When poet John Murillo arrived in Provincetown last October for his second fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center, he wasn’t quite sure where his work would take him.
Since his previous FAWC experiences as a summer workshop student in 2004 and a fellow in 2007, Murillo says that Provincetown “has been pretty much the most constant place in my life.” It reliably punctuated Murillo’s summers during years of moving between other fellowships and steady but transitory stints as a visiting professor.
Now, during his first extended stay in 15 years, Murillo has found himself making a book-length project of what he says he initially thought of as “a game for myself”: translating Sobre los ángeles (“Concerning the Angels”), a 1929 volume by the Spanish poet Rafael Alberti. There’s an existing English translation of the work, now out of print, against which Murillo has been checking his own work.
“The translations I’m looking at are OK,” Murillo says. “But you can tell the translator isn’t a poet.”
The day we met, Murillo had earlier come across a line which read “the tumult of seaside towns” in the existing translation. To Murillo, the translation stuck so faithfully to its literal meaning that its poeticism was lost. He changed the line: in his version, it now reads “the madness of maritime cities.”
“It may not be exactly what the author intended,” Murillo concedes. But it’s an acknowledgement he delivers with conviction: “When you’re translating, you’re also creating a new work of art that needs to function as poetry.”
Raised in Los Angeles, Murillo grew up speaking a Spanish that is syntactically different from the European language he’s working with from half a century before. He’s also been studying Italian on the side. “I’m having to do a lot of learning on the fly,” he says.
Murillo has also been writing original poems. He’s no stranger to the struggle of becoming inspired — something like poet’s block — which has been guiding, afflicting, and energizing his work for as long as he’s been writing.
Recently he was on the treadmill at Mussel Beach, the gym in Provincetown, “and these lines started coming from nowhere,” he said. He took out his phone and recorded the words on the spot.
“I don’t think that happens unless I struggle first,” says Murillo. “It’s like I’m making a contract with the poetry gods, and they want to see the blood, sweat, tears, and frustration, and then they’ll bless you.”
Now on sabbatical from Wesleyan University, where he’s an associate professor of English and director of the creative writing program, Murillo has created a robust body of work since his earlier spell at FAWC.
His first published collection, Up Jump the Boogie (2010), tells the stories of the places Murillo has called home. In addition to Los Angeles, his poems look at Black and brown communities in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and New York. “I consider myself very much a poet of witness and a poet of that legacy,” Murillo says.
His second collection, Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (2020), won the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Four Quartets Prize from the Poetry Society of America. The poems examine the structural racism and violence rife in America’s past and present.
Murillo says the “K”s in the title were initially used as a means of distinguishing the work from classical anthologies and critical texts. But he later realized the altered spelling also held a significance tied to the collection’s subject matter. “You see the two K’s, and the third K kind of insists upon itself,” he says. “It speaks to the nature of racism — it’s not always overt.”
That collection was very personal, Murillo says, whereas his work now has taken a turn to the imaginative: “Once you’ve exhausted the ‘I,’ what else do you have to talk about?” For the time being, Murillo has left behind the fenced-in arena of nonfiction. “I’m giving myself more license to make things up,” he says.
Poetry didn’t become Murillo’s focus until he was nearly 30 years old. Before that, he was a rap artist and aspiring essayist. Living in Washington, D.C. in his 20s, Murillo joined a circle of poets whose dedication to their craft invigorated him. “I was hooked,” he says.
As he’s grown as a poet, Murillo has realized the extent to which rap — humming with rhythm, spattered with simile and metaphor, and structured by narrative — paved his path to poetry. A quotation from the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, one of Murillo’s mentors, illustrates Murillo’s trajectory as an artist. “He says, ‘I think of language as our first music,’ ” Murillo says. “ I think it’s true.”
Outside of his FAWC fellowship, Murillo commutes to Wesleyan in Middletown, Conn. from Brooklyn, where he lives with his wife, poet Nicole Sealey. Although Murillo says that his poems tend toward narrative while hers are more lyric, each poet in the partnership is the other’s first reader.
“We’re very honest critics of each other’s work,” Murillo says. “She’s not going to let me out of the house looking crazy.”
When he’s teaching, Murillo’s routine is exacting. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to start writing by 5, which takes him until 7:30 or so, when he gets ready to teach. But at FAWC, time unfurls in a way that’s both liberating and overwhelming. “This time is such a gift,” Murillo says. “You really put some pressure on yourself to spend it wisely.”
The struggle necessary to write good poems troubles the whole notion of poetic success, or time wisely spent. “Every day, it’s an act of faith,” he says. “I don’t imagine that’s the case for surgeons — that they come into the operating room thinking, ‘Damn, how did I do this before?’ ” Murillo laughs. “There’s a method, a formula that will guarantee you success on the operating table. I don’t think there’s any such protocol for making art.”
For now, the work of translation represents an unfettered experiment in existential, vocational practice.
“It frees my creative mind just to play,” Murillo says.