Tuesday, November 20, 2012

THE HOBBIT & other inspirations for impromptu poetry

The good news is, I know so many people with cool blogs! I am friends with brilliant, talented artists. They post often, crafting insightful reviews of books I should read or witty reactions to the extraordinary events that occur in their lives. They are sensitive and accomplished and more or less organized, raising clever children or traveling around the world or starting their own businesses, publishing new poems and books or writing about their jobs.

The bad news is, I'm not as awesome as they are. I rarely post anything, and when I do -- I mean, my last was all, buy my book (please)! I'm not saying I'm 100% boring or dense -- I have moments of smart -- but I think tonight I'm noticing just how many gifted acquaintances I have. You go, guys!

When I met my friend Monet Moutrie, we'd bake tarts in my kitchen in Colorado and she'd talk about the new ideas she had for her food blog, which has since become a major success. She's crafting these amazing wedding cakes in Austin, Texas, and posting entries that make me drool. Yay for keyboard covers! My friend Sarah Reebs has tackled photography (and grad school) and is nailing both of them. My oldest sister, Amy Murray, has started running half-marathons and is one of the funniest mom-bloggers out there. Mandy Solomon, a colleague of mine from Pikes Peak Community College, has taken the helm for CSWRS (Colorado Springs Writers Reading Series) and is organizing community-based events while balancing a vigorously dedicated position at the college. Katey Schultz is rockin' around the U.S. spreading her kickass writing and teaching like a boss. And, as usual (because I've never known him not to be a keen intellectual and driven poet), Robert Peake maintains his website of book reviews and personal essays that makes me wish I could be so acutely aware of my surroundings and the beauty so many people are able to create on a daily basis.

Basically, I'm in awe, and I'm grateful this year to know you, not only because of your web presences (duh) but because you keep me informed and challenged and energized. I'm thankful this year for everyone who shares with me in conversation and letters.

Today, during my office hours, I stopped working on a paper and started writing a poem that I doubt I'll want to submit anywhere but were still fun to write. (Because the best way to feel more organized is to start dawdling in the basement of the library.) My friend Augusto sat across from me and we chatted about the upcoming release of the Hobbit and some recent scandals related to the movie that might concern other animal activists out there. I wish the graphics had stuck in the document - the sections aren't supposed to be numbered but divided by tiny pictures of the animals they're dealing with. Darn. Ah well.

Also, it occurs to me that I've no clue why these legitimately worrisome accusations prompted poems that might be funny. I'm seriously considering not going to see the movie.



And the chickens are all, we didn’t sign up for this,
wild dogs every night and someone's forgetting to pack us up

in our coops with the snacks we were promised, we thought
this was our big break and Andy, the one taken away first,

was all, on the plane ride over here, I’m going to make it guys,
I’ve got chicks to think about back in Chipewa,

that was Andy, two dogs chomped him up so fast he probably 
still doesn’t know he's being digested, wondering why the hell

it’s so quiet where he is, and it’s true we were promised
an unrealistic amount of treats if we could show up and act natural,

they said act natural and fluff your feathers in the road,
that’s what they said, but there was no contract, the first red flag

Actually no one liked Rainbow
or thought she took her job
as serious as she should have,
never learning her directions or
practicing tossing her head
over the water bucket like the rest of us,
a total waste – she was Yellow Horse #5,
her big eyes peeking up in practically
every scene with her ears improvising
flirty twitches every time somebody 
speaks. She fell off the edge
of the bluff last night before lights out
and they found her this morning
with her head in the stream
her muzzle and cheekbones grey as rocks
and I guess the handlers understood
she was a dramatic horse 
who had it in her to act impulsively 
because they never even asked us 
if we saw anything or how we felt


Tonight on Live Action Five
our own Sandy Applewaite
is in Wellington, New Zealand
where PETA is protesting
the production of Peter Jackson’s
The Hobbit, recently cited
with animal cruelty accusations
including the deaths of 27 animals
on a local farm where the creatures
were housed between takes, 
allegedly with scant supervision
or medical care, near dangerous
cliffs overlooking open waterways.
This all comes to us via tip hotline
through which a caller only identified 
on record as Mr Pepper states,
“These animals were promised
a chance in the sun, an opportunity 
for their families, and they’ve been 
robbed, publicly.” Cut to Sandy Applewaite
in rain slicker on a damp hillside, 
holding microphone and nodding,
finger in her ear, it's serious      


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier's Wife

Well, I'm approaching the final week of my second chapbook's advance sales period. Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier's Wife is available now through the website for Finishing Line Press, a great publisher and sponsor of the New Women's Voices contest. Just click on Bookstore and look me up by name or title. Or, here's the direct link to buy. Here's a picture of the cover, which Laura Ben-Amots made beautiful with her charcoal artwork, and Ryan W. Bradley made organized with his skill for design:

If I can't take time on my own blog to reflect on the process of writing this book, I don't know where I can. This book has taken about six years to write. A long while, and not just because it was emotionally difficult for me to shape the content and message of each piece, but because Tom has been going to war since 2006, and before that, he was constantly training. I met Tom when he was an ROTC student at Seattle University; I was an undergrad studying English and Theatre. We dated, I think, because we initially saw each other as a challenge. There was something electric in our debates, our dinner dates, but I honestly don't think we planned, at least at first, on getting married. We were too different. I was an adamant pacifist and Tom was at the top of his class.

I don't think either of us has managed to feel like we've been sufficiently challenged, that one of us has won, that the dance is over - and yes, Tom and I are quietly competitive. Well, I am. Tom, to this day, has to be on everybody's team on "game night" to avoid outbursts and accusations. Maybe we're still playing to win? Either way, the game looks like one of perpetual motion; we've grown alike and more different than ever, and when I fight I want Tom by my side and across the field at the same time. I've never been so subtly spellbound by someone else's opinions.

We were married for two months before Tom left for a year of training in Georgia. I finished my degree in Seattle, and in 2005 we moved to Alaska. In 2006, Tom deployed to Iraq and I flew to Vancouver, Washington, to "wait it out" and live with my sister. It was in her small house on Daniels Street that I wrote my first poem inspired by Tom's work, and shortly afterward it was published in an issue of Calyx. Tom's career was still a thorn in my side and I didn't see any other way to deal with the violence overseas besides conditioning my anger and loneliness. It wasn't until I was about a year into my MFA degree at Pacific University, in 2008, that I began to notice what had become a stockpile of war poems in my files. Poetry was not a coping mechanism for me, but it had definitely made itself known as a part of my civilian life.

In a ballroom in Washington DC, two years ago, when I heard Kay Ryan describe poetry by saying, "It's not therapy. It's not one of the healing arts. It's poetry. It's savage," the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, the feeling you get when half your poems back home suddenly stand up off their pages and walk out of your empty house. Poetry is not my therapy. But it has become something that is, to me, worth collecting and communicating with.

I compiled Quick Draw mostly while I was living in Georgia. The title poem comes from my hearing about an event that took place not long before I moved from the south to the dry desert of Colorado. Living in military towns across the U.S. has taught me that people are always doing something worth observing. (It may not be worth a poem, but the act of observing and listening should be enough.)

Today, I'm preparing to pack up my house and pets and move to New York on my own, all while Tom lives on roasted goat and PowerBars 7400 miles away. I'm starting my PhD in English this fall at Binghamton University, and Tom will join me shortly after he returns to Colorado and finishes his assignment there, safe, and in one piece, characteristically feisty and magnetic. Quick Draw is officially released August 10th and will ship to those who have ordered copies, and tomorrow night, the 8th, I'll give my last reading in Colorado Springs at the Business of Art Center. I'll continue to write poems about war because I can't seem to stop.

The book is dedicated, naturally, to Tom. Play to win, dude. I miss you.

I've been lucky enough to have some admirable writers read my work, and I'd like to share one of these blurbs. Robert Peake, a colleague of mine from the Pacific University MFA program, writes:

Through a masterful range of impressions--sometimes nutty, harrowing, poignant, and always fresh--Abby Murray gives voice to a timeless and under-represented group in wartime literature: those left behind when soldiers go off to battle. This collection renders, through details at once intimate and universal, an important part of the picture about the human effect of war.

Thank you, Robert. Thank you to everyone who's planned on picking up a copy of Quick Draw. Welcome to the deployment.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Strawberry Basil Jam

I tried a different kind of writing this afternoon, in honor of my current literary overdose. (I know many writers will insist there is no such thing. But there is.) There comes a weekend-- usually during National Poetry Month-- when there are just too many essays, too many chapters, too many lectures, too many poems. Too many projects, too many letters, too many prompts.

That's not to say I haven't enjoyed the month of poetry. I have. But this coming week is the last of the semester, and I can feel it, even though I have a lot to look forward to in the coming months. Two big announcements, for those of you who may not know already via Facebook:

1) My second chapbook, Quick Draw: Poems from a Soldier's Wife, is being printed and released this summer by Finishing Line Press. Of course, I'm happy to do readings and workshops wherever I am, but right now I'm just trying to get the word out about the book. Please pass the information along to those you think might enjoy or benefit from this work.

To buy a copy: go to Finishing Line Press's website (www.finishinglinepress.com) and click on Bookstore. You can look me up by my pen name, Abby E. Murray, and click on Buy Now. The book is just $12, and any copies purchased during the advance sales period (now through June 13th) will receive a discounted shipping rate of $1.99. Thank you, in advance, for helping me distribute this book! I want to get it into the hands of poets, readers, libraries, book shops, businesses, schools, soldiers, dependents, artists, and everyone else who's been affected by America's role in wars abroad.

2) I've been accepted as a fully funded doctoral candidate for Binghamton University's PhD in English program. I'll be moving from Colorado to New York later this summer to get started, and I couldn't be more excited. I have to force myself to stop thinking about it at night so I can sleep. A new city, new writing community, new house, new opportunities. It's making me giddy... and a little overwhelmed! A little anxious. But every single person I've spoken to from this program has been nothing but kind, welcoming, helpful, and clearly passionate about the study of writing.


Back to my new writing this afternoon.

Many of you know that I have a jam-making addiction. It's become a comfort to stay up late at night, even when it's 90 degrees outside and my kitchen ceiling fan can barely keep the house tolerable, stirring a pot of boiling sugar and berries, often adding champagne or rum to the mixture before jarring it and transferring it to a roiling water-bath.

Well, spring and summer time have returned, and so have the perfect ingredients for jam. I'll have you know, though, that I currently own the first two plants I've ever owned for longer than a month without killing. One, a cactus named Evelyn who reminds me of an underwater creature from Mario Bros. The other, a basil plant that survived its six siblings and, now in a pot of its own, is growing two strong, leafy branches alongside some wooden skewers I used to roast marshmallows last summer. I don't know what the deal is with this basil guy, but I figure I should enjoy all the caprese and spaghetti sauce I can before he realizes I'm the one in charge and promptly wilts or turns to ash.

So I decided to make some strawberry basil jam today. I looked up a couple recipes, but I ended up inventing something more or less my own. Behold: my writing that aint a poem:


4 cups strawberries (hulled and chopped)
3 cups sugar
1 tbsp. butter
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tsp. lemon zest
2 tbsp. pectin
2-3 finely chopped basil (I used about 7 small/medium sized leaves)
1/2 tsp. ground red pepper*

Get the water bath started before you begin, and prep the jars/lids in the boiling water. Put the strawberries, sugar, and butter in a large pot and stir over medium heat until the sugar becomes fluid. Increase heat to a boil for about five minutes. Add lemon juice, zest, pectin, and red pepper. Here, I run my immersion blender through it while it boils to break down the strawberry pieces, but it's up to you and how you like the consistency. Skim the foam. Add the basil last so it doesn't get totally annihilated once it's incorporated (especially if you blend it). Reduce to a simmer. Get the jars out of the water bath and fill them, put the lids on, and replace in the water bath. Different jar sizes and altitudes determine the boiling time, so... look it up, or something.

*Next time, I think I'll use a few slices of jalapeno instead of ground pepper; I think it'll give it an extra kick. The ground pepper seems too tame to me.

I kept a tablespoon of jam out on the counter to cool and taste. Dang. It's good. Good enough to eat on toast, or biscuits. Good enough to give you the recipe without feeling guilty. And, note the photo of my awesome tablecloth and my sweet little green dishes from the Arc. Also a photo of Mr. Basil: he is alive and well, although slightly skinnier tonight than he was this morning. (Sorry, dude. But you're tasty.)  

Sunday, February 5, 2012


I seriously can't believe my last blog post was in July, 2011. Where have I been??

Keeping busy, I suppose. I'm still teaching at the community college, still living in Colorado Springs. And, for the second time since I've lived in this town, I'm saying goodbye to my husband so he can fight in a war I have never considered honorable or justified.

We spent the past few weeks prepping pounds of paperwork and setting up our own personal support networks. Most of you know I'm not a huge fan of the "army wife" social scene; I keep to myself or I'm glued to my phone so I can talk to my family in Washington state or my friends in Georgia or Texas or Oregon. That condition of never feeling quite at home follows me to every city I live in, but I remember feeling that way before I married Tom. As a teenager, I used to glamorize the idea of living in a new place every year, of never settling down. I was going to be an actress and live in New York at least once. As soon as I started studying literature, acting went out the window but my wanderlust just concealed itself in a quieter, less obnoxious costume. I started feeling the pangs of homesickness, the lack of familiarity, and the drawbacks of constant relocation. I became comfortable in Eagle River, Anchorage, Vancouver, Atlanta, Columbus - as soon as we packed up to leave. I left hard-earned friends, jobs, and writing groups behind to find myself in a new place with my books and pets to comfort me before Tom's next deployment began.

This morning, at 2am, Tom left for a month of training before his third tour in a combat zone. He'll return for a short break in March, then I'll see him again by Christmas, hopefully. This tour will be, I think, his most challenging.

We remain very different people who have created the only kind of successful marriage I can imagine. Tom's job is important to me only in that it makes him feel happy, needed, confident, and self-aware. Tom is, by himself, a role model and my closest confidant. My job and my writing have a tendency to become (sometimes not-so-fortunately) my identity while he is gone. I overschedule myself and doubt my own work as I practice much too late at night. I back into a safe routine of loneliness and quiet chaos. I clean. I read. I run. I go weeks without being touched or touching others. I sometimes wonder if I'd be in the same profession if I had a husband who was around more, at home for dinner every night and never shot at - my poetry, my second chapbook in fact, is grown from my experience as a sort of pacifist married to a soldier. What would I write about?

I've been working hard with my poetry students this semester on writing what is not created for publication but for exploration of the craft, what is experimental and part of understanding the text we read, what plays with personal experience and the capacity of the imagination. This spreads into my own writing practice, which continues to grapple with deployments and war.

I've missed you guys. You're such good listeners. : )