Revision Lesson by Erin Murphy

Revision Lesson

The faces of my former students
blur together like the crowd
in Pound’s metro station:

petals on a wet, black bough.
But you are the only student
I’ve had who suffered

such a public loss. And so,
nearly two decades later,
I can still see you

sitting on the right side
of the classroom, your long legs
tilted to fit under the small desk.

It was my first semester teaching
creative writing. I felt I had
something to prove, though

now I’m not sure what.
That I knew what I was doing?
That I wasn’t a pushover?

That despite the reputation of poets,
I wasn’t flaky or sentimental?
All of the above, I suppose.

I must have been afraid
any display of emotion would
crack my professorial armor.

Our introductory class covered
poetry and fiction writing.
You and your classmates read

and wrote poems and stories
that we critiqued in workshops.
You preferred the concrete cause

and effect of narrative, the mechanics
of getting characters from Point A
to Point B. Poems were squirming

fish that slipped between
your fingers; it was as if you
didn’t trust them. You set your

story one year into the future.
I had decided in advance
that I would treat your work

the way I would treat that
of any other student: objectively.
I would not assume

the character’s experience
was your own, even though I knew
from faculty lounge murmurings

that it was. I would not offer
sympathy. Sensitive topics
are par for the course

in creative writing. In the years
since you took my class,
I’ve had students write about

childhood abuse, sexual assaults,
gambling, and drug use. Self-harm
is a common theme, especially

among young women, though
I once had a male student write
a creative nonfiction essay

about his former addiction
to cutting his gums. In graphic detail,
he described repeatedly puncturing

the pink flesh above his molars
until he drew blood. Some students
need to learn the difference between

writing personal journal entries
and writing for an audience.
Others may benefit from a referral

to health services. But you didn’t
fit into either of these groups.
When it was time to discuss your story,

I jumped right into critique mode.
Give us a flashback or two
to develop your character,

I suggested. Try incorporating
a specific memory. Add some dialogue.
At the end, you—

I mean your character—
reflected on the one-year
anniversary and said

Everything will be alright.
Your resolution seems a bit forced,
I said. Maybe find a way to suggest

to the reader that she’s
trying to convince herself.
A month later, I would see you

dancing at the winter formal
in a blue polka dot dress, flinging
your arms into the air as if

launching missiles. But that day
in class, you folded yourself
over your notebook, scribbling

furiously. Your classmates painted
the tile floor with the soles
of their shoes. I suggested that you

build tension by withholding
information. Don’t tell us
right away that it was

September 11, I said. Wait to tell us
that the protagonist’s father
was one of the airline pilots.

What I did not say:
I’m sorry.
What I did not show:

I’m human.
I am. I am. I am
still telling.

*

Erin Murphy’s eighth book of poems, Human Resources, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Diode, Southern Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, The Georgia Review, North American Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her awards include The Normal School Poetry Prize, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and a Best of the Net award. She is editor of three anthologies from the University of Nebraska Press and SUNY Press and serves as Poetry Editor of The Summerset Review. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Website: http://www.erin-murphy.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/erinmurphypoet
Twitter: @poet_notes

Hide-and-Seek by Erin Murphy

Hide-and-Seek

         Northern Virginia, 2002

The week I teach poetry to fourth graders,
my students scramble up slides at recess

and blister their fingers on monkey bars.
They swipe the shoulders of each other’s

striped t-shirts and erupt in a chorus
of Not it! Not it! They are not squirming

in desks, locked down because a sniper
is targeting strangers. A teen in search

of a father is not crouching in the trunk
of a blue Chevy Caprice, taking aim

at bus passengers and landscapers
and drivers pumping gas. On this day,

a 25-year-old woman vacuums Cheerios
from the back seat of her mini-van

at a Shell station and returns home
to her toddler daughter whose favorite

word is why. Why dogs bark? Why
thunder go boom? Why babies cry? Why?

Why? A liquor store clerk rings up
the last sale of the night and heads back

to his garden apartment where he falls
asleep to Law & Order re-runs.

Their families will not have to ask why. I write
personification on the board. What word

is hiding inside? I ask. I’m looking, of course,
for person. In this version, there is only one boy

in the world hungry for attention, and he shoots
his arm in the air and answers cat.

*

Erin Murphy’s eighth book of poems, Human Resources, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Diode, Southern Poetry Review, American Journal of Poetry, The Georgia Review, North American Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her awards include The Normal School Poetry Prize, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and a Best of the Net award. She is editor of three anthologies from the University of Nebraska Press and SUNY Press and serves as Poetry Editor of The Summerset Review. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Website: http://www.erin-murphy.com

“Hide-and-Seek” will appear in the craft book The Strategic Poet edited by Diane Lockward (forthcoming from Terrapin Books in fall 2021). The Strategic Poet features model poems, prompts, sample poems based on prompts, and craft discussions. Additional contributors include Ellen Bass, Camille Dungy, Todd Kaneko, Diane Seuss, Ada Limón, Jan Beatty, Allison Joseph, and dozens of other poets.

Related social media links:

Erin Murphy’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/erinmurphypoet
Erin Murphy’s Twitter: @poet_notes
Terrapin Books Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/terrapinbooks
Diane Lockward’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dianelockward
Diane Lockward’s Twitter: @DianeLockward

Three Poems by Erin Murphy

Ilha dos Gatos

The day my gynecologist
says postmenopausal the way

you’d mention rain, I learn
about Ilha dos Gatos

off the coast of Brazil,
an Alcatraz for abandoned cats—

feral, ravenous, spawning.
This is not a place for birds.

Desire is a noun and a verb
but never a command.

Look at me wanting
and wanting.

*

To the Man Who Stole Our Pregnant Dog

I hope she bit you, shredding the flesh
of the hand that wooed her from my childhood

yard. You probably sold her pups off the back
of a rusty truck at a flea market, a handwritten

sign missing an s or a t in Bassett Hound.
What I remember: her banana peel ears

swept the ground like unhemmed drapes.
We called her Blarney, and I’d already

named the babies after other Irish castles
from the set of pleather-bound Britannicas

we bought by the month. Every evening
for weeks, I sat in the bath after the water turned

cold, thinking my discomfort would bring her
home. The walls shuddered with the last

rumblings of my parents’ marriage. I slid
under to see how long I could go without air,

the soapy surface a scrim over a body
that was there, then not there.

*

I Knew a Pyromaniac

A neighborhood boy,
barely old enough to sit

at the kitchen table
without a booster seat.

He couldn’t tie his shoes
but lit a match with one

flick of a slim wrist.
He sniffed sulfur on his

fingers the way most kids
inhale the smell of warm

chocolate chip cookies.
His father was gone—

not dead, just gone. This
we shared. His mother

was the shadow of a shadow.
First a swing set burned.

Then a garden shed. And
then they moved. Once

when I was babysitting him,
he sat on my lap and drew

a picture of a girl. Who’s that?
I asked. He pointed.

You. I was on fire. He didn’t
know how to hold a crayon.

But he knew the hottest
part of the flame was blue.

*

Erin Murphy’s eighth book of poems, Human Resources, is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Diode, Guesthouse, Southern Poetry Review, The Georgia Review, North American Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Her awards include The Normal School Poetry Prize judged by Nick Flynn, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and a Best of the Net award judged by Patricia Smith. She is editor of three anthologies from the University of Nebraska Press and SUNY Press and serves as Poetry Editor of The Summerset Review. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Website: http://www.erin-murphy.com