DOGBYTES Interview: John Murillo

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John Murillo’s first poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie, was a finalist for both the 2011 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award. His other honors include a 2011 Pushcart Prize, two Larry Neal Writers Awards, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem Foundation, the New York Times, the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Currently, he serves on the creative writing faculty at Hampshire College and New York University.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

Write poems. I don’t mean to be flippant, but it’s an old question with old answers. Poets such as Audre Lorde, Martín Espada, Sonia Sanchez, and Carolyn Forche have been showing us for years what we can do. Publish well-written poems grounded in the real world in a language real people can understand. It’s that simple. I’m a strong believer that, as historian John Henrik Clarke once wrote, the best way to serve any cause is “to do [one’s] best work.” Healers should heal and poets should poet. That said, there are, in addition to the usual means by which poets engage—writing poems, giving readings, using available platforms and networks to raise awareness about various issues—smaller, less glamorous acts, by which writers can do some good in the world, in the community. One can write letters to legislators and various civic organizations advocating for one’s neighbors (writ large and/or local); one can teach creative writing or even basic literacy at neighborhood libraries, community centers, and houses of detention; one can read poems to an ailing family member. Of course, little of this will end up on YouTube or get many likes on social media (unless, of course, one announces such acts and/or posts selfies, for instance, with said ailing relative—propped up in the hospital bed, tubes and electrodes running every which way, and the somber faced poet flashing a first collection of a newly famous friend whose favor he fiends for. Friggin’ fakers.) But these small acts matter, nonetheless.

In his preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman tells us that one job of the poet is to “cheer up slaves and to horrify despots.” In a similar vein, Lucille Clifton said in an interview decades later that poets should “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I hold these ideas close and have always admired poets who use their talents in the service of others. Having said that, there is something I find problematic in the question itself, “What can poets do…?” There is tucked away in there this notion of poets as inherently better qualified—more articulate, in possession of heightened powers of perception, and, therefore, more astute political sensibilities than the dumb and grunting masses who are unable to speak or do for themselves. No one ever asks, “What can garbage collectors do to promote social justice?” Or nurses. Or numbers runners. A poet is no more or less a citizen than anyone else, has the same civic responsibilities as everyone else, and is no more or less qualified than anyone else to bring about change. To have developed a talent for scribbling a few lines here and there neither obligates nor absolves one of anything. Far too many poets take this “Voice of the Voiceless” business to heart and start thinking of themselves as some sort of saviors, prophets even. And there are others who write some politically charged verse, read said verse to loud applause, and think their work is done. No. And, no.

I hear you have a new book coming out. Can you tell us a little bit about it, and how it came to be?

My next book is still a couple years away. Still scribbling and scratching is all.

What was the last great book you read?

Working through a great book now. Chinweizu’s The West and the Rest of Us: White Predators, Black slavers, and the African Elite. I’ve owned it for a few decades now and have tried and failed often to tackle it. But I’m doing good this time around.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

Wow. Nothing recently. Can’t even remember the last time I tried anything new. It’s sad, really. But now I’m committed. I’m going to try something new. Tomorrow.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

These are great questions, by the way. I’ve always been a huge basketball fan. Since I was in elementary school, I used to love to read biographies of players who lacked any innate talent or size or athleticism, but were able to succeed on grit and determination. As someone who came to poetry relatively late and who really has no special talent for it, I still draw inspiration from these kinds of stories. Love the underdog. Most recently, I’ve been rooting (reluctantly) for the Celtics’ guard, Isaiah Thomas. As a Lakers fan, I hate all things Celtics, but this guy has so much heart it’s unbelievable. Dude is 5’9”, was the LAST player selected in the 2011 draft, and has fought his way to becoming one of the league’s premier players. More impressive, though, was when a few weeks ago, after learning that his younger sister was killed in an auto accident, Thomas went out the next night, eyes red and his whole face swollen from crying, and carried his squad on his back. His team lost, but that’s not the point. Nor is it that he was able to put all that pain aside. He didn’t. He carried that shit. He carried all that weight—leaned into the hurt—and still did what he had to do. There’s a lot to be gained watching someone like that. A couple weeks ago, while playing the Washington Wizards, he got his front tooth knocked out by some Goliath’s elbow, bled all over the court, and kept balling. Straight gangster.

When you’re not reading, writing, or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy, and money?

Really, all I do is teach, read, and write (In that order). I guess the bright side of having so little time or energy to spend is that I can save some money. If I do have any down time, I’m either at the gym or with my wife. Lots of Netflix and chill. Chewing Gum is dope. Atlanta is dope (though not on Netflix). The Office. Frasier. Black Mirror. I listen to a lot of music. Old school, mostly.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

By “change” I’m assuming you mean something significant like “racism would have ended” or “there would be no more homelessness.” But to answer this I’d have to pretend that my child self was much brighter and more curious about the world than he was. Either I didn’t give much thought to such things or, if I did, I’m too old to remember.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

Something fairly recently, actually. A few years ago I went through a process that demanded of me that I step back from the world, so to speak, for a year or so. No parties, no conferences, no social media, etc. The relative solitude, the quiet, was a godsend. Time off the grid gave me an opportunity to reflect on a great many things, not least of which was who I was becoming as a writer. It didn’t sit well with me. I realized that after a few years in PoBiz, I had started to care about things that had absolutely nothing to do with poetry. I would have entire conversations with poet friends and never mention a single line, or poem, that meant anything to any of us. Instead, it was all contest deadlines, job searches, who just won what and was publishing where. Upon completing the aforementioned process and returning to the world, I came back feeling out of step with a lot of it. Particularly on social media. I decided, to whatever degree I could, to try and stay gone. I’ll pop my head up every now and again, but for the most part, I’m underground—reading and writing—and I’m saner than I’ve ever been.

What advice you would give to emerging poets?

Stay off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the rest. Make a few real friends, keep them close. Stay hungry, but stop being thirsty. Read deeply and widely. Balance your life. Find ways other than writing poems to make money, to get laid, to become famous. Honor the tradition, don’t pimp it for grants, fellowships, or tenure. Work hard. Know that you won’t get everything you think you deserve, nor will you deserve everything you get. Say thank you, then get back to work. Work hard. And stay off Facebook.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

I was at Cave Canem in ’03, ’04, and ’06. Most of my favorite memories came from my first and third years. That’s when I met people who would become, over time, my closest friends. And then there are a few little things I remember that still make me smile. I remember getting sick on the Greyhound from D.C. to Greensburg, and spending the first couple days of the retreat curled up under a blanket and my suitemate, Dante Micheaux, checking in on me to see if I needed anything. Tea? Water? That was before we even really knew each other. I remember telling Nikky Finney how much I enjoyed her reading but that I didn’t have enough money to buy her book, and Shelagh Patterson, who I had not yet met but who was standing within earshot, reaching into her pocket to hand me a twenty. I remember Regie Gibson turning me onto Robert Bly’s “Leaping Poetry,” and Adrian Matejka turning me onto the work of Eric Gamalinda and Bill Matthews. I remember partying too much one year, turning in a couple days’ worth of bullshit into workshop, and Jericho Brown being brother enough to call me out on it. I remember Carolyn Beard Whitlow bringing the house down at a fellows’ reading, and Toi dancing with the big homey, James Richardson (r.i.p.). I could go on for hours about the good old days, really. Mostly, I was just happy to be a part of the community.

Kyla Marshell’s work has appeared in Blackbird, Calyx, ESPNw, Gawker, The Guardian, O, the Oprah Magazine, and on the Poetry Foundation. Her work has earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships, two residencies to the Vermont Studio Center, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. In 2013, named her one of “7 Young Black Writers You Should Know.” A Spelman College graduate originally from Boston, she grew up in Silver Spring, MD, Morehead, KY, and Portland, ME, and now lives in New York. To view Kyla’s previous interviews, visit the DOGBYTES blog.