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The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be

Essays and Interviews

Harryette Mullen

Publication Year: 2012

The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be forms an extended consideration not only of Harryette Mullen’s own work, methods, and interests as a poet, but also of issues of central importance to African American poetry and language, women’s voices, and the future of poetry.
Together, these essays and interviews highlight the impulses and influences that drive Mullen’s work as a poet and thinker, and suggest unique possibilities for the future of poetic language and its role as an instrument of identity and power.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

This book would not exist without the critical vision and active support of Charles Bernstein, Hank Lazer, and Dan Waterman. I am thankful to all of them for their dedicated eἀort on behalf of this work. Thanks as well to Kevin Fitzgerald for careful...

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pp. xiii

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...

I. Shorter Essays

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1. Imagining the Unimagined Reader: Writing to the Unborn and Including the Excluded

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pp. 3-8

The context for my work is not so much geographic as it is linguistic and cultural. I write beyond the range of my voice and the social boundaries of identity, yet within the limits imposed on my work and my imagination by language and its cultural...

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2. Poetry and Identity

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pp. 9-12

Some poems I wrote over a decade ago are only now earning a few bucks (and I do mean a few) through their inclusion in anthologies of African A merican poets. Because of these recent nibbles (for which I am grateful), I have made an act of faith in the posterity of my work, legally naming my sister as my heir and executor of...

3. Kinky Quatrains: The Making of Muse & Drudge

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pp. 13-17

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4. Telegraphs from a Distracted Sibyl

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pp. 18-19

I went to graduate school in Santa Cruz. D ipping into the Bay A rea bouillabaisse of aesthetically and politically engaged poets, artists, filmmakers, musicians, and new age root workers, and getting all sorts of ideas and notions in my encounters...

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5. If Lilies are Lily White: From the Stain of Miscegenation in Stein’s “Melanctha” to the “Clean Mixture” of White and Color in Tender Buttons

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pp. 20-28

I begin with the idea of color and race as diἀerent yet overlapping preoccupations in the two texts by Gertrude Stein with which I, as a black woman and as a poet, have the most intense relationship: “Melanctha” or Tender Buttons. Whether or not Stein shows her “true colors,” so to speak, in either...

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6. Nine Syllables Label Sylvia: Reading Plath’s “Metaphors”

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pp. 29-34

Plath’s poem “Metaphors” is packed with metaphors: a diἀerent one for each line, sometimes two or three. Yet all are poetically equivalent, referring to the same unstated condition of pregnancy. The poet has compressed similes into metaphors so that conventional comparisons—“I’m as heavy as an elephant. I’m as big as a house. My belly...

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7. Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem: Wislawa Szymborska in the Dialogue of Creative and Critical Thinkers

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pp. 35-43

From the ancient world to the Renaissance, when the sciences, arts, and humanities all spoke the same language, it was not unusual to find scientists writing poetry or to find poets, philosophers, and artists probing the universe with the curiosity of scientists. With their increasing specialization, the disciplines have diverged, resulting often in mutual incomprehension. As a..

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8. Theme for the Oulipians

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pp. 44-48

Langston Hughes has his “Theme for English B.” This is my “Theme for the O ulipians.” My connection to O ulipo is tenuous at best—more like nonexistent. I’m definitely not a member of O ulipo. I have the same initials as Harry Mathews; that’s about as close as I get to an O ulipo connection. I did meet Harry Mathews at the Poetry Project in New York on A pril 18, 1996. I know...

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9. When He Is Least Himself: Paul Laurence Dunbar and Double Consciousness in African American Poetry

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pp. 49-56

Like Paul Laurence D unbar and like many people who don’t consider themselves to be poets, I began writing poetry as a child. A lthough D unbar was not a poet I tried to emulate when I wrote my first poems, and although he is not among my consciously chosen ancestor poets, he certainly contributed...

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10. Truly Unruly Julie: The Innovative Rule-Breaking Poetry of Julie Patton

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pp. 57-59

Like certain jazz musicians who play “outside” the tradition, Julie Patton may be more familiar to Europeans than to readers in the United States. Her witty and musical poems, such as “A lphabet S oup,” “Poor G,” “Your Language Is Too Flowery,” and “I Wrote that Shit,” are joyful excursions to the land of...

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11. All Silence Says Music Will Follow: Listening to Lorenzo Thomas

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pp. 60-67

Having myself been born in the univocalic state of Alabama, it is my pleasure to speak today of my own experience of listening to and reading the work of Lorenzo Thomas, a poet born in the univocalic nation of Panama. Lorenzo has written about Panama and its poets in “The Marvelous Land...

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12. The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Stretching the Dialogue of African American Poetry

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pp. 68-76

In Black Chant: Languages of African- American Postmodernism (1997), a ldon Nielsen makes a significant contribution to discussions of African A merican literary production by supplying a literary history for alternate traditions...

II. Longer Essays

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13. African Signs and Spirit Writing

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pp. 79-101

The influential scholar Henry Louis Gates argues that black literary traditions privilege orality. This critical position has become something of a commonplace, in part because it is based on accurate observation. From the “talking book” featured in early slave narratives to “dialect poetry” and the “speakerly text,” the African American tradition...

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14. Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved

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pp. 102-129

The mainstream appeal of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin catalyzed literary as well as political activity in the nineteenth century. Leaving aside the numerous attacks, defenses, adaptations, imitations, and parodies the book inspired among white writers, let us note that Stowe, through the...

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15. Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness

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pp. 130-154

Two media reports occurring within about a week of each other caught my attention as one seemed to comment on the other: one, a Time magazine cover story documenting with a certain unease what it called “The Browning of America”; and the other, a National Public Radio news broadcast in...

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16. Phantom Pain: Nathaniel Mackey’s Bedouin Hornbook

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pp. 155-161

In contemporary fictional texts such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale, Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada, Alice Walker’s Meridian, and Nathaniel Mackey’s Bedouin Hornbook, the historical fact of slavery is associated explicitly or implicitly with constraints on

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17. A Collective Force of Burning Ink: Will Alexander’s Asia & Haiti

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pp. 162-172

A homegrown if not “organic” intellectual, Will Alexander is an African American writer from South Central Los Angeles whose surrealist poetry is global, even cosmic, in scope, encyclopedic in its display of esoteric knowledge...

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18. Incessant Elusives: The Oppositional Poetics of Erica Hunt and Will Alexander

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pp. 173-182

With the long-awaited publication of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, teachers, readers, and writers now have access to a widely available text and easily accessible pedagogical tool that constitutes, for the...

III. Interviews

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19. “The Solo Mysterioso Blues”: An Interview with Harryette Mullen by Calvin Bedient

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pp. 185-203

...southwestern or western. So it’s being in and actually on the edge of a Southern black culture. Texas, when I was young, was a segregated state. I remember the colored and white signs on the rest rooms and water fountains, and I remember the first time we tested integration by going to a...

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20. An Interview with Harryette Mullen by Daniel Kane

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pp. 204-212

Harryette Mullen was born in Florence, A labama, and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. A city with a rich musical tradition, Fort Worth was home to W. C. Handy, self-proclaimed “father of the blues”; Townes Van Zandt; Willie “Prince” Lasha (whose daughters lived across...

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21. An Interview with Harryette Mullen by Elisabeth A. Frost

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pp. 213-232

Crossing the lines between often isolated aesthetic camps, Harryette Mullen has pioneered her own form of bluesy, disjunctive lyric poetry, combining a concern for the political issues raised by identity politics with a poststructuralist...

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22. An Interview with Harryette Mullen by Cynthia Hogue

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pp. 233-257

The first time I had a poem published was in high school and it just happened because the English teacher made everyone write a poem. That was our assignment. She submitted the poems to a local poetry contest and my poem was chosen as the winner. It was published in the local newspaper. So...

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23. “I Dream a World”: A Conversation with Harryette Mullen by Nibir K. Ghosh

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pp. 258-266

I belong to a race that has been enslaved, segregated, and deprived of rights in a nation calling itself “the land of the free.” Yet I am aware of my privileged status as a writer, my comfortable life as an educated, middle-class A merican in the twenty-first century. My writing addresses the paradox that your question implies. In recent poems...


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pp. 267-273

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386177
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817357139

Page Count: 291
Publication Year: 2012

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