Interviewing Harryette Mullen
Lisbon, 16th of June 2018
We met Harryette Mullen in Lisbon thanks to an invitation from Casa Fernando Pessoa. We spoke about writing tanka, teaching poetry and someone who was fired (and then rehired) for using the word “niggardly”. We also talked about discovering unexpected things about one’s family history and suddenly realizing the meaning of clichés like “tighter than Dick’s hatband”. In the end, we learned there is only one instruction to writing poetry:
“You can break the rules, but do it with flair and intention”.
JF: Our first question is usually whether you like poetry, as there is always a small chance…
There are poets who do not like poetry? They don’t like other people’s poetry?
JF: Sometimes they don’t like their own poetry.
Oh no. I enjoy the process. I think more about the process than the actual product. Yes, at some point I have to think about the text, but once I get started, it feels good to be writing, to be in the zone.
JF: Do you have a daily routine?
I wish I did. I do write a little bit every day but it is not systematic. Often I’m just scribbling and it has nothing to do with poetry. I tend to write at night. When do you write?
JF: At night, as well. I’m sleepy and ill-tempered in the morning.
More owl than early bird. [Laughter]
JF: Oh yes. One of the aspects that I enjoy the most in your poems is their complexity, which seems to imply that the reader has to do his own homework.
For every poem there are two readings: at first you enjoy the poem, the texture, the music of it. Maybe you get a hint of an emotion or an experience, and you immediately want to go back and read the poem again. Often there is a surprise: you start reading a poem and by the end, you ask yourself, “How did I get here?” Then you want to read the poem again and trace the route. You call that “homework,” I call it a second reading or the journey back into the poem. That’s something I discuss with my students because they tend to read things just once. Once is a lot for them, so the idea that you have to read a text twice—well, I’m asking them to give it more attention. A poem requires two readings. You have the reading to find out what. And then the reading to find out how. That’s a natural way to read a poem. And yes, sometimes it can take a little effort.
JF: We have to struggle with the poem. Sometimes we dance with the poem and sometimes we (laughter)…
Punch the poem! [Laughter] Whatever you do, keep reading.
JF: Still, due to your use of riddles and anagrams, the reader seems to be required to do a little more than just a second reading.
It’s true that several poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary were inspired by anagrams, words rearranged to spell other words. “Ectopia”, the poem you wrote about in Jogos Florais, is something like a riddle, with homophones, rhymes, and anagrams of “womb” and “uterus” pointing to the poem’s subject. Anagrams of Crenshaw (a neighborhood in Los Angeles) appear in “Bleeding Hearts”. Another poem, “The Lunar Lutheran”, is almost completely made of anagrams. A number of those poems began as improvisational riffs on jokes, puns, and word games.
Maybe it’s not that the poem is so complex or difficult, but that it’s so playful! Perhaps it doesn’t behave like poems the reader is accustomed to reading. Or there may be a gap between the reader’s and the writer’s experience. I think about the poem as an arrow aiming at the bull’s eye of a target. Sometimes you are the exact center of the poem’s target, but other times you are closer to the outer ring.
Sometimes when I’m reading a poem and I realize I’m not exactly the reader the poet had in mind, I have to work my way toward the center by maybe learning more about the poet or about the poem’s culture, where it comes from, looking up words that I don’t know. That’s how I get more words. It’s by reading more, learning more, adding more words to my lexicon. Some of my students don’t like to look up words. And I always say, once you look them up, those words are yours. Next time you see them, you will know them. It’s about enjoying language so much that you just want to add more words to your treasure chest.
JF: In a way that seems to be political. You are not just adding some words, you are adding precise words, words which for some reason are not usually considered to be poetry material, as if you want to dignify them and to prove they belong in a dictionary and in a poem.
Probably a lot of what we now read as classics were transgressive in their time. People invented words, they borrowed words from other languages. They created new forms, when that wasn’t considered the right thing to do. Or they did not write in Latin, they wrote in their local language. Or they wrote about topics that were taboo. Or things considered too mundane or too political to be poetic. I think that’s happening all the time and we just forget. In school we learn what is proper, but what’s proper today was once improper. Violating old rules creates new rules. Because in literature the rules are made after the fact. [Laughter] Poets amend the rules whenever necessary to write the poems they need to write. Once the poet creates something new, we analyze the poem to see how it was made. Then the rules get revised.
JF: An exercise done afterwards. Saying this you seem to wish to change the form or to subvert it. You don’t write villanelles or triolets.
Right. Probably because I’m not good at arithmetic. [Laughter] Anything that requires counting... Even when I was writing tanka, I thought most of them were 31 syllables but it depends on how you pronounce the words. In any case, altering forms or creating new ones doesn’t destroy the poetry already written. It’s always possible to return to tradition.
JF: You mentioned Tanka and I was reminded of an interview in which you mentioned how your mother claimed to have liked your book [Urban Tumbleweed] because she was finally able to understand it.
- Yes! [Laughter] “Finally, a book I can understand”.
- “You understood the first one!”
- “Yes, I understood the poems about me! But you still haven’t captured my complexity. You should write more poems about me”.
JF: She wishes to enjoy posterity through your words. It’s a good way of thinking. [Laughter]
Oh yes. [Laughter] Absolutely. My first book, Tree Tall Woman, features the plain, colloquial free verse that my mother appreciates. The tanka collection, Urban Tumbleweed, is also accessible in what I hope is an egalitarian way. I think my books are all quite readable and not difficult, but between my earliest and my latest, the poetry is a bit more experimental.
JF: Why did you start writing tanka?
To be clear, I did not try to write traditional tanka. I was inspired, or perhaps I should say, I was challenged by my students who claimed to have no interest in “nature poetry”. I was getting interested in contemporary eco-poetics at a time when I also had been reading haiku and tanka, traditional Japanese poems that affirm a union of the human with the natural world. The basic idea of my tanka project was to notice how we interact with nature while moving through the city like urban tumbleweeds.
JF: How did you think about them?
I thought of them as very brief prose poems when I was composing them in my notebook. The 3-line verse form is arbitrary. I didn’t feel compelled to fit a fixed number of syllables into each line. It’s my understanding that a traditional Japanese poem could be a single vertical line, not broken into three-line haiku or five-line tanka, as these syllabic forms are translated or composed in English. For Urban Tumbleweed, it was convenient to think of multiples of three: a three-line tanka with three verses per page, as I had composed Muse & Drudge with 4 quatrains per page. The visual layout of the page gives the work a certain regularity and makes it look organized. Yet there was flexibility as to how I divided a 31-syllable verse into three lines. I wanted space around the verses, and I staggered them on the page to create a visual rhythm of movement and repose, in keeping with the initial impulse of the project.
JF: They seem to be small impressions of what took place in one year.
Yes, I was interested in ephemeral moments of everyday life. The original concept was to take a walk and write a tanka every day for a year, but of course some days I wrote none and other days I wrote five. I went on with the project a bit longer than a year before determining how to sequence it, not necessarily in the order they were written. With multiples of three as my organizing principle, I cut it down to 366 tanka verses, representing a year and a day, or a leap year of tanka. Most of them were written in Los Angeles, but I also wrote tanka wherever I traveled during that year, including a week in Stockholm.
JF: There is this idea that we can find Nature...
Yes, we find nature wherever we go. We didn’t actually destroy it, we just built on top of it. I’m saying to my fellow Angelenos: look for nature where you are because it’s still here and we are part of it. So let’s try to take care of it. In my class at UCLA we were reading what could be called “nature poetry”. It was Mary Oliver, actually. Some of my students adore her, but others complained: we can’t relate to this because we’re urban. Mary Oliver lives out in the woods, having an epiphany when she watches…
JF: Wild geese. [Laughter]
[Laughter] Yes. I love the idea of Oliver walking in the woods near her home, where she’s stashed pencils in the trees in case she’s inspired to write a poem. In the same course we also read Kimiko Hahn, an urban dweller who views the natural world with curiosity and concern, but without the spiritual yearning and reverence we find in Oliver, or the gnostic mysticism and eco-critical activism of Brenda Hillman. Writing tanka was partly a response to those students who felt so estranged from the natural world that they couldn’t relate to Mary Oliver. Now I make it a regular assignment, in my poetry workshop, to take the students on a “tanka walk” through the botanical garden on our campus. I give them examples of traditional tanka from anthologies compiled for Japanese emperors as well as contemporary tanka translated or composed in English.
JF: You speak a lot about teaching. How do you teach someone to appreciate a poem?
Rita Dove, a poet laureate of the United States, suggested that in schools around the country you should just read a poem a day and don’t talk about it. Because, all too often, when it becomes an assignment, it ruins the poem. Maybe some poems could just be presented to the students and then you go on with the rest of your day. Unfortunately, it’s in school that people learn to hate poetry. I hope I’m not doing the same thing. I try to lessen the pain by making them keep a journal and I ask for the pages they want me to see. I check selected pages, just to be sure they are reading and responding to the literature, but it’s an opportunity for them to develop their own connection to the poets and their texts. Of the ten poets we read in class, they can choose one or a few to write about in the final essay. I know it feels different to read a book you love that you choose for yourself versus a book the teacher gives you. The most I can do is try to simulate some of that experience of finding a personal connection to a poet’s work. Usually there will be at least one poet out of the ten, half male, half female, that a student will like. This is American poetry, it is diverse.
JF: How do you choose?
If we’re reading contemporary poets, they all have to be alive when I’m planning my syllabus.
JF: I like that.
The students can read dead poets in other courses.
JF: Who do you teach?
It varies. Since I’ve been teaching, some of the poets have passed on: Florence Anthony (the poet known as Ai), John Ashbery, Amiri Baraka, Lucie Brock-Broido, Gwendolyn Brooks, Fay Chiang, Lucille Clifton, Jayne Cortez, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Barbara Guest, Michael Harper, June Jordan, Galway Kinnell, Akilah Oliver, James Tate, C.K. Williams, C.D. Wright, all dead now. I was teaching Gwendolyn Brooks the day after she died. I opened the class by reading her obituary. When I teach, I usually start with the eldest. Recently it was Mary Oliver. I never used to read Mary Oliver. I didn’t know who she was.
JF: I do like her poems.
It was my students who got me to read Mary Oliver. The last time I taught “Contemporary American Poetry” we read, from eldest to youngest: Mary Oliver, Yusef Komunyakaa, Brenda Hillman, Sandra Cisneros, Dean Young, Kimiko Hahn, Martín Espada, Li-Young Lee, Matthew Zapruder, and Kiki Petrosino. They are very different but very American. Li-Young Lee is there partly to include immigrant experience, and others might have an immigrant parent like Cisneros or, in a different version of the same course, Kristin Naca. That last time we read two Asian Americans, two African Americans, two Latinos and the rest are “white” but they also have diverse identities. I point out that Mary Oliver and Kimiko Hahn have similar ethnic backgrounds. Oliver’s ancestors are English, Czech, and German. Hahn’s are German, Japanese, and English. Petrosino and Hahn have different perspectives on being biracial, and it’s instructive to see what different kinds of “nature poems” are written by poets who are also exploring individual and collective identity.
JF: Are you writing now?
Nothing that is poetry yet. What I’ve been doing for the longest time, boring my friends so much that I can clear the room at a party… [Laughter] If anybody asks me that fatal question: “Are you still writing that family history?” That’s what I’ve been doing.
JF: I’ve just interviewed Fleur Adcock and she spent years writing family history. She explained: “I just fell in love with facts rather than fiction, or whatever poems are”.
Right. The facts are compelling. I started with my grandmother’s oral history, which surprisingly included certain exact details, such as street addresses of long-dead relatives, but also left many crucial questions unanswered. I realized that if I didn’t talk with her all would be lost. I don’t have children but my sister has two sons and someday they, or their children someday, might want to know these stories. Maybe it’s my duty as the childless person to maintain this bridge back to the past. My grandmother was the youngest child of her father who was sixty when she was born. She lived to be ninety-four. That’s a lot of history. It struck me immediately that we’d already lost the story of our enslaved ancestors, although the history, in fact, is quite recent. My maternal grandmother’s father was born into slavery. He was a child when the Civil War ended. Except for her mother, who was born after the Civil War, all of my grandmother’s ancestors had been slaves in Virginia, going back to the colonial period. My grandmother’s family name came from a prominent family of slaveholders who were granted large tracts of land by the colonial governor of Virginia. In my grandmother’s oral history, both her parents had been born after the Civil War, and she insisted that her grandmother “had never been a slave”. She seemed to resist acknowledging what my research confirmed, but I found several records indicating that her father, her grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth, had all been slaves before the Civil War. The stories she knew were all about their post-Emancipation lives in Pennsylvania, where they moved after the war ended, and where she was born. As free people, her grandparents and her parents became tax-paying homeowners and respectable members of their community, especially her father who was the pastor of a church.
JF: Did she want to ask them questions? In Portugal people dislike asking questions about the colonial war.
I think that those who had been enslaved, if they were younger, claimed a birth date after the civil war so that they wouldn’t have to talk about it. They could reinvent themselves. The civil war was practically in their back yard. A lot of battles took place in Virginia. My grandmother didn’t know anything about their lives as slaves, or how they had lived through the war. She didn’t know how her father became literate. He wasn’t proud of his handwriting, but he could write. He was a community leader so he was mentioned in newspaper articles. I have one that says that he was reading the Bible at a public event. So, I know that he was literate, but we don’t know whether he was able to go to school, or perhaps he was self-taught. These things intrigue me. I was asking questions that my grandmother never thought to ask.
I realize now that most of the adults in his church congregation had been slaves. Many of them had come north to Pennsylvania from Virginia and Maryland. It’s a whole community learning how to be free. That’s what’s excited me. My grandmother’s parents were the first generation in the family to be literate. I have letters that my great-grandmother wrote to my grandmother. Letters of the first generation of my maternal family who were able to read and write. In archives, I’ve seen marriage certificates of people whose weddings my great-grandfather performed. It must have pleased him each time he signed one of those documents, a son of slaves who were forbidden to acquire literacy and denied the dignity of legal marriage.
JF: And on your father’s side?
On my father’s side, I discovered that two of my father’s ancestors committed homicides. I had heard stories when we visited my grandparents in Alabama. It sounded like local folklore: stories about a white man who lived with a black woman after the Civil War. They couldn’t marry because it was against the law, but they had several children, and this white man was very protective of his black family. When anyone stepped on his land or troubled them he would take out his gun and send them off. As it turns out, the people in this story are my great-great-grandparents. One of their children is my grandfather’s father. Incredibly, this white man whose roots were German and Irish, had fought in the Civil War on the Confederate side. His family owned slaves, and he followed his older brothers into the war that was fought over slavery. After the war, he returns home and has ten children with this African American woman who had belonged to his Irish American grandfather. Before the war, she and her family had been slaves of his family, and after the war, she has ten children with this Confederate veteran. When I started looking into this family history, my relatives in Alabama sent me a photograph of those ten siblings. One of them is my great-grandfather. Some of this history I was able to find because the slaveholding patriarch, my Irish American ancestor, has the same first and last name as my father. It’s a traditional name in both the white and black families.
JF: Will you publish it?
I’m not sure…
JF: Fleur Adcock did publish her family history, so perhaps you might as well.
Yes, I might. It was startling to realize that this history of slavery is so close to me. My sister and her husband, an economist, are writing a book on reparations. Everyone says to them: “Oh it’s too late for that”.
JF: There were no reparations at all?
Oh yes, there were reparations, but do you know who got them? Certain slaveholders were paid for the loss of their property. Reparations went to people who ownedproperty, not to people who wereproperty. Have you noticed that in the United States, we’re still fighting the Civil War? The legacy of slavery is still with us. We’re living in the aftermath of that systematic dehumanization.
JF: Is that the reason why you avoid…
It’s usually my habit to avoid racial slurs and other dehumanizing terms. There’s a poem in Sleeping with the Dictionary, “Denigration”, that’s built on the idea of avoiding a racial slur, while alluding to the brutal history that such words evoke. In a literal sense, “Denigration” isn’t about “the N word”. The poem was inspired by the scandal caused when a white city employee in a majority black city was fired for using the word “niggardly” in a conversation about the city’s budget. I found out that the person was later rehired, presumably after the concerned parties had consulted their dictionaries. However, in the discussion that followed, at least a few people argued that white people should avoid using the word “niggardly” (especially in the presence of black people) lest they be accused of “homophone racism.” My poem conspicuously avoids the censored word but includes “niggardly” and several other words with the sound of “nig” or “neg”. The poem employs periphrasis and circumlocution as it avoids the unspoken word.
JF: And things you enjoy? Clichés?
I like playing with words, I delight in puns, and I enjoy recycling clichés. I try to use them a little differently…
JF: Yes, you always change them. [Laughter]
I play with commonplaces, or allude to them, because that’s another rule. “Don’t use clichés”. We’re looking for something new in poetry. That’s a good rule. I wouldn’t pick up any old hackneyed phrase or dead metaphor and stick it into a poem. I often wonder, why does this cliché exist in the first place? Why was it so handy to so many people? What is it trying to get at? What assumptions is it hiding? How might I turn it around in a critical way that’s also poetic? Like the mass-produced objects displayed as art works by Duchamp, a linguistic “readymade” can be framed in a poem. There is one in Muse & Drudge that I often heard from my mother and my grandmother. It was years before I realized what it meant. It’s a simile. When something is a really tight fit, they would say, “It’s tighter than Dick’s hatband”. As a child I must have wondered, who is Dick and why is his hat so tight, but one day I was writing a list of those old expressions. As soon as I wrote it, I realized, “Oh, that’s a condom!” When I asked my mother about it, she said: “I never thought of that either”. We repeat these sayings automatically without thinking of the literal meaning.
JF: You seem to do this a lot. To pick up something that people say shouldn’t be used in poetry and then… [Laughter]
JF: And you use it.
Oh yes. That’s one way to make something fresh! Especially if no one else is doing it because they are afraid to break a rule. Poetry is all about rules, and any of them can be broken, but you have to do it in a way that says: Really? Yes, really! You do it with flair and intention. You know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. So it’s clear you’re not making a mistake. You’re making a statement.