Laura Mullen is the author of seven books: Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides, from Otis Books / Seismicity Editions (2012), The Surface, After I Was Dead, Subject, Dark Archive, The Tales of Horror, and Murmur. Recognitions for her poetry include Ironwood’s Stanford Prize, two 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 Postmodern American Poetry,and American Hybrid (Norton), and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women(Les Figues). Undersong, the composer Jason Eckardt’s setting of “The Distance (This)” (from Subject) was released on Mode records in 2011. Mullen is the McElveen Professor in English at LSU and a special interest delegate in Creative Writing for the Modern Language Association. She is also a contributing editor for the on-line poetry site The Volta.
Please tell us about your
collection, Enduring Freedom. What
inspired your bride pieces, and how are they similar to, different from, or an extension
of previous work you have done?
I began exploring the figure of the
Bride almost accidentally, or so it seemed at the time (2008), when I found a
cheap wedding dress to wear to a colleague’s Halloween gathering. I went as
“Bridezilla,” crashing madly through the party in my finery screaming
“It’s my special day–and everything has to be PERFECT!” And I
realized I’d tapped into deep anxieties (someone who was getting married said
“Is this about ME?!” And a couple–recently married–had a mini, very
civilized, squabble about how much she spent on her dress when they found out
mine cost $13.95), anxieties and energies. That was the fall of 2008, right:
so…a couple weeks later we elected the first president to really have a body.
JFK was sexy, sure, and Clinton had not just a phallus but an actual penis to
play (around) with, but Obama has not only race (with everything that brings)
but–in the first part of his first term especially–vulnerability, something I
could identify with… I’d never had that with a president–and (post what we
call down here in Louisiana the “Federal Flood,” you might know it as
“Katrina”) I’d been thinking about the poet’s role as
“Representative” with some urgency… Anyway, then I signed up to be
part of an amazing panel on Cixous’ crucial “Laugh of the Medusa”
essay, for the fall 2009 Advancing Feminist Poetics conference, and…a lot of
things came together, so that I found myself putting together a multi-media
performance about race and gender and fear and…part of it, in a homage to Yoko
Ono, involved letting audience members cut me out of a wedding gown. There’s a
film you can take a look at, for a sense of the performance:
Then the Bride morphed into a figure
for protest and activism post-“Deepwater Horizon” blow out (it’s
Louisiana, protest is theatrical, involving carnival energy) and…somewhere in
there (I’m making this a quick sketch) I realized that I had found the way / a
way to talk about the war. Actually, I’d sort of found that way in 2003, when I
was listening to commentators on NPR who couldn’t hear how immensely weird it
was to be worrying (as they were) how the invasion of Iraq was going to impact
the Academy Awards ceremony! But it took years for me to understand that what I
needed to do was to use that misplaced attention, or that desire to misplace
and deflect attention. I realized that I could take what we don’t want to look
at (war) and project it on the white scene of that dress at the center of the
big expensive party we DO want to look at (endlessly). And then…the minute I
did that some of the real overlaps between weddings and war (bride and soldier)
became apparent. Because, as Lucile Clifton says, the truth does come knocking.
All the emphasis on weddings can’t hide the way the war not only goes on but
comes home…to us, with us, in us…
What genre of writing do you
consider “Bride of the Bayou” to be: poem, prose, or prose poem? How
do you define and distinguish between these genres?
I’m not too worried about the
categories, the given categories. Cui Bono? Who do they benefit?
Your work spans many genres. At what point do you determine whether a piece
will be prose or poetry (and what form the piece will take within these
genres)? Do you know before you start writing what the form will be? How much
does the subject matter help to dictate the form?
Against the pressure (it’s fairly
pervasive, isn’t it?) to write what is recognizable to others (as easily
fitting within, or sellable as, a particular genre) I try to write the books I
feel need to be written. What must be said, in the way it must be said, as only
I can say it. And form is content (or discontent?), yes: in the case of this
book (as with other hybrid texts) you’ll see I was responsive to various
impulses… My work is “hybrid,” mostly–meant to destabilize the
frameworks, not to behave. So…you know what a poem is? Now…expand that
definition: write to expand that definition! It’s my party…as the song says.
Seriously, I love what Mark Morris said: “I make the dances I want to
see.” I make the books…I make the noises, really, I think need to be
I am very interested in how stories and poems end. How do you create an
effective ending to your pieces? How do you know when a piece is finished?
Do you know D.A. Miller’s essay on
Brokeback Mountain? I want to recommend it, because it really made me
understand the way craft questions are always questions about class, culture,
history, and–most of all–ideology. What is “finished” (great word,
really): what is “finished” and is that what you think works should
be? Why? There are books to refer to, I know, but…they will tell you what HAS
been done, not (and Cixous is much in my mind as I write these words) what you
WILL do, what you can do. (What are you going to do with endings–I can’t wait
to see!) I love that you are interested in how things end…it would be great to
talk about that, looking at specific works, but “poems and stories”
are like people in this: each one has to find their difficult way to a death
that is at once completely common and as lonely as it is unique.
Much of your work has a political or environmental bent to it. Do you think
that we as writers have a responsibility to address these issues in our work?
I’m a pretty big fan of
consciousness–but that’s a complicated love, isn’t it? I should say that it’s
taken me some time to understand my own responsibilities. I’d be glad if each
person who has access to the media was thoughtful about what it is they are
doing with that power. For me it’s like the necessity of realizing that, as
Brenda Hillman points out (in a poem of that title) there’s no such thing as
“Cheap Gas.” You’re using resources and time and… Well. Yes. But?
And? The thing is–the information is on the way. Really. The work that is not
political is political even in that, and the work that turns away from the
environmental context still is made in that context. The relationship between
art and life is a lot like that between science and life, as Proust points out
(when he talks about how the artist is like an oculist who supplies us with new
lenses for seeing…). Artists and writers make new and urgently important
discoveries about the nature of reality, as that reality changes, and those who
ignore them…are just likely to find out about that changed reality in some more
painful way. Of course those with lots of money can–sometimes–just say
“I don’t need to see this!” and find ways to buffer themselves, make
reality less immediate or apparent for themselves and their families, and slow
(for themselves) the effect of painful change, but the catastrophe comes
anyway, and meanwhile others pay.
When we first met, you were creating and performing some of your bride
pieces in a trashed wedding dress. (I will thrilled to be able to help
trash one of them!) To what extent is performance a part of your writing
process? How does it help you along the way, and what advice would you give to
other writers about incorporating performance as part of their writing?
Wasn’t that fun! That
“Trash” Bride performance was a one-off, done just for Naropa, but it
connects to the “Trash” issue of the Volta (watch for it in Jan 2014)
I’m co-editing and it connects with a little film called “The Veil”:
But, about the relation between
performance and writing, ah…I’m still working this out–it’s an ongoing
process, as you can see by going to my Vimeo site. (https://vimeo.com/lmullen). Still, as I’m in the business of giving advice (I’m a
teacher), I’ll try to do so here. What I’d tell other writers could pretty much
be boiled down to two words, “Try everything.”
Molly Lazer is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Rosemont College. A former associate editor at Marvel Comics, she currently teaches high school, acts, and directs plays outside of Philadelphia. Her work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette and Caesura.