We’re thrilled to welcome Sam Albala for this installment of Lyric Essentials. Sam reads two of her favorite poems by Harryette Mullen and shares with us why she appreciates them. Read on for her insight into what makes Mullen’s poetry accessible and how that poetry has inspired her own work. As always, thank you for your support of this series!
Riley Steiner: What drew you to choosing these poems?
Sam Albala: I have always loved Harryette Mullen.
I was a student the first time I heard her perform. She told a story about inspiration being this almost mystical object running past the physical world, and having to catch it before it went away. In my head, I was sitting on a farm in the Midwest watching this ball of light and power rumble by like a supercharged tumbleweed (which I might be impacting that word due to her tanka diary Urban Tumbleweed, but it still fits). The story stuck, and I’ve heard other writers talk about inspiration in that way.
These two poems felt most powerful to me simply because they are relatable when it comes to a relationship to self, other, and creativity. Mullen is funny, smart … she lingers in the mind. It also seems to me that a lot of her work, these poems too, can be approached with your story instead of trying to relate to an assumed version of the writer’s story. Not all poems or poets feel like that. Sometimes you are reading poems written by a college literature professor and you cannot shake the tone, experience, or history of a college literature professor from the work.
I appreciate that the poems are personally accessible.
Sam Albala reads “Elliptical” by Harryette Mullen
RS: “Elliptical” is ambiguous in who its speaker is addressing. Do you have an interpretation of who “they” might be? Why do you think Mullen chose to write the poem this way?
SA: I saw “they” in multiple ways. On a simplistic level, I imagined it as a court case transcript with all the evidence, details, facts, etcetera, left out. On a personal level, the speaker versus they can be any interaction between an oppressor versus oppressed. A person in power and a person with less authority. However, it is impossible to know which one is which.
The narrative is a standard one that most of us go through when we deal with conflict. While it is toxic to tell another person’s story, to point fingers without accepting responsibility, we still have to identify and understand where our thoughts and emotions come from in order to better direct them to better action. We also need to see how and if we can defend our own story by figuring out the connection with others. In this way, the speaker is sorting through being both the oppressor and the oppressed. Or, rather, figuring out their relationship and feelings between themselves and the “they.”
RS: What was your experience like when you were recording the poems? For instance, did you already have a pretty good idea of what the poems would sound like, or did you try out different intonations? What was your thought process behind the way you read them out loud?
SA: When I wasn’t thinking too much, the recording turned out best. I was nervous I was breathing too loud or needed to slow down or that I was losing my voice.
I speak into microphones a lot on a regular basis … I fear losing my voice a lot … it never happens, but I always think it is happening. With both poems, I wanted to channel Mullen’s wit and confidence. I did slow down, speed up, and play with moving the recording device closer and further because I was nervous about how it might have sounded. I think I always know, and always have to relearn, that it is best in recording and reading out loud to practice often, but to not be in your head while you are in the middle of the action. That’s when you stumble.
Sam Albala reads “Sleeping with the Dictionary” by Harryette Mullen
RS: As a writer and lover of words in general, I really enjoyed “Sleeping with the Dictionary.”As a poet yourself, how do you feel about this poem? Do you relate to it at all?
SA: I love everything about this poem. The innuendo and the intimacy I, and I believe many poets, feel when it comes to their relationship with language. We can’t get enough. We want to be able to get it right, to practice, to know it better than we think possible. There is a play on words and playing with words. We are always trying to take words to bed with us, trying to pick them apart and get a better connection with them. I love that!
I have also, a time or two, literally spent time with a dictionary in bed, trying to find different ways to relate to sections of words. There was a band I was performing with last year who challenged me to write a poem that was both sultry and subtle. There was a month or two spent highlighting all the words I found romantic, sexy, or soothing in a small travel dictionary. It is a fun exercise in building your own relationship with words. It might also point out what words you subconsciously avoid, neglect, or forget about on a regular basis.
RS: Has Harryette Mullen’s work influenced your own in any way?
SA: Very much so. I fangirl around her sometimes. Being a fangirl is a side effect of being influenced by her work.
So it is a tangent but, a few years ago, I was on a retreat in New York, and I gave her some baby carrots. She was talking about being hungry and I gushed to have the opportunity to give her my snack. I doubt she remembers me or my name, but I won’t forget that small interaction.
Idolization with poets seem to happen—with me, anyway—when I hear a poet I like perform their work. I feel inspired by her relationship to music, though. I have a strong connection to music and always try to involve it in my life. Mullen’s tanka diary, and how place influences her work, is something I strive for. I also love how her personality seems to shine through, without ego. I think readers can enter the work without seeing “other.” Her writing is accessible to writers and readers of many different backgrounds.
I want my writing to show a little bit of who I am and what I see without alienating anyone. If an experience I write about is foreign, I hope it is still something that readers feel they can walk around in and catch glimpses of.
Harryette Mullen is a poet from Los Angeles, California. She was born in Alabama and raised in Texas. After graduating from the University of Texas, she went to to receive her doctorate degree from the University of Santa Cruz. Her books of poetry include Tree Tall Woman; Trimmings; S*PeRM**K*T; Muse and Drudge; Sleeping with the Dictionary; Urban Tumbleweed; Blues Baby; Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, Muse and Drudge; and Broken Glish: Five Prose Poems. She has also published essays in MELUS Journal and Meridians, among others, along with a book of essays and interviews entitled The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed To Be (University of Alabama Press, 2012). Her poetry is known and acclaimed for its experimentation with structure and wordplay. Mullen currently teaches creative writing and African-American literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Sam Albala is a poet tethered into the warm, comforting arms of mountains. Often found gobbling horizons and babbling about road trips, tea, and anatomical hearts, Sam is eternally pondering connections, both lost and found. Her writing has appeared in Genre Arts, Stain’d Magazine, Be About It Press, Spit Poet, Boulder Weekly, BUST Magazine, Mental Floss, 8th Street Publishing, South Broadway Ghosts Society, Punch Drunk Press, Sonic Boom, Gambling The Aisle, Synapse, Lamplighter, and more.
Riley Steiner is a recent graduate of Miami University, where she studied Creative Writing and Media & Culture. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, she enjoys baking, cheering for the Green Bay Packers, and spending way too much money at Half Price Books. Her creative work has recently appeared in the Oakland Arts Review and Collision.