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The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews


Harryette Mullen’s collection of essays and interviews is an important literary event. Like her poetry, Mullen’s essays and interviews are written at several key intersections: speech and writing; innovation and race. Mullen notes that her “work continues to explore linguistic quirks and cultural references peculiar to American English as spoken by the multiethnic peoples of the United States” (8-9). As you will see, this collection provides abundant evidence of Mullen’s vision of a multiethnic America. Mullen’s politics is for linguistic inclusion: “I desire that my work appeal to an audience that is diverse and inclusive, at the same time that I wonder if human beings will ever learn how to be inclusive without repressing human diversity through cultural and linguistic imperialism” (8). While Mullen claims that her own “inclination is to pursue what is minor, marginal, idiosyncratic, trivial, debased, or aberrant in the language that I speak and write” (8), the results are hardly minor. Mullen is helping us all to imagine and to inhabit a multiethnic culture that has rid itself of xenophobia, and Mullen’s exact provocation is to create a linguistic environment that promotes that acceptance and openness through its intellectual challenges and exemplary linguistic play.

Mullen’s writing arrives in an era of charged identity politics, and she is determined to challenge overly simplified versions of identity. She interrogates and complicates identity: “The idea of identity informs my poetry, insofar as identity acts upon language, and language acts upon identity. It would be accurate to say that my poetry explores the reciprocity of language and culture” (4). Mullen, by her own description, is involved in a “construction and ultimate deconstruction of a representative black voice” (64). Particularly in the essay “The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be,” she takes up Aldon Nielsen’s term “interrogate,” which Mullen applies in its original sense of “standing between and asking questions.” Her poetry and essays thereby participate in an interrogative practice where the writing is located “in a space between declarative representations of blackness and a critical engagement with the cultural and discursive practices by which evolving identities are recognized, articulated, and defined.” This writing of “’other blackness’ (rather than ‘black otherness’)” constitutes a powerful, intelligent disturbance of any homogeneous sense of African American culture and identity. The result, as Mullen describes it, is to allow “the meanings of blackness to proliferate and expand, thus stretching black identity and making it more inclusive; but also allowing instability in defining what blackness is” (87).

Mullen’s essays interrogate governing assumptions about blackness: “Presumably, for the African-American writer, there is no alternative to production of this ‘authentic black voice’ but silence, invisibility, or self-effacement” (96). In “African Signs and Spirit Writing,” an important critique of Henry Louis Gates’ work, Mullen argues that “any theory of African-American literature that privileges a speech based poetics, or the trope of orality, to the exclusion of more writerly texts will cost us some impoverishment of the tradition” (96-97). Mullen’s own poetry is a crucial instance of writing and thinking that interrogates the profoundly important intersection of speech and writing: “I am writing for the eye and the ear at once, at that intersection of orality and literacy, wanting to make sure that there is a troubled, disturbing aspect to the work so that it is never just a ‘speakerly’ or ‘writerly’ text” (281). Part of the pathway for Mullen to this intersection goes by way of Gertrude Stein’s writing, particularly Tender Buttons, though Mullen’s consideration of Stein remains a skeptical one – “though I claim her [Stein] as an ancestor, I cannot say that I am a devout ancestor worshipper” (34).

Along with exploring the relationship between speech-based and literary-based text, Mullen also questions received notions and categories for poets of color. She writes that “’Formally innovative minority poets,’ when visible at all, are not likely to be perceived either as typical of a racial/ethnic group or as representative of an aesthetic movement” (13). Or, put more directly, “[t]he assumption remains, however unexamined, that ‘avant-garde’ poetry is not ‘black’ and that ‘black’ poetry, however singular its ‘voice,’ is not ‘formally innovative’” (15). It is hard to imagine this assumption remaining unexamined in light of the evidence presented by Mullen’s poetry, essays, and interviews. Her work, along with that of Aldon Nielsen and Lorenzo Thomas (Mullen calls Thomas “my most immediate and influential model of a black poet engaged in formal innovation” [16]), clearly demonstrates that “black” and “innovative” are not mutually exclusive categories. I think that Mullen is correct when she understands her own Muse & Drudge (1995) as a work that “might alter or challenge that assumption [that “black” and “innovative” are separate categories], bridging what apparently has been imagined as a gap (or chasm?) between my work as a ‘black’ poet and my work as a ‘formally innovative’ poet” (16). This collection of essays and interviews further extends the supports and byways of that bridge into a well-linked thoroughfare with considerable interchange between both sides of that now much narrowed divide.

As you will see as you make your way through this collection, Mullen’s essays and reviews establish important kinships, with earlier poets such as Lorenzo Thomas, Tom Dent, and Ishmael Reed, and with a range of contemporaries that include Nathaniel Mackey, Will Alexander, Jay Wright, Ed Roberson, Clarence Major, Julie Patton, C. S. Giscombe, Claudia Rankine, Mark McMorris, and Akilah Oliver. Mullen has written superb essays especially on the work of Mackey and Alexander, thereby making important, articulate interventions into contemporary taste and attention, extending the range of audibility and visibility for this particularly rich era of “formally innovative minority poets.” Thus, Mullen’s critical writing functions as activist research: partisan, partial, and ethical. In one sense, then, her work (essays and poetry) is an effort to “create an audience” for herself and others (301). In another sense, though, her writing – which is deeply informed by her probing scholarship, her knowledge of a broad range of music, her training in folklore, and her genealogical research – amounts to an idealistic or optimistic engagement designed to make her and us more whole: When asked, “’How do you know all this stuff?,’” she replies, “it’s because I’ve been searching. We feel incomplete, and we search to make ourselves, our knowledge, more complete” (262). I find that Mullen’s writing inspires us, her readers, to take part in that ongoing search to make ourselves and our knowledge more complete; in this respect, her writing energizes our own reading and writing.

Ultimately, Mullen’s work embodies a strikingly contemporary sense of a miscegenated culture. She acknowledges this as a crucial perspective in her own work: “A lot has been said of how American culture is a miscegenated culture, how it is a product of a mixing and mingling of diverse races and cultures and languages, and I would agree with that. I would say that, yes, my text is deliberately a multi-voiced text, a text that tries to express the actual diversity of my own experience of living here, exposed to different cultures. ‘Mongrel’ comes from ‘among.’ Among others. We are among; we are not along. We are all mongrels” (232). For Mullen, as a poet and essayist, that exploration of the possibilities for a hybrid, miscegenated textuality takes place at the linguistic intersection where different varieties of English interact; in her own words, her “poetic idiom is a product of American English and its vernaculars, including those associated with black speakers of American English” (7).

In “Imagining the Unimagined Reader: Writing to the Unborn and Including the Excluded,” Mullen suggests that “about one-third of my pleasure as a writer comes from the work itself, the process of writing, a third from the response of my contemporaries, and another third in contemplating unknown readers who inhabit a future I will not live to see” (4). It is my hope that this new collection of essays and interviews creates an opportunity for additional responses from contemporaries as well as a means for future readers to join the conversations and considerations that Mullen’s writing makes possible.

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