Harryette Mullen

Appropriating Harryette Mullen

While I maintain that the critiques of identity and erasure that make up my first five plateaus on Mullen, I cannot help but feel that they do not adequately address the ways in which she works, in Sleeping with the Dictionary, to construct a language of the minor – to again bring deleuzoguattarian terminology intro this study. I also feel like the way that Mullen uses minor language has not been given adequate attention in the existing scholarship. Typically, critics tend to focus on the ways that Mullen concedes that while there is a degree of arbitrariness to the codification of identity, that these markers are still important elements of individual subjectivity. As Robbins notes in her discussion of Sleeping, while we must understand Mullen’s work as “a direct response to those arguing for the abandonment of race as a topic inappropriate to discussions of avant-garde art,” we also find in her work a “concession that while racial identity is in a sense theoretically ‘arbitrary,’ every subject of the social order is nevertheless assigned a position and set of meanings based on these arbitrary markers” (361). It is clearly not enough for Mullen to either hold to an essential racial identity (a now outmoded practice) nor is it helpful for her to advocate the complete eradication of identitarian markers (which is, I should hope, similarly outmoded). As a way of negotiating the liminal space between these two attitudes, Mullen adopts the rhetoric and language of the minor especially via this collection’s return to the prose poem.

While I suggested earlier that the use of the prose poem form in Sleeping with the Dictionary is a gesture towards a community of active readers, it is also important to note that Mullen’s return to the form of the prose poem is motivated by both race and gender. That is, Mullen understands the prose poem, and its relation to the list poem, as a way of approaching the minoritarian voice. She tells Henning, for example, that “[i]t is a minor genre, the prose poem. It’s also a list poem, which I thought of as a form congenial to women, who are always making lists” (Looking Up 13). And, to an extent, we must also understand the engagement of active readers, too, as a feminist practice insofar as the clearly marked distance between a passive reader and an authoritative author is a distinctly masculinist concept. It is at this point that I must acknowledge the fact that, up until this point, I have discussed the issue of race in Mullen’s work much more than that of gender. While this does, perhaps, ignore a crucial element of her work generally, I have chosen to limit my scope here primarily because Mullen offers a unique opportunity to discuss the intersections of racial politics and postanarchist reading practices that the other authors in my project do not. I am not suggesting here that the other authors I study here are raceless, but rather that a critique of racial relations does not appear explicitly in their work.

Returning, then, to the form of the prose poem, Mullen fashions this move from organized verse in Muse & Drudge, to the supposedly less stable form of the prose poem in Sleeping with the Dictionary, as an attack on tradition, but not a refusal of it. Instead, Mullen tells Henning that this collection in particular is interested in both “tradition and its rupture, the continuities and discontinuities of cultural transmission, the dissemination and preservation of language, of speech and writing, of meaning itself” (Henning 7). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mullen represents tradition (and the site of its rupture) in Sleeping through the image of the university. The university is most explicitly represented and critiqued in the poem “Naked Statues,” in which the University of California’s Los Angeles campus, where Mullen is a professor of English, is presented as the locus of an “anglophile race” where “[t]hey read all the great books and perform them in the garden of naked statues” (50). Throughout this poem, Mullen tells Henning, the irony of UCLA’s proximity to Hollywood, and to the concept of American celebrity, is seen as emblematic of the precarious position of the literary canon in a contemporary world where literature is viewed as a kind of minor language on its own[i]. Mullen laments, “I’m continually reminded of our proximity to Hollywood, where books are raw material for movies, and the most recognizable nude statue is called Oscar” (Henning 79). The reduction of even the most canonical of texts to the “raw material” for a film is berated in the poem, as in the phrasing of “So romantic are the patient English” (50), where Mullen considers the fact that Michael Ondaatje’s acclaimed novel, The English Patient, was being adapted into a film (80). The position of The English Patient is an interesting one; Ondaatje’s position as a Sri Lankan-Canadian author makes his novel, in some sense, a work of minor literature, and yet its incorporation into the Canadian literary canon and its subsequent inclusion in the syllabi for “Introduction to Canadian Literature” courses everywhere make it simultaneously an image of tradition par excellence.

Ondaatje’s work, as minor and movie script, is an appropriate image for Mullen’s work then, because, as Juliana Spahr observes in her introduction to Looking Up Harryette Mullen, Mullen’s engagement with canonicity and tradition is complicated, largely through her unique use of allusion. Spahr observes that the form of the prose poem, and the frequent use of literary and popular culture references, make the poems in Sleeping particularly inclusive; she writes, “[t]his form lets Mullen suggest that allusion is everything and the poem is a sort of collection box” (“Introduction” i). But, to avoid a kind of utopian view of inclusivity, a view that Mullen herself clearly avoids in “Imagining the Unimagined Reader,” Spahr is also quick to note “how deeply provisional and full of the everyday Mullen’s allusions are” (“Introduction” ii). And, what’s more, Spahr also notes that, for the most part, scholars of Mullen’s work have not really dealt with this issue, arguing that “the scholarship has managed to miss the importance of daily-ness in Mullen’s work” (“Introduction” iii), despite the fact that Henning’s collection of interviews is published in 2010, nearly ten years after Spahr’s Everybody’s Autonomy, wherein she discusses Mullen’s allusive form as crucial to her minoritarian form. For Spahr, Mullen’s allusions function to encourage the kind of communal readership both she and I prize by “emphasizing the unfaithful and unowned practices of reading” (102). While it is not an in depth study of Mullen’s allusive form, she does make one interesting and ultimately integral distinction when she argues that we must read these allusions as a kind of sampling rather than a kind of modernist-styled intertextuality (103). While on the surface this distinction may seem arbitrary, contemporary work on issues of sampling and intertextuality demonstrate that the division is clearly political. And, moreover, a closer look at these terms suggests that Mullen’s poetic practice is more in line with a practice of appropriation than sampling.

As Marcus Boon’s recent book on intellectual property and copy, In Praise of Copying, suggests, the widespread practice (in music especially) of sampling is a different practice with different motives than the issue of appropriation. Boon’s definition of sampling, the term Spahr uses to describe Mullen’s poetics, is fitting in its association with analog rather than digital culture. He writes that “[t]he word ‘sample’ comes from the way in which an analog impression of a sound or other source is made and then converted to digital data” (168), and that this necessarily implies a kind of physical collection rather than development[ii]. As a result, Boon characterizes the sampled text as montage, a term he employs with its implications of Eisenstein and political cinema at large. Essentially, “all sampled objects are, in effect, montages and partake of the same viral power that montage has – which is the power of the fragment, the unfinished, discontinuous partial object” (169). Even the most cursory look at the politics of sampling in Mullen’s work up to and including Sleeping makes clear her fit with this definition.

And yet, I argue that Boon’s definition of textual appropriation is actually vastly more applicable to Mullen’s most recent poetic form. As Boon asserts later in his book, appropriation is a more nuanced practice in that the “question of who gets to appropriate is a fundamental one” (213), and it is a question that is frequently innately tied to issues of racialized identity. Boon uses the example of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and its characters that are “fascinated by the mimetic power of blackface” (214), to demonstrate this. And yet, Boon is quick to point out, while the colonial mimesis that is frequently discussed by postcolonial theorists (for example, Fanon, Cesaire, and later Bhabha) is clearly oppressive and silencing, it is important to note that it is always necessarily incomplete. “The mimesis of the colonial subject,” he writes, “always ‘fails’; it is demanded but at the same time repudiated, ensuring that those who are governed but who lack rights are thrown back into the inauthenticity of the mere copy, empty of essence” (215). Drawing attention to the emptiness of this copying functions in the same away as the attention given to invisibility in Hardt and Negri’s conception of identity reclamation. And, in this sense, Boon asserts that the processes of appropriation can and should be affirmed as having a radical and anti-oppressive potential. As he writes, “[a]ppropriation should be affirmed not only as something done to such cultures, but as a vital and dynamic part of their own self-constitution” (217). I would like to end my plateaus on Mullen by arguing, finally, that the crux of Mullen’s allusive form is an affirmation of appropriation, the final blow in her attack against the anglophile university and its interest in canon and celebrity.

And, indeed, Mullen’s affirmed appropriation in Sleeping with the Dictionary is explicit, especially in one of the collection’s most famous poems, “Dim Lady” (21), a not-so-subtle appropriation of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130.” In this prosified sonnet, Shakespeare’s language is reinterpreted through a bizarre mixture of racialized slang, intimate terms of endearment, synthetic stand-ins, and words that barely function as synonyms for those they replace, as in the poem’s first line when “My mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun” is translated into “My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon” (ibid). I am not interested here in dismantling Mullen’s line-by-line contemporization of Shakespeare’s sonnet, though that would be interesting and fruitful work[iii]. On “Dim Lady,” Mullen tells Henning that her drastic rewriting of the piece actually retains a good deal of the original information, arguing that the prose poem “remains closer to the meaning of Shakespeare, but I’ve substituted synonymous slang and commercial brand names. Shakespeare already had lowered the level of diction in his ‘Sonnet 130,’ which can also be seen as a parody of poetry conventions” (63). Here, Mullen tempers her antagonism in a way that suggests a kinship with Shakespeare, a figure of extreme canonicity who, one would imagine, would be an easy straw man for a poet looking to dismantle a tradition based on racialized appropriation. Shakespeare is, of course, an excellent representation of the postcolonial image of the “master’s house.”

And yet, Mullen responds particularly unfavourably to the very notion put forth by the poet Audre Lorde that you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. She tells Henning, “I never thought this was a helpful metaphor. It seems to me that tools can be used to build or destroy. It all depends on who uses them for what purpose. … That statement doesn’t work on a literal level and doesn’t really work on the metaphorical level either” (80). Instead, she seems very optimistic about the revolutionary possibilities of appropriation: “You can ‘fight the powers that be’ by using the same language. Why not? Didn’t Audre Lorde speak and write English?” (81). Rather than a kind of colonial mimicry, a mimesis of the master on the part of the colonial subject, Mullen’s obviously imperfect appropriation of Shakespeare (a practice markedly different from both sampling and intertextuality) is a gesture towards what she describes as “Lorde’s writing about the power of the erotic and the transformation of silence into language and action” (81). And so, Mullen’s appropriation of Shakespeare is, in the end, a transformation particularly because it refuses to buy into the binaristic logic of colonial language and minor silence. And, to reinvigorate the minor voice, Mullen suggests to Henning that such a transformation is necessary. Appropriation can be affirmed, as Boon suggests, as an integral part of anti-oppressive identity politics, but Mullen tells us that “it takes a kind of mental transformation, so if you buy into the logic of oppression, then you can’t see that you could use the language in that way” (Henning 81). At the end of Sleeping with the Dictionary, one cannot help but feel as though Mullen demands that kind of transformation in the minds of her readers.


[i] And Mullen seems to insist that some separation between contemporary Hollywood film and contemporary literature is necessary. At one point she laments to Henning the fact that “[i]n Los Angeles it’s not uncommon to find actors enrolled in creative writing workshops and participating in poetry readings” (80). And when I write this in 2014, this divide has become even more fluid, as with the scholarship of young American actors such as James Franco (a current doctoral candidate at Yale) and Natalie Portman (who recently graduated with a degree in psychology from Harvard). I am, however, less critical of this invasion as Mullen, owing perhaps too much to an unhealthy school girl crush on both the aforementioned actors.

[ii] He describes the processes clearly through the example of analog versus digital photography: “While a photograph involves exposing a piece of plastic film coated with light-sensitive silver halide salts for a controlled period of time to light rays reflecting off an object or scene, a digital camera exposes the same scene to a grid of light-sensitive photo-transistors which are translated into a stream of data that takes the form of ones and zeros” (168).

[iii] I do want to add, however, that Mullen’s appropriation of Shakespeare here is radically different from her also obvious appropriation of Langston Hughes in “Dream Cycle,” the poem that appears on the next page. Because the racial politics of appropriation are radically different, Mullen’s allusion to Hughes is markedly less antagonistic (and is, I would argue, at times even reverential). But, Hughes does not get off without any criticism; instead, I would argue that Hughes’s appearance in Sleeping with the Dictionary is somewhat akin to Ondaatje’s. The two authors occupy a strange borderland between canon and minor.

2 thoughts on “Appropriating Harryette Mullen

  1. As usual, lots of interesting stuff here. I find this entry a little less satisfying, though, because I don’t think you’ve fully defined/explained/worked through the concept of “minor voice” in the entry. That terms keeps popping up here, but you don’t actually explicitly define it–and you seem to use if for several allied but different things. For example, in the fourth paragraph (which begins “Ondaatje’s work”), you seem to imply that there is something necessarily inclusive in the minor voice (though I might be misunderstanding your point here)–if so, why?

    Also, is there necessarily a relationship between minor voice and appropriation? The plateau begins by foregrounding the former but then spends most of its discussion working through the latter. If there is a fundamental, undeniable relationship between the two, I don’t see it, nor do you explain it here.

    I think that you could clarify the larger ideas in this plateau. The particular arguments you offer on specific elements all seem really productive, but–for me–they don’t work together for a larger purpose, because those larger ideas are a bit murky throughout this discussion.

    Also, and this is more of an aside–I don’t know that footnote 2 clarifies the point as well as you suggest it does. You might need to work through that point a bit more.

    Whew! I must have put on my crankypants this morning! (Which is quite possible… Duncan has had two awful nights in a row–he might be teething–and I am not feeling very charitable towards the world today. So disregard anything that seems unhelpful!)

    • Right, so in minor voice in basically just adapting the deleuzoguattarian concept of minor literature — which is of course inadequate and lazy scholarship. I will definitely expand on this more in edits.

      I think that I was so worried about you getting cranky pants about not having enough close reading that I ended up focusing too much on the text and thus not fully developing my theoretical approach.

      This is, also, the reason why my use of Boon here is not fully explained either. I’m still really working through issues of appropriation, especially as I write through Howe, so I’m still really figuring out how the minor voice and appropriation are linked. Thanks for reorienting me!

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