Why You Should Read John Murillo’s “Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry”

By Honora Ankong

As Black people, our existences are a thing of poetry. We are poems and we do poems long before we have the “language” for it. Poetry is everywhere always— it is ancestral and rooted deep in our bones. John Murillo’s 2020 poetry collection “Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry” is a testament to the Black poetic tradition. Murillo writes into a poetic canon that is keen at erasing Black folks. This collection is haunted by Black poets, we are met with figures like Gil Scot-Heron, Notorious B.I.G., Marvin Gaye, etc.  Murillo has intimate conversations with these poets, so intimate that at times it feels like the reader is eavesdropping. This is a lyrical and confessional contemplation of the state of “Contemporary American Poetry” in which the past is the present is the future. These poems hold up a mirror to America— they are Langston Hughes’ “I, too, am America” and Countee Cullen’s “Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black and bid him sing!” Murillo further contemplates the poetic conditions of contemporary America by investigating through poems popular poetic forms. We see poems with titles like “On Confessionalism”, “On Negative Capability,” On Magical Realism,” “On Epiphany,” “On Lyric Narrative,” “On Prosody,” and several others. The poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn” says “It ain’t enough to rabble-rouse.To run off at the mouth. To speechify and sing.  Just ain’t enough to preach it. Poet, kin to kin, pulpit to choir, as if song were anything like Panther work. It ain’t.” This collection is not just a contemplation— it is a call to action.

*John Murillo is the author of the poetry collections, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher 2010, Four Way 2020), finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Pen Open Book Award, and Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books 2020). His honors include a Pushcart Prize, the J Howard and Barbara MJ Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Cave Canem Foundation, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Best American Poetry 2017, 2019, and 2020.  He is an assistant professor of English at Wesleyan University and also teaches in the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

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