The following introduction was given by Martine Bellen at the Poets House discussion between Harryette Mullen and Barbara Henning on April 29, 2011.
This year has been an exciting one for Belladonna*. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Belladonna*, Belladonna* has provided a forum for feminist and avant-garde poetry since 1999 when it was founded by Rachel Levitsky. It began as a reading and salon series that published small chaplets to commemorate each event. Belladonna* has featured over 1750 writers of wildly diverse age, gender orientation, and origin. In 2011, Belladonna* began re-forming as a collective, now comprised of 11 women, including Akilah Oliver. And this year called—A Year in the Commons—Belladonna* published the collaborative book-length poem THE WIDE ROAD by Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian and now Belladonna* is here to celebrate the publication of LOOKING UP HARRYETTE MULLEN: INTERVIEWS ON SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY AND OTHER WORKS by Barbara Henning, with an introduction by Juliana Spahr.
In Spahr’s introduction, she says that “LOOKING UP HARRYETTE MULLEN is one of those books that can only happen in the arena of community-supported critical writing by poets about poetry.” LOOKING UP HARRY MULLEN is unquestionably a community-supported, a community-conceived, book. It’s made up of two sets of interviews, the first conducted in 1996. It began with Barbara Henning writing postcards and Harryette Mullen writing postcards back, and before long postcards overlapped because of USPS time delay, and postcards grew into letters, and the initial interview conceit took on a lively form of its own. The second set of interviews, which focuses specifically on the individual poems that comprise SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY, began in 2009 when Henning came up with the idea that directing a light on Mullen’s practice would offer her grad students at LIU a pivotal perspective into the poetry-writing process; in Henning’s words from the book: “The interview would be in the spirit of the Oulipo artists who reveal their experiments and constraints and catalogue them in the library of Paris. No mysteriously inspired writer’s ‘self,’ but instead a writer who is seriously inventive and willing to share her methods and approaches.”
So back to my point (or rather, Juliana’s) about LOOKING UP HARRYETTE MULLEN being a community-supported project—Who makes up the community to which I’m referring? The USPS (who helped create aleatory delays), Henning’s students; Henning herself and Mullen, of course; Rachel Levitsky had the idea of making a book with images so in the book there are photos taken by Henning, Mullen’s sister Kirsten’s friend Lauren B. Parker, Cecil Beaton, among others. An Etheridge Knight poem and a William Shakespeare poem are included in the book, so they are part of the composition of the community. HR Hegnauer worked on the complicated interior design of the book and its cover. For me, working on this book with Barbara has been an extraordinarily collaborative experience. And Stephen Motika and Poets House who very generously are hosting this talk and celebration. The community also extends to the Belladonna* Collective and now, you, dear audience, are part of the community. Of course I’m just naming a small part of the community; once a book becomes a book its breadth is incalculable.
Before I turn the discussion over to Henning and Mullen, I’ll provide you with short introductions of their work: Barbara Henning is the author of three novels, seven books of poetry, and a series of photo-poem pamphlets, including most recently, CITIES & MEMORY (Chax Press), THIRTY MILES FROM ROSEBUD (BlazeVOX), and MY AUTOBIOGRAPHY (United Artists). In the nineties Barbara was the editor of LONG NEWS IN THE SHORT CENTURY.
Henning’s work is grounded in the world around her, the day, and the moment she’s in. Like a magnet that attracts not only metal, but also light, sound, and gesture, the patterns of her written moment slowly reveal a larger world that we inhabit together, one which includes politics, family, and desire. Henning’s poetry and prose, her vision, are so fluid that to identify her as a poet or novelist or storywriter would be off course with her creative endeavors. And in LOOKING UP HARRYETTE MULLEN, some of us are fortunate to be introduced for the first time to Henning the teacher, interviewer, and photographer.
Harryette Mullen currently lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches courses in American poetry, African-American literature, and creative writing at UCLA, so we in NYC are especially lucky to get her for this weekend. Her poetry collections include SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY, a finalist for a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and RECYCLOPEDIA, winner of a PEN Beyond Margins Award. In the introduction to RECYLOPEDIA, Mullen says, “If the encyclopedia collects general knowledge, the recyclopedia salvages and finds imaginative uses for knowledge. That’s what poetry does when it remakes and renews words, images, and ideas, transforming surplus cultural information into something unexpected.” Mullen’s poetry, often prose poetry, culls from vast storehouses of knowledge, personal and communal, and objects, and other writers’ writings—Sappho and Stein among them—and synthesizes collaged sound and texture into poem which obliterates any sense of interiority and exteriority, a tornado of salvaged knowledge, some allusions missed and some deeply perceived, which finds respiring meaning that recharges the quotidian.
A humble monumental
Music made of syllables
Or a heartbroken crystal
Cathedral with gleaming walls
Of Orangina bottles
And now, over to Mullen and Henning…