John Murillo is the author of the poetry collections Up Jump the Boogie (2010), which was a finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, published by Four Way Books in 2020. His work has appeared in Callaloo, Court Green, Ninth Letter, and Ploughshares, and is forthcoming in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of African-American Poetry. A graduate of New York University’s MFA program in creative writing, he is an assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
Dora Malech: Our books of poetry are entering the world in a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes. What other events—personal or historical—shaped the writing of your book, and how does the current moment make you read or think about your own book differently?
John Murillo: Well, there is the pandemic, certainly. But I believe this current moment to be equally defined by the worldwide protests against anti-black violence. One thing that’s occurred to me—and, to be frank, saddened me to no end—is that there has never been, and may never be, a moment in which it is passé to write about black suffering. There is a poem in my first book that I would dedicate, when I read it to an audience, to Sean Bell. A couple years later, I added Oscar Grant to the dedication. Now, I can dedicate that same poem to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and it will read as if I wrote it specifically for this moment. Next year, the poem will be relevant because of another black body dropped. And it’s not because I was at all prescient when I wrote that poem, or any of the poems in my new collection. It’s because the conditions that give rise to these poems have not changed, and—all recent public proclamations of organizational solidarity notwithstanding—show no signs of truly changing any time soon. All to say, the current moment is not just the current moment, it’s tradition.
DM: Right now it seems as if people are turning to poems more than ever. What single poem from your book—or what theme or quality that runs through the book—would you most like to offer readers in this moment? Why?
JM: The easy answer, I think, is to suggest the sonnet sequence, “A Refusal to Mourn…” what with its themes of police violence, uprise, etc. But state sanctioned murder is an easy target. And though I have written, and in all likelihood will continue to write, about murderous cops and whatnot, I’m much more interested in exploring the daily acts we commit against ourselves and one another, in the ways in which we are complicit in our own miseries, in what Yusef Komunyakaa calls in one poem, “the terror we are made of, honey.” It’s one thing to decry the public violence of an officer choking out a handcuffed man, or a whole squad of officers busting into a woman’s home and shooting her dead. But it’s another thing altogether, and much more difficult, to own the tiny violences we perpetrate daily. We’ve become a righteous tribe of late, keen to call out this wrong, or to cancel that wrongdoer; we love drawing lines between right and wrong, good and evil, and placing ourselves always squarely on the bright side. Far easier to curate a persona than it is to do the actual quiet, lonely, and often painful work of the soul. Truth is, we’re all fucked up in some way or another. The speaker(s) in my poems know and grapple with this. So I guess what I would like to offer readers in this moment is a break from hypocrisy and self-righteousness; an opportunity to turn away from streaming services, social media feeds, and all the other distractions that can eat into one’s solitude, long enough for one to reckon with who and what we really are. I hope the poems in KAP help them with that.
DM: What do you miss most about, or what has felt like the biggest loss of, not being able to share the book in person, through travel and doing readings, and are there ways you are finding to counteract that loss?
JM: I miss it all. I miss visiting different cities—breathing different air, experiencing different cuisine—I miss catching up with old friends and making new ones. I miss the exchange with actual flesh-and-blood listeners. This is an oral art form as much as it is a written one. Call and response. I miss the response. I feel this loss especially when reading, say via Zoom, my more personal poems. There’s nothing quite like a vacuum where should be some sort of interaction to make one feel even more vulnerable, more isolated, than he already does. Seeing people on screen is better than not seeing them at all, I suppose. But it’s a poor substitute for the real thing. Are there ways to counteract the loss? I don’t know. Not really. I mean, if we’re speaking in general, about the effects of social distancing, of sheltering in place, on my own life, I suppose there is a silver lining to be found. I generally prefer solitude to company, for instance, so there is the joy of having fewer demands on my time. I get to spend more time in the lab, doing the actual work of studying and making poems. Maybe this is a sort of counteracting. But in terms of readings specifically, and what we lose versus, say, a Zoom reading, no. I don’t think there’s any way to make up for that.
DM: I am struck by how you create resonance through associations, across subjects and perceived separations (time, walls, and so on). This power of association is particularly apparent in long poems like “Upon Reading that Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” and “On Prosody.” In both, violence and pain and questions of culpability correspond, but both also take the act of art-making as their catalyst; in one poem, lamentation becomes “its own species of song,” and in another the speaker is “so taken with the song / I am, in fact, the song.” What was your own art-making process for these associative poems, and do you believe that the care we take in creating or absorbing art can translate to lived empathy and connection?
JM: Poems such as the two you mentioned usually take a few years to even get to the drafting stage. Images, impressions, experiences accumulate—and I may even attempt to write about them as if they were subject enough for a poem. Of course, I will fail. And after a few years, something else will come into frame and connect all the other pieces and soon they start to bounce off one another. Then it becomes a matter of getting it all down in a way that’s at least somewhat coherent. Mind you, this is still not a first draft as far as I’m concerned. At best, these are notes toward a first draft. Really they’re just a bunch of images or events that seem to want to be in conversation. The drafting begins, I think, when I get a line, or a couple lines, that sing, and can maybe set things in motion. These may not necessarily end up being the first lines in the finished poem, may not even end up in the poem at all, but they’re enough to get something going. Then, the trick is to hold back any impulse to try and bully the poem toward a particular end. The moment I think I know what a poem is about or where it’s going is the exact moment everything comes to a grinding halt. Keats and Hugo have been important guides for me here. Keats with his Negative Capability, Hugo in The Triggering Town where he advises poets to treat the catalytic subject as starting block rather than finish line. I try to stay in that space of not knowing for as long as I can. And it’s there where the associations can happen. The magic. One thing leads to the next and all these impressions that have been stored for years finally find their place. Now I have a first draft. Then the piece has to go through all the processes it must before it starts to look something like a poem. Now, during the process of making, I’m not thinking about violence or pain or culpability or empathy or anything, really, other than staying out of the way long enough for the poem to become a poem. Once it’s written, then I can read it. And if it’s well-written enough, and the poem has something to teach me, maybe I’ll learn it. Could be about empathy and connection and all that, sure. Being a better person. But I’m not very much interested in such things while I’m writing.
DM: The two poems I mentioned both work with poetic form—in one, the unrhymed couplet, and in another, blank verse; your second section is a traditional sonnet sequence, using iambic pentameter and a range of end-rhyme schemes; you reference or allude to forbears and contemporaries (Elizabeth Bishop, Gil Scott-Heron, John Keats, Yusef Komunyakaa, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Dylan Thomas, Robert Hayden—to name a few of many) again and again. You also, however, question the efficacy of poetic protest in “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn” and contrast the often hollow (and often hateful) discourse of “Contemporary American Poetry” with the systemic racist and patriarchal violence “burning” all around. In other words, this collection is deeply invested in both engaging in and troubling literary conversation. How did these poems find their forms for you, and in what ways do you see yourself (or resist seeing yourself) in a poetic lineage or as part of particular poetic conversations?
JM: “A Refusal to Mourn” found its form because I needed both the strictures and the propulsive qualities of the sonnet—strictures in order to compress and make something of the rage, propulsiveness in the form of rhyme schemes that pushed the poems forward while providing ample opportunity for me to keep surprising myself—but I also needed room to stretch out, so as not to lay too heavy a burden on any one or two poems. The heroic crown is comprised of fifteen linked sonnets, so it gave me this room to play. I chose to rearrange the sonnets, however, so as to disrupt their usual way of linking, to allow for a longer silence between sonnets. In “On Prosody” I used blank verse simply as a way to help me control the line, to keep me from sprawling. In terms of the larger question of lineage, I am a poet writing in English and so I lay claim to everything that poets before me have done with the language. And though I understand that this is a tradition that never meant to include me, I take from it anyway, using everything at my disposal to help me sing new songs.
DM: Your book returns again and again to the ways we hurt each other—systemic racial violence and legacies of subjugation, domestic violence and gendered violence. It also explores the less tangible ways we hurt each other through lack of communication, through emotional unavailability, through the act of leaving. Reading this new book, I thought again of your poem “Enter the Dragon” from your first collection, Up Jump the Boogie, with its lesson in “the difference between cinema // and city,” the escapism of movie violence versus the real threat of state violence. What are the challenges of portraying violence through your chosen medium of poetry in this collection, both in terms of re-immersing yourself in painful materials and in terms of reaching out to trust the reader with them, as you make explicit at the end of “Dolores, Maybe.”: “Please. Come closer. Take this from my hand”?
JM: Well, first and foremost there is the reckoning I mentioned earlier, the coming to terms with self. But once the poems are written, there is also a concern with how they might be received. Especially in an age that makes very little allowance for human frailty, shortcoming, or vice. I don’t mean to belabor the point, but I think it important enough to return to, this era of the self-righteous, and its effects on art. Of late we seem to require that our artists, intellectuals, and entertainers be “good people”, upstanding citizens whose lives, actions, and worldviews align with our own highest ideals about ourselves. When someone fails to live up to said ideals, we want to throw them away. Not the ideals, but the person and their work. Moreover, as a writer of color, there is an added pressure born of respectability politics, of having to serve as mouthpiece for the whole, a representative of the tribe. So perhaps the greatest challenge was to write, then publish, with this in mind, and to resist the urge to distance myself from the speaker in the poems. Some poems are more autobiographical than others. Some, even if written in the first person, have nothing at all to do with me or the events of my own life. But I think I would be doing the poems, the collection, a disservice by saying so, all in an effort to try and cover my own ass.
DM: What’s a question you would want to be asked about your new book, and how would you answer it?
JM: I love this question, but I can’t really think of anything. Thank you, Dora.
DM: Thank you!
Find John Murillo’s Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry here.