By Emma Arnesen
On Monday, Oct. 12, Lawrence students and faculty gathered in the Kohler Gallery of the Wriston Art Center to hear urban poet John Murillo present various poems, some of which were from his award-winning collection, “Up Jump the Boogie” (2010). As a recent addition to the poetry and literary analysis classes in the English Department, it was a pleasure to host the familiar poet for the first 2015 reading for the Mia Paul Poetry Fund.
Assistant Professor of English Melissa H. Range introduced Murillo, describing his unique poetic style as having both “guts” and “honesty” and inspiring original ideas through his use of repetition and rhythm. Many of his poems focus on fatherhood and nod towards modern urban culture. His relationship with his parents and city life in his hometown, New York, are prevalent themes in his collection.
One of the first poems Murillo shared tells of a young narrator who discovers a trunk in the back of his parents’ closet. The pistol and vintage snapshots the boy finds leads him to wonder about his father’s past and how distant it seems from his own life. However, these discoveries reveal the feelings the narrator has in seeing a reflection of his father within himself. The poem encompasses the theme of father-son relationships.
Another one of the poems that Murillo shared, “Enter the Dragon,” introduces the themes of city life and race. His references to martial artists and actors Bruce Lee and Jim Kelly show the prevalence of urban culture and media influence. The poem follows a young narrator at the cinema with his dad. Even the first line of the poem, “For me, the movie starts with a black man,” hints at race and how Murillo celebrates both actors in his poetry. Later in the poem he presents problems with authority and racial tension between the white cops who stop the father’s car and the young narrator who must face reality in understanding his own identity.
Many of his poems focus on specific topics related to his own life and personal experiences. Murillo shared how in writing poetry it is sometimes a challenge to find the right words to convey thoughts and strong emotions. He stated that what is most important is having something to say. Murillo described poetry as both “freeing” and “binding” in the sense that poets have the freedom to express thoughts and stories personal to themselves but binding in the way that craft and style are part of the great tradition of this type of writing.
Murillo confessed that he has read and presented poems from the same copy of “Up Jump the Boogie” for five years. One of the ways he tries to make the poems seem new and refreshing is by changing up the rhythm and experimenting with the pattern and tone of his readings. Even in doing so he is able to present a new side of the poetry each time he reads aloud. He learns what syllables and rhythmic patterns do and do not convey the messages he wants to inspire through his poems.
The last piece that he shared was titled “Song.” Like many of his poems, this one included themes of love and the city. Murillo explained how he wrote this piece in Madison, Wis. when he was in and out of a relationship and homesick for New York. In “Song,” he describes being on the train during rush hour, distracted by a woman sitting opposite him. He uses descriptive words like “cocoa-buttered” and “refracted light” to describe the woman, and these metaphors enhance the imagery readers create in their own heads when reading this poem. Even the way that he read the poem, pausing at certain stanzas to emphasize ideas, helped convey his messages clearly.
Murillo suggests to future writers that becoming better each day comes with reading and rereading and writing and rewriting. Closely reading great poets helps one to understand the craft of this style of writing and hone sharper instincts. He used the analogy that, like basketball, there need to be drills in writing. He described how one day he might work on writing in monometer then the next day in another meter. Poetry has structure and there is specific craft to the skill, and Murillo embraces the tradition of writing as well as the freedom that each poet has for him or herself in creating an original piece.