- Recyclopedia, and: a half red sea
A call for papers in a 2006 Modern Language Association Newsletter asks potential contributors to consider the ways that analyses of poetry by authors of color tend to concentrate on content, paying little, if any, attention to formal questions. One response might be a narrowed down and obverse take on that question: why do so many African-American poets concentrate on content—especially racial content—in their poetry?1 The implicit anxiety in both questions can be traced back to the history of the publication records of African-American poets. On the one hand, these poets have often had to demonstrate a proficient knowledge of the dominant Anglo-American and/or Anglo-Saxon British formal traditions if they wanted to preclude the suspicion of racial parochialism. On the other hand, these poets have often had to highlight their racial and ethnic identity (read: "content") in their poetry in order to "justify" its publication since, goes the presumption, they have little to contribute concerning either "issues" or prosodic possibilities unrelated to race or ethnicity.
These thoughts are occasioned by two books of poetry published in 2006 by two poets at different stages of their careers. Harryette Mullen's Recyclopedia is a collection of her first three major books of "experimental" poetry: Trimmings (Tender Buttons Books, 1991), [End Page 1121] S*PeRM**K*T (Singing Horse Press, 1992), and Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse Press, 1993). Recyclopedia appears on a "major," if not large press, as does her most recent book of new poetry, Sleeping with the Dictionary (The University of California Press). On the other hand, Evie Shockley's a half red sea is her first book (a chapbook, The Gorgon Goddess, preceded it) and its publisher is relatively new, relatively small, and definitely independent. Both poets are originally from the South and this heritage inflects some of the lexicons, rhythms, and tone of their writing. Formally, Shockley's work is the more conventional or "mainstream" of the two if by convention and mainstream we assume that most American poets still depend on linear narrative or lyrical epiphany as the central organizing features of their work. At the same time, Shockley, along with a generation of post-Language Writing poets, freely adopts some nonlinear, self-reflexive strategies in her poetry, just as Mullen, throughout her career (and especially in Sleeping with the Dictionary), has freely adopted some conventional, mainstream staples.
Because Mullen's first two books, Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, were rewritings of the "Objects" and "Food" sections, respectively, from Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, she presented herself initially as an appropriation artist, a hip hop sampler of Stein's stylized prose units. As with Stein's work, the paragraph was the central organizing "frame" of Mullen's prose poems. As for "content," sexual play—and its darker undertones, the sexual "work" that (some) human females perform in order to become, and remain, women—is thematized in both books. At the same time "race" and "geography," the linguistic inflections and patterns of a Southern black woman, undergird the poems in the structure, sound, and rhythm of phrases and sentences. Such a reading of the relationship between the purported "content" and "form" of Mullen's work in these two collections fails, however, to acknowledge the significance of prose in general, and the paragraph in particular, to women writers. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the general concept of écriture feminine, the historical relationship between this genre of writing, women, and publication cannot be ignored. In short, one could just as well say that the rhythms and structures of Mullen's prose poems signify "women" while her treatment of the relationship between sexual play and sexual work, as a mode of objectification, is inseparable from the experiences of (black) women.
The tension between play and work can be found in any number of lines from the untitled poems that constitute Trimmings, especially since the boundary between the two is patrolled by the threat...