see A-bombs as the apex of American military destructive power. In an ironic and chilling way, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become a kind of screen memory that prevents us from seeing that incendiary bombs dropped on Japan prior to the A-bombs were actually far more destructive. Robert S. McNamara, who worked in the Office of Statistical Control during World War II, noted that the firebombings killed “fifty to ninety percent of the people in sixty-seven Japanese cities.” The firebombing of Tokyo alone “burned to death 100,000 civilians in one night.” In the documentary The Fog of War, McNamara quoted the prolific and infamous bomber, General Curtis Lemay, who led both the firebombings of Tokyo and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki: “LeMay said if we’d lost the war we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals. And I think he’s right. He, and I’d say I, were behaving as war criminals.”

In a way, I wrote the poem to myself, to that self that existed just before I learned all of the things in and around the poem, such as Tojo’s story and the strategic importance of petroleum sources, Nazi tanks running out of fuel in northern Africa, and B-29 bombers flying gasoline from Kansas to India and then to China, burning twelve gallons of fuel for each gallon delivered for reserves. As a poem written to my former self, then, the questions in the poem assume that the reader doesn’t know these things, and so the interrogative structure felt like an effective way to indict our educational system and the kind of historical unconsciousness it tends to produce, a swirling alternation of passionate nationalism and obliviousness. The questions also work to defamiliarize banal scenes from American life, like museum displays, which, for me, are often as troubling or even more troubling than scenes from war zones. All cultures have conflict, violence, war; but not all cultures build such elaborate, sanitized shrines to their mass killings in the name of the nation.

The Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda, which he finished writing just months before he died, was a sheer liberation when I first read it fifteen years ago, and was the first thing I read that awakened me to the power of questions in poems. His ability to bombard the reader with so many unlikely images and phrases in a single couplet, and to do it again and again in the 316 questions that comprise the book, have made many lines stay with me, lines that remind me that a poem is a space of endless possibility.

Can you tell us more about the Shinto Shrine in the Mie Prefecture, which you mention in the final lines? Where and when did you first encounter it?

The Ise Jingu grand shrine has been torn down and rebuilt every twenty years for the past 1,300 years, originally built about 2,000 years ago. People walk in a parade that transports the wood, some of the elders having already participated in this process three or even four times. This ritual transmits across generations the artisanal building traditions and technologies that delusional “Progress” myths classify as obsolete. I first read about it during graduate school, as I was doing research on all forms of preservation: architectural, archival, food canning, arterial embalming, taxidermy, refrigeration, digitization. The shrine is a great counterexample to the kinds of hermetic sealing, securitization, bombproofing, sterilization, and freezing that Americans have tended to employ to preserve beloved artifacts and archival media.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

Based on what I have heard from many prolific writers, I do not believe in or engage my students in conversation about so-called writer’s block. I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy’s novels, but I once heard him say that writer’s block is just a term people use when they don’t want to get to work in the morning. Another writer, whose name escapes me, was once asked if he believed that one should only write when inspired, or if one should write according to a schedule. He replied that he only wrote when he was inspired, and he made sure that he was inspired every morning at 7 a.m. There is a constellation of quotes like this that demystify writing for me again and again. It is a mysterious, magical process, and it is often quite difficult. But we often cannot see what the next step is because we are often doing too much work, getting in our own way, or getting too preoccupied with the result rather than remaining present in the process.

This is not to say that emotional difficulties or life circumstances can’t make writing feel impossible, but I find that it is never impossible to write. It’s a choice, like whether or not to have a snack or take a nap or buy a new fountain pen. I might not like what comes out of the writing process, and if I identify with the words on the page too deeply—if I feel that their level of artistic achievement is a delineation of my value and worth as a person—it does slow down the flow of creativity. But I’ve written enough at this point, in every kind of weather and emotional condition, to know that the words and energy on the page are coming from somewhere else, and I’m just a prism. When one makes the choice to write, again and again—when you feel like doing it and when you don’t—the choices eventually accumulate into a writing habit that isn’t a choice as much as it is a way, by which I mean a path or a practice.

These days, I see writing as less a part of my identity and more as a ritual that puts me back into touch with reality, including the interior reality of my emotions and unconscious struggles and epiphanies. Regardless of how dazzling the products of this process are on any given day, I know that commitment to the path will eventually result in beautiful art, the realization of potentials, and success. For me, success in writing only matters if I’ve lived a good life on the way to becoming successful, so my writing practice is one element in a much larger effort of learning and loving. There is a radical access that we have to the basic sources of creative energy if we practice opening ourselves to it again and again, until the process, like that of alchemy, reshapes us as optimal vessels for that energy to course in a more or less frictionless flow. This literary faith is based on long-established evidence of how things are made—poems, humans, planets, everything.

I know this is true because I remember my Alexander Technique teacher saying he saw Pablo Casals empty and pack his pipe and then play the cello, and that Casals packed the pipe and played the cello in the exact same way. The majestic quality of his movement was not called forth by his cello, but rather all his movements had been freed up and refined, and the cello was just one more thing to which he applied the lively artistry of his body. And I know it’s true because I recall what Borges said, as he showed us the architecture of the Library where every possible, and impossible, book is housed, including “the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary of that gospel, the true story of your death, the translations of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.”

Borges is, for me, a guide I’ve admired for a while. He is the profane saint of the instantaneous, his words surfacing in me if I ever for a moment think that artistry is beyond my grasp. At age eighty-five, he wrote these words in a prologue: “After all these years I have observed that beauty, like happiness, is frequent. A day does not pass when we are not, for an instant, in paradise. There is no poet, however mediocre, who has not written the best line in literature, but also the most miserable ones. Beauty is not the privilege of a few illustrious names. It would be rare if this book did not contain one single line worthy of staying with you to the end.” His work always brings me back to the fearful infinitude immanent to the process of creation. Elsewhere in the same prologue, he cites Carlyle to affirm the eternality of the instant, always the instant, in which art occurs: “All human endeavor is perishable . . . but carrying it out is not.”

What project(s) are you working on now, or next? 

I’m currently working on a book-length poetry manuscript entitled Plaster of Paris. I’m very grateful to the Vermont Arts Council, which recently awarded me a Creation Grant to support the project.

I am also revising a book of essays titled We the Dead, a series of archival research-based meditations on Americans’ obsession with preserving film, books, photos, sound recordings, and now digital artifacts. The title is taken from a phrase in a speech by Thornwell Jacobs, creator of the Crypt of Civilization in Atlanta, Georgia, a Depression-era time capsule meant to preserve humankind’s accumulated knowledge on microfilm until the target opening date of 8113 AD. Inside the Crypt, Jacobs included a message for the archaeologists of the future, recorded on a stainless steel LP, in which he said, “we the dead, out of an ancient and forgotten past, salute you, the living in the sunny hours of the future. If the laws of God permit, may there be some of us present with you when you hear these words.” Since the Depression, preservationists have only grown more ambitious, from the Cold War network of “bombproof” bunkers built inside abandoned limestone mines to protect corporate and government documents, to discs etched with text and images launched into outer space, one on an intergalactic probe, another on a telecommunications satellite, yet another even deposited on Comet 67P that orbits between Mars and Jupiter.

The book, in the end, also invites readers to see the beauty of decay, to embrace the natural flourishing and deterioration of media artifacts that mirrors our own life course. I consider the works of artists like Bill Morrison, who makes films from decayed stock footage, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, who displayed his photograph The Last Supper after it was soaked and damaged by Hurricane Sandy, and said that the storm had “completed” the work for him. I often wonder if the future of media and art lies somewhere in the opposite of our impulse to preserve, fix, immobilize in amber and silicon: an art made to move, breathe, change color, peel away, crumble and disintegrate beautifully.