Friday, October 11, 2013

An Interview with John Murillo

John Murillo

Lauro Vazquez, who this year is enjoying time to write as a third-year Sparks Fellow as a graduate of Notre Dam’s MFA program (though he’s living in Chicago) is still generously donating his time in his capacity as what I’m calling a Letras Latinas Associate. Among his contributions are author e-interviews. What follows is one with John Murillo—in anticipation of his upcoming visit to Notre Dame, as part of the quartet of poets coming for the grand finale of “Latino/a Poetry Now.”  —FA

When praising Up Jump the Boogie, Yusef Komunyakaa didn’t hesitate to declare that John Murillo’s pages “breathe and sing.” Martín Espada, in the book’s introduction, spoke of being in the presence of a “wordsmith and a song-maker.” Murillo is a modern day troubadour, singing to ancestors who out-survived their oppressors, and to those who lived long enough to have children. He is one of those children and his poetry, his music—like rain—knows how to “wash over them, sinew and soul.” Indeed. His poems remind me of the stubborn art of an eighteenth-century community of maroon slaves who hid in the jungles of Surinam and who made from the forest instruments to give rhythm to their limbs yearning to dance. Here is a poet who is also stubborn and—more importantly—who knows, too, how to turn the concrete forests of his days into instruments, into the “beauty you be / and dance even when / you the only music.”

Lauro Vazquez: First of all thank you for agreeing to this interview. I want to get right to it. In a previous interview, you had expressed your appreciation of form, calling it: “part of the necessary apprenticeship one must serve—that one should feel honored to serve—to enter into this guild.” I think this line best captures the diverse aesthetic of your craft and the poems in Up Jump the Boogie. But there is also the craft or guild or tradition of street-poetry, and of street-music and other (folk) ways of art making which are also very much present in your poems. Can you speak a little more on how these two rivers came to mingle in your work? Are these really two different guilds or traditions? In a way it seems to me like they have always been really one—as they are (at least for me) in your work.

John Murillo: I agree with you.  And I think it’s more useful to view poetry as having a single—albeit varied, rich, and often embattled—tradition that spans time, geography, and language.  It’s more useful to the poet wanting to grow and study and to feel justified in exploring the broadest possible range of source material for inspiration and instruction.  It also makes for more useful, or worthwhile, conversations about poetry and what it does.

That said, there are a variety of styles, conventions, and modes within that tradition.  (We’re all in the same gang, maybe we just claim different sets?)  The style of poetry that first appealed to me was the mode that you call “street poetry” or “folk ways of art making”.  (I love this, by the way.  Reminds me of something I once heard Mos Def say: “Rap is not, has never been, pop music.  Rap, hip hop, is folk music.”) 

My first poets wrote in four beat, rhymed couplets.  They were formalists.  In this way, my pedigree isn’t much different from any other poet.  But because my poets were also young and Black and underprivileged, you probably won’t find many of them included in any mainstream anthologies.  Nevertheless, by listening to songs by such writers as Melle Mel, Rakim, Slick Rick, and KRS-One, I learned more about metaphor, simile, prosody, and narrative progression than anything I’ve ever read in the criticism of Helen Vendler or Harold Bloom.  I also learned important lessons concerning accessibility and audience, and about writing from the gut.  If I had my whole apprenticeship to serve over again, I’d choose no other teachers.

That said, it’s a big world.  And there are other teachers in it.  This is what I was advocating in that other interview:  Studying and working in such traditional forms as the sonnet, or the sestina, can teach a poet specific lessons he couldn’t learn otherwise.  If I were a dancer—a b-boy, say—I’d study not only popping and locking, but ballet, tap, jazz, modern, Afro-Cuban, as well.  I’d even find a way to squeeze some Macarena in there if it helped me dance better. 

LV: Let’s talk about ancestry. Your book is full of cousins, child-hood friends, tios and primas and of course fathers, whether these be biological or poetic. There is also too of course Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry.” What is the idea of ancestry?

JM: The idea of ancestry.  It’s a beautiful thing, really.  For me, at least, it begins with recognizing that other souls have walked this road and—though we may pretend not to know so—still walk with us.  My life, my language… they don’t just belong to me.  I am connected with all those who have come before me as well as to those who will come after.  Now what does this mean?  Well, the good news is that I have muertos all around who, because they may not have had the chance to sing their own songs, and, knowing that I’ve made it my job to do a little crooning here and there, start whispering little lines and riffs into my ear when they see me near a microphone.  It means I have my peoples on stand-by ready to help me get the work done.  That’s the blessing.  And then, there’s the burden:  Being the one now charged with carrying all that music.  I’m not just singing for myself anymore.  Others are watching and guiding and they must be honored.   

LV: Others have noticed and written of your compelling sensitivity for the musicality of poetry and more broadly of language in general. But I am more interested in music as a larger metaphor for art making and for celebration of the forbidden. Let me explain, some of your lines read as follows:

We thunderstruck
Maroons, machete wielding silhouettes,
Reject the fetters, come together still—
Some call it Capoeira, call it street-
Dance. We say culture. Say survival.


‘They’re from Katrina,’ the drunk calls out, as if the storm
Were a country unto itself, with its own government, borders,
And taxes. As if this would explain these ten young men, their brass
And bass kick rumbling toward the concourse. Not dirge,
But jubilee, and a hundred soaked shirts, bodies
Slick and writhing in rain—working men and women

Forgetting, for a spell, the work of being men and women, letting rain
And music wash over them, sinew and soul.

The historian Hans Koning, in writing of the conquest of the Americas (of the middle passage, of the destruction of native America) wrote: “the children of conquerors and slaves are the only achievements of the conquest, the only wealth it produced.” I think your poems and your metaphors of music in a way touch on this theme of celebration of survival, of celebration of the forbidden—not in a cliché sort of way where one glorifies “the struggle” but in a way that speaks to the appreciation for the cultural wealth that is sometimes one of the unattended consequences of history. Could you speak a little about music and how it relates or does not relate to history?

JM: Even when written and/or performed by only one or two individuals, music very often expresses the collective consciousness of an era.  Music provides the soundtrack to the lives lived then and there.  But it’s more than mere background.  For some of us, it’s what has allowed us to endure what may have otherwise been unendurable.  I believe George Clinton’s funk band, Parliament, put it best in their 70’s hit, “Aqua Boogie”: With the rhythm it takes to dance to/ what we got to live through/ you can dance underwater and not get wet.”  I’ve written elsewhere that it’s the struggle (“what we got to live through”) and the nearly impossible grace required to survive it (the ability to “dance underwater and not get wet”), that informs and inspires all that I do.

But music doesn’t just score the struggle.  It’s the very act itself. In a world that serves (even if it may not seek) to dehumanize, any act of creation, of making, is an attempt to hold onto something essential.  So each song, each poem, is a recorded instant of humanity asserting itself.  Rebel Music, as it were.  At least, that’s the way I see it.

As for American music being one of the benefits of the middle passage and all that followed… I don’t know.  Maybe.  But I don’t think I’ll ever have it in me, as much as I love my classic soul library, to say with any conviction, “It’s a good thing we had slavery.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Isaac Hayes or Chaka Khan!”  Fuck that shit.

LV: And finally can you speak a little about the importance of the image, what it does to a reader and what is its relationship to the music of language; what happens when these two come together? (I think for instance of these lines:

My hands are not writing so well. Hands that have
Held both grandbabies and grenades, stumble under
The weight of a number two pencil. Imagine—three

or these:

I know it’s wrong to stare, but it’s Tuesday,
The express is going local, and this woman’s

Thighs—cocoa-buttered, crossed, and stacked
To her chin—are the only beauty I think I’ll see

JM: As far as I’m concerned, imagery is the most important element of the craft.  And this is true across genres.  I’m not saying anything new here.  “Show, don’t tell.”  T.S., Eliot’s “Objective Correlative”.  We know that the best storytellers are those most able to paint a compelling picture for their readers through the use of vivid, concrete, imagery.  We know to be specific and to try to engage as many senses as possible.  It’s all been written and said more eloquently than anything I can say about it here.

As for the relationship between imagery and music?  Well, that’s the Master Key, isn’t it?  If one can hold those two elements in balance and utilize them well, then she may be able to write some poems.  Thing is, only a handful of poets have ever been able to work this out.  Even fewer have been able to do it with any consistency.  I, myself, have had flashes, come close a couple times maybe.  But I don’t think I’ve been able to sustain both throughout an entire poem.  Let alone an entire collection.  That’s the beauty of this thing, though:  Unlike dancing or sports or any of the hundred other pursuits to which I may have dedicated my life, I can do this until I die.  There’s still a chance that I might one day get it right.

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, the 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 New York University.

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