Coffee and Cuss Words: Meet Tacoma’s Poet Laureate

Abby Murray sips from her steaming cup of Darjeeling. Heat dances in fragile twirls, the air infused with subtle notes of citrus and damp earth. Murray absentmindedly tugs on the collar of her black turtleneck as she stares out the window. A procession of storm clouds float by, their melancholy grey parade a reminder of the struggle inside us all. A tear streak of rain falls first from the glass then Murray’s cheek. Poetry she thinks, po-eems she says in her inner voice that sounds like Thurston Howel, III, are just so damned beautiful.

Hell. No. 

Abby Murray, Tacoma’s Poet Laureate, with her shock of white—sometimes pink, sometimes brown—hair, lip piercing, mythical Greek god tattoos and blunt earnestness is a 30-something mother, military spouse, pacifist and serial eye roller when it comes to how her beloved art form is presented. “I find myself saying, ‘I don’t like a lot of poets but I really love poetry,’” said Murray.

Born in Puyallup, raised in Ferndale, Murray is the product of a crowded family. She’s one of six siblings—all sisters. “My mom raised us,” said Murray. “She’s a badass.” Murray played the violin and took dance lessons but poetry offered her something those disciplines couldn’t. “I found that I could be really angry in poetry and I was really angry, so that worked out well.”

“I had problems with authority growing up. Some people say I still have problems with authority. I think authority has problems with me.”

It took a while for Murray to turn her interest into mastery. “I wrote my first poem when I was in seventh grade and it was about the magi,” she said. “It was four lines long and two of the four lines ended with the word ‘afar.’” Murray composed the piece during Christmas time. “I love Christmas and I love Christmas music. I listen to it year-round because there aren’t enough goddamn head meds in the world to keep me level, so it’s going to take some fucking Mannheim Steamroller to keep me afloat.”

Murray’s love of the Steamroller came from her mother, not her father. However, the latter did provide his youngest child with a distinctive memory of the Grit City. Murray’s father worked different jobs including one at the Tacoma shipyards. “He actually cut off one of his fingers from the knuckle up when he worked there,” she shared. “Now, when people ask ‘what does Tacoma mean to you,’ I’m like, I can lie and come up with a better answer, but really the first answer is, that’s where my dad cut his finger off.”

Murray’s father died in 2010. Dad and daughter had a complicated relationship. “He was an addict,” said Murray. “He was also a closet artist who always wanted to play piano.” Maybe it was the times, an era of limited masculinity where blue-collar men weren’t encouraged to explore their creative sides, but Murray’s dad never learned an instrument. Instead, he’d entertain his daughter by accompanying George Winston on the car dashboard piano.

“My favorite thing that my dad used to do was the voices for animals. Like if we were driving along, he’d just narrate the cows in the pasture, what they were saying. It was hilarious.”

Poetry provided the 12 year-old Murray with a needed relief, a space of her own to document magi, the chaos of adolescence and the world in general. This early passion may have remained a hobby if not for some sage advice. “My teacher, Ms. Smedley, told me I could be a poet if I wanted,” said Murray. “And I didn’t know any better so I was like, okay?”

Murray kept writing. Her work and her sense of what could be accomplished in a poem grew over time. Following high school she enrolled at Seattle University to pursue a degree in English. It’s here that she met her now husband. “We’ve been married 15 years and it works because we disagree a lot,” she said. “I don’t want to come home and have a conversation with myself, I mean, fuck, I’m the only person I’d like to get away from every now and then but can’t.”

Her husband serves in the Army, a job that is more a lifestyle than most other professions. There have been deployments—two to Iraq—that kept the couple apart. “I miss him when he’s gone but I don’t fall apart,” said Murray. “When you grow up with five siblings and you’re a poet you come to value being by yourself.” 

Murray’s education and her husband’s assignments sent them to Alaska, Colorado, Georgia and New York, just to name a few. Along the way Murray earned a master of fine arts from Pacific University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. The couple returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2015 shortly after the birth of their daughter.

In a way, Murray is now serving as the Ms. Smedley to others. When she’s not penning new sonnets or sestinas, Murray is teaching—and not just in classrooms. Sure, Murray has taught at UW Tacoma and SOTA but she also holds workshops at JBLM, community centers and elsewhere. “I like to teach it [poetry] where I don’t think its gone very much before,” she said.

This dedication to a craft and its potential to enrich the human experience knows no boundaries. For the past year Murray has run poetry workshops at the Selma R. Carson Home in Fife. The facility houses undocumented boys aged 12 to 17. 

The City of Tacoma’s Poet Laureate program is designed to build engagement with the arts through outreach. Each laureate serves in the role for two years. Murray has an ambitious plan for her tenure. “My proposal was to expand our idea of a literary Tacoma,” she said. “It’s not just for Downtown or universities, it’s anywhere people are communicating.”

Poetry, in Murray’s view, isn’t some haughty, desiccated form nor is it the stuff of greeting cards or internet memes with an inspirational quote over the top of autumnal leaves. “Poetry is language, it’s communication, it’s not just some person getting up and expressing themselves,” she said. “I worked as a veterinary assistant and, to me, ‘express’ is something you do to anal glands.”

When she’s not teaching or laureating, Murray will be busy promoting her new book of poems Hail and Farewell. Murray has published three chap books of material but this is her first full-length collection. “I tackled different issues including feminism and the sexism and violence inherent in military culture,” she said. 

Murray is already working on a follow up book. This one will be more political in nature. “It’s essential right now that we engage and say something about what’s happening in this country,” she said. “There are still poets who are writing from inside the middle of a dumpster fire and they’re talking about ice cream and, I’m like, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

Abby Murray sips her coffee. The steam doesn’t dance, it fogs up her glasses as she drinks and is really fucking annoying. She isn’t wearing a turtleneck because they make her look ridiculous. Outside, clouds roll by because it’s Washington and that happens nine months out of the year. Murray sheds no tears but does cuss under her breath as a stubborn poem refuses to take shape. The impatient cursor blinks and blinks and blinks.

Poetry, Murray thinks, communicating thoughts clearly and with purpose, can be a real pain in the ass sometimes. 

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