The description of Harryette Mullen’s work as avant-garde or experimental, or even as a part of the Language tradition, is necessarily fraught with complications. To begin with, the avant-garde designation tends to be treated as a pretty exclusive club; at times, this “club” metaphor becomes literal, as in the example of the Oulipo, which, as Juliana Spahr notes in her introduction to Looking Up Harryette Mullen, was a literally exclusive club that rarely admits women or people of colour[i]. But, of course, Spahr is quick to note that one does not need to be a card-carrying member of the Oulipo to carry out their language games. As she writes, “Oulipo techniques are, obviously, frequently used by those who are not in Oulipo. But it is still hard not to read Mullen’s insistence on the Oulipian nature of this book as a polite claiming and insistence on an inclusive tradition” (iv). We must, in light of this, view Mullen’s use of Oulipo as exploring the relationship between the individual and the communal in a number of complicated ways. To begin, Spahr observes that “Sleeping with the Dictionary has Mullen again exploring communolects, community, and her own subjectivity using what are sometimes called poetic ‘procedures,’ or various composition techniques” (iii). So, for example, Mullen’s use of the n + 7 technique is a gesture towards the communal, and away from subjectivity. Mullen herself, in the same book, admits that she finds the Oulipian constraints liberatory: “I have found that using constraints in this way expands the possibilities for improvisation, as various textual operations may be tried at different points in the writing process” (27). Alongside a freed ability to improvise, Mullen also admires the way Oulipo allows her to place less emphasis on the poem as end-product, arguing that the “idea of ‘potential literature’ liberates the writer to concentrate on the process, rather than the product, of writing” (26), drawing an obvious parallel not only to Oulipo but also to John Cage and Jackson Mac Low and their concepts of indeterminacy. In this plateau, I would like to move beyond the role of Oulipo in Sleeping with the Dictionary and look instead at how the liberation Mullen identifies in the “writerly” avant-garde is one important avenue into understanding her work as collapsing a division between the lyrical work associated with the Black Arts movement and the avant-garde refusal of subjectivity[ii], ultimately proving that these schools need not be so separate, let alone antagonists[iii].
To begin discussing this issue, I would like to look first at the poem “Coals to Newcastle, Panama Hats from Ecuador” (16), a poem that is acutely aware of what exists in these two literary traditions with which Mullen has been associated. Of this poem, Mullen tells interviewer Barbara Henning, “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” (58). While the poem need not necessarily be read in a metapoetic fashion, I cannot help but see it as a desire not to fit in with, or subscribe to, any one particular school of poetry, thus essentially providing readers with “more of what you’ve already got.” This reading seems to be suggested by the image of coal, a symbol that contains within it this same duality that is persistently discussed in regards to Mullen’s work: coal as blackness, coal as progress. The coal, of which Newcastle already has too much, represents on the one hand industrial progress, city, machine, and innovation; it prioritizes the material and the successful. On the other hand, coal becomes a symbol of blackness, insofar as it is not only black in colour but that it also colours the skin of those mining it; additionally, coal mining has literary precedent as a symbol of poverty and of labour issues. What’s more, “Coals to Newcastle” is also a poem that is acutely aware of the relationship between literary tradition and a Westernized decadence exemplified by the lifestyle on the US west coast. Mullen tells Henning that “[i]n 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” (58). This, too, is more of what we already have.
What is most interesting about this poem, for my purpose, is that it tends to approach this divide from a position of emotion. That is, it insists on the belligerence of emotion, as when the speaker states, “I’ll be emotionally disturbed for as long as it takes” (16). This interest in emotion takes an important political and metapoetic turn when it comes to attack the difficult, emotionless, and bourgeois side of avant-garde poetry, as when Mullen writes, “You’re too simple to be so difficult. Malicious postmodernism” (ibid). This opposition leads the speaker of the poem to turn in on his or herself, ultimately questioning the validity of the reliance on subjectivity and authorial presence representative of the Black Arts movements and the erasure of subjectivity praised by the avant-garde. The poem ends, “Now that I live alone, I’m much less introspective. Now you sound more like yourself” (ibid). The speaker, who “lives alone” and is thus separated from the social in some manner, argues that this separation allows him/her to be free of self-contemplation, to avoid constantly reviewing oneself and one’s subjectivity. And yet, the paratactical addition of “Now you sound more like yourself,” and the sudden shift in pronoun from the first to the second, undermines this first sentence. Who sounds like themselves? The reader? Or is this an external voice directed at the speaker? This final parataxis brings into question one’s ability to sound like oneself at all. Indeed, the suggestion of causality in these final two sentences implies contradiction; in supposing that we ever “live alone,” that we can ever become “less introspective,” really, we sound most like ourselves. We cannot escape subjectivity; and, what’s more, in discussing its potential erasure ad infinitum, as the avant-garde in poetry has tended to do, we simply increase the terms of our subjectivity.
This dual interest in being less introspective and sounding more like ourselves is primarily what has been used, in criticism, to label Mullen as a “crossover” from a racialized poetics of identity towards its erasure in Language poetry and the avant-garde. And for many, “Mullen’s crossover appeal is the prime reason for her popularity” (Hart 143). But her work never treats these two approaches to poetry as separate entities, and therefore the designation of “crossover” is inaccurate. More appropriately, Elisabeth Frost in an interview with Mullen tells her: “It’s as though your work is informed by poststructuralist ideas about language, but those ideas are not directly cited. Somehow, the theory is underneath or inside” (405). This is part of why her approaches to issues like genre are difficult to navigate, and refuse becoming exclusively generic. Critic Deborah Mix argues, in “Domestic Economies: Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T,” that for Mullen, “this notion of ‘kinship’ is peculiarly strained when it is applied to literary tradition” (61). She goes on to discuss Mullen’s own discussions of the issue in “Poetry and Identity,” which Mix describes as Mullen self-identifying as “doubly marginalized” and “a member of two groups that have somehow been situated as mutually exclusive” (61). What is most important about this essay, beyond Mix’s identification of double-marginalization, is that Mullen here directly warns against the issue of the crossover, and of refusing identification. She famously writes that
the erasure of the anomalous black writer abets the construction of a continuous, internally consistent tradition, while at the same time it deprives the idiosyncratic minority artist a history, compelling her to struggle even harder to construct a cultural context out of her own racial individuality. (86)
This is essentially a warning against overcoding. That is to say that if we argue that the racialized poet is not experimental, this overcodes the racialized poet; if we say the experimental poet is necessarily white, this overcodes again. So, Mullen as the anomalous black writer resists erasure by, for example, writing as Oulipo without a sense of belonging with the literal Oulipo. Additionally, while she acknowledges where she’s giving you more of what you already have, she still also forces you to think about why you have so much of it.
This issue comes up again in the Frost interview, when Mullen laments the fact that “[w]hat people think of as ‘black poetry’ is set aside from what people think of as ‘poetry,’ in terms of tradition, history, how language is used. People have a very specific notion of what black poetry is” (417). To this Frost responds, slightly later, by arguing: “there is a balance between two different forces. One is an assertion of identity. The other is what I think of as hybridity – the mixture, the different influences all occurring at once. There is something tension, but there doesn’t have to be” (418). Despite Frost’s insistence on the rhetoric of balance and hybridity, what she actually proposes here is a way of approaching Mullen’s writing that sees her as not bridging two schools, but rather embracing the multiple. This, I would argue, is much more productive that the dualism of terms like “balance” and “hybrid,” which tacitly support the understanding that racial identity and experimenting with subjectivity are in opposition, or are at the very least separate. And yet, despite the insistence in these terms and in much of the criticism surrounding Mullen that she bridges these two disparate poetic worlds, or that she merges two seemingly contradictory poetic forms, there is some precedent in the most recent scholarship that takes up the arguments Mullen herself has been making for two decades[iv].
Mullen’s concept of the “anomalous black writer” foregrounds the apparently dominant assumption that the process of writing from the lyric “I,” a less experimental mode, is typically reserved for women, people-of-color, or queer subjects. This is, in itself, a kind of marginalization that assumes that the white, male, heterosexual poet necessarily occupies a better position from which to critique identity. Amy Moorman Robbins addresses this issue directly in “Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary and Race in Language/Writing,” published in 2010, wherein she argues that this assumption
draw[s] on a significant and still-operative contrast: that between experimental writing/poetry that is assumed to explicitly or implicitly contest the viability of any given lyric subject … and writing that foregrounds questions and problems of discrete, often racialized selfhood in specific cultural contexts. (341-2)
For example, Robbins addresses Language poet Ron Silliman’s assertions[v] that Langpo, and its critiques of identity, has “origins within and for a particular group” and that understanding this “significantly complicates our reading of the movement’s subsequent disavowal of a poetics of identity” (345). Robbins goes on to argue that “the eventual positioning of Language writing as opposed to lyric poetry, with the latter genre repeatedly linked to writing by people of color, subtly contributes to the impression that political poetry by the socially marginalized is historically not experimental” (349). And, Jessica Lewis Luck in “Entries on a Post-Language Poetics in Harryette Mullen’s Dictionary,” published in 2008, takes up a similar concern, arguing that “understanding experimental poetics solely within this paradigm affords a reductive picture of many avant-garde poetic projects that seem, like Mullen’s, to reveal not only a discursively constructed subject but also an embodied person or persons at work behind the poem” (360). I am interested in following their lead. As such, in order to discuss Mullen’s work without re-inscribing this unhelpful, and inherently racist, dualism, I will look, in my next plateau, at how her work similarly collapses the dualism of the writerly and speakerly texts, eventually opposing the bourgeois conceptions of archive and preservation with the inherent ephemerality of the polyvocal, multivalent text. Ultimately, Mullen’s work shows us not that we can bridge the gap between the speakerly and the writerly text, but that this gap was always artificial, developed in order to continue to silence the voices of the marginalized in poetry.
[i] While I cannot, in the space provided, discuss the gender and race exclusivity of Oulipo in sufficient depth, I would like to point out the publication last year (2013) of The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Movement by Lauren Elkin and Scott Esposito is especially informative and thoughtful, particularly on the issue of the sexism of, and feminist responses to, Oulipo. It also provides some important discussions of the women writers of Oulipo that are rarely discussed in English criticism because they are rarely translated into English from the French.
[ii] I should add here that any discussion of the influence of the writerly avant-garde on Mullen would be incomplete without mention of Gertrude Stein. The influence of Stein on Mullen, and Mullen’s frequent direct engagement with Stein’s work, has been well documented critically, and features most prominently in the three collections included in her Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge. I will not attempt to do justice to the literature on this issue, but I would like to make note of the fact that Stein provided for Mullen, in both positive and negative ways, one example of the issue of language in race, and also gender, politics, from the point of view of privilege and oppression. Indeed, it was Stein’s “privileges that allowed her to romanticize and even ignore the implications of her depictions of characters like Melanctha,” and as such “Mullen seeks to reckon with, rather than dismiss, the power of language and ideology that enabled Stein’s experimentalism” (Mix 43). Accordingly, Mullen’s work is a process of “reckoning with” throughout, refusing to dismiss or ignore the problematics of the avant-garde that troubled her.
For more on Mullen’s use of Stein, see Elisabeth Frost’s seminal article, “Signifyin(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino.” Postmodern Culture 5.3 (May 1995).
[iii] Benjamin R. Lempert, in his article “Harryette Mullen and the Contemporary Jazz Voice,” bypasses the issue of the white avant-garde as separate from contemporary black poetry by arguing that in Sleeping with the Dictionary, Mullen’s collapse of the written/oral division demonstrates that this collapse occurs already in the form of jazz music. That is, she “achieves this figuration by setting its version of corporeality within a space and time saturated with the indeterminate temporality of jazz improvisation,” and this allows her to “refus[e] either the ossification of sound into text or the reduction of text to sound, …thereby offer[ing] a provocative reading of blackness as experienced in the multiple guises: sonic, temporal, visual” (1060). While this reading varies from mine, I do not find the two incommensurate.
[iv] “Poetry and Identity” was published in the journal West Coast Line in 1996.
[v] Here Robbins is focusing primarily to the very frequently cited and contested observation that Silliman makes in his 1988 essay “Poetry and the Politics of the Subject” that “Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history—many white male heterosexuals, for example—are apt to challenge all that is supposedly “natural” about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of this spectrum are poets who do not identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers—women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the “marginal”—have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to whom is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience” (61).
Since then, Silliman’s observations have been repeatedly attacked, first and most famously by Leslie Scalapino (their communication is beautifully summarized in Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History), but since in criticism by Sianne Ngai, Nathaniel Mackey, and Timothy Yu.