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Harryette Mullen, "The Queen of Hip Hyperbole": An Interview.

On September 20-24, 1999, the poet, essayist, and short story writer Harryette Mullen was Writer-in-Residence at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, along with novelists John Edgar Wideman and Percival Everett. The program which brought the authors to the campus is known as the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop Series and operates under the auspices of Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters, based at the University of Virginia.

One day prior to the Series' official opening, Mullen read from her 1995 poetry collection Muse & Drudge at the Two Friends Bookstore, located in the West End Mall near the campus of Morehouse College, to an audience of college students, faculty, and community members. A lively discussion followed. During the week, Mullen conducted daily poetry workshops and met with students individually for one-on-one critiques of their writing. On Wednesday evening, September 22, 1999, students from the poetry workshops and those in the fiction workshop (conducted by novelist Percival Everett) read from their works created and/or refined in the workshops.

A compelling and hypnotic poetic voice that exposes layers of societal concerns by accessing the everyday sights and sounds of life, Mullen is the author of four books of poetry: Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse, 1995), S*PeRM**K*T (Singing Horse, 1992), Trimmings (Tender Buttons, 1991), and Tree Tall Woman (Energy Earth, 1981). Her forthcoming collection of prose poems Sleeping With the Dictionary will be published in 2000. Mullen's work has been included in several anthologies, including Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African-American Poetry, edited by Jerry Ward (Penguin, 1997), and African-American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, edited by Al Young and Ishmael Reed (HarperCollins, 1996). Mullen is the 1994-95 recipient of the Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry, and she currently teaches African American literature and creative writing at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA).

I managed to sit down with Harryette Mullen on Friday, September 24, 1999, before the Public Reading by Mullen, Wideman, and Everett which culminated the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop Series. In a two-hour interview, she and I discussed the development of her writing career, her influences and inspirations, her writing techniques, and her advice to young writers.

Williams: Let me start by asking where were you born, and is this the same place, as a child, that you first claimed as home?

Mullen: I was born in Florence, Alabama, but I left there when I was about three years old, so I only have some very vague memories of that. I have supplemented those memories by visits to my grandparents later in life. I actually grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. I've lived in several different places in Texas, and I lived briefly in New Mexico. I've also lived in New York--upstate, in Ithaca. I'm now living in Los Angeles. I also spent time in Santa Cruz, California, as a graduate student.

Williams: How has your home base (or bases) influenced your writing--the poetry, short fiction, and scholarly essays?

Mullen: I believe that my work is probably influenced by geography even though I don't think that geography is a major theme or topic in what I'm writing. But I do believe that I have a Southern or Southwestern emphasis in my work. In many of my works I have sprinkled Spanish words that relate to my growing up in Texas and living in northern and southern California. Spanish is always in the background; it's that other language that cohabits with English. I studied Spanish in school even though I am not fluent in it.

Williams: Can you recall your first writing experience, the one that made you say, "Yes, I am a writer"?

Mullen: Well, there were different stages. I've loved to write from childhood. I wrote to entertain my family, my friends, and myself. In high school, I first had a poem published, and that was due to my English teacher. She assigned everyone to write a poem, and then she submitted our poems into a contest. My poem won the contest. It was published in a local newspaper, and I performed it in front of an audience. It was not until later that I thought of myself as a serious poet, after I began going to and participating in local readings with friends that were poets, and began a regular practice of writing and sending my work out to magazines. One of my poet friends said he would publish my book when I had enough poems, and that gave me a certain motivation to continue.

Williams: Do you see reading and performing as major aspects of your writing poetry?

Mullen: Those were big aspects of how I began, because even though I had been writing poetry as a child it was not until I began going to readings that I could envision a community of poets. I began to understand that the main audience for poetry really is other poets, students of poetry, teachers of poetry. Those are the people who form the core of the audience for poetry. Going to poetry readings, you see the same people over and over again. You realize, then, that those are the diehard poetry lovers. Many of them are poets, would-be poets, or simply lovers of poetry. Those are also the people who publish poetry and who review poetry. So it was through the poetry circuit that I began to realize that poetry is not just something on the page, but a community of readers and writers.

Williams: In America, it appears that many would prefer to read fiction-- even "pulp" fiction--rather than poetry. What is your thinking concerning the smaller audience for poetry as opposed to fiction, especially in America? Certainly, this situation leads to less critical acclaim for poets as opposed to novelists.

Mullen: That's a complicated question. I could say that I think that stories are very compelling and always have been very compelling. There was a time when stories and poetry were the same; there was no separation of genres. I think it is the current separation of poetry from stories that has something to do with the situation. The media have played a large part in this as well, because novels are seen as raw material for films. Of course, there is something that is very compelling about narrative. A lot of the poetry that is being written now is lyrical. Lyrical poetry is about the subjectivity or sensibility of the individual, and I think it's really more difficult for the common reader to identify with a poet who is seen as somewhat eccentric [laughs] and marginal to society, as opposed to reading a story about characters who seem more like representative specimens of humanity. There is also a question of the size of the audience. While the poetry audience is small, it is a very dedicated audience.

Of course, a lot depends upon how you define poetry. In a larger sense, we really have a lot of poetry in our lives. We have nursery rhymes, we have advertising, we have popular music, rap music, and spoken-word poetry. So, in some sense, you could imagine a very broad audience for poetry, but if you are looking at literary poetry--the poetry that we analyze and criticize in school--that's going to narrow the definition of what poetry is, and narrow the audience that it reaches.

Williams: You live and work in Los Angeles, California, at present. Is this a good writing atmosphere for you?

Mullen: Los Angeles, right now, is very lively. There are many different poetry communities. I spent some time when I first moved out to Los Angeles driving from one venue to another [laughs] to see what was going on. We have a kind of thriving scene--what some call a new Black Renaissance going on in Leimert Park with the World Stage. It's jazz musicians and poets who reign on the stage at Leimert Park. Around the corner from that is Fifth Street Dick's, another venue for jazz and poetry. I was a judge for a spoken-word poetry contest on a radio station that is called THE BEAT. Dominique DiPrima, the daughter of Amiri Baraka and Diane DiPrima, sponsored this hip-hop poetry contest. We have lots of readings, literary festivals, and a very successful book fair. So there is a lot of lively activity going on.

There are also those more academic, mainstream poetry readings that we have at the Armand Hammer Museum or at the Getty Museum. And there has been a Hollywood scene for poetry, with actors reciting poetry, along with poets reading their own works. That used to happen at the Chateau Marmont. And there was a place called Ya-Ya's Tea House; there was the California Coffee House....So, I spent a lot of time going to these different venues. And, of course, there are readings in the bookstores. We have also had a mysterious group in L.A. called Poets Anonymous. They must be some rich anonymous poets because they have rented billboard space in different spots where there is heavy traffic throughout L.A. They've put little lines of poetry up on billboards. The billboards will have a black background, so it looks dramatic with this line of poetry against a black background. And we also had Poetry in Motion, with poetry on the buses. Since I ride the bus to work (a very un-L.A. thing to do), I got to see my poem "Wipe That Smile Off Your Aphasia" up for an entire month. They feature two poems each month for the entire year. My poem was up for the month of June.

Williams: You are a college professor as well as a professional writer. Where do you teach? What subjects?

Mullen: I teach at the University of California in Los Angeles--UCLA. I teach African American literature and creative writing. Some of my courses are also crosslisted with Women's Studies.

Williams: Does the teaching experience enhance your writing, and if so, in what ways?

Mullen: Yes, it does. Of course, teaching can be exhausting [laughs]; it's a question of reserving some energy and time. But we do have the summers, and I travel. Travel can be very inspiring. I see the two reinforcing each other, but I had to learn to get to that point where they can reinforce each other and not be in conflict. And it helps to have tenure, I must say [more laughter.]

Williams: You are hardly a neophyte within the American literary landscape. Sandra Cisneros refers to you as "the queen of hip hyperbole." What do you say to this labeling of your poetic artistry?

Mullen: Well, she said that in a blurb on the back of Muse & Drudge, and, of course, the purpose of blurbs is to get people to pick up the book and, maybe, buy the book. So it's a form of advertisement--a kind of endorsement. And, partly, she was quoting from the poem. You know, there's a line in Muse & Drudge that goes "hip hyperbole ...." So she was trying to get the spirit of the poem across to someone that might just be browsing through the bookstore. I very much appreciated that she volunteered to write a blurb for that book, and so did Henry Louis Gates.

Williams: You write across genres--poetry, short fiction, and essays. However, your major literary activity appears to be in the genre of poetry. Why?

Mullen: I was writing poetry before I went to graduate school, before I knew I needed to or wanted to go to graduate school. I had a book published between the time that I graduated with my degree in English from the University of Texas and the time that I went to UC-Santa Cruz. So I already had an identity as a published poet. Poetry has just become very important to me. I feel that I need to write in order to know what I think and what I believe. It's a way of keeping in touch with the inner landscape, I guess. And it makes me more alert to the outer landscape. I pay more attention to things with a different spirit and with a certain alertness.

Williams: In a recent interview, with Hermine Pinson, the poet Lorenzo Thomas offers a critique of your poetry from the collection Muse & Drudge. He asserts that "Harryette Mullen's work ... begins to explore the structures of ... colloquial language, not simply employing it, but exploring the linguistic structures, and then expanding on that so that she eventually creates in works like Muse & Drudge a type of poem that not only presents the colloquial surface, but also demonstrates the process by which the colloquial language generates these phrases, which, in fact, represent points of view, ways of seeing ...." Please respond to this analysis of your work.

Mullen: Well, I just read this myself in the current issue of Callaloo. I had no idea that Lorenzo was being interviewed by Hermine Pinson. These are two people that I know through the Texas connection. Lorenzo has lived for many years in Houston, and Hermine is a native of Beaumont, Texas. She and I have published stories in an anthology of Texas women's fiction called Common Bonds, edited by Suzanne Coiner. So we have known each other over the years. Lorenzo has been a model for my work. He was someone who was working in the Artists-in-Schools Program when I was a part of that program. He is definitely someone who was a literary model for me. So it was very flattering to read what he said about Muse & Drudge. He is also one of the people who wrote a blurb for my very first book, Tree Tall Woman. So Lorenzo and I go way back. I have always admired his work. I think what he is seeing in Muse & Drudge in some ways is the "harvest of the seeds" of my reading his work. When I was just learning how to be a poet, he was someone who was already published, someone I looked up to, and someone who was very inspiring. So it's like coming full circle at this point.

Williams: Tell me about the title of your 1992 collection of poetry, S*PeRM**K*T. It appears that multiple situations are being suggested through the omission of letters.

Mullen: Right. In fact, a student just asked me about that yesterday in this Callaloo Workshop here at Morehouse, and I just wrote the word supermarket on the board. Then I x-ed out the letters u, a, r, e, and in a way, you can think of that as "you are what you eat." I imagined a sign with letters missing. You know, sometimes you see a neon sign and some of the letters are burned out, or you see a sign with letters that have fallen off ... and, within the word supermarket, the word sperm is there. The title offers a playful alternative reading of the supermarket as a cultural text, because this title is meant to have two possible readings: It's supermarket or spermkit, as some people call it. And it's looking at the supermarket as a kind of synecdoche of consumer culture. It is also a world of language, because everything in the supermarket is labeled. Everything has words on it. There are instructions on packages. It is very emblematic of our society that every product is packaged in three layers of wrapper s to make us feel that it is safe. This is contributing to the landfills. It really tells you a lot about our values and who we are as a society. It's very cultural.

Williams: In S*PeRM**K*T , you take a well-known location and "unwrap" common images, foods, and other goods, making the reader look again at everyday items. What are you trying to convey to the reader?

Mullen: Well, I want us to be more conscious. When I was writing this poem it made me very conscious of what I was doing in the supermarket--how we behave as consumers and define ourselves by the products we purchase. Just think about what is in the supermarket, because some of the poems are about things like poisons. I mean, we have food and poison in the same space. You know, you may have rat poison on one aisle and produce in another aisle. We have a lot of items that people call food that really are not food. They have no nutrition in them. Also, think about really serious matters like eating disorders and the way that we feel about the body, the way that we feel about our appearance, and the fact that we still imagine, or that advertisers seem to imagine, that women still do most of the cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Think about the advertising, because that is the other component of supermarket--that these are products that are advertised in the media, so some of these poems actually refer to the adve rtising. For instance, there is the poem about the Pillsbury DoughBoy and the Claymation Raisinets and Chiquita Banana, in which I ask readers to think about how they appeal to us, when the advertisers create these characters that are supposed to amuse us. The idea is that we identify with these characters, we identify with foods, we identify with certain products. We really are what we eat, what we consume. As a nation, as a culture, as a society, we consume way more than the rest of the world. We consume more than our share, and we throw away a large portion of that.

Williams: In one poem in this collection, you move directly to the use of the word spermkit: "Refreshing spearmint gums up the words. Instant permkit combs / through the wreckage. Bigger better spermkit grins down family / of four. Scratch and sniff your lucky number. You may already / be a wiener." While there is economy in wording, there seems to be a proliferation of issues in this poem. What's going on here?

Mullen: Using puns and the multiplicity of meaning in the pun is one way to use a few words and bring out more issues. Here there is a conflict between violence and good fortune, the conflict that defines our image as a global power. We are fortunate to be here and to benefit from our nation's affluence, right?

Williams: In your 1995 collection Muse & Drudge, I feel a great deal of movement--geographically, culturally, racially, and historically--in your presentation as well as representation of varied viewpoints. What would you like readers to feel and understand when they come to the end of Muse & Drudge?

Mullen: I think the title Muse & Drudge suggests one way of framing the work. The muse is an exalted figure of inspiration; it's a kind of spiritual, non-material being. And sometimes we think about the woman who inspires the poet, who may actually be a flesh-and-blood woman. The muse is a spiritual presence, while the drudge is very physical, very material, and embodied as opposed to idealized or disembodied. I was thinking about tradition in the history of poetry when typically the poet was male and often a European male. You know, the traditions we study in school. And who supported that poet's creative and intellectual activity, his freedom to write? There had to be someone there cleaning the house, washing the dishes, and making the food for this person who is dreaming and creating. This inspired individual has, on the one hand, the muse for inspiration, which is this ethereal spiritual being, and, on the other hand, this drudge or laborer who provides the material conditions. So we have the spiritual an d the material, and I was thinking of that through the lens of black women or women of the African Diaspora, who have been both the muse and the drudge.

I also thought about the blues tradition. There was a quotation that I had from an old blues musician which was kind of an interesting, double-sided compliment: "If it wasn't for women, we wouldn't have the blues." On the one hand, you're the muse of the blues, but on the other hand, you're giving him the blues! [Laughs.] And in the activity of poets, there is the creation, the inspiration, and, also, there is the work that is required. The writing itself can sometimes be a labor.

Williams: You have been at Morehouse this week conducting a poetry workshop for about thirty students from Morehouse and Spelman. How is this kind of work an extension of your writing?

Mullen: I feel really blessed to be able to be part of a continuum, particularly when I recall my time as an undergraduate at the University of Texas, where I went to hear poets, including African American poets of the Black Arts Movement, read their work. Just recently I was at a workshop, the Cave Canem Workshop, that Cornelius Eady and Toi Dericotte started. Sonia Sanchez and Michael Harper were there; we were all faculty at Cave Canem. They were some of the people that I went to see and hear when I was an undergraduate. So I feel that I'm in a position now, at last, to stir up some creative activity in these young people attending this unique consortium of historically Black colleges and universities. Of course, my parents met and married as students at Talladega. If it had not been for that place, I would not have been born! [Laughs.] So, I feel that I need to go back and water those roots sometimes.

Williams: I am going to put you on the spot a bit. Did you witness some emerging poets for the next century in your workshop group?

Mullen: There are some lively minds and creative people in the workshop. I look forward to seeing what will come of these young people, who have lots to offer. Some of them are already publishing and performing their work, and that's impressive.

Williams: I know you gave them advice, both implicitly and explicitly, this week. What specific advice did you offer, particularly to those young writers who want to publish their work?

Mullen: The main thing is to write. One of the things that I said many times this week is that, "until it's on paper, it's like a cloud that passes by and evaporates." We all have inspired thoughts; we all have the potential to be creative. We all are poets in our dreams. The writers are the ones who write. When you have that inspiration, write! So, I keep telling them, "Don't wait for that muse to show up in your life--that inspired bolt of lightning." Try to establish a practice of writing, a regular commitment; that way you become independent of "Well, I was in the mood" or "I wasn't in the mood." I think it is very important for writers to write and to continue to work, to practice their skills, like musicians playing their scales--and, also to meet other writers and to read. These are the main things--to read and to write. Then, eventually, when you read and write, your work is your entree into a whole community of other people who are similarly engaged and committed writers and readers. Writers have to read.

Emily Allen Williams is Assistant Professor of English at Morehouse College. Her essays and poems have appeared in CLA Journal, the Journal of African American Men, and Richmond Quarterly, and her book Poetic Negotiation of Identity in the Works of Brathwaite, Harris, Senior, and Dabydeen was released earlier this year by Mellen Press. She is spending the current academic year in Jamaica as a Fulbright Fellow.
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Author:Williams, Emily Allen
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
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