Issue 90: Joan Murray

Joan Murray Photo for WS

About Joan Murray

Joan Murray is a (mostly narrative) poet who’s published prize-winning books with Wesleyan, Beacon, White Pine and Norton. Her favorite is Queen of the Mist, a first-person novel in verse about the first person to go over Niagara in a barrel. Her poems have been in The New Yorker and The Atlantic and lots of wonderful smaller journals; her new fiction will be in River Styx, her non-fiction in Alaska Quarterly Review. A two-time NEA Fellowship winner, she’s been Poet in Residence at the New York State Writers Institute, and is editor of the Poems to Live By anthologies and The Pushcart Book of Poetry.

A Profile of the Author

Notes on "To Appreciate Squires"

In writing poems, I’m usually trying to understand something, rather than tell what I already know—which happened in my squirrel poem. The “dramatic situation” was a walk I took with a poet named Eric Gamalinda when we were at the MacDowell colony in New Hampshire. We were newly arrived (Eric from the Philippines, I from New York) and we didn’t know each other. But Blake Tewksbury, MacDowell’s groundsman-gardener, lunch-basket deliverer, and unobtrusive shaman, recognized some spiritual dimension in us both and invited us to dinner at his house in town.

As Eric and I were headed there, down a long steep road, an epiphany ran across my path—in the form of a squirrel. My consciousness, with its received opinions, barely took in the squirrel and swatted it away. But Eric regarded it with open eyes and allowed himself to be amazed. Which allowed me to pause and be amazed too.

The next day as I wrote the poem, I was riffing along as I usually do, when up popped my ur-squirrel—the one who came into my bedroom when I was very small. And up popped my mother across the room. And there I was, stretched out in wonder, until my mother started feeding me her negativity. I had pictured that scene often, but never grasped its meaning, until I started writing about Eric’s ur-squirrel: “as if we were in Eden and it had no name.” In most of my poems, I’ll spontaneously make connections like that. Things that strike sparks to reveal things. What a gift—to suddenly break free from an old prejudice.

Music, Food, Booze, Tattoos, Kittens, etc.

I want to say I’m a connoisseur of ambient electronica, saffron dishes and stirred martinis, who sported a lizard tattoo and rescued a baby raccoon. But here’s the more complete truth: At night, I listen to ambient sounds on PRX’s Echoes, but when I’m walking, driving, or at the gym, my sounds are Bach, Santana, and Yellowman. And while I’ve made saffron risotto a few times, the food of my native land is junk food. My go-to’s are Cheez-its, Fritos, and Snickers. For real meals, I favor vegetarian. Every evening after a mile-long walk (where I sometimes see eagles), my husband makes me a gin-and-tonic so I can sit on the side porch watching hummingbirds until it gets cold. As for martinis, I’ve gotten smashed on Cosmos a couple of times with a couple of friends singing show tunes.

Once at Yaddo, I had a lizard around my bicep, until an artist told me she was envious, and I scraped it off. Back in the Bronx, we had raccoons on our balcony, and recently in the country, I rescued a baby one—long enough so a professional could collect it. But my major animal relationships have been feline. When we bought our rambling, crumbling house, it begged for cats, so I adopted two. The sign in the Country Store said “they like to curl up in your lap when you read” (it wasn’t true). A third came along that December when we had cat food and compassion. The fourth appeared with a broken hip, a missing eye, and two kittens inside. Time went by, and then there were none. Please don’t send kittens; Snickers will do.

Goat Cover

“To Appreciate Squirrels” by Joan Murray

Found in Willow Springs 90 Back to Author Profile To appreciate squirrelsyou have to walk toward Peterborough with Eric Gamalinda,down the steep part of High Streetwhere there are woods on both … Read more

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