Harryette Mullen

“The Eye and the Ear at Once”: Collapsing the Speakerly/Writerly Divide

As my last plateau suggests at its close, the collapsing of the divide between experimental and racialized writing is itself grounded in the collapse of the supposed divide between texts that privilege aurality and orality (what Mullen calls “speakerly” texts) and formally/visually experimental text (which she terms, following Roland Barthes, “writerly”). In “Poetry and Identity,” what she argues is not only that the anomalous black writer gets elided when we maintain these divides, but also that writing by black writers will be at a disadvantage if they continue to prioritize orality over writing. This is made even clearer in “African Signs and Spirit Writing” when she insists 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 will cost us some impoverishment of the tradition” (671). Critic Deborah Mix also brings this to the fore of her studies of Mullen, arguing that the marginalization of the experimental racialized author occurs “because of a set of assumptions perpetuated by scholars of experimental writing and scholars of African American writing; the former group seeks ‘writerly texts,’ while the latter seeks ‘speakerly’ ones” (38). And, following, Mullen, Mix also suggests that collapsing the divide between speakerly and writerly texts works to enrich both camps. That is, for Mix, Mullen’s poetry and criticism “demonstrates what we risk losing if we don’t rebuild our frameworks for understanding experimental traditions” (39). Clearly, an analysis, and eventually a collapsing, of the divide between the speakerly and writerly text is central not only to an understanding of Mullen’s work, but also an understanding of her place in the field of contemporary poetry.

This is, to some degree, what Elisabeth Frost notes in the introduction to her interview with Mullen when she suggests that Mullen’s aversion to the rules of genre allows her greater freedom for improvisation and freeplay. She argues that Mullen “combin[es] a concern for the political issues raised by identity politics with a poststructuralist emphasis on language” (397), and that, in this combination, she is afforded a freedom unavailable to a writer seeking to follow in any once school. Frost uses the terminology of play throughout, arguing that in “[e]liding supposed divisions between ‘writerly’ and ‘speakerly’ texts, and rejecting Romantic ‘inspiration’ and authorial mastery” Mullen is afforded the childlike freedom to compose “by the rules of a game she makes up along the way” (398). To this end, Frost asserts that the results are poems that are “encoded but ultimately decipherable” (398); that – in keeping with the theme of this project – are meaningful, but are not necessarily expressive. That is, Mullen’s work, especially in Sleeping with the Dictionary, complicates the role of the author precisely by working to break down the divide between the speakerly and the writerly text, between orality and visual form. She does this, in part, by approaching a poetics of aurality rather than orality.

This distinction requires some explanation. Mullen’s engagement with sound, always already mediated by the visual appearance of the text on the page is necessarily related to the argument, based in Language poetics, that the orality of a text is necessarily preceded by aurality. This concern is famously articulated by central Language poet Charles Bernstein in his important book-length study, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word. Here, Bernstein writes that “[o]rality can be understood as a stylistic or even ideological marker or a reading style; in contrast, the audiotext might more usefully be understood as aural – what the ear hears … Aurality precedes orality, just as language precedes speech” (13). By positioning the audiotext against the written text, Bernstein asserts that the aural precedes the oral; or, more particularly, the way that a text sounds (the way it makes its sounds, its vocalizing, its orality) is contingent upon a preexisting aurality that necessarily precedes the text. In her article on Sleeping with the Dictionary, scholar Jessica Lewis Luck sees this division in action. She writes: “Here is the aurality that precedes orality that Bernstein writes about, the experimental cacophony that precedes the voice, speech, and presence of a human self” (370). For Luck, Mullen’s work collapses the speakerly/writerly divide by being interested in aurality rather than orality (although, of course, aurality in text is impossible – it is always mimetic, always mediated by written language), a choice that refuses the preservation and archivation of the writerly text in favour of the ephemerality and impermanence of the aural.

As with nearly every discussion of aurality/orality in Mullen’s work, I must here defer to her now famous statement in the aforementioned Frost interview when she discusses the terms of her own orality. She famously tells Frost

I am writing for the eye and the ear at once, … When we talk about orality, most of the time we are not really talking about orality – we are talking about a mimetic representation. Poetry does come out of song. If it gets very far from song it is difficult for many people to connect with it. So I am always experimenting with how to be in that space, where it’s neither completely spoken nor completely something that exists on the page. (401)

So, for Mullen, experimenting with a form that is neither purely writerly nor purely speakerly is an attempt to engage more fully with readers; in line with a postanarchist poetics, she looks to “connect” with her audience, to engage them affectively, rather than to express herself to them. But, as Matthew Hart, in his chapter on Mullen, is quick to note, Mullen also “admits to the ‘mimetic representation’ that underpins all textual representations of orality” (156). Nonetheless, Hart maintains that Mullen’s work still occupies “the productive space between the ‘completely spoken’ poem and the reified thing ‘that exists on the page’” (ibid). So, as I suggested earlier, this mimesis or aurality is inescapable, but, rather than dismissed entirely, it instead functions in Sleeping with the Dictionary as a mediation. As Hart also argues, “Mullen never presents dialect in an unmediated way, since it always comes to us via her play with the conventions of orthography, pronunciation, and socially determined meaning” (152).

With this in mind, I return to Amy Moorman Robbins’s article on Sleeping with the Dictionary, wherein she writes that the multivalence of Mullen’s work (something akin to heteroglossia, but more nuanced) refuses the notion of a cohesive or authentic vernacular. She argues that Mullen

conspicuously avoids any return to notions of an authentic black vernacular, relying instead on what she calls a ‘mongrel’ and ‘multi-voiced’ language to comment on the indelibly hybrid nature if identity formations an on the uses of suck identities in speaking for tradition and community. (355)

Here, we can see that Robbins, too, is interested in the ways in which Mullen collapses the divide between speakerly and writerly, in this case by way of presenting an orality that approaches the aural in its multiplicity, although, again, I take issue with Robbins’s reliance on a term like hybrid[i] that necessarily implies a kind of Hegelian synthesis. Nonetheless, Robbins’s addition of “indelibly” at least implies an understanding of the hybrid that can never be broken into its constituent parts.

And, despite her tendency towards texts so complex that their exegesis, as I will discuss in later plateaus, is never fully realized, Mullen provides personal, autobiographic grounding for her interest in the aural and the oral. That is, the continuum of aurality/orality is, for her, very personal and feminist. In a postcard included in Looking Up Harryette Mullen, she argues that an interest in aurality is rooted in her own matrilineal lineage. She writes to Henning:

I saw a continuum, in terms of oral tradition, or ‘verbal performance style’ from my own matrilineal heritage – in a religious, lower middle-class family that spoke of sexuality through metaphor, circumlocution, and euphemism – to the bold public style of today’s women rappers. The poem embraces all of that, while also using language as verbal scat. Print and electronic media, as well as orality, provide my materials. (8)

When translated into poetry, this personal experience is transformed into the communal by way of the written poem, as demonstrated by “Free Radicals” (29), which begins, as Mullen admits, as semi-autobiographical. She tells Henning, “I used third person, but I was ‘she’ in this poem. It’s a list or a collage of what I was doing in the month I wrote this poem” (73). But, it does not stay there, as Henning observes; instead, while “[i]t started with your experience,” the third-person voice “gets transformed as you go on with your playful spectacle[ii]” (73).

In “Free Radicals,” this apparent tension is brought to the fore by way of the bizarre image of a dinner party in a museum, marked by the organizer making kimchee, the Korean fermented cabbage dish, for the guests. Mullen writes: “Now she’s making kimchee for the museum that preserved her history in a jar of pickled pig feet” (29). As with any quotation from Mullen’s, the potential readings of these two sentences are rich and, indeed, inexhaustible. To begin, this passage in particular, stresses immediacy (begins “Now”), coinciding with the present-progressive action of “making” which must necessarily be read against the past-tense of the museum that “preserved.” Mullen juxtaposes the action of making kimchee and the preservation of a museum, drawing implicit attention to the that the kimchee, as a fermented food, is already in a process of degradation, of rotting; moreover, kimchee does not keep long, and as it sits in your (or, to be more precise, my) refrigerator, its tastes change, becoming progressively more sour until inedible. Pickling, on the other hand, is the museum of food preparation; pickled or preserved foods are designed to keep well, easily and neatly compartmentalized on store shelves or in household pantries. “Her[iii]” history gets preserved in a jar of pig’s feet, the kind of meat traditionally discarded by Western culture, but notoriously consumed by cultural Others. Pickled pig’s feet, interestingly, are featured in both traditional Korean cuisine as well as black comfort food of the American South. The sentence that follows, seemingly paratactically, makes this cultural reading metapoetic. Mullen writes, “They’d fix her oral tradition or she’d trade her oral fixation” (29). In this sentence, the museum as metonym for tradition and canon, and particularly its interest in preservation of the writerly text, looks to fix orality. Bookended by an either/or dichotomy, Mullen offers two options to the racialized experimental poet, her “anomalous black writer”: either oral tradition is stabilized and preserved, or we forfeit our desire for the oral. Neither option seems particularly viable, especially since the use of the psychonanalytic term “oral fixation” in this case signals both the fetishization and infantilization of the cultural traditions associated with orality and the speakerly text.

The way out, she seems to suggest, is accepting a liminal space between the terms of speakerly and writerly text, a space marked by culture, and thus synthetic, but not in the Hegelian sense of them. Rather, Mullen asserts elsewhere that culture is necessarily synthetic, and the synthetic is best understood as the multiple:

Culture, by definition, is synthetic. Human beings transform organic processes and synthesize natural resources in order to create cultural artifacts. … Culture changes continually in order to respond to changing environment. So, culture is a dynamic interaction of tradition and innovation. (“Everything” 1014-15)

Synthetic culture is, to some extent, then, arbitrary; and, what’s more, it’s also ephemeral, necessarily resisting the pickling preservation of the “museum.” This, too, is what Hart talks about when he discusses the inherent impurity of Mullen’s vernaculars, writing that she “synthesizes different vernaculars – all of them ‘black,’ but none of them ‘pure’ – as part of a wider interest in the ‘cultural and discursive practices by which evolving identities are recognized, articulated, and defined” (155). The impurity is a gesture towards the aural, obscured always by the inherent mimesis, the representational function of print. And this becomes clear in the reading process, which Mullen characterizes as a translation; when asked about the literal translation of her work, she responds: “Of course, meaning may be altered or lost as new readers are gained, but the translator’s work is not so different from what any reader does in the process of comprehending and interpreting a poem” (“Everything” 1015). So, each reading is a translation, a connection with the poem that attempts to see through the mediating language of print, and of orality, and to work towards the aural that precedes it but can never be described. Reading towards the aural, then, in its ephemerality, its intangibility, refuses the archive and its insistence of preservation. And this itself destabilizes not only the impure oral that is mimetically represented, but the written language as well. So, it is telling that when Frost talks to Mullen about the apparently steady organization of the visual form of the quatrain poems in Muse & Drudge, asserting that “the visual form of the poem is fixed and very symmetrical – those four quatrains per page,” Mullen quips simply, “[i]t looks more stable than it is” (411).


[i] The concept of the hybridized voice is theorized extensively in recent scholarship, and I cannot summarize it here. I would, however, like to make a point about its use in Mullen scholarship. The term is often applied to her work, as in Elisabeth Frost’s “‘Ruses of the Lunatic Muse’: Harryette Mullen and Lyric Hybridity,” where she echoes the sentiment that I have critiqued over these past three plateaus that “like the poets of the Black Arts Movement, Mullen experiments with a speech-based idiom, but, like Language-influenced writers, she launches her cultural critique by rejecting the rules of syntax and fashioning a distinctively visual, punning, and allusive play with language” (465). While Frost does argue that this “hybrid” is “shot through with ambivalence” (469), or that it exists “in a realm not of fixed identity, … but of language in flux, a coming together of linguistic registers that expands the possibility of the lyric voice” (471), I still worry about what the term hybrid connotes: that these two perspectives were necessarily separate before, and that Mullen has merely brought them together like vodka and soda. Mullen’s work demonstrates that these two were never separated, never two to begin with.

[ii] While I do not have the time or the space to discuss it in enough detail here, I would like to point out the obvious parallels between what Henning characterizes as a “playful spectacle” and Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the carnivalesque. Many have drawn the connection between Language poetics and the carnivalesque, as in Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry: Language Writing and Literary History, Brian McHale’s Constructing Postmodernism, or in Steve McCaffery’s Carnival and the vast and interesting scholarship on it. The connections made between black women’s writing and the carnivalesque are even more exhaustive; I have personally enjoyed Ketu Katrak’s Politics of the Female Body: Post-colonial Women Writers of the Third World, but also of note are the critical works of Brinda Mehta, Andrea Shaw, and Jennifer Thorington Springer.

[iii] Mullen tells Henning that the “she” in this poem is also her “artist friend Yong Soon Min” who organized a group meal, called “Kimchi Xtravanganza” for the “Korean American Museum” (73).

2 thoughts on ““The Eye and the Ear at Once”: Collapsing the Speakerly/Writerly Divide

  1. This is another really strong entry. I just have one question, which perhaps is more interesting to me than to you: Mullen’s discussion of “synthetic” culture is interesting. I would tend to substitute that word for “syncretic” (which shows my constant return to Duncan). Is there a similarity between Mullen’s synthetic culture and Duncan’s syncretic? Are those two terms/concepts allied and/or distinct?

    And, as an aside, when you discuss “fix” in Mullen’s, “They’d fix her oral tradition or she’d trade her oral fixation” (29), I think you can work through the pun in “fix” more directly than you do (both to correct and to pin down/stabilize).

    [And, just as a helpful note, I think there are a few typos in your quotation from Robbins that you might want to correct: “nature if identity formations an on the uses of suck identities.”]

  2. Pingback: “What may the dictionary insist?”: Archiving _Pillage Laud_ | [generic pronoun] creates

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