Harryette Mullen

Mullen’s Common and Experiential Communities

If my project has dwelled too long on the relationship between the individual and society, it’s because this divide is historically fraught in the study of poetry. And, certainly, this relationship, and its implications, is a recurring theme in all of Mullen’s work. Spahr, in her introduction to Looking Up Harryette Mullen, observes that historically, criticism has tended to argue that a poet, or a poem, has to value one over the other. That is, “[a]mong the many clichés that haunt a genre as old-school as poetry, there is the one that poetry is either about the community or the individual” (i). While it is clear from my previous plateaus that Mullen endeavours to problematize issues of individuality and subjectivity, it is also not so easy to say that she has, thus, sided with the community. Rather, as Spahr contends, this dichotomy doesn’t help us much with Mullen. “It is not,” she argues, “that Mullen disowns … concerns with individual subjectivity…. Rather she explores how community and individualism are in dialogue through modernism” (ibid). Even if, as Mullen herself argues, her “poetic language is more public and social, less private and hermetic than Stein’s” (Henning 13), the distance between these terms is blurred by her poems in the form of their relationship with their readers. Mullen’s audience is envisioned[i] as a community, and one founded neither on individual subjectivity, nor consensus on interpretation, but rather, as I theorize in my readings of Spahr’s own poetry, an experiential community of readers who are encouraged to alter the text as they read.

Demonstrating this requires, first, a look at how Mullen’s authorship, particularly in Sleeping with the Dictionary, is disrupted in order to make room for the multiple readings of an audience the text approaches as common. In her look at the collection through the lens of cognitive theory, Jessica Lewis Luck argues that the authorship therein is less an act of Romantic authority and more a process of editing an inner voice. This process disrupts traditional authorship because the “act of editing the inner voice, whether for verbal or written communication, is … both passive and active and constituted by forces inside and outside of the subject herself” (361). As a result, Mullen does not work towards a uniqueness, what Luck’s cognitive theory recognizes as a form of “emergence,” but rather concedes that “emergence is an impossible task, and perhaps beside the point” (362). Instead the prose poems in Sleeping draw from “multiple influences of the language system, the poet’s passive submission to the push of her body and unconscious mind, and her active tweaking and shaping, or simple ‘recording,’ of the ‘dictums’ of these influences” (379-80), an act that, as the collection’s title suggests, is both linguistic and corporeal.

What this means is that we as readers are invited to understand the author more as editor and less as Author who, as Barthes observed, limits our engagement to the text by encouraging readers to interpret and thus “decipher” it (147). Because she is an editor of an inner voice, we are able to understand Mullen’s decisions as somewhat arbitrary, and this causes us to reflect on our own reading and editing decisions, which are arbitrary too, the text reminds us. For Andy Weaver, it this “emphasis on the arbitrary nature of the reader’s interpretive decisions” that essentially “forces the reader into an awareness of the arbitrary nature of her/his decision-making process” (“mumbo-jumbo” 109). For Mullen, it’s a way of approaching the common of her readership as such. Instead of opposing Saussure, as we saw in Jackson Mac Low, Mullen repurposes him, arguing that though “the relation of the signifier and signified is arbitrary, … our habitual usage builds all sorts of associations between them” (82). The communities produced by this “habitual usage” demonstrate that “[l]anguage isn’t the property of any one person or group. It belongs to everyone who uses it” (82), and need not form oppressive or exclusive communities.

So, in our variant readings of Sleeping with the Dictionary, we form experiential communities rather than interpretive communities. And, while Mullen often talks in interviews about this element of her work, it is rarely taken up in the criticism, and when included it’s often left underdiscussed, as in Emily P. Beall’s “‘As reading as if”: Harryette Mullen’s ‘cognitive similes,’” which approaches the experiential community in Mullen by way of critiquing Cognitive (or Conceptual) Metaphor theory and its oversimplification of reader interpretation. Beall argues that the Cognitive Metaphor model (represented in this article by Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics) does not and cannot account for the multiphasic and active engagement of open readers.  That is,

while he [Stockwell] specifies that a reader must intervene and interpret to a greater degree in open text, he does not consider the possibility that this radical openness could be such that the intervention and interpretation is potentially endless – and in fact will end only when a reader chooses to end her reading under constraints of time and not due to constraints of completion. (136-7)

Weaver sees these potential inexhaustive/inexhaustible readings as inherently communal in that they promote active readership and readerly engagement well above interpretation and exegesis, allowing for disagreement that is necessarily political. He writes that “[t]hese moments of irreconcilable dissensus suggest a political philosophy behind Mullen’s text (a text that uncharitable readers might disregard as nonsensical and thus apolitical in its refusal to offer an easily consumable set of ideas)” (108). Readers are united in their experience of the poem, and in affective relationship with the text (an assemblage of readers and texts).

And yet, he observes too that this greater freedom afforded to reader allows them “to continue the process of self-determination after s/he has finished reading the text” (123), thus encouraging both individual and the common at once. As Weaver observes, “[a]t one and the same time, the text acknowledges the individual’s inclusion in the group, but also shows that there is an essential individual identity that remains outside the group’s influences. This idea impacts not only the individual subjectivity, but the group as well” (136). Both inclusion and exclusion of the reader occurs on the level of language which, in its openness, functions, Elisabeth Frost adds, “like the text of ‘bliss’ described by Roland Barthes as evoking in the reader a crisis of language,” in that “these citations provoke both pleasure and discomfort” (468). While both Weaver and Frost are referring to Muse & Drudge here, Sleeping with the Dictionary functions in a similar manner.

Both collections serve as excellent pedagogical tools in their production of a readers’ common, an element that Mullen is well aware of[ii]. In an interview with Frost, she explains that “Muse & Drudge was written to create an audience. It was very deliberate. And when you talk about your class having a collective experience, I think that’s great – that is exactly what I was hoping for” (416). Additionally, she talks throughout the interview about the importance of “different meanings in the multivalent references,” where the processes of reading and writing aren’t so distinct. “This is about me reading too,” she maintains, “getting what I get and passing it on” (407). Echoing Robert Duncan’s conception of poetry as the commons, Mullen knows that her book, while emblazoned with her name, is not hers. She tells Frost,

I think that it’s mine. And I realize that I have to share it. … This whole book is about being possessed by others. It is very much made up of the voices themselves – words of others that I’ve read, heard, or overheard. … If it is me, it’s just generic. … The individual and the collective merge, as in the blues. (408)

While she, too, is referring to Muse & Drudge, we see the collective merge in Sleeping with the Dictionary; in fact, I would argue that Mullen’s return to the prose poem – and thus move away from the quatrains in M & D – makes the collection experiential in a more effective way.

For one thing, in the prose poem, the shape and size shift with the materiality of the poem, whether viewed in print or digitally, and on the specific printed edition; additionally, a shift in materiality would also alter the line breaks, revealing them to be arbitrary, at the mercy of the margin only. The prose poems in Sleeping are also organized paratactically so the sentences don’t necessarily require a linearity or a causality to their reading; despite being prose, these are not narratives. So, when two sentences are juxtaposed, as in the lines “The agency tapping my telephone heard my pen drop. Now I’m walking out of pink ink” in “Natural Anguish” (52), the seeming dichotomy of an “agency” and an “I” is different depending on how we read the sentences’ relation to each other. The “agency” as government and surveillance is aligned with “pink ink” which the speaker leaves behind, her “pen drop” a refusal to write on their terms. And yet, the “agency” is so named to recall personal agency; individual autonomy is also necessarily communal and connected (via telephone and their perhaps extreme attentiveness). And, the “pink ink” recalls Helene Cixous’s famous “white ink” that ends “The Laugh of the Medusa” as if to say that a new ecriture feminine (both infantilized through the internal rhyme and feminized through the colour pink) needs to be coloured, literally. It’s this view of writing that the speaker leaves behind[iii]. The radically different content of the sentences (which, as sentences and not lines of verse, are expected to follow causally) make us suspect of even the connection between the first-person pronouns. And, importantly, a few lines before this the poem is situated on a theme of language when Mullen writes “On the way back when I saw red I thought ouch. Soon when I think colored someone bleeds.” So, the “pink ink” is also diluted blood drawn from the violence of language (“ouch” and “coloured”), and especially the racial and colonial oppression language can enforce. And “pink ink” is also a lightening of blood, a move to make it slightly less “coloured.” And, if we are refusing linearity and causality here, can we not read this “On the way back” as a suggestion that the speaker is returning to the place she was “walking out of,” although they appear in reverse order in the poem? I would argue that the phrasing of both demands it. And, my readings can go on, as I include more of the poem, and as I provide more potential external references. In this digital form I may not be limited by material space (there is no end to a browser page), but I am aware of you, reader; I need to leave you space. And, I am also acutely aware of the way this digital form will shift when it is morphed into print.

Much like the materiality of the page (or screen), the experiential communities formed in reading these poems are also determined by space, as in Frost’s classroom that she discusses with Mullen in the interview quoted above. That is, text also invites corporal engagement to form these experiential communities, which are tied into the very poems themselves which encourage a reader’s intervention. This is involved in how we connect in our readings, whether in a classroom, over the internet on this blog, or even in conversation well after the physical book (or mouse! or laptop touchpad) has left our hands. But, it’s also involved in how we physically adjust the poems themselves. So, Weaver suggests that the author as “incomplete” and “non-authoritative” thus “allows the reader to take a more active role, a role that could not only include writing additional verses, but also rearranging the verses of the text” (106). I too have rearranged even the sentences within the poem. And Mullen knows that once she realizes she has to “share it,” she relinquishes domination over readers, who can then intervene in whatever way they see fit. So, when Frost asks her: “Do you like the idea of someone just opening it and starting anywhere?” (413), she avoids responding to that question directly. After all, the order of the poems is another process of editing, the arbitrariness of which is amplified in Sleeping with the Dictionary’s proclivity for alphabetizing. And, of course, what she “likes,” she knows, has no place in the reading of her poems.


[i] The absence here of a discussion of Mullen’s own writing on her imagined or envisioned audience in “Imagining the Unimagined Reader: Writing to the Unborn and Including the Excluded” is not due to critical oversight. Rather this essay will serve as a central text in my next plateau, and examination of exclusion and silence in the reading and writing of Sleeping with the Dictionary. While here I am most interested in the ways that Mullen here imagines an audience in connection with each other, my next plateau looks to the fact that, as she argues in “Imagining,” it’s impossible to include everyone, and that inevitably some readers and some voices get excluded.

[ii] I should add that Mullen is also concerned, in Muse & Drudge especially, with her literal “audience” – the people who attend her poetry readings. Noticing that her physical audience changed from predominantly black and nonacademic, to predominantly white and academic, she wanted to create a work that would speak to a community that included them all. “I think of myself and my writing as being marginal to all the different communities that have contributed to the poetic idiom of my work,” she says, “but at the same time it is important to me that I work in the interstices, where I occupy the gap that separates one from the other; or where there might be overlapping boundaries, I work in that space of overlap or intersection” (Henning 22). She explicitly states that she wants Muse & Drudge “to bring the various readers of my work together” (“Solo Mysterioso” 664).

[iii] Amy Moorman Robbins provides the following interpretation of these sentences: “Mullen’s very invocation of the term ‘agency’ [in “Natural Anguish”] to allude to cultural practices of surveillance suggests the disadvantages faced by the objects of this surveillance, for the operatives of dominant culture’s systems of control in fact tune in to Mullen’s silence and her loss of agency, both points figured in her dropping of her pen, playing on the common ‘pin-dropping’ metaphor for total silence” (362).

One thought on “Mullen’s Common and Experiential Communities

  1. I sound like a broken record, but this is another strong entry. I love the last two paragraphs, in particular–there’s lots of stuff happening there!

    I’m a bit confused by your explanation of Luck’s points in your second paragraph. To me, the distinction you/she draw between the two types of authority is a bit murky. Could you slightly expand and/or clarify that discussion? It seems like an important point, but I can’t quite wrap my head around the subtleties you intend to show.

    I wonder if you could discuss Mullen’s ‘texts as common’/’reading as community’ in relation to the other writers you’ve discussed. You do mention Spahr in passing, but I wonder how Mullen’s thoughts on these ideas relate to Duncan/Cage/Mac Low, etc., who all worked, in their own ways, through others’ texts and so also, to some degree, foregrounded the work of editing (or just reading?) other people’s work as foundational to their own writing.

    BTW, your footnotes in this entry really work well!

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