|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)
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:
Muse & Drudge, represents Mullen's attempt to bring these historically separate audiences together. She goes on:
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.
Copyright � 1997 by Kate Pearcy, all rights reserved. Any commercial use or republication requires the written permission of the author.
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