northanger (northanger) wrote,

on trimmings

O rose so drowsy in
my flower bed your pink
pajamas zig-zag into
fluent dreams of living ink

An Interview with Harryette Mullen

Trimmings was in part a reflection on the marginality of women and of "the feminine" in language. (As well as a reflection on the feminization and marginalization of poetry, and certainly my own marginality as a black woman in relation to the dominant cultural construction of the feminine.) It is a "minor" genre, the prose poem. It's also a list poem which I thought of as a form congenial to women, who are always making lists. Of course, the catalogues (of heroes, ships, and so forth) in epic poems evoke a masculine tradition, not to mention David Letterman's lists. However, a whole poem composed of a list of women's garments, undergarments, & accessories certainly seems marginal & minor, perhaps even frivolous & trivial. Actually it was an inside joke for me to begin Trimmings with "a belt" since a convention of epic poetry is to begin "in the middle." So that joke I was having with myself was about the epic poem versus the little list poem, which has become a workshop cliche: in this case a list of feminine apparel.

Writing the poem also involved a process of making lists. First, I made a list of words referring to anything worn by women. Each word on that list became the topic of a prose poem (I started with clothing, then decided to include accessories. There were a few things I decided not to write about, such as wigs, dentures, and so forth.) Then I made more lists by free associating from words on the first list. I generated lists of words that might be synonyms (pants/jeans/slacks/ britches), homonyms (duds/duds, skirt/skirt), puns or homophones (furbelow, suede/swayed), or that had some metaphorical, metonymical, or rhyming connection (blouse/dart/sleeve/heart, pearl/mother, flapper/shimmy/chemise), or words that were on the same page of the dictionary (chemise/chemist). I would improvise a possible sequence of words, seeing what the lists might suggest in the way of a minimal narrative, a metaphor, an association, or pun.

Each prose poem is a unit of the "long poem" that is itself a list, with each item described figuratively, as in true riddles. I also quickly understood that the structure of the poem was like a hologram. Each prose poem basically does the same thing as all the rest, since whatever the trope, it is the woman's body that appears consistently in every figure as the tenor of which clothing is the vehicle. This simply extends and elaborates a metonymical tendency already present in everyday usage: "skirt" and "petticoat" also commonly refer to women as well as to clothing worn by women. I also borrow or recycle language and/or syntactical structures from a variety of folk and mass culture genres, including: riddle, nursery rhyme, fairy tale, prayer, television commercial, cliche, tabloid headline, and weather report, as well as from specifically African-American forms including the blues and the dozens.
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My paternal grandmother was an accomplished quilter. One of my treasures is a quilt she made, using the "cathedral window" pattern, which resembles a stained glass window. The list poems, Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T, as well as the stanza form of Muse & Drudge, allowed me to make a kind of long poem composed of discreet units, so that in effect, I could write brief manageable poems that were parts of a longer work that was the book-length poem. The discreet units, stanzas or paragraphs, form various patterns like the pieces of a quilt. I could start anywhere, proceed in no particular order, writing whenever I had the chance and the energy. With my wardrobe and supermarket lists, my tidy prose paragraphs, my quatrains of blues songs and jumprope rhymes composed of recycled representations of black women, I could continually end and begin, without feeling the trauma of endings, the fear and uncertainty of beginnings. My own consolation in the face of rupture, a writing through the gaps and silences.

{Womanhouse} {English language poets} {Performance poetry} {Guggenheim Fellowships} {Harryette Mullen} {Interview} {Furious Flower} {Furious Flower II} {Author} {wipe that smile off your aphasia}



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