Afro-Chicano poet, playwright, and educator, John Murillo is a modernized Renaissance Man. His poetry and poised personality speak to the realities of urban struggle and the progression of U.S American poetics. Murillo is a poet of and for the people. His charisma and charm carry over into the rich cadence and sensual calm of his poetic voice. His growth as an inspiring individual and phenomenal poet spans from his West Coast youth on the streets of Los Angeles and his teaching days in our nation’s capital, Washington DC. Earlier this summer, Murillo celebrated the release of his premiere book of poetry, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher Books 2010) available for purchase online. The collection of words will pluck at your heart strings and punch at your guts at the same time. Murillo plays with the sounds and lifestyles, the trials and tribulations of U.S. American, urban life with sensitivity and caution.
I first encountered Murillo at his feature reading at Palabra Pura in Pilsen, and have since had the privilege of running into him throughout Chicago and in Denver. Among writers such as Cave Canem, fellows in the Midwest and across the nation, his name constantly appears as a genuine and authentic voice. He is a heartfelt and honest writer that electrifies and engages audiences, students, friends and fellow writers wherever he travels. John Murillo is a poet on the move. Catch his work online, and definitely buy his book. Audiences and critics eagerly await the premiere of Murillo’s acclaimed choreo-play, TRIGGER, commissioned by Edgeworks Dance Theater and scheduled for production in early 2011.
Speaking with Murillo, I was reminded of my own ambitions and obligations as a writer to earnestly represent the people and places I come from and those voices and events that mold communities. He shared his struggles coming to write the book, and the hip-hop influences of his youth that inspired and motivated his first efforts at self expression. Murillo is a testament to the power of the written word and the responsibility of the writer to write from a place of witness.
How long did it take to finish Up Jump the Boogie?
From beginning to end, it took about seven years to write this book. Writing poems through workshops and grad school, there are some seven year poems in the book. I didn’t start putting the book together as a cohesive whole until 2006-2007. Willie Perdomo coming to me about publishing, which lit a fire under me. That’s when I really started assembling the poems into a manuscript.
Who did you study under for your MFA?
I went to grad school at NYU for their MFA and studied under incredible poets. People like Yusef Komunyaka. Each teacher has had their influence on me. I learned mostly by watching their example, seeing an established poet work and live. It’s necessary to believe in yourself, in a world that doesn’t accept poetry and art. These poets and teachers taught me to believe it’s important work. You have to believe in your role in the world as a poet.
What is the role of the poet?
The role of the poet is to write poems. John Henrik Clarke, the historian, said to do your best work. No matter who you are or what you do. If you’re a teacher, teach. A basketball player, play the best ball you can. Be the best poet you can be. Master your craft. Write out of your own paradigm and sensibilities. I wouldn’t say a poet has any more charge to make the world a better place than anyone else, but he does have the gift of language. The power of language implies more responsibility. The duty of the poet is to keep language fresh. The world abuses and misuses language. I think the poet believes in the purity of language.
Certain overused phrases and cliches, abstractions, like the word ‘terrorism’ for example, are used daily to connotate fear and stereotypes. The poet’s job is to restore the blood to language. Language is made something new again, pure in a sense, fresh and reveals new meanings and metaphors through the poet.
I strive to pay attention to the lives of people around me and my own life, the underclass. I think when you write about the people, language is used in service. In this first book I tried to restore the purity of language in a “post” racial era. A lot of people have you think racism and social inequalities have gone away, just because we have a black president. A lot of problems remain and how often do you hear those stories? In my poetry I try to witness, bear witness, for those people that don’t get to shine. I’m thinking about TV shows like The Cosby Show and Good Times, not everybody lives like the Huxtables.
What was one of your struggles writing the book?
One struggle I faced writing the book was to not write caricatures of people or types of people. To write really human people. To write human. The drug dealer isn’t just a drug dealer. He’s a person with a mother and father, a three dimensional representation. It’s a challenge growing up around a lot of that stuff. I still find myself falling to those stereotypes, what they do and who these people are. I had to keep myself in these peoples lives.
Another challenge is how much to reveal and how much to keep back. How much license am I going to take with people’s business? I have a lot of friends and family coming to the release of my book. I wonder what their reaction is going to be. I’ve had conversations with older poets. They say, as a poet your job is to witness, it may not always be pretty.
What is poetry of witness to you?
Poetry of witness came to me first through hip-hop. I came of age at a time when rappers were also poets of witness. Rappers like KRS One and people who spoke to people’s lives. I gravitated to that inclination. The tradition of Etheridge Knight, Martin Espada [who wrote the forward for the book], and Audre Lord. These are poets who really helped me form my aesthetic and my poetica. I hope they will keep evolving, being rooted in the human experience. I’m not concerned with anything that isn’t concerned with people. I hope, as my experience broadens, my poems will take a different tone.
Where did you grow up? And when did you start writing?
I grew up in Southern California, LA mostly. I was a DC school teacher for 11 years. It’s in DC that I started writing poetry. Hip hop inspired my earliest writing. I remember being really young, sitting on the curb, free-styling on the street. I must have been 10 or 11 at the time. It was always amazing to me to watch the people with this verbal gift. It was always about the lyrics and rhyme skills. Rapping was about having an ear for meter, consonance, the metaphor and simile, making dope similes. How skilled can you be with the pen? We challenged each other. We wrote rhymes then in the cypher, the earliest form of workshop. I wanted to still be the best writer I could be. To be a dope MC was to write a dope line then. Now it’s all about that triple platinum, unfortunately. Back then, it was not only the colorful use of language, but socially conscious content, more than just butty beats. But, I don’t want to be considered a hip-hop poet. The true hip hop poets are the rappers and the MC’s out there.
How does hip-hop influence your poetry now?
Just in terms of mood, there’s a lot of it in my blood and that’s what makes itself to the page. The music formed a soundtrack, as well as old school R&B, for my life and for writing.
Anything you’d like to say to the young writer?
Writing is a tradition that stretches back at least as far back as the old griots in West Africa and the scribes in Ancient Egypt. To the young writer, I say, come at it with everything you got. You read, you study, you take no short cuts. You do whatever you can to learn your craft. Time will tell if it’s what you’re meant to do. If you’re in it for a page or for the long haul. You dabble or maybe you become a leader. If it is for you, honor it.
Take writing seriously, do whatever you can to learn from all sources. Taking the time to write daily. This is what you’re going to be doing for a while. If it means copy out the encyclopedia, like Malcolm X copied out the dictionary. If you have to read something old and corny. Or turn your cell phone off and stay home to do your reading and writing. Just as seriously as a basketball player will practice for the NBA. If you really want to do this then do it. Write.