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Poet Spotlight: John Murillo
Recently read John Murillo’s Up Jump the Boogie from one of my favorite presses, Cypher Books, and was blown away. John kindly answered some of my questions about his poetry and process. You can purchase the book here.
1) Can you tell us about the genesis and formation of your book? How did you hook up with Cypher Books?
I had been working on these poems for several years, some of which were included in my MFA thesis. Honestly, I hadn’t planned on publishing them as a collection–seeing them as apprentice poems–until Willie asked to see a manuscript.
He and I had some mutual friends, but didn’t actually meet up until we ran into each other at the 2009 AWP Conference in Chicago. He asked to see what I had. When I sent him what was then about 3/4 of the book, he said he wanted it.
I signed a contract, was given a deadline, and got to work finishing up the rest.
2) From the very first poem, I was struck by your sense of rhythm, sound, rhyme, and breaks. Can you tell us about how you developed such a compelling ear for the musicality of poetry?
Like a lot of inner city kids, my first experiences with poetry were aural. And the first poets I listened to were rappers. Years of listening to such artists as Big Daddy Kane, Black Thought, Bahamadia, and Big Pun, just to name a few, will do wonders for your ear.
So when I got to poetry proper, I had a long foreground, much exposure to such sound devices as rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, meter. I was also familiar with–before I had vocabulary for them–such things as metaphor and simile, narrative arc and lyric epiphany.
Credit the battle rhymers.
3) You also have a wonderful sense of storytelling and narrative. To you, what is the importance of telling story? What does it mean to tell a story “sin verguenza”? And, as praise?
As a reader, I’m drawn to this kind of poetry. Narrative and lyrical narrative. Larry Levis, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sharon Olds, Phil Levine. I think it’s a very natural impulse to want to hear stories. Even lyrical poems are served well if there is some sort of narrative leading up to the poem’s discovery. To tell a story ‘sin verguenza,’ without shame, is something I’m learning to become more comfortable with. But I believe it’s imperative for any writer–poet, dramatist, novelist–to be comfortable in the uncomfortable, to court truth without condition. It’s not an easy thing. Especially when the truth is ugly and/or involves ourselves. Sometimes we do praise. At others, we condemn. The thing is to be as honest as we can. Luckily, we–poets and readers of poetry–have many models to which we can return again and again, to embolden us, to give us spine.
4) I was also struck by how sometimes your poems move without any punctuation, and sometimes your poems are moved by the presence and pacing of punctuation. How do you decide which poems to punctuate and which ones not to?
Usually, if I don’t punctuate, it’s for rhythm’s sake. I also enjoy the tension created between line and sentence when the poem lacks any other clear guide as to how to read it. I find this to be especially true when other poems in the collection–the majority, even–are punctuated. I can think of two poems in particular–“Dream Fragment” and “Ode to the Crossfader”–where I played with this. Again, these are early efforts. So I’m still figuring a lot of this out. I’m still discovering what all these tools are and how they can be used, and to what effect. That’s part of the joy I get from all this.
5) There are several formal poems in your book, and I was especially interested in your sestinas. What draws you to this form?
I’m drawn to sestinas because everyone goes on about how difficult they are. So there’s the challenge. But then, there is also the freedom that structure provides. You go in with this prescribed form not knowing what you’ll end up with. You take your chances. More often than not, what you end with is shit. But every now and then, you get something worth working on. And if you work long and hard enough, you may have a keeper. In general, form is a way for me to learn. Each form has the potential to teach something about composing that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Sonnets, for instance, teach you how to pace, how to turn and pivot, set up and reveal, an argument or narrative. You learn about line and compression and waste when you have only a few syllables to work with. A set meter. Haiku teaches compression as well, integrity of image. Pantoums and villanelles teach you to respect the line as unit–if you write one bad line, it’ll come back at least once to bite you in the ass–and so on. Finally, I consider it part of the necessary apprenticeship one must serve–that one should feel honored to serve–in order to enter into this guild. I really do consider this a sacred tradition, this being a poet. One should want to study.
John Murillo is the current Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. A graduate of New York University’s MFA program in creative writing, he has also received fellowships from the New York Times, Cave Canem, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He is a two-time Larry Neal Writers’ Award winner and the inaugural Elma P. Stuckey Visiting Emerging Poet-in-Residence at Columbia College Chicago. His poetry has appeared in such publications as Callaloo, Court Green, Ploughshares, Ninth Letter, and the anthology Writing Self and Community: African-American Poetry After the Civil Rights Movement. Up Jump the Boogie is his first collection.