Academic journal article Reader

"Rolexical Glitter" and "Soul Kitch": Pun, Allusion, and Crosscultural Engagement in Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge

Academic journal article Reader

"Rolexical Glitter" and "Soul Kitch": Pun, Allusion, and Crosscultural Engagement in Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge

Article excerpt

One day near the end of a recent semester, I noticed a student happily and absent-mindedly repeating to himself a line of poetry from the day's reading assignment as he entered the classroom a few minutes early: "awrr reet peteet patootie, awrr reet peteet patootie." The course was on improvisation and identity in contemporary multicultural American literature, and the reading was Harryette Mullen's Muse & Drudge. When asked by another student what he was saying, the chanter sheepishly confessed that he had no idea what the words meant, but that he couldn't get this and other lines from Mullen's book out of his head. His explanation went something like this: "I just like her poetry-it's really funny and it makes me think-even though I don't understand it at all." This from a young white male criminal justice major with no experience prior to this class with multicultural American literatures, and none before Muse & Drudgewith radically experimental writing, let alone a text which qualifies as both. Yet here he was, clearly engaged with this poetry.

I regularly include at least a taste of avant-garde or language-oriented writing in any course I teach, and these efforts are regularly met, at least initially, with resistance from students. Understandably, they often feel impatient and frustrated, even threatened (there are grades involved here, after all) by texts that don't lend themselves to any of the interpretive practices which usually serve them well enough. So I was surprised to see this student actually digging Harryette Mullen. And my curiosity was piqued when, once the discussion got underway that day, it became evident that other students were also apparently unthreatened, amused, and actually interested by Mullen's collection of 380 untitled quatrains, arranged four to a page and utterly lacking in narrative or statement as well as logical progression or development, in places relying almost entirely on sound for coherence:

creole cocoa loca

crayon gumbo boca

crayfish crayola

jumbo mocha-cola (64)

What is it about this particular innovative poetry by an African American woman that earns it this response from even the most inexperienced of readers (and in this case, readers who were mostly white, mostly working class, mostly from rural central Pennsylvania)? And what is the nature of the engagement this poetry invites of its readers?

It is helpful to consider Harryette Mullen's work in its cultural/literary contexts, for while her poetry is unusual in many ways, she is not working in an artistic or historical vacuum. Certainly, she is quite intentionally furthering some and resisting other trends in contemporary American poetry, especially when she's seen in relation to other experimental and African Ameri- can poets. Mullen is one of a growing number of writers engaged in "an ongoing revolution in black poetics," a revolution whose participants-including Nathaniel Mackey, Erica Hunt, and Will Alexander-are interested in formal and linguistic experimentation (Nielsen 410). Yet the innovative work of these poets has too often been overlooked by anthologies and critical/historical accounts of African American writing, in part due to the restrictive definitions of "black" writing that have developed and prevailed since the 1980s.1 As Nathaniel Mackey explains, "black writers tend to be read racially, primarily at the content level ... as responding to racism, representing 'the black experience'" (284). Juliana Spahr, one of a growing number of scholars who are paying due attention to innovative contemporary African American writers, reminds us that this formally innovative work is no less "culturally concerned" than more "identity-centered" black writing. Although Mullen has moved from the more conventionally representational voice in her first collection of poetry (Tree Tall Woman, 1981) to the radical formal experiment and linguistic play of her subsequent four collections, she has throughout her career explored issues of race, gender, and the social construction of identity categories. …

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