Intense, dark, erotic, and literary, Miguel Murphy’s poetry attests to a life and a writing deeply rooted in something akin to what Gloria Anzaldúa calls the Coatlique State—a fractured and fragmented bifurcation that both melds opposing forces together while establishing grounds for a third force that entirely transcends opposition as such. His work, like Genet’s, like Bataille’s, consorts with renegades who have all but renounced their birthright and casts its lot with the unrepentant thief.
This interview was conducted via email during the spring 2016.
Frank Garrett: What first struck me —even before your poetry— were the title Detainee and the Arabic. Why do you hate America? Or, perhaps more seriously, in what way is your book a provocation or a challenge?
Miguel Murphy: Hatred is a condition of the wound. I’m thinking of Jean Genet in Funeral Rites eroticizing the mutilated, tortured body of a French soldier and saying something like, my grief at the death of my virtue reveals to me the force of my love for it. Do I hate America? The question to me sounds something like, Do I hate being a person?
The mask is language. In the middle of saying the word “pleasure” I find that, without realizing it, in the mirror I am snarling. The Arabic letter used to separate the sections of my book was chosen intuitively. It looks like a branch of grapes cut from the vine. I loved, of course, the phallic handle-blade. The swiftness of the lash and three welts. It symbolizes the phonetic /zh/, that most animalistic shape a human mouth represses. I love the maliciously sexual snarl, because one has to bare their teeth to say the word “pleasure.” The more violently one says the word, the more intensely it can be felt. The hatred is silent, and therefore, musical.
Years of therapy and money have taught me that the word “brother” is the closest we have for “enemy.”
FG: Why poetry, then? What can poetry do today that’s somehow more forceful than violence or more pleasurable than love? How does poetry help to articulate, deflect, or modulate that limen between brother/enemy?
Think of these great writers who actually wrote from their jail cells: Miguel Hernández. Nazim Hikmet. Reinaldo Arenas. Dostoevsky and Genet. Job. I mean, why in the world write anything unless you’re a convict?
MM: Because life is a prison; being a person is a prison. Bachelard writes somewhere that we are not creatures of necessity but of desire, so there really is no good reason for poetry. Think of these great writers who actually wrote from their jail cells: Miguel Hernández. Nazim Hikmet. Reinaldo Arenas. Dostoevsky and Genet. Job. I mean, why in the world write anything unless you’re a convict? I can’t say that I think poetry is somehow more violent than being beaten by the police, or more pleasurable than having an orgasm in an alley. These are political realities and poetry can’t compare. Write a poem? Good god, what for?
For me, it’s an act of rebellion. It asks for silence, solitude, poverty, vulnerability, time. Outrageous dissidence, for our times. Whitman thought democracy was a poem, but in what occupation is loafing and inviting the soul a lucrative, entrepreneurial endeavor? It just isn’t. Poetry is not a path to being a successful person in today’s society. It’s the anti-dream.
I rather think poetry is more like singing, or laughter: the only purpose it can fulfill is a metaphysical one. An act against the brutality of the universe, the weird nothingness of being. Like Odysseus, we kiss our middle finger to the night sky. A poet’s language is his practice of making sense of mediocrity, and refusing it. Laughter, I’d say, is the correct response to tragedy, and poetry is that laughter. It mitigates nothing, but its strange severity makes what is horrifying explicit. I’m thinking suddenly of Picasso’s Guernica in which a wailing, grief-stricken mother is also a mad woman laughing through her tears, her tongue flying maniacally out of her mouth. Poetry is her laughter, that insane, accusatory song she is singing.
FG: When did you write your first poem?
MM: I must have been in first or second grade? I was reading Aesop’s Fables, and my family had just gotten home from a trip to Mexico where I had ridden a horse. I remember the boy who helped me, and the candy we shared, and the obvious differences between us. And I remember the poem was about how much I hated riding horses. I hated those differences. I remember the horse being wonderful and sentient and terrifying, and the enormous alien power of it, and the soft lightning in its coat. And I remember the poem did something grammatically strange, grammatically wrong—the sentence was broken and incorrect—it was wild, I couldn’t fix it. I wouldn’t. I didn’t. I was what was strange, going home to the other side. And I re-read Aesop’s where I hid the poem and my mother found it while she was cleaning and I remember feeling like I was in trouble, but she said whenever you write something you should give it to me, and she would put them in a folder and keep them safe.
FG: Tell me the traditions you see yourself a part of. The graves of which dead poets must you visit?
MM: Chris Marlowe, with a dagger in his eye. 1593. Yes, please.
Yukio Mishima, throwing forth the red cloth for guts. Let’s role-play in a Shinjuku motel, I’ll wear my schoolboy uniform.
Reinaldo Arenas, serving solitary confinement at El Morro for wearing his speedo while strolling the Malecon, or in a fever, cruising the orphan alleys of New York City, 1990.
The poet Ai, in her uniform of black leather, turquoise rock on her neck and hair in a bun, smiling (that silent lump in her breast), dancing at sunset to Moby.
Oh Lorca. In the arms of a schoolteacher and a bullfighter, terrified naked and gripping the bullfighter’s erection from behind, looking up at me from the unmarked grave while his tongue stops the schoolteacher’s mouth.
I’m a queer Chicano poet, but I don’t think my work fits so well to either group, and I’m not all that sure I agree that there is such a thing as a queer aesthetic or a Chicano aesthetic any more than I think there’s a female aesthetic.
I don’t know so much about traditions. I don’t really think I belong anywhere. When I was a student, I’d get comments in class like, your poem sounds like a woman wrote it. I’m a queer Chicano poet, but I don’t think my work fits so well to either group, and I’m not all that sure I agree that there is such a thing as a queer aesthetic or a Chicano aesthetic any more than I think there’s a female aesthetic. How does one belong? I’m not very good at it. I think my mixed heritage has taught me that I don’t need to. Mexica, that old word full of doubles. Still, I always seem to feel as if I’m lurking through the neighborhoods, on the lookout for what I can lift. I insist that my work is queer and Chicano and masculine. It’s a tiresome argument. Doesn’t Cixous say somewhere that it’s not the man, it’s the grandmother in the man she loves?
I have more ghosts than graves to visit.
FG: How is this book different from your first?
MM: My grandfather before he died called A Book Called Rats confessional fantasy, and I’ve always liked that assessment. In this new book I can feel the tide of fable receding. The psychosexual danger of the fairy tale here is diminishing into the nightmare of sexual awareness. Detainee is preoccupied I think with the absurdity of being a sexual being who spiritualizes his existence. I’m incredibly worried by the paradox that is fetish. Hasn’t every religious institution struggled with the sexual reality and failed? What is the cure for defecation, prayer? You believe that love can save a person, but when it comes down to it, you want your lover to degrade you, spit in your face, call you a whore. You believe in marriage but you secretly want to have sex with a dog. You pray, and yet you find yourself wanting to be fisted. What in the end is the difference between fantasy and reality? Pleasure and punishment? A good man or an evil man? Desire is not this romantic. You watch a woman online act like she loves to be gangbanged. You pay a prostitute to give you fifty lashes. You molest your own grandchild. I mean, the incompatibility of these two realities in a single human body is uncomfortable at best and at worst, profoundly challenging. Our sense of our humanity wants to erase this troubling contradiction. In order to believe in your own soul, you must be willing to become a murderer. To go to war. To eat shit. And what if there is no soul? What if the soul is only another kind of imaginary affliction? I don’t think we can escape it.
FG: Your poems—like your answers in this interview—are very much informed by other writers, by your reading. A quick scan of the pages reveal direct references to, among others, Miguel Hernández, Federico García Lorca, Michel Foucault, William Shakespeare, Lucretius, and Herodotus. If there were one work that would serve as a kind of secret decoder ring to Detainee, what would it be?
MM: Kathy Acker has written somewhere that the only religions are scatology and intensity.
So much of what I read comes to mind, since I love books; I think I live better there. I want the decoder ring to be Macbeth, or Kristeva’s The Severed Head, her great essay on decapitation. I want my decoder to be a little poem by that hungry orphan prisoner of the Budapest insane asylum, Attila József: “To Sit, To Stand, To Kill, To Die” or better yet: “Medallion.” I want my decoder ring to be Gaston Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire in which he writes: “Tell me what your favorite phantom is… The dream is stronger than experience.” I want my decoder to be Clarice Lispector’s final novel, that little Bach prelude with a fugue night inside: The Hour of the Star. I want my decoder to be a page torn out of Arenas’ vulgar parade of a late novel The Color of Summer. Decode me with the last sentence of Kafka’s The Trial, or one of Gottfried Benn’s letters, translated by Michael Hofmann.
In the end, I rely on a number: Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death published the year I was born, 1974.
If I pull out my notebooks, I’m haunted by my underlined sentences: “The prison of one’s character is painstakingly built to deny one thing alone: one’s creatureliness. The creatureliness is the terror. Once you admit that you are a defecating creature and you invite the primeval ocean of creature anxiety…”
What is the line between eros and thanatos, intimacy and abuse? And what the fuck are those impulses anyway? I think our predicaments are existential, and therefore ludicrous, framed by the immediate: the body in the context of the state, which tries to cover up the ludicrous with the lie of commerce, the lie of nationalism, the lie of moral belonging.
“Anxiety is the result of the perception of the truth of one’s condition.”
I’m a gay man of color in this country and I don’t think our poetry is angry enough. It’s not enough, I think, to want to be understood. In fact, I’m not like you, at all. And I don’t need or want to be. I earned that. My faggot aesthetic. When my mother asked me, is your book deviant? I didn’t answer: I laughed. I laughed.
Because really, in their secret life, who isn’t?
“This is one aspect of the human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods: gods with anuses.”
The detainee lives luxuriously free of distraction in the absurd monstrosity of self-awareness.
FG: Detainee moves within a certain lexical constellation made up of words that shift between noun and verb forms—an aspect I noticed in your first book as well. One example is love, which in some instances functions as a noun, in others, as a verb, and in others, functions ambiguously. One other example is need, which in “Goat” performs two functions in one sentence:
What is it we need if need
How do you contend with such polyvalence? Do you seek out words that can deploy as well as defer meaning? What role, if any, does indeterminacy play in your intentions?
MM: The intention of the book is different from the intention of a poem. It’s the afterthought of revision, which I’m partial to and rather love. Obsession is a natural part of my discipline, and writing is itself a frustrating mess. Sometimes it’s the sound of a word that I can’t let go of, heat, say, or peristalsis, the white dog, and so I’ll use it as often as I hear it, whatever way I can. So I find myself obsessed with certain images, sounds, words that I overuse, poem after poem, trying to get it right. So I try these words out from many different angles, in many different variations. I don’t know that I seek them out so much as I have a predilection for certain totems of language in a given part of my life. Who knows why. I’m sure it’s psychological. In the end, I imagine these totems as the guiding principle of a book.
I suppose I’m dipping into that well, making as many descents as I can until I’m sick of myself. The result is a series of dizzyingly baroque echoes that is mostly an embarrassment. For me, the real writing is the revision in which I’m trying to manage the mess, cull, carve out, apply some stringency to, struggling to see if there’s a poem there. Sometimes you spend months and months, only to throw something away, but a line or two will show up again a year or so later, and you find that writing a poem is not this compact experience in which you choose a topic and complete it, at least not for me. It’s a work of constant preparation, and defiance. One has to be persistent and hopeless. That’s the discipline. I like to think I’m getting better at not giving up too soon, not sending things out for publication too early. In a collection, I have to pare back even further so that the resonance between these variations is more stark or useful. I’m not very good at it, but I am determined. I make choices.
FG: I’d like to go back to an earlier response: “I’m a gay man of color in this country and I don’t think our poetry is angry enough.” What are the politics that ground Detainee?
Why are we so invested in that hetero-Disney vision of the validation of our lives by means of the nuclear family?
MM: Oh, I have an agenda. There’s no injustice like being alive. But being born is the only injustice that we share. I don’t accept this new idea that our gay lives are normal. The idea of normality is a lie. Marriage is a lie. Why are we so invested in that hetero-Disney vision of the validation of our lives by means of the nuclear family? As if love were some untouchable pinnacle of the social experience. As if marriage really meant forever. I reject that. I don’t want my parent’s relationship. I had to bear and burn through that old insecurity, fear, shame and self-loathing that have not disappeared from our community, and the macho antagonism that still hurts us. I earned a new way of imagining my life and I won’t give that up. There isn’t a prerequisite for equality. I don’t need to show you how much I suffer, my feelings are not like your feelings, my love is not like your love. It doesn’t need to be.
The politics of the book involve a critique of the language of marriage, a criticism, I think, of the eros of intimacy, which is never anything but vulgar, despite the hetero-idealism we’re taught from a very young age: that marriage is the apex of gender and nationalism and faith and sexuality. Your idea of God, your idea of permanence, is overly precious. It’s lazy, I think, dishonest. The construct of the faithful is built over the filth of private intimacies. Love is a question without an answer, an uncertainty. Not a statement, another cheap Facebook post, another treatise on self-worth. Your theatrical dogma. Your deceitful platitudes. I’m thinking of the persecution of LGBTQ not only in places like Russia, where gay men and women are baited online and then brutally attacked, but here in the United States. I’m thinking of our disproportionate suicide rates. I’m thinking of the recent massacre in Orlando, Florida. Do you honestly think a closeted gay man of color would have shot and killed a nightclub filled with his brothers and sisters and effectively himself if the Christian ideal weren’t also a form of oppressive politics? Do you think Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick would have had the gross audacity to tweet that ancient Biblical aphorism, you “Reap What You Sow” in response to a national tragedy, the slaughter of his own countrymen and women? The ironies accuse us.
We need a more critical approach to identity politics. One that asks difficult questions without answers. One that recognizes self-loathing as a means to empowerment, not the victim’s narrative our culture has brainwashed us into thinking is our only recourse to acceptance. I’m sick to death as a gay man of color of your politics of fear. I’d rather be as loud as I am afraid. I want your questions and your misunderstandings, so that I might live without feeling terrorized by your non-queerness. Isn’t this conversation what we can afford each other in this proximity that is democracy? Look at me. We are not the same.
This scrutiny is love. This difficulty. This questioning of experience. We can be interested in each other without sacrificing our differences. We can be friends. We don’t have to be alike in any way at all.
Miguel Murphy is the author of A Book Called Rats, winner of the Blue Lynx Prize for Poetry. His book Detainee was published by Barrow Street in 2016.
Frank Garrett is an independent philosopher, writer, and translator. www.mycrashcourse.net