A CONVERSATION WITH HARRYETTE MULLEN
Farah Griffin, Michael Magee, and Kristen Gallagher / 1997
A 16 page selection from this
conversation appears in the journal
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 you're interest in "language poetry," you're relationship with it. So, I guess I was wondering about you're 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 actually when I read in Philadelphia. Gil actually had invited me and another poet at the Painted Bride Center, art center, when he used to work there, before all the budget cuts eliminated his job. That must have been five or six years ago. And I can remember that there were six people in the audience. Rachel was there, Rachel Duplessis was there, and some other people, and, you know, so I had come all the way, at that time, from Ithaca, New York, to Philadelphia and read to six people, but it resulted in those two books, "Spermkit" andMuse and Drudge. I think I'm the only one that Gil has published two books for. He usually does about two books a year and, because he's so reliable, and does such a wonderful job, you know, he continues to get some grants, you know, 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 kind of 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 just kind of a coincidence - you know, a very happy coincidence for me - and 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 husband at the time (laughter) ... I was trying to avoid that, but, I don't think I can. Who dragged me into the language camp, in a way, I mean, I really didn't know those people. I had come from Texas to Northern California. I was in graduate school at Santa Cruz. I was reading all of this theory as a graduate student in Literature at UC-Santa Cruz. So, at that point when I would, you know, be taken to these talks and readings, um, you know, I had a context for it. I think if I hadn't been in graduate school at the time it would have been very different. I listened, I paid attention, you know 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 was dealing with the work of these poets. But these poets read the same theory that my professors did - in fact they probably read twice as much, and had read the same theory earlier than a lot of my professors had, and they were highly intellectual poets. There's a kind of model of American poets that is very anti-intellectual and they were so much not-that, you know it was impressive to see them, and they were so organized and so committed to what they were doing. And they were saying interesting things. And I had to take that into, you know, the background, the traditions, that I had come up with and 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, because our kind of joke of minority (and some women) graduate students was, "It's that white male subjectivity that needs to be ... " you know, we 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 sort of gave me some ideas about that because, for instance, where I grew up, in Fort Worth, Texas, and I was born in Alabama, you know in the South, basically, you see a black person, you speak to that person whether you know them or not. You sort of assume that there's this brotherly, sisterly attachment, I mean, even if it is in some cases very superficial. In California, no, I walk up to people, they don't even make eye-contact, or they're, you know, 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 sort of authentic voice mode, you know, of the person who speaks from the black family, from the black community, and, um, you know that that idea of who was a black person - I mean I, without even consciously thinking about it, I think I more or less assumed a black person was someone with Southern roots and someone who ate collard greens and some one who was probably a Protestant, you know, and I had to just rethink all of that. And so those were ways that I began to relate what I did in my work to what they were doing. You know, I had to reimagine what they were doing in other terms. And 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 bookBorderlands.
MM: She says, "Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguishus 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 evolve."
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. 'Cause definitely, particularly in Fort Worth which, unlike say 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 kind of had the feeling we were growing up between the Anglos and, as we called them then, the Mexicans, you know. So, there was a sense of Spanish being spoken; there was a sense of a black Southern vernacular being spoken, which my family didn't exactly really speak. I sound more Southern now then I did when I was a kid. And, you know, partly I sound more Southern, I guess, because I had to sort of get with the program and blend in, 'cause my mother, my grandmother, the people who I grew up with, were from Pennsylvania - they were from Harrisburg. And so, you know, my whole relationship to black English, like that of a lot of middle class black people, is, you learn that to keep your butt from getting beat in the streets. You know, what you spoke at home was basically what I would call black standard English, you know, and you learned this vernacular on the streets in order to have some friends out there. And so the sort of naturalizing of black English asthe way that black people are supposed to speak and write is something that is very problematic for me. I mean, I enjoy having various registers and I enjoy throwing Spanish words into my poems, you know, and I think that a variety of languages and dialects makes life more interesting. You know, Langston Hughes' motto says, "I play it cool and dig all jive and that's the reason I'm alive. My motto is 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, you know? There's the coercion of school which says - and work places - you must speak this way or you will not be employable; and then there's the coercion of the streets: you can't hang with us if you talk to proper, you know? And on both sides there's coercion, so that's something to bear in mind when we're talking about language, is that there is violence, there is coercion, 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.
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'treally 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 don't really have, I mean, I think I threw a couple of Portuguese words in there and a couple of French words in there. It's just a kind of gesture at multiplicity and, you know, heteroglossia. Also, the poem was a process for me, you know, I was throwing in black vernacular from Clarence Major's dictionary Juba to Jive. You know I would find something really juicy and say, "Oh, I've got to put this in," or you know I have something that I got from you Farah [laughter], "washing her nubia." You know, I just said, this is got to, you know, I've got to use this somehow. So, I was, you know, picking up all of these threads like the little magpie that I am and weaving them into this poem. So, I don't think, I mean a reader who had not just followed me through my whole life while I was writing this poem would not necessarily have access, and one of the things I enjoy when I 'm reading that poem is seeing the smiles and the laughter and the nodding heads sort of move around them room. You know, the young people will get some things, the older people will get other things, the white people getting one joke and the black people are getting some other joke, and people who speak Spanish are getting some other joke, and the laughter kind of just ripples around the room. And I really enjoy that.
MM: I had a funny experience teaching parts ofMuse 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 readMuse 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 dig it.
HM: Mm-hm. I mean part of what I think I try to do when I'm writing is overcome that kind of resistance, and I do - 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] and I think, how am I going to keep them with me, you know, and in the case ofMuse and Drudge I think the rhythm and the rhyme, the sort of 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. And they're not expected to understand it all, I mean I don't think even I understand it all because some of it actually is, in a way, nonsense, I mean some of it is sort of my riffing around with words and just seeing what comes out. There's this improvisational aspect to it, and its not necessarily meant to have a deep, deeper, meaning, although in some cases it might. But I think the idea is to sort have people just carried along by the sort of oral qualities of the work in those moments when they're not getting it at some other level. That 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 - andplayfulness - 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 come from the tradition of the community because we werealways 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. And, 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 like the three that everybody could quote something from, and you had these occasions when you had to perform, you were expected to get up there and say your peace. And then there was all the sort of playground, jump-rope rhyme, circle games. I mean all of the games that we played were - at least that the girls played - were very verbal games that involved rhyming along with some sort of physical activity, you know, show your motion and jumping 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 - the sort of dozens, capping, signifying, verbal duels - you know, when people begin to be sort of pre-adolescent there's all this kind of pseudo-courtship, formulaic exchanges that people have, you know, "What's cookin' good lookin'?" and, you know, 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]. You know, we knew to say that, so, we would ... and then, every now and then someone would invent a new rhyme, you know, and that would be incorporated into everybody's collective repertoire. So I think that that was just 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 sort of challenge the notion of a black literary tradition being based only in a oral vernacular tradition.
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'sthere. You know I say that that commonplace exist because of, you know, a very common sense observation of what really does happen but at the same time, although Dunbar, Hughes and James Weldon Johnson were working with a vernacular tradition in their poetry, it was written, and we had access to it through books. 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 standard English was his first, you know, language and, uh ... growing up in Ohio and, you know, being the one black student in his class, you know he spoke standard English. And he wrote all those poems 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 boat.
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 have been the cost, if any, to that way of thinking about it?
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. I think that people have to reexamine 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 communication with spirit than with communication with living human beings. So we have to first of all reexamine the idea that Africans only had oral traditions and didn't have written traditions because there are these examples of African script systems. Not necessarily what all scholars would define as writing but ... and then we have to think about, well, what has happened since we've been here and the way that we, you know, our culture is synchrotized with European, with Native American, cultures and that its 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 mean, I think that in creating a tradition and a canon according to particular principles that have to do with orality and speakerliness ... what happens is that it's a kind of circular logic so that anyone who hasn't fit into that is pushed to the side ... you know, a Melvin Tolson, who people said, well, he doesn't write in Negro, you know, or he's trying to out-Pound Pound [laughter]. You know that person becomes lost, or forgotten for a while. I think that we're beginning to remember the Tolsons and, you know, and the Bob Kaufmans and the Jean Toomers, and to see that there is this tradition, and I mean its ... the logic of saying that your tradition is one particular thing is that what doesn't fit, that supposedly anomalous writer who's erased, and then for the next generation its as if their starting all over from scratch. So each generation is being denied this history of innovation, formal experimentation, of a writerly text, that may also be speakerly at the same time, may also be musical - I mean if we say that speech and music as, you know, Steven Henderson in "Understanding the New Black Poetry," that very influential introduction to that anthology, tried to define, well, what is blackness in literature? And he talked ... he very much stressed speech and music, but he also said "speech" includes the speech of the most educated, the most literate, the most, uh, sort of dictionary-bearing, you know, members of the community as well. So, our notion of whatspeech is would have to be expanded.
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. You know, Aldon Nielsen's bookBlack Chant has been very useful because he's trying to go back and fill in what was happening just before the Black Arts movement.
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 speak?
HM: Well I'm using, for a course that I'm going to teach at UCLA, Nielsen's book,Black Chant, and he's using a ... everyone of his chapters is a quotation from a Black Art practitioner, so "The Calligraphy of Black Chant" comes from Ed Roberson; and he has other chapters like "Outlantish" which comes from Nate Mackey, and each one of the chapters has a reference point like that. So, he's in a way using even the chapter titles to show, you know that this ... this sort of formation has its own way of talking about itself. And then there's Nate Mackey's book, Discrepant Engagement, which is a very, you know, eclectic, collection of essays that involve the Black Mountain poets, who were influential, you know, for Baraka, and Baraka also, you know ... it's interesting about Baraka, actually, because he's such a central and pivotal figure, and because he himself was ... 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," you know, who is defining and prescribing how everyone should write when he himself was allowed to do everything.
FG: To do it all. Yeah.
MM: One of the things that I think is so interesting aboutDiscrepant 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.
MM: 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, like a very useful essay Erica Hunt did 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. And then there are essays here and there - Will Alexander has an essay called, "Alchemy as Poetic Kindling," and, you know, 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 and ... so there are beginning to be these discussions, and this kind of tradition, alternative tradition, alternative black tradition. I mean now that we have ... 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, and others have put together, so that now that this canon that we have been struggling to have recognized, 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 so now that that exists, in a way I feel that that liberates us to go on and discover what else exists out there. You know, what else has been going on and where do we go from here, now that we officially recognized and we are ... 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 ... this sort of ability to develop your own symbolic economy, and so as a reader you have to allow your self to sort of just get into the game, which is a different game than you're accustomed to - I'm thinking in terms of language games.
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: Himself, he talks in the introduction of the book how his notion of discrepant engagement comes from the Dogon of Mali, you know, and their term for a ... they have a ... something they call "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 or ideas, you know, philosophies, and so, and discrepant having 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 endsBedouin Hornbook, right? I think "The Creaking of the Word" is the last passage.
HM: Right. Yes. So, you know, 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. You know, Ron Silliman, in "The New Sentence," talks about ... I think there's an essay 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," and he says, well of course, the aesthetic schools are not without their politics or their ideologocal stance, they just express it through these aesthetic means and procedures. And I would want to add that - I don't thinkhe does but I would want to add - the codes of oppressed peoples also have their aesthetic basis, you know, and one thing that Mackey points out in Discrepant Engagement, he's following the work of Robert Farris Thompson who has done a lot, a scholar, you know, who is Euro-American whose done a lot of work on African Diaspora cultures, and that, you know, within these cultures there is a long tradition of what he calls songs and dances of allusion. And so Nate grabs on to that idea that something can be very swinging, something can be very much something that wants to make you get up and move, shake your butt, or whatever, and still have, you know ... it's aesthetic and it also has a message to communicate. You know, that there are ... there's this 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 - I mean if you look at something like Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men where she's dealing with folklore of people who were not very well educated but its a very philosophical discourse when you look and see what these people are saying, what are they talking about, how they bring the whole world 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. And so, I mean, think that one of the things that Nate 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, you know, and also, you know, he could quote Mao Tse-tung and say that, you know, all art is propaganda, but he would also not forget to say the second half, which is that not all propaganda is art [laughter] you know, so that once you have a commitment to look at each one of these things, you know, and to see, 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 also 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. And you don't have just one or the other, you need the combined energy of both. If you want your artistic activity to be connected to some political activity.
FG: Do you see that ... might that be a reason, then, why there's this tendency to look at the Black Arts movement as, you know,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: But, 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, its 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 think that that's kind of what I feel in ... I mean I feel like I'm one of the last integrationists because I still believe in integration but when I look around me its 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 - and 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, you know, and so we need to build something of our own. And I think that's really what, you know, what made that moment different from ... I mean, I think there were those impulses, say in Garveyism and in other social formations but this was a time when large numbers of black people really said, "We've been beating on this wall for so long, you know, beating, beating, beating. It's still there and we need to just turn elsewhere and create something for ourselves, and create an alternate identity which 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 thin it was a moment of clarity. I don't think that that should be theend of the discussion. And I also think that, in terms of the art that was produced, for some people, you know, the art became formulaic. Not for all people, I mean, like I say, if you look at Baraka and the variety and the, you know, the mobility, you know, 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 really kind of got in a groove and stayed there, and their work really did not change much.
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 those situations.
FG: I was going to ask you to elaborate on that. [laughter]
HM: Well, I mean, one reason I wroteMuse and Drudge is because having written Tree Tall Woman, you know, and 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 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, a room which 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, you know, 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. That would come together, those people that were interested in the formal innovation that, you know, I ... that emerged when I was writing Trimmings and "Spermkit," partly because I was, in those books, responding to the work of Gertrude Stein, you know, so those audiences picked up on that, and I had been hanging out with these 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. And, I mean, it was something that I could do and something that I felt, "Well, this is interesting," you know, "This tells me something about the way that I'm writing now," and 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 really 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 goway out.
FG: to be blackis to be innovative.
MM: Parker can talk about Stravinsky, right?
MM: And nobody blinks an eye.
FG: Right. In fact heought 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 and there are references to that inMuse 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 be out, and people just 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] and I wonder if it is because no everyone plays a musical instrument or knows everything about music and so is more willing to say, "Well, these are the experts and we will allow them to take us to these weird places," whereas everyone who speaks the language, you know, "Well, I wrote a poem once," you know, and so, if you do that in language - and, you know, if you use certain kinds of words - then somehow you've left this familiar territory and you're now taking us somewhere we don't want to go. And, I don't know, I think the musicians are maybe just given moreleeway than the writers are because the writers ... I mean, people have this notion that the writers are supposed to talk to them in their language, you know, and if there's something that's unfamiliar, something that's unknown, that's an imposition on the audience, to have to deal with this thing that is not immediately understandable. Whereas with music you 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 going on.
HM: Well, you know, one time when I was teaching this course in slave narratives - and this was at, actually, UC-Santa Barbara where I was temporarily teaching - and these students 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, and, "He's not folksy," you know, and Equiano is using all of these big words and, you know, how did they get all of these big words? And I have to go to the dictionary, and they sort of resented that they would have to go to the dictionary to look up words used by someone who had been a slave, you know - and before that didn't even speak English. And I said, well, you know, these guys were autodidacts, they didn't grow up with "See Spot run," you know, they just had to take what was out there and get the dictionary or whatever they had, you know, and justlearn. And that's what happens when you are just open to learning.
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 soundingnot 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.
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'sHouse on Mango Street and I see Gwendolyn Brooks all over House on Mango Street also.
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 muchMaud 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 metaphor.
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, you know, she funds out of her own pocket many, many poetry contests there in Chicago where she is, and she really is trying to stimulate young people and she's writing to and for young people, you know, her most recent books have really been children's books in a sense. So, I think she has really begun to concentrate on trying to stimulate reading and writing among these very young audiences, and that's something that I think about also with Maya Angelou, whose work I have some difficulty with, but, you know, you have to contextualize it in terms of, well, what are their aims, what audiences are they really trying to appeal 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 readingI 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, you know, 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 that gets here there. That's a way to get he there.
HM: It could. 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 West."
MM: Which isso complex and yet is a kind of story about a little boys 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 reason.
HM: Mm-hm. That's the other thing. I think that what the tradition and ... some of this idea of speakerliness and orality has to do with a tradition that, you know, I associate with my mother's saying to me, "Well, when you're explaining something and you're the one with the knowledge to impart to other people you got to put it in terms that everyone can understand, you got to," as she would say, "you got to make it so grandma can get it," you know? 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 are 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 much aware of that and they feel that that is their mission.
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 repeatMuse 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, they are attempting to write, in a way, outside my body. So ... Muse and Drudge also was really useful and productive for me 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, and so I think what I'm trying to do now is push that a little further. Because with Muse and Drudge I was concerned to encompass a large generous view, inclusive view, of sort of what African tradition, Diaspora culture tradition, language, languages, you know, could be. And, you know, to think of about that in terms of say, through the lens of a black woman. And now, I think the pieces that I'm doing are an attempt to, again, pull in what's in the air, you know, and to not necessarily write from myself, my voice, my body, as a black woman - although that's who I am. But that that's not the starting point for this work. That the sensibility and the particular perceptions that I have obviously are there but that I'm not attempting to sort of recreate myself in this work, or recreate a black vision in this work, but just to sort of push to see how language just ... comes in. How it comes on to the page from wherever. And so that involves in some cases creating a little ... language machine.
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 Verta Mae Grovener's cookbook. You know, she has a lot of sort of family memories and ... so she has this sentence, you know, and I just was fascinated with this sentence that she said was part of a black folk tradition. I had never heard it before, but it's, "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." And that's part of the folk tradition.
FG: Right, right.
HM: So I just took that syntactical structure and repeated it and put different words in instead of huckleberry and persimmon. So that's a little machine, you know. Or the "Tom Swifties," you know I read the poem ... to take an idea of a kind of writing and then just use that, you know, in order to invent something, to improvise something.
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 commercials, from ... I mean, because there's this possibility - it's what the dictionary calls "a rhyming-chiming formation." So the word jingle-jangle itself is made from that type of formation, where it's a kind of every-day poetry. It comes out of folklore, it comes out of commercials, a lot of ... you know there's "Paco's tacos" and "Choco taco" and [laughter] you know all of these things that are brand names or, you know, they are things ... there are sounds, onomatopoeia, like jingle-jangle or ding-dong or razzmatazz. But, you know, we always have fun making these things up as kids or you know someone who's writing advertising copy, you know. I mean this is something that is very much just a part of how language is invented on a day to day basis. We are continually creating new versions of this, you know, and ... so it was just a demonstration of how much poetry there is all around us and how much we are participating in the creation of something that ispoetic - it's not poetry but its the kind of material that poetry is made out 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, "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 some - I've only done that poem, maybe, this'll be the third time that I've read it to an audience, so - but each time I have invited contributions and I always get something I never heard of. Like someone gave me "stinky-pinky" [laughter] you know. Which is a game that he played when he was a kid, so ... and I had never heard of that.
MM: I wanted to contribute "devil dog." [laughter]
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 the lang ... all of that, 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 really 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.
MM: I also think that ... we okay? Yeah.
KG: Well, I was going to say I want to definitely have you read some stuff. So ... we could do that and go back to talking or if you have ... if you guys have only a few more things we could finish and have you read at the end?
FG: Yeah, I can finish at any point.
MM: Yeah, why don't we do that.
KG: Because I think we could go on forever.
FG: Wecould go on forever. [laughter]
MM: Right, right.
KG: But I'm just feeling - and if you want to ask your question and then we can do it.
KG: But I'm listening to you talk and I'm like, I think we need to hear what youdo.
FG: Right, I agree.
KG: Like we're getting there.
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 are.
MM: I remember reading ... Frank O'Hara - I've been reading his letters and he said that if you read May West's autobiography and Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas they're written in the exact same language. [laughter] That May West is as avant-garde as Gertrude Stein.
HM: May West has somesentences.
MM: Yeah! He quotes some of the sentences, and they're amazing. They really knocked me out.
HM: Yeah, even just the ones that are so well known like, you know, "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me." [laughter] You have tothink about that. And back then especially.
FG: Especially, right.
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, you know, what am I doing now: listening harder. You know, being a little nosier when I'm sitting in a café and someone else is sitting over at the next table.
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 Drudge.
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: Oh, okay.
KG: Whatever you're comfortable with.
HM: All right, well ...
KG: Given what we've been talking about maybe some things more reflective of ... things that really stand out for you about today's conversation.
HM: Okay. Well, one thing ... I mean, when I wroteTrimmings 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 pieces of black folklore in the book. Anyway, like 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, in bananas ... "
"Swan neck, white shoulders ... a cleavage in language."
"The Mermaid": "A fish caught ... each step an ache."
And, I mean, 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 idea 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 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 ...
KG: Oh, can you hold on one second, I just ran out of tape.
KG: No, it's all right, I have another one. But I'm glad you're not in the middle of a poem. [laughter]
FG: Someone stole my copy [ofTrimmings].
HM: Oh, I'll have to give you this one when we're done. Oh yeah, there it is, it's right up there in the beginning.
KG: Oh I did not run out of tape, it's okay. I don't know what that was.
FG: Oh I almost told who stole my copy. I'm glad I didn't. [laughter]
HM: Right, on the tape.
"Her red and white ... someone in the kitchen I know."
So, you know, that's some ofTrimmings. And I'll read some of "Spermkit," or, "Supermarket."
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 - and 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, you know, kind of the meat wrapped in plastic and the baked goods in, you know, a lot of 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. I mean and, actually, when I wrote the baby food poem (which I should read) it actually refers back to my childhood when you would walk down the baby food aisle and every baby was pink and blonde, you know, and blue-eyed, as if, you know, this is what a baby looks like all over the world, you know, or all over this country, that's what a baby looks like. And so, actually, you know, that has changed. So that's ... you know, that was kind of ... a lot of these poems have to do with commercials that I saw when I was a child, you know, and the memory of all of those things and ...
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 bathroom.
HM: Right. Yup. Yes, send that message as a consumer, mm-hm. Okay, this ... I found the baby food.
"Ad infinitum perpetual infants goo ... " (34).
So that kind of went from the food to, you know, the waste, but ... yeah ... let's see. Her'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, you know, the sort of image of what a baby's supposed to look like. And this one was, you know, where is blood supposed to be and where is blood not supposed to be. And, you know, each one of the poems sort of tries to bring a couple of things in juxtaposition so that you see them in relation to each other. Let me see if I can find another one. Oh, yeah.
"Off the pig, ya dig? ... " (20).
And then the beer commercial.
"What's brewing when a guy ... " (19).
You know, I was always fascinated, I mean, once I got a little older, that the beer commercials have this sort of pornographic aesthetic to them, that the beer is always foaming up and out of the glass [laughter] or out of the bottle, you know, which is very much an image of pornography, so, I just thought, I know this must be something that they consciously do. You, know, because, if you drink beer you'll become more virile, right? [laughter] That's the logic of 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, Spud gets three girls, mm-hm. [laughter]
KG: Scantily clad even.
HM: Right. So I can read a little ofMuse 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 shown during the Monday Night Football is usually imagined to be a woman. So, I saw that as a connection to the previous boo,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 sort of 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 you can kind of purchase your accouterments for. You know, you can't necessarily buy who you really want to be. You have to buy what, you know, what's available for you to be. So, I think that ... and also race, I mean, because especially since I'm dealing with a whole retrospective view of television, I mean, because when television ... you know, my memories of my early childhood with television - and I did grow up all the way with TV - but that ... and we were rationed, you know how much TV we could watch and we couldn't watch every program but the commercials, which 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 ... you know, even though that's not the case now, you know, 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 had an impression. So, I think that ... and also television was an occasion for learning in our household, in terms of my mother and saying ... she used to analyze, she used to do critique of what was on the television. For instance, when we would watch "Romper Room," then we would want to go to the store and buy the milk that the Romper Room lady, and the ice-cream that the Romper Room lady, you know, fed the kids, you know, on TV, and ... you know, she explained to us, you know, very clearly, "She 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 here that anymore." [laughter] Or when we wanted the Barbie Doll and she said, "There's no way that I am buying you all a doll who has more clothes than all three of us put together." [laughter] You know, so we got this kind of lesson and I think that "Spermkit" very much comes out of that kind of session of critique. Because 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 know, or ...
FG: "That woman's not that pretty." [laughter]
HM: Right, exactly, you know. And ... you know, and 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. You know, 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 it? ... yeah.
"Bad germs get zapped ... " (23).
So, you know, that definitely brought, I think, more of the sort of racial critique of what 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. I mean it's always amazing to me too how no matter whether both parents were, I mean, like really brunette, they always had a blonde child. [laughter] You know, like this is proof that they are really white. You know, you have to be able to produce that blonde, blue-eyed child. And I thought ... and it wasn't until much later I even realized, that is oppressive to white people.
HM: You know I have a friend who is Jewish and olive skinned and brunette, and she says, you know, she was just as oppressed by those blonde, blue-eyed images, and it's not there's anything, of course, wrong with being blonde and blue-eyed but look at how that image has been manipulated and used to just beat people over the head. You know, and 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 ofMuse and Drudge. I got to get that "nubia" one. [laughter]
FG: I quote that in the book. In the letters.
HM: Uh-huh. Great. I'm going to start with this one.
"if your complexion is a mess ... know how to roll the woodpile down" (34-6).
"ain't your fancy ... I know you know / what I mean, don't you" (38).
I'm looking for it.
FG: It's on that side of the page.
MM: On the top I think. [laughter]
HM: Maybe I've gone past it. I know how it starts. That's funny.
MM: I'll get my copy too.
HM: Yeah, it's funny I'm just ...
KG: Everyone take a section.
HM: Just missing it.
KG: Farah do the front.
HM: I should read some other while I'm looking but I just want to find that part.
KG: It's okay.
HM: Be sure we get that in.
FG: Oh, here it is, okay, it's on page 51.
HM: Oh, okay, thank you, I just somehow have been skipping right over it. Oh, yeah, there it is, okay.
"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 ... and I could comment on any of that if you wanted. I mean, you know, 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 its any other ... any number of things.
HM: Uh-huh. I use that now for when I'm washing my hair ...
HM: I say, "Now I've got to go 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, you know, so 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, you know, "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, you know, this conference was productive, if only because I got some juicy lines. [laughter]
FG: Great lines.
HM: ForMuse 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, you know, from Clarence Major's dictionary, you know. Because 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 it into one of the verses in this book, and then I read Maxine Claire's book, [Rattle Broom?] - and it's about I guess growing up in maybe the fifties in Kansas, I think ... and she says about one of her school friends - or not a friend really, a schoolmates - "She's a frone girl, I can't hang out with her, she's a frone girl." [laughter] And I thought, "Oh, now I know what this means," because I had just read about it in the dictionary. So there's a lot of that that was just my discovery as I was writing the book, you know, and it got in there because it was just I the air at the time.
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.
FG: You know someone who's always on the move, right?
HM: Yeah, and there's that kind of invention in the language. Yeah.
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," andMuse and Drudge, from Singing Horse Press. He has been just ... so good to work with. Because he is a poet, you know, he has a whole 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 much made conscious and aware by the surrounding, you know, here in Philadelphia, and 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, Six. That 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 ... and it's just been very easy. You know I just ... because he understands, I think, what I'm doing, and that just makes everything so much better. And he requested the work. I mean, it's been ... 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 almost a kind of just destiny that, you know, I happened to have been thinking about Tender Buttons, the Gertrude Stein book - and her press is named for that book - and so someone, you know, brought us together in a way. And I think that, again, with Gil its was just the sort of accident that I happened to be invited and that became the beginning of our association with him being my publisher. And then that he did the photographs for "Supermarket," he went to his local supermarket, he took these pictures. We sort of collaborated on the photograph of this black woman [on the cover of Muse and Drudge]. She's someone who lives here in Philadelphia, I mean, I, you know, I kept asking Gil, you know, he got the photograph from a friend of his and, you know, we were sort of restricted in terms of how much we could pay anyone for a photograph so I had tried to get photographs from some other people and they were just going to charge too much for a small press, you know, basically non-profit publisher to pay. So he found this photography and we kind of worked with it to make it..she was this ... image of this woman who has her eyes closed and she could be singing, she could be praying, her hands are sort of look like she could be praying or she could be clapping along as she's singing and there's something kind of soulful about her, you know. And the idea of, you know, 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. And, you know, Gil completely understood that, he helped me find this photograph, you know. And, I mean, I think he ... he's just very sensitive and attuned to what people are trying to do with their work. And I really have appreciated that.
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 he, you know, before Rachel DuPlessis and Bob Perelman and Ron Silliman came to this area, Gil Ott was pretty much, you know, trying to reach out and continue to have his connections to poets all over the country, and I think that you've got a really, it seems to me, very 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 them.
HM: Now, I have not really gotten too much involved with that. I don't really think about that so much. I just think about the text and I think about, to some extent, the cover. And so, I knew that I wanted the cover ofMuse and Drudge to be black and blue. And I thought that the cover of "Supermarket" should have something to do with a supermarket. But ... and Gil just kind of understood. He had read the text and he kind of understood what would be good and, in fact, he just took these photographs, and I thought, oh, this is great, you know. It works. It's exactly, you know, what I would have imagined. So it's been a process of, you know, him doing what he felt was appropriate - because we don't always have the time and the ability, you know, with him ... 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. So, I chose this color. I went to an art store and bought indigo blue paper and, you know, and I did things on the xerox machine with this photograph and he was very willing, you know, to try to do within, you know, the budget which he had which is a shoe-string budget, you know, what we wanted, what I wanted to see one the cover. And so that has been always the experience in both cases with Gil, is that, 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 those things that 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, you know, the blues itself, and being black and blue, 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. That, I mean just visually to me, it sort of said 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 records if Armstrong singning it all at once.
HM: Right, yeah. When I teachInvisible Man, I usually bring in a cassette and play, you know, that ... because a lot of my students will not know that music and ... in fact, most of them usually don't know. So I play that for them so they'll understand what he's referring to. But ... yeah, it was important because muse and music are actually related terms and this was a book that definitely tried to attach itself in some way to those musical traditions. And then that she looks as if she probably is singing. She was at a public meeting, a sort of a protest, or a demonstration, people were trying to have their voices heard in some public forum and she was a part of that. So, you know, she was also being an activist at the same time, so there's the sort of 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.
HM: This could be it, huh?
FG: Thank you, Harryette.
MM: Thank you, Harryette, so much.
HM: Thank you all for the good conversation.