- Everything We Can Imagine:An Interview with Harryette Mullen
This interview was conducted via e-mail in July, 2007.
KYLE G. DARGAN: Growing up on, as you say, "the edge of Southern black culture," has Callaloo's evolution from a journal of black Southern literature to the broader Black Diaspora surprised you in any way?
HARRYETTE MULLEN: I'm definitely a southerner. I was born in Alabama and grew up in Texas, where the culture is Southern as well as Southwestern. My maternal grandfather was a third-generation Texan whose enslaved ancestors came from South Carolina. My mother is a third-generation Pennsylvanian, but her Pennsylvania family had at least four generations born in Virginia during slavery. My father's Alabama family also has roots in colonial Virginia.
I've been aware of Callaloo almost from its beginning. Some of my earliest poems appeared in the second or third issue. As I recall, the journal was founded in part because it was difficult for Southern black writers to publish their work, either in so-called mainstream journals or in prominent journals of the Black Arts movement in places like New York and Chicago. Callaloo was regional only in the sense that its original editors were based in the South and their initial impulse was to encourage and showcase southern writers. Callaloo paved the way for journals such as Nate Mackey's Hambone and Giovanni Singleton's Nocturnes, as well as sustaining the work of poets collected in recent anthologies such as Every Goodbye Ain't Gone, Gathering Ground, Giant Steps, Making Callaloo, Rainbow Darkness, and The Ringing Ear. I'm pleased to see how Callaloo has grown into a leading journal for literature of the African Diaspora, with a global audience of readers, writers, teachers, students, and critics.
DARGAN: In "Imagining the Unimagined Reader," you talk about being more interested in writing as "a process that is synthetic rather than organic." Would you describe black culture and its literature in America, or the greater diaspora, as more of a constant synthesis or the continued development of something essentially, organically African?
MULLEN: Culture, by definition, is synthetic. Human beings transform organic processes and synthesize natural resources in order to create cultural artifacts. Cultures, including traditionally African cultures, consist of knowledge, skills, habits, customs, beliefs, and [End Page 1014] attitudes that are taught, learned, and passed down as a legacy from one generation to another. We also know that cultural contact of Africa, Europe, and the Middle East dates from ancient times, with European nations increasingly exploiting Africa's resources by the fifteenth century. Culture changes continually in order to respond to a changing environment. So, culture is a dynamic interaction of tradition and innovation.
I think of tradition and continuity as the foundation for invention and innovation. My work comes out of a conviction that innovation is intrinsic to black cultural consciousness. My early work in Tree Tall Woman and Blues Baby built on a foundation of cultural awareness associated with poets of the Black Arts movement. Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T identify black and feminist consciousness with cultural critique. Muse & Drudge is a poetic remix of references to African-American literature, folklore and popular culture. Sleeping with the Dictionary looks at the politics of language itself, whether it originates at the center or at the margins of culture.
DARGAN: Speaking of some of your more recent work, say some of the poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary, do you think those poems "working in language" can be effectively translated in other languages and still be truly yours, or is that not the point?
MULLEN: Poems are proverbially difficult to translate. Particularly elusive are poems that incorporate local vernaculars or activate multiple layers of wordplay. Thanks to intrepid translators and adventurous editors, some of my poetry has been rendered into Spanish, French, Portuguese, Polish, Swedish, Turkish, and Bulgarian. The poem resulting from translation is a more or less accurate interpretation of the original, often requiring a translator to choose among a range of denotative and connotative meanings that could be difficult or impossible to capture in another language. Of course, meaning may...