An Interview With Poet Joan Murray

Kevin Larimer

In December, Boston-based Beacon Press will publish Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times, an anthology of sixty poems "to nourish our national spirit" after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Included in the anthology, which was edited by Joan Murray, are poems by W.H. Auden, Czeslaw Milosz, Bertolt Brecht, Yehuda Amichai, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, D.H. Lawrence, and Sharon Olds.

Poets & Writers Magazine asked Murray about how the anthology came to be, and what poetry can offer a nation of readers in these uncertain times.

Joan Murray: Well, [the anthology] had two courses: A long slowly running course, which was my own alertness to, and collection of, poems that were important to me, which I put in a binder called "Poems to Live By," and they were just ones I cared to read because they had wisdom or they moved me in some way.

The real immediate course was that, like everyone else, I was so grieved by the attack on the World Trade Center, the awful loss of life, the situation that was really unspeakable. I didn't think I would write about it, but I found myself on the Amtrak train four days later-I had to go to a meeting in Buffalo-and I was coming back on the train with a group of young firefighters who were on their way to the wreckage site to dig, and I just talked with them briefly. They were so animated from within-they were nervous and excited. They had stepped over a line somewhere and had become larger than themselves and I thought, 'Gee, my parents' generation would have recognized them." We hadn't seen them much; we hadn't seen the average everyday working person too much, but with the footage that followed the attack we certainly did-the victims, their families, the rescue workers and everyone else.

So I went back to my seat on the train and I wrote a poem called "Survivors-Found" which really looked at all of that. I'm sure I'm the one who needed that poem, to see something good coming out of this. I read the poem four days later-which was on September 19-on NPR's Morning Edition and immediately after the broadcast my phone began to ring with people calling to thank me.

I was asked to read [the poem] on another national public radio show. I also taped it for television, and people continue to get in touch with me. I am the Poet in Residence at the New York State Writers Institute at SUNY-Albany, and they got 2,700 hits on their Web site. NPR had it on audio and then they put it up in text. This was because these thoughts were so needed, this poem was so needed in some way, as people said, to somehow put something into perspective. We were hearing many, many words in all the reportage-both in print and media-and finally this somehow got it for people. And I think that's what poetry does.

Because of the poem being on the air I heard from editors, one of whom was my editor at Beacon who asked, "Would you be interested in doing a book?" And my first thought was, "No I don't want to do a book. I have a lot else to do." But as I thought about it-I took a few days to think about it-I thought, "Well I don't really want to do a book on The World Trade Center Attack," but I recognized a great need for poetry in the land. It's everywhere ... it's posted up, people are sending poems to each other, reading poems over the phone. Poetry, which always sits on the sideline, is really there for us at a time like this.

We know it because it is what we say when a child is born, when someone gets married, or at the side of the grave. That's when we go to poetry, when things are really important. And so we went to poetry because of this. I thought, "The poems people really need now are poems that can help them with grief, with fear and anxiety, with returning to joy, or with affirming what is good, and looking at big issues, and the kind of world we live in, and the dangers we face now, and how to deal with all of that."

There is a remarkable amount of wisdom in poems. So that's how I thought I would handle the book and put those poems together-ones that speak to me and ones that have a kind of intimate voice. They're not pronouncements, they're poems that really speak one person to another. I love this book. I'm so glad I did it. It's an interesting and diverse book-poems that I've been hanging on to, and then some that I thought, "Okay, now this is one that we really need to hear." I guess half of the poets in it are non-American, and I guess half are living poets. But they are all poets of our own era because these were the voices that seemed fresh, accessible-people who know the kind of world we live in.

P&W: So the book will be available in December. That's a pretty quick production cycle.

JM: It was crazy. I think no one sane would have done what we did, because it was quite a labor. And anything like this-dealing with permissions and just turning everything around, having the designers, copyeditors ... well, we just didn't sleep. But I think it is going to be a wonderful book, and I think when people say to us ten, twenty years down the road, "What did you do then? Some people gave blood." I think we can say, "This is what we did." And that feels pretty good.