Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 22 July 2010

This Is Not About What You Think


YOU: So what’s your poetry book about then?

ME: Life.

YOU: Life?

ME: Yeah, life.

YOU: Your life?

ME: Not exactly.

YOU: Whose life then?

ME: No one’s life. Just life.

YOU: That’s a big topic.

ME: Yes, it is.

YOU: You couldn’t narrow it down a bit for me?

ME: It’s a collection of poems starting with childhood and ending in old age. In seven parts.

YOU: Like a ‘Seven Ages of Man’ kind of thing:

[F]irst puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with your schooling,
Then fucks and then fights,
Then judging chaps' rights,
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling.

ME: Kind of. I’ve never written anything about infancy and so I couldn’t include that. Nor are there any poems about employment but you’ve got the right idea.

YOU: But it’s not your life?

ME: No. Well, some of it is. Some of the things happened to me or to people I know. Some of it was stuff I read about or saw on TV. The rest I just fabricated.

YOU: So it’s semi-autobiographical.

ME: Nowhere near it.

YOU: What then? An eighth? A sixteenth? Maybe a thirty-second. Just stop me when I get close.

ME: Well on one level it’s all me because every thought has been through my head. I’ve just not experienced everything in the book the way it happens.

YOU: Give me an example.

ME: The guy in the book has sex in the afternoon by a paraffin heater.

YOU: And you’ve never had sex in the afternoon?

ME: Yes, I have but never like in the poem. What I’ve done is extract elements from my life — things I’ve done, seen or have heard about — and reassembled them into something else. He also has sex in the back of car which I’ve somehow missed out on but I’ve seen enough examples on TV to get the idea. By arranging the poems in a certain order they appear to tell a story but it’s not my story. At the back of the book there’s an appendix which shows the actual order the poems were written and when. Some of them go back thirty years, some are only a few weeks old.

YOU: So what you’re saying is that you’re lying to us?

ME: I’m a writer. It’s what we do. That said I’m being quite up front about it. That’s why I chose the title This Is Not About What You Think because context affects how we interpret things.

YOU: So is this a novel in verse then?

ME: No. I simply wanted a way to present a collection of poems in a way that made them feel like they belonged together. When I first decided that I was finally going to bring out a collection I always thought the title would be Reader, Please Supply Meaning with perhaps the subtitle New and Collected Poems 1979 — 2010 which would have worked here.

YOU: Why Reader Please Supply Meaning?

ME: Because that’s what every reader does whether they like it or not. A reader completes a circuit, they fill in what the author hasn’t been able to include. I’ve said this before and will no doubt say it again but a poem is like an iceberg, only the tip appears on the page, the rest is buried within the poet. That’s why every poem I’ve ever written has made perfect sense to me, and I expect every other poet feels the same, because I have all the missing bits inside me. The real test of a poem is what other people make out of it when you add it to their reader’s contribution. It will be different in every case.

YOU: Can you illustrate?

ME: There’s a poem in the collection called ‘Making Do’ — it’s a poem about my mother — ostensibly it’s about baking, not a thing my mother did a lot of although her short crust pastry was to die for. I let a guy at work read it – this was a man of about fifty – and he burst into tears afterwards. Why? Because he’d had a very rough childhood. His father was a bully and his mother arms became a place of refuge for him. Did he overreact to the poem? No one else that I know of has cried after reading it as far as I’m aware but when combined with his personal experiences of his own mother the poem became an extremely powerful piece of writing. I have no doubt that others will fail to connect with it in the slightest.

YOU: So what happens to the guy throughout the book?

ME: Like I said the book is in seven sections:

Part I: childhood

Part II: first love

Part III: marriage and the loss of a child

Part IV: an affair and the breakdown of the marriage

Part V: living alone

Part VI: the death of parents

Part VII: old age

YOU: So the key moment in the book is the loss of the child?

ME: Yes.

YOU: Why that?

ME: It wasn’t planned. I simply took my poems and started arranging them in some kind of order. Like I said the book is not an autobiography but it does contain poems that reflect what was going on in my life. I have been married more than once but it wasn’t the loss of a child that caused my first marriage to breakdown. Actually the marriage produced my daughter to whom I dedicate this collection. The stillbirth that I talk about in the book happened to a friend of mine. She sent me an e-mail to explain why I hadn’t heard from her in a while and that was the reason. That day, or maybe the next, I sat down and wrote the poem. Why I chose to make it the central poem in the collection is because that’s exactly the kind of thing that could bring a marriage to its knees. The poem found its place quite naturally in the collection.

YOU: Do you have a favourite poem in the book?

ME: I have many favourites for many different reasons but I think the one that gets to me the most is the poem I chose to end the collection on, ‘The Poetry of Regrets’, because the only thing that stays with the man is his ability to write poetry but, as it happens with many writers, the older they get the less they find they have left unsaid. I don’t write nearly as many poems these days because I’ve tackled the big issues in my life, the things that obsessed me, and made some kind of peace with them. But I can still see me, in twenty years time, sitting, Krapp-like, trying to scribble a few final words.

YOU: That’s sad.

ME: In a way. Many writers talk about their works as their children. Well, you never turn family away and that’s what the man in the book says:

Poems turn up out of the blue these days
like family
and usually when things are going badly.

Once they were with us, day in and day out
we lived with them
but never really appreciated them.

I guess that's what growing up's all about,
finding ourselves
with too many regrets and fewer answers.

Only wish I'd said more when I had the
words to say it.
but you don't turn family away. Not ever.

YOU: So where can people get a hold of this book?

ME: The best, the fastest and the cheapest way is direct from the FV Books site. It will also be on if you can’t use PayPal for some reason. I’ve kept the price down as low as possible. I think books these days are too dear. The price has increased far faster than inflation. Books I was paying 35p or 45p in the 1970s cost in the region of £7.99 of £8.99 now. That’s an annual increase of just over 9%. I’m interested in being read and covering my costs. This Is Not About What You Think will retail in the UK at £5.99 including postage. Plus those who buy early will receive a free copy of Bonfire. Rates for the rest of Bonfire the world will reflect the additional costs of postage but will still be excellent value for money.

YOU: Bonfire?

ME: Yes. FV Books originally published two literary journals, Gator Springs Gazette and Bonfire both of which had their origins online. When my wife fell ill she was forced to cut back her work and both magazines folded which was a great shame. We still have a small stock of Bonfires left and we’d like to see them go to good homes.

YOU: Do you have any excerpts online?

ME: Yes. I’ve just revamped my website — it was getting a bit tired-looking — and you can read the whole of Part I of the collection here. One last thing, I have a number of review copies set aside. If you would like one then drop me an e-mail with your address and I’ll pop one in the post.

YOU: Are you doing a virtual blog tour?

ME: Not as such. They’re all fine and well but in a matter of a month everything’s over. Besides I hate pressing people to do things by a certain date. In the past I’ve been asked to take part in blog tours before I’ve even seen the product, If people genuinely like what I’ve done then they’ll want to tell people about it. And that’s how it should be.


Elisabeth said...

Oh joy, Jim.

This is a splendid mock-interview and prepares me to some extent for what's to come, but not enough.

I agree with your idea about a poem as the tip of the iceberg: the poem that which is visible, the rest of the iceberg in the poet.

The reader then adds their own idiosyncratic interpretation. I wonder what mine will be, and his and hers and everyone else's...

Congratulations. I relish the simplicity of the cover and I think the title works well, as does your original potential title, the one that urges the reader to supply the rest...


Jim Murdoch said...

It nice to finally have the book in my hand, Lis, and I do have to say that I’m glad I waited before producing this. When I look back over the years there are poems that do naturally go together, poems written when I was in the same mindset, but the big problem with them is that they can get a bit repetitious when read one after the other. That’s why I like sites like Ink, Sweat and Tears because you get the poems as they were written, one per day, and they’re not in competition with anything else. I have some perfectly good poems, poems that have been published even, but as soon as you put them in a collection they don’t shine in the same way as they do on their own. I wanted to bring out a collection that on could read like a novel, that had a beginning, a middle and an end. But how do you do that when you’re looking back over a thirty-year span? My initial thought was to group the poems under general themes like ‘love’, ‘death’, ‘truth’ of course and so on but as I started to shove them around on my desk I started to see a different pattern, a life. But what to include and what not? That’s always held me back in the past but for some reason this time I got my act together and very few changes were made after I decided on the groups.

Your copy will be in the post today. I had intended to send out a few review copies before now but I’ve just spent the last few weeks redesigning my website, my blog and even my e-mails and things did not go smoothly. But it’s all done now. Now it’s the chore of trying to get people to publicise the thing without me feeling like I’m begging or backing them into corners. The reviews on the novels came gradually over several months and that’s fine by me. That’s why I’m not going down the virtual blog tour route. I don’t want to sicken people. And that’s easily done.

Kass said...

I look forward to reading this. I love your poetry. That interviewer was a little tough on you.

I like the new look of your blog, but I also really liked the old look. It was unique.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve made a habit of changing my blog each time I bring out a new book, Kass. I keeps it fresh-looking. This time I redid my website too and so I wanted colours that would match. This wasn’t the design I was originally going with. I had one that incorporated the graphic from the book and some nice buttons instead of simple hyperlinks but a few days ago when I went to check it something went wrong – it looked great on my laptop but awful on my PC – and I couldn’t correct it so I had to go with a quick fix. I only finished the tweaks this morning. It’ll do a turn.

mand said...

Shame on you, Jim, I would never ask what a poetry book's about.

Congratulations, though, seriously. A good feeling, eh?

And I agree, the cover's great.

Jim Murdoch said...

Maybe that’s why I pick up far more poetry books than I end up buying, Mand, and why I rarely buy poetry online. Novels I have no problem with but it’s really not enough to know that such-and-such a poet has written them, I want to know if they work together. Unless it’s a mixed anthology of which I have several but I regard those as reference works. I’ve always found poetry books like that piece of furniture you rescued from your parents’ home before it was sold but don’t quite know where to put it. I rarely sit down a read a book of poetry and I’ve always thought that was one of the problems with them.

It’s like music. I listen to albums – whole albums – and I would never think of putting on Dark Side of the Moon and only listening to ‘Money’. That’s what I wanted my collection to be, which is why I struggled so much in the past, because I could never satisfy myself that a certain group of say twenty poems went together. It was much easier working on a big canvas.

But, yes, I am pleased with the results. Dead chuffed.

Marion McCready said...

Brilliant! I enjoy reading your poems on your blog, it'll be interesting to see them all together. Need to be next month's paycheck though! I like the new blog look.

Conda Douglas said...

Oooh, way cool, Jim. Fascinating, what goes into a book of poetry, what choices you've made, and why. I love the cover of two Masai warriors conferring. Wait, what does that say about me?

Jim Murdoch said...

Don’t worry, Marion, I’m not expecting a stampede of orders. I think you’ll be pleased. Even though the poems span 31 years they sit together quite well. I suppose you could infer from that that I’ve not grown as a poet and I’m not sure that’s a position I could defend easily. The later poems are more structured for sure but the voice is still the same at least I still hear the same voice but then I’m still seventeen on the inside, there’s just some old bloke living in my mirror.

I like the new blog layout. It’s still a bit cluttered on the right-hand side for me. I may look at that again. It’s hard to find a balance between providing what your readers might need and making the whole thing so messy that they don’t look at any of it.

And, Conda, two Maasai warriors conferring, eh? Why not? That why I like the inkblots so much and keep coming back to them. There is actually an inkblot poem in this collection. I think the whole subject of human perception is a fascinating one, they way we join the dots in our heads, make something out of nothing. The trouble is once you’ve interpreted something one way it’s often hard to see it any other way. Meaning is almost indelible if I can use another inky metaphor, or if not indelible at least it leaves a stain that’s hard to forget. I always liked Beckett’s expression – “a stain on the silence.”

Dave King said...

Very canny. You've made it impossible not to buy the book. Already I'm looking forward to it.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, Dave, let's hope you're blessed with the gift of prophecy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

As a longtime reader of your blog I have always enjoyed reading your posts and poems so I have ordered a copy and also copies of your 2 novels. All the best!

Jim Murdoch said...

Well, what can I say, Anonymous, bar, "Thank you"? So, thank you. Just remember to read the novels in the right order, Living with the Truth first, otherwise it'll spoil the ending.

Art Durkee said...

Congrats on the publication.

It's interesting to read about the process of making a poem compilation, the choices and decisions that go into structure and segue. Although one can figure some of that out just from the reading, I think, you iceberg analogy is a very good one, and very applicable to the making of a book of poems.

You cover designs and art are all starting to make me think of Rorschach, a bit.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rorschach’s inkblots have always been a big thing with me, Art. I’ve never seriously sat down and tried the test. The same goes for word association tests which I also think are fascinating things. Having a goal as a writer is one thing. A long time ago my goal was the same as so many writers, to convey truth. I honestly don’t know when it dawned on me that that wasn’t so simple that all art is a collaborative process but when I did I realised that it was more my job to promote thought than to try and impose it. It also takes the pressure off too. There are no right answers to the inkblots and there are no right interpretations to the poems. Whatever you do decide one of my poems is about what I can tell you is that that won’t be what it’s about for me.

I think the iceberg image is a more accurate one when it comes to explaining what happens when someone reads a poem. They have the words on the page, the bit that pokes up, but we all know that’s only about an eighth of the thing. And so we start to imagine what the shape beneath the waves might be. I, of course, know the exact shape. All the missing pieces are inside me. Except when they’ve melted. The title poem in the collection, ‘This Is Not About What You Think’, is a case in point. I’ve forgotten what it was about. I know it was written in code – I wanted to keep its true meaning to myself – but I never imagined I’d forget what inspired it. I guess I thought it was such an important event that it would be impossible to forget. Lesson learned, eh?

Art Durkee said...

Some of your comments made me think of Set Abramson's recent long essay in which he describes a taxonomy of poetry as transcendant or immanent.

Maybe this is me making the connection, but some of your thoughts about meaning, and the secrets beneath the water which we don't see of the iceberg, made me make the connection.

Dense going, BTW. Abramson is someone who came to poetry after doing law, and sometimes that shows in his essays, not always in a good way.

Rachel Fox said...

Good luck with the new book!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, Rachel. So glad to see it finally out there.

Jim Murdoch said...

Abramson's post is fascinating, Art. I'm glad you pointed me to it. I have too much to say about some of the issues he raises to try and cram it into a comment so if you can bear with me I'll set this aside to do some more research on and present my thoughts in a proper post.

Art Durkee said...

Go for it. I'm planning on the same approach. I've been building towards a few comments on the whole thing for awhile, and Seth's essays have been making me think that through all again.

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