In this interview, Nathan McClain’s mode of inquiry evokes substantial and insightful responses from John Murillo. The ultimate craftsman, Murillo understands the value of writing from a space, from a feeling, instead of toward a subject. In other words, he does not make an event of writing a poem. His practice is uncorrupted by a chase for validation. Instead, we understand the time and dedication necessary to achieve Murillo’s exquisite lyricism and masterful use of form.
John Murillo’s most recent book, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry and the NAACP Image Award. He is an assistant professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Wesleyan University.
Nathan McClain: Your latest book, Kontemporay Amerikan Poetry, was released in early March 2020, right before the country shut down. It was a collection ten years in the making. So, a lot of anticipation from followers of your work and, I’d imagine, for you as well. You must have anticipated traveling for readings, conferences, awards ceremonies, and other events. Much of these, I know, were able to be shifted to a virtual format; but much was lost in the shut down, and publishing a long-awaited collection during a pandemic had to affect you in many ways. Could you speak to what that experience was like for you? The things you missed? What may have been lost in the translation to the virtual?
John Murillo: As you know, ours is an oral as well as a written tradition; even in the most academic of settings, there is still at least the ghost of call and response. When I write, I imagine an other. The live reading allows one to actually encounter that other, at least somewhat. So I miss that. Also, though it can be exhausting, I like touring. I like hotels and seeing new cities and towns and dining at new restaurants. Meeting new people. Other poets, readers, faculty, students. I love, whenever possible, letting friends know I’ll be in town and sneaking off campus to catch up over coffee or drinks. I miss picking out my clothes and getting fly. I miss looking around the room after a reading, while I’m signing books, say, and seeing other people in conversation with each other. The poetry reading as community event. The connections that have nothing to do with the invited reader, per se. I think all that gets lost.
Still, there have been benefits to the virtual format—Zoom and all the rest. We all understood that circumstances were less than ideal, that nobody really wanted to be online. And yet, we showed up for one another and, in doing so, likely helped each other through difficult times. The Zoom readings allowed us to check in with each other when we needed it most. The format allowed and is still allowing us to gather and to share, even if only briefly, even if only on-screen. It has allowed us to support authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers. I was slow to warm to it, but am glad I finally came around.
NM: I love that—“the poetry reading as community event,” the “ghost of call and response,” and your active acknowledgment of “an other.” Ideally, it is by asking questions that the reader arrives at the poem in your head; so the final poem is something that both you and the reader have created together. The relationship you describe with your reader feels of unique importance, and one that may be more difficult to navigate, despite its benefits, as more literary readings and events go virtual.
One way, however, in which this necessary shift to a virtual format has not affected your most recent book is with regards to its well-deserved praise and recognition. As we speak, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (or poems therein) has won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Poetry Society of Virginia’s North American Book Award, the Four Quartets Prize from the T.S. Eliot Foundation, and was a finalist for the PEN/Voelcker Award for Poetry and the NAACP Image Award. Obviously, these honors aren’t the reason you’ve toiled over and with this material over the last decade, as you’ve mentioned yourself: “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.” And while I imagine the recognition for this collection might offer some validation of your commitment to the craft of this collection, I’m sure you also don’t want to be guilty of falling into the very traps your title poem critiques. But how do you square that? How do you resist that temptation and keep your motivations pure?
JM: I should say first that I’m grateful for the recognition. I’ve said elsewhere that no writer is entitled to readers, or reviewers. Or panels who, collectively, think your work worthy of praise. After so many months thinking that the book would simply vanish given everything else that was going on in the world, to come out on the other side knowing that the book, in spite of it all, still managed to find its way to readers, and that some of those readers have responded favorably, is encouraging. Still, one must keep things in perspective. I know, first of all, that luck is as much a part of it as anything else. My collection was up against some of the same few books quite often this year. Sometimes they won, sometimes I won. It doesn’t mean that my book was better on this day or worse on another. Or that theirs was better in this room or worse in that room. These are the same books, comprised of the same poems. What it means is that this particular mix of people, on this particular day, for whatever reason, gave me the nod. It could have gone, and more often than not went, the other way. That’s luck.
Secondly, and maybe this is just an extension of my first point, there is no direct correlation between a work’s merit and its reward. Masterful poets go under the radar all the time while shit poets win tons and publish everywhere. My having won a few prizes isn’t proof of anything. So I have to find my own proof. And motivation. Part of that consists of imagining how my work might hold up against, or be received by, the poets who inspired me. If I can write something that feels to me like it could hang with Robert Hayden, or would flip the wig of one Emily Dickinson, then I can sleep well that night. And if not, then not.
Lastly, I should say that I’ve seen what chasing validation has done to folks. People I love, poets I admire. Poets with whom other poets would gladly trade bios, but for whom no accolade is enough. If they have some, they want more. If they have many, they need the others. Donald Hall, in his essay “Poetry and Ambition,” distinguishes between ambition for the work and ambition for the self, and notes the deleterious effect of the latter. I’ve seen it up close, and want no part of it.
NM: That’s so wonderfully said. That “chasing validation” is something I continually warn my undergrad students against, and that I myself, as an undergrad, was certainly susceptible to—particularly when it came to publication. By which I mean, I was so much more focused on publication than writing good poems, the kinds of poems you describe. But let’s turn our attention back to KAP for a moment and the craft tool of juxtaposition. Pardon the lengthy lead-in, but in 1978, Charles Burnett premiered his then M.F.A. thesis at UCLA (and debut film) entitled Killer of Sheep. This film is often likened to Italian Neorealism, the post-WWII film movement focused on the daily lives of poor, working class people with the deployment of its handheld camera work, episodic narrative and gritty, documentary-style cinematography—though I’m most intrigued by the juxtaposition between subject, location, and technique. Similarly, poems like “On Metaphor” or “On Negative Capability” (among others) juxtapose academic literary concepts against seemingly very personal narratives rooted in the urban and colloquial. Can you talk a bit more about your thought process as you drafted and revised those poems? Were they framed in this way from the outset? Always intended as a series?
JM: “On Prosody” was the first and the last in the series. First drafted, last completed. It took approximately seven years for that poem to come around, during which other poems—“On Metaphor,” “On Negative Capability,” and others—wrapped relatively quickly. I can’t remember the order in which I wrote these other poems, but I know that I always had a few drafts working simultaneously. At the time I was just writing poems and had no plans for a series, but once I had about four or five of these in progress, I noticed how each could be read as either an expression of, or in conversation with, some craft element or another. At that point, the titles came almost of their own volition and a series was underway. Then, things slowed down. Once I became aware that I was writing a Series, I found myself forcing a lot of these concepts, writing toward instead of from. That’s always a hard way to go, and the exact opposite of everything I know to be true of my writing process. I have never—or, at least, very seldom—been able to write about or toward a subject. Instead, I use subjects, images, and phrases as points of departure. Ledges. What I had to do with this series, then, was to just write, then see what I had, and decide whether it fit into the series or not.
NM: Lastly, and keeping us on the subject of writing, a fun question—in a 2016 interview conducted by your wife, poet Nicole Sealey, one of the titles used to introduce you was “playwright,” which had me quite intrigued. Could you give us the fuller picture?
JM: I used to love writing plays. And if I can say so, playwriting came much more easily to me than poetry. Back in the day, I was a much better playwright than I was a poet. And a better essayist than either. I struggled with poetry early on and, therefore, learned quickly that if I wished to become anything more than mediocre, I had to work. I had to dedicate myself fulltime. Poetry—the study, the practice—demanded, and still demands, everything.
NM: I’ll have to interview you again soon just to hear more about these plays! As ever, John, I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity to chop it up with you about your work, the lure of recognition, juxtaposition, and more… wishing you and your loves the very best this holiday season. Thanks so much for your time, my friend.
JM: Same to you, my brother.
John Murillo is the author of the poetry collections Up Jump the Boogie and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. His honors include the 2021 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Four Quartets Prize from the Academy of American Poets and the TS Eliot Foundation, two Pushcart Prizes, the J Howard and Barbara MJ Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation; 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; and inclusion in Best American Poetry 2017, 2019, and 2020. He is an assistant professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Wesleyan University.
Nathan McClain is the author of the poetry collections, Scale (2017) and Previously Owned (Four Way Books, 2022), the recipient of fellowships from Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Frost Place, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a graduate of the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson. A Cave Canem fellow, his poems and prose have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Guesthouse, Poetry Northwest, Green Mountains Review, Zocalo Public Square, and The Critical Flame. He teaches at Hampshire College and serves as poetry editor for the Massachusetts Review.