The ABC’s of Harryette Mullen

The ABC’s of Harryettte Mullen
Excerpts from quotes, interviews, articles, and reviews (collected by Debi)

A is for Academic –

“Some people think of me as an ‘academic poet,’ simply because I teach in a university, but of course I was writing poetry and interacting with diverse communities of poets before I went to graduate school. One of my struggles as a graduate student, who had already published one book of poetry, was to keep intact my identity as a creative writer while I was learning to be a literary and cultural critic, a literature teacher, a member of the academic community.”

B is for Black –

“The Southern black community of my childhood made both literary and oral traditions of poetry immediately available to me as a significant aspect of everyday life and of communal rituals.”

C is for Community –

“She explores how community and individualism are in dialogue through modernism” , “the community valued anyone with strong skills in oratory, storytelling, poetry, songs and verbal contests of various sorts.”

D is for Domestic –

Tender Buttons appeals to me because it so thoroughly defamiliarizes the domestic, making familiar ‘objects, rooms, food’ seem strange and new.”

E is for English –

“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.”

F is for Fragments –

“Writing in fragments seems to be a very contemporary response to the postmodern distraction, the channel-surfing attention span, our fractured sense of time.”

G is for Games –

“As children, we memorized poetry for school and church programs, and we recited folk poetry on playgrounds and in backyards as we jumped rope and played other games.”

H is for Home –

“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.”

I is for Improvisation –

“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.”

J is for Jokes –

“From the very beginning, Mullen’s work has been full of jokes and puns and a unique generosity toward both its influences and language itself”

K is for Knowledge –

“I think that this idea of speakerliness and orality has to do with a tradition that I associate with my mother’s saying to me, ‘When you’re explaining something and you’re the one with the knowledge to impart to other people, you need to put it in terms that everyone can understand, you’ve got to,’ as she would say, ‘you’ve got to put it so Grandma can get it.’ “

L is for Lists –

“Your process of writing this poem by beginning with lists and generating other lists and improvising on these is quite modern, … rather than composition waiting for ‘inspiration’ or ‘deep feeling.’ “

M is for Marginal –

“Baby talk is marginal language used mainly by women and children” , “marginalization of poetry” , “my own marginalization as a black woman in relation to the cultural construction of the feminine”

N is for N+7

“Poetic expression here springs from a formal device, a game, a premeditated romp: a little like the Muse playing Scrabble”; many of these devices, such as replacing nouns with ones found seven entries away in the dictionary, were developed by the international literary group OuLiPo.”

O is for Oulipo –

“In Oulipo’s tongue-in-cheek manifestos, I found a pleasurable convergence of work and play.” / “while Oolipo might someday admit a woman again, they were not going to admit any black lesbians anytime soon.”

P is for Postcards –

Postcards are great for questions, quips and slogans, but not for an in-depth response.”

Q is for Quilting –

“You’ve asked about the poem as women’s work, as piecework, like quilting … those ideas are consonant with my own methods and metaphors of writing – quilting/writing as artists’ work, and as metaphor of tradition as the interaction of continuity and discontinuity.”

R is for Race –

“I remember my first real job, at fourteen, working for below minimum wage as a waitress at a camp for white kids. All of the kitchen and dining staff were black, while the owners of the camps and all the counselors and campers were white. The white folks were kept completely separate from the colored folks who were there to serve them.”

S is for Students –

“In order to make the formal challenge more user-friendly, I encouraged my students to use and then lose the constraint at different points in the creative process.”

T is for Trees –

“Our love affair with the computer has not put a dent in our need to waste trees.”

U is for Urban Tumbleweed

“The tanka is a Japanese form dating back centuries. It’s a 31-syllable poem that usually includes what Mullen calls ‘a refined awareness of seasonal changes and a classical repertoire of fleeting impressions.’ In Urban Tumbleweed, Mullen has written 366 tankas, describing a year of living in Los Angeles and traveling to places like Texas, Ohio and Sweden while taking careful note of the natural world around her.”

V is for Verbal dueling –

“All of these forms of verbal dueling were ways we learned to use language, wit, and humor to defend ourselves against verbal aggression.”

W is for Writing –

Writing has always been a refuge for me as a shy person. It allowed me to claim my minimum daily requirement of silence and solitude”

X is for eXperimenting –

“In all of my books, I try to find a balance between serious work and humorous play. At the moment, Sleeping with the Dictionary is my favorite because I enjoyed experimenting with different ways of creating poetry.”

Y is for Young –

“Writing became important to me when I was very young. It was the only way I could communicate with my father after my parents were divorced. My mother believed in educating ‘the whole child.’ She made sure my sister and I always had books to read, and she somehow found money to pay for music and dance lessons. She also encouraged us to draw and write. My sense of poetry was awakened by the formal and informal, written and oral rhymes and rhythms of family, church, and school.”

Z is for Zombies –

“Television was also an occasion for learning in our household. My mother used to analyze, she used to do critique of what was on the television. An ongoing critique of dominant culture, and my mother critiqued these images from her own perspective as a black woman. We did not sit like zombies in front of the TV. There was always a conversation. I’m sure that we must have had discussions about why black people weren’t on, or no black people that looked like anybody that we knew were on, or why this person always has to be serving this middle class white family. So, my whole experience of TV and advertising is through that kind of critique that was just a part of what we did in our household.”

Wordle: Harryette Mullen


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