Poetry, Politics and Poor Choices: An Interview with George Murray

John W. MacDonald

Hannah Green: What are you working on right now? Do you have another poetry collection slow-cooking in your head?

George Murray: I have a second book of aphorisms called QUICK coming in spring 2017. Other than that, I’m working on poems and a lingering, sickly novel.

HG: Oooh, a novel! What’s it like for you moving from poetry to prose?

GM: I started my writing life as a prose writer and published a few short stories before switching to poems. My attempt at the novel is mostly just to get the story out of my head. It’s been hanging around for nearly 20 years.

HG: Let’s talk about your new website, www.NewPoetry.ca. White background. Black text. Damn good poetry showcased in a simple format. What are you accomplishing with this site?

GM: I started NewPoetry several years ago with the idea that it would bring together editors and writers from the disparate, often antagonistic, factions of literary production and force them to work together to create a truly unifying machine. I was tired of watching all my friends snipe at each other from their fortified poetry bunkers — avant gardists here, neoclassicists there, etc. So I got about 25 folks together from all walks of the literary world and said, “Let’s make a great site. Everyone bring in some poems and we’ll just put it all up there and break down some boundaries.”

Well, everyone thought this was a great idea until the work had to be done. Then only a few showed up and it became more grumbling. So, being left holding the bag, I just gave up.

Then two years ago, I relaunched the idea as a website edited by one person with eclectic tastes (me), but without any of the “business” crap from the MFA and magazine-driven poetry world — no bios, no photos, no links to websites, no Twitter handles, no upcoming readings, no lists of publications. It was just the title, poet, and poem. I asked poets whose work I admired to submit as part of the project (i.e., without pay) and they did. When I ran out of poets I knew personally, I asked young poets to recommend their friends.

So it’s really that simple. A magazine-like site that concentrates on the poem over the poet.

HG: What advice do you wish you had received when you were just starting out as a poet?

GM: This is advice I did receive, but I will answer your question with it because it’s advice I didn’t listen to and now I regret it: There is no rush to publish. It might feel like a big rush, but it’s not. And once you publish something, you can never take it back. Forty-five-year-old me would love to break the thumbs of 25-year-old me sometimes.

(P.S. In the long run it’s better to steer clear of joining groups of cliques of writers. This isn’t a committee.)

HG: Your poetry has extraordinary range. I’m wondering, do you share that range with your process?

GM: I promised myself long ago I would try to never write the same thing twice. It’s getting more and more difficult. That said, all my poems in all my books were created in relatively the same fashion. I don’t know that my process is a standardized thing, but it generally follows the notes-to-poems format. Craft gets laid down over frameworks, etc.

HG: I am going to generalize here, and squash all of the amazing poetry coming out of Canada in to two categories: lyric and experimental. Which do you think is doing the most interesting work in today’s literary landscape?

GM: See, this is why I created NewPoetry. It’s all the same damn thing. No one is doing anything new. We’re all just trying to do whatever-it-is-we’re-doing right.

HG: Is enough being done to support Canada’s young writers/poets?

GM: I don’t imagine there’s another country in the world where young poets are as lucky as in Canada. In the States you’d need to spend $50G on an MFA to get as much support as we get up here for free. I know it seems hard when starting out, but we’re spoon-fed here. Lots of magazines, publishers, readings series, writing groups, courses, etc. Most of the other more established poets I know are either teachers or mentors to many younger writers. Plus, we live in a time forever fascinated with the newest thing, including poets. Seems to me like a great time to be young.

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

George Murray is the author of six books of poetry, including Diversion (ECW, 2015), Whiteout (2012), The Rush to Here (Nightwood, 2007) and The Hunter (McClelland & Stewart, 2003), as well as one best-selling book of aphorisms, Glimpse (ECW 2010), and the children’s book Wow Wow and Haw Haw (Breakwater, 2014). His work has appeared in magazines and journals across Canada and around the world and in over 20 anthologies. Murray has taught poetry at several institutions, most recently in University of British Columbia’s MFA program and at the University of Toronto. He is the former poetry editor at the Literary Review of Canada, and from 2003 to 2011 was the owner and operator of the popular literary website www.Bookninja.com. He is currently the editor of www.NewPoetry.ca. He lives in St. John’s where he is the city’s Poet Laureate.

Hannah Green is a poet with bad teeth. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Arc, CV2, and subTerrain. She is currently pursuing her grade 12 math.