In 2009 or 2010, I remember I heard a PhD student, who I thought was erudite and intelligent, declare Laura Mullen one of the most difficult to read poets, of all the contemporary poets writing in America. This statement affirmed what I already suspected to be true of Mullen’s work at a point when she was my MFA professor at LSU—intimidating and complex, a woman we all adored and feared. I know her now on many different levels—as a professor, yes, but also a friend and mentor; having read all seven of her previous books and now this, her eighth, a “poetry memoir” as her publisher calls it, I no longer think she is the most difficult poet writing in America. I think she is one of the most important. I find her work to be accessible and, above all, necessary, in the way that Chris Kraus or Dodie Bellamy or Eileen Myles or Anne Carson are necessary, especially to other women writers. Mullen isn’t saying the easiest things to say, and she isn’t saying them in a way that will connect for all readers: a reader has to be a little comfortable with fragments, with the discomfort of the hybrid text, with an interrogation of the things we cling to, stories we tell ourselves to feel safe.
In her eighth book, Complicated Grief, in alternating fragmentary and narrative prose, Mullen layers literature, stories, folklore, the telling and re-telling of various cultural and personal traumas, myths, questions, and lies. What is a woman—I mean, an aging woman—in American society? What is a girl? What is intimacy? Who do fairytales protect? Who is left out of the story? What Mullen seems to be doing in this book is pushing on the kinds of experiences many women have—we all age, we all listen to a society that tells us to try harder not to age, not to grow or change or be uncomfortable for others or ask for more. It’s going to hurt to ask for more. To push on these tender parts. After all, isn’t the definition of insanity repeating the same thing while expecting different results? Complicated Grief is an interrogation of our societal patterns, an attempt to see different types of patterns, of approaches. Or, as Mullen quotes Stein, “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything” (101). It feels fitting to interview the woman who has taught me how to do things differently, whose writing in Complicated Grief is intimate, confessional. I’m here to listen in the closeness, as we all should be: from this, we learn how to create new writing and new definitions.
Kristin Sanders: This is your first prose memoir (well, a hybrid of memoir and poetry, according to the publisher). More so than your previous books of hybrid prose or poetry, this label of “memoir” erases the safe demarcation between truth and fiction that poets often use as a sort of shield (i.e “It’s poetry—not autobiography” in response to uncomfortable writing). This book feels very personal—the shield has been lowered—but still there seems to be a grappling with intimacy, disclosure, a push-pull of the discomfort of confession. You reveal personal trauma, and then you step back, finding a sort of comfort in the distance, or in the stories we tell ourselves (language, or literature, or folklore). I’m interested in your experience writing this book: what helped you move courageously into painful territory, or how you felt taking on the label of both poetry and memoir? You write, “I’m trying to know my own heart […] that heart which, if it is not exactly my body, in is no way […] separate from my body,” which I think is a beautiful tribute to the catharsis of writing, of confession (76). How is this book situated in the lineage of women’s confessional writing?
Laura Mullen: What a great question—as layered and complex as you say I am [wink]! I think I’ll begin by talking about the quote you end with, how it picks up a phrase in the title poem of my first book (published in 1991): “my heart is everywhere under my skin.” The quote you chose makes me recall that moment from so long ago, and see the length of my dismay with the way we are (in our bodies and lives, as well as our books) sectioned, compartmentalized, cut into zones, genres, genders, categories… As if we weren’t always confessing (whatever else we are doing or think we are doing)! There is no “shield,” I’m not being tricky to protect anything: I’m trying to get writing to be more like the experience (my experience) of the world. My experience is complex and resists most categorization and some of the acceptable performances of sincerity. And from the French feminists through Carole Maso to Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Theresa Cha and Jean Toomer (among others) I came to hybridity, or the freedom to write a book that might look different instead of what we knew a book already to be—the liberty (because there is no money in it) to move away from imitation and…marketing. It’s been a long, slow (or so it seems to me) movement: I admire those who (like NourbeSe Philip, Lisa Samuels, Bhanu Kapil, Jena Osman, Ronaldo Wilson, and Myung Mi Kim) knew where they were going sooner. Whenever I hear anyone talk about difficulty, in my work or that of others, I just think it’s a confession about a lack of exposure: oops I missed a big part of Modernism! (I’m very interested in the differences between, say, visual art and literature: you’d be hard pressed, now, to find anyone—with a reasonable degree of education—willing to admit they ‘just don’t get’ Jackson Pollock, but you’ll find people at the same level quite comfortable with their lack of knowledge of the works of Charles Olson or apparently proud of the fact that they can’t read Stein—which means they are functionally illiterate when it comes to great swathes of what’s been going on for over a century in American Literature.) But of course Complicated Grief is both direct and vulnerable (apparently) in ways that may seem new for me: maybe what you are kind enough to call courage is desperation. One way to answer your question would be to look at two pieces of the book, “Trust,” and “Spectrograms,” side by side—or to put them side by side in this way: both were written in reaction to the trauma of falling in love, which is to say both were urgent efforts at self-understanding meant to clear the way for potential intimacy.
We’ve talked a lot about women and aging in America: how it differs in European countries, which seem more comfortable with the beauty in aging, and how women don’t really discuss aging as a reality. We just buy the creams, products, services, etc. I think women and girls need to have this conversation more openly, and all the time. In this book you’re writing a sort of “warning that time decays beauties into ‘monstrous beings,’ while memory makes us each our own guest/(g)host” (viii). You write about the child and the crone, the Grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood. There are so many ways that a woman, in our society, tries to avoid being this “monstrous being,” and becomes a guest or ghost in her body instead. Do you think it’s possible to embrace or to reject the “monstrousness” of aging that happens seemingly only to women, not to men? Do you see writing, or art, as a way to avoid this inevitable decay into the “monstrous,” “ghostly” being?
I am as sure as I can be that in opening an acceptance of our minds (by way of writing that is not slavishly or even politely imitative, immediately market-friendly, or genre-safe) we will be helped to come to further acceptance of and joy in our bodies in all their manifestations. Narrow ideas about beauty kill art as well as intimacy and make caricatures of those we might otherwise be able to admire and wish to grow into—all those wonderful actresses lauded for looking 35 or 40 well into their 60s are monuments to the deadly force of the desire to be seen as still fitting the needs of the patriarchy. Sad. In my workshop I like to talk about what I call “The French Nose”: because on one of my visits to France I realized that what made French women so much more gorgeous than their American counterparts is that they find their fatal flaw and exaggerate it, play up to it, turn it into an unexpected source of beauty. While the American woman gets a nose job, the French woman does her hair and make-up so as to make that astonishing honker something to envy! I try to encourage students to figure out what they fear is ugly or wrong in their work and play it up—play into it, play it out. In Complicated Grief the “French Nose” is my obsessiveness, which is not just mine (what we have to work with, face or language, is given, inherited, and then changed by context, among other things). But yes I believe if we open space for what is rejected by the harsh standards around us we will have a more whole and loving society.
I really like that idea of figuring out what you fear is ugly and playing up to it. I think you’ve helped plenty of your students do that, and I think the messiness of the hybrid text also can be played up. I’m reminded of, say, Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto, Kate Zambreno’s Toilet Bowl: Notes on Why I Write, and Jenny Zhang’s Hags, which all touch on the same idea—embracing what we, as humans or as women, fear is ugly, and going full-force into that territory.
In “Read” I include the phrases a critic wrote (a reader of a different manuscript) about the ugliness of my writing—it was fun (and helpful) to put that in: a therapeutic move I learned from Ashbery and Fellini.
A lot of what you also write about women in this book has to do with capitalist language: “what is owed,” “who pays and how,” a woman’s “work.” You write: “I knew there was some cost and (I hate writing this) I was prepared to bear it—up to a point” (79). There’s a lot of talk about a women’s “work”—which of course means writing or career but also housework, raising a family, or even “having had work done.”
I’m glad you’re touching on this—it would be a mistake to gloss over how much of this book is about money, from the “Resurrection men” paid to produce dead bodies (one way or another) for dissection to the cost of the Hayman fire…
That final piece, “Torch Song,” about Colorado’s Hayman fire, I read as a metaphor for women’s writing: the Hayman fire as text, as writing, and thus the woman in question (Forest Service Technician Terry Barton, on suspicion of having started the fire) as author, as “crazy” woman, dissolving the self and/or creating boundaries. I see this metaphor pertaining specifically to hybrid writing, which you’ve always taught and championed (I’m particularly indebted to your “Hybrid Text Talk” in which you weave together Cixous and Stein, arguing that the hybrid text teaches us how to adapt to the realities of an increasingly uncategorized world). I feel like hybrid writing is revolutionary and necessary for contemporary women writers (i.e. Maggie Nelson, Bhanu Kapil, Claudia Rankine, etc.). Do you think hybrid writing is, as Cixous says, “burning down your house”? Is that a metaphor you were thinking of as you wrote this last (perhaps most enigmatic) section of the book?
Interesting. Every metaphor I was thinking of is there in the text (where writing and fire are compared, among other things), but I don’t think of Barton as either an author or crazy, or…not much crazier than the culture she is a symptom of anyway (it’s useful to put the Forest Service Technician who starts a major fire up against the teacher who molests the children placed in his care), and “Read” is the section of the book that addresses, specifically, women’s writing. Part of what engaged me about the Hayman fire was the eagerness of reporters (and reading audience) to turn the disaster into a Romance: to frame what actually had happened within already understood structures (which the evolving revelations kept creating, and escaping or torching). We want, apparently, simple answers to the question of how something happened: “Torch Song”—like so much of my work—is an effort to account for the real complexity of an event.
Ah, I see. In looking for the complexity, I ended up creating my own simple answers—missing the forest for the trees, in a way—which reminds me of when you quote Barthes, from S/Z, on page one: “The blackened rubble in which We write our reading.”
Can you talk about your use of literary/cultural allusions, in particular the fairytale motif? You reference Frankenstein, Schindler’s List’s “Innocent Little Girl,” princesses, princes (and their gestures: “Take that!” (31)), the “damsel in distress.” After the preface, “Demonst(e)ration,” is “Grave CITES,” a list of works (used in the whole book or specifically “Demonst(e)ration”?) from Beckett to Stein to Stevens. (On a side note, I couldn’t help but count: your list includes five women and fifteen men.)
Count harder: it’s a terribly white list, isn’t it? In some ways Complicated Grief is actually a book of literary criticism, or—it leans that way, I might say. What I call my obsessiveness functions or comes to light in the setting of the canon-as-trauma. The study of literature is itself a complicated grief, perhaps, in which we can’t get over Hemingway, for instance (some of us), or Brontë. But if you read the section called “Airs” against “Torch Song” you can really see, as Gertrude Stein said of all repetition, the emphasis changing.
I do see the canon-as-trauma, and I think it’s particularly damaging that we don’t ask our boys and young men to read a canon that is more female. I often wonder how men would think differently about women if they were reading books in which women write about their bodies, their sexual identities, their complex desires. About a year ago, you told me about a poet working on an anthology of sex-positive poetry, but we sort of laughed because who writes sex-positive poems? Or we laughed because we aren’t the kind of women who write sex-positive poems. I thought of that while reading Complicated Grief: there is sex, bodies, encounters of various types, searching, exes, relationships, but everything is tinged with a darkness. The lover (the knight, the prince) reappears continually but “in the end I couldn’t really tell them apart” (19). It seems like you’re interrogating love, sex as a pattern. And of course this is most apparent with the section titled, “Structured Intervention / “’fluency strategy,’” in which the “I” speaks to or performs as a sort of lewd, performative, laughing(?) Miss Havisham. Would you say this section is about laughing ironically or darkly at the silly love stories women are told by our society (“Never let a man get in the way of your career” (93), “Moving on or rather forward means to get back to the work of getting married or trying to get married, yes?” (86))?
Actually, I produced a few sex-positive poems for that anthology (which still hasn’t found a publisher as far as I know—and doesn’t that say something?)! But those poems aren’t here, that’s for sure—you’re right. But do you think the stories we are told about love are “silly”? I think we live in the double bind where love matters too much and we’re told it’s “silly”! (Enduring Freedom is about that in part: we’re told love is “silly” but we give it a lot more air time than the Iraq invasion / occupation…for instance.) The foci we find reveal our values and the stories we repeat show us the way or the ways forward (and back), and the more and the stranger stories we hear the better, and I hope we are able to tell happy ones that are real. I feel sort of hopeful about that future possibility, mostly because we are now better about letting each other be who we are (bisexual, transgender, for instance, and marked in other ways). But I’m being real about my own experience: the happiest love story I ever saw, up close and personal, has just ended (after 47 years) in bitter divorce (which is pretty much how every love story in my family has gone). “Never let a man get in the way of your career,” by the by, is my Grandmother’s best friend Mary Steele, long dead now, croaking from the depths of a soft chair she had to be tugged out of, after she set down her big stiff drink—and, frankly, it was excellent advice…but it’s sad, isn’t it? When I got pregnant in the fall of 1991 I had an abortion asap, and while there were a lot of reasons for that (like all events, to narrow the cause is to simplify), but it is not accidental that I was on the job market and interviewing with men from schools who felt free to say (at the MLA cocktail party): “Do you notice we’re only interviewing cute blond girls for this position?” Showing up with a baby bump wouldn’t have helped me. I’m glad I had the freedom to do that—and I don’t feel happy or easy about the choice I made. The ways we insist that people fit our expectations make for what Bhanu Kapil calls “carnage”: what have we cut out of our lives or our writing to make it fit what others expected to find is a question I am passionately engaged by.
Wow—that question is amazing and so important for writers, for women. I love that. Especially writers who want to write anything outside of the status quo—hybrid, or queer, or excessive, etc.—so much of the writing I want to read is about women trying to avoid that “carnage.” Or sink more deeply into it?
Returning to my first question, about intimacy: in some ways, despite the confession of personal traumas, there’s something carefully detached about this book. You quote someone who says, of the piece titled “Trust,” that the essay “doesn’t ever quite let its defenses down” (81). But you also write, at the end of that heartbreaking piece, “I’m glad I told you. Usually what ends things for me is a failure of trust” (83). Sometimes I think the “you” is “the reader” in general (I have a memory of you saying to our class, exasperated, “Who is ‘the reader’?! Who is this one reader?!”), but other times I think the “you” is a specific person. Sometimes I literally think it’s me! But that’s the beauty of your writing, and the simultaneous intimacy and detachment of this book in particular—I feel pulled in, I feel your voice in a really visceral, specific way, while at the same time feeling like you were still not showing your hand.
In “Trust” I included the gentle criticism said by a dear friend about an earlier draft (it was the criticism that pushed me to take the physical memories further and to consider my own faults)—but the inclusion leaves the door open for a reader to feel there’s a door shut, I suppose. Though I am constantly showing my hand, and my slip, as it were, I am also showing you the work of my mind—and that work is regarded (by Americans especially, and in women, especially) as defensive. Is it? Really? I am committed to radical honesty, and I am—in my life and my work—as honest as I can possibly be…from within the inherited but malleable medium, the changing culture, the evolving ideas of “honesty,” through which we negotiate a fragile, transient intimacy (physical and mental) which is not safe. I am aware of the lack of safety—maybe too aware? But I believe that my intelligence is involved in closeness, not a bar to it. Asking me (as so many people have) to dumb down for closeness is asking me not to be me, meaning—it won’t feel like closeness to me but like masking, passing, faking it, and I’ll want out, fast, to some place where I can be all I am. One of those places is my writing.
I’m remembering a time, two years ago, when we were at a Planned Parenthood rally in New Orleans—when others were protesting the new clinic—and it was so empowering, remember? And you wanted to say something about your abortion, but you had just become head of LSU’s Creative Writing Program. You were, as you put it, “aware of the lack of safety.” It was an emotional moment—and you spoke to the crowd anyway: you weren’t willing to mask over the truth of your experience. That was really intimate, in a way, though we were in a (very small) group of other radical women. So, yeah, that’s what your writing is like, especially in Complicated Grief: intelligent, honest, close, aware of so much and, therefor, aware of a certain lack of safety. It is you; your voice, in your writing, is exactly you. I’m thankful for your voice, in your writing, in real life, in this interview.
And I’m thankful for you—for the way you’ve carried an immense courage and hopefulness forward in your wonderful writing and in your life. I know how grateful your students are for you: one of the few teachers they encounter who isn’t violently insisting that they be the pretend versions of themselves from what Ta-Nehisi Coates (from Between the World and Me) calls “the Dream.” You give them room to live and breathe…
Kristin Sanders is the author of two chapbooks: Orthorexia (Dancing Girl Press, 2012) and This is a map of their watching me (BOAAT Press, 2015). She has taught at Loyola University, New Orleans, Louisiana State University, and Belmont University; she is currently a teacher in New Orleans and a poetry editor at the New Orleans Review.