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POETS ON POETRY: Daniel Kane interviews poets about their poems, their poetics, and their ideas on how to teach poetry to students in grades K-12. This month, Harryette Mullen discusses Oulipo word games, the relationship between racial identity and innovative form, and a whole lot more.

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Daniel Kane interviews the poet Harryette Mullen

Harryette Mullen was born in Florence, Alabama, and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. She has worked in the Artists in Schools program sponsored by the Texas Commission on the Arts, and for six years she taught African-American and other U.S. ethnic literatures at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Her books of poetry include Sleeping with the Dictionary (University of California Press, 2002), Blues Baby (Bucknell University Press, 2002), Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse, 1995), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), Trimmings (1991), and Tree Tall Woman (1981).

Her honors include artist grants from the Texas Institute of Letters and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, the Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry, and a Rockefeller Fellowship from the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Women's Studies at the University of Rochester. Harryette Mullen teaches African-American literature, American poetry, and creative writing in the English Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.


Harryette Mullen photoDK: While reading your work, I couldn't help but think about what Ron Silliman once wrote, that "women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the 'marginal' -- have a manifest political need to have their stories told" in an essentially more "conventional" if not outright narrative fashion. Silliman sets this idea up in distinction to white male avant-gardes who do not have that same pressing need to tell a story -- making the point that, after all, history has proven more receptive to listening to the stories of white men than it has to women and people of color.

Do you feel that when it comes to race, the lyric speaker tends to, as Silliman suggests, tell her story in a more "accessible" or "conventional" way than a speaker who is quite literally dealing with other subjects (as you deal with consumer culture in your earlier book S*PeRM**K*T, for example)? I ask you this because my students at Kingsborough Community College, who are generally not versed in avant-gardist work, "got" your book Muse and Drudge more immediately and pleasurably than your other books -- especially because Muse and Drudge seems influenced by hip-hop, has an abundance of popular and race-specific references, and rhymes consistently!

HM: I'll have to nibble around the edges of this question, I think, as I try to respond to the different points you've raised.

Ron Silliman did us all a favor when he articulated what I consider a productive tension between content and form, between identity and innovation in contemporary poetry. As much as I claim Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Melvin Tolson, Bob Kaufman, Margaret Walker, and the poets of the Black Arts movement as literary ancestors, I also credit Silliman and other Language-oriented poets as important influences on my work, from the paratactic prose poetry of Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T to my desire, in Muse & Drudge, to write a poem that encourages collaborative reading across cultural boundaries. (I take the term "collaborative reading" or "connective reading" from critical writing by Elisabeth Frost and Juliana Spahr.) I might add that my connection to the Language Poets of the Bay Area was through Nathaniel Mackey and Gloria Watkins, just as my link to poetry of the New York School, Umbra, and Black Arts movement was through Lorenzo Thomas.

I would say that, like Toni Morrison's Jazz which has multiple narrators, Muse & Drudge employs not one but a chorus of possible "speakers" or "singers." They include, among others, lyric poet Sappho and blues singer Bessie Smith. Having considered the mnemonic force of jingles in S*PeRM**K*T, I also wanted to suggest, with Muse & Drudge, that rhyme is too powerful a tool to be abandoned to advertising, greeting cards, or even platinum rap recordings. I hoped to reclaim it for my poem, just as I recycled old commercials in S*PeRM**K*T. It's interesting that you say Muse & Drudge is more accessible than the other books. I think that all of the others are easier to follow in that they are more coherently organized texts. I believe that the apparently orderly verse form and recurrent tropes of Muse & Drudge allow readers to experience it as extended lyric, given the absence of narrative. This poem has a musical quality that attracted the attention of two composers, T.J. Anderson and Christine Baczewska, who have set parts of Muse & Drudge to music in their own compositions.

DK: How important are considerations of race in your writing?

HM: For me, race, class, and gender have been significant issues, but of course they are not the whole of identity, and certainly they are not the sum of my poetry, or of anyone's poetry for that matter. I can be a black woman while chewing gum and thinking about Disneyland or supermarkets, while reading Stein or Shakespeare, just as I can be a black woman contemplating conventional representations of black women in literature, media, and popular culture. Living in California, where white people are a minority, I'm not so sure that my identity or experience is "marginal." As a woman and as a person of color, I belong to two global majorities, but I'm also aware that throughout most of history, it is not the majority that rules, but a privileged minority.

DK: So does identity inform your poetics as much as what might be considered more traditionally "formal" concerns?

HM: Whatever the content of the poem, identity (not just my own) is as much an aspect of the work as a concern with language, poetics, and form. I've said before that I'm interested in the interaction of language and identity in poetry. I think this is evident in all of my work, whether I was consciously constructing a "black voice" or "black literary style" in my first book, Tree Tall Woman, or writing "the new sentence" in Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T; whether I was experimenting with "kinky quatrains" in Muse & Drudge, or playing Oulipo word games with my American Heritage in my latest book Sleeping with the Dictionary. My focus on the clash of feminism with fashion in Trimmings, and my take on advertising and consumption in S*PeRM**K*T were also informed by my perspective as a black woman, and so was my approach to the politics of language and dialect in Sleeping with the Dictionary.

Along with Edouard Glissant, Nathaniel Mackey, and Aldon Nielsen, I agree that we often tend to reduce and simplify black expressive traditions, and that we must acknowledge the diversity and hybridity of those traditions. African and African-American folk tales, riddles, songs, jokes, and proverbs offer a variety of formal structures including but not limited to conventional narrative. They often employ some of the same devices, with a similar meta-linguistic preoccupation, that we currently associate with innovative writing. I agree with Margo Jefferson when she says, regarding the creation of jazz, "Race is not just a series of obstacles, but it's also a set of possibilities."

DK: You say that you're interested in "the interaction of language and identity in poetry," and that "this is evident in all of my work." Muse & Drudge alludes to a recognizably African-American history on every page, while your most recent book Sleeping with the Dictionary is not so consistently "raced." I wonder if your choice to use word games and Oulipo-inspired procedures to compose poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary was made to enhance the very constructedness of racial identity and to complicate a potentially limiting sense of Harryette Mullen as "African-American poet." That is, are these kinds of language games a way of undermining identity and associating oneself with a kind of cosmopolitanism in distinction to a regionalist voice?

HM: Well, I thought I was working "beyond category" (as Ellington said of his compositions that mix jazz and classical influences) in Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge. A few of the poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary are older than Muse & Drudge. As language and identity come together in the work, a concern with collective experience and cultural representation may be more evident in some poems, while wordplay and poetic experiment are more conspicuous in others. I don't know if I'm undermining identity so much as continually rewriting and revising it.

What attracts me to Oulipo, besides their sense of humor, is their systematic effort to demystify the poetic process. In their practice, writing is a pleasurable game that might result in works of "potential literature." Their research reveals that devices we associate with the work of avant-garde or experimental writers are also found in ancient texts, and even in oral forms such as riddles and jokes.

DK: Could you name a couple of the "games" you employ in Sleeping with the Dictionary?

HM: Many quatrains in Muse & Drudge began with double entendres, puns, and polysemic wordplay. Sometimes familiar material is transformed by linguistic scrambling or various kinds of cryptographic writing. There, as well as in Sleeping with the Dictionary, I'm playing with anagrams, palindromes, homophones, and other ludic devices favored by Oulipo. (By the way, I've published critical articles about Sandra Cisneros' cryptographic writing in Woman Hollering Creek and the brain-teasing puns in Oreo, by Fran Ross, if anyone's interested.)

DK: When you talk about Oulipo as demystifying the poetic process, I'm interested in your attention to audience, as "demystifying" suggests greater accessibility. Who was your audience in Muse & Drudge?

HM: The audience is any interested reader, as always; but of all the books since Tree Tall Woman, Muse & Drudge has the clearest Afrocentric vision. This was in part a response to extreme representations of black women in the media as welfare queens, drug addicts, and skanky prostitutes, on the one hand, or as fabulous divas and fashion super models on the other hand. In retrospect, that onslaught of bipolar media images now seems to have been coordinated with the war on drugs, the growth of the prison industrial system, and attacks on affirmative action, welfare, and proposals for universal health care throughout the 1980s and early 90s. Muse & Drudge improvises on various representations of black people -- particularly women -- as material, spiritual, creative, intellectual beings. The diasporic lexicon of this poem is intended to reconnect my work with black audiences, who seemed to disappear from my public readings of Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T. Those two books are in dialogue with the modernism of Gertrude Stein, whose work influenced Richard Wright and was known to writers of the Harlem Renaissance through their mutual friend Carl Van Vechten.

My first book, Tree Tall Woman, was the only one with an African American publisher, Energy Earth, that was already connected to committed readers of black poetry. Tender Buttons Books published Trimmings, Singing Horse Press published S*PeRM**K*T and Muse & Drudge, and the last two books were from University of California and Bucknell University. It has taken some time and effort to integrate the audiences for my different books, and Muse & Drudge was the crucial work that brought audiences together, overcoming "aesthetic apartheid" and cultural difference. After finding new readers who liked Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, I decided that Muse & Drudge would have an image of a black woman on the cover, with blurbs from writers of color, and that the text would allude to a global diaspora of African cultures, to make clear my intention to include black readers along with others who enjoyed the innovative tendency of the previous books.

DK: How did you imagine you'd "make clear" your intention to bring in black readers?

HM: My sources were traditional or familiar materials from African-American culture, popular culture, and mass media; but in most cases I sampled and altered the material through some kind of textual device. In composing the quatrains, usually I'd improvise on some fragment of "blacklore":

tom-tom can't catch
a green cabin
ginger hebben as
ancestor dances in Ashanti

or

up from slobbery
hip hyperbole
the soles of black feet
beat down back streets

Sometimes the improvisations are paronomastic riffs on sound, leaning
toward a kind of jazzy scat or hiphop style:

divine sunrises
Osiris's irises
his splendid mistress
is his sis Isis

or

hip chicks ad glib
flip the script
spinning distichs
tighter than Dick's hatband

In one quatrain, I borrowed Shakespeare's device of writing his name into his sonnets. Some scholars argue that, in addition to punning on "Will" in his poetry, he's subliminally woven his surname into the sonnet that begins "The expense of spirit." There's also a tradition of poets referring to themselves in ghazals. I took this idea of a poetic "signature" when I wrote a quatrain using echoes of my own name, Harryette Romell Mullen:

marry at a hotel, annul 'em
nary hep male rose sullen
let alley roam, yell melon
dull normal fellow hammers omelet

DK: Tell us more about Sleeping with the Dictionary, then. As the book does not point to "blacklore" as consistently as Muse & Drudge, do you think of your more recent work as a kind of playful deviation, or are you continuing making variations on a theme?

HM: I don't think it's a sudden deviation in Sleeping with the Dictionary when I'm influenced by Oulipo's dictionary games, or when I include two parodies of Shakespeare's "Dark Lady" sonnet (which was itself a parody of conventional Petrarchan sonnets). As I suppose my title implies, that book explores my ambivalent relation to language, both standard and vernacular dialects of American English.

Sleeping with the Dictionary includes poems about my family, tributes to African American writers Toni Cade Bambara, Jayne Cortez, Ted Joans, and Bob Kaufman, as well as poems about homelessness, "hate speech," racial profiling, and Afrocentrism. These poems are inspired by everything from the "ebonics" debate and Oprah's book club to broadcast news on NPR and the virtual communities of the internet. You can also find in these poems references to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Korean kimchee, the Jewish Seder, and California's proposition to dismantle bilingual education. I think this book is on a continuum with all of my work, from Tree Tall Woman to the present. While the styles may be different, Sleeping with the Dictionary returns to themes of family and community that were prominent in my first book (now reprinted with previously uncollected poems and a new title, Blues Baby: Early Poems, from Bucknell University Press). To address more specifically your earlier question about "cosmopolitanism," I'd say that with Muse & Drudge, I had in mind a transnational diaspora of African cultural traditions, but in Sleeping with the Dictionary, I'm concerned with the direction of what's called globalization. Are we members of a global village, or just consumers or investors in a virtual global market? That question began with an earlier book, S*PeRM**K*T.

As you noted, this new book makes language its topic. The idea is that the dictionary can be not only an authoritative reference, but also a more intimate companion, so to speak. It is literally true that I sometimes fall asleep with books I've taken to bed, including the big dictionary. It's significant to me that my American Heritage Dictionary was compiled with the aid of a usage panel that included African-American writers Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, as well as feminist author Gloria Steinem. Thanks to my mother, an elementary school teacher, I have loved encyclopedias and dictionaries since childhood. Along with other volumes, my shelf includes A Feminist Dictionary, compiled by Paula Treichler and Cheris Kramarae, and Clarence Major's Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African American Slang, an important source for the lexicon of Muse & Drudge.

DK: I'm fascinated by the fact that you consciously determined your own reception through moves ordinarily seen as falling outside the purview of the author -- choosing the front cover of Muse & Drudge, for example, or ensuring that Henry Louis Gates and Sandra Cisneros "blurbed" the book as opposed to, say, Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe. By ceding greater power to yourself via these kinds of choices, you're really challenging the idea of canon-formation as something that is "naturally" determined by enlightened critics and readers. It also threatens the idea that the text alone speaks -- acknowledging the role that social moves and relationships play in establishing reception. Or maybe I'm reading too much into this? Is canonicity something you want to address via these kinds of moves?

HM: The choices I made with Muse & Drudge were part conscious, part intuitive, part serendipitous. A benefit of working with small independent presses is that authors can be more involved in such decisions. In my experience, each cover has been a collaboration of publisher, author, and artist/designer. Even the university presses allowed me to choose the cover art, since I was willing to find the artists and get their permission. Thanks to Enrique Chagoya and Alison Saar, these books have beautiful covers.

I was fortunate with the endorsements because those two prominent writers generously volunteered their help when Muse & Drudge was in manuscript. Skip Gates, the energetic public intellectual, was my colleague when we both taught at Cornell, and Sandra Cisneros is a writer friend whose poetry and fiction I've long enjoyed. Could one draw conclusions about each book's reception based on the endorsements? Lorenzo Thomas for Tree Tall Woman; Bernadette Mayer, Charles Bernstein, and Gwendolyn Brooks for Trimmings; Gates and Cisneros for Muse & Drudge; Afaa Michael Weaver, Elisabeth Frost, and Cynthia Hogue for Blues Baby. Instead of blurbs, the back cover of Sleeping with the Dictionary lists Robert Hass, Calvin Bedient, and Brenda Hillman as editors of the California Contemporary Poetry Series. They chose my book for the press, and Hass also selected "Music for Homemade Instruments" for The Best American Poetry, 2001.

All of my publishers have encouraged my active participation, if only because they lack the resources to do everything themselves. So many poetry books don't get reviewed, so often the work falls into an abyss of silence. I want to do what I can to help audiences find my work, including discussing it with readers, critics, teachers, and students as I travel around to various literary events. In making decisions about the presentation of my work, I was more concerned with reaching diverse communities of writers and readers than with influencing an institutional process that remains somewhat opaque to me. In theory, I'm interested in critical reception and canon formation, but in practice I can only comprehend these processes in retrospect, after a book has been chosen, rejected, or ignored by readers.

DK: You mentioned the phrase "aesthetic apartheid" earlier. Might you define it for us further, especially as it relates to what you see as the relationship between so-called "experimental" or innovative writing and social injustice?

HM: As Erica Hunt reminds us in her lucid essay, "Notes for an Oppositional Poetics," aesthetic and political opposition to the status quo do not necessarily go hand in hand, nor are they mutually exclusive. I'm interested in the shared aspirations of social and aesthetic movements that envision a better world. While I celebrate the differences that create distinct aesthetic preferences, I seek to overcome the social segregation that enforces aesthetic apartheid. In Los Angeles, for example, this might require that I drive out of my own familiar neighborhood to see an art exhibit in Little Tokyo or attend a poetry reading at the Institute of Italian Culture, to recall a couple of excursions I've made recently, in between taking visitors to the Watts Towers and to the World Stage in Leimert Park.

DK: This sense of political and social engagement is certainly clear in all your books. In Muse & Drudge, you write, "how a border orders disorder / how the children looked / whose mothers worked / in the maquiladora." While this quatrain critiques (or so I take it) so-called "illegal" immigration and sweatshop conditions, it also seems to have something to do with poetic form itself. Does thinking about form in some way affect the way you read social and political events?

HM: Human beings create meaning by ascribing significance to difference, however arbitrary. The first line of the stanza makes two observations. The separation of a border defines an order that must be defended, and also presupposes a disorder that continually threatens order. Traditionally it's argued that the container of form creates a boundary or frame that separates order from disorder, art from the mundane. Because our lives encompass a great deal of disorder, we value form and convention. Apparently we need boundaries, even imaginary or arbitrary ones, to define social organization and artistic form. Still, it's impossible to regulate absolutely the movement of people across borders, or even to define with certainty the difference between a work of art and a piece of garbage. It's also true that certain artists are regarded as threats to social or political order.

DK: It's funny and fascinating to me that you mention ideas of social organization -- I've suddenly had this vision of your work as proposing a new kind of order. In Muse & Drudge, for example, you write, "torn veins stitched / together with pine needles / mended hands fix / the memory of a people." These lines suggest that one is putting history back together again via the paratactic arrangement of fragments -- which suggest a modernist project in many ways. Do you see your work as blurring the boundaries between the modern and the postmodern?

HM: "Putting history back together again" sounds good, and mending ourselves as well. Of course the fragments, however they are arranged, don't add up to a master narrative. I'm aware that some critics see postmodernism as only a later development of the modernist project. Others would say that modernists mourn a shattered world, while postmodernists revel in its fragmentation and lack of coherence. I suppose my own feeling is somewhere between mourning and reveling. There's no time in the past I'd rather live than now, and I can only hope that we all have room for improvement in the future.

DK: Your use of the plural pronoun "we" is inspiring, especially in the context of an educational world that marginalizes so-called "experimental" writing as "too difficult" for younger students. It seems to me that Sleeping with the Dictionary might be especially appealing for younger students in terms of its use of language games. Might you suggest ways in teaching a specific poem from the book to students of high-school or college age?

HM: Pronouns are powerful words. Consider how we use "I" and "you," "we" and "they" to divide or unite ourselves. Sometimes when I'm writing, I'll delete the words "I" or "they" and substitute "we" in a poem. It gives the work a different perspective, makes it more inclusive. One of my students wrote a fine essay on the use of pronouns to include the reader in the poetry of Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery.

I believe my poetry ideas can be adapted to any educational level, in creative writing as well as in literature classes. I often write poems using the same assignments I give my students. "Dim Lady" and "Variation on a Theme Park" came out of an exercise asking students to write parodies of famous sonnets. With different groups I've used sonnets by Shakespeare or Neruda as models, suggesting that students choose a particular rule for transforming the poem. Instead of having students write a précis or paraphrase in prose, teachers could suggest that they rewrite the poem by plugging other words into the same syntactical and rhetorical structure. Students could use the Oulipo S+7 (or N+7) rule of substituting for each noun in the poem the seventh noun up or down from it in the dictionary. "Variation on a Theme Park" is a "freestyle" version of this Oulipo game. I didn't count up or down, but for each noun and verb in the original text I substituted a different word that begins with the same letter, using free association and the dictionary for inspiration. Students might substitute synonyms or antonyms to alter the diction of a poem, the way I've used synonymous slang words and commercial brand names in "Dim Lady." They could write "inverse translations" of Neruda sonnets, substituting an antonym for each noun and verb in the poem. They could rewrite a familiar poem or story using periphrasis, as I've done in "European Folk Tale Variant." Here my inspiration was Toni Cade Bambara's hilarious black vernacular revision of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

The idea of using inversion or antonyms in a poetic way came from Richard Wilbur's delightful collections of poetry for children. I've used Runaway Opposites, with collages by Henrik Drescher, in my university classes. Wilbur's humorous couplets highlight his clever use of rhyme and his unconventional sense of opposition:

I wonder if you've ever seen a
willow sheltering a hyena?
Nowhere in nature can be found
an opposition more profound:
A sad tree weeping inconsolably!
A wild beast laughing uncontrollably!

Who else has ever paired as "opposites" a weeping willow and a laughing hyena? One poem in Sleeping with the Dictionary is an emulation of Wilbur, using semantic opposition (walk/don't walk; walk/run) and visual "rhyme" (iconic red palms on hand-painted signs for fortunetellers, and on flashing "DON'T WALK" traffic signals).

Way Opposite

The opposite of walk?
	A psychic with a crystal ball
		and tarot deck
			who sees green
				when your palm is read.

At the sign of a red palm
		     I don't walk,
		           I run.

 

Another poem in Sleeping with the Dictionary, "Any Lit," uses as its model a fragment of a traditional African-American courtship ritual: "You are a huckleberry beyond my persimmon." My poem was created by substitution, playing on the sounds of "you" and "my" in every line.

I'm sure that already many students have tried acrostic poems. Sometimes in creative writing workshops I give everyone a handful of uncooked alphabet noodles to play with. Scrabble tiles are good too. The students spell out their own names, then use the letters of their names to write anagrams and acrostics. The poem "Ask Aden" is an acrostic I wrote for my nephew Aden when he was about six years old. That's an age when children ask wonderful, often unanswerable, questions, so I decided that each line of the poem would be a question. Originally this was a small handmade book that was inspired by a set of alphabet stamps. On each rubber stamp the letter was a different animal: an aardvark shaped like an "A," a dragon for "D," and so on. The word "aardvark" sounds like it contains the word "are," so the first line of the poem was "Are aardvarks anxious?" That became the model for the other lines. I used an inkpad to stamp the letters of his name, and wrote the lines on pages that I cut and stapled to make a booklet. Similarly, the text of "O 'Tis William" is a dialogue entirely composed of the letters in the first and middle names of my other nephew, William. From childhood on, I've associated poetry with games and puzzles, with singing and dancing, with codes and ciphers, with riddles and rhymes. I've never lost that sense of play and pleasure in making poetry.










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