Licked All Over by the English Language: Harryette Mullen in Conversation
Caroline Crumpacker: I love what you've written about growing up in Texas and the various languages and vernaculars in your community and how they functioned socially. Can you talk about how this multiplicity, and all its political and social nuance, informs your work, your poetics. Also, it seems that your poetry works within and across registers of language to fill in some of the gaps. Can you talk about that?
Harryette Mullen: Yes, as one line in Sleeping with the Dictionary goes, "I've been licked all over by the English tongue." I think my childhood experience left me sensitive to the articulation of difference in language. I could see how language was used to assert, claim, and contest identity, especially for people with few other means of commanding attention. Human diversity is expressed through the multiplicity of spoken and written languages. With every word I speak or write, I'm aware that my language includes some people while excluding others. From childhood I've also appreciated the aesthetic, expressive, emotive, and pleasurable aspects of language, as well as the conflict and confusion we sometimes encounter when trying to communicate with others. I'm interested in the borderlines of language, where meanings contradict and overlap. A focus on the message itself is the poetic function, according to Jakobson. In poetry, I'm attentive to the multiple meanings of words, which is why I love puns, equivoque, the "double talk" of metaphor and simile. When I was growing up, my friends would never say, "Hey, your slip is showing." Instead they'd tell me, "It's snowing down south."
CC: Has the audience(s) you are addressing and the manner of that address changed in each of your books? You've written about present and future readers for your poetry, and of your hope that the children of women who are now illiterate will be future readers of your poems. Do you feel that Sleeping with the Dictionary engages that hope more directly than you have before?
HM: It seems that with each book my idea of audience has expanded. Travel and technology now connect writers to diverse and dispersed readers, and apparently my books are also reaching more people. Of course, the numbers don't compare to the audience for Spider-Man or Star Wars; but within the world of poetry I imagine myself addressing an audience that is larger and more diverse than ever. This idea challenges me to explore a more interactive, flexible, inclusive writing practice that might allow different readers to find meaning and pleasure in my work. I've often said that my fourth book, Muse & Drudge was crucial, because it seemed to unite readers of my first book, Tree Tall Woman, with the audience that was attracted to the formal innovation of Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T. Given my concern about literacy, I've often thought about the possibility of connecting writers, readers, and nonreaders through a practice that encompasses aspects of written and spoken language. To the extent that a text hails its readers, I've begun to consider how a poetic work might overcome the social barriers that reinforce what I've called "aesthetic apartheid." I think of Sleeping with the Dictionary as a very readable and accessible book, although I haven't necessarily employed the simplest or most transparent language in every poem.
CC: What is the relationship between your work as a poet and your work as a critic?
HM: I'm paid for my work as a critic/professor, and I'd be starving and homeless if I had to live on my earnings as a poet. Beyond the economics, I hope my situation challenges me to be a creative critic and an intellectual poet.
CC: Your poetry is allusive in so many directions simultaneously. Can you discuss this aspect of your writing in relation to audience. Given the richesse of allusion and vernacular in your work, it can be read — poem by poem, stanza by stanza, line by line — in very different ways. Do you tend to privilege one particular reading in each case?
HM: I write, ideally, for a diverse audience. As a reader, writer, and teacher I have many opportunities to consider the instability of interpretation when people don't necessarily share the same cultural knowledge or social background. I'm curious about the effects of allusion in such circumstances. My response to this challenge has been to leave space for divergent interpretations of unknown readers. I envision and I hope the work rewards such readers. Their activity possibly resembles the way I try, in an art gallery, to relate to a nonfigurative painting. In the case of visual art, or music, I often have an aesthetic response to a work without any sense of comprehension. I don't always need complete understanding to get pleasure from the work. In a similar way, a poem is more than the communication of a specific idea. I wouldn't privilege a singular reading, although I'm always happy to discuss intentions and devices in regard to a particular poem or passage. I can recall contexts, sources in literary or popular culture, and personal memories beyond the surface of language in a poem. I think I'm more interested in the process of creating and discovering meaning through the activity of reading and writing. Often I work improvisationally, sampling and collaging fragments of written and spoken discourse. I regard conventional expressions, such as clichés, proverbs, jingles, and slogans, as linguistic "readymades" that I recycle in my work. I like to use puns and other kinds of polysemy and ambiguity to stretch the limits of meaning. I'm working with something intrinsic to language, the fact that meaning is socially and historically constructed and that many words have more than one signification, often including culturally specific meanings particular to a social class, ethnic group, or other community constituted through shared understanding. My recent work tries to navigate along the linguistic borders where a word or phrase can mean one thing or another to different audiences.
CC: Do you see the form of a poem or series of poems first or does it arrive out of the writing, do you discover it? How much revision do you do?
HM: After my first book, my work became more conceptual with Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T. These serial prose poems correspond to the "Objects" and "Food" sections of Stein's Tender Buttons. I'd originally intended to write a third book, corresponding to Stein's "Rooms," that would explore ideas about home and homelessness. Some of those ideas went into a collaborative project with Yong Soon Min for the "Porch" of the Womenhouse web project, which might be considered the third part of the trilogy responding to Stein's poems about an interior domestic space of feminized objects. With Muse & Drudge I began with just the title, knowing it would be a book of recurring tropes about African American culture, with particular emphasis on representations of black women. Early on in the writing, I decided to use the format of four quatrains on each page. That formula kept me going through each multiple of four, and it made this book-length non-narrative poem look orderly. Sleeping with the Dictionary is less conceptual than those others. It's more like a miscellaneous collection of verse and prose poems written since my move to California. Many of them have a Los Angeles or Bay Area setting. More significantly, the title indicates my on-going concern with meaning and the social context of language. I often experience long fallow periods between bursts of writing. When I'm actively writing, I'm also constantly revising. When I think a poem is done, I send it out to a journal. Often I'll revise the poem again before it's collected in a book.
CC: Given the linguistic play, the complexity of your references, the vernacular, and the rhythmic and musical qualities of your work, how did you and Sebastién Smirou manage the translation into French? Specifically, I'm wondering about the communolect aspects of your work, your use of in-group/out-group language. How do you view the French translations versus the original poetry?
HM: Sebastién Smirou and I corresponded briefly about the translation. The little bit of French I learned years ago has evaporated, but he sent me a working draft, with questions about some of the American idioms in the selection from Muse & Drudge that he'd translated. I tried to fill in some of the social context and to offer a range of significations. I could define colloquial expressions and warn him about the puns, but it was impossible to give simple answers to the most pressing questions. What I wrote was a kind of "back story" to explain why particular words and images had been juxtaposed in the poem. When he sent back the revised text, I saw the changes, and Sebastién told me that he and the poet and translator Stacy Doris had agreed that it was an improvement. What I hoped would come across was a sense of multiple layers of meaning. It's an honor to be translated, and of course translation of poetry is notoriously difficult in any case. I'd always thought that Muse & Drudge would be impossible in another language because it's saturated with culturally specific idioms and allusions. Any translation is a remarkable feat, as far as I'm concerned.
CC: There's so much to say about your poetry in a specifically American context. I'd love to hear you discuss your poetics in an international context.
HM: I haven't thought so much about this until recently. People like Charles Bernstein, Giuliana Fabi, Bill Wadsworth, Tom Byers, Alan Golding, Lynn Keller, Roy Miki, Fred Wah, and Charles Rowell have put me in contact with international writers and scholars, or provided occasions for me to travel outside the U.S. I've been thinking more and more about poetry in the context of globalization. Long before 9/11/01 many people here and abroad had been critical of the cultural, linguistic, political and economic impact of the U.S. on the rest of the world. I've been thinking about it in my own way, as a poet. In Muse & Drudge, I envisioned a transnational diaspora of black traditional cultures, and in Sleeping with the Dictionary I think there's a sense of California as a destination for migrants and immigrants, and a vision of Los Angeles as tomorrow's city, where East meets West. I've also been inspired by the work of my artist friends Yong Soon Min and Allan deSouza, who work separately and collaboratively on issues of identity, travel, dislocation, and immigration. There are also terrific scholars working on similar issues at UCLA, particularly the Transnational and Transcolonial Studies group organized by Francoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih. Although one poem in Sleeping with the Dictionary includes the line, "our Esperanto's hopeless" I do have hope for the "global village." I believe that we human beings have a future here on earth.
CC: I know that you've experimented with Oulipo as a poet and a professor. What interests you about Oulipian methods?
HM: Oulipo's project is the systematic demystification of the poetic process. They dispense with the ancient mythology of the poet inspired by the muse, in favor of literary games, devices, constraints, procedures, and experiments that might result in works of "potential literature." Their manifestos and literary works are amusing, inventive, and informative, providing me with "inspiration" of a different kind.
CC: Much of your poetry (maybe specifically Trimmings) works with language in a specifically feminist register. Is this in part informed by French feminist theory/ecriture feminine?
HM: In graduate school we read Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray in translation. I enjoyed their style of writing feminist theory, which seemed at times to border on poetry, especially Cixous and Irigaray. I'm not sure there's any conscious influence on my own work in terms of style, but for ideas, certainly — not that I necessarily agreed with them. (I was wary of feminists who wore mink coats and killer high-heeled shoes!) I'm more conscious of the Stein influence because two of my books are direct responses to Stein's work, especially Tender Buttons and "Melanctha." I do remember feeling a little disappointed when I first read Kristeva's Revolution in Poetic Language because I was expecting it to be about poetry. Perhaps those theoretical discussions of ecriture feminine and the idea of women as minority writers reinforced my interest in poet's prose as much as my interest in Stein.
CC: You went to Cuba last year for a writer's conference, yes? Were there conversations, readings or other parts of your trip that were particularly meaningful to your own work?
HM: I attended a conference of writers and critics organized by Charles Rowell, the editor of Callaloo, with co-sponsorship of Casa de las Americas in Havana. Not least among the pleasures of this trip were my conversations with other members of our travel group, including poets Toi Derricotte, Forrest Hamer, and Kevin Young. We participated in panels and discussions of literature and culture. We read our work with Cuban poets Nancy Morejon, Pablo Armando Fernandez, and Georgina Herrera. I also met Georgina Arozarena Himely, a teacher dedicated to the literary legacy of her father, Marcelino Arozarena (1912-1996) whose poetry explored black consciousness when the official line in Cuba was that the revolution had rendered racial distinctions irrelevant. In a note to me, Senora Himely described her father as "un poeta negro de poesia social." I've written a few poems about my impressions of Havana, but I was essentially a tourist visiting for only one week. I can't claim any penetrating insight into the culture, economy, or politics of Cuba. I hadn't traveled extensively outside the U.S. (only to Canada, Mexico, France, and Germany) and this was my first visit to a foreign country with a significant population of people of African descent. While I'm aware that race is constructed differently in Latin America, Havana seemed very black to me. Many of the people begging on the streets of Old Havana looked African, while most of the people who worked in the tourist industry, and thus had access to foreign currency, looked European. A lot of our discussions, with the Cubans we met and among ourselves, were about race and economics. Those are the issues I addressed in the few poems I've written about that visit. We had a very lively conversation at the home of a babalawo as we each awaited our turn for an individual divination session. With African spirituality no longer forced underground, the babalawo and the guide who brought us to his home were among the few black Cubans we met who were in a position to earn the dollars and euros required to live beyond the subsistence level the government provides for its citizens.
Copyright © 2008 by Harryette Mullen and Caroline Crumpacker. Originally appeared in Double Change, Issue 3. Used by permission of the authors.