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Harryette Mullen, 1999
Students gather outside her workshop at UCLA, where she is a professor of English. They press their ears to the door, listening to the sound of her making. Hammers clanging, an acetylene torch, the machine gun chatter of an industrial sewing machine, televisions breaking open and words spilling out. Harryette Mullen labors over her poems. Her work has been cobbled together with power tools and pop culture references. She mines supermarkets and folklore for phrases that fit as easily in the mouths of feminist theorists as in my Aunt Viola's shopping list.

Mullen has published four influential books of poetry, as well as a number of critical essays concerning literature, theory, and race. She lectures at conferences about Gertrude Stein, or History, or her own work. She demonstrates in Muse and Drudge, or S*PeRM**K*T, an intimacy with language; poems that have passed through as many lips as gossip, or toothpicks, or alcohol.

We met up one morning before she was going to give a lecture at Barnard. We walked from Columbia's wrought-iron campus to M&G's Soul Food in the middle of Harlem. This kind of border crossing is central to Harryette Mullen's work. She has the amazing ability to see herself in any number of contexts, a citizen of not just one language, but many languages. A braiding of languages, a new word order.

CHRISTOPHER: While I was introduced first to your poetry, I understand you also write about literature.
HARRYETTE: I got a Ph.D. in literature at UC Santa Cruz. I wrote a dissertation on slave narratives. I used the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. It's a book that's finally this year going to come out.
CHRISTOPHER: Why did you choose Douglass and Jacobs? What theory did you bring to it?
HARRYETTE: It was the theory that made me want to do that. Because it seemed like so much theory seemed to be saying: It doesn't matter who wrote texts, because language is writing itself and the author is dead and the subject is dead. I thought it really made a difference who wrote these. I picked two that were written by the people themselves — as opposed to those which were ghost-written. I wanted it to be male and female because I wanted to talk about gender. I wanted to talk about being male and female in bondage and in freedom. Douglass seemed to equate freedom with maleness and becoming a man, and Jacobs was never going to be a man. So freedom was not the same for her.
I used a lot of Lacan. I used more Foucault — Discipline And Punish. Because his whole premise was that these things are of the past. My starting point was: It may have been gone from Europe, but it was in place on the plantation.
CHRISTOPHER: And its existence on the plantation allowed it to be gone from Europe.
HARRYETTE: So I had a whole chapter on flogging as perverse pedagogy. Because there's so many passages in slave narratives where they talk about the first whipping — "That was my education." They don't teach you to read and write, they write on your back with the whip. You become the text. You are prohibited from reading the text, but you become a text; a text that others will read.
I found this amazing quotation that I use at the end of that chapter. It's an obscure narrative and this man says: "I would like if I could to will the skin of my back when I'm dead, will it to the United States government. So that the skin of my back could be used to bind the Constitution, so that the Constitution will be bound in the hide of a slave." I couldn't make that up. That was there. I mean, it was a completely realized trope; at the same time, that was his reality. His back was marked with the whip. He was written on. He was the text.
CHRISTOPHER: Which relates to the politics of display and performance.
HARRYETTE: Slave narratives were always performance. They were always a political act.
CHRISTOPHER: So the narratives are not necessarily authentic records of peoples lives, they were used for political purposes. It's either written by somebody else, edited by somebody else, chosen by somebody else. I can imagine an 18th century editor trying to find the right person who's going to say exactly what the people who are publishing it want to hear.
HARRYETTE: Even with Douglass, they told him: "Don't analyze your experiences. Tell what it was. And we will interpret it." I think if anything it was kind of a solicitous performance. People were compelled to tell their stories, to prove that they were human. The problem that I have is when it seems we're still trying to prove that we're human after all this time.
CHRISTOPHER: We, as African-Americans, are so stuck in that moment. Even from the very use of the word "I" — so much of our fiction is in this first person, autobiographical voice.
HARRYETTE: Well, I think the slave narrative was some place to start, but it's not necessarily the place to end. I don't have anything against autobiography or autobiographical fiction per sˇ — depending on how it's done. But I do think there is a problem when it's assumed that the only story we have is the story of "I." A lot of people do use that as a platform to then begin writing fiction after they've written an autobiography. It seems like it would be the other way around.
And then there's different slave narrative possibilities too. You would think Douglass would be the model, because that's the one that everybody reads. But William Wells Brown has actually been the model for the literary text. Because Ishmael Reed is ripping off of William Wells Brown in Flight to Canada — the letter that he wrote to the master; and also Sherley Anne Williams in Dessa Rose. They sell each other to get money ...
HARRYETTE: Those books show the trickster in the process of the slave trade. Because Brown had the job of making the slaves look young, dying their hair and everything. It's all about performance. Almost turning the auction block into a theater, a stage.
CHRISTOPHER: What you're saying about scars, and reading them, I think of where your work fits in within that image, that your poetry shows — what's that word? That beautiful word "palimpsest" — it shows where scars have healed over. The place where the mark has moved on.
HARRYETTE: One of the things I was really interested in with the slave narrative of Equiano was where he was saying he was not marked. He was supposed to have been marked by his people at a certain age but he was captured before he could be marked. And so in a way his text becomes not so much the whip mark but the cultural mark. He is not a man marked in his culture as a member of the tribe, but he becomes the world citizen, a global traveler. He was one of the most well-traveled human beings of the time. For him the text becomes something like a passport, evidence of his travel.
CHRISTOPHER: It's amazing how he comes off somehow as a dandy. Because there's moments where you don't get the sense that he's being forced to travel. You get the sense that he's saying, "So I decided to go to Europe."
HARRYETTE: He takes agency that he doesn't always really have. Like when there's a shipwreck and he thinks that he's the cause of the shipwreck because he cursed the ship.
CHRISTOPHER: Right, right. And I don't know if he really wasn't the cause ...
HARRYETTE: Maybe his words were powerful.
CHRISTOPHER: It's always a dangerous move to equate people's voices in their writing with their body. We're doing that pretty clearly. But you avoid that problem in your work because it's concerned with the body but it's disembodied. There's a verse in your book S*PeRM**K*T, about meat packed and wrapped in the store.
"It must be white, a picture of health, the spongy napkin made to blot blood. Dainty paper soaks up leaks that steaks splayed on trays are oozing. Lights replace the blush red flesh is losing. Cutlets leak. Tenderloins bleed pink light. Plastic wrap bandages marbled slabs in sanitary packaging made to be stained. A three-hanky picture of feminine hygiene."
I think that move of being both disembodied at the same time as very much bodied is emblematic of the doubling which a lot of your work is about.

HARRYETTE: That's what writing can do for me. Because I'm present at the act of writing, in my body. But then the writing goes on without me and it goes places I can never go. So it's disembodied the moment I stop writing it. I let the work go, and it's no longer in my control. I'm not physically present with it to interpret it or to continue to tinker with it. Other people are tinkering with it in their minds I suppose as they're reading it, interpreting it. But for me that's what is liberating about writing; it is mine and not mine at the same time.
CHRISTOPHER: Do you feel like the kind of current vogue for African-American autobiography and this really overt politically agenda'd stuff is about not wanting to give it up? When you say, "I give my writing out and then it travels without me," I feel like so much recent work runs counter to that impulse.
HARRYETTE: It doesn't leave much room for the imagination. However, I think that a lot of times we may feel that we don't have the luxury of giving out anything, because everything we have is so hard won. I feel that way about some things, but I don't feel that way about my writing. I can understand that impulse; that we still are put in a position to prove that we're human or to make claims that it seems to me we don't need to make, very basic claims that should be given but somehow they're not. And I think that when people feel themselves embattled in that way, I certainly can understand the need to say: "No, I'm going to stand over you and I'm going to tell you how to interpret this, because I don't trust you to do it properly."
CHRISTOPHER: But that goes up in the face of all this death of the author stuff and all the theory that I think is very useful at the same time — especially for finding a way to write that will change the way writing is thought of. Like a truly resistant literary practice is not going to have one reading. It's not going to have footnotes on: This is what you better feel.
HARRYETTE: It's slippery ... I mean, that can be seen as positive or negative. That can be seen as: "Well, I don't control it and it's going off and doing things without me that I didn't intend for it to do."
CHRISTOPHER: My child ...
HARRYETTE: Right. Or it's like Brer Rabbit in the Briar Patch. The work is able to adapt to whatever ... And because I have faith in reading and writing, I'm willing to take that chance — that someone could even come up with an interesting misreading of my work and it might tell me something I never thought of. Something about those lines must have invited that or allowed that, or the possibility was there.
CHRISTOPHER: I agree. When you're not willing to give your work up, I feel like you're really beating yourself on the head. You're not allowing for the doubling that is so much part of our culture.
HARRYETTE: It is part of our culture. It's definitely in the folklore. It's in that vaunted oral tradition all over the place. I mean, what was "signifying nothing" for heaven's sake? It's that kind of dynamic which motivated Muse and Drudge in some ways. When I was writing Muse and Drudge, it was just hot. It's like the world was writing the poem for me because every day I would hear something or remember something or something would come in a dream. That's not true with the book I'm writing now. Although I have to say that some autobiographical experiences do inform this book; but in kind of a skewed way, very skewed. And there's autobiographical experiences and there's the word "I," but it's more like a blues singer — "Whatever my misery is, you all know what I'm talking about."
CHRISTOPHER: There's a collective "I" about it. It's a different "I" than the one authenticating your identity ...
HARRYETTE: Right. Because there's nothing for me to authenticate. I just am, like we all know. And I've just tired of us particularly having to authenticate ourselves all the time.
CHRISTOPHER: You've said that your first book, Tree Tall Woman, was an evocation, a performance of the Southern black voice, that wasn't necessarily yours.
HARRYETTE: I didn't even realize it at the time. That was something I thought about later.
CHRISTOPHER: That moment of realization is fascinating to me. This idea of: One day I realized I was just a mirror image of myself. One day I woke up and I realized I was a mask.
HARRYETTE: Yeah. You had to think about, "How Southern is my family?" My mother came from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Growing up in Texas, people always said that I didn't sound like a Texan. But any time I'm outside of Texas, everybody thinks I sound Southern or Texan or both. I realized that my mother had become more Southern. But how Southern was she when I was a kid? Also, I didn't realize at the time, we were code switching. I didn't even understand that that's what we were doing. There was a time when I remember my mother being very careful to make sure that we all spoke standard English. She was really vigilant about the "ain'ts" and the tenses and the past participle. She was a school teacher and she really controlled our language for a while. I think she's relaxed a lot more now. She's not as concerned about how she speaks. She's more freely switching back and forth.
So I realized that our actual home language was standard English. And any time the code switching was happening, usually it was in a humorous or mocking context. But if you were doing serious business, it was in standard English. The voice that I was using in Tree Tall Woman really was the mocking voice ... when my mother was doing the parody of the black mother.
CHRISTOPHER: Or of that guy down the street.
HARRYETTE: I thought: Okay, this is when she really sounds black. So that's the voice that I have to use in these poems; even though that wasn't necessarily how she was talking all the time. I didn't even really understand what I was doing back then. I had a model with all this Black Arts poetry of what black poetry was supposed to sound like. And of course it has to sound different. So I had to deal with this idea that black speech is different from any other speech; and that's why you have to have speakers. You can't just write poetry; you have to have poetry that is tied to a specific black speaker, a voice that is the voice of a black person.
CHRISTOPHER: So was there a week or a month where you had a realization, like: "Oh, god..."
HARRYETTE: Well, it partly came from thinking about other things. There was this moment in college when I was in a class with the folklorist, Roger Abrahams. It was a class in African-American folklore. There was one black person in the room, and that was me. And I'm there to learn, like everybody else from this folklorist.
CHRISTOPHER: Did he do the book Shuckin' and Jivin'?
HARRYETTE: He did the books Deep Down In The Jungle, The Signifying Monkey, all those stories. He had collected stories on street corners, and then in jails and prisons. Because it has this dense concentration of black men from different places and he could get a whole bunch of different versions. That's how he became known.
I grew up in a black community, went to a black church, even lived part of my life legally segregated. So I thought I was black enough. And then I go into this course and there's all this stuff I'd never heard of, stories like "Shot and the Titanic." But why should I? That's what I wasn't thinking at the time — "Why should I?" And this man put HNIC up on the board and said, "Harryette, tell the class what this means." I had never heard that expression, to my knowledge.
CHRISTOPHER: Ridiculous that he should have assumed ...
HARRYETTE: Well, I think he didn't want to say the "N" word with me in the room. So rather than say it, he wanted to have me say it. I believe now that's what was going on. I said, "I don't know." I was really embarrassed. So he wrote it. He still didn't say it. He wrote it. And now I'm even more mortified, right?
CHRISTOPHER: Interesting that he didn't feel that comfortable.
HARRYETTE: I think it came up in something we were reading. And so I'm supposed to be the native informant, but I was unable to perform as the native informant because I did not know. As far as I knew, I had never heard this expression before, as initials or the whole thing. I mean, it's not that my mother doesn't know that expression. Because since then I have heard it. But she would never use that with us when we were kids.
CHRISTOPHER: It's not like your mother sits you down and says, "Here's our cultural legacy."
HARRYETTE: All these revelations that I had really had to do with thinking of myself as a code switcher. Not necessarily as a speaker of standard English or of black vernacular English — but a code switcher, who has a thousand languages and a tiny bit of Spanish. The poetry is code switching taken a few more notches. Because if you can code switch from one context to another or from one person to another, you can code switch in a poem every line or every verse or every stanza. You can just see how quickly you can make the switches and how much you can imply without having to say everything.
CHRISTOPHER: This is a big thing for you. A lot of your work makes me think a lot about translation, slippage, and the joy of mistranslation that goes on. All different types of code switching.
HARRYETTE: Puns are good, because they work on different levels. They're part of the switching, the mechanism sometimes for the switching. Which is one reason I really love that Fran Ross book, Oreo, because it's full of puns. I even found some of my favorite puns in that book, puns that I thought were mine.
CHRISTOPHER: With your work, there's about fifteen people all waiting for something from you. Fifteen people are waiting for a real solid example of feminine ˇcriture. Waiting for you to save Gertrude Stein from her racist past. To save the Black avant-garde. Do you consciously deal with all these issues people see in your work?
HARRYETTE: The things that engage me as a critic can also engage me as a poet. But it's a different way of thinking through some of the issues; where everything doesn't have to be spelled out, everything doesn't have to be connected. As a critic, I'm very concerned to write clearly and to connect my thoughts. And as a poet, I leave a lot of space. It's like how you're doing collage. You can put two things together that weren't together before, and you can just enjoy what happens when they come together.
CHRISTOPHER: With Muse and Drudge, you were making it clear that this book was related to black culture. You put the photo of the sister on the cover ...
HARRYETTE: Oh, that was very calculated. And I love her. I had to write Muse And Drudge because I lost my black readers. Muse And Drudge was trying to pull the black readers back in. The sister on the cover is beautiful. She looks like she's singing, praying, clapping. She was in a political meeting, but she looks like she's in church, right?
CHRISTOPHER: Doesn't she though?
HARRYETTE: She was really at a public hearing, she was protesting something. I was trying to say: This is a book by a black person. This is a book about black women. I thought people didn't get it that a black person did those other books or something about those books didn't seem black in the same way to people. That was very curious to me. When I read from Tree Tall Woman, my audiences were mostly African-American. With Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, when I was invited to readings there would be not a person of color in sight. And that felt kind of strange.
Muse And Drudge was my desperate attempt to bring these audiences together. These audiences now all of a sudden are sitting in the same room, which was not happening before. That kind of changes things. So what I'm doing now is going to be weird and strange and I think some people may not like it. It's prose poems again. Most of them are based on word games. I don't know if I like some of them myself. And the voice, I don't know who it is. It's not me necessarily.
CHRISTOPHER: Since Tree Tall Woman, there's often no identifiable speaker. You almost have to work extra to not have any identifiable voice. It's part of the disembodiment thing, although there's clearly so much work in the poems. It reminds me of those older brothers you meet on the street, who find a headlight from a 1956 Mustang and they think: "I'm halfway there." I can see you finding a word and thinking: "I'm halfway there," and then re-building the whole car. I can see the banging, the hammers — a mad tinkering going on in your word.
HARRYETTE: Yeah, I like that: mad tinkering.
CHRISTOPHER: You use a lot of pop references in your work. There's a line in Muse and Drudge, "another video looping/the orange juice execution/her brains spilled milk/on the killing floor." Does that help get the audience in a certain way?
HARRYETTE: I think some audiences. There's the TV audience and there's the book audience. I've used that stuff because it's so much a part of our environment. I thought about that in S*PeRM**K*T, that the supermarket is full of language. It's full of packages with writing on them, and signs on shelves. And everything is labeled. There are instructions telling you what you should do with everything. So I saw the supermarket as an environment of language that's also tied to the media language. For me that book was a kind of a compendium of all the ads that I've seen from my whole lifetime, that are ingrained, imprinted on my circuit. I can't get rid of them. So I thought I would try to convert them into something else.
CHRISTOPHER: Just to get them out in a healthy fashion ...
HARRYETTE: It's recycling.
CHRISTOPHER: Your work is a lot about finding language. What are other places do you go to find language?
HARRYETTE: A lot of it is memory. Like in Trimmings, there were fairytale references — "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Cinderella" and "The Little Mermaid." I love the tabloid headlines, it's such an economic form and they say such outrageous things. I'm just interested in all of these sort of little genres. Like a weather report or a fortune cookie. There's a way that those things are structured so we recognize them. And when I'm watching TV I like to turn on the captions so that I see writing on the screen. I'm reminding myself that these are words that somebody wrote. Sometimes they're really funny. I always wondered, "Do they hire the hearing impaired to write these captions?" Because they're all sort of weird. It's just exactly what I love.
CHRISTOPHER: People's orality is so different from anything you would write. That's another type of translation that goes on.
HARRYETTE: There's so many routine conventional forms that we deal with every day without necessarily thinking, "Oh, this is a form of writing." That's really what I'm occupied with now is cracking those over. They're little capsules of words and you just open up the capsule and see what's inside, and rearrange it.
CHRISTOPHER: There's that tinkering again.
HARRYETTE: I think that it's so easy for us to walk around in a trance. This stuff is entrancing. You believe something because a particular broadcaster that you trust said it. But if you took it out of a fortune cookie and put it in the mouth of Dan Rather, it might not sound that different. But you trust Dan Rather more than you trust a fortune cookie. Although to some people it may be the other way around.