Six years after Harryette Mullen and Barbara Henning first met at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café, Henning proposed she do a postcard-format interview of Mullen that would allow for a “very small postcard space in which to respond …The idea of cards flying through the mail & overlapping.” Thus began what is now the first segment of Looking Up Harryette Mullen, unique collaborative conversations that offer a candid look at the influences, politics, and poetics that inform Mullen’s poetry, specifically her books Trimmings and Muse & Drudge.
In these small postcard spaces, which soon expanded into lengthy letters, race and gender, Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Houses, Salt-N-Pepa, black English and Spanglish, to name just a few of topics, are discussed as the two poets travel around the country, letters and postcards overlapping, as layered and thrilling as the poems that they unpack.
The conversation expands even further in the second set of spoken interviews that include concerns as far-ranging as the Heaven’s Gate cult, Oulipian constraints such as S+7 and lipograms, syllabic rhymes, and Aimé Césaire. In stunning detail, Mullen and Henning discuss the origins of each poem in Mullen’s award-winning collection Sleeping with the Dictionary. For poets and readers of poetry interested in witnessing how a brilliant, singular writer embarks on the journey of generating work to scholars researching the inception of Mullen’s poems, this book informs by way of techniques and vitality as Mullen guides the reader through her poetry from A-Z. Twenty-five photos interspersed throughout the conversations act as visual annotations. Included are images of the Babydoll House of the Heidelberg Project; the original handmade “Ask Aden” poem that Mullen drew for her nephew; and her “Dim Lady” poem side-by-side with Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” Sonnet 130. Besides being a significant pedagogical tool to teach Mullen’s poetry, Looking Up Harryette Mullen generously offers a rare glimpse into process and practice and the poetry community.