In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, John Murillo discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work.
Poets.org: Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A hosted by the Academy of American Poets. My name is Mary Sutton and I’m senior content editor at the Academy. I’m here with February’s Guest Editor for Poem-a-Day, John Murillo. John is the author of the collections Up Jump the Boogie and Contemporary American Poetry. John, thank you for joining me for the Q&A.
John Murillo: Thanks for having me.
Poets.org: All right, so let’s jump right into it. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day?
Murillo: Well, I knew from the moment that I was invited that I wanted to use this opportunity to honor my O.G.s, my touchstone poets. And rather than try to break the next hot star or try to choose from among my contemporaries, I wanted to use this month to play some grown folks’ music. I reached out to long-time practitioners of the craft, those whose work has endured and who, in the words of Gerald Stern, are still burning. Some of the names may be more recognizable to your readers than others, but each poet featured, in one way or another, had a profound impact on my own writing and life. I approached curation, therefore, as an act of gratitude and as a chance, to quote another poet, to put some “respeck” on their names.
Poets.org: The quote is from Birdman, if I’m not mistaken, right?
Murillo: Yes, that’s right. I’m all over the place.
Poets.org: That’s good. Heteroglossic, one could say.
Murillo: There it is.
Poets.org: Yeah. “Respeck” from that notorious interview with The Breakfast Club, I think it was.
Murillo: That’s right, that’s right.
Poets.org: If you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?
Murillo: One poem… That’s impossible. David Tomas Martinez had a poem in December’s Poem-a-Day series called “Trap Music” that I liked a lot. And [Safiya] Sinclair’s whole month was crazy. I’ll direct readers to Ama Codjoe’s “Primordial Mirror.”
Poets.org: Yeah. It’s interesting that you bring up the Codjoe poem. I know Ama. I've worked with her in the past. She’s a lovely person, but that poem “Primordial Mirror,” for those who don't know, is a retelling, I think of the story of Eve. But a revisionist retelling, in that it focuses on Eve’s development of selfhood and power. So, that’s an interesting poem, I think, to bring up, and reminds me also of Toni Morrison’s “Eve Remembering.” What are you reading right now?
Murillo: I’m all over the place. I’m halfway through Walter Jackson Bates’s [John] Keats biography. I’ve been at it for a couple years, but teaching another reading, makes it slow going. I’ve also been enjoying a short story collection by one of my Wesleyan colleagues, the Colombian writer, Maria Ospinar, entitled Variations on the Body. As for poets, the new selected poems of Patrick Rosal and Tim Seibles are keeping me company, and Diannely Antigua’s Ugly Music is a collection I keep coming back to.
Poets.org: Yeah, the Ospinar book is interesting, too, because, and, correct me if I’m wrong, it's this short fiction collection about different women in Bogota and their corporeal experiences, we’ll say.
Poets.org: A lot of sexual candor there, which also characterizes Antigua’s collections. So, these are a lot of women-centered stories and poems that you’re telling us about. Do you find yourself often reading feminist fiction or poetry, particularly?
Murillo: Not often enough. I was thinking about this earlier today, how so much of our “canon” has been written by white men throughout the ages, and how so much of that has to do with privilege and opportunity. So, of late, I’ve been really making a special effort to balance out my reading, and spending time with voices who have been neglected for so long. And the good thing is that we’re living and reading in a time when there are so many voices out there. And there’s so much good poetry and good fiction to choose from.
Poets.org: Yeah, I agree. It’s definitely more democratic now than it used to be.
Poets.org: And I think, particularly in the past decade, those who have won National Book Awards in poetry, those who have been named as U.S. poets laureate, and also state poets laureate, it’s definitely a much more diverse field than it used to be.
Poets.org: And you mentioned Patrick Rosal. And it’s helpful to our listeners to know that Rosal was the winner of the Academy of American Poets 2017 Lenore Marshall Prize. What are you currently working on now in your writing, teaching, or publishing life?
Murillo: Right now, I’m working on making myself scarce. I have a few more commitments to honor still—readings, conferences, judging on contests, etc. But I’m saying no as often as possible these days to anything new, to anything that takes me away from the library, away from the desk. I’ll pop up again in a few years maybe, but now it’s time to go back underground.
Poets.org: Do you find since the pandemic that it’s become more or less difficult for poets to make themselves scarce?
Murillo: It’s hard to say. Since the pandemic, a lot of us are at home, right? But then, there are also so many virtual opportunities. So, when the virtual opportunities come, it’s kind of hard to turn them away. You don’t really have any good excuses because you don’t really have to leave your home to fulfill those obligations. So, it’s kind of like, when you were a kid and your parents might ask you, “What are you doing at the moment?” And if you were not actively doing a chore, it meant you were free to do other chores. So, in the pandemic, it seems like, if you weren’t actively on the road and weren’t out of town, the assumption was that you could hop on a Zoom for a few minutes, which was true. Yeah. Also, I think, because so many of us were locked down and isolated, we took a lot of these opportunities as a way to connect with others. And when the solitude feels forced by circumstances that are outside of your control, it’s not the same kind of solitude that you choose for yourself, yeah. So, I think maybe one of the effects of the pandemic was that we end up pushing back against a solitude, and we’re seeking company.
Poets.org: Yeah. I’ve personally been thinking a lot about how we connect these days. And I’m sure I’m not alone there. I know that’s something that you are probably also thinking about, not just how you connect with people in your personal life, but also how we connect with our colleagues and with our audiences. Connection is something we’ve all had to rethink radically since this pandemic. But we’re coping, I hope.
Murillo: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, coping the best we can.
Poets.org: Yes, absolutely. Well, thank you so much for joining me, John.
Murillo: Thank you for having me. It’s been great. It’s been fun curating. And, like I said, I just really, really appreciate this opportunity to put some respect on these O.G.s’ names. I feel that, in an age when youth is celebrated, novelty is celebrated, I feel like we can really forget about the people who opened doors for us. And this gave me an opportunity to open doors for them and kind of return some of those favors.
Poets.org: Well, thank you again.