KRISTIN BERKEY-ABBOTT Reviews
Looking Up Harryette Mullen: Interviews on Sleeping with the Dictionary and Other Works by Barbara Henning
(Belladonna Books, Brooklyn, 2011)
A book of writerly interviews will always be one of my favorite genres, and so, I was predisposed to like this, Looking Up Harryette Mullen: Interviews on Sleeping with the Dictionary and Other Works, a collection of conversations between Barbara Henning and Harryette Mullen. I was not prepared to spend a whole Saturday afternoon unable to put the book down, as if it was a murder mystery. What a treat!
The first section of the book consists of interviews in a unique form: a postcard format. Originally Henning suggested that both she and Mullen participate in the interview by writing postcards, but Mullen usually had more to say, and thus, she wrote letters. Henning explains that they thought about an e-mail exchange, way back in 1996, but they both preferred the slower pace of old-fashioned mail.
The section includes photographs of the actual postcards, along with the typed transcript. Each postcard has a few sentences of pleasantries, and then a question or two, along with references to the reading that prompted the questions.
Mullen’s answers provide a treasure trove of insight into the processes of this unique poet. For example, she describes writing her long poem Trimmings this way: “Writing the poem also involved a process of making lists. First, I made a list of words referring to anything worn by women. Each word on that list became the topic of a prose poem (I started with clothing, then decided to include accessories. There were a few things I decided not to write about, such as wigs, dentures, and so forth.) Then I made more lists by free associating from words on the first list.” And then she went on to have fun with further associations: “I generated lists of words that might be synonyms (pants/jeans/slacks/ britches), homonyms (duds/duds, skirt/skirt), puns or homophones (furbelow, suede/swayed), or that had some metaphorical, metonymical, or rhyming connection (blouse/dart/sleeve/heart, pearl/mother, flapper/shimmy/chemise), or words that were on the same page of the dictionary (chemise/chemist). I would improvise a possible sequence of words, seeing what the lists might suggest in the way of a minimal narrative, a metaphor, an association, or pun” (page 14). Just reading this paragraph made me want to create some lists of my own.
Along with discussing the creation of poems, Henning and Mullen talk about graduate school and the issues that arise when creative writers learn to be scholars. Mullen says, “One of my struggles as a graduate student, who had already published one book of poetry, was to keep intact my identity as a creative writer while I was learning to be a literary and cultural critic, a literature teacher, a member of the academic community” (page 24).
She also discusses modern life and the writer’s dilemma: “Writing in fragments seems to be a very contemporary response to the postmodern distraction, the channel-surfing attention span, our fractured sense of time, on one hand” (page 33). Keep in mind that she wrote this critique in 1996; the problem has only gotten worse.
The second part of the book contains a more traditional interview, conducted in 2008, with Barbara Henning asking Harryette Mullen questions about her book Sleeping with the Dictionary. As with the first section, Mullen and Henning offer many insights about the writing process, the writing community, and larger communities.
This section also contains fascinating photographs of a variety of items: the book that Mullen made for her 5 year old nephew (which became the poem “Ask Arden”), a photo of the Crenshaw neighborhood, Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 set beside Mullen’s “Dim Lady,” and photos of Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project in Detroit, where he took abandoned houses and turned them into art that’s both compelling and disturbing. It’s great to have these photos as Mullen discusses the work inspired by them.
The book also includes an insightful introduction by Juliana Spahr, who gives insight to the work (both creative writing and teaching of both women). She also gives helpful background to the avant-garde groups and techniques used by Mullen. For example, she says, “A number of the poems in the book are composed by the N = 7, a process attributed to Jean Lescure . . . ” (iii). She goes on to describe the Oulipo writing community that Lescure founded, and then says, “In the N + 7, the poet replaces each noun in a text with the seventh one following it in a dictionary. The result is a joyous sort of a mad lib type of a poem” (iii).
For those of us who need a jump start when we’re feeling stymied, there are all sorts of techniques that we might try. And for those of us who find motivation from reading about the process of others, we’ll find much to inspire us here. And even though the poems discussed may be experimental, the conversations contained in this book maintain an accessibility.
Even readers or writers who think they don’t like avant-garde writing or experimental poems will find much to enjoy here. The conversations between Mullen and Henning are rooted in daily life of the type that most of us experience, and it’s a joy to discover that even famous poets with jobs that sound great still must contend with audience expectations and the weather. In many ways, these conversations seem timeless, yet my inner feminist historian also delighted in the capturing of the lives of these two women artist/teachers.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott earned a Ph.D. in British Literature from the University of South Carolina. Pudding House Publications published her chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard, in 2004. Her second chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Currently, she teaches English and Creative Writing at the Art Institute of Ft. Lauderdale and serves as Chair of the General Education department. She blogs about books, creativity, poetry, and modern life at http://kristinberkey-abbott.blogspot.com/and about theology at http://liberationtheologylutheran.blogspot.com/. Her website is http://www.kristinberkey-abbott.com/.