The Conference on Contemporary Poetry, held April 24th - April 27th, 1997

A Poetics of Opposition?:
Race and the Avant-Garde

  Kate Pearcy, University of Sydney, Australia

Harryette Mullen is a creative writing teacher and lecturer currently working at UCLA in the English department. She has published four books of poetry; Tree Tall Woman, trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge. She has also been published in several anthologies including The Village Voice Literary Supplement (VLS), Callaloo and Best American Poetry 1994. She is a poet associated with both the language school and a broader tradition of performance poetry.

The initial part of this paper will focus on Mullen's most recent work, Muse & Drudge published by Singing Horse Press in 1995 (the title of the book appears with the ampersand between the two words suggesting a chiastic relation is in operation). Muse & Drudge is composed entirely in the quatrain form, it has eighty pages, with four quatrains to each page. Not one full stop or any other punctuation appears apart from the capitalisation of proper nouns and individual words which require hyphens or possessive colons. Each page of the book, or sequence of four quatrains, seems to represent some kind of discrete poetic unit since in performances of Muse & Drudge Mullen rarely breaks a page itself but moves the order of the pages around entirely, reading initially pages which appear at the back of the book, continuing a few pages on, then perhaps reading pages which appear in the middle or wherever.

In an interview published in the Summer 1996 edition of Callaloo, Mullen discusses the relationship between experimental and traditional poetic sequencing. Mullen says the basic book and page format of Muse & Drudge demanded that she determine a principle of order even if the quatrains had not been written according to a progressive narrative model. She says "I tried to think about ways that things could go together, so there could be rhythm or flow or some kind of dynamic movement.... In some cases, there's a local order that may continue for a page but usually no longer than a page." (1)

If Mullen's poetry adheres to a local rather than holistic developmental sequence the reader or audience is formally directed to a fractional model of narrative investment. Such a move might represent the poet's attempt to guard against quick or over determined reading practices; by which I mean that although the poem works in relation to the trope of the book and its attendant narrative chronology, it explicitly resists the practice of reading ordered around by the relation of part to whole. Perhaps another way of approaching this same question of form is to suggest that the poem's obsession with association, with lines of contiguity, is an attempt to orient reading practices around the figure of metonymy or allusion, not synecdoche. These structural characteristics share a relation with performance or the oral dimension of poetry, which Barbara Johnson describes as bound to a temporal rather than spatial textual register since the audience is not able to skim material the way one might do in reading.
(2)

In Muse & Drudge the reader/audience is addressed through the tangential, unexpected organisation of material; meaning is multi layered, with individual sounds and words acting as pivots so that meaning is generated exclusively in relation to other sounds, words, and phrases. The phoneme often dominates, availing itself by way of both overt rhyme schemes and avoided rhyme, and there's a lot of homophonic punning and word play. Reading possibilities are therefore highly provisional and proliferate along several different axis at once, and perhaps might again alter on other occasions.

Mullen satirises the overdetermined status of cliche and stereotype through nonsensical recitation, lines like 'stark strangled banjo' instead of star spangled banner, or 'warp made fresh' instead of word made flesh. She juxtaposes advertising material, nursery rhymes, song lyrics, and personal expressions; and she flags the ironic effect, making the very slightest alterations to familiar words and phrases. Mullen's work enacts the dissonances of sound and language, provoking investigation into poetic conventions of coherence and cultural constructions of identity.

One of the primary cultural categorisations Mullen is interested in decoding and recoding is that of race. There is a distinctly recognisable black and African diasporan word choice, with references to the West African language Fula, from which the term mojo is derived and the god Osiris from Egyptian mythology. Of course Mullen also works with a specific African American heritage variously dropping words like cornbread, gumbo, bottle tree, beats and breaks, and making reference to practices such as double dutch, rag time, hip hop, and rap. These citations, however, are satirically played out within Mullen's poetic, primarily through allusion to the emergence of black cultural practice as capital within the American market, the music and film industries receive particular attention in Muse & Drudge in this respect, but also more generally through the crossed circuits of economic and cultural exchange in which modes of misrecognition play a primary function for black and white consumers/readers alike. Quatrains like 'slave made artefact, salt glazed poetry, mammy manufacture, jig-rig nitty gritty, make this explicit but do, in addition, highlight a desire for her work to be circulated in relation with African American communities. Patterns of reception and participation self reflexively inform the thematic content of her poetry. For instance, a black audience is figured as producing a specific and comparative canniness: colored hearing colored, sounds darker, back vowels lower, down there deeper.

In talking about the various audiences for her individual books of poetry Mullen comments that:

On the one hand, like when I wrote my first book I used to read a lot to black audiences, I remember reading once at the watts tower in LA and people were doing the whole call and response thing, you know, go ahead, say it girl, that kind of thing, I mean I loved that in a way, then I did trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, those audiences were not there for those books, the readings had a whole different tone to them...

Muse & Drudge, represents Mullen's attempt to bring these historically separate audiences together. She goes on:

I want to think of like reuniting audiences that was there doing the call and response for my first book and audiences that were there for the two prose books, like why can't they sit in the same room together? and I tried to write this poem so that those audiences could sit in the same room together and they might not hear it in the same way but they would all get something that they could relate to.(3)

These variations in audience are clearly related to Mullen's decisions regarding distribution, her choice of publishing houses and performance venues. Tree Tall Women was published in 1981 by Energy Earth, Trimmings in 1991 by Tender Buttons and S*PeRM**K*T and Muse & Drudge were published by Singing Horse Press in 1992 and 1995 respectively. Her later work is affiliated with experimental distributors and specifically with the language school of poetry, although in addition to affiliations marked by publication, Mullen has spoken directly about her engagement with the aesthetic projects of the language school and in particular the new sentence.(4)

Some of the work in trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T and Muse & Drudge could be considered exemplary if judged by the aesthetic program of the language school, but her work also represents a convergence of this 'language interest' with an examination of the ontological authenticity of 'the black voice.' Mullen's engagement with language writing does not represent a repudiation of oppositional praxis in relation to categories of blackness, but a problematisation of the suspended materialisations of voice in cultural and poetic practices.

Mullen's is particularly interested in the mnemonic power of rhyme and rhythm, advertising jingles, song lyrics, poetry recitation, kid's chants, nursery rhymes etc. She thinks of her relationship to poetry as a project of recycling or salvaging standardised language; although she consciously positions her work in relation to, not against, the discursive mnemonics of contemporary technology and commodity culture.

Bob Perelman, in his recent book The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History, claims that language writing can be placed in a genealogical sequence of avant garde poetries including modernism, the Surrealists, the Objectivists, the Black Mountain, and the New York School. He claims that language writing uses poetic form and syntax as sites of experiment for political and social purposes while the poetics of the mainstream is constructed around a confessional model and conversational tone. Perelman also stated earlier in Social Text that language writing "addresses political and epistemological spaces that voice - and self-poems do not." (35)

Mullen, claims that her interest in language writing, resulted from the unsuspected realisation that the voice presented in her first book of poetry Tree Tall Woman, was not her own voice but a construction of her own voice. In Tree Tall Woman she said she consciously tried to present a recognisable southern black voice. She describes that book as more narrative, more community and family oriented, based mostly on personal experiences growing up in Texas. She says the presentation of Black English and speech patterns evident in her first book of poetry is not as natural as she thought at the time and that the black voice she thought was her own she later claimed was "probably my mother's voice"... and "it's funny too because it's a sort of southern black voice and my mom was not even from the south originally, she has become more southern by living in the south, but that was not her original culture either, so I started thinking about that..."(5)

So almost in contradiction to Perelman, Mullen's interest in language poetry was prompted by her own attention to the voice, and its facticity, and not its allocation as a signifier of transparency. Both Perelman and Mullen attempt to de-emphasis the first person singular, but Perelman achieves this through a categorical distance from "voice and self poems", and the other through a revisitation of the function of voice in poetry.

Reading Harryette Mullen's work, and taking on board her intention to circulate her published material in some kind of relation to the tradition of language poetry, no matter how tendentious that claim to a tradition might be,(6) the main assumption I want to investigate is the teleological opposition between language writing and the voice poem.(7)

The putative transparency of the voice, is partly achieved through its association with the temporal present, but the temporal present is not, by virtue of its immediacy, devoid of concerns with artistry and construction. Even if the 'voice poem' is meant to stand in for a high modernist tradition of poetry, and is not therefore generically bound to the practice of performance, its very appellation announces certain epistemological prejudice and investment within literary criticism and practice. When the term 'voice poem' is used to suggest 'natural' or even 'neutral' language, the securing logic is that speech practices are somehow less structurally determined or enacted than the printed word.(8)

This becomes problematic when assessing the dynamic relation between radical poetries and radical politics in America, particularly when 'orality' and 'performance' are so closely aligned with African American cultural praxis.(9)

Within African American poetic practices, the voice has historically oscillated between the function of the voice as, on the one hand culturally imbricated in a rhetoric of identity, in which it carries not only marks of authenticity, but is often used as a synonym for the self; and on the other as an equivocal strategy or resource. Both functions, moreover, have been and are necessitated by the historical divisions and demarcations of race itself.

For instance, arguments for an 'authentic' representational status of the black voice are historically linked to resistance to the need to counter practices of exclusion and deprivation experienced on the grounds of racial difference. The protest poetry movement of the sixties and seventies, for instance, represent a poetics of direct expression, and would generally be seen as proof of the political efficacy of authenticating the black voice. Or one could point to the role of poetic elements within contemporary rap culture in which the 'voice' testifies paradoxically to both the positivity of black autonomy and the conditions of deprivation, linked to experiences of urban ghettoisation. Both these representational modes, however, intersect with, and are animated by, other roles and poetics practices, frequently grouped under the larger practictional term Signifyin(g)(10)

, which exhibit a 'double voicedness,' a more ambiguous relation to the voice.

In relation to Mullen's work it was a revisitation of the 'unauthenticity' of the southern black voice in her first book of poetry that triggered a poetic practice which crossed into the 'foreign' domain of language poetry; and she uses that 'non black' poetic tradition evident in her second and third books of poetry to signify on her earlier work. This has enabled in Muse & Drudge what she considers to be an intersection of cultural poetic practice. There has been considerable argument within popular and scholarly comment on postmodern American poetry, that experimental poetics have been unproductively tied to discussions of language writing and that work both on and within the field is almost exclusively white.(11)

Harryette Mullen's work presents an extrication, if such a critical lock does exist. Certainly her poetic doesn't seem intent on developing a discreet black poetic practice, partly because I presume she doesn't feel herself to be operating in entirely hostile territory, so it is imperative that her work prompts a reciprocal interrogation of the implicitly white status of language poetry, especially since the failure of the avant garde to interrogate its own poetic purchase on innovation explicitly counters their avowed political and social goals.

Perhaps one reason interrogations of this kind seem absent within literary criticism is that the avant garde performatively locates itself at the forefront of artistic invention, at the cusp of the present and future tense; and these spatial and temporal claims are prioritised at the exclusion of attention to its necessity for and investment in historical revision and allegiance. Since 'race' operates nationally to signify blackness itself, and usually obtains its representative status in a primordial relation to the past, race is rarely aligned with the futurism of the cultural avant garde. The overdetermined alliances operating between race, nationality, civilisation and time restrict our cultural movement and appreciation.

In approaching this discussion of a poetics of opposition this paper has been premised on the understanding that resistance or opposition is not the same as alterity or otherness, but is often reduced to it in order to defuse its radicality. As one of the primary signifiers of difference in Western culture 'race' needs to be both materially recognised and mythically challenged.(12)

I would argue that relations of proximity and connection might be more effectively oppositional and that within the field of poetry Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge represents an dynamic intersection both of speech and writing based poetry, and of the historically independent traditions of avant garde and African American poetic practice. The suspension of such productive proximities is a habit of normativised literary investment and reading practices and it carries specific cultural effects.

One effect is the demand that minority texts be "sufficiently representative"(13)

in order to claim critical attention, a demand which identifies the persistent logic of part for whole which governs epistemological conventions surrounding questions of race and poetic genre. The issues of authorisation and marketing within culture industries are instrumental in addressing the questions surrounding Harryette Mullen's work and avant garde poetries in America but any debate between centre and margin, between tradition and experiment, is redundant if it remains one animated by a logic of fixed opposition rather than interanimatory practice.

1. Bedient, Calvin 'The Solo Mysterioso Blues An Interview with Harryette Mullen' Callaloo Summer 1996, p654 [return to text]

2. See Barbara Johnson's comments in response to Henry Louis Gates Jr. article 'Canon Formation, Literary History, and the Afro-American Tradition: from the Seen to the Told' in Afro- American Studies in the 1990's (eds.) Baker, H. A, and Redmond P., University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London, 1989 (43-44) [return to text]

3. Comments are taken from a transcription of personal interview which took place in Brooklyn on 2/2/95. [return to text]

4. Silliman, Ron The New Sentence, Roof Press, New York, 1987 [return to text]

5. Excerpts from interview 2/2/95 [return to text]

6. This is a question Bob Perelman raises in his book The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1996 pp20-21 [return to text]

7. George Hartley in his book Textual Politics and the Language Poets (1989) claims that "according to many language poets, the voice poem depends on a model of communication that needs to be challenged: the notion that the poet (a self present subject) transmits a particular message ("experience," "emotion") to a reader (another self present subject) through a language which is neutral, transparent, "natural"(xii); and 'most language poets attempt to remind us of the socially contrived basis of any writing.' (xiii) [return to text]

8. This, of course, relates to Derrida's critique of the location of speech and writing in culture, where he challenges the prevailing understanding of writing as a linear representation of a prior "full" or 'originary' speech. Derrida redefines writing as "trace" or as "sequences of differences", specifically reincorporating phonetic and ideogrammatic elements within the sequence. See Derrida, Jacques Of Grammatology trans. by Gayatri chakravorty Spivak, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, London, 1976. [return to text]

9. It is worth noting here however, as Thomas Lewis does that "some deconstructionists purchase alleged grounds for epistemological uncertainty precisely at the cost of obscuring the role of social power in the process of fixing and disseminating references." See Thomas E Lewis 'reference and dissemination: Althusser After Derrida' p40. It seems clear to me, however, that Black linguistic practices in the United States, precisely because they have developed and continue to operate in relation to various historical and material exclusions from the institutions and quotidian privileges of social power, exhibit as a primary feature a certain equivocal energy. [return to text]

10. Gates calls the practice of Signifyin(g) a form of 'black double voicedness.' See Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988 p.51 [return to text]

11. See for instance Hazel Smith's review of a convention of new poetries: Assembling Alternatives held at the University of New Hampshire, USA, August 29- Sept 2, 1996, in Real Time, Vol. 15, October. November 1996, p.9. See also Marjorie Perloff in Radical Artifice, where she comments: In tackling all of these pressing questions, perhaps the first step is to stop referring all the aesthetic and ideological issues involved to a specific movement (the "Language school") or a specific kind of poetry ("Language centred writing, Language poetry). p173 [return to text]

12. I am suggesting here that race is a mythical real to the extent that it is experienced at the level of material stigmata but is the consequence of an unsubstantiated allocation of historical privilege. See Hortense Spillers "All the Things You Could Be by Now, If Sigmund Freud's Wife Was Your Mother": Psychoanalysis and Race" where she defines "race" as that which 'demarcates both an in-itselfness and a figurative economy that can take on any number of faces at the drop of a hat.' (80) [return to text]

13. I take my cue here from marjorie Perloff in Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of the Media: University of Chicago Press, 1991. Perloff notes: In the united states, minority status has itself become a kind of commodity, a saleable quantity in the marketplace, provided it is judged sufficiently representative by the very dominant culture ...At the same time, poets who question the official cultural space of "diversity," a space in which the dominant paradigms of representation remain quite intact, who believe that oppositionality has to do not only with what the poem says, but with the formal, modal, and generic choices it makes- its use, say, of a non traditional rhythmic base, a particular vernacular, or an incorporation of cited nonpoetic material- these poets continue to be relegated to the margins. (11) [return to text]


Copyright � 1997 by Kate Pearcy, all rights reserved. Any commercial use or republication requires the written permission of the author.


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