A CONVERSATION WITH HARRYETTE MULLEN|
Farah Griffin, Michael Magee, and Kristen Gallagher
MM: Should we ask Harryette about Gil [Ott] first? Since that's how this
all got started? I've read interviews with you before where you talked
about your interest in "language poetry," your relationship with it. So,
I guess I was wondering about your relationship with Gil as a publisher
and whether those two things fit together, whether you were thinking about
those two things together when all that began - when Spermkit/Supermarket
[S*PeRM**K*T] came out.
HM: Well, I met Gil the first time I read in Philadelphia. Gil had
invited me and another poet to read at Painted Bride, the art center, when
he used to work there, before all the budget cuts eliminated his job.
That must have been six or seven years ago. I can remember that there
were six people in the audience. Rachel Blau Duplessis was there, and
Julia Blumenreich, Lamont Steptoe and a few other people, so I had come
all the way, at that time, from Ithaca, New York, to Philadelphia and we
read to six people, but we had a great time, and ate delicious crabcakes
that Julia made, and it resulted in those two books, "Spermkit" and
Muse and Drudge. I think I'm the only one with two books from
Singing Horse, Gil's press. He usually does about two books a year and,
because he's so reliable, and does such a wonderful job, he continues to
get some grants, I think from the Arts Commission or Arts Council. You
know he's been doing this for decades. So, he asked at the time if either
of us had a short manuscript up and ready to go. I think because at that
time he had already received a grant, I guess from your state's Arts
Council and the poet he was supposed to publish had backed out at the last
minute. So it was really a fortuitous accident. I mean I just happened
to be invited to read, I think, because Gil knew the other poet who also
was coming from Ithaca. So, we read together and I was the one who had a
thirty-two page manuscript that was ready to go. That's how "Spermkit"
got published. So it was very much a coincidence -- a happy coincidence
for me. He told me later that "Spermkit was the first book that he had
done that broke even, and that if I had another one he would like to do it
too, so that's how Muse and Drudge got published. But, I'm not
really answering your question, which was about…it was this other poet who
actually, um, was my partner at the time (laughter)…I was trying to avoid
that, but I don't think I can. He was the one who knew Gil, and the one
who introduced me to the language camp. I mean, I really didn't know those
people. I had come from Texas to Northern California. The only living
poets I knew were fellow Texans, or the poets I'd seen at readings in
Texas. I was in graduate school at Santa Cruz. I was reading a lot of
literary and cultural theory as a graduate student in Literature at
UC-Santa Cruz. So, at that point when I would be taken to these talks and
readings, I had a context for it. I think if I hadn't been in graduate
school at the time it might have been very different. I listened. I paid
attention. I was interested in what people were doing and I could see the
relation to what I was reading in school, although of course no one at the
university then was dealing with the work of these poets. (The one
exception was Fred Jameson, who did eventually write a piece arguing that
language poetry is a symptom of late capitalism.) But these poets read
the same theory that my professors did -- in fact they probably read more,
and had become interested in theory earlier than some of my professors
had, and they were highly intellectual poets. There's a model of American
poets that is very anti-intellectual and they were definitely not that,
you know. It was impressive to see them, so organized and so committed to
what they were doing. And they were saying interesting things. I took
their model and applied it to the background, the traditions, that were
particular to my own identity to see, well, how can any of this apply to
me and the work that I'm doing. For instance the idea of problematizing
the subject. You know, there was a joke that circulated among minority
(and some women) graduate students: "It's that white male subjectivity
that needs to be put on hold… We can just put a moratorium on that, and
the rest of us need to step up to the plate, you know (laughter). We
need our subjectivity." And then I began to think, well, in what
ways would I want to problematize my black female subjectivity, and going
to California from Texas was one of the experiences that gave me some
ideas about that. For instance, where I grew up, in Fort Worth, Texas --
and I was born in Alabama, you know I'm a Southerner, basically -- you see
a black person…you speak to black folks whether you know them or not.
We'd assume a connection to other black folk, I mean, even if it is in
some cases very superficial. In California it's different. I'd walk up
to people and they don't even make eye-contact, or maybe their whole idea
of who they are is so utterly different from who I think they might be
just because they're black. So, I thought about my first book, Tree
Tall Woman, which is very much in the tradition of the "authentic
voice." Most of those poems have a persona who speaks from the black
family, from the black community, with a certain idea of who was a black
person. Without even consciously thinking about it, I suppose I more or
less assumed a black person was someone with Southern roots and someone
who ate collard greens and someone who was probably a Protestant. Once I
left the South, I had to rethink all of that. Those were ways that I
began to relate what I did in my work to what they were doing. I had to
reimagine what they were doing in other terms. Maybe that's answering
your question or beginning to answer your question.
MM: Yeah, definitely. It seems also that there are certainly ways -- and
I've heard you talk about this before -- in which Texas as a site
problematizes the subject as well.
MM: I wrote down this quote which I thought might be interesting to throw
at you [laughter]. This is from Gloria Anzaldua.
MM: And her book Borderlands.
MM: She says, "Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and
unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a diving
line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague
and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural
boundary. It is in a constant state of transition, a fluid and
improvisational space in which languages and identities hybridize and
MM: It seems like the ways that I've read you talking about Texas, that
there seems to be some relationship between that and…a way in which you
were thinking about Texas as a kind of borderland space.
HM: Right. Particularly in Fort Worth which, unlike Dallas or Houston,
has a relatively small black population. The population of Chicanos is
much larger in Fort Worth, or at least it was when I was a child. So I
had the feeling we were growing up between the Anglos and, as we called
them then, the Mexicans, you know. I was aware of Spanish being spoken;
and in our community, a black Southern vernacular was spoken, which my
family didn't exactly speak. When it came to class, our income and the
neighborhoods we lived in, at first, were working-class, while our values
and aspirations were middle-class, so in terms of class, we were also
borderline. I also knew the prejudice of Northerners against the languid
Southern drawl and the nasal Texas twang. I sound more Southern now than
I did when I was a kid. And, you know, partly I sound more Southern, I
guess, because I had to get with the program and blend in with my peers.
My mother, my grandmother, the people who raised me, were from
Pennsylvania. They were from Harrisburg. So my whole relationship to
black English, like that of a lot of middle-class black people, is, you
learn it to keep your butt from getting beat in the streets. You know,
what we spoke at home was basically what I would call black standard
English. You'd learn the vernacular on the streets and playgrounds in
order to have some friends out there. The essentializing of black English
as the natural way that black people are supposed to speak is problematic
for me. Of course, I enjoy using different linguistic registers and I
enjoy throwing Spanish words into my poems, you know, and I think that the
variety of languages and dialects makes life more interesting.
Standardization for its own sake is boring. We like to taste the
different flavors, and that's something delicious about literature. You
know, Langston Hughes' poem "Motto": "I play it cool and dig all jive and
that's the reason I'm alive. My motto as I live and learn, is to dig and
be dug in return." And the more people you can talk to and understand,
the richer your life and experience can be, potentially. But also we
learn these languages and these dialects and these ways of presenting
ourselves in an atmosphere of coercion. There's the coercion of the school
and workplace telling us: "You must speak this way or you will not be
employable." Then there's the coercion of the streets: "You can't hang
with us if you talk too proper." And on both sides there's coercion. So
that's something to bear in mind when we're talking about language, that
there is violence, there is pressure, there is force involved in making
people conform to a particular way of speaking, writing and so forth.
MM: Roles of authority inscribed in all sorts of vernaculars.
HM: Yes, Mm-hm. Some more than others, of course, and context is
FG: Is that why -- I'm thinking particularly about Muse and Drudge
-- where there are so many different languages and different registers of
language, and I was wondering, when you are writing in that way, are you
imagining at all a reader who has access to all of them?
HM: No [laughter]. Because I don't really have access to all of
them. I can put Spanish words in there because I did take Spanish
classes and I grew up around people speaking Spanish but I am not a
Spanish speaker by any means. So I don't really have access to Spanish in
the way that a Spanish speaker does and I have even less of the other
languages. I think I threw a Portuguese word in there and a French word
or two, some African terms, mostly Yoruba. It's just a gesture toward
multiplicity, my small gesture toward a visionary heteroglossia, which
seems appropriate to the diaspora of languages and cultures that the black
world encompasses. There's always the possibility of the unimagined
reader, someone not necessarily aimed at, but one who can read the text as
I'd never imagine. I do want to leave space for that possibility. Also,
the poem was a process for me, you know. I was throwing in black
vernacular from Clarence Major's dictionary Juba to Jive. I would
find something really juicy and say, "Oh, I've got to put this in." I
have something that I got from you Farah [laughter], "washing her nubia."
I knew I had to use it somehow. I was picking up all of these threads
like the magpie that I am and weaving them into this poem. So, I don't
think that a reader who had not followed me through my whole life while I
was writing this poem would necessarily have access to all of the
possibilities that I was exploring and discovering at that time. One of
the things I enjoy when I 'm reading that poem is seeing the smiles
breaking out, and laughter scattering, and the heads nodding, "Yes, I'm
with you," in different parts of the audience as I look around the room.
You know, the young people will get some things, the older people will get
other things, the white people are getting one joke and the black people
are getting another joke, and people who speak Spanish are getting some
other joke, and the laughter ripples around the room. I really enjoy
MM: I had a funny experience teaching parts of Muse and Drudge
where I had taught parts of Charles Bernstein's Dark City about a
week before, and had just vehemently negative reactions from some of my
class. Other people thought it was wonderful but there were several
people who were maybe more resistant to experimental writing who just
hated it, no offense to Charles.
MM: And we read Muse and Drudge the next week, and I had sort of
prepared myself for that kind of reaction.
HM: It's a struggle.
MM: It's so complicated.
MM: And difficult in ways. And it's certainly experimental. And I was so
surprised that they were absolutely engaged, and it seemed to have
something to do with that -- that process of recognition which made them
want to read more and figure more out. Which…it was a remarkable
experience to see these people who had been so resistant sort of…start to
HM: Mm-hm. Part of what concerns me as a writer is how to overcome that
kind of resistance. I do know -- maybe not always at a conscious level
but at some level -- I know that I'm going to have to get out and read
these poems to people [laughter]. So I think, how am I going to keep them
with me when I start going out, and in the case of Muse and Drudge
I think it's the rhythm and the rhyme, those musical qualities that the
poem has. I thought of this as a poem that people could hear even if they
didn't really understand it all. I don't expect anyone to understand it
all. Even I don't understand it all because some of it is literally
nonsense. I mean some of it is my riffing around with words and just
seeing what comes out. There's an improvisational aspect to it, and it's
not necessarily meant to have a deep meaning, although in some cases it
might be meaningful in ways not immediately apparent. My idea is to allow
people to be carried along by the oral qualities of the work in those
moments when they're not getting it at some other level. So there's still
a way that they can be in and with the poem.
FG: When did, um, one of the things when I hear you read and when I read
what you've written, there's just, I have this sense of someone who just
loves to play…
FG: …with words, and that there's just this kind of fascination and
obsession with -- and playfulness -- in terms of your relationship
to language. I was wondering, which came first for you? I mean, when did
you recognize that you had this fascination with the playfulness of
language? Did that come very early on, before you identified yourself as
a poet, so to speak, or did they come together? How did that relationship
with language take place?
HM: I think that very much in one way comes from the tradition of the
community because we were always spouting poetry. You know when I
think about the way that I remember the black community that I grew up in,
it was mainly organized into experiences at church, experiences at school,
maybe some kind of yard and playground experiences, and then what happened
at home. At school and at church we were always called on to memorize and
recite poems -- a whole lot of Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson
and Paul Lawrence Dunbar especially. Those were the three that
everybody could quote something from, and there were occasions when we had
to perform. You were expected to get up there and say your piece. And
then there was all the rhyming on the playground, in jump-rope, circle
games, and the rhythmic hand-clapping games. I mean all of the games that
we played were -- at least that the girls played -- were very
games that involved rhyming along with some sort of physical activity, you
know, show your motion and jump-rope and "Little Sally Walker" and all of
that. And then we had, in the interplay between the girls and the boys,
and what the boys did with one another - riddles and jokes, the dozens,
capping, signifying, verbal duels -- you know, when people begin to be
pre-adolescent there's all the pseudo-courtship, the formulaic exchanges
that people have. The boy says, "What's cookin' good lookin'?" and the
girl says, "Ain't nothin' cookin' but the beans in the pot, and they
wouldn't be if the water wasn't hot" [laughter]. That was in the
repertoire…and then, every now and then someone would invent a new rhyme,
and that would be incorporated into the collective repertoire. That was
the sort of environment that we were all growing up in, and we may have
had similar experiences.
FG: Right. Now I find it interesting that you say that given that -- I'm
thinking here both in terms of your work as a critic, and the interviews
that I've read with you, and the conversations that we've had where you
challenge the notion of a black literary tradition based only in a oral
FG: So, do you want to talk a little bit about that challenge? I mean,
because you immediately went to the vernacular oral tradition.
HM: Mm-hm. It's there. I want to claim the oral as much as the
written tradition. That vernacular tradition is important, of course, but
it's important not to lose sight of our tradition of writing and
literature. Yes, Dunbar, Hughes and James Weldon Johnson were working
with a vernacular tradition in their poetry, but it was written, and we
had access to it through books. In my family, books were
important, just as public speaking, and the ability to communicate face to
face were important. I think the playful aspect of my work is certainly
connected to that vernacular tradition, and some of that tradition I know
only from books or media -- just like you usually won't hear traditional
black spirituals in black churches today. As a child, I knew the
spirituals only because of records, movies, and the occasional recital by
one of the black opera singers. We might have sung "Swing Low, Sweet
Chariot" in the chorus at school, and we'd have to learn it with sheet
music. It was part of the oral tradition at one time, but now it exists
only because someone cared enough to write it down. And writing something
down changes it. Turning something into a poem changes it. Langston
Hughes didn't write blues poems that were exactly like the traditional
blues. He did something else to them. He was, in a way, digesting the
blues tradition and synthesizing it with other traditions in order to
create this poetry. And Dunbar didn't write down exactly the way people
spoke dialect, in fact Dunbar was a standard English speaker. Growing up
in Ohio and being the one black student in his class, the class poet, you
know he spoke standard English. We tend to overlook all those
poems he wrote in standard English and traditional verse. So, there's the
balance between the two and, you know, a speakerly text may also be a very
writerly text. When I look at Invisible Man, it's both.
HM: Just trying to acknowledge that other aspect of what really is our
tradition. We've been writing practically since folks got off the
FG: Right. Right. What do you think, have there been any cost to the
way we frame that tradition, the way we talk about it, by only emphasizing
the oral and the vernacular. Has that informed the construction of the
canon? I mean, what has been the cost, if any, to that way of thinking
HM: I think that it…it erases some of the complexity of what it is that
we do, what our tradition is. Our tradition…I think that people wanted to
define what is distinctively African or African-American as opposed to
what comes from European tradition, and writing is seen as European. Then
along with literacy came ideas associated with European cultures. I think
that people have to re-examine the African traditions to see that Africans
did write and that Africans may not have used writing in the same ways
that Europeans did -- it was much more involved with communicating with
spirits than communication with living human beings. So, first, we have
to re-examine the idea that Africans only had oral traditions and didn't
have written traditions, because there are examples of African script
systems. Not necessarily what all scholars would define as writing -- and
then we have to think about, well, what has happened since we've been here
and the way that our culture is synchretized with European and Native
American cultures so it's a more complicated picture.
FG: And so, thinking of it that way, then its not so odd to have a
Harryette Mullen emerge who is in relation both with a black vernacular
tradition and with the workings of a movement of language poets as well.
It's not such an anomaly.
HM: Not at all. I think that in creating a tradition and a canon
according to particular criteria for inclusion, such as orality or
speakerliness…a circular logic operates so that anyone who doesn't fit is
pushed to the side. Like Melvin Tolson, when people said, well, he
doesn't write in Negro, you know, or he's trying to out-Pound Pound
[laughter]. Such a writer becomes lost, or forgotten for a while, a
neglected ancestor. I think that we're beginning to remember the Tolsons
and the Bob Kaufmans and the Jean Toomers, and to see that there is
another strand of tradition. Traditions have usually been defined in part
by what they exclude, so that if something doesn't fit, that supposedly
anomalous writer can be erased, or set aside, and then for the next
generation it's as if they are starting all over from scratch. So each
generation is being denied this history of innovation, formal
experimentation, critical knowledge of a writerly text, that may also be
speakerly at the same time, may also be musical. If we agree that speech
and music help define black literature (or any literature perhaps) as
Steven Henderson writes in "Understanding the New Black Poetry," that very
influential introduction to that anthology, when he tried to define, well,
what is blackness in literature? He stressed speech and music, but he
also said "speech" includes the speech of the most educated, the most
literate, the most, um, dictionary-bearing members of the community as
well. So, our notion of what speech is would have to be
HM: Speech is influenced by what we have read. So, I think that's
another way that the picture has to be made more complicated. Aldon
Nielsen's book Black Chant has been very useful because he's trying
to go back and fill in what was happening just before the Black Arts
Movement. Lorenzo Thomas and Tom Dent, and the others in the Umbra
HM: When…before people felt that they had to define what blackness was and
they just wrote what they wanted to write as black people.
FG: Are there other people who you think are trying to fill in that
history, trying to, you know, bring that out from under the covers, so to
HM: Well I'm using, for a course that I'm going to teach at UCLA,
Nielsen's book, Black Chant. Every one of his chapters is a
quotation from a poet or musician. His original title for the book, "The
Calligraphy of Black Chant," comes from Ed Roberson; and he has other
chapters like "Outlantish" which comes from Nathaniel Mackey, and each one
of the chapters has a reference point like that. So, he's using even the
chapter titles to show, you know that this…the tradition has its own
critical language for talking about itself. And then there's Nate
Mackey's book, Discrepant Engagement, which is a very eclectic
collection of essays on black writers and jazz musicians, and the Black
Mountain poets, who were influential, you know, for Baraka. It's
interesting about Baraka. He's such a central and pivotal figure, because
he allowed himself to do everything he wanted to do. But then the image of
Baraka that seems to be transmitted is a very particular image of Baraka
that is "the Black Arts Baraka," who is defining and prescribing how
everyone should write when he himself was allowed to do
FG: To do it all. Yeah.
MM: One of the things that I think is so interesting about Discrepant
Engagement is a kind of -- I don't know whether it was a conscious
decision on Mackey's part -- but, the way that he puts Baraka back in
touch with people like the Black Mountain writers, and also with Ellison,
people that he consciously broke with.
HM: Yes. And repudiated.
MM: And so to reconstruct that moment, before that repudiation, and sort
of describe the relations between those projects, I mean, it seems like a
conscious decision to me, on his part.
HM: Mm-hm. Mm-hm. And then there are other people. There's a very
useful essay by Erica Hunt called "Notes for an Oppositional Poetics,"
which is in a book that Charles Bernstein edited that called, I think,
The Politics of Poetry, and…or, The Politics of Poetic Form,
I believe may be the actual title. Other essays here and there. Will
Alexander's essay, "Alchemy as Poetic Kindling." There was an issue, a
special issue focusing on black post-modernist poetry of American Book
Review that came out, I think, in 1996 that Cecil Giscombe edited…so there
are beginning to be discussions of another aspect of tradition,
alternative black traditions. We were talking a little before we turned
on the microphones about the Norton Anthology of African American
Literature, that Henry Louis Gates, Nellie McKay, Richard Yarborough and
others have put together, so now this canon that has been struggling for
recognition has been resoundingly affirmed. It's official, it's
institutionalized, it's there between the covers of the Norton Anthology.
And it's actually pretty inclusive. It's a big door-stopper of a book and
it's going to be very influential and you know a lot of people are going
to be teaching straight out of this book. And now that it exists in this
solid manifestation, I feel that it liberates us to go on and discover
what else exists out there. What else has been going on and where
do we go from here, now that our literature is officially recognized and
we do have this institutionalized African-American canon, and syllabi and
textbooks to go with it [laughter]. You know we have all the pedagogical
apparatus and where do we go now? What's the new territory?
FG: It's freeing, then, you see it as…
HM: I do, mm-hm.
FG: Yeah. Yeah.
MM: I wanted to ask one more thing about Mackey that I was thinking about
in relation to your work. It seems like one connection between your two
projects is this ability to develop your own symbolic economy, and so as a
reader you have to allow yourself to just get into the game, which is a
different game than you're accustomed to -- I'm thinking in terms of
MM: So Mackey, in one way, if you're uncomfortable with postmodernism
maybe, at first might seem like jargon, right? Or, you wonder whether
he's borrowing from a kind of postmodern jargon, and the more you read the
more you realize that it's his own language.
HM: Discrepant engagement!
MM: Invented, right? Yeah.
HM: He says in the introduction of the book that this notion of
discrepant engagement comes from the Dogon of Mali, their term "the
creaking of the word," which has to do with the loom that they weave cloth
on and the idea that you're weaving together images, ideas, philosophies.
For the Dogon, "discrepant" has an etymological connection to the word
"creak," creaking, you know, the noise that's made by this loom when
people are weaving. And so, something that may sound very abstract and
not connected to anything African turns out to be directly from an African
tradition of philosophical and aesthetic ideas and concepts, and he's
directly borrowing from them.
MM: And that's how he ends Bedouin Hornbook, right? I think "The
Creaking of the Word" is the last passage.
HM: Right. Yes. So, you can't assume automatically that you know where
somebody got something because, just because someone thought of something
here or in Europe doesn't mean it wasn't also thought of in other places
in the world.
MM: And do you see your work in relation to that sort of methodology?
HM: I see definitely that I'm trying to look at what's been seen as a
split for a lot of people. Ron Silliman, in "The New Sentence," talks
about…I think the essay's called "The Political Economy of Poetry," and he
ends it by talking about this perceived division between what are called
the "Aesthetic Schools of writing" and the "codes of oppressed peoples."
He says, of course, the aesthetic schools are not without their politics
or their ideological stance, they just express it through aesthetic means
and procedures. And I would want to add that -- I don't think he
does but I would want to add - the codes of oppressed peoples also
have their aesthetic basis. One thing that Mackey points out in
Discrepant Engagement, he's following the work of Marcel Griaule,
who worked on Dogon religious thought, and Robert Farris Thompson who has
done a lot, a scholar, you know, who is Euro-American who's done a lot of
work on African Diaspora cultures, and within these cultures there is a
long tradition of what Thompson calls songs and dances of allusion. And
so Nate grabs the idea that something can be very swinging, something can
make you get up and move, shake your butt, or whatever, and still have its
aesthetic and philosophical implications, and it also has a message to
communicate. You know, there's a whole tradition of satiric songs and of
dances that actually have to do with cosmology, you know, or with the
well-being of the community, so that those "codes of oppressed peoples"
are very expressive in an aesthetic sense. I mean if you look at
something like Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men, she's dealing
with folklore of people who were not very well educated but it's a very
philosophical discourse when you look and see what these people are
saying, what are they talking about, how they bring the whole of creation
into their discussion. So that those codes of oppressed peoples which are
imagined as some kind of impoverished discourse really are very rich, very
aestheticized, very metaphorical. I mean they're doing everything that
poetry does. I think that one of the things Mackey wants to emphasize --
and he also emphasizes it in his discussion of Baraka -- that Baraka
always insisted that the avant-garde needed to be held accountable for its
politics. Also that Baraka could quote Mao Tse-tung and say that all art
is propaganda, but he would also not forget the second half, which is that
not all propaganda is art [laughter]. Now once you have a commitment to
look at each one of these things, you know, then you notice, well, what is
lacking on the one hand and what's lacking on the other hand and how do
you combine the energy? I think Erica Hunt in her essay on oppositional
poetics is saying, language-centered art is not going to change the world
by itself. You need some kind of political commitment, some kind of
action, and some kind of coalition with other people who have the same
vision that you have. We're going to get out there with some energy, you
know, and take care of business. You don't have just one or the other you
need the combined energy of both. Then you'd want your artistic activity
to connect to some political activity in order to affect reality.
FG: Do you see that…might that be a reason, then, why there's this
tendency to look at the Black Arts movement as, the moment in black
poetry in the way that we do because it is so obviously connected to a
social and political movement at the same time, whereas those connections,
those linkages, are less obvious, if not absent, in different forms. You
think that that might be one of the reasons why so much of the kind of
attention that is given to Black Arts poets or the Black Arts movement as
a movement does not happen to more avant-garde poets?
HM: I think that, if I can try to sort out, that's a…I think you're
asking me a lot of different things.
HM: On the one hand, it was a founding moment. It was…I think it was
something that needed to happen. There was a…it was a moment of
clarification. And also, in some ways, it was a response to a possible
failure. I mean, I would think that we have not integrated yet, and we're
not even sure that we want to integrate, you know. I mean I feel like I'm
one of the last integrationists because I still believe in integration but
when I look around me it's as if people are saying, well, that was just an
experiment that failed, we just don't want to do that. But the Black Arts
movement was, I think, a moment when -- all of that sixties activism had
to do with black people saying, well, you know, we have been here a long
time and we're still not really here, so we need to build something of our
own. And I think that's what made that moment different from…I mean, I
think there were similar impulses, say in Garveyism and in other social
movements but this was a time when large numbers of black people said,
"We've been beating on this wall for so long, but it's still there. We
need to just turn elsewhere and create something for ourselves, and create
an alternate identity that has to do with being black and does not
necessarily have to do with joining the rest of America." And I think
that was very important, I think it was useful, I think it was a moment of
clarity. I don't think this insight into the reality of our situation
should be the end of the discussion. Certainly, facing that failure
of this nation to include us has changed how we operate as black people,
often in positive ways. Instead of accepting our inherited legal status as
nonpersons, or trying to become second-class white people, we've
constructed, out of diverse materials, complex black identities. But I
also think that, in terms of the art that was produced, for some people,
you know, the art became formulaic. The art was not as complex as we are
as individuals, and as a people. Not all the people who were in the thick
of the Black Arts Movement. Certainly not Baraka - with the variety and
the mobility of his thought and of his work -- the way that he went
from one thing to another. As opposed to, say, well, I won't name names,
but some other people who got in a groove and stayed there, or their work
was derived from what Baraka was doing. Baraka was convinced, after his
trip to Cuba, that his poetry had to be a political weapon.
MM: Baraka has that line that sticks in my mind in relation to this. He
says, "LeRoi Jones, the only black poet in the New American Poetry," which
seems absolutely about that, banging on the door and not gaining entry,
and so in a way it seems like he's in this awful and ironic position in
the early sixties, where he is supposed to be the representative, and yet
he's the kind of token guy, which must have been an incredibly frustrating
position to be in.
HM: Well, it's dangerous to be the only one. That is a psychically
damaging position to be in. And I say that as someone who has been in
FG: I was going to ask you to elaborate on that. [laughter]
HM: Well, one reason I wrote Muse and Drudge is because having
written Tree Tall Woman, when I went around reading from that book
there were a lot of black people in my audience. There would be white
people and brown people and maybe other people of color as well.
Suddenly, when I went around to do readings of Trimmings and
"Spermkit," I would be the one black person in the room, reading my
poetry. I mean I'd find myself in a room that typically had no other
people of color in it -- which, you know, I could do, and…it was
interesting. But that's not necessarily what I wanted, and I thought,
"How am I going to get all these folks to sit down together in the same
room?" Muse and Drudge was my attempt to create that audience. I
wanted the different audiences for my various works to come together. I
was happy to see those people who were interested in the formal innovation
that I…that emerged when I was writing Trimmings and
"Spermkit," partly because I was responding, in those books, to the work
of Gertrude Stein, while dealing with my own concerns around race, gender,
and culture. I had been hanging out with the language writers in the Bay
Area, and listening to them and reading their work, so there was all of
that influence as well. And then I thought, okay, well, I'm going to need
to do something to integrate this audience, because it felt
uncomfortable to be the only black person in the room reading my
work to this audience. I mean, it was something that I could do up to a
certain point with pure gratitude that an audience existed for my new
work. I felt, "Well, this is interesting. This tells me something about
the way that I'm writing now," although I didn't think I was any less
black in those two books or any more black in Tree Tall Woman. But
I think that the way that these things get defined in the public domain is
that, yeah, people saw "Spermkit" as being not a black book but an
innovative book. And this idea that you can be black or
innovative, you know, is what I was really trying to struggle against.
And Muse and Drudge was my attempt to show that I can do both at
the same time.
FG: Why do you think that that distinction happens so much in writing? I
mean I think that when we think of music, particularly jazz music…
FG: One has to be both…
HM: There's all that room for the avant-garde to go out.
FG: And it's expected that…
HM: To go way out.
FG: to be black is to be innovative.
MM: Parker can talk about Stravinsky, right?
MM: And nobody blinks an eye.
FG: Right. In fact he ought to, right? So, what is it about
writing, I mean, what is it that when the forms shift that one has to be
either/or? In terms of your audiences, in terms of the critics,
everything, what is it about those different forms?
HM: I have wondered about that myself. There are references to that in
Muse and Drudge, you know, like the "occult iconic crow" going "way
out / on the other side of far" (40), and I'm thinking of someone like a
Thelonious Monk, you know, who could just go out, and people said,
"Well, that's where he is." [laughter]
FG: And maybe we'll go with him.
HM: Yeah, you could take a ride on the Sun Ra spaceship, you know,
[laughter]. I wonder if it is because not everyone plays a musical
instrument or composes music. People are more willing to say, "These are
the expert technicians and we will allow them to take us to these weird
places," whereas everyone who speaks the language probably feels more
competent to criticize poetry. You know, "Well, I wrote a poem once." If
you are innovative in poetry - and if you stretch the medium beyond
ordinary understanding -- then you've left familiar territory and you're
now taking us somewhere we don't want to go. I think the musicians are
maybe just given more leeway than the writers are because the
mean, people have this notion that the writers are supposed to talk to
them in their language. If there's something that's unfamiliar, something
that's unknown, then it's an imposition on the audience, to have to deal
with this thing that is not immediately understandable. Whereas with
music we just kind of go with it.
MM: You can kick back and listen to it too, right, so at the worst you're
going to say, well, Monk is weird. But it's not…when you read it's hard,
and confusing, and it takes this kind of active figuring-out of what's
HM: One time when I was teaching a course in slave narratives at UC-Santa
Barbara my students, of various races, said, "They don't sound black, and
they're using all of these big words," people like Equiano and Frederick
Douglass. "Frederick Douglass sounds so formal and so rhetorical and he's
not down," you know. "He's not folksy," and "Equiano is using all of
these big words," and "How did they get all of these big words?" They'd
complain to me about the texts, "We have to go to the dictionary to read
them." I think some of them resented that they would have to go to the
dictionary to look up words used by someone like Equiano who had been a
slave, you know -- and before that didn't even speak English. We're still
dealing with the question of the authenticity and authority of the black
writer. How dare he write like this! Or, we don't believe he really wrote
this, and if he did, he wasn't using an authentic black voice in his text.
He wasn't keeping it real. And I said, well, you know, these guys were
autodidacts, they didn't grow up with "See Spot run." They had to take
whatever was available and get the dictionary or whatever tools they had,
you know, and just learn. And that's what happens when you are open to
learning. If they sound bookish, it's because they read and respected
books as much as they loved great oratory.
FG: That's right.
HM: But, you know, "They don't sound black," and, I mean, we had to just
go into that: what do you mean by sounding black? [laughter]
FG: Right, right.
HM: You mean not sounding educated? Do you mean not having
a large vocabulary? Do you mean not knowing about rhetoric?
FG: Yeah. And these are like these founding texts, right?
FG: There is no black literary tradition without these texts.
HM: This is where it all began. Their texts and Phillis Wheatley's
FG: Right, right. Who are you reading now? Who are you reading new?
Who do you go back to? Who do you reread?
HM: Oh yeah. I'm definitely rereading Tolson, Harlem Gallery, I
just keep going back over and over, and I definitely reread Jean Toomer
over and over again and, you know, I'm very much influenced by Gwendolyn
Brooks, to the extent that sometimes I forget to even mention her. But
other people will remind me, "Oh yes, Gwendolyn Brooks is definitely an
influence on you," especially Maud Martha.
FG: Yes, very.…
HM: Because I really think that she gave me - she and Gertrude Stein
together really gave me - a way of thinking about prose poetry.
FG: Right. It's funny I was rereading Sandra Cisneros's House on
Mango Street and I see Gwendolyn Brooks all over House on Mango
FG: It's just one of those things that doesn't get mentioned.
FG: But, you know, just the prose-poetry of that newer novel is so much
Maud Martha there, yeah.
HM: Right, yeah.
MM: It seems like what you were saying before about standard English and
black vernacular English Brooks does in that front yard / back yard
HM: Right, "Sadie and Maud," right?
FG: Well, she's an interesting figure given what we've been talking about
though. Now, the…the change that happens for her in the sixties.
FG: Yeah, the Fisk Conference.
HM: Oh, right.
FG: And her relationship to Black Art. Do you read pre-Fisk Brooks
differently than you read post-Fisk Brooks? Or?
HM: I think I probably do read them differently. I'm not sure exactly
that I could articulate how. I…I understand what she feels her altered
mission is, and also because she works so much with children and with
young people. And she funds out of her own pocket several poetry contests
there in Chicago where she is. She really is trying to stimulate young
people and she's writing to and for young people. Her most recent books
have really been children's books, or books concerned with young people,
in a sense. I think she's trying to stimulate reading and writing among
the younger audiences, and that's something that I think about also when I
read Maya Angelou, whose work doesn't demand much of a reader but, you
have to contextualize it in terms of, well, what are their aims, what
audiences are they appealing to, and what are they trying to do in terms
of planting seeds for the future.
FG: Well one of the things that…it's funny that you mention Maya
because…you know, I think that for people like us it's very easy to have
some problems with where she is - and then I thought about why at one
point she was so important to me as a young black woman who wanted to be
an intellectual but didn't know that's what she wanted to be. And how
reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her poetry when I'm
twelve changes my life.
FG: Right? And that she's…and I guess even where Brooks is right now,
probably no one, no people we know of are as effective as those two women
are for allowing you to make that change right there, that, you know, I
can be a poet, I can be a woman who reads and loves to read.
FG: And live unconventionally.
HM: Yeah, and, you know, as much as I enjoy what I do, when I look out in
the audience it's rare that I see whole families coming to hear and I
certainly can understand why they wouldn't. But when you go to a Brooks
reading you will see the grandmother, the grandchild, the parents, the
cousins, the nephews [laughter]. I mean they're all there.
FG: And probably the little granddaughter one day is going to be in the
Harryette Mullen audience also, you know, that will get her there. That's
a way to get her there.
HM: It could happen.
MM: One place where it seems Brooks works amazingly well in that mode -
and on many different levels - is in a poem like "The Life of Lincoln
MM: Which is so complex and yet is a kind of story about a little
boy's formative experience, right? And I think a child, or an eleven or
twelve-year-old, probably could sit and read that and make a lot of
intelligible sense of it. I've always loved that poem, I think for that
HM: Mm-hm. That's the other thing. I think that the tradition and…this
idea of speakerliness and orality has to do with a tradition that, you
know, I associate with my mother's saying to me, "When you're explaining
something and you're the one with the knowledge to impart to other people,
you need to put it in terms that everyone can understand, you've got to,"
as she would say, "you've got to put it so grandma can get it." And that
idea, which in some ways I think can be a limitation on what we're able to
do as artists, is also something to keep in mind even as we…we want to…we
want to go elsewhere, we want to go out. But I think it is something to
bear in mind, that there are people who are at the entry level, you know,
there are people who have yet to be introduced to these pleasures that we
enjoy and they've got to start where they can. And I think that those
poets [Brooks and Angelou] are very aware of that and they've taken it on
as their mission. I still think we should give artists freedom to go
beyond what we can immediately understand. I want to have that freedom for
myself as I write, but I also think it's fair that I when I do readings,
I'm willing to answer questions and discuss what I'm doing.
FG: Where are you now? What are you…what's next? What are you working
through, what kinds of issues or ideas in your own writing? Are you
post-Muse and Drudge?
HM: Well, I certainly wanted to…not to repeat Muse and Drudge. I
think Muse and Drudge hit a lot of nerves and, judging from the
audiences that I see now, it has done what I wanted it to do, because I'm
now reading to an integrated room, which makes me feel more comfortable.
But the poems that I read the other day in the [Temple] Gallery -- you
were there in that audience -- they're prose poems that I'm attempting to
write, in a way, outside my body. Muse and Drudge was really
useful and productive for me. It felt free and easy because I use a lot of
quotation in Muse and Drudge, I use a lot of what's in the air in
Muse and Drudge. What I'm trying to do now is push out of myself
a little further. With Muse and Drudge I was concerned to
encompass a generous, inclusive view, of what African tradition, Diaspora
culture tradition, language, languages, might be. I tried to think about
language and culture through the lens of a black woman who's not
necessarily myself, but a representation of our diversity and our
possibility. And now, I think the pieces that I'm doing are an attempt
to, again, pull in what's already in the air, you know, and to write not
necessarily as or from myself, my voice, my body, as a black woman --
although that's who I am. But that's not the starting point for this
work. The sensibility and the particular perceptions that I have
obviously are there but I'm not attempting to recreate myself, or recreate
a black vision in this work, but to see how language just…shows up in the
poem. How it comes on to the page from wherever, is my concern, right
now. And that involves in some cases creating a little…language
HM: And it may actually come from a black source, like…there's a poem I
didn't read the other night but it's a poem that is based on a piece of
folklore that I found in Vertamae Grosvenor's cookbook. Along with
recipes from African culinary contributions to the cuisines of the
Americas, she includes family memories and folklore. There's one item that
just fascinated me, something she found in black folk tradition. I had
never heard this before: "You're a huckleberry beyond my persimmon."
[laughter] Now see, this is what I'm talking about, exactly. "You are a
huckleberry beyond my persimmon." That's part of the folk tradition.
FG: Right, right.
HM: So I just took that syntactical structure and repeated it,
substituting different words instead of huckleberry and persimmon. So
that's a little machine, you know. Or the "Tom Swifties," in another poem
I read called "Swift Tommy" which Nate's going to publish in Hambone. I
like to improvise on lines from folklore or popular culture. For me, it's
a form of invention that lets me surprise myself as I'm writing.
FG: That's certainly the case with the list poem too that you did.
HM: Right, "Jingle-Jangle."
FG: You know, with words coming from everywhere.
HM: Yes, from folklore, commercials, and everyday speech. That poem is
based on what the dictionary calls "rhyming and jingling formation." The
word jingle-jangle itself is that type of formation. It's a kind of
everyday poetry. It comes out of folklore, it comes out of commercials,
like "Paco's tacos" and "Choco taco" [laughter]. A bunch or them are
brand names or imitative words for sounds, onomatopoeia, like
jingle-jangle or ding-dong, and jazzy colloquialisms like razzmatazz and
higgledy-piggledy. We always have fun making these things up as kids,
like nicknames, and advertising picks up on that kind of child-like
invention and wordplay. I mean, this is something that is very much a
part of how language is improvised on a day-to-day basis. We are
continually creating new versions of this. That poem is a demonstration of
how much poetry material there is all around us and how much we are
participating in the creation of something that is poetic -- it's not
always poetry but it's the stuff that poetry is made of.
FG: Well, I mean, the way that you even invite your audience, when you
read that poem, you invite the people who are there to share and to
participate and to add some things that you hadn't heard.
HM: Right, I get the audience to help me with my list, which is now -- I
mean I didn't even read the whole list, because I now have three-hundred
plus items on my hard disk in my computer at home and I can only read a
portion of that.
FG: And are many of those things that people are giving to you?
HM: Yes, I have received several -- I've only done that poem, maybe,
this'll be the third time that I've read it to an audience, but each time
I have invited contributions and I always get something I never heard of.
Like someone gave me "stinky-pinky" [laughter], a game that he played when
he was a kid, and I had never heard of that.
FG: And that's one of those things too that…that what you…the
contributions that you get at any given reading are going to be much
richer based on the diversity of your audience.
HM: I love that.
FG: And even all of the different languages that people speak, the
different cultures that they're bringing in…
FG: …is going to really contribute.
HM: We say we want diversity, but do we practice diversity? You know?
We have to figure out how to do that.
FG: Right, and it's not easy, you know, it's sometimes painful, but then
there's just so much wealth, as evidenced in that poem.
KG: I'm listening to you talk and I think we need to hear what you do.
HM: All right, okay.
MM: Yeah, that'd be great. Well, I was just going to say that it always
amazes me how complex, and almost avant-garde, vernacular sentences
MM: I remember reading…Frank O'Hara - I've been reading his letters and
he said that if you read Mae West's autobiography and Gertrude Stein's
Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas they're written in the exact same
language. [laughter] That Mae West is as avant-garde as Gertrude
HM: Mae West has some sentences.
MM: Yeah! He quotes some of the sentences, and they're amazing. They
really knocked me out.
HM: Right. I mean, there's this creativity that is just so much a part
of being human that we don't even notice it. It's just there. And that's
what I'm really trying to pay attention to, I mean, when you ask about
what am I doing now: I'm listening harder. You know, being a little
nosier when I'm sitting in a café and someone else is sitting over at the
FG: That's why you're catching buses in L.A.
HM: Right, yes. Mm-hm. So I can read…do you have a particular text you
want me to…I have "Spermkit," Trimmings, Muse and
KG: Yeah, if you want to pick things …as much as you want to read, and
something from…a sampling from everything would be fine.
HM: Okay. Well, one thing…when I wrote Trimmings I thought that
it definitely sounded like black woman to me, who was commenting on this
feminine image. And, you know, there's definitely some black folklore in
the book, like the wolf tickets in the Red Riding Hood poem.
[reads it "When a dress is red…]
Or, let's see. "Cinderella highball cocktail frock…"
And this is actually a poem with Josephine Baker in mind. "In feathers,
"Swan neck, white shoulders…a cleavage in language."
"The Mermaid": "A fish caught…each step an ache."
And, if I could just comment a little bit on these poems, they're all
about clothing and accessories that women are worn. And in each poem you
have the same operation over and over again, is that a metonymical
description of a woman in terms of what she's wearing. So that in that
last poem the two ideas coming together are the mermaid and the fishnet
stockings. And the other poem is the red dress, you know, or the red coat
with Red Riding Hood. So there are these images from literature and
folklore, fairy tales, pornography, advertising, and, so there's always
the woman and there's what she's wearing, and the woman in a sense becomes
what she's wearing. So this little book, you know, which I thought was…it
was a commentary from a black perspective on a lot of images, many of them
white images of what a woman is and what a woman, you know…what is a
woman, what is her function, you know? As a decorative object. And then
there are the black women in the poem. There's one, Aunt Jemima, in here
too. Let's see, where did that one go…Hannah's bandanna…
"Her red and white…someone in the kitchen I know."
So, that's some of Trimmings. And I'll read some of "Spermkit,"
KG: Could you actually just, since this is audio, describe what the
writing of the word looks like?
HM: Oh, okay. It is the word "supermarket" with some letters missing and
asterisks replace the missing letters. The missing letters just happen
to be U-A-R-E, so it's like "you are what you eat." This is a book about
food, you know, and everything that's in the supermarket. This
is…Trimmings is a kind of list poem about clothing and accessories,
and each one of those poems is also about woman or the idea or
representation of woman. And "Spermkit," or "Supermarket," is sort of
like your shopping list when you go to the supermarket. So, each one of
the aisles that you would find and the things that you would find in the
supermarket, that's how this book is organized. And it also has some nice
black and white pictures that Gil Ott took himself in his local
supermarket of the meat wrapped in plastic and the baked goods in that
kind of plastic that I don't think they even can recycle.
MM: Baby food.
HM: Baby food, yes.
MM: That's an incredible picture, I think.
HM: Right. The baby food poem (which I should read) actually refers back
to my childhood when you would walk down the baby food aisle and every
baby was pink and blonde and blue-eyed, as if this is what a baby looks
like all over the world, or all over this country, that's what a baby
looks like. At least that has changed. A lot of these poems have to do
with commercials that I saw when I was a child, you know, and the memory
FG: They've changed, you know, there's…I was thinking - as you're looking
for that - the Charmin baby, and now they have the Northern, the little
girls on Northern toilet paper. It's only the blue toilet paper that has
the little black girl. Every black family I know buys the blue toilet
paper. [laughter] Because they say, you know, "We want them to know that
we want this little girl. [laughter] Even if it doesn't match the
HM: Yes, send that message as a consumer, mm-hm. Okay, I found the baby
"Ad infinitum perpetual infants goo…" (34).
So that kind of went from the food to, you know, the waste, but…yeah…let's
see. Here's another one.
"It must be white…" (7).
So, again, in this…this bunch of poems, at least two ideas are colliding
together. So, there was the idea of the baby food and the landfill
filling up with paper diapers and, the image of what the ideal baby's
supposed to look like. Or the other poem that contrasts the different
attitudes about animal blood and human blood. Each one of the poems
brings a couple of things into juxtaposition so that you see them in
relation to each other. Let me see if I can find another one.
"Off the pig, ya dig?…" (20).
And then the beer commercial.
"What's brewing when a guy…" (19).
You know, I was always fascinated, once I was older, that the beer
commercials have this sort of pornographic aesthetic, that the beer is
always foaming up and out of the glass [laughter] or shooting out of the
bottle, you know, which seems borrowed from the climax shots in porn
films. I know this must be something that they consciously do. If you
drink beer you'll become more virile, right? [laughter] That's the
FG: That is the logic.
HM: …of the commercial.
FG: The blonde in the bikini.
MM: At least for a while. [laughter]
FG: Or you'll become Spud.
HM: Right, yeah, Spuds gets three girls, mm-hm. [laughter]
KG: Scantily clad even.
HM: Right. So I can read a little of Muse and Drudge.
MM: Can I ask something about…
MM: "Spermkit" first. It seems like…I was reading it this morning again
and it seems like the way that you're navigating the relationship between
race and gender in "Spermkit" is just extremely complex and thought out.
I mean, were you thinking about it in those terms?
HM: I think I was. Maybe not always explicitly but it is there in my
thinking about, well, what kind of person is the consumer imagined to be?
And the consumer, you know, except, say, in a beer commercial that's shown
during Monday Night Football is usually imagined to be a woman. So, I saw
that as a connection to the previous book, Trimmings. And, in fact
both of these books are in some way reflections on [Stein's] Tender
Buttons and, you know, Tender Buttons has a three-part division
into "Objects," "Rooms," and "Food." And I have had it in the back of my
mind to do something about houses and space and rooms. But basically you
could say Trimmings is objects and "Supermarket" is food. And…so I
was thinking about domestication, about the role of women, women as
consumers, women having a, you know, a supposed power as consumers but
also being disempowered in other ways - and also disempowered in some ways
as consumers even as they're being appealed to. So, because of the
limited images that are available in the marketplace. You know, you can't
necessarily buy who you really want to be. You have to buy the available
images. Then, of course, I'm dealing with a whole retrospective view of
television and marketing. My memories of my early childhood with
television -- and I did grow up all the way with TV but we were rationed.
My mother set a limit on how much TV we could watch, and we couldn't watch
every program. But the commercials have such an impact, you know. And
when you are a small black child seeing no black people unless they're in
uniforms, unless they're serving white people, and what does that…even
though that's not the case now, we have all these people who are, you
know, my age and older who have that…we have that in our heads. Somewhere
it's in there, it's a part of our programming. And…you know, and it has
influenced us. Television was also an occasion for learning in our
household. My mother used to analyze, she used to do critique of what was
on the television. For instance, when we would watch "Romper Room," we
would want to go to the store and buy the milk and ice cream that the
Romper Room lady fed the kids on TV. She explained to us very clearly,
"That woman is paid to endorse this product. This product is no better
than the other product that costs less. We are not buying the higher
priced milk just because they use it on the show," and you know, "Don't
even…I don't even want to hear that anymore." [laughter] Or when we
wanted the Barbie Doll, she said, "There's no way that I am buying you a
doll who has more clothes than all three of us put together." [laughter]
So we got this kind of lesson and I think that "Spermkit" very much comes
out of that ongoing critique of dominant culture, and my mother critiqued
these images from her own perspective as a black woman. We did not sit
like zombies in front of the TV. There was always a conversation. My
mother would be sitting there saying, "That's a lie." [laughter] You
FG: "That woman's not that pretty." [laughter]
HM: Right, exactly, you know. I'm sure that we must have had discussions
about why black people weren't on, or no black people that looked like
anybody that we knew were on, or why this person always has to be serving,
you know, this middle class white family. We had discussions about that
as well. So, my whole experience of TV and advertising is through that
kind of critique that was just a part of what we did in our household.
Did I answer your question?
MM: Yeah, absolutely. [laughter]
HM: Oh, I should have read, I didn't read the one, the little…what was
"Bad germs get zapped…" (23).
This one definitely suggests a race-conscious critique of that image of
the perfect American family…which, you know, at that time was always a
white family, and always included at least one blonde member. It's always
amazing to me too that no matter whether both parents were the brownest of
brunettes, they always had a blonde child. [laughter] You know, like this
is proof that they are really white. You just have to produce that
blonde, blue-eyed child. And it wasn't until much later I even realized
that is oppressive to white people.
HM: I have a friend who is Jewish and olive skinned and brunette, and she
also felt oppressed by those blonde, blue-eyed images. It's not that
there's anything, of course, wrong with being blonde and blue-eyed, but
look at how that image has been manipulated and used to beat people over
the head. I would think, if I were blonde and blue-eyed, I'd be tired of
my image being misused in that way.
FG: Right. It'd be the majority of white people and all…
HM: Mm-hm. Right.
FG: That's why Loreal sells so well. [laughter]
HM: Yeah. So, okay, I'll read some of Muse and Drudge. I've got
to get that "nubia" one. [laughter]
FG: I quote that in the book. In the letters.
HM: I'm going to start with this one.
"if your complexion is a mess…know how to roll the woodpile down"
"ain't your fancy…I know you know / what I mean, don't you" (38).
HM: Now, I'm looking for it. Oh, yeah, there it is.
"go on sister sing your song / lady redbone senora rubia / took all day
long / shampooing her nubia…improve your embouchure" (51).
I could read…do you want me to read some more of this, or…okay.
"tomboy girl in cowboy boots…I'm interested in" (52-3).
"marry at a hotel, annul 'em…that flow and flabbergast" (64-7).
So…I could comment on any of that if you wanted. In that bit that I was
looking for, Farah contributed that line ["shampooing her nubia"] and,
where did you get that, what was your source?
FG: It's a collection of letters between two nineteenth-century black
women and one of them wrote to her mother, "I'm going to take tonight
washing out my nubia. You know it takes a long time to dry." [laughter]
And so I asked you…we were trying to figure out what was "nubia," and we
were like, well maybe it's "hair," and we asked all these people what it
was and then after you published that poem I realized that it was a fleecy
collar that Victorian women wore around their necks.
FG: And she would wash it out and then let it dry, but I thought, well,
why not adopt it and say that it's any other…any number of things.
HM: I use that now when I'm washing my hair…
HM: I say, "I've got to shampoo the nubia." [laughter]
FG: My nubia, right. And so, in the edition of letters I quote you and
say that it can become all of these things because it…you know, the
relation to nubian, and at first I thought, oh, what a lovely kind of
Afrocentric word for your hair.
FG: When that's not what she was talking about at all.
HM: But we've made it our own now.
FG: That's right. Thanks to Harryette.
HM: Yeah, it's like, "my hair went back to Africa."
FG: Right, right. So, now I can really go back there, we wash out our
nubia. But we had all kinds of things it could have been.
HM: Yeah, we were speculating. And then Elizabeth Alexander, who was
with us at that conference, contributed, it's a men…she said, "I didn't
know if it was a men thing…"
HM & FG: "…or a him thing." [laughter]
FG: Right, right.
HM: And, you know, I just thought, wow, this conference was productive,
if only because I got some juicy lines. [laughter]
FG: Great lines.
HM: For Muse and Drudge. And that's the way Muse and
Drudge really was written, was just grabbing all those great lines
from people, from books, from music, and words from Clarence Major's
dictionary. I had never heard "frimpted" and "frone." You know, those
are older slang terms. They would be from maybe my mother's generation.
And after I got his dictionary and was just studying it, you know, and I
put those words into one of the verses in this book. Then a few weeks
later, I read Maxine Claire's novel, Rattlebone -- about growing up in
Kansas, I think -- and she says about one of her schoolmates, "She's a
frone girl, I can't hang out with her, she's a frone girl."
[laughter] And I only knew what it meant because I had just found it in
FG: Well, I have one for you. One of the secretaries in the English
Department said…she was talking about someone and she said (this is
Valerie Savage who is the best research person I know, she can get you all
kinds of things) and she said, "That woman is Patton Turner." And I said,
"Patton Turner? Who is Patton Turner?" And she said, "She's always
pattin' her feet and turnin' the corner." [laughter] So there's one for
you. You know, someone who's always on the move, right?
HM: Yeah, and there's that kind of invention in the language.
FG: So, we expect to see Patton Turner in your next collection.
KG: Harryette, could I ask you to give me some blurbs about Gil too?
HM: Oh yes. Gil Ott. I mean, two books, these two books would not exist
without Gil Ott, "Supermarket" or "Spermkit," and Muse and Drudge,
from Singing Horse Press. He has been just…so good to work with. Because
he is a poet, you know, and he has a long history of publishing other
poets. His magazine, Paper Air. And he has a care and concern,
you know, that this work should get out. And I think he's also been very
conscious and aware of his surroundings, here in Philadelphia, with the
kinds of work that he's done. He's worked with homeless people, he's
worked as a community outreach person at the Painted Bride Arts Center.
And his wife Julia Blumenreich who is also a poet and also has a journal
that she co-edits, 6ix. She's a teacher and has been very much in
touch with the diversity, socio-economically and racially, in Philadelphia
-- so I think they're very sensitive to those kinds of issues. And that
has helped, you know, in just working with the press. So it's just been
very easy because he understands, I think, what I'm doing, and that
makes everything so much better. And he requested the work. I have been
very lucky as a poet because each one of my books has been a book that was
requested. Lee Ann Brown published Trimmings with her Tender
Buttons Press and it was a great coincidence that I happened to have been
thinking about Tender Buttons, the Gertrude Stein book -- her press
is named for that book -- and it was Roberto Bedoya who alerted Lee Ann to
that manuscript. With Gil it was almost accidental that we met when I
read at Painted Bride. That was the beginning of our association. And
then that he did the photographs for "Supermarket," he went to his local
supermarket and took these pictures. We sort of collaborated on the cover
of Muse and Drudge. I told Gil I wanted a picture of a black woman
on the cover and I didn't want it to be me. He was restricted in terms of
how much he could pay anyone for a photograph so I tried to get
photographs from some other people but they wanted to charge too much for
a small press, a non-profit publisher. So he found this photograph and we
made it work out. I like the ambiguity of the image. Her eyes are closed
and she could be singing or praying. Her hands look like she could be
praying or she could be clapping along as she's singing. There's
something soulful about her, you know? And the idea of this black woman
being both Muse and Drudge was really important to me and I really
wanted an image of a black woman on the cover. Gil completely understood
that, he helped me find this photograph. He's very sensitive and attuned
to what people are trying to do with their work. And I really have
KG: He seems to have a special skill for picking up…things, new people,
or picking up what someone's doing, you know? I mean, just really kind of
catching on in a really, really acute sensitive way, you know?
KG: He just does a lot of searching and really finds things…kind of like
a frontiersman or something.
HM: Right. And before Rachel DuPlessis and Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman
came to this area, Gil Ott was already trying to reach out and connect
with poets all over the country. I think that you've got some exciting
activity going on here in Philadelphia, but that has not always been the
case. All the years that Gil Ott has been here trying to create
something, you know, and so I think finally he's beginning to see a
community around him, and students coming through these various programs,
that he's got some company now, you know? He's not going to be…just be a
lonely voice trying to do what he's doing and I think that's very
important, that he can see, in a way, the results of these years of
sticking it out, you know, when it wasn't so easy.
MM: Do you guys talk about the size of the books? I love the shape of
HM: Now I have not really been too much involved with that. I agree that
the size of each book seems just right, but I don't really think about
that so much. I just think about the text and I think about, to some
extent, the cover. I knew that I wanted the cover of Muse and
Drudge to be black and blue. And I thought that the cover of
"Supermarket" should have something to do with a supermarket. Gil just
understood. He had read the text and he had an idea what would be good and
when I saw what he'd done, I thought, oh, this is great, you know. It
works. It's exactly what I would have imagined. He's just done what he
felt was appropriate -- because we don't always have the time and the
ability…you know, I've never…I've always been some distance from him and
so we've done a lot on the phone or through the mail. But he somehow
manages to be on the wavelength, you know, or when I have a concern he is
responsive to that concern. But I chose this color. I went to an art
store and bought different shades of blue paper, thinking "Mood Indigo,"
and I cropped a xerox of the photo and enlarged it on the copy machine. He
was very willing to try to do what I wanted, within the budget, which is a
shoe-string budget. That has been my experience in both cases with Gil.
Either he knew how to do it in a way that I would like to see it done, or
he would stand back and let me do what I wanted to do.
MM: Were you thinking of Armstrong's "What Did I Do To Be So Black and
Blue," and Ellison's use of that?
HM: Yeah, the black and blue theme is definitely a part of the blues
itself, and all of the resonances of being black and blue, all the
multiple meanings of that. And then having this woman in…framed by this
black background and this blue frame around that. Just visually to me, it
announces what you're going to encounter when you open this book.
MM: It reminds me of the kind of multi-vocal sentiment in Ellison's
Prologue, where he says that he'd like to hear five different recordings
of Armstrong singing it all at once.
HM: When I teach Invisible Man, I usually bring in a cassette and
play the song because a lot of my students will not know that music. It
was important because muse and music are related terms and this book
definitely is influenced by those musical traditions of spirituals,
gospels, blues, and jazz. The woman on the cover looks as if she probably
is singing. The photo was taken at a public meeting, a protest
demonstration where people were speaking in some public forum and she was
a part of that. She's participating as an activist, at the same time that
she's singing or shouting, so there's the political dimension and a
spiritual dimension and is she singing, is she praying, is she shouting a
slogan, you know, there's all of that possibility there.
FG: Thank you, Harryette.
MM: Thank you, Harryette, so much.
HM: Thank you all for the good conversation.
A 16 page selection from this conversation appears in the journal
COMBO #1 (Summer 1998) edited by Michael Magee.