UW News

January 19, 2024

UW military rhetoric instructor explores trauma through poetry, writing

Abby Murray a black dress smiling and posing in front of a wall painted with colorful umbrellas.

Abby Murray, instructor and fellowship director in the U.S. Army War College fellowship program, is also a poet who runs free writing workshops.Jennifer L. Miller

When she’s not teaching participants in the U.S. Army War College fellowship program at the University of Washington, Abby E. Murray can often be found running poetry workshops.

She’s hosted free events at all kinds of locations: community centers and military posts, homeless shelters and immigration detention centers and libraries. Writing can change your daily life, Murray said, and it helped her find connection during frequent moves as a military spouse. That’s why she spends so much time teaching other people how to do it.

A group of people posing and smiling for a selfie

Abby Murray poses with several participants during one of her workshops.Abby Murray

“When I was a young person living in a community for the first time where I didn’t know anybody, I felt isolated and unheard,” Murray said. “It can be terrifying. Writing changes everything by reminding you that you still have a voice and a story. All the different places I’ve been able to work with people are really a privilege, as it’s a privilege to remember that my stories matter, and I still have a voice. That’s meant everything to me.”

Murray’s writing interests are broad, but her foundation is poetry. She served as the poet laureate for the City of Tacoma for two years. She also holds a doctorate in English, and her studies have largely focused on the effects of trauma, including war, on writing.

Murray taught full-time at the UW Tacoma until 2018, and it was there she was approached about tailoring the course that became “Rhetoric in Military Strategy,” which prepares fellows to create compelling, well-researched arguments that appeal to military and scholarly audiences. The Army War College fellowship program was originally housed at the UW Tacoma but is now based in the Jackson School of International Studies.

Even without a military background, Murray’s life has been heavily impacted by military service. She’s been teaching the class since 2016, and she also serves as the UW’s Army War College fellowship director. Program participants are selected by the Army, who identifies eligible lieutenant colonels or colonels that fit the requirements.

While much of Murray’s career now centers around the military — and her husband is active-duty Army currently stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord — she’s a pacifist. She was 18 when she met her husband: He was in ROTC; she was a protester. Her first book, “Hail and Farewell,” examines the relationship between a soldier and a pacifist. It won the Perugia Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award.

“We started arguing when I met him,” Murray said, “and we just haven’t really stopped.”

While Murray’s focus on the ramifications of war predates her marriage, her relationship put her in closer proximity to the military community and fueled her commitment to understand the human impact of war. She’s the founding editor of “Collateral,” an online literary journal publishing work concerned with the impact of violent conflict beyond the combat zone.

“I’m a civilian within the military community and I read a lot of military writing,” Murray said. “Most of my writing concerns military impact, as does the writing I publish. Not the battle stories, but everything else: the immigrant story, the reintegration story, the military family story.”

Murray first had the idea for her writing workshops while her husband was stationed in Alaska in 2005. Feeling isolated from her family, Murray advertised writing groups on Craigslist to build community.

She continued hosting groups and running workshops as she moved with her husband to multiple states around the country. While working toward her doctorate at Binghamton University in New York, she taught in college classrooms during the day and in veterans centers at night. She also ran a nonprofit through the Binghamton Poetry Project that brought poetry into elementary, middle and high schools in the area.

“At the time, my husband was in Afghanistan on a combat tour and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were very much on my mind,” Murray said. “Working with veterans just made sense. I was constantly aware of the trauma. I couldn’t not think about war. Even as I was in my comfortable university library, I was still thinking about the trauma that was present in my home and the homes of everybody my husband was working with.”

Hands trace flowers on a piece of white paper

A young poet traces flowers during a poetry workshop at the Selma Carson Home.Abby Murray

Murray’s workshops continued when she arrived in Washington state. When families were being separated at the United States-Mexico border during the Donald Trump administration, Murray took Spanish-speaking UW students with her to the Selma Carson Home — a detention facility in Fife for undocumented youth — to teach poetry workshops. “Collateral” then published an anthology.

“For many of the children, it was their first time writing,” Murray said. “They were learning to read and write. It was really challenging on a lot of levels, for the poets and for the instructors, especially emotionally. It was also incredibly beneficial.”

Murray currently holds workshops at an assisted living facility in south Tacoma where her grandmother resides.

“I go in on the last Sunday of every month, and we talk about poetry,” Murray said. “The residents tell their stories, and we talk about how these stories still matter. A lot of people in assisted living struggle with the feeling of being abandoned, even though there are still a lot of great stories to be told.”

For more information, contact Murray at amurray1@uw.edu.