image title

This is what a professional writer looks like

ASU poet proves you can be a professional writer, with some hard work.
ASU poet earns prestigious award for her "wonderfully disturbing" poetry.
March 8, 2016

ASU's Patricia Colleen Murphy awaits the publication of her first book with reminders to other writers that it can be done

Sometimes getting even the most exciting news can be anticlimactic. (Curse you, caller ID!) 

That was the case for ASU’s Patricia Colleen Murphy, who was at home in her Phoenix kitchen making a pot of soup when a momentary glance at her ringing phone signaled that she’d won this year’s prestigious May Swenson Poetry Award, a competition organized by University Press of Colorado and its imprint, Utah State University Press. Recipients of the annual Swenson Award, which honors one of America's most provocative and vital writers, receive a cash prize and a book contract.

“I saw it was a Colorado number and, it was strange, but I immediately knew,” said Murphy (pictured above), a senior lecturer in the College of Letters and Sciences at ASU’s Polytechnic campus and founding editor of the student-produced literary magazine Superstition Review

This will be Murphy’s first book — though many of her poems have been published in respected literary journals and taken numerous honors. The collection of 60-some poems, titled “Hemming Flames,” will be published and released by Utah State University Press this summer. 

“I had the manuscript out at about 10 contests,” she said. “It had finaled at other competitions in recent years, and two separate publishers had each had it for two years before ultimately saying, ‘It’s ready to go, but it’s not for us.’ So I knew the work was getting close.”

Contest judge Stephen Dunn — an award-winning poet, teacher and essayist — selected Murphy’s work from among 27 finalists chosen by professional poets and university teachers of poetry.

Dunn praised the collection (calling it “wonderfully disturbing”) and, highlighting its title, which comes from the book’s final line, he wrote: 

“... As good titles do, it provides a way of understanding what have been the book's necessities. The last two lines are, ‘Yesterday I invented fire. / Today I'm hemming flames.’ The ‘today’ speaks to almost every poem Murphy artfully offers us, as if the act of writing itself is an attempt to hem what can't easily be hemmed.”

That poem, Murphy said, voiced how she felt after both of her parents died within five months of each other. 

The work on the whole is gut-wrenching and can be difficult to read, she admits, because it honestly addresses painful issues in her life, including the impact of a parent’s mental illness.  

The collection of poems — a few of which she has been reworking for 20 years — turned a corner several years ago after she decided, with a push from her writers’ group, that she needed to be brave enough to deeply address the emotional material.

“When we write halfway, we get stuck in a place where our work is less impactful,” she said. “I took risks in this book that I didn’t take before.”

Murphy knows risk. She has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and last summer ran the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc trail in the Alps over six days. 

As a mentor, she tries to instill in her writing students and Superstition Review editors the understanding that pursuing a writing life is like a marathon, with identifiable steps in training and building endurance.

“My professional journey as a poet and author is part of what I want to teach my students. This is what being a professional author looks like,” said Murphy, who earned her MFA in 1996 from ASU’s creative writing program in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

She makes the professional writers’ experience accessible and transparent to them from every possible angle.

Last summer, Murphy wrote in real-time on her social-media networks about her 25-day residency at the Ragdale artists' community, which offers writers, visual artists, composers, architects and other creatives a serene place to spend focused time on work.

“A lot of students don’t know what an artist colony is. It was thrilling to be able to share my experiences at the residency with them, and it was even more thrilling when five months later I had a book contract because of some of the work I did while there,” Murphy said. “It’s important for me to share information about how to get published, like ‘You can’t do it without other people giving you feedback,’ and, ‘There are institutions out there that will support you.’ ”

Superstition Review at Night of the Open Door

Patricia Colleen Murphy (right) and Superstition Review intern Leah Newsom, tabling at the NonfictioNOW conference in Flagstaff in October. Attending professional conferences is one of the many opportunities Murphy affords student editors. Newsom, who served as a nonfiction editor and then interview editor, has been accepted to the ASU MFA program in fiction for the fall. Courtesy photos.

For ASU’s recent Night of the Open Door festivities at the Polytechnic campus, she and Superstition Review editors organized a panel of professional writers to talk about their career paths. She also takes students each year to the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference and Bookfair.

Since launching Superstition Review in 2008, she has given more than 275 ASU student interns not only tangible, resume-worthy experience in publishing (see the video segment at 6:00) but also countless opportunities to “peek behind the curtain,” interviewing “big-name” and emerging writers and artists about their work and lives.

Murphy said the response from her students about her winning the Swenson Award has been very meaningful: “They’re about as excited for me as I am for me!”

Her professional colleagues are similarly elated.

“Trish has made a life committed to poetry, and to sharing it with the world at large,” noted fellow poet and ASU alumnus Robert Krut in an email message for this story. Krut, who is also part of Murphy’s virtual writers’ group, teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Trish is a great poet, a great supporter of the literary community, and a warm, encouraging person,” Krut said. “Needless to say, there are a lot of us out there thrilled about her award and book release.”

Here is Murphy's poem that inspired the book's title:

With a Whimper

First I look at some Eliot, which puts me

straight to sleep for a lovely hour or so.

I just can’t do it. What a prig. But I’m glad I try.

Since it’s hard, I decide to write one of those

poems that gets by on a few clever ploys.

It starts with a dream that I’ll try to pass off

as not a dream. I’m stealing a Danish and eating it

in a parking lot while dodging cars driven

by nonagenarians who remind me of my parents.

Sh**. Everything reminds me of them.

Like trying to read Eliot, blah blah blah,

and all I can think of is Mom and Dad in urns.

Then I see a man with his small son.

I see a tender look between them. That hurts

like hell. But I don’t even need that image.

Just say man or son. Just say woman or daughter.

Doctor put me on the stare-pills.

I can’t feel my distal parts.

Yesterday I invented fire.

Today I’m hemming flames.

— by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Maureen Roen

Manager, Creative Services , College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


image title

What's the Kerfuffle?

ASU MFA student creates Kerfuffle, a theater for young children.
What is with the "Caterpillar's Footprint"? Lots of kid-friendly fun.
March 8, 2016

ASU MFA student creates theater company for very young children

Ashley Laverty doesn’t mind when her shows have an element of chaos.

In fact, she encourages it.

It’s also the reason why the Arizona State University student has named her theater company Kerfuffle, which means a commotion or fuss. The company produces interactive performances for children age 5 and younger.

“There have been a lot of chaotic moments during our shows, but we try to embrace them and remember chaos is not a bad thing,” said Laverty, who is an MFA student in the School of Film, Dance and TheaterThe School of Film, Dance and Theater is in ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts..

“Obviously things will always go wrong in a production and that is OK. We don’t try and fix it. This is a show for children under 5, and we want them to behave like they’re under 5. They don’t have to sit still if they don’t want to.”

Laverty’s words come on the eve of her first production, “The Caterpillar’s Footprint,” which began an 18-show engagement at Mesa’s i.d.e.a. Museum on Tuesday. It runs through March 13.

A unique theater production.

Actor Amanda Pintore (center) emerges
as a butterfly near the end of a dress
rehearsal of "The Caterpillar's Footprint"
at the i.d.e.a. Museum in Mesa on
March 7.

Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

The 30-minute magical show takes the audience on a journey through a fantasy forest where a bear, a dinosaur and a fox meet a caterpillar. Featuring music and puppets inside a 14-foot dome with mushroom-cap seats, it’s designed to engage very young audiences.

A recent dress rehearsal started when the bear and the dinosaur chummed up Owyn and Joel Gramp — ages 6 and 3, respectively — in an outside play area. Once the Gramps became familiar with the characters, they were invited into a “forest,” which included rugs, logs, pillows and flowerpots. After a few minutes, the flap of the Kerfuffle tent was opened and the two were treated to the performance. The boys smiled, giggled and laughed aloud at times. Their eyes also revealed a few lightbulb moments.

“I saw a need for this type of theater because it just doesn’t exist in Arizona,” Laverty said of targeting very young children. “This is a way for young children to sit and watch theater that fosters their imagination, helps develop their brains and to be engaged with the characters.”

The inspiration for “The Caterpillar’s Footprint” came after Kerfuffle’s team, which includes fellow MFA students Amanda Pintore and Andy Waldron, spent time with children attending Mesa’s Good Earth Montessori School and Bright Horizons at ASU.

“There are lots of moments during the show where we interact with each individual in the audience and they have the option to speak, laugh, react or not even go into the tent,” said Pintore, who plays the part of the curious caterpillar. “We’re not going to tell them, ‘No,’ or how to react or behave as long as they are safe. We don’t have traditional expectations of our audience.”

Waldron, who plays the part of the bear and the fox, said “The Caterpillar’s Footprint” is special because it’s reactive to each individual child.

“As a performer there is a certain structure, but we improvise based on what they give us,” Waldron said. “We greet each child and realize their ideas and creativity in real time.”

The show is also Laverty’s culminating applied project for completion in the Masters of Fine Arts Theatre for Youth program at ASU. It is also a Pave Arts Venture IncubatorThe Pave Arts Venture Incubator is part of the Pave Program in Arts Entrepreneurship, which supports arts entrepreneurship education and undertaking entrepreneurial activities and research. 2015 grant recipient.

Laverty, a former children’s theater actress in New York City, playwright and artist in residence at Lowell Elementary School in Mesa, said starting Kerfuffle has been challenging at times but ultimately rewarding.

“I’ve never started a theater company before and I’ve never written a thesis before, so combining these two elements for my applied project has been stressful,” Laverty said. “But I must say to see these young children so engaged and affected has been amazing, which makes it all worth it. It’s really been special.”

“The Caterpillar’s Footprint”

When: March 8-13

Where: i.d.e.a. Museum, 150 W. Pepper Place, Mesa

Details: For performance times, tickets and additional details, visit this page.

Top photo: Actor Amanda Pintore, as a caterpillar, allows 3-year-old Joel Gramp to touch her head in the dress rehearsal of Kerfuffle production of "The Caterpillar's Footprint" at the i.d.e.a. Museum in Mesa, on March 7. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now