Urbana librarian turned author earns critical acclaim for first poetry book

Urbana librarian turned author earns critical acclaim for first poetry book

Matt Murrey says there’s “a lot that disturbs me in this world,” a sensibility that shows up prominently in his poetry.

There’s war, crime, violence, bigotry. There’s a child sobbing in a library “for something lost/ or broken, something/ that will never be replaced.” There’s also hope, Murrey said in an interview at his home in Urbana. “The hopeful things are human connections and connections with the natural world.”

The breadth of his human connections showed up in March at The Urbana Free Library, where 75 friends turned out to hear him read from his just-published first book. Bulletproof won the full-length poetry manuscript contest at Jacar Press, a literary press in Durham, N.C.

Bulletproof

Contest judge Marilyn Nelson, a three-time finalist for the National Book Award, described it as presenting a “generous range of thought-worthy subjects, approached with simplicity, wisdom, and a deft use of language.”

An Urbana High School librarian, Murrey grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., raised Catholic in what he described as a fairly devout but conservative home.

He first encountered literature and poetry in high school. In 10th grade a nun took his class to see “The Glass Menagerie” and “Death of a Salesman.” In his junior year, a thin, quirky, older teacher tossed aside a customary no-nonsense demeanor to give impassioned readings of seventeenth-century poet George Herbert.

Murrey enrolled at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., as an engineering major. After a year he decided to stop “doing what other people wanted me to do” and switched to English.

The poet Robert Bly visited campus one year and responded bluntly but with friendliness to Murrey’s poetry. “Bly liked to ask, ‘Where’s the porcupine?’ He wanted to know who you are and where you come from,” Murrey said.

Degree in hand, Murrey moved to Chicago. He wanted to explore social justice issues and liberation theology, so he lived in a Catholic Worker House, serving meals and washing dishes. There he met Carol Inskeep, a volunteer who would become his partner. Carol is a librarian at The Urbana Free Library. The couple have two adult sons.

After Chicago, Murrey and Inskeep attended University of Iowa for degrees in teaching and library science respectively. Murrey was not part of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, but did attend poetry readings and took one course from poet Gerald Stern. Murrey said Stern’s readings blew him away and taught him that poetry was an oral as well as a written art.

Murrey has risen early to write almost every morning since 1986, when, he says, he “decided to be a writer.” He was awarded a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995. Asked what poets served as models, he listed Marge Piercy, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Philip Levine and Gerald Stern.

Why is poetry important? I asked him.

“Literature is a whole ‘nother world out there. It’s intensely inspiring, and I just wanted to get lost in that world. All the arts are essential. I remember reading about the siege of Sarajevo. They were still putting on plays.”

How did his background in social justice Catholicism impact his writing? Murrey said that’s a big and elusive question.

“Though I’m now very much an atheist, I still love the idea of the golden rule, of empathy with people, especially with outsiders — the poor, the excluded, the persecuted. I also think the religion thing gave me a sense of looking at the world with wonder and mystery, and holding all natural and living things as sacred.  I think those beliefs are somewhere and sometimes in my poetry.”

Although 50 of its poems were previously published in literary journals, Bulletproof was a long time coming.  “I’ve been trying to get a book accepted and getting close calls for 20 years,” Murrey said. “I had kind of resigned myself to never getting a book published.” He’s very happy to have it out there, but also has moments of self-doubt, “fear that I’m a fraud, that the poems are no good.”

But the fact that Bulletproof was chosen by a distinguished American poet in a blind competition from what must have been hundreds of entries gives the lie to that fear. So do the poems.

First Song

There is a bird that started singing
at five in the morning,
in the dark at five in the morning
just as I started writing.
That’s how I know that
it’s spring, that I should keep
writing, that the darkness
has not swallowed us,
and that there will be morning
and noon and evening — a whole flock
of hours — although at this moment
in the dark there is just this
one bird, and no one
who can tell me its true name,
or why it is out there alone and singing.

-By Matt Murrey