A former Chicagolander, Eileen (Mish) Murphy lives with her husband and three dogs 30 miles from Tampa, Florida. She received her Masters degree from Columbia College, Chicago. She teaches literature/English at Polk State College in Lakeland and has recently published poetry in Tinderbox (nominated for Pushcart Prize), Rogue Agent, Thirteen Myna Birds, The Open Mouse, Writing In A Woman’s Voice, and a number of other journals. She is a staff writer for Los Angeles-based Cultural Weekly magazine. She also does book reviews and photography. Her website is mishmurphy.com.
Since I don’t know too much about you and part of the mission of WritersnreadersII is to introduce artists and writers to other artists and writers, can you tell us a little about the different creative hats you wear. Do you use or prefer the label of artist? How do you define yourself as an artist?
I am a poet, a full-time tenured professor of English composition and literature at Polk State College, Lakeland, Florida, a non-fiction writer of book reviews, staff writer for the L.A.-based Cultural Weekly, and a visual artist.
During the college school year, a lot of my energy is focused on my students at Polk State College in Lakeland, where I’m also adviser to the Creative Writing Club, which I founded five years ago. My vision has been to improve writing and literary awareness on campus. But I wouldn’t be the teacher I am if I wasn’t at heart a writer and visual artist, my passion for which spills out in everything I do in the classroom.
I pursue my writing and visual arts in my “leisure time” ( I do get time off in the summer). My poetry has been widely published, and I’ve completed a first collection of poetry, The Knife Tree, for which I’m currently pursuing publication. I’ve been a poet for as long as I can remember—in my heart, I’m a poet.
In recent years, I became interested in doing reviews of poetry books as a way of improving my understanding of poetry. The non-fiction articles I write for Cultural Weekly improve my overall writing and keep me on my toes.
I have always used my photo/visual art as a kind of no-pressure relaxation activity. In the last year or so, I developed a different, unique style. My photos are now on show in a gallery in Tampa. The prints are for sale at the gallery and through my website.
What sorts of materials do you use and are you drawn to using and why? What are your subjects?
In my poetry, I like writing about Florida; I also write about girlhood, and the deaths of a brother and grandmother, both of whom were important to me. Sometimes I feel compelled to write about war or global warming or some issue that’s on my mind. I occasionally write sonnets, haiku, or prose poems, although I usually write free verse. I compose poetry on a computer.
Each poetry book I review is a new adventure. I use a pen and notebook to write out notes about every page, every poem. To date, the articles I’ve written as a staff writer for Cultural Weekly have all had a tie to Florida, but I know that won’t always be the case. I interview people with my pen and notebook, but also record at times, using my cellphone’s recorder, which I recommend. (Samsung).
My subjects as a visual artist might be considered unusual. I did a project where I photographed the geckos that live around our front porch—their technical name is anoles. They’re lizards that look like dinosaurs close up, but are gentle, shy, eat insects and don’t bite. I use Photoshop and other computer programs to get a final psychedelic image of these geckos I n tropical colors and to transform them in various ways. They represent my current photo art obsession, which I am naming, “Gecko Art.”
When did you first discover you were an artist? What form did that discovery take?—did someone label you an artist? Did you receive praise that hit home? Win a contest? Feel a sense of accomplishment at executing a particular work?
I knew I wanted to be a writer after I graduated from college, but my parents wanted me to go to law school. I graduated from law school convinced that it had been a wrong move, but determined to give it a chance. However, things didn’t work out—I hated being a lawyer. It was then I decided to go back to grad school and get my masters in creative writing. I did it at night and paid for it myself. I was fortunate to be able to attend Columbia College in downtown Chicago, not far from where I worked. Making the decision to go to grad school in creative writing, and then the faculty and program at Columbia College, first made me feel like a real writer.
I never considered myself a professional visual artist until I was validated by strangers. On a plane trip I took this spring to Denver, I met a couple of artists from Tampa who said they owned some art galleries. I showed them my “Gecko Art,” on my cell phone, and they said they were impressed and would be in touch. What were the chances this was legit? But it was, and now my “Gecko Art” is hanging at a respectable gallery in Tampa. The reception was last Saturday and everything worked out. Although this wasn’t my first gallery show, it was professionally done and the first where I believe someone might buy something. Now I feel like an artist.
What kinds of obstacles have you encountered in your creative/artistic life and how have you met them?
My family did not support my becoming a writer or artist, so I can’t tell you how much self-doubt I’ve had to overcome on that account. To give them credit, my parents were concerned that I be able to earn a living and thought “writer” or “artist” was another name for “poor person.” At the time I graduated from college, I remember there was a nationwide low in hiring of English teachers, which put that career on the “no go” list. I kept writing things like poetry and short stories, while doing as my parents wanted. Eventually, however, my non-interest in a legal career got the better of me and I changed to the teaching of writing and went to grad school in creative writing, which improved my life.
My main obstacle in becoming a visual artist was myself. I had my mind made up that I couldn’t master the crazy intricacies of professional cameras- f-stops, film speeds and so forth. Two summers ago, at Polk State College, I managed to complete my first professional photography class with a grade of A. Before that, I’d been enrolled in a number of photography classes both in Florida and in Illinois that I dropped out of, sorry to say. However, it was in the 90s that Calyx Journal published one of my photos, giving me encouragement to continue. I didn’t really need it—I was doing it for the joy of doing it. I eventually learned the technical stuff. I wish I hadn’t been so negative about that!
What are your feelings and thoughts regarding success as a professional—opportunities to show at galleries and museums, sales, etcetera. How would you gauge your own success? What advice, if any, would you impart to a young, aspiring artist?
I’m in this writing thing for the long haul. Are you also ready? There’s a few things I’ve learned.
I believe in NatPoMo group projects and other writing with a group or with a partner. Collaboration is a joy. I believe in Peer Review. I believe in cross-training: fiction writers writing poetry, poets writing fiction, poets and fiction writers writing articles, poets writing memoir. We should all try to write haiku, for example, anything and everything to keep the writing juices flowing. I believe in experimentation.
I believe in helping other writers and in having writer friends. Having writer friends makes the writing life so much easier. Gather your writer friends like security blankets, like family, like a last drop of water.
Every writer should have another creative outlet that’s low-stress. Im fine that some of my photo art is now deemed practically commercial. But I’ve done photography all of my life and I refuse to stress over it. In fact, I use it to relive stress. That’s not going to change.
They say success is 10-percent inspiration and 90-percent perspiration, and I believe that’s true. I believe in old-fashioned work and stick-to-it-ive-ness to meet my goals. But you should write what makes you happy and do art that gives you oy. That way, if you’re not a popular success, you’ll be a success within yourself. Do it for yourself first, and then for other people.
I believe that if you’re just breaking into the writing field, be on the lookout for opportunities. I met some artists on a plane and my artwork took a new direction. It might still have happened sooner or later; it happened sooner. But if you’re young or new to the writing biz, it’s important that you recognize a lucky break for what it is and pounce on it when it occurs.
Get prepared. Attend conferences, network with other writers, take classes, peer review your work, join writers’ groups. Of course, submit your work. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you won’t believe the opportunities! Get read to soar.