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Professor, Poet Wins Yeats Award

Melissa Morphew
Morphew was inspired by magical realist Jorge Louis Borges for her award-winning excerpt "Broken: Blue," from her book-length poem "Weeding Borges' Garden." She will accept her award on May 13 in New York City.

In the 19th century, many poets made a living through their written works, though some held other jobs to survive. There were also patrons who would give poets money “just to exist,” according to Sam Houston State University associate professor of English Melissa Morphew.

Today, the university has become the poet’s patron.

“ Poets actually go in the hole when it comes to publishing your work, so they have to have something else they do, and most of them wind up in academia, teaching in creative writing programs at universities. There are a few who do some off the wall things,” Morphew said, adding that one poet is a car designer, while another raises sheep, “but there is no such thing as making a living as a poet.

“ I tell people it’s the one honorable profession because not only do you make no money, but no one will know who you are,” she said. “You could be the most famous poet in the United States, and no one would know who you are.”

Poets do not get their works published in the same way other authors get their works printed.

“ If you get a book published, it’s usually through a contest, “ she said. “So you might win $1000 for the contest when you get your book published, but you have to pay to enter the contest, and they only usually choose one book per contest.

“ You have to enter contest after contest after contest, so by the time you finish going through the contest system, you’ve probably spent more than you win.”

Despite the financial hardships associated with being a published poet, Morphew said poetry is something she always knew she wanted to do.

A poet since the age eight who began publishing at 20, she won her first national award, the Cecil J. Hackney Award for Poetry, at 21. She has since won seven Hackney Awards, among the many others in her repertoire.

Later this week, on May 13, Morphew will travel to New York City to accept the most prestigious award she has yet to receive, from the WB Yeats Society competition. The win also entitles her to join the society.

“ As far as prestige goes, this is much more prestigious, because No. 1, this is New York literary circles, which are very hard to get any entrée to,” she said. “Monetarily, it’s not the biggest award I’ve ever won; it’s $250. It’s more the prestige of it and getting to go to the National Arts Club. It’s the focal point for the arts in New York.”

Broken: Blue

Silvered-fish thoughts, blue-shimmered, lithe,
too mercurial to voice, this grief, nimble
blue-shimmer; the sky can take your breath

cold mornings, cloud weft, white rift
in bright October sunlight, leaf-dapple,
silvered-fish thoughts, blue-shimmered, lithe,

sour-milk-thistle grief cannot be wept
into the nutshell of a silver thimble,
this blue-shimmer; the sky can take your breath

like a silver perch catches sun-shift
and your heart stops; a grief throbs your left temple,
silvered-fish thoughts, blue-shimmered, lithe,

swimming round and round and round, fretted-
blue-shimmer of this glass globe, trembling
blue edge of a sky that can take your breath,

of a grief that cannot be wept, swept
into kitchen corners, the pulse of your left temple,
quicksilvered-fish thoughts, blue-shimmered, lithe,
blue drenching the sky, drowning, this blue breath

Her winning poem, which tied for first, is entitled “Broken: Blue.” The poem, an excerpt from her book-length poem “Weeding Borges’ Garden,” departs from her traditional style of writing.

A narrative poet who tends to not write about herself, Morphew found herself exploring grief, a topic that was very near to her heart for personal reasons, for the book-length poem. The poem looks at grief from many angles, including the loss of love, loss of a loved one, and especially the loss of a child, which is the grief that is very personal for her.

“ My brother died, and he was in a coma for 11 years before he passed away. That hit my mother harder than…you can’t believe the grief in that. While that was happening, my sister died; she had a brain tumor, and she passed away,” Morphew said, adding that she had never seen grief like that.

“ I grieved, but not like my mother grieved, and not like she still grieves, and I lived through that with her,” she said. “I think in a way, that’s what this book, ‘Weeding Borges’ Garden,’ and that’s what this poem is about—that intense grief that I saw my mother living through, and that I was trying to express in this poem. I hope I’ve done it justice because I’m sort of channeling what I’ve seen my mother going through, and my mother says that losing a child is the worse thing that could possibly happen.”

The poem, inspired by the magical realist writer Jorge Louis Borges, tells a layered story of a woman whose daughter drowns in a well. It also explores the grieving the woman felt when her mother had abandoned her; the grieving of her two aunts who raised her; the woman’s daughter, whose father abandons the two; as well as the old man she works for, whose wife dies and who goes blind.

“It’s grief with no end,” she said of her winning excerpt. “It’s like you are broken; it breaks you, and you are never going to be whole ever again.”

Yeats society contest judge Grace Schulman, said she “savored” “Broken: Blue” as one of her top choices.

“It is a startling villanelle whose expression of grief is deeper and stronger for its indirectness. ‘Broken: Blue’ has sprung lines reminiscent of Hopkins and a voice like no other,” Schulman said. “It is composed all in one sentence, and excerpting any part will not convey its magic. Still, I can’t resist the final quatrain:

‘ of a grief that cannot be wept, swept
into kitchen corners, the pulse of your left temple,
quicksilvered fish thoughts, blue-shimmered, lithe-
blue drenching the sky, drowning, this blue breath’”

Morphew’s latest book, “Fathom,” will be released in April 2006 by Turning Point Press, and she is currently working on a book based on her mother’s 1947 home economics book “Every Day Living For Girls.” Her current project will include poems not only from the book chapters, but poems inspired by famous women in history and “things that have fallen through the cracks.”



SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
May 9, 2005
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