Conversation with Harryette Mullen: From B to D
by Barbara Henning
With Harryette Mullen’s dense, layered and playful poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary, there is often a subtle question, almost present but not quite present, a riddle-like structure that leaves the reader wondering: How did she make this poem? As a prep for an MFA course I was teaching at Long Island University in the summer of 2009, and as a project I knew I would enjoy working on later, I decided to ask Harryette if she would be willing to talk to me about each of the poems in this collection, and then I would share sections of the interview with the class. This interview would be in the spirit of the Oulipo artists who reveal their experiments and constraints and catalogue them in their library in Paris. No secret mysterious inspired “writer-self,” but instead a writer who is seriously inventive and willing to share her methods and approaches. It was very curious and enlightening to the students to discuss and then hear some of the writer’s intentions, context, and the way she had constructed the poems. We of course weren’t searching for meaning, but instead aiming to help writers expand their own repertoire of tools for writing and to think about the reasons writers write the way they do.
The complete interview on Sleeping with the Dictionary (A-Z) along with an earlier interview by Henning have been collected together in the book Looking Up Haryette Mullen: Sleeping with the Dictionary and Other Works (Belladonna 2011).
BH: “Blah-Blah” and “Jinglejangle” are both alphabetical sound poems.
HM: These two were written together, or one suggested the other. I started “Jinglejangle” first. Then I started “Blah-Blah” a bit later. “Jinglejangle” is much lengthier because the language has many more of those ding-dong, chiming-rhyming words than words with exact repetition. They are both compilations. Whenever I would notice these words, in a conversation or in print, I’d add them to my list. “Jinglejangle” took much longer to compile. I kept adding items to “Jinglejangle” right up to the time I turned in the manuscript. “Blah-Blah” didn’t take as long because there aren’t as many of those words in English.
BH: You put Mei-Mei’s name in there.
HM: Because her name fits the pattern. (Laughter) I think in Chinese it means “younger sister.” Dada is in there too. It’s baby talk. “Blah-Blah” is like a baby learning to talk and “Jinglejangle” is that basic melodic impulse of chiming and rhyming, which we hear a lot in advertising and political slogans. Together they represent the DNA or building blocks of poetry.
BH: I was wondering if there is a relationship between these sound poems and say Aimé Césaire’s African sound poems (I’m teaching him this week)?
HM: Well, there might be. I hadn’t thought about it that way but definitely Césaire is a poet I admire, and I enjoy the language play in his poetry. He had a way of making fun of the language of power in his work, and he was conscious of how Caribbean and African people altered the languages of European colonizers.
BH: “Blah-Blah” appears in the middle between “Black Nikes” and “Bleeding Hearts.” Like a relief from the seriousness and the drama.
HM: Like a palate cleanser.
BH: And with “Jinglejangle” there’s the critique of consumerism and advertising.
HM: We have to critique and resist rampant consumerism, if only because it’s an unsustainable way of life. On the other hand, I’m often amused by advertising. We have to think critically when we’re bombarded every hour with messages that are designed to affect us at an emotional level.
BH: What about language play in African American speech?
HM: I’m interested in language, whether it’s literature, advertising, or speech. How I feel about it depends on what is said and what is the intention. The speech of African Americans reflects our historic separation from mainstream culture and our critical perspective on the language of power. As descendants of slaves in the land of the free, we’re accustomed to paradox and practiced in the art of laughing to keep from crying.
BH: I guess we have to keep laughing rather than becoming “Bleeding Hearts.” With this poem we’re back into prose-sentence sense, sort of.
HM: “Bleeding Hearts” was a response to the way black neighborhoods are portrayed in the media. At least that’s what I was thinking when I started it. There’s a neighborhood here called Crenshaw, which is usually stereotyped in the media as a wretched ghetto, although it’s in the middle of a rather diverse and lively section of Los Angeles. The poem just plays with the word Crenshaw—also the name of a delicious hybrid melon. Many of the words in this poem are anagrams. They are not exact anagrams, but the letters and sounds in “Crenshaw” are distributed throughout the poem.
BH: So you rearranged the letters in Crenshaw as many different ways as possible. To start you made lists of words.
HM: Right, I made a list of anagrams, then pieced them together in phrases like “wash your neck” or “crash a shower of cranes.” The poem is constructed with letters and sounds, graphemes and phonemes, derived from the word Crenshaw.
BH: So you started with a thematic. It is so interesting how you can use language and jump to different registers and something new gets expressed in a different register but then sometimes it seems like you are saying the same thing in a different way.
HM: It’s more parody than direct critique, I guess.
BH: You end with “Where I live’s a wren shack. Pull back. Show wreck. Black fade.” Could you comment on that?
HM: That’s where I went back to the idea of media. It’s what you might read in the script for a film that ends with ruin, just before the screen fades to black. I also thought of that haircut called a “fade.”
BH: Then “Bolsa Algodón.” I looked up bolsa, and it could be exchange and then when I looked at the poem, I thought this is about puffed up rich folks. (Laughter) And they made all their money on cotton. (Laughter)
HM: Bolsa means bag or purse and algodón means cotton. A cotton purse or a cotton sack,
although in idiomatic Spanish I think it would be bolsa de algodón, a bag made of cotton or a bag full of cotton. A cotton exchange or commodities market. Right, that’s one of the definitions. Bolsa can also mean pucker or scrotum.
BH: A sack lined with silver
Coin purse full of change
Able windbag puckered to blow kisses
Plump white pillows on blue coverlet
Some Dixie gents bowling
In a giant football stadium
Shake a sack lined with silver
Coin purse full of change
I mean there is no way to read this poem without thinking about excess, cotton fields and money.
HM: The wealth created by slaves. I was born in “the land of cotton.” The cotton boll that was so essential to the economy of the south, and the Cotton Bowl, the football stadium in Texas. This poem was inspired by children’s folklore, including a riddle in Spanish with a play on “algo” and “don.” I was working with conventional metaphors comparing cotton and clouds. There’s also the idea of changing weather, of wind, rain, and thunderstorms. The cloud is compared to a bag or a purse or a cotton sack. I was trying to stitch all these images together. I don’t know if it really works as a poem that’s also an attempt at making bilingual puns. It’s maybe too slight a poem to carry the weight.
BH: I think it worked. I like it.
HM: Well, that’s good. You’re the only person who has ever really remarked on it.
BH: In “Coals to Newcastle, Panama Hats from Ecuador,” LA doesn’t come off too pretty.
HM: Do you ever collect titles for unwritten poems that you hope you’ll write one day? I had the title before the poem, starting with the expression, “Coals to Newcastle.” That’s a city in England that was known for coal mining, so this saying is about getting more of what you’ve already got. It’s anything that’s unnecessary, redundant, or excessive. “Panama Hats from Ecuador” sounds like a non sequitur or a contradiction, but Panama hats really are made in Ecuador. This was one of the first poems I wrote when I moved here. I was reacting to excess and contradiction. This poem was composed as a chain of free associations. There’s the usual idea of Los Angeles standing for everything that’s fake, “lite poundcake, nondairy crème” and all such paradoxes and oxymorons. It was here that I first saw “death by chocolate” on restaurant
menus. Now that’s an image of excess. Another variation on dessert menus was “chocolate suicide.”
BH: Yeah, kill yourself with chocolate. I’m a reformed chocolate junky myself.
HM: In the poem, it’s utter self-indulgence, decadence, hedonism, a certain vision of the California lifestyle that goes side-by-side with images of health and fitness. It’s all excess and contradiction.
BH: Let’s talk about just one more before we break, “Coo/Slur” with one word running into another and breaking apart into two.
HM: That title is an anagram of “colours,” the British spelling. I know what I was thinking about when I wrote this. Remember those Benetton ads, “the united colors of Benetton”? Their advertising campaign featured beautiful people of different races wearing their brightly colored sweaters, hats, and scarves in ads that were increasingly provocative. As I recall, the creator of the ads kept pushing and pushing the ads to be more political, until eventually he was fired.
BH: How did that relate to your poem?
HM: I guess it was the idea that color is political. I’m not saying that this poem is profound or deep at all. It’s free association from a list of colors. Oh, now I remember, the other inspiration was Crayola, when they started selling the multicultural crayons with different skin tones. My mother was a teacher, so she rushed right out to buy them for her students, who were every shade in the box. It used to be that there was only one “flesh” color, a sort of pinky beige.
BH: The refrain that occurs twice—“pure people/purepeople” and then everything breaks down into bits of ink and letters and sound. Nothing extra pure or everything pure. . . . With “Daisy Pearl,” I think, oh this is a drink shaped like a woman.
HM: I was thinking of a margarita.
BH: And through this you reveal the sexist slant in the language, the way we talk about women and drinks and the commonalities to control and consume, shake her, rub her and drink her.
HM: Margarita is a woman’s name. The word cocktail is also rather suggestive. I had found a recipe for margaritas that included a history of its alleged origin in a Mexican border town. Apparently this mixed drink was created for tourists, to popularize tequila, just as the daiquiri and mojito were created in Cuba to increase the export of rum. I was also thinking at the time of a series of unsolved murders of young women in the border area. Some of the women might have been prostitutes. Others were working in the maquiladores, those border zone factories. These towns have long been zones of exploitation.
BH: “A great show of suffering in order to arouse.” I live near Mexico and it is still happening. On one hand the poem seems light hearted but then there is this control of her “poor stem.” What does “Daisy Pearl” refer to?
HM: I looked up “margarita” and saw that in Spanish it means daisy or pearl. In French also marguerite is daisy and margaux is pearl. So the title is from the dictionary. The poem is a partial cut-up of the article I’d read, probably in an airline magazine, with the recipe for margaritas. I used language from the article and the recipe, and I added some language of my own. It’s all mixed together like a cocktail that makes you sober.
BH: Yes, it’s definitely unsettling. In the next poem, “Denigration,” you use all the words related to the stem of the n-word, the “neg” and “nig,” pointing out the way we use language to oppress and the way it can also be used to undo the same oppression.
HM: Remember when a white political staffer for the D.C. mayor was pressured to resign because he used the word “niggardly”?
BH: You mention it in the middle of the poem.
HM: It has no etymological relationship to “the n___ word” but it caused a commotion.
So this poem was a commentary on the power of language, even when it’s misheard or misapprehended. We’re sometimes reacting to the sounds and not only the meanings of words.
BH: Some of my younger students in New York City might have been insulted by it because they don’t understand the difference in the words, but nonetheless as you point out in your poem, there is still a negation in the word.
HM: I included several words that have “nig” or “neg” in them, words that frequently refer to something negative. I think that’s what people were hearing. They were listening more like poets than like lexicographers. Elizabeth Alexander also wrote a poem about that kind of hypersensitivity to language. Hers goes in a different direction, but I think she might have been responding to the same controversy. I also believe the person who lost his job was eventually rehired after the furor died down.
BH: With Césaire and even the Harlem Renaissance writers picked the word negré because it was a word that was disparaged and then they said I’m going to take that and accept it as my banner.
HM: The Negritude movement was based on reversing stereotypes and turning negative into positive, turning shame into pride.
BH: So that was a way to undo the negative power of the word. I was thinking as I read this that I like being called a renegade. . . the beats, the black arts, it was a plus to be a renegade.
HM: Yes, there’s power in that. Negation can be empowering in a certain sense, when you are free to define yourself against the dominant culture and not be crushed by it.
BH: But not when you think your “self” has been erased before you know that there is no erasing. But when you think it has been erased and you grow up with that thought—I’ve been erased, that’s very powerfully difficult to climb out of. I’m thinking of Franz Fanon and Césaire. . . . Can you tell us how you wrote this poem?
HM: I made a list of those “nig” and “neg” words, and then I composed sentences using words from the list. I usually avoid writing overtly didactic or polemical poetry because many readers find it tiresome. This poem makes no declarative statements, although you might say it’s argumentative or instructive in another way. It’s composed of a series of rhetorical questions including a few that resemble a classroom quiz, like “How muddy is the Mississippi compared to the third longest river of the darkest continent?” The question substitutes a periphrasis for the name of the river in Africa. This is also an exception to the rule I used for constructing the poem, because it doesn’t contain any “nig” or “neg” words. The missing word, Niger, is pronounced differently, without the hard “g.”
BH: The Oulipians call the exception, a clinaman. . . . A purposeful break in the procedure, a swerving away from the path. . . . Then we have “Dim Lady” an S+7 transformation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet130. In the last line he writes, “I grant I never saw a goddess go/my mistress when she walks treads on the ground; and yet by heaven I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare.”
HM: He’s in love, or in lust, with a flesh-and-blood woman, and he’s also making fun of sonnets in the manner of Petrarch, poetic blazons that praise a woman’s body parts, comparing her to gold, alabaster, silk, pearls, and other precious commodities. I’ve always appreciated Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” sonnet. It questions conventions of beauty and poetry, and declares
that the poet is attracted to someone who doesn’t conform to the accepted ideal. I wrote a bunch of these with my students. We worked with Shakespeare’s sonnets and Neruda’s sonnets, altering them to create variations. I wrote about half a dozen of my own, using Sonnet 130 as a source text. I included two of them in this book, “Dim Lady” and “Variation on a Theme Park.”
BH: Is it a pure S+7, moving up and down seven nouns in the dictionary and substituting the found noun for the original?
HM: “Variation on a Theme Park” is closer to the S+7 formula. It preserves the syntax of Shakespeare’s sonnet but it’s more of a nonsensical word salad. “Dim Lady” remains closer to the meaning of Shakespeare but I’ve substituted synonymous slang and commercial brand names. Shakespeare already had lowered the level of diction in his Sonnet 130, which can also be seen as a parody of poetry conventions.
BH: Did you use a different dictionary in “Variation on a Theme Park”?
HM: I used my American Heritage Dictionary although some terms in the poem aren’t in there. I’m not sure if Mickey Mouse is listed there. I know “wonder bras” isn’t there and “break dancers” isn’t there. My dictionary is older than those coinages that recall for me the time when I was writing Sleeping with the Dictionary. Still, the language of “Variation” was more current than in “Dim Lady” where I used synonyms mostly from my Dictionary of Slang. Those slang words and brand names are all reminiscent of a previous era. Usually by the time slang gets published in dictionaries, it’s already been abandoned by its creators.
BH: Our mind is like a transforming cycling revolving dictionary as we’re scanning up and down the linguistic register.
HM: Substituting “Mickey Mouse” for “mistress” gave this poem a little more coherence and direction than a random S+7, along with a reference to Walt Disney who created the Disneyland theme park. Here in Los Angeles I sometimes feel that I’m living in the shadows of Hollywood and Disneyland.
BH: You sound like you love LA. (Laughter) I love the first line “My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon.” This entire poem is so funny. It makes you laugh at the same time it is parodying consumer culture. “Variation on a Theme Park” also takes Walt Disney to task for greed and exorbitant prices.
HM: I had fun writing it. Another poem with a similar construction is “Junk Mail.” That was a text that I altered with an Oulipo type of transformation. I kept the syntax but changed most of the nouns and verbs. I didn’t use the dictionary in a systematic way, but it was a game of substitution similar to their S+7 or what American poets call N+7. I don’t literally count up or down in the dictionary. If I can’t think of a word immediately, I might just flip through the dictionary and choose a word I like. Similar to “All She Wrote,” the idea of this poem is a letter full of clichés, the kind of conventions we often fall back on when trying to express our feelings.
BH: You just changed the words and riffed on it a little.
HM: Yes. That’s right. I used the same principle of removing the nouns, and also some of the verbs, from the source text and substituting other words beginning with the same letters.
BH: Let’s go back to the alphabet. “Dream Cycle.” Did you start this poem with a list of words? The syntax seems more conventional and it seems like a sweet little intermission between other poems.
HM: That’s a good way to think about it, because it was just a bit of childhood nostalgia, a memory prompted when I heard an ice cream truck that was going around my block playing Braham’s lullaby.
BH: Did I ever tell you that when I was younger my husband and I had an ice-cream truck. We did it for a few years. We drove around with that music. I dreamed with that music.
HM: Was it a Mister Softee?
BH: No, we were freelancers driving an ancient no-name truck.
HM: Did you make money at that?
BH: Yeah. We used to rent the truck for $15.00 and then we’d buy the ice cream, some dry ice, put it in there and go out and sell it in the neighborhoods then come back. We saved up our money doing this and we went traveling in our hippy days. He went on to work carnivals and fairs for years later but the ice cream truck, that melody stuck with me. . . . When I read your poem I was thinking about our truck but also – do you know that children’s book, A Snowy Day by Ezra Keats. I read it to my grandson recently and it popped back in my mind as I read your poem.
HM: That’s a classic children’s book. I was thinking about the contrast of summer heat with the frozen treats from the ice cream truck. My favorite was the Dreamsicle. I also thought about how my mother handled money. She didn’t earn a lot as a teacher, so we all had to live within a budget. She would never give us money to spend impulsively. All the other kids might run out to the truck, but if we asked to get an ice cream, she’d say, “Do you have anything left from your allowance? I’m not giving you money for ice cream. It’s up to you to budget your allowance.” She insisted that we make a budget and stick to it. She didn’t want us jumping up like Pavlov’s dog whenever we heard that ice cream truck. (Laughter) I found a new favorite when I was visiting Costa Rica, a chocolate-covered dulce de leche ice cream bar called Cero Gordo. It means “Fat Zero” but it’s definitely not the same as zero fat.
The author of five books of poetry, Harryette Mullen has taught at Cornell University and now teaches creative writing and African-American literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has received the Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry, a PEN Beyond Margins Award, and the 2010 Jackson Poetry Prize, and she has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Barbara Henning is the author of eight books of poetry, three novels, a series of photo-poem pamphlets and most recently a collection of interviews, Looking Up Haryette Mullen: Sleeping with the Dictionary and Other Works (Belladonna). Her work has been published in numerous journals. Her most recent books of poetry are Cities and Memory (Chax Press) and a collection of sonnets composed from 999 passages from 999 books in her collection, entitled My Autobiography (United Artists Books, 2007). Her latest novel isThirty Miles to Rosebud (BlazeVOX 2009).