“I am the magic marker’s missing cap,” Jack Murphy asserts in the first line of his new collection My Apartment in Chicago. He also calls himself Derrick Rose, Bob Dylan in 1963 or sometimes 1972, your grandmother’s lampshade, pink Starbusts, and a scratched off lottery ticket, among other miscellaneous objects. Drawn in by that first line, and intrigued by the writer the Chicagoist says “encapsulates avant-garde literature in all of its aspects,” I decided to take the poem’s title (“Hey There Stranger, Come Sit Down And Get To Know Me For A While”) to heart and meet the man at the West Loop’s Jupiter Outpost.
Jack Murphy, it turns out, is not Bob Dylan or root beer fizz or Derrick Rose (though he is a Chicagoan, through and through.) Jack Murphy is a 26-year-old teacher and writer, a graduate of DePaul University’s Writing and Publishing MA program, and an avid, rabid Bulls fan and self-proclaimed Derrick Rose defender. He is an iced tea drinker (see: “The Summer of Iced Tea”) and a former girls’ basketball coach. He is approachable, funny and insightful, able to alternate between pedagogy and Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system on the fly. Above all else, he is passionate about his work: the writing and the teaching, which he views as inextricable from each other.
“I’ve been teaching the last four years, that’s really the biggest part of my life. And I love teaching. There were a lot of times I got up, I had school all day, I had basketball practice til 5, then I had grad school til 9 or 9:30, and it was exhausting, but I loved every aspect of it. I was always tired, I wasn’t eating very good dinners, but it was great. It doesn’t let you sit down and think, ‘now I feel totally inspired and I will write,’ it was always, ‘just find time to do it.’ You’re never going to feel perfect, you know? You have to be able to do it in battle conditions, you can’t just wait to feel inspired and perfect.”
Until its closure in 2013, Murphy taught at St. Gregory the Great in Andersonville on the North side (lovingly eulogized in “The Heat.”) This past year he began teaching composition at Truman Middle College, an alternative high school for 17-21 year-olds who dropped out of high school and wish to earn their diplomas. Jack’s book is dedicated to Chance The Rapper, and when I asked why, he explained, “if I had Chance in my English class, and I didn’t recognize his immense talent, I have failed. So I think with my students, they might not know their commas, and they might not behave that well, but they still have something inside of them that’s really special, and if I miss that, if I don’t encourage that, that really sucks.” Murphy teaches a selection of his favorite books and poems to his students, including, he was quick to name, Stuart Dybek’s Coast of Chicago and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street, to illustrate to his students the myriad forms creative writing may take and to encourage them to take risks in their own writing.
“No one thinks they’ve had life experiences,” he says, speaking about his students but voicing a complaint all-too-common among writers. “I had these students who were refugee students, they were from war zones, and they were like ‘Oh, Mr. Murphy, nothing’s ever –‘ and I was like, ‘People would kill for your story.’ So everyone thinks that way, and it’s hilarious. You live every day! Nothing crazy happens in this book. It’s about people sitting around for the most part. It’s my apartment, it’s where I live, I live inside this book. It’s how you tell it, that’s what’s valuable.”
To an extent, Jack’s right. Nothing crazy happens in his chapbook of stories and poems (he used the term “flash fiction” in our discussion, but alternated between descriptors), but the stories and poems are wonderfully told. Murphy moves fluidly between narrators, from an old priest named Father Chuck to a young boy at mass to Mayor Daley (the second one) to a nameless young narrator who feels suspiciously like Murphy. The stories unfold in the space between fiction and nonfiction: familiar instances lifted from Murphy’s life, stretched and tweaked here and there so a story plops out, told in a consistent, familiar diction like you were at a bar listening to Jack talk about his cousin (“Callie”) or his uncle painting in the kitchen (“Ground Control,” a remarkable story). The stories are short and sweet, under three pages long and told with an immediacy in the action, a concise, get-in-and-get-out snapshot that gives even the mundanity of baking a pie (“Her Majesty”) a little added weight.
“I took one class [at DePaul], Narrative Clarity it was called, just very short, very clear precise writing, and I’ve just been writing pieces like that since then. I think people expect stuff to be longer. I’d send stuff to my friends and they’d be like, ‘This is a good start,’ and I’d be like, ‘That’s it, it’s done.’ So it kind of forces people to think about each line differently and each character differently.” The brevity of the stories and the lyricism of the prose reminds me of Nobel Prize-winner Yasunari Kawabata, who told some of his famous Palm-of-the-Hand Stories in a single sentence. Hell, Murphy’s inspiration, Stuart Dybek, saw the release of his own book of shorts, Ecstatic Cahoots, just last month. There are two traditional “poems” in the collection, “The Cold” and “The Heat,” which Jack says he feels less confident about (my expert opinion: they are good), but on the whole, he just tried the crazy idea of writing what took his attention and not stretching or forcing the story beyond its limits.
“There was just this expectation of what something is, you know, like a story will be 20 pages long, a movie’s gonna be 90 minutes long, and I was just like, I wanna do exactly what I wanna do. My friend the other day was like, ‘I would love to just go buy a paint set,’ and I was like, ‘Do that right now. Who cares what you get, buy anything, just do it right now.’ And that was sort of how I decided, you know, I’m just gonna self-publish this. I was like, ‘I don’t need anyone’s permission to do this.’ I don’t need to beg and look around and spend a year trying to find [a publisher], I was like, ‘I’m just gonna do it myself.’”
The result of this DIY mentality is a 5’’x5’’ 36-page chapbook of poems and stories and inside jokes and observations of a true Chicagoan. The inside cover has six lines for signatures and instructions that read “1. Read the Book 2. Sign Your Name 3. Give It Away.” Jack’s artist friend designed the cover (featuring, fittingly, a bull), he “had a guy do the inside,” and a few months later a box of 100 copies of My Apartment in Chicago arrived at his apartment in Chicago. In the future he plans to sell them at open mics and readings around the city, but copies are available for purchase now at JackMurphyChicago.com, where he’ll mail it to you in a “cool little box,” because “it’s summer, I got plenty of time to work on this stuff.”
There is poetry-slam style braggadocio (“Hey There Stranger”), James Tate-esque mini-scenes (“Sue,” the aforementioned brilliant “Ground Control”), a triptych of stories that works to develop a shared character, found-text style lists of objects and aspirations, and one memorable LiveJournal-esque letter to a woman, all carefully constructed and framed in a structure that plays out a bit like an accordion, the “long” stories (if two pages can be called long) broken up by the poems and lists interspersed throughout the triptych, ending with a calm, thoughtful meditation on motherhood, young-adulthood and self-reliance in “Her Majesty.” The last word in the book comes from the instructions on a frozen pie the narrator’s mother had left in the freezer in his apartment in Chicago long ago: “Enjoy.” A necessary instruction for all of us, least of all busy teachers/writers/basketball coaches like Jack Murphy. “I made a pie once, and it took so long to make, and it took so long to cool, that I was like, ‘I’m too tired to eat this now, I’m going to bed now.’ And I just put it into my refrigerator all made and not eaten. I love when things like conditioner bottles are like ‘repeat and enjoy.’ It’s like, ‘thanks, I needed that part.’”
“In the end it was not that hard. It was $400. Anybody who has $400 can do it. I was gonna buy a bigger TV, or do this, you know what I mean? People will write 100 pieces and then they’ll be 60 years old and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, someday,’ just waiting for someone to give them permission or for someone to do it for them. If you just take responsibility for it, all of a sudden it just starts happening. Even if nobody reads this, it’ll be cool to have when I’m 50 years old. Maybe I’ll sell none, you know, but I’ll have this weird thing I did that, in this weird way, captures what I was interested in, what I was thinking about [Ed. note: the Bulls], so that was an exciting thought for me. There’s just something cool about how 12 yeas from now I might find a wrinkled up old copy somewhere and there’s 8 signatures in there, that would be so cool to me.”
My Apartment in Chicago is available as a $5 .pdf or a $10 book (for shipping and handling) at JackMurphyChicago.com. Physical copies will be available for $5 at Jack’s various readings throughout the summer, including Perfect Sunday Night on Sunday, July 6 from 8-10 pm at Uncommon Ground (3800 N Clark) and Pungent Parlour on Tuesday, July 15 from 8-10 pm at Black Rock Pub (3614 N Damen).