Harryette Mullen: The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews (The University of Alabama Press, 2012)

“I would like to argue that any theory of African American literature that privileges a speech-based poetics or the trope of orality to the exclusion of more writerly texts results in the impoverishment of the tradition” – Harryette Mullen in her essay “African Signs and Spirit Writing” 

In eighteen essays and five interviews, first published between 1992 and 2007, poet and literary critic Harryette Mullen (1953-) discusses, among several other subjects, her own poetry and that of other poets and writers, most notably Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, the Polish 1996 Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska, and African American poets Will Alexander, Erica Hunt, her mentors Lorenzo Thomas and Nathaniel Mackey, but also Paul Laurence Dunbar; and argues for a more inclusive definition of black poetry and the canon of African American literature.

Textbooks and anthologies. Harryette Mullen writes that textbooks and anthologies continue to be the primary means of reaching the broadest audience of people who read poetry.

With the publication of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997), with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay as general editors, teachers, readers and writers now had access to “what is virtually an officially institutionalized African American literary canon.” 

And Gates’ focus on the vernacular, orality and ‘the speakerly text’ as key to defining the African American literary tradition, leaves out of the canon many of the poets discussed by Mullen.*

Innovative poetics. In the essay “Poetry and  Identity” Harryette Mullen writes: “The assumption remains, however unexamined, that ‘avant-garde’ poetry is not black and that ‘black’ poetry, however singular its voice, is not formally innovative.”

And Mullen is herself one of the ‘formally innovative’ poets she wants to make (more) room for in the canon of black poetry, innovation/innovative a word used in the title of no less than three books** by literary critic Aldon Lynn Nielsen (Black Chant: Languages of African American Postmodernism, 1997), Nielsen’s criticism, and the poets he anthologizes, offering an alternative or supplementary history of African American poetry and its traditions. 

Recyclopedia (Graywolf Press, 2006) reprints three of her early books of poetry: Trimmings (1991),  S*PeRM**K*T (1992), and Muse & Drudge (1995), the first two prose and ‘list’ poems begun as a response to Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) that Mullen calls “a dazzling, cryptic, and insistently colorful work of verbal innovation.” S*PeRM**K*T (supermarket) similar to Trimmings but “with a nastier attitude” towards a mass culture that has “used my brain pan for its petri dish,” Mullen remembering 20-year old jingles better than poems by contemporary poets.     

Muse & Drudge is a verse poem in quatrains (of four lines, and four stanzas per page) using rhyme and rhythm inconsistently and unpredictably, on the one hand “a pretty straightforward praise song to women of the African diaspora, although a good deal of it is less than flattering” on the other hand “a blues riff on Sappho and Sapphire,” not all of its many allusions easily understood.  

Reading Plath and Szymborska. Harryette Mullen offers extensive and brilliant readings of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Metaphors” and three poems by Wislawa Szymborska.    

Sylvia Plath’s poem begins: “I am a riddle in nine syllables,” and the poem’s riddle is probably what attracted Mullen to this poem and its clever play with the figure nine: nine lines, nine syllables in each line, nine letters in the unstated word ‘pregnancy’, the answer to the poem’s riddle, a normal pregnancy usually taking nine months, but also the poem’s multiple metaphors (another nine).

Wislawa Szymborska is a poet who studied both sociology and literature, and Mullen reminds us that from the ancient world to the Renaissance, the sciences, arts, and humanities spoke the same language, whereas today’s specialization often result in mutual incomprehension.

Szymborska’s poems “Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem” and “Discovery” are particularly interesting for their examination of both the rift and the dialogue between the two modes of thinking – the creative-intuitive (arts) and the critical-analytical (science) – and of understanding the world.

The third poem analyzed, “Writing a Resume,” is enjoyable for its  witty, yet poetic, sarcasm: “Regardless of the length of life,/ a resume is best kept short. // Concise, well-chosen facts are de rigueur.” // “His shoe size, not where he’s off to,/ that one you pass off as yourself.”

Black and avant-garde. All four poets discussed below have published important volumes of poetry since Harryette Mullen wrote the essays collected here.

Mullen reads “homegrown” South Central Los Angeles surrealist poet Will Alexander’s Asia & Haiti (Sun & Moon Press, 2000), two long poems printed together in one volume, setting Asia up in contrast to Haiti, communism in contrast to capitalism, at the time of Mao’s China’s invasion of Tibet and Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s brutal Tonton Macoutes reign of terror in the 1950s, locating the powers of the poor in the realms of spirit and magic rather than reality and politics.

Alexander’s poetry is difficult to read (and difficult to write about and paraphrase). For a sample of what one reviewer calls the poet’s “extraordinary flights of verbal invention,” you might take a look at the more readily available Compression & Purity (City Lights Books, 2011). 

Erica Hunt is a New York-based poet associated with the Language poets, a loose network of avant-garde writers of “Oppositional Poetics” whose work is deeply engaged with critical theory.

Harryette Mullen reads Local History (1993) and Arcade (1996), a book enchanted by African American artist Alison Saar’s woodcuts, both recently collected with other chapbooks in Jump the Clock: New and Selected Poems (Nightboat Books, 2020), including the separately published and beautifully designed Veronica: A Suite in X Parts (selva oscura press, 2019).    

For thirty-five years, Nathaniel Mackey, poet, novelist, scholar, and editor – Harryette Mullen’s teacher when she studied at the University of California, Santa Cruz – has been writing his long, intertwined serial poems, “Mu” and “Song of the Andoumboulou,” and his equally long epistolary novel(s), From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, beginning with The Bedouin Hornbook (1986), that Mullen situates and writes about in her essay “Phantom Pain.”

West African Dogon cosmology, and music, in particular jazz, are key to Mackey’s writerly universe. And collecting the first three books of the From a Broken Bottle … sequence in a single volume, as an appendix Mackey even gives us a discography of music that impacted his fiction.

His publisher, New Directions, has announced the box set Double Trio, a manuscript of  976 pages, six years in the writing, ready for publication sometime next year, 2021.

The late poet and literary critic Lorenzo Thomas (1944-2005), was born in Panama, reared in New York (where he was an original member of the Umbra group of poets), and transplanted to Houston, Texas, “bringing the Black Arts Movement below the Mason Dixon line,” a friend and mentor whom Mullen met when they both worked in the Texas Artists-in-Schools Program.    

Mullen calls Thomas an “urban psalmist” singing in “a heathen voice,” quoting from poems like “The Rule of Thumb” (Chances Are Few, 1979, expanded second edition Blue Wind Press, 2003):

Tonight’s only Monday/ An off day in the motel game/ Just like in life,/ Blue Monday Blue Monday/ But no heart-rendering music/ No “Rocks in My Bed”// No // Torchy songs sputter down/ Smooth as faded denim/ Muzak/ Annoying ooze into the lobby/ As very few people check in/…“

His poems have recently been edited by Aldon Lynn Nielsen and Laura Vrana and published as The Collected Poems of Lorenzo Thomas (Wesleyan University Press, 2019), a book that will likely change how we read Thomas, and his place in the African American literary canon.   

Sleeping with the dictionaries. I have been reading Harryette Mullen backwards, beginning with Sleeping with the Dictionary (University of California Press, 2002), her fifth book of poetry, easily the most accessible (with the possible exception of Tree Tall Women, her early 1981 volume).

(I still have to read Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary, Graywolf Press, 2013).

On the inside flaps of the book (presumable written by Mullen herself) it is described as “the abecedarian offspring of her collaboration with two of the poet’s most seductive writing partners, Roget’s Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary,” in pursuit of word games like the oulipian technique of N+7, where nouns are replaced by the seventh noun down the list in a preferable unabridged dictionary (see her essay Theme for the Oulipians in The Cracks Between …), in poems described as being “licked all over by the English tongue.”

More diverse, and at the same time more serious and more playful than her previous volumes, as exemplified by the poem “Elliptical.” It begins like this:  

“They just can’t seem to … They should try harder to … They ought to be more … We all wish they weren’t so … They never … They always … Sometimes they … Once in a while they … However it is obvious that they … Their overall tendency has been … The consequences of which have been … They don’t appear to understand that … If only they would make an effort to … “   

UFI // 27 September 2020  

*Harryette Mullen herself is in the 3rd and latest edition of The Norton Anthology (2014), with poems from Muse & Drudge.

**Integral Music: Languages of African American Innovation (2004), Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans (2006), What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America (2015), the last two co-edited with critic Lauri Ramey, reading and anthologizing many of the poets discussed here by Harryette Mullen (Mullen included).