"I try to make my marginality productive"

I’m working my way — slowly, luxuriously — through the interviews in the Wave Books collection, What Is Poetry? (Just Kidding, I Know You Know). Each morning, I read a single interview. This morning, Harryette Mullen interviewed (by postcard!) by Barbara Henning in 1996.

First, a method of approaching poem composition that seems terribly exciting:

Writing the poem [from Trimmings] also involved a process of making lists. First, I made a list of words referring to anything worn by women. Each word on that list became the topic of a prose poem. (I started with clothing, then decided to include accessories. There were a few things I decided not to write about, such as wigs, dentures, and so forth.) Then I made more lists by free associating with words from the first list. I generated lists of words that might be synonyms (pants/jeans/slacks/britches), homonyms (duds/duds, skirt/skirt), puns or homophones (furbelow, suede/swayed), or that had some metaphorical metonymical, or rhyming connection (blouse/dart/sleeve/heart, pearl/mother, flapper/shimmy/chemise), or words that were on the same page of the dictionary (chemise/chemist). I would improvise a possible sequence of words, seeing what the list might suggest in the way of a minimal narrative, a metaphor, an association, or pun.

Mullen’s discussion of OULIPO was similarly exhilarating. (Particular after having heard, just the other night, Daniel Levin Becker in conversation with Emma Ramadan about All that is evident is suspect : readings from the Oulipo 1963-2018, which was a pleasurable, rich, and stimulating conversation.)

“Far from being elitist,” she says, “they make the creative process more accessible as they deflate the divine afflatus of artistic inspiration. A formal constraint, such as a lipogram, gives the writer a definite problem to tackle.” Later, she adds, “it simply gives the writer a more eclectic array of aesthetic tools.”

Denning asks a question about fragments: “I find that I work with fragments in part because I’m so busy. Does the urban bustle affect your turning to fragments?” Perhaps there was a slightly different inflection or relevance to the question in 1996, when the interview transpired, before the ubiquity of fragments, but either way, Mullen’s response seems timely, insightful, and surprisingly moving:

Writing in fragments seems to be a very contemporary response to postmodern distraction, the channel-surfing attention span, our fractured sense of time, on the one hand…. On the other hand, when I think of poetry in fragments, I think of Sappho, whose work comes to us, like classic Greek art and architecture, as enigmatic shards and evocative ruins. Given the human capacity to destroy civilization “with the touch of a button” the same way we microwave lean cuisine, ancient ruins stand as figures for the obliteration of ourselves and our own culture.

So many insights in this brief excerpt of this interview, which I suspect I will return to repeatedly, but perhaps my favorite comment is about something I have been thinking for many years, attempting to articulate. Here, Mullen gets to the heart of it:

I think of myself and my writing as being marginal to all of the different communities that have contributed to the poetic idiom of my work, but at the same time it is important to me that I work in the interstices, where I occupy the gap that separates one from the other; or where there might be overlapping boundaries. I work in that space of overlap or intersection. I have spent much of my life in transit from one community to another, and as a result I often feel marginal to them all. I also feel something in common with people who are very different from one another. I try to make my marginality productive.

Can I have this engraved on my tombstone, please.