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  • The Solo Mysterioso BluesAn Interview with Harryette Mullen
  • Calvin Bedient (bio)

This interview with Harryette Mullen about her collection of poems Muse and Drudge took place on April l4, l996. The interviewer is her colleague in the English Department at UCLA.


What do you think growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, has meant for your poetry?


It means partly that my notion of who I was had to do with being in a southern state—but in another way, Texas isn’t southern: it’s 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 drive-in restaurant where they refused to serve us, and we left after waiting there for about thirty minutes for our hamburgers that never arrived. We were the first black family in our neighborhood, and our neighbors moved out; the next door neighbors packed overnight bags and went to a motel so that they would not have to spend a single night next to us. Another neighbor used to let his German Shepherd dog out to chase my sister and me while we rode our bicycles to the Book Mobile, and it took us about three trips before we realized that he was doing it deliberately when we saw him actually get up from his porch and open the gate and let the dog out.

So that’s part of what growing up in Texas meant to me. And the black community was a part of it, but we had a different perspective on it because my family had come from Pennsylvania and we spoke English somewhat differently. My mother was a schoolteacher, my grandfather was a Baptist minister, and we were considered to be very proper speakers of English compared to most of the people we lived around, who spoke definite black English and felt that our English was seditty or dicty or proper.

Living in Fort Worth also meant hearing Spanish spoken whenever I was outside of my neighborhood, say downtown or on buses, and wanting to know what people were saying in that language. Actually, where I heard Spanish spoken frequently was in my grandmother’s neighborhood, a black community with one Mexican-American family. We used to practice our few words of Spanish with them. We always exchanged greetings in Spanish with the Cisneros family, her next door neighbors.


You use some Spanish in Muse and Drudge. Did you have any particular purpose in mind? [End Page 651]


I always thought Spanish was a beautiful language, and whenever I had the opportunity to study it, I did. One of my elementary school teachers when I was still in a little segregated black school was a man from Panama, who was a native Spanish speaker, bilingual, so I identified Spanish also with black people as well as Mexican Americans. The Spanish is there partly because I think it’s a beautiful language and partly because I associate it with people who were a part of my life. I use it in a political way, because I think we should all have more than one language. I think it’s crazy that in this country it’s considered better to be monolingual than to be bilingual or multilingual. People in Africa routinely speak three or more languages. It’s not unusual at all for people to speak three, four, or five languages. Even not very well educated people speak several languages.


The language in your poem has, of course, a mongrel aspect. There are different registers of English. Do you think of it as a white/black text in some ways?


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...