Next up on the menu is the insanely talented and intelligent George Murray aka The Book Ninja. Murray is one of the best in Canada, and if you don’t believe me, pick up one of his books and give it a read.
George Murray’s five books of poetry include Glimpse: Selected Aphorisms (ECW, 2010), The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007), The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003). He has been widely anthologized and has published poems and fiction in journals and magazines in Canada, the United States, Australia, and Europe, most recently in Granta, London Magazine, The New Welsh Review, Riddle Fence, and The Walrus. He is a former poetry editor for the Literary Review of Canada and is a contributing editor for several journals, including Canadian Notes & Queries. He lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
You’ve published five books to criticial acclaim. Not an easy task. What’s your secret?
There’s no secret that I can think of, other than trying to pare back books to what’s essential as opposed to what-you’d-like-to-think-is-essential. That’s where a good editor and good literary friends come in. They help ensure you don’t kid yourself or indulge yourself by publishing simply what you feel attached to, as opposed to what’s actually good.
You started bookninja.com in 2003 and it’s now a world-renowned book talk site. Webpages and sites weren’t the norm like they are now. It seems everyone has a website. Hell, even I do. What are some things you learned going through that process and how did you manage to keep it going for 8 years?
Well, I recently let Bookninja slide off my radar (with the last posts being in November of 2010), in part because of changes in my own life. At its height, it was indeed one of the top sites, with many thousands of unique visitors per day from all around the world. It was cited in the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Guardian, etc etc, as a place to get your book news. When I started it, there wasn’t anything like it in size and scope in Canada, and it really drew internet readers from all over the country.
I’d say the main thing I learned is that it’s a whole lot of work to keep something like that going. It could have been a much bigger production had I had the interest, and business acumen, necessary. But even just updating five to ten times a day was a major task, and it frankly got tiring. I felt like what I needed was to choose between my creative writing and the free public service I was providing with Bookninja. Thankfully there are now many other sites like Bookfridge to pick up the slack.
Many great contemporary poets enjoy working with simpler forms. The Rush to Here, a collection of sonnets, has given the difficult sonnet form new life. You’ve amended the traditional form a little to include what you call “thought-rhyme.” What prompted you to tackle the sonnet form and can you explain thought-rhyme?
My third book, The Hunter, was a Jeremiad, a screed done in long, hoary lines largely in what poets call the “breath pulse” rhythm, which, in this case, means it just hums along in the cadence of common speech, breaking lines as needed to breathe. The poems were longer and rambly and contained many images and thoughts jammed together to form a dark atmospheric narrative. I started writing sonnets as a tonic to this. I needed to get away from that form and the tight constraints of the sonnet (14 lines, 10 beats, rhyme, two thoughts with a volta, etc) kept me contained enough to write poems that didn’t trail on. But I found that the rhyming contract created a faux-Elizabethan sing-song sound. The verbal acrobatics I had to do to meet the constraints left me twisting language unnaturally and made everything sound like someone else’s vernacular. So I substituted “rhyming” ideas at the ends of lines for rhyming sounds. This allowed me to write in my own voice, but still meet the constraints of the sonnet.
Your latest book, Glimpse, straddles complexity and accessibility very well which is hard to do. How did you do it?
Not sure. The simple answer is: include funny bits with the deep bits. The aphorism lends itself equally well to the deep thought (Adorno, Nietzsche, etc.) and the one-liner (Yogi Berra, Woody Allen, Oscar Wilde, etc.) The prose form of the little bits also removes the intimidation factor many people feel on seeing line-broken poetry. Generally, I think the see-sawing between deeper thought and the instant gratification of a one-liner is what’s made the book so popular.
In a 2010 interview with Alessandro Porco you joked that: “It’s painful to be reminded you’re mostly not a genius.” Do you feel like confidence in writing and publishing is hard to come by for writers? What do you do to get past those times when you feel like what you’re doing is subpar to your personal best?
I think all writers (like painters and actors and musicians) are egotists. You have to be to think the world wants to. or needs to, know how you interpret life. It’s making public your inner life. So rejection can be hard. And there’s the rejection of the industry and the rejection you need to sometimes impose on yourself.
When I’m creating art, I never think about good and bad and best and worst, I just let it go until either it’s apparent it won’t work out or it’s done. Then I step back, look, reshape, etc. Most often I put the work away for many months to look at it with fresh eyes later on. The fresh eyes tell me if I was kidding myself back when I thought it was good. At that point, I either release it into the world or scrap it. Some things just don’t work out. The biggest favour you can do your future self as an artist is to learn to recognize which ones need to be left behind.
What are some downsides to the writing life?
Well, even though the genres are evening out, in terms of income, it’s still a little different for a poet. I’ll always have to have a day-job to pay the bills. Even the world’s most successful poets (Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Simon Armitage, etc) don’t pay their bills from the sale of their poetry. They make their money from a constellation of related industries (teaching, editing, public speaking, screenwriting, prize-winnings and grants, etc.) and use that money to fund their “poetry habits”. Sad but true reality of this day and age.
Journal writing can be a great first step in creating publishable material. How have you used your personal journals as a jumping point to create potentially public work?
My personal journals are not diaries or places for narrative. They’re places for stream-of-consciousness riffing. The notes taken in them are pieces of thought, disconnected from the through-line of my life. It’s like snippets of voices as you spin your way down a radio dial. Later, I look back and find images and thoughts that I want to keep. The journal for me is a place to write down whatever feels like it needs to come out, with no obligation for it to be good, or even cogent. It’s a space for failure in which I sometimes find success.
You’ve participated in countless readings, met tons of interesting people, what are some highlights?
Gee, I don’t know. So many adventures. I’ve made pals with Roddy Doyle and Margaret Atwood, two writers I worshipped from afar before meeting. I had dinner with Paul Durcan, the Irish poet that most North Americans don’t know is perhaps the best Ireland’s best (with Muldoon and Heaney and Mahon being the other main contenders). None of these things would likely have happened outside the writing world.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a new book of poems that will appear in 2012, with ECW again, and a novel. The novel will likely take many years yet, unless I get some kind of influx of money and can quit my day job to work on it full time, but I’ll finish it eventually.
Got any poetry books to recommend to Book Fridge readers?
Sunrise in the Eyes of the Snowman by Goran Simic, Modern and Normal by Karen Solie, Airstream Landyacht by Ken Babstock, Life is a Dream by Paul Durcan, Electric Light by Seamus Heaney, Different Hours by Stephen Dunn, View with a Grain of Sand by Wislawa Szymborska, Paper Radio by Damian Rogers, Inventory by Dionne Brand