Cross Country: Julie Swarstad Johnson and Patricia Colleen Murphy in Conversation
When I moved to Arizona from Ohio, I was struck by the feeling that humans had no business living in this climate.
In giving up one home for another across the continent, we can experience unexpected disorientation, not only the culture shock associated with new human communities but also the shock of life in a new place—with all the rich layers of meaning that word can carry, from biome to a sense of being. Two recent poetry collections, Patricia Colleen Murphy’s Bully Love and Julie Swarstad Johnson’s Pennsylvania Furnace, dig into this experience of relocating and re-orienting, of rooting in a new place: one from Ohio to Arizona and the other from Arizona to Pennsylvania and back again.
Julie Swarstad Johnson is the author of Pennsylvania Furnace (Unicorn Press, 2019) and the chapbooks Orchard Light (Seven Kitchens Press, forthcoming) and Jumping the Pit (Finishing Line Press, 2015). She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State University and has served as artist-in-residence at Gettysburg National Military Park. She is the co-editor of Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight, forthcoming from the University of Arizona Press. She works at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson.
Patricia Colleen Murphy founded Superstition Review at Arizona State University in Phoenix, where she teaches creative writing and magazine production. Her book Bully Love (Press 53, 2019) won the 2019 Press 53 Award for Poetry. Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press, 2016) won the 2016 May Swenson Poetry Award judged by Stephen Dunn and the 2017 Milt Kessler Poetry Award. A chapter from her memoir in progress was published as a chapbook by New Orleans Review. Her writing has appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review, Quarterly West, and American Poetry Review and has received awards from Gulf Coast and Bellevue Literary Review, among others.
This conversation, sparked when Murphy published a poem by Johnson in Superstition Review, explores the allure of the desert, urban sprawl, the natural world as a site of memory and change, and writing as a way of beginning to find your way home. Their discussion returns frequently to the relationship between dissonance and discovery. Shaken out of the expected, we find ourselves seeing our new realities more clearly.
Nearly everything about central Pennsylvania struck me as wildly unfamiliar: the landscape, the functioning of small towns, the remnants of human history.
Julie Swarstad Johnson: Trish, early in your recent book Bully Love, a new air conditioner is lowered by crane onto the roof of your house in Phoenix, and you describe the air conditioner as “our license to live here.” Other poems relish the physical beauty of the desert, delighting in rock formations, the shadows of hawks, a long hike descending to a canyon bottom. You write that the allure of the desert for those who don’t live here is “not miles of tiled homes, / but creosote, arroyos, // saguaro and alluvial fans.” The poems in Bully Love walk the line between wanting a deep knowledge of the landscape and acknowledging the realities of living in a massive metropolitan area that is deeply dependent on scarce resources. As you were writing this book, were you consciously trying to balance those two impulses, or did that balance arrive on its own?
Patricia Colleen Murphy: While I was composing the collection, my elevator pitch was, “This book examines the intersections of culture and capitalism in the desert southwest.” So yes, I was quite consciously thinking about the environmental impact of choosing to live in the desert, and I was at the same time thinking about how the assets of the desert are marketed as commodities to visitors.
When I moved to Arizona from Ohio, I was struck by the feeling that humans had no business living in this climate. I arrived in August and it was hot, dusty, and I was ill-equipped to be here. I was used to lush, green landscapes, fast flowing rivers and streams, and cool breezes. I couldn’t understand why or how people could manage the heat. It took me many years and many trips into wild areas to appreciate the complexity of the desert ecosystem. And that made me even more conscious of the impact our living has on the earth.
Julie, I’d like to ask you a question in the same vein. In Pennsylvania Furnace we also get such vibrant pictures of life in metropolitan desert areas (both Tucson and Phoenix) calling them so aptly, “a geography of void and plenty.” You describe the ways the cities consume themselves. Could you talk more about how the desert inhabits you, and how it inhabits these poems? You contrast the desert so well with the Eastern landscapes of Pennsylvania. How do those separate planes live in you?
Julie Swarstad Johnson:Pennsylvania Furnace came out of the only two years I have lived outside of Arizona—I moved to central Pennsylvania for grad school at Penn State. I grew up in a suburb of Phoenix and then spent five years in Tucson before heading east, and so nearly everything about central Pennsylvania struck me as wildly unfamiliar: the landscape, the functioning of small towns, the remnants of human history. I grew up in a household where a common part of life was knowing the names of mountains, plants, streets, and ghost towns, so I started to learn about central Pennsylvania as a way of grounding myself there.
That learning led me to write a sequence of poems about the industrial history of central Pennsylvania as a way of trying to understand the place that it had become by the time I lived there. Rural Pennsylvania looked lush and “natural” to me, but in exploring the region’s history, I learned that the forests had been largely clear-cut during the 19th century to support the production of iron. This landscape that I saw as natural was deeply shaped by humans, albeit in a way that was less obvious than in contemporary Phoenix, where the desert is literally bulldozed to make way for the city.
I moved back to Tucson soon after graduating, and that sudden shift back to the desert led me to look at the familiar desert landscape—both urban and wild—in a new way, and to write poems about the overlap between human and non-human environments here in Arizona. The finished book ultimately brings together three strands: Pennsylvania in the past, Pennsylvania in the present, and Arizona in the present.
I once heard Brian Teare describe the potential for poetry to be a kind of fieldwork in which close attention to place through lived experience can be triangulated by natural and human history. Individual poems in Pennsylvania Furnace do this work, but I also see the three strands as enacting a similar triangulation, each playing against the others to reveal currents of how humans can know, shape, and be shaped by place.
Trish, Bully Love incorporates multiple strands as well: there are repeated poems about losing one’s parents, poems about hiking in Arizona, poems that struggle with what it means to live in a city, poems that look at the landscape of Ohio from the distance of the desert. How did those strands come together in the process of writing this book? Were there unexpected resonances, particularly between the human and the non-human?
Patricia Colleen Murphy: Those various themes were central to the first draft of the book because they encompassed what happened in my life for an entire decade or so. My partner John and I lost all four of our parents from 2001 to 2009. And each of their deaths were similar in some ways since all four of them were extremely heavy smokers. Their life choices meant they aged very poorly and had serious health issues for long periods of time.
I think some of my decisions about where and how to live were a reaction to feeling entirely helpless in the face of those self-destructive behaviors. Backpacking into wilderness areas made me feel alive and helped me relieve so many frustrations. Interacting with nature was so much simpler than interacting with my parents, whose deteriorating health was a constant fear.
Yes, there were certainly resonances I did not expect. In fact, at the advice of my editor Tom Lombardo, I split the poem “Dying Four Ways” into four parts and spread those out through the collection (this started as one poem). I thought it was a brilliant note especially because it also put more focus on place through each of the four locations where our parents passed, but it also allowed the realities of their deaths to bump up against our new lives.
Julie, this discussion makes me think specifically of “What the Susquehanna Tells Me about Blood,” which appeared in Crab Orchard Review. This is such a sophisticated poem that addresses not only loss of loved ones, but also ritual in the natural world, illness, death, and mourning. I would love to hear about how this poem came to be. What was your process for writing this poem?
Julie Swarstad Johnson: I wrote “What the Susquehanna Tells Me about Blood” in 2015, back in Tucson, early in a very productive period after a year and a half when I wrote very little due to a stressful job. When I started writing again, I would give myself assignments as stimulus; “What the Susquehanna…” came out of reading Paul Mariani’s poem “Ferry Crossing” from Deaths and Transfigurations, which uses long iambic lines with end rhymes. The lines of that poem feel ungainly in a productive way, their length anchored by the end rhymes even as the sentences spill over beyond the line. That form felt like the perfect vehicle for a poem about loss amid the ongoing life of the natural world and the ongoing life of memory.
Despite having a title that conjures fire, Pennsylvania Furnace contains many poems about water; when I moved to Pennsylvania, the rivers and creeks absolutely astonished me, and the Susquehanna most of all. Three of my grandparents were from Pennsylvania, including my mom’s dad, who died quite young of an unusual blood disease. One of the only things I remember my mom saying about him was that he had taken a canoe trip down the Susquehanna. The experience of spending time with that river—the breadth, the vitality, the motion of it—had stuck with me after I moved back to Arizona. Prompted by Mariani’s poem two years later, I found a structure that pushed forward and back against itself at the same time, constant and changing as any river, or any family history.
Trish, in Bully Love, I see so much of the Arizona that I know: “White-knuckling the climb up I-17,” a “burn line [that] runs the length / of the mountain spine,” long drives to remote hikes, saved photographs of “the cottonwood, the sycamore, / the lichen and the dove.” You mentioned that Bully Love encompasses the experiences of a decade for you. How did writing Bully Love shape your relationship with your chosen home? How is this place shaping your writing now?
Patricia Colleen Murphy: I came to Arizona as such a young person. I was 22 years old and I wanted so badly to start somewhere and something fresh. Many of the poems in this collection felt like meditations on how to thrive; how to make sense of a landscape so different from what I had always known.
There is another sequence of poems in the book that I ended up spreading throughout the collection as a way to ensure the reader would pulse back to place as a theme. Those are the hiking poems built around a hiking trip to Fossil Springs.
Those five poems were written as a collaborative project with a painter who is also from the Midwest originally. She and I took this trip through Fossil Springs, and she treated the place in painting and I treated it in poetry. We displayed the paintings and poems in an exhibition in downtown Phoenix. Those five poems are really intensive studies that allowed me to examine my new attachment to the desert. I think those five poems contain some of the more inventive and vibrant descriptions of my chosen home.
Julie, I have to chuckle at your take on rivers. I remember when I first moved to Arizona I used to read the magazine Arizona Highways, and they always had a “joke” section where they featured silly readers’ stories about quirks of desert dwellers. I’ll never forget my favorite, which I now always think about when I see a lovely flowing river:
A desert dweller is vacationing in the Midwest. Pointing out to the wide flowing river the Midwesterner says, “So? How do you like it?” The desert dweller answers, “I can’t tell. There’s too much water in the way.”
I have to think of all the hikes I’ve done in dry canyons; of all the many bridges over empty riverbeds. That brings me to a burning question I want to ask you. Of all the resonances between your collection about moving east from west and my collection about moving west from east, the pulsing back to horses throughout our books really intrigued me. My horses appear in both Ohio and Arizona, in youth and in middle age. Your horses, “can’t read in this hellish light.” Then they “doze, returned to stalls from harness / and traces.” And later, in a poem with another river, “The river shakes / open the air, a horse through with the mud / on its flanks, heaving off every clinging / thickness it has passed through.” Where do your horses come from? How do they represent place for you?
Julie Swarstad Johnson: Somewhere early in the process of writing Pennsylvania Furnace, Robin Becker—my thesis advisor at Penn State and a powerful force behind the earliest version of the book—handed me the poem “Pit Pony” by William Greenway. It’s a meditation on the lives of ponies that played a key role in mining in Wales, ponies who were born in the mines and who lived their whole lives in that deep darkness. Reading that poem led me to think more about the animals, horses and mules in particular, that played a crucial part in the iron-making communities I was depicting. Without horses or mules, that industry couldn’t have existed where it did, in resource-rich areas far from ports and centers of commerce.
Animals turn up frequently throughout Pennsylvania Furnace, and nearly all of them are drawn from actual encounters: The mule deer from “The Unicorn in Captivity” might still be out there near Cascabel, Arizona, and I can only imagine that Swatara Furnace is still sheltering several thousand spiders. The horses came to me more obliquely; I have had very little direct contact with horses, and I had to imagine the lives of these animals, given over to intensely hard work. Several valleys around where I lived in Pennsylvania were home to substantial Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities, so observing their horses at work plowing fields or pulling buggies—often ironically seen from my car—helped me to imagine the horses that show up in the book. There’s a sense of partnership, of close identification between the people and the animals they rely on that I hope comes through in those poems. It’s a partnership dependent on place, on the lines and angles of the land over which the ore wagons or mule trains travel.
To circle back to your last answer, that joke about rivers is right on. It speaks to the dissonance I think we both experienced in our cross-country moves: Nothing looks or functions quite the way you expect it to, and that reality then drives you to learn, to explore, and to see in a new way. Trish, I’ve been grateful for the chance to think about the way our two books connect with one another. What are you currently working on?
Patricia Colleen Murphy: I am working on a third collection of poetry and a memoir, and place is a key player in both of them. The poetry collection has many poems based on my international travel. I have traveled to 50 countries and I love to process place through poetry. The way I see place is different now, due to all the time I have spent baking in the Arizona sun. And in my nonfiction the desert is a character. It is an agent. It has more power over me than some of the people in the book. In addition to the poetry and memoir, I also have been working on some of my own travel essays. I have been teaching travel writing for seven years now, and I think I am finally managing to understand this complex genre.
Julie, what are you currently working on?
Julie Swarstad Johnson: At the moment, I’m in the midst of finalizing two very different projects that will be published in 2020. The first is a chapbook of poems, Orchard Light, that came out of a residency at Gettysburg National Military Park thanks to the National Parks Arts Foundation, forthcoming from Seven Kitchens Press in the spring. The poems look at the battle and its aftermath from the viewpoint of a real family of pacifist Christians whose house and orchards became part of the battlefield. The poems draw heavily on archival research, but they are also very much rooted in the particularity of the land—they rely on physical details that I never would have dreamed up without actually being at Gettysburg and spending a lot of time walking and hiking around the park on my own.
The second project is an anthology I co-edited with Christopher Cokinos, Beyond Earth’s Edge: The Poetry of Spaceflight, forthcoming in the fall from the University of Arizona Press. The book looks specifically at spaceflight and space exploration, with about 90 poems written by a huge range of writers, from past U.S. poets laureate to emerging writers working today. Space exploration has been an interest of mine since childhood, and I’ve appreciated this chance to immerse myself in it more critically. I look forward to sharing this unexpected window into spaceflight with readers, especially readers who don’t typically turn to poetry to think about science.