John Murillo is the author of the poetry collections, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher, 2010; Four Way Books, 2020), finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award, and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020). His honors include two Larry Neal Writers Awards, a pair of Pushcart Prizes, the J Howard and Barbara MJ Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Recent poems have appeared in, or are forthcoming from, such publications as American Poetry Review, Poetry, and Best American Poetry 2017, 2019, and 2020. He is an assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University and also teaches in the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada University. He lives in Brooklyn.
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You change the channel, and it’s him again.
Or not him. Him, but younger. Him, but old.
Or him with skullcap. Kufi. Hoodied down.
It’s him at fifteen. Him at forty. Bald,
or dreadlocked. Fat, or chiseled. Six foot three,
or three foot six. Coal black or Ralph Bunche bright.
Again, it’s him. Again, he reached. Today,
behind his back, his waist, beneath the seat,
his socks, to pull an Uzi, morning star,
or Molotov. They said don’t move, they said
get down, they said to walk back toward their car.
He, so to speak, got down… Three to the head,
six to the heart. A mother kneels and prays—
Not peace, but pipe bombs, hands to light the fuse.
—John Murillo, “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn“
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John Murillo and I met in Paris in January. He, along with his wife the poet, Nicole Sealey, were reading at the NYU MFA in Paris program. As John read from his new book Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, March 2020), I felt my breath slow, catching in my chest. John’s work is not just stunning; it stuns the reader. These are poems that are uncomfortable yet vital. They invite us to experience violence and confront difficult truths. But, to be sure, there is also joy and wit in this collection.
The following conversation took place over a few weeks in May. John was sheltered in Brooklyn and I in Seattle. As our conversation progressed, 100,000 people lost their lives to COVID-19, 40 million people lost their jobs, the country erupted in protest of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless more Black people in the United States. John also learned that he won a Pushcart Prize for his sonnet sequence about the killing of Black men. The work and mind of John Murillo couldn’t be more relevant than at this moment.
John, how are you on this Saturday morning in the middle of our quarantined lives? And, where are you? How are you spending these days?
John Murillo, Poet: Thanks again for taking the time to interview me. One would think that staying home might clear our schedule somewhat, but I find quite the opposite to be true. I’m sheltering in Brooklyn. We’re nearing the end of our (now online) semester at Wesleyan, so these past couple weeks have been spent on teaching and meeting on Zoom, grading, meeting on Zoom, advising, meeting on Zoom, and now reading honors theses. And more meetings on Zoom. And you? Where are you these days? It’s a wild time.
I’m in Seattle where the rhododendrons are in bloom. Let’s talk about your powerful new book, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. How did it come together as a collection? Were these poems that you had been working on for a while or was this a burst? Did you know where these poems were taking you?
J.M.: I wrote Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry over the course of about eight or nine years. For about a year after the release of my first book (Up Jump the Boogie, from Cypher Books in 2010), I found I couldn’t write anything. Possibly because I was in a headspace not very conducive to writing, what with touring and doing all the things one normally does to promote a fresh book. Looking back, I wonder if maybe that was a positive. A year away is a year spent living, reading, and, perhaps, growing. Maybe the year away gave me a chance to reset. At any rate, I wrote the poems as they came to me, without any real sense of where they were going or how they might fit together. That didn’t really happen until I tried to make sense of a significant body of accumulating work.
Yet, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry coheres around some very intense themes—racial stereotypes, violence, systemic injustice—with an ars poetica overlay. To the reader, there is a cohesive driving force throughout the collection. These are not poems that are just in conversation with each other—they are a vocal union, a militant choir—that layer in the reader’s mind. So, what was on your mind? What did you need to write that led you to these poems?
J.M.: I don’t know. I mean, if a catfish could write poems, his poems might have some water in them. Some baited hooks. Seaweed and whatnot. My poems engage racism, violence, and systemic injustice because that’s where I live. It’s where we all live. Just that some of us don’t have the luxury of turning away. I can say that in the sonnet sequence, I was definitely wrestling with some of the things you mentioned. Specifically, I was trying to process, perhaps even to make sense of, a double murder-suicide and my own response to the event. But for most of the collection, I really was just writing poems. I wasn’t striving toward any grand proclamations of outrage or trying to Scribe an Opus that Would Forever Shine the Light on the Ugly Underbelly of blah blah, or no crap like that. I just wrote like I live. With my eyes open.
Wise words, John, to write what you live and live with your eyes open! I suppose now as our worlds confine what we can see and experience, we also need to keep our inner eye wide open. Where is your inner eye taking you these days?
J.M.: Far away. And deeper within. Lately I’ve been re-reading some favorite novelists like Armah and Kundera, crawling through Walter Bates’ mammoth Keats biography, and have returned to some old philosophy anthologies from my undergraduate days. Lots of sitting, lots of contemplating.
Since you brought up the double murder-suicide that inspired your fifteen-sonnet redouble, “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn”, would you talk about that event for our readers and how it led to this extraordinary poem and the choices you made in terms of its structure?
J.M.: I wrote the poem, at least in part, as a response to the December 2014 killing of New York City police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a Baltimore man named Ishmael Brinsley. The day of the shooting, I was a participant in a poets’ rally held in Washington Square Park, where we read in protest of what appeared to be an uptick in police murders of unarmed men and women of color. It’s hard to know for sure because so many have died, but I think that at the time of the rally, Walter Bell, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner were the most recent victims. Maybe Freddie Gray. Like I said, it’s hard to keep up as they seem to have made a sport of us. Anyway, I remember that being one of the coldest days of the month. Still, poets showed up en masse and we read and howled and sang our guts out. And when it was all done, we went home.
After the rally, I remember feeling especially dispirited. I mean, it had been one of the best poetry events in which I’d ever participated. But that was the problem: It was a poetry event. And part of me felt something more needed to be done. By the time I got back to Brooklyn, the reports were everywhere. Someone had done something more.
Ishmael Brinsley, after shooting his girlfriend in the stomach that morning, boarded a bus from Baltimore to New York City with plans to kill some cops. Though he’d been posting about it all day on social media, and authorities were alerted and sent dispatches throughout the five boroughs, Brinsley was still able to catch two officers slipping. He found them sitting in a parked car and ambushed them. Fired four shots into their vehicle, killing both men instantly. Soon after, he was chased underground by other officers, onto a subway platform, where he shot himself dead.
The poem is my attempt to reckon with—if not reconcile—all that Brinsley’s actions stirred in me. There was sorrow, joy, rage, guilt, confusion. So much to process. I chose the heroic crown because while the sonnet provides a means of control, having the luxury of spreading the poem across fifteen sonnets means that no single one of them need carry too heavy a burden. I also allowed myself some license with the form. As you know, crowns are usually written by making the last line in one sonnet the first in the next and on and on until the whole sequence resolves. I’ve noticed that as a reader, as soon as I realize the form, I tend to rush the ending of one sonnet and read, with very little pause, right into the beginning of the next. I’ve also seen this happen when some poets read their own crowns aloud. No sooner than one sonnet ends does the opening line of the next trample all over and through what could have been a beautiful and useful silence. So I figured out a way to disrupt that: By rearranging the sonnets in such a way that the first line of one becomes the last line in the next, those silences were preserved. And because the lines still repeat—albeit twenty-six lines apart, instead of consecutively—an echo still registers.
One other thing about this now broken crown: The poem mentions such historical figures as Nat Turner, who led one of the most famous slave rebellions on record, and Huey P. Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. But it also references Damian “Football” Williams, one of the four men charged with beating motorist Reginald Denny during the 1992 Rodney King uprisings. I say “uprising” but could just as easily have said “rebellion” or, even more easily, “riot.” It’s all a matter of perspective. I’ve heard it said that one country’s patriot is another country’s terrorist. Was Nat Turner a freedom fighter or a lunatic? What about Huey Newton? Or how about John Paul Jones and Crispus Attucks? This country loves a good soldier story. Names highways and airports, universities and townships, after gunslingers. But where do we draw the line between hero and villain? Is it simply a question of sides? Perhaps Brinsley is both hero and villain. Maybe neither. I wrote him a crown. Heroic, and broken.
Wow. I want to pause here too. To honor your tribute to the brokenness of Brinsley and that uneven and broken line between hero and anti-hero. I’m especially moved by your breaking the crown sonnet to invite silence in, so that the space between the lines memorializes as well. Silence being as you mentioned, one of the few gifts of this sheltered moment. I imagine you read a lot of sonnets and crown sonnets while you were writing yours. Who are your heroes of the sonnet form? A form that has become so vital now.
J.M.: Well, my first quick answer, of course, is Shakespeare. I also love the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay, though my favorite individual sonnets were written by Robert Hayden, Claude McKay, and Henry Taylor. For my heroic crown, I borrowed heavily from Marilyn Nelson and Patricia Smith. I also love what Gerald Stern did in his collection American Sonnets. He managed, somehow, to flout all the conventions, but keep the essence, of the sonnet, the “little song.” Most recently, though, I have to acknowledge the debt I owe to Terrance Hayes and his last book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Terrance is one of the most inventive poets writing today—often creating nonce forms or finding new ways to riff on old ones—so I was especially interested to see what he would do with such strict constraints as those imposed by the sonnet. I had already begun work on my own series before his book was published, but reading it sent me back to the drawing board. I admired the way he was able to subvert even the expectation for a volta by finding new ways to turn, and to discover, to surprise the self, within such narrow parameters, and I wanted to get a little of that action in “Refusal to Mourn…” And though it wasn’t anything I wanted necessarily in my own sequence, I dug the playfulness, the trickster quality in his poems. I even used a line of his as an epigraph to one of my sonnets. And lastly, I should mention Gjertrud Schnackenberg for how her Heavenly Questions taught me to handle the iambic line. I don’t think she’s mentioned enough among today’s best writers, but her ear is as finely tuned as anyone I’ve ever read.
I just read the new Wicked Enchantment of Wanda Coleman’s poems edited by Terrance Hayes, where he pays homage to her as a great influence on his own work. I’m thinking of the T.S. Eliot quote about imitation versus theft and that the good poet is able to craft something utterly unique. And how we are all influenced by what’s been written before. You’ve made your sonnet crown utterly new, and somewhere as we speak, I bet there is a poet who is learning from it, writing from it. And I can imagine that Kontemporay Amerikan Poetry will be taught soon, as a response to ‘Contemporary American Poetry’ writ large. Or maybe as a challenge like a few of the ars poetica poems in your collection do, particularly the poem “Contemporary American Poetry”. I know this is a big question, but what is the state of poetry right now? What concerns you for yourself, for your students? And what brings hope?
J.M.: It’s a mixed bag, no? On the one hand, I’d say poetry is as rich as it’s ever been. I mean, just this year alone I can count at least a dozen collections I’ve either already fallen in love with or am excited to read. Not to mention all the gems published last year. And the range in styles, perspectives, and voices is astounding. People are doing good work. It’s a great time to be a reader. What I was responding to in the poem, “Contemporary American Poetry,” however, had less to do with poems than with industry and its effect on the people who write them. So many of us—including some of our strongest writers—suffer from what Donald Hall called in one essay “petty ambition,” wherein “publication [and, I would add, prizes, tenure, likes and follows] stands in for achievement.” That is, we’ve gotten to the point where what matters most is not the writing of good poems, but what these good poems may fetch us in the marketplace. One can spend a whole evening with poets and never talk about poetry, never once hear mentioned a recent poem, line, or image that blew back anyone’s wig. But order a round of shots and see if you don’t know every approaching deadline before the drinks hit the table. See if you don’t hear, before they bring the first basket of bread, about who won what and why they really won it.
As for my students, I’m filled with much more hope than concern because I raise them right. They learn very early that shit poems get published all the time, that shit poets have jobs and accolades. They know that publication is not an achievement, and someone knowing your name is not an accomplishment. To write well, that’s the reward. And I think they get it.
Hallelujah! At Adroit, we understand the particular place we hold as an inspirational publication for young writers, both in terms of the supporting work we do for young writers (our internships, summer mentorship program, guides and webinars, etc.) but also as an esteemed publication. We think a lot about balancing encouragement and celebration while always maintaining our very high aesthetic standards for the work. In the end, it’s about the what the writer brings to the page. What we read can influence of course. What other influences do you feel are most impactful on what you write and how you write?
J.M.: Other than reading, I would have to say music. I remember reading where James Baldwin wrote that the first prerequisite of being a writer is having something to say. I’ve always pushed back on that a bit, as for my own part, I don’t know if I have a “thing” to say, so much as a feeling I hope to get across. Not an emotion, but a feeling. Of all artists, I find musicians and singers come closest to achieving what I want for my poems. My tastes vary widely, but the artists who most directly influence me are largely old school and of a kind. Miles, Marvin Gaye, Santana, Donny Hathaway, Janis Joplin, War. Sixties and seventies American Duende, we’ll call it. And then there are the visual artists. Of late, I’ve been getting back into the paintings of Francis Bacon and Caravaggio. It’s hard to say how, exactly, but I sense something of their spirit seeping into the new poems I’m writing.
I want that playlist—those are my all-time favorites. And yes, music and poetry are siblings in my mind too, and in your work in particular, that musicality is present in the sound and rhythm that you evoke on the page. As for art, I remember when we met in Paris in January, you had just come from the Bacon exhibit at the Pompidou and were filled by that experience. I slipped into it a couple days later. To my eye, it was breathtaking but also brutal. I’m keen to read the inspired new work. While we have been writing back and forth, you won a Pushcart Prize for “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn”. Congratulations on this most deserved honor. How will you celebrate?
J.M.: That Pompidou exhibit was amazing. And I had just seen another exhibit of Bacon’s in Rome a week or two prior. I’ve been a lover of his work for years, so those two exhibits—back to back—was just what the soul needed. I think you put it perfectly. His work is breathtaking and brutal. Maybe breathtaking, at least in part, because of its brutality. It’s rawness. Again, we come back to that term, Duende, a favorite of mine. Bacon had it. Caravaggio had it. All the musicians I mentioned have it. And it’s this quality I find most compelling, and that keeps me returning to their work day after day, year after year.
As for the Pushcart Prize, yes. I’m honored in the way one should feel honored any time another takes the time to read, appreciate, and acknowledge one’s work. After all, no one is owed a readership. Let alone accolades. But again, I go back to this question of what is worthy of celebration. Not having won a prize, but having written the poem. The joy, for me, is in the work itself.
I accomplished all I set out to—as best I could, according to my talents at the time—and celebrated when I wrapped up the final draft. I think I lit a Cuban and poured something dark and smooth.
John, I raise a glass to toast this profound and devastatingly powerful poem and to you from across this torn and hurting country. As we’ve been conversing back and forth quarantined in our spaces, George Floyd was murdered and the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery were finally arrested. Many poets are grappling with these events and how to write about them. As a poet who has confronted and brought racial violence into your work, what have you learned and what can you share about that process?
J.M.: And let us not forget Breonna Taylor. Or the other several names that one will have been able to add to the list by the time this goes to print. I’ve learned that even during a pandemic, when all the world shuts down—sports, businesses, universities, public gatherings, everything we imagine comprises our normal lives—one thing that never stops, or even pauses, from which we will receive no respite whatsoever, is America’s bloodlust for, and hatred of, Black people. Planets could crash, monsters could rise up out of the ocean, bombs could fall from the sky, and a plague could lay down whole populations… but if there is anywhere in this country even one breathing black person, there’s someone else out there still with a job to do. And a system in place to help him do it.
Thank you John for sharing your wisdom, pain and poetry with me. Our conversation has helped sustain me during a very dark time and I know the readers of The Adroit Journal will be equally impacted. Be well and safe.