December 31, 2018–January 6, 2019
Although Laura Murphy is a lifelong poet, she just started sharing her work this past year. It has been magical, mostly because of all the wonderful people/poets she’s met along the way. Murphy is also an editor and journalist at Consumer Reports, where she likes to write about the things people use every day. She is a co-winner of the 2018 Yawp Poem of the Year award from Brooklyn Poets for the poem below.
At night, the internet is a filibuster
and it keeps me awake. I am trying
to divide my days into a series of life-
affirming activities. Opera in the morning
followed by ecstatic communion
with a stationary bike.
My ex-whatever is moving to Denver
and I’d follow her but she’d break
my heart anyway and anyway I never
wanted a domestic skill set. I don’t care
if I scorch another pan. I’m just going
to keep on going.
Now anyone can court fame
from anywhere. Before the internet
took off, people had been researching
it for years. Personally, I would love
to be overcome by a great passion.
And it’s morning. And I like the way
I look. I can feel the humidity settling
like gloss on my skin, slicking my limbs,
and twisting my hair. Broadway is a burst seam
and I swoon across the street.
A counter-terrorism unit assembles
on the corner of 96th. Yesterday
the last bulb in my bathroom
went out and my face in the mirror
was dark. The bulb felt as smooth
as a bone in my hand.
Nobody wants to hear a musical
about the nihilism of Jimmy
Buffett. I look past the malevolent
shaftway and towards all the best-
looking men. The gut is the laboratory
of desire which is why I always
eat standing up. In Bryant Park
the buildings are as iridescent
as onion skins and on the train
a man in a khaki hat carries
an elaborate bouquet. The car fills
with the scent of roses.
On the internet I count all of the lady
detectives I have ever loved. When
did I begin this arithmetic of other
people? The daffodils have gone feral,
they are wandering the city
Tell us about the making of this poem.
You know, it’s funny. When it all came together, it felt like a bolt of lightning. But, as I comb over my notes, there are so many versions of this poem going way back. I can see myself trying out images and lines, rearranging them and improving. It’s a good reminder, especially when I’m feeling stuck or frustrated, that sometimes it just takes time—it just takes chewing on the language for a while.
What are you working on right now?
Chewing on the language for a while.
What’s a good day for you?
8 AM: Wake on eight hours of sleep. Get coffee. Go for a run.
9 AM: Shower, then write down any good thoughts I had in the shower (or on the run); read, revise, repeat.
1 PM: Time to wander! Here are my tips for wandering in NYC:
—Dress unobtrusively. No peacocking! Try to blend in with the crowd. If you’re a woman, it helps to wear a hat, and loose clothing.
—Go unburdened. NYC is the city of schlepping, so skip the handbag, and carry everything you need in your pockets. You’ll feel as free as a man! Well, almost.
—It’s OK to have a destination. But you have to let the grid get you there.
5 PM: Get dolled up. Go somewhere fancy for dinner, party and dance all night.
What brought you to Brooklyn?
The stage! I am also an actress. I was fresh out of college and I wanted to do edgy stuff that “pushed the boundaries of performance,” whatever that means. So I fled Boston and landed in Park Slope, renting a room about the size of a walk-in closet that could only fit a twin bed.
Tell us about your neighborhood. How long did you live there? What did you like about it? How is it changing? How did it compare to other neighborhoods or places you’ve lived?
Park Slope was a good transition to big city life, because if you think about it, it’s kind of like Boston, you know?
Anyway, I only lived in Park Slope for a year. After that, I moved to Astoria, Queens, then hopped over to the Upper West Side. As of this November, I’m now a resident of the Flatiron District.
One of my most vivid memories of that Park Slope apartment is that all summer, there was scaffolding rigged right outside my window. In the afternoons, I often came home between jobs and tried to take a nap—but inevitably there would be workmen pounding away outside, or taking a lunch break right on my window sill!
It was annoying, but I always waved, then went and tried to sleep on the couch. One day, I found they had caulked and sealed my air conditioner in the window, fixing my inexpert installation and making my room infinitely cooler.
Now I know that New York is always under construction, which means it’s always changing. History makes and unmakes itself within moments. I feel like I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes here, so when I go back to old neighborhoods I can never be sure what’s changed—me or the streets. But of course it’s both.
Share with us a defining Brooklyn experience, good, bad, or in between.
I got my “edgy theatre” wish and costarred in an experimental theatre production called Undercover Mime II, which was staged in an abandoned storefront in Greenpoint. You can fill in the blanks from there.
What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?
This summer, I took my first poetry workshop since my freshman year of college. It was a Poets House workshop on “Repetition, Diversion and Mystery” led by Alex Dimitrov. I felt so self-conscious when I walked in the room, but when I walked out of it I felt like I had returned home.
I guess I think of the poetry community as people willing to embrace complexity, emotion and playfulness. There’s also an element of timelessness among poets, as they are always in conversation with one another—and not just the poets of today, but the poets of the past as well.
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
Well, of course Walt Whitman and Marianne Moore. I recently took a workshop with Lynn Melnick, author of Landscape with Sex and Violence, which is both unsettling and profoundly hopeful.
And of course, Jason Koo of Brooklyn Poets. Not only has he created and maintained this extraordinary community, but the way he writes New York in his most recent collection, More Than Mere Light, is breathtaking and enviable.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
Unfortunately, I have not had any poetry mentors—but I am actively seeking one!
I will say that I learned so much in the two workshops I recently took. Alex Dimitrov has this incredible ability to see right into the heart of a poem. And Lynn Melnick has an eye for different styles of poetry. She has this ability to push a poet to become a better version of herself, but with such spirit of warmth and playfulness—you might not even realize it!
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
Books I turn to again and again include:
—Juliet Schor’s True Wealth, about how we can reorient our values such that we create a sustainable economy.
—Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, which digs into the perks and pitfalls of automation (and closes with a close-reading of a Robert Frost poem!).
—Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, in which the prolific philosopher explores why emotions, rather than being irrational, may be our best tools for making rational, humanistic judgments.
—Coretta Scott King’s My Life, My Love, My Legacy, a memoir in which the “first lady of the Civil Rights movement” shares her story of courage, leadership and determination. It’s also an important read for anyone interested in the building of institutions.
—Joi Ito’s Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future. Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, writes about new rules to live by for the new world.
—Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, about the relationship between loneliness, cities and artists.
In fiction, I loved A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil and Marlena, the debut novel of Julie Buntin.
As for poetry, some recent faves include Stormwarning by Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, 4:30 Movie by Donna Masini, Terror by Toby Martinez de las Rivas and The Winter the Wolf Came by Juliana Spahr.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
Oh, boy. I have had Robert A. Caro’s Pulitzer-winning biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, on my bookshelf for about two years now. I’ve also never read Joan Didion or Susan Sontag.
I’m also ashamed to say I’m vastly underread when it comes to poetry and trying to make up for lost time.
Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?
I have a book list that I keep on my phone, though I’m trying to transfer it to Goodreads. A few years ago my phone broke and I lost my list—it was heartbreaking!
I read the New York Times Book Review each week and often choose books reviewed there, as well as books recommended by friends, or titles I stumble across. I read fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Often, I look for work that deals thematically with something I’m thinking about, uses a particular style, or is just plain entertaining.
Of course, the list is longer than I can keep up with, so it may be months before I get to certain books. I only read physical books and I’m trying to improve my critical eye by writing notes in the margins, or reviewing the book on my Goodreads account after I finish.
Right now, I’m reading Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, a celebrated Norwegian novelist. Incidentally, Undset lived in Brooklyn Heights during the 1940s, which makes her a Brooklyn writer too, right?
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
I love nonsense and folk poetry. I have a lot of scribbles that I’d like to gather together and see if I can make some sense out of silliness after all.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I like to write in my office at work, if I get there early enough. I also think Le Pain Quotidien is a great reading and writing spot, with locations across the city. I love to read during my commute, in Central Park, on a plane, on a train, in a box, with a fox, in a house, with a mouse, here and there, anywhere!
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
—The loop around Prospect Park circa 2009, where I used to run and people-watch at the same time
—A slippery bar stool at Johnny Mack’s, the one right next to Jess
—The Bushwick Starr and graffiti’d streets
—The BAM theatre with the steep rows of seats
—St. Ann’s Warehouse when the tickets are cheap
—Abhaya Yoga when my heart is broken
—The spot in DUMBO where they always take wedding photos
—Brooklyn Bridge Park in the summer with every new lover
—Swaying to Bill Callahan at Baby’s All Right with Mandi
—Brooklyn Heights where the streets smell like money
—Freelancers Union HQ
—Jess and Ravi’s place on the 4th of July
—And, of course, the Yawp open mic
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate celluli,
And what I divide into you
for every cell that once was me
can only be as good as two
more of you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
Oh, my dear departed father
was more than just an artful Dodger:
a thief, he gave away what he robbed;
a knave, he prayed away what he sinned.
If you held the queen, he held the jack;
If you held the check, he held the pen.
Dancing through the streets of Brooklyn
to Lou Reed, Lil’ Kim, and Biggie
Smalls, there never was a crook so beloved.
It’s a beginning.