Laura Mullen is the author of six books: The Surface, After I Was Dead, Subject and Dark Archive (University of California Press, 2011), The Tales of Horror, and Murmur. Recognitions for her poetry include Ironwood’s Stanford Prize, and she has been awarded two LSU Board of Regents ATLAS grants, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a Rona Jaffe Award, among other honors. She has had several MacDowell Fellowships and is a frequent visitor at the Summer Writing Program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa. Her work has been widely anthologized and is included in American Hybrid (Norton), and I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Undersong, the composer Jason Eckardt’s setting of “The Distance (This)” (from Subject) premiered in New York and Helsinki and was released on Mode records in 2011. Mullen teaches at Louisiana State University.
FORTHCOMING: Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides (OTIS / Seismicity 2012)
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The swift and somewhat didactic answer is that The Surface allowed me to hunt for a tenure-track teaching job w/ some degree of hope. Not much chance of getting a job without at least one book, now. That isn’t why I wrote it (I write because I have to, as part of an on-going inquiry about reality and my role in it—an inquiry that has a certain, shall we say, desperation…).
Another answer is that the book turned me from someone who believed they might be, forever, reading poems aloud, into someone who began to be sure the work would have another life, alone, far from my voice and body. Of course I’d been thinking of readers before, but the publication of the book started a shift in my sense of where the connection occurred, to borrow Diana Taylor’s terms, it marked a movement from the repertoire toward the archive.
Yet another answer, or rather a notation, in passing: I didn’t write the book to change my life… (I’ll let others make comparisons between recent and previous work.)
“How does it feel…?” When I hear that question I have, in my mind, the image of someone climbing a ladder (very high, thin, and propped against nothing) with a hammer in one hand, and a nail in the other: fully intending to make sure one particular cloud stops changing and moving.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Where’s the “start” of a project? I wonder... It might be a phrase buried in a journal or a sadness you tried to ignore at a dinner table or a strange pleasure causing you to lean closer to the surface of a picture wondering just what is the quality, exactly, of that color, that line? What brings idea / feeling into just the right conjunction with materials at the perfect moment? It varies.The only thing I’m sure of is the need for attention, but using that one word makes it seem too fixed: sometimes the attention is scientific, ferocious, detailed…sometimes loosened by humor…--for instance. It varies and yes to all of the above.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Over the 30+ years since I began writing “seriously” (or taking myself seriously as a writer) there have been many, many, widely various, “usually”s. This is perhaps yet another answer to question number #1 is to say that writing one book of course informed my thinking and activity: after writing (or, after publishing) a book you begin to know—as we say of relationships—where this is going. Which isn’t to say that the work isn’t still exploratory: more so than ever as I’ve moved into performance and film, but even when it’s the question of a poem, however—as I confess—I’m not sure where “the very beginning” is located. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that (for a lot of reasons) I’ve never been sure I’d have a publisher (until Dark Archive I’d never stepped, as it were, into the same Press twice), so I couldn’t be, ha, can’t be, sure whatever I was / am working on would /will be a book-in-the-world. (Question for you: when is it a “book”? When you write it? When it’s published? When it’s read / reviewed?)
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I was “the sort of writer” who wrote—at first—in order to perform the work, and now I am “the sort or writer” who is having a quiet but violent internal struggle around the structure of “public readings.” I still enjoy hearing people read their work aloud—or, I enjoy that a lot when the work is good and the venue is right. Naropa comes to mind as a particularly splendid place to be either a reader or a listener: both the work and the attention seem to be, often, of a very high quality. I used to chalk that up to the great acoustics and lighting as well as the fantastic atmosphere (Anne Waldman is key), but, as time goes on, I’m coming to believe that it’s—also—because everyone there has been or is involved with each other in other ways (talking and listening) intensely: there’s a feeling that the event is part of a larger conversation. That matters to me. There’s a certain sort of lecture model of the public reading that is breaking down—or I feel its failure. It's as if I woke up one morning and thought, gee, was that my dream? If a number of people are in a room just that fact (in the age of the "social network" and the virtual connection) matters: embodied encounters are as magic as the conjunctions that bring a poem (or person) into being. (The essential fact of existence itself is so thrillingly random and, as we way, over-determined.) Shouldn’t there be some response, some acknowledgement of this constellation of presences? And the live event? Distances and deaths put a pressure on these meetings I feel a need to acknowledge. Akilah Oliver would, when reading from her last book, remix the poems, improvising among the possibilities like Coltrane playing w/ the notes and phrases of a jazz “standard.” That’s a light on the road forward for the sort of writer I might be…
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My work is a way of questioning: “edgewise questions inside the answers” (as Baraka puts it, in a poem for Theolonius Monk).
The most basic questions (hunger, love…) shift but never disappear, but if we wanted to talk just about poetry right now probably we could (if we can’t resist binaries) break it down into identity and idea: the current questions are about who speaks and how, under the pressure of a national uncertainty about the value of creative activity. On the one side, if you will, there’s identity, an area that encompasses both diversity issues (the urgent necessity of hearing from everyone) and the contemporary outflow of inherited (and contested) versions of the “confessional” as well as the lively spoken word tradition. On the other side of the (mirage) line in the sand (binaries are produced to collapse, right?) is idea, an area mapped out by Oulipo, the language poets, and the “conceptual” writers. The collapse of the line comes where we move out of the mode of what Julia Kristeva calls abjection ("not me, not that") in order to see the similarities as well as the differences—and to honor the shared history. Kenneth Goldsmith's Fidget, for instance, should be read with Bernadette Mayer's Midwinter Day, and probably placed in context by a showing of Women Art Revolution, the documentary about women artists working with performance and the body in the 1970s, and some thinking about the Civil Rights movement...
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The “the” in these questions is impossible for me to move past without shivering, but any s/he alive has a role—or many roles.
I live my answer is my real answer but…I can say that as a language worker I feel a responsibility to listen to what my culture is saying and to re-present it: to make it available for that reflection which opens the possibility of change.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What
do you see as the appeal?
The difficulty—I’ll go farther—the impossibility would have been not moving.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
If this question (or rather the answer) is supposed to be useful, then one (true enough) response might be to say “language.” Though it's not so much "inspiration" as permission I'm seeking: the ease and freedom that come from really being in the medium: from stiffish technical manuals on writing or reading to random snatches of overheard dialogue, from graffiti to Great Works of Literature, it’s the medium itself that is, as Bruce Nauman put it (in another context) “an Amazing Luminous Fountain.” But I feel like I ought to answer this question differently (I have, elsewhere), that is, I ought to imagine there might be someone who would think, “O, super I’ll just try that next time,” after reading my answer, and so I should gush here…usefully. (Coffee and chocolate together really help.) But it’s hard, because this is no longer a question to which any answer-as-recipe—from anyone—would interest me! Why has your writing stalled? That’s a question I like: why are you unable to go further at a certain moment—with not just writing, but anything? Things change, we change, we move out of the prior recognition like a cramped shell, discarding that perceptual frame. And it's messy and vulnerable and exciting. For what it’s worth: my writing sometimes stalls when it moves out of the zone of what I know to be good and I get spooked by my own inability to recognize what I am doing. This isn’t good or even THIS ISN’T ART! That exciting movement, however, past the given (or earned) understanding, is a necessity, as is the time, faith and practice necessary to find out what happens (next).
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
There've been a lot of homes, but I live in Louisiana currently—the stench of mold is evocative.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Is there anyone who could say “No” (for real?): no other forms that influence…?
No, no: I’m actually completely constructed of language—I’m a name, made up of five letters, when I leave the sheets it’s just to go to the desk, no one can see me when I turn sideways…?
I should confess that I don’t know who David McFadden was or is (resolutely not Googling) but this reminds me (in its form) of something a teacher would say (packaged for recollection), and (in its content) Mallarme's quote about everything in the world existing to end up in a book. (I'd reverse that, as addition: everything in the book exists to end up in the world.) My version of the didactic sound bite (said to students who don’t seem, to me, to be reading “enough”) is that the relationship between reading and writing is like the relationship between eating and shitting…
Can we see what books are made of? The world (I’d connect this with Gertrude Stein’s interest in the flow of writing) moves through us…—if we’re writers it’s turned into words in that process (as vs notes or paint or H2o)—and it’s only sometimes that we see, in the production, undigested evidence of what all we consumed. It’s easy to see that “The Wasteland” is made of books—among other things. But it’s obviously made of war also, the experience, the landscape, and the technology (for instance). We’re slowly on our way to the opening of attention (and advances in science) which might allow us to understand even more about how Eliot’s distrusted and denied “personality” shaped the quality of his embodied response to the realities of his moment.
Quick answer (having exhausted—for now—some others): I'm up to my neck in the visual arts (and film) and wading knee deep into music, as I've been collaborating with / influenced by some astounding composers and musicians recently: Jason Eckardt, Claire Chase, my encounter with the International Contemporary Ensemble in Helsinki (where Eckardt's setting of my work had its international premiere)...that's been life-changing.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
If I sat here typing for two or three days I wouldn’t be halfway through the list of names and titles. And then, of course, that question’s probably most fully answered by the art, not the artist. Others will be able (if interested) to tell—from the books I made—what I read…
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to see what it was like to be someone or else, not “imaginatively” (I can sort of do that via attention, memory and creativity, I’m not terrible at it, but I’m not satisfied by it either) but really: to feel and think and be another (actual, not invented) being. My fear is that I would lose the very thing I am trying to get: the sense that this is amazing, new, different, thrilling. What if I got to be, o, let’s say a cockroach? And it was just like being me: no memory of having been something else, plugging along w/ my pest “to do” list (eat here, shit there, etc.). Or else, recalling Kafka, what if in that new shape and identity, also, all I thought about was A) negotiating the given conditions and B) being something else? Among the reasons to learn other languages—it might be as close as we can come—is the fact that that skill set actually does rewire your brain. But the one word answer here is travel: I’ve done it, just not (ever) enough.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
In high school the occupational tests pegged me as “Tour Guide” or “Gambling Bookie.” Really. I wonder what else was on the master list—and what was left off it (I doubt “Poet” was there). But this question makes me think of Carol Anshaw’s Aquamarine, or Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, or (as well) those choose-your-own-adventure books. (On some level it takes a fair amount of imagination just to live the life I actually have in a way that makes sense to me.) But I suppose I could fantasize about how my life might turn out, as we say, otherwise…and the other media I’m working with now would suggest possible answers. But... I did my picking a long time ago, and my “occupation” is teaching, actually—a super intense job in a culture that, often, seems to be saying there’s something either dubious or literally worthless about what I’m doing. (Since 2009 LSU’s budget’s been cut by more than $92 million…and it’s clear that a distrust of higher education is a nationwide issue at this point.) Meanwhile jobs are lost (outsourced, for instance) while financial pressures on the students increase. What seems urgent to me to imagine is what other occupations (!) I can recommend to students, and I think a lot about how to prepare people for the future instead of the past. How can I help to make sure those I'm teaching are being given everything they need to enter the game (so to speak) as it is played or will be played, instead of as it used to be. Art is very helpful in the process: it’s a way of practicing concentration and increasing focus, while learning planning and development skills as well as creative and critical strategies—and (at the same time)—boosting self-motivation and self-respect.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wonder if I can answer this in a way that helps to make sense of some of my other answers? No one alive in the 21st century can fail to feel how a singular answer to a singular question like this must—like the Great Man version of history—discard a LOT of reality (I do do “something else” a lot of somethings…), and yet…and yet we still ask each other questions like this and expect…(o c’mon, it’s a simple enough question, really…why…)…
Should I talk about meeting Jorie Graham and Jim Galvin at Humboldt State University, and mention the fact that Goddard (where I’d first hoped to go to college, after the long period where I thought I wasn’t going to college) had turned into a military school just at that moment? And do I mention money? There was no money to go to an out-of-State school anyway. Do I speak of my father, who’d wound up as a Longshoreman in Eureka in the 1960s, so (when I was choosing at school at the end of the ‘70s) I knew the area and could “choose” Humboldt State University because it was at once familiar and far away? Do I say, well, no one teaching Dance (which interested me) or Art (always a passion) said "This is what you should do with your life"? Or should I talk about being 14 and trying to kill myself, then tell you about my grandmother giving me a journal, because she figured I needed to get some thoughts and feelings out—because not being able to say what I thought / felt made me feel like I should die (You want my silence? You can have it, in spades…)? Should I mention that both my grandfathers wrote? Or, should I tell you that I was the first child, and born into a family where language mattered a lot and so very encouraged to engage (I was reading at 2)…or…
We sort through possible answers to every question as we sort through the thick, complex and entangled realities we move through. Great. “Obviously.” But…I have problems sorting: I either can’t sort or don’t sort correctly. I can't forget the frame, the structure, the composition... That problem is one of my gifts: an anxiety about, a distrust of “sorting” allows me to move attention into new places in new ways.
Thank you (I mean this!) for asking (but…that oft repeated phrase…).
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Culture of One (Alice Notley).
White Dog (Samuel Fuller).
20 - What are you currently working on?
The third text in my trilogy of works playing with genre expectations (after The Tales of Horror and Murmur): this one takes on the Romance. It's a hybrid text (poetry, fiction, nonfiction & the-lord-knows-what) addressing both the literary history of the Romance and the “low” (or mass-market) incarnation of the genre, looking at the ways we define relationships, and considering the stories we want and / or need to repeat. Rooted in a specific reading pleasure as well as the cultural history (and distrust) of that pleasure, the project’s scope includes the political, economic, and cultural pressures on love in this country, as well as our regulation of sexuality—especially female sexuality. Wit, a crucial perspective shifter, is one of the strategies by which I question a culture that both disavows and encourages “low” pleasures, while exploring the implications of inherited structures through unexpected approaches and forms. The frame provided by genre functions to assure the reader that certain expectations will be met, which actually allows me to destabilize and widen expectations, opening an understood story to critique, and making, I hope, other endings possible.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;