“The role of the artist,” said Akira Kurosawa, “is not to look away.” In John Murillo’s “Mercy, Mercy Me,” the speaker leaves behind a Los Angeles in flames, but not before giving the rearview mirror a hard glance. This is typical of Murillo’s poetry—attuned to the agonizing realities of what’s transpired, while carrying that dizzying pain into the future. Or, as he puts it: “the world on fire, / and half your head with it.”
I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with Murillo before, so I approached our conversation as friends. But when he suggested that many poets today don’t exercise enough patience, I gently pushed back. What about those poets who may not have the luxury of time? In characteristic fashion, he took a moment before responding. And his response convinced me.
– Ben Purkert for Guernica
Guernica: What made you decide that “Crips, Bloods, and butterflies” had to be the first line?
John Murillo: When I was a kid, I grew up in a Crip neighborhood. I remember one time walking down the street and I saw a butterfly. I was like 10 years old, so I started chasing it. Then I heard this car. I look over and there’s this car rolling alongside me real slowly. There are these gangbangers in the car and they’re watching me. And they start dying laughing like, “Hey, this nigga’s chasing butterflies!” And drove off. That moment, it stayed with me, but it didn’t make for good material for a poem, necessarily. I had that image for years and years, and nothing to do with it. Then the line “Crips, Bloods, and butterflies,” the music just stuck. So it needed to go first.
Guernica: Speaking of music, “Mercy, Mercy Me” takes me to Marvin Gaye. What does he mean to you and your work?
Murillo: I have a poem called “Trouble Man” in my first book, and it talks about how when I was growing up, my father would just sit in a room and smoke cigarettes and play Marvin Gaye records after he and my mom would fight. So his music was always a presence in my house. Then, when I was 10, Marvin Gaye died when his father shot him. He shot him after he came between his father and mother. They were having a physical altercation. I grew up in a similar household and I remember my father telling me at times, “If you ever come between me and your mother, I’ll kill you.” In the back of my mind I was like, “Yeah right. Who does that, who kills their kids?” So when Marvin Gaye’s father shot him, it left an impression. I’m like, “Oh shit. This actually happens.” That haunted me. Also, when Marvin Gaye died, he was living on Gramercy Place in LA. We used to live on Gramercy. Not the same area of course, because we didn’t have Marvin Gaye money. But still.
Guernica: The events of your childhood are so present in your poems. How would you describe your relationship with home?
Murillo: It’s a complicated one. I wrote this poem not long after the 25th anniversary of the LA riots, around the time when I was home for my grandmother’s funeral. Everything had changed. For instance, it used to be a predominantly black and West Indian neighborhood. Now, it’s Mexican. Some of the markets from childhood aren’t there anymore. There’s one building I used to live in, it’s completely gone.
Guernica: You mentioned the riots, and I’m interested in how the poem addresses the question of terminology (“Rebellions, said some. Riots, / said the rest”). When you were growing up, what language did you use to describe what was happening?
Murillo: Well, I was about 21, 20 going on 21, when the riots happened. I’m saying riots now, since that’s the normalized way of saying it. And it was because of the riots that I started taking myself seriously as a writer. I started to read more politically. The riots or rebellions spawned that. At the time, we called them riots. It wasn’t until later in my reading that I started to think of it as a rebellion. At the time, I had the vocabulary that was available to me. Now, having watched a lot of documentaries and read up on it, I feel that it’s both. For a lot of people, they were rebelling against everything that created their living conditions. The spark, the beating of Rodney King, that was just one part of it. Then there were others for whom it was a riot. An opportunity to loot and to get some free things. But even in that, I think there’s a rebellion of sorts, too.
I used to think that maybe I’d write a whole volume of poems about the LA riots. But I don’t really write like that. I’m not the kind of writer who can decide on my subjects ahead of time.
Guernica: Is that a frustration?
Murillo: Not at all. To be honest, I get tired of reading “project” books. I think the market drives a lot of this. Poets are applying for grants, and they need sexy-sounding projects. Like, I’m writing a collection about cruise ships! You may not have anything interesting to say about cruise ships after the first five poems, but you still have thirty-five poems to go. It begins to really drag after a while.
Guernica: Kinda like being on a cruise ship.
Murillo: Not that different, honestly. The thing is, I believe that if you’re legitimately obsessed with something, it’ll show up in your writing. Like, when I used to rap, I used to freestyle a lot. And I never freestyled around children or elders because I would always end up talking about sex or stuff that was inappropriate to talk about in front of children or elders. That’s just where my mind went naturally. Writing to me is very similar. The cool thing is that you’re recording your freestyle as you do it. It’s down on the page. You can come back, and you can revise, and do these different things with it. But your subject, if it’s really what you’re into, it’s going to find you.
Guernica: Can I ask about a small revision in your poem? You’ve changed “late April” to “May.” How come?
Murillo: It’s the sound. “Late April” has assonance, but “driving away in May” gives you the rhyme. And then, of course, there’s the historical accuracy factor. The riots started on April 29th, 1992, and you can’t get much later in April than that. But in terms of my experience, none of this is factually accurate. I didn’t leave California until 1994, when I moved to DC. As my friend DJ Renegade says, “A poem is a half lie used to tell the whole truth.” But yeah, to answer your question, it’s mostly about sound.
Guernica: Do you read out loud when you revise?
Murillo: Absolutely. You pick up on things that way. It may be that a line needs an extra stressed syllable but you’re not sure exactly how to do that. You wait on it and the two-syllable word you need might come to you while you’re watching TV or washing dishes or taking a shower. Then, after some time, you come back to the poem. But that waiting is important. I think that’s something people miss out on when they’re rushing these books out. They don’t give their ear enough time. It’s about being patient with the poem, listening to what it requires.
Guernica: Is patience something you were taught?
Murillo: Well, for me, I don’t really have a choice, because the poems come slowly. But I think of someone like Robert Hayden. He said that he regretted publishing as early as he did. He calls those early poems his apprentice pieces. I always think about that. Once it’s out there, it’s out there. I have shitty poems online from back in the day. I have shitty readings. I have shitty interviews. I have shitty talks that are on the permanent record. The poems are one thing I can control. I can hold onto them, let them sit for a while in a drawer, even if I feel good about them. That’s the choice I make.
Guernica: Allow me to play devil’s advocate. What if you’re a poet who doesn’t have the luxury of that time? What if you want to write a poem about what’s happening right now on the news or outside your window, and you feel an urgent need to put it out into the world? Is that a misguided impulse?
Murillo: It depends. What’s the real impulse? Is it to be timely, or is it writing a good poem? One of the sad truths about history is that it often repeats itself. The Rodney King beating happened 1991. The riots happened in 1992. Now, more than two decades, there’s Ferguson. There’s Eric Garner. There’s always some bad shit happening, right? So, I think a well-written political poem will always be timely. You look at Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and that’s very much of that moment but it speaks to us now as well. There will always be wars. There will always be racism. There will always be material about which to write political poems. But here’s the thing, and this goes back to my point about being legitimately obsessed with something. It’s like Richard Hugo said, “Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.” Don’t write poems to appear woke. If it’s really a concern of yours, if it genuinely moves you, it’s going to find its way to the page. And a poorly-written poem that comes out a couple days after an incident, it doesn’t do anybody any good. Doesn’t do the cause, doesn’t do the subject, doesn’t do the poet, doesn’t do the reader any good. I get that people want to be in the conversation but maybe there are better ways into that conversation. You can still engage without writing poems about the subject. Give yourself time, reflect, do research. There are all kinds of reasons for waiting.
Guernica: How do you reconcile this approach with something like freestyling, which is all about spontaneity?
Murillo: With freestyling, 90 percent of what I say is going to be whack, but 10 percent is going to be worth hearing. And that’s true for almost everybody, unless you’re Black Thought or Mos Def or King Los. But with writing, you can go back and delete that 90 percent. You can gather your 10 percent and you might have the makings of real poetry, something original and nuanced.
The poetry that’s most interesting to me politically is the kind where we’re honest about how complicit we are. I wrote a sonnet sequence that was published in American Poetry Review about when Ismaaiyl Brinsley killed those cops in Brooklyn. I gotta tell you, man, when that happened, my first impulse? I got glad a bit. It was like, “Yes, finally.” I know I shouldn’t feel that way. I know that these are men who had probably nothing to do with the other police shootings that were going on. But I did feel that way, and wanted to unpack that in the sonnets.
I think Ross Gay does this very well when he’s talking about violence and cruelty. He’ll write poems where he’s complicit, where he’s the bully. And that’s good, because I want the speaker to be flawed.
Guernica: It’s like how the speaker shouldn’t be the hero of the poem.
Murillo: Exactly. I want speakers to be complex, to reflect our own complexity. I get to see myself in them, and it gives me a space in which to consider how I might work through certain situations, or what life lessons there might be for me. I have no use for blameless characters or anybody beyond reproach.
Guernica: Anything else before we wrap up?
Murillo: I just want to acknowledge my teachers who shaped how I approach the revision process. Yusef Komunyakaa was so important in teaching me how to cut away. I’d bring in a seven-line poem and he’d delete ten of them. And Kimiko Hahn really emphasized risk. If you think you’re done with a poem, try messing with it.
My first revision teachers, though, were really Brandon Johnson and DJ Renegade. They were half of a collective called the Black Rooster Collective, along with Gary Copeland Lilley and Ernesto Merce. Anyway, I’d meet with Brandon and Renegade every Tuesday and we’d workshop in this tea shop in DC. Even if none of us had poems to bring in, we’d bring in other people’s published poems and revise them at the table.
Guernica: I love that.
Murillo: We didn’t care if you’re Sharon Olds or Shakespeare. Anybody could get it. What happens if this last line was the first line? What happens if we turn this ode into a sonnet? That’s how we practiced. From early on, I’ve always considered this an integral part of the process. Nothing too sacred.