Prior to experimental poet and scholar Harryette Mullen’s Holloway series reading last Thursday, I had posted on my facebook: “going to see Harryette Mullen read tom on campus! who else is down 🙂” My miniscule facebook update, resonant of our digital age, probably doesn’t convey the extent of my anticipation for the opportunity to hear one of my favorite contemporary poets read right here, on U.C. Berkeley’s campus. Yet, the immediate flurry of cyber responses, particularly one written miles from Berkeley in Wisconsin, signifies how much Mullen means to poets and lovers of poetry today. From my friend, Noel P. Mariano, a poet and doctoral student in Creative Writing, there was a succinct response: “JEALOUS.”
Indeed, as dear Noel indicates, Mullen is adored not only by critics, readers, and award committees alike, but also by today’s contemporary poets. Mullen’s collections — such as Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, Muse & Drudge and Sleeping with the Dictionary — innovate through language, play, and form, and has transformed contemporary American letters. Sleeping with the Dictionary was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry. Her three previous collections were repackaged into a recent book, Recyclopedia (Graywolf, 2006) which received a PEN Beyond Margins Award. More than this, however, as Noel’s response suggests, one hopes to be at the right place at the right time, just for a chance to hear Mullen read.
And, indeed, on Thursday, I wasn’t the only person excited. The third floor of Wheeler was abuzz as a diverse group of people – faculty and students from a number of Berkeley departments, members of the communities as well as writers from neighboring Mills College filled the room. Upon entering, I saw UC Berkeley Professor and poet Cecil Giscombe at the podium ready to give an introduction to the Holloway Series, a sequence of public readings that solidifies the campus’ commitment to poetry. Mullen’s reading was co-sponsored by Mixed Blood, a poetry journal and organization led by Giscombe. As he explained in his welcoming remarks, Mixed Blood focuses on innovations and experimentations in poetics while also grappling with issues of race. It was perfectly apt, as Mullen’s work deals with similar issues of race, sexuality and gender through linguistic innovation within the tradition of the Black Arts movement.
The Holloway Series also provides an opportunity for a graduate student to read alongside renowned poets. The evening’s graduate student poet was English doctoral student, Jocelyn Rodal, whose poems verge on the playful at the same time as they are feminist and daring. Rodal utilizes the everyday, the mundane, and personal to express both irony and revelation. I think of the first poem Rodal read, entitled “Screenplay,” which ends: “ Each morning, I wake up first, and my flat and nameless future stretches out in front of me like a state highway needing maintenance.”
When Mullen took the podium, she opened her reading by sharing the background of her working life, as she has currently been spending a lot of time on scholarly investigations of the Civil War. She also spoke about how she utilizes Japanese poetic forms and composes her poetry at the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden on the campus of UCLA. The poems Mullen read that evening all evoked the everyday and a sense of place: scenes of pigeons in a Los Angeles parking lot, descriptions of the colorful characters in “Venice Beach,” and the investigations of the flora and fauna of the UCLA Botanical Garden itself.
Each poem, small and compact, showcased Mullen’s signature blend of linguistic play, the vernacular, contemporary references, rhythm, and political consciousness. That Berkeley evening, Mullen’s poems were like delicious linguistic gifts, simultaneously settling and unsettling people in their meditation on place. After Mullen long reading, many from the audience remarked how they wished it could’ve lasted even longer, how much Mullen reminded them of Los Angeles, San Diego, the places they have left.
For me, it was 5 years ago in Los Angeles when I first heard Harryette Mullen read her poetry. I had lived through her books, devouring them. I can remember sitting in awe of hearing one of my favorite poets come to life in the beautiful theatre space of downtown Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Music Hall. Seeing her again on Thursday, here in Berkeley, reminds me of how, at times, we are in the right place and right time. And how a poet’s reading can make a new place feel just like home.