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Pitt-Greensburg professor keeps 'heartbeat of language' going

Shirley McMarlin
| Thursday, July 21, 2016, 8:55 p.m.
Writer and educator Stephen Murabito sits for a portrait on July 15, 2016.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Writer and educator Stephen Murabito sits for a portrait on July 15, 2016.

Stephen Murabito is a modern man of letters, a writer and teacher of both poetry and prose.

He earned his master of fine arts degree in writing from the University of Pittsburgh and is now an associate professor of English at Pitt-Greensburg. He was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in poetry in 1992. His writing has appeared in a number of periodicals, and a short story collection, “Chasing Saint George,” was published in 2010 by Star Cloud Press. The Oswego, N.Y., native lives in Saltsburg. He and his wife April have four children.

Question: Are you first and foremost a poet or a fiction writer?

Answer: I think I'll always consider myself a poet who writes fiction and a fiction writer who writes poetry. My “Oswego Fugues” is a long poem, 100 and some odd pages, and it took 20 years to write. I was always inspired by the epic poems — Virgil's “Aeneid,” Homer's “Odyssey,” “Beowulf.” I always thought I would write a long poem because there's the storytelling with the poetry.

Q: Do you remember the first book you read?

A: Going way back, I remember just loving “Go, Dog. Go!” and the “Dick and Jane” books. I used to look at the pictures, and there's only two words on a page, so I'd just start rattling stories off.

Q: What's your latest project?

A: I have a novel that I've just finished called “Demolition Derby” that takes place in Oswego during a heat wave. There's a real demolition derby track there, but there's a demolition derby going on among the characters, and that's the over-arching metaphor. Once I discovered it, I had a field day.

I finished it two weeks ago and I just sent it in to a competition at Autumn House Press in Pittsburgh.

Q: Describe the major themes in your writing.

A: Family and place have always been really important to me. I have a sense of social mission. I want to tell the stories of people who aren't storytellers but whose stories the world needs to hear. I try to write about big things like family, love and the role of God in our lives, which is very difficult to do and still stay literary. I'm not a Christian writer and don't want to be called a Christian writer, but reason and faith have been going at it since the Inquisition, and they still are.

Q: Do relatives and friends find their way into your writing?

A: I try not to do that, because we've gone through a terrible 15 or 20 years of people having to go on Oprah and take things back — “It happened.” “No it didn't happen.” When I get done writing about characters, I feel like I'm breaking up with them. They go off on lives of their own and we're not going to see them again.

Q: What's next?

A: I have some short stories that all take place in Oswego. I want to call it either “The Shoreline” or just “Shoreline.” My wife likes “Shoreline” better. All the stories take place on the shore of Lake Ontario, whether in a restaurant or a monastery, characters who winter out on the lake, who are crazy. I can't imagine waking up in the winter on the lake, but people do it.

Q: What subjects do you teach?

A: I teach fiction and poetry in the creative and professional writing program. I'm very lucky that the idea of teaching fiction, poetry and composition meshes with me and I never really have to change anything but the tie-ins. To me, it's all writing.

Q: What do you tell students about writing?

A: I think the first and best training you can have as a writer is poetry, especially formal poetry, because it teaches you concision, how to boil things down, to pay attention to syllables and the accents of a sentence. Poetry forces you to pay attention to rhythm. In the analogous way that a cardiologist pays attention to the rhythms of the heart, a poet pays attention to the heartbeat of language.

Q: Is poetry alive and well?

A: The general public is picking up on poetry more because of things like poetry slams. I have mixed emotions about that, because it can be too egotistical and not as well crafted as something written on a page; but it's powerful and moving. I think people think poetry matters, but I don't know that it echoes into broad readership. I think there are a lot of young people in the country who really like poetry, but will a book of poems ever be on the New York Times best-seller list? I think the last one was T.S. Eliot's “Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats” (published in 1939).

Q: Do you have a favorite poem to teach?

A: Dylan Thomas' “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I know it by heart and it's the one thing I can teach without a textbook in front of me. It's a man crying out to his father on his deathbed — “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” — and it's beautiful and moving.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or smcmarlin@tribweb.com.

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