Kicking off the first interview in our new series, Ampersand, in which we ask former contributors about their writing lives, we spoke with Elisabeth Murawski earlier this week about juggling work and writing, amongst other things. A long time contributor, Murawski’s poems have appeared in Issue 27 and Issue 31, and we are excited to publish new poems from her in an upcoming issue.
A&L: What sort of thing did you write about when you first started writing?
Elisabeth Murawski: One of my first poems, written in college, dealt with rebellion and injustice. A forgettable line (which I haven’t forgotten!): “Convention, I defy you!” Another was based on one of my mother’s stories about someone who liked to set fires. The final line, verbatim from my mother, was “he grows pines.” The rest of the story hadn’t prepared me for that conclusion, but it made for a fine ending, quirky and blunt. Later, there were love poems when I met the man I married. And spiritual sonnets. I wrote fairly accessible stuff at first, but then I discovered Neruda and Vallejo and began to tap into the unconscious and dreams. I wanted that richness of language and imagery, but the results sometimes verged on the opaque and obscure. Eventually I balanced that tendency when I discovered the T’ang dynasty poets. Such clarity and simplicity! And then there was Plath. I resonated to those clipped, edgy lines. I saw her as a sort of oracle telling me you can do this, too.
A&L: What is the toughest bad writing habit that you have had to break, or do you advocate for embracing bad habits?
EM: For years I earned a living writing government training materials, which emphasize plain language and a logical “how to” style. The goal is to help the trainee learn a job; careful and clear explanation is prized. No place for ambiguity, for intuitive leaps. Still, years into retirement, I may find myself slipping into that flat, declarative mode. I’m not sure why it happens; maybe my brain defaults to a blow by blow approach when I’m tired or stressed. Maybe I’m afraid of being called obscure and inaccessible. In my efforts to be understood, I can and do get wordy, include too much, forgetting to give the poem space, the reader space to think and absorb. This even though I realize what is not said can be as important as what is. I admit that in my efforts to “make it better,” I may tinker too much and lose a poem’s magic. One of the ways I’ve handled this tendency is to let the draft sit a while. A few weeks away from what I thought to be complete can be illuminating.
A&L: Do you enjoy reading you work aloud? Centuries ago, poems, and stories were most often sung, not read. How’s your singing voice?
EM: I do enjoy reading my poems aloud. Not only at readings but while I’m working on them in the draft stage. In a way it’s writing for the ear, the equivalent of printing out the poem for the eye—I’ll often see that something isn’t working when I can hold the printed page in my hand. Reading aloud helps me catch the awkward places, the dead spaces, the clunky language not always evident on the page or screen. Hearing the words and their juxtaposition, I ask myself is there music, does it flow? Often I may associate to some other, better, image or word that improves the poem’s cumulative, overall effect. In workshops I’ve stressed to students the importance of this reading-aloud exercise. When I’m lazy, and don’t practice what I preach, I may end up with a poem that needs to be hospitalized. *