Licked All Over by The English Tongue:
An Interview with Harryette Mullen
By Caroline Crumpacker
CC: 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?
HM: 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
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
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, I¹m
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
CC: I know that you've experimented
with Oulipo as a poet and a professor. What interests you about
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
CC: Much of your poetry (maybe
specifically Trimmings) works with language in a specifically
feminist register. Is this in part informed by French feminist
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.