The Language is its Own Music, Luivette Resto Interviews John Murillo


LUIVETTE RESTO:  Did the majority of your poems stem from your graduate program?

JOHN MURILLO:  My master’s thesis shares the same title, but a lot of poems were written afterward. Forty percent of the poems in the book came from my graduate work.

LUIVETTE:  In a recent interview with Frontal Junkyard, you discussed your writing process? You mentioned that you didn’t write to music. What is your writing process? How do you go out about revising?

JOHN:  I need the silence. The language is its own music. I might listen to music beforehand to get myself in the mindset, but then I remove the headset. Revision is where it is. I go through about ten to twenty revisions. My writing process varies from poem to poem. In the beginning, I hold off thinking what a poem is. But what I do know is that I have fragment of images that come to me such as phrases and I compile them. It is like working with a jigsaw puzzle. I see each one as a process of discovery. I very seldom know what it is that I want to write about. By the time I get through the rough draft it becomes something else. I have to honor what the poem wants to be. 

LUIVETTE:  How did you go about organizing the book? Did you make any conscious decisions?  

JOHN:  First, I laid the poems out and looked to see which poems were in the same family, theme wise. Then I started to play with the order of the sections. In the first section of the book, we are outside of the house. I categorize them as the “hood” poems, poems that take place outdoors. In the second section, we go inside the house. In the third section, “Flowers for Etheridge,” is about my father’s blues because Etheridge’s Knight life was my father’s in many ways. The hip-hop poems are driven by the quote, “With the rhythm it takes a dance to. What we have to dance underwater without getting wet,” because as people of color it is in the music. We can feel it. We can be grace under fire or go underwater as the line says. That is why I end the book with the word joy. 

LUIVETTE:  One of the overarching themes of Up Jump the Boogie is homage to your childhood was that a conscious decision? 

JOHN:  As a whole, I wanted the book to be about redemption or resilience. Resilience is harvest through culture and love. Its what keeps us afloat. The theme of the whole thing is about culture and art in the face of oppression and adversity. I talk about it [childhood] as a struggle. The book tells the stories of people who didn’t have the opportunity to tell their stories. One of the messages of the book is the idea of documentation. 

LUIVETTE:  Some poems, such as “Hustle” and “The Prisoner’s Wife,” are persona poems. Are they composites of people?

JOHN: They are composites of real people. For example, “The Prisoner’s Wife” went through a few revisions. With that poem there was a narrative taking form that was not my own. It just happened to me. 

LUIVETTE: Who are you reading now, and whom do you highly recommend?

JOHN: Larry Levis. He is my go-to guy. I read his work over and over. I am also reading Octavio Paz’s poetry and short essays. As for poets I am reading, Yusef Komunyakaa, Martín Espada, Evie Shockley, Nikki Finney, Ross Gay, Aracelis Girmay, Patrick Rosal, Marcus Jackson, Dwayne Betts, and Randall Horton.

LUIVETTE: When is the next book coming out?

JOHN: I consider myself a slow writer. I foresee the next book to come out in another five to six years. In the second collection, there are certain subjects I want to discuss. The first book is very local; it is about the neighborhood.  But in the second one, I hope to be more global in perspective. Take a look and see my place in the world at large. There will be less personal poems in the next book. There will definitely be poems of witness on a grandeur scale. The next collection is tentatively titled World Music.