This piece will appear in print in our summer issue… You can read all of this section here.
CONVERSATION WITH HARRYETTE MULLEN: From M to R
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.
For the most part, this interview follows Harryette’s alphabetical structure for Sleeping with the Dictionary. Sections are forthcoming in The Poetry Project Newsletter (E-M) and online journals, Not Enough Night (A-B) and Jacket Magazine (S-Z).
From M to R
BH: In “Music for Homemade Instruments” the mood and rhythm become more playful, doesn’t it?
HM: This poem was inspired by jazz improvisation. I was invited to read at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee. It’s a literary book center and performance space. A lot of poets have read there. I was on a program with Douglas Ewart, a jazz musician who had been a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was excited to meet him, but our hosts suggested at the last minute that the two of us go on together. So we performed together in this spontaneous way, with no time to rehearse or discuss how to do it. He was playing music while I was reading, which was strange because we hadn’t known ahead of time. I had expected that I would read and he would play separately. The poem wasn’t improvised during the performance, but I wrote it afterward, as a tribute to Doug Ewart, who plays musical instruments, bamboo flutes and djeridoos, that he makes himself. I was trying to write a poem that sounded like jazz scat singing or vocalese. It starts out improvising on his name, “I dug you artless, I dug you out.” I played with the names of the instruments, so trumpets became “strumpets,” flutes and saxophones became “flukes and faux saxons.” The djeridoo is in the recurring refrain, “Did you re-do?” and I used other homophonic sounds derived from the notes in the printed program for the performance.
BH: When I first read it, I recognized a back and forthness to it, and I wondered if there was some kind of collaboration with someone else here. And I thought in a way it was playfully making fun of hipsters. Such a neat process you went through, working with the name and the program to begin with.
HM: I wrote the poem at home afterwards and sent it to Doug, with a note confessing how nervous I had been performing with him. I had expected that I would read my poetry and then sit down and enjoy his music. It was rather nerve-wracking to try to read along with his playing, and I didn’t want it to seem as if he was there as my musical accompaniment. It was difficult to know how I should read my work in that context. I didn’t want his music to function as my background, and I wasn’t sure the audience could hear the words and the music together. He seemed to take it all very well, while I was a wreck. But afterwards it dawned on me how amazing it had been to work with him, even in that unexpected way. So the poem is a sort of thank-you note to Doug for a thrilling experience.
BH: And then the performance continued when you came home and wrote this poem.
HM: Robert Hass included it in Best American Poetry, and one reviewer singled it out as an example of the bad poetry published in the anthology. I wasn’t upset because the pleasure of meeting Doug had been followed by the fun of writing the poem and the honor of this publication. Plus, it really is a poem that should be read aloud, which that critic probably hadn’t done.
BH: Maybe this critic didn’t know how to read a poem like yours, a poem disrupting customary reading practices with linguistic playfulness. . . . With the next poem, “Naked Statues,” I think we are back in LA, and “This all went on when I was making up my syllabus.”
HM: I can recall a minor controversy at UCLA over the art in the sculpture garden. A few years ago one of the sculptures was removed. I don’t know if it was taken by art thieves, or fundamentalist art critics, or sellers of scrap metal. There are several realistic nudes by Robert Graham near my office, and also in an area used for the marathon reading, an annual event sponsored by the Friends of English to benefit students in our department. These marathons feature faculty, staff, and student volunteers reading some lengthy work of literature, with special celebrity guest readers such as film and television actors. I’m continually reminded of our proximity to Hollywood, where books are raw material for movies, and the most recognizable nude statue is called Oscar. There’s a certain actor I would see, early in the morning, walking his dog on campus, and some others that I’ve seen at literary events. I was thinking about the public perception of art, and also the curious relationship of literature and the film industry in Los Angeles. I wrote this poem around the time that Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient had been adapted for the screen, with all the difficulties of translating a literary work into a visual, cinematic representation.
BH: “So romantic are the patient English.” This book is full of Los Angeles. In my initial note on this poem, I wrote, “Making fun, a social critique of TV and stars and groupies.”
HM: I’m sure that fans of the actors showed up at these events. People who wanted to see their favorite actors would come and maybe donate money to scholarships and travel funds for our students. UCLA is also a popular location for filmmakers. Parts of The Nutty Professor and a score of other movies were filmed on our campus. In Los Angeles it’s not uncommon to find actors enrolled in creative writing workshops and participating in poetry readings. I was once invited to take part in a benefit poetry reading at the home of a director. Another time I read at Chateau Marmont with a lineup of poets including Jorie Graham, along with several film and television actors doing dramatic readings of their favorite poems. That event was co-sponsored by the Poetry Society of America and a company that was launching its new perfume called Poême during National Poetry Month. The poets, actors, and audience members all got goody bags with complimentary samples of the product.