With Harryette Mullen's dense, layered and playful poems in Sleeping with the Dictionary, there is often a subtle question, almost present but not quite present, a riddle-like
structure that leaves the reader wondering: How did she make this poem? As a prep
for an MFA course I was teaching at Long Island University in the summer of 2009,
and as a project I knew I would enjoy working on later, I decided to ask Harryette
if she would be willing to talk to me about each of the poems in this collection,
and then I would share sections of the interview with the class. This interview would
be in the spirit of the Oulipo artists who reveal their experiments and constraints
and catalogue them in their library in Paris. No secret mysterious inspired "writer-self,"
but instead a writer who is seriously inventive and willing to share her methods and
approaches. It was very curious and enlightening to the students to discuss and then
hear some of the writer's intentions, context, and the way she had constructed the
poems. We of course weren't searching for "meaning," but instead aiming to help writers
expand their own repertoire of tools for writing and to think about the reasons writers
write the way they do.
For the most part, this interview follows Harryette's alphabetical structure for Sleeping with the Dictionary. Other excerpts are available in current or upcoming issues of The EOAGH (B-D), Poetry Project Newsletter (E-M), How2 (E-M), Sonora Review (M-R), and Jacket Magazine (S-Z).
BH: Good to be talking with you this morning, Harryette. Let's see, Sleeping with the Dictionarywas published in 2002. And it's being read and taught in many college classrooms.
HM: I'm glad those readers are keeping it in print. Poetry can be fragile and ephemeral.
Before you know, it's out of print, gone and forgotten.
BH: When your book opens, you begin with a quote from André Breton: "Dark words /more radiant /than onyx." Why did you choose this passage?
HM: I remember writing it in my notebook, thinking I'd use it eventually, because
I like that paradox of radiant darkness. It's an example of the way poetic language
shifts the brain into high gear. Poetry isn't necessarily transparent, but even when
it seems obscure it can be radiant, like the corona of an eclipse.
BH: You are also making a comment on race and racism, aren't you?
HM: Sure, yes. It almost goes without saying. I don't necessarily dwell on racial
oppression, but I'm aware that language is used differently in mainstream and minority
cultures. I'm interested in poetic utterances that play with the typically negative
signification of blackness and darkness. I'm also conscious of the power of language
to include and exclude at the same time. Often I'm trying to find different ways of
writing, reading, and interpreting poetry, with the idea of creating more radiant
or resonant poems and reaching diverse audiences.
BH: There's definitely a critique, concern, undoing, pointing at how language and
racism are woven together. What do you think this phrase is saying about race—dark
words more radiant than onyx.
HM: For me, the radiance of "dark words" goes along with "putting the ink in think"—drawing
on the creative and intellectual associations of the inkwell in the act of writing.
Historically, African Americans have been associated with illiteracy and a lack of
intellectual development. I'm often making an effort to recognize and resist the bias
that is built into language through a history of accumulated associations. I definitely
have ideas in my head when I'm writing, but I also try to write so that the poem can
mean more than what I was thinking when I wrote it.
BH: It's sort of an undoing of any static notion of words and representation. A lot
of your work seems to be pointing at how language is malleable and therefore open
to endless revision. Here for example with Breton's "Dark words more radiant than
onyx" the flipping back and forth of our conventional understanding of darkand radiantand onyxallows us to hold them all together. By beginning with Breton, you're signaling back
to the surrealists, too, aren't you?
HM: Surrealists were investigating the language of dreams. That was their aesthetic
innovation. The idea of sleeping with the dictionary suggests not only being intimate
with language but also a relationship with dreams and altered states of consciousness.
Our use of language is not only rational, but also irrational, unconscious, and intuitive.
BH: You use many Oulipian techniques in this book and while the Oulipo group evolved
out of the surrealist movement, they also claimed an opposition to surrealism.
HM: Yes, they thought Breton was too bossy. He was dictating to everybody the principles
of Surrealism. Well, the Oulipo group was interested in rules, too, but different
kinds of rules. Some of them had been in the Surrealist group before their aesthetic
BH: The Oulipians saw the way into transformation through procedures and mathematical
games. Something like that. If there was to be a transformation they thought it would
more likely come about through intentional practices rather than trusting the flow
HM: Right, that's a big difference between Oulipo and Surrealism. The Surrealists
followed the rules of the unconscious. I'm not very clear why Queneau decided to leave
the Surrealists. I think in part it was personality and different ideas about how
they wanted to write, whether exploring the irrational or the intentional in art.
What I like about Oulipo is their demystification of the creative process. Whereas
in some ways the Surrealists seemed to mystify the process.
BH: And Oulipo constraints seem quite important in this book. I was wondering if you
could talk about the difference between Sleeping with the Dictionary and your last three books—Trimmings, Muse & Drudgeand Spermkit.It seems as if you changed your approach.
HM: This book has less Stein influence and, yes, more Oulipo influence. It was useful
to think of potential literature resulting from a game played according to predetermined
rules. Trimmingsand S*PerM**K*T (Supermarket, S-Perm Kit, Spermkit)are definitely influenced by Stein's Tender Buttons. I was reading Warren Motte's book, Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature. I was interested in the idea of potential literature because I was trying out different
ways to write prose poems, and I valued their investigation of different ways to generate
or alter a literary text. I'm also interested in the ludic aspects of language and
literature, the idea of playing a game with rules that can be broken. For me it was
important to break the rules in a selective or systematic way.
BH: Why break rules and why break them systematically?
HM: Well, poetry is full of rules, since poetry has its own specific guidelines, plus
all the conventions of literature and rhetoric, and all the linguistic rules that
apply. By breaking those rules selectively and systematically we create alternate
meanings in poetry. I'm paraphrasing Michael Riffaterre in Semiotics of Poetry. When we read the poem the first time we are reading for referential meaning; but
as we read, we notice what he calls "ungrammaticality." The poem deviates from standard
usage. The poet deliberately and persistently breaks linguistic rules, so that if
we look at how the rules are broken they point in a certain direction. We are distracted
from literal, denotative, or referential meaning and pointed towards the metaphorical,
connotative, or poetic signification. We comprehend poetry by paying attention to
those places where the rules are broken. Those are signals to shift from literal to
BH: He's talking about poetry in general. But then you are actually attempting to
break a rule.
HM: Yes, poetry in general is a rule-breaking activity. But the rules are also important.
Poets break rules selectively to create alternate ways of writing, reading, and understanding.
I think that Oulipo is interesting because they have rules for how to break rules.
That's what their constraints are, I think, rules for how to break rules. I'm less
interested in randomly breaking rules, but often I'm breaking rules in a way that
points to the paradoxical effects of language.
BH: And by doing it systematically . . .
HM: Any pattern of repetition can intensify meaning, so that with each recurrence,
it becomes clearer to the reader. Breaking rules systematically creates another message
within the text. Breaking them haphazardly can just create confusion and incoherence.
Confusion can be useful in a poem because sometimes you just want to play with language.
A good example might be a riddle. It has a way of distracting us from the solution—but
every distraction is also another way of pointing to the riddle's answer. The old
traditional riddles are usually extended metaphors, and often mixed metaphors. Describing
one thing in terms usually associated with another, and also mixing the metaphors—that's
what confuses us and temporarily blocks us from solving the riddle. It's not that
a poem is exactly the same thing as a puzzle or that it's just a clever word game.
A poem can be so much more than that. But there is indirection whenever the poem swerves
away from the literal to the metaphorical.
BH: That's an interesting way of describing it. I'm wondering if you studied linguistics
when you were in grad school. Your writing seems very informed by linguistics.
HM: I majored in English and studied a bit of linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology
as an undergraduate. I particularly enjoyed the courses in sociolinguistics and folklore.
It was very useful to consider how language constitutes communities and creates hierarchies
within communities, when languages and dialects are set at odds with each other. I
also recall reading Roman Jakobson, a linguist who was interested in literature and
poetry. His work was really influential.
BH: I'm wondering about the order in the book—alphabetized—How did that come about?
HM: I decided to alphabetize them after I came up with the title. The working title
for the book was All She Wrote until I realized it sounds a bit ominous. Then I worked without a title for a while
until—you know I've told this story before—I woke up in bed with the dictionary poking
me in the back. I'd fallen asleep with my dictionary and my notebook. So I sat straight
up and said, "Here I am, sleeping with the dictionary." I grabbed my notebook and
started writing the title poem. At that point, the book was already more than half
done; but it seemed to be a miscellaneous collection with no principle of organization.
The idea of alphabetizing the poems came to me after I got poked by the dictionary.
My favorite line from one of the reviewers was, "the dictionary surely awoke refreshed."
BH: And "Acknowledgements" comes before "All She Wrote" and it starts with "Ac."
HM: Oh, yes, I didn't think about that. That's funny. Once I had the final title,
I realized that a few of the poems already mentioned the dictionary. Using a dictionary
is also part of the Oulipo game S+7 or N+ 7, so at some level, I'd already been thinking
of the dictionary as a character or collaborator, as well as an authoritative arbiter
of rules that poets routinely violate.
BH: Well, let's talk about "All She Wrote." This seems like a collage made from a
series of excuses. Were these all excuses you culled from your own experience? Or
did you gather them from other writings?
HM: It is a litany of excuses for not writing. Not writing letters to friends and
just not writing poetry, stories, or essays, or whatever I was intending to write.
I also hear lots of excuses from my students and my writer friends. We all make excuses
when we're not writing. This was written like a letter apologizing to friends for
not writing letters, and apologizing to myself for not writing, period. I used poetic
license, piling one excuse on top of another.
BH: All the interference in this melodic list poem, and then you end with "Then Oprahcame on with a fabulous author plugging her best-selling book." In a way the Oulipians
have a solution to the writer's block problem. As they say—you never really have a
reason for not writing. There's always a constraint, always another possible experiment.
HM: Writing about not writing is one way to break through a writer's block. There's
also the recognition that we're all distracted by media from reading and writing.
It's argued that consuming electronic media is antithetical to the habits we cultivate
when we write a letter or read a book. We watch movies, television, YouTube—or play
video games instead of reading and writing, and all of us are doing this more and
more, so they say, according to surveys. Publishers are hoping that electronic books
might lure back readers who are hooked on gadgets.
BH: An interesting opening for this book about the dictionary.
HM: It sets the tone, announcing that writing itself is a subject. Several of these
poems began with the kind of habitual writing that goes into diaries or correspondence.
I think some of it comes from that time when you and I talked about doing our letter
correspondence and I was never quite up to it. This poem could have been me apologizing
to you, even though I didn't say it to you. You were definitely one of the people
included in the apology.
BH: I think once we talked about a writing collaboration. You suggested it and so
I thought, well I'll try it, but my writing felt so stiff. I'd never worked on a collaboration
HM: It seemed like a good idea, at the time. Yet when I tried it, I couldn't do it.
But I did get some poems out of it. I'm sure "All She Wrote" came from that attempt,
and "Quality of Life," where you're a character in the poem. Those two and several
others came from that discussion. Our dialogue opened up a channel of writing about
everyday experience and current events, the kind of stuff that goes into letters and
diaries, in a playful, poetic way.
BH: We should have invented a constraint and a process. Then it would have worked.
But I wasn't working in that way then. Now let's talk a little bit about "Anthropic
Principle." This seems to be a story about how we try to make hopeless scientific
sense of accidents.
HM: I was listening to the public radio station when NPR was covering a convention
of physicists and cosmologists. Stephen Hawking was a keynote speaker. At one point
during the report on these physicists, I started writing along with what they were
saying, so the language of the news story got into the poem. They went on to report
a story about a plane that had crashed on the way from Texas to Arkansas, and I just
put it all together so that the poem follows what I understood as the grammar and
logic of this particular broadcast. I was interested in how scientists use metaphors
to explain the origin and purpose of the universe.
BH: You get the beginning of the sentence and then you continue to carry it out, but
in your own way.
HM: Did you ever notice that on TV or radio there is a kind of grammatical order that
determines how they put the news report together? It's not quite the same as a newspaper.
It's more compressed. There often seems to be an underlying logic in the way they
connect one story to the next. Or maybe that is in my imagination, but I always think
that once they decide what the main story is, it seems to determine what the other
stories are going be, and one story seems to comment on another.
BH: I'm sure the news is choreographed. That's how they report the news. And even
if it isn't, it follows the same mythic structures that we engage in our conversations,
what we expect from television. We watch a show and we know what is going to happen
HM: On this particular day I felt that one report about an airplane crash might be
connected to a seemingly unrelated story about the physicists and cosmologists discussing
their theories about the beginning and end of the universe. One of the speakers was
sure that someday we human beings are going to understand everything. We'll have a
big instruction manual that explains the entire universe. That story is followed by
a report of pilots crashing a plane, about human error creating this awful disaster.
BH: Then in your poem, suddenly there is this rather strange sentence— "Like when
I thought I heard that humanitarians dropped a smart blond on the Chinese embassy"?
Sometimes your poems go along and I'm easily making sense and then suddenly there
will an N+7-type sentence like this one.
HM: It's like a mishearing. Often when I write something literal and straightforward,
I will alter it so that it is a little blurred, as if you somehow misread or misheard
the line. This idea comes from several sources—not only Oulipo but also Kamau Brathwaite,
Nourbese Philip, and even Freud's analysis of the verbal error, the slip of the tongue
that we call a Freudian slip. So our tendency for error or misunderstanding is in
contrast to the confident prediction that we are on our way to understanding everything.
BH: Were you working with a dictionary then or just the dictionary in your mind?
HM: I must have used my internal dictionary when I substituted "smart blond" instead
of "smart bomb." You could say this poem questions the "anthropic principles" of humanity
in general, and specifically the man in charge. That man imagined to be at the center
of the universe usually was a white male who was supposed to have the biggest, smartest
brain that made him superior to the rest of creation. It's interesting that "dumb
blond" is one of the few stereotypes suggesting that white people lack intelligence,
an exception to the routine assumption of white superiority.
BH: Well there are lots of things they say to knock women down. Dumb blonde is one
HM: For sure there are times when gender trumps race. The poem refers to the bombing
of Belgrade that President Clinton authorized. I was also recalling news coverage
of the first Gulf War with the first President Bush, when we heard a lot about so-called
smart bombs. A news channel like CNN would broadcast a briefing with a U.S. military
general talking to "embedded journalists" about "surgical bombing" to reduce "collateral
damage." They showed the same video clip of a bomb precisely hitting its target. It
was the same clip over and over, with the same bomb hitting the same target. This
was to assure us that they could destroy specific buildings without killing the wrong
people. We're hearing similar claims now about "Predator drones" over Afghanistan
operated by pilots who bomb targets remotely without leaving home—and that's happening
with President Obama as commander-in-chief.
BH: So you interrupt your narrative by sliding into an N+7 type, sliding down the
linguistic register but after a while you probably just do it automatically. Here
it's a disruption, but a commentary, too.
HM: Yes, it's a way of interrupting and moving language around to open up space for
conflicting thoughts, like the idea that fallible human beings one day will master
the "super laws" of the universe. "The Anthropic Principle" refers to the presupposition
that we human beings are at the center of creation.
BH: For a human being, I guess, but not for a dog. (Laughter) What about the next
poem—a rather playful poem—"Any Lit"?
HM: This was based on a bit of folklore from the 19th century that I found in a cookbook
by Vertamae Grosvenor. The original line was, "You are a huckleberry beyond my persimmon."
I've also seen it in folklore collections where it was associated with the courtship
conversations of African-American couples. I used the same basic structure, with a
series of words that phonetically echo the formula, "You are a you… beyond my…"
BH: And here the "you" is way beyond arriving. One never gets there. At first I wondered
if you were counting off in the dictionary for these substitutions, but then when
I saw Miles Davis and Mighty Sparrow, I knew there was some substitution going on
HM: It's a freestyle improvisation, with some help from the American Heritage Dictionary to find different words for the recurring phonetic sounds.
BH: When Lorenzo Thomas wrote his review of Sleeping with the Dictionary, he talked about this poem. He doesn't go into it deeply because it is a short review,
but he talks about how it plays with African Diasporic oral traditions.
HM: He would have recognized that.
BH: It was great to read his review of you because it made me miss him.
HM: Oh, yes. I miss him too. For me, he was a living connection to the Umbra poets,
the Black Arts Movement, and the New York School. I remember the first time I met
you was when my sister and I went to the Nuyorican Poets Café and you were there,
talking to Lorenzo. He knew so much about so many things. You could get all sorts
of arcane information from him. Did you know that he studied library science? He was
like a walking library. I always thought of him that way. He studied Egyptian hieroglyphs
and used them in poems.
BH: And then "Ask Aden." This seems very much like a children's poem.
HM: That's exactly what it is. Originally this was a booklet I made for my nephew
when he was about five years old. When I was collecting the poems together, I came
across a copy of this acrostic I had written for him years ago. It was inspired by
a rubber stamp kit with animal stamps in alphabet shapes. So I stamped out his name
in different ink colors: A for Aardvark, D for Dragon, E was an Elephant, and N was
a newt. This poem also goes with the dictionary theme. The first book that we get
is the cloth ABC that babies like to chew on. It's like your first dictionary. My
mother saved the one I had. It shows a lot of wear and tear. "Ask Aden," "Kirstenography,"
and "O 'tis William," were all poetry pamphlets or broadsides I made as gifts to my
sister and my nephews. "O 'tis William" for my younger nephew, William Otis. The entire
poem consists of anagrams of his name. In "Kirstenography" the text is a narrative
transformed with homophonic substitutions. I made the book with a collage cover of
underwater photographs from magazines. She learned to scuba dive in college, so I
was punning on oceanography in the title that merges her name with stenography or
shorthand, a skill that my grandmother learned in vocational school. So "Kirstenography"
is a shorthand biography of my sister Kirsten. I didn't include some of the other
things I wrote for them, like "The Cat Parade." But now that I think of it, "Jinglejangle"
probably began with another stamp-pad booklet I made that was titled "Willy Nilly."
BH: Some of the pieces in this book are much more personal, about your family and
your relationships, others are more political. If you are writing about language and
the slipping signifier—how we attempt to order all of this with our dictionaries and
our logic and yet there is always this slippage—your alphabetical dictionary will
necessarily take up all areas of your life, the private and the public, concern with
political and social situations, family, relationships, and just playful chanting.
HM: I enjoyed the freedom to write in all directions, not limiting myself to any particular
style or topic.
BH: Ok now, "Between." This poem seems as if it has been fractured and rearranged.
"My ass acts bad/Devil your ears Charybdis."
HM: This was written only because Allan deSouza, a visual artist who lived here in
Los Angeles, was a guest editor for Framework.The theme of the issue was "Between." I said, "What is that? Between what?" and he
said, "That's what I want you to tell me." It seems fractured and rearranged because
that's exactly what I did. It's based on conventional sayings, such as "I'm caught
between a rock and a hard place," or "You don't know the difference between your ass
and your elbow." Along with the poem I included illustrations for how to use chopsticks.
You know, what you get in some Chinese restaurants with simple drawings of a hand
holding the chopsticks. So the art magazine published the poem with those step-by-step
instructions. I never would have written that poem if I hadn't been asked to write
BH: Remember that poem I wrote "In Between," where I would write one side—maybe a
story or a phrase or a line—and then the opposite and then I'd figure out what was
in between. And sometimes in-between were phone messages, one was yours.
HM: That was a cool idea, although it was embarrassing to see in print my halting
phone message.I'm glad I get to help edit my part of this interview.
BH: Oh, I'm sorry that was embarrassing. I guess I embarrassed everyone there. I think
all of the messages were like that.
HM: Don't worry about it. It was in context with the other messages and I only took
a minute to get over my embarrassment and view it as a document of the times. Still,
I'm glad for the chance to help edit this interview.
BH: With "Between," were you improvising?
HM: I didn't have much time before the deadline for submissions. So all I did was
mix up common phrases that came to mind immediately when I thought of "between." The
other thing I was thinking about was—you know how the old Chinese restaurants had
menus where you order "one from column A and one from column B." That was the visual
idea for this poem.
BH: Column A and column B and then you put the chopsticks in between. That's great.
When I read your poems in this book, I'm always asking myself, "How did she write
that?" I guess that's why I'm interviewing you
HM: It's usually something very simple.
BH: I know and that's what's so interesting. With "Bilingual Instructions" you seem
to be working with found poems and social problems.
HM: It was inspired by conflicting attitudes toward immigration and bilingualism.
The last few lines came right off the bins we have for trash collection in Los Angeles.
Each household has three waste cans—blue for recyclables, green for yard trimmings,
and the black one for garbage. When I moved here, I inherited the bins from the people
who used to live at this address. I also inherited their lawn service.If you look
around LA you see Latinos doing most of the yard work. I moved here at the height
of the political battle to dismantle bilingual education and deny government services
to illegal immigrants and their children. Despite the "English Only" movement, one
place you'll definitely see bilingual texts in Spanish and English is on these trash
cans, so that Spanish-speaking workers won't toss the yard clippings into the wrong
BH: You want to make sure he knows what he's doing when you want him to do what he's
doing but when he just wants to get an education and do something for himself, nope—that's
HM: The poem is not entirely accurate because voters can ask for a Spanish language
ballot at the polling place. But does everyone know to ask for it? You'd have to know
you can request it.
BH: Here in Tucson, it also seems as if mostly Mexican Americans and Mexicans do the
gardening and construction work.
HM: That's work they can do without higher education, or without learning English.
BH: But it's worse for those who have no work and are hungry and they can't get across
the border without seriously endangering their lives. And yet there's no one else
to do the work here. But we don't let them in except illegally and then that's ok
as long as they don't get caught. What nonsense.
HM: So many restaurants here depend on immigrant Latino workers. I was in an Orthodox
Jewish restaurant—they have the best blintzes in LA, not as good as Veselka's, but
the best I've found here—so the guy at the counter taking my order has ear locks and
a yarmulke, and he turns his head and yells over his shoulder, "Dos blintzes pa' acá"
Because guess who's cooking them, right?
BH: Your poems often seem playful, but most of the time, there is also a social commentary.
What about "Black Nikes"?
HM: Do you remember those people, the Heaven's Gate cult, who committed mass suicide?
I remember because it happened out here. Their bodies were found in a house in an
affluent suburb of San Diego. The cult members had decided to commit suicide together,
and they were found all dressed alike and all wearing black Nike shoes. They had taken
poison mixed into their dessert. They believed that by killing themselves they somehow
would be taken to heaven with the Hale-Bopp comet.
HM: This was a cult with bizarre beliefs. They were mostly college-educated people.
Many of them were web designers or doing other work that was computer related. One
was the brother of a cast member from the original Star Trek television show. It was all very weird. Anyway, that's what I was thinking about
when I wrote this poem.
BH: But it is also about slavery and about owning people and things.
HM: Yes, it mentions slavery and material possessions. Do you remember when kids were
getting murdered for their Air Jordan sneakers? These cult members had few possessions.
They lived like monks. By contrast, in Egypt the pharaohs were entombed with their
possessions, their gold, even their slaves and pets. I guess they believed you can take it with you.
BH: Like King Tut.
HM: The ancient Egyptians put everything into the tomb with the dead pharaoh because
he needed his slaves and his pets to take with him to the next world. The pyramids
also were built by slaves, like some of the government buildings and monuments in
Washington, DC. I had associated the pharaoh with the leader of this cult, an elderly
man with terminal cancer. He decided to take his followers with him when he died.
It was his idea that they should all take the poison and die together. I suppose they
couldn't imagine living without him.
BH: So did you use language from news?
HM: There were specific details that I'd read in news reports, like the shoes they
wore, the coins in their pockets, and the fact that cult members had created internet
home pages and web sites. That's how I got the line, "Please page our home on the
wide world's ebb."
BH: Why did you change this sentence like this, transforming the words? I like "page
our home" because now they are up where ever, inside the comet or whatever and "ebb"
is an interesting word, "ebbs and tides."
HM: I'd probably first written a prosaic line, like "see our home pages on the worldwide
web," because they were web designers. That's how they made their living. I revised
the line to make it a bit more poetic and to reflect on their possible motives. They
were all about the end of the world. It was a doomsday cult. Their belief system combined
spiritual ideas with science fiction. Most people had never heard of this group, but
the news reports included the final message they had posted on their web site. Several
members of the cult also had made video messages saying goodbye to their families.
Apparently they believed they were going to a better place. Their exit was chillingly
neat and orderly.
BH: This reads almost like a short story.
HM: I was thinking not just about this cult but also certain beliefs about death and
the afterlife. That's why I compared them to the Egyptians, who must have seriously
believed in life after death because they prepared very carefully for their voyage
to the next world. At least the royal families of the pharaohs planned to take with
them all the same things they used in life.
BH: It sounds like a California thing.
HM: Oh, definitely. It was a California thing. It must have been in the late 90's.
I remember thinking, "Why did I move to California where everybody is insane?" But
this cult leader actually was born in Texas, and the Jonestown leader who started
the Peoples Temple was from Indiana. Several poems began with my culture shock or
my disbelief about things that were happening all the time. Crazy things were happening
every single day.
BH: I remember when you first moved to LA and you went to the supermarket and it was
held up and you had to lie down on the floor.
HM: Right, I'm heading for the check-out when this guy, probably a crack head, yells
"Get down or get shot!" as he's waving a gun, demanding money from the manager. I'm
thinking, "I just moved into this neighborhood and already I'm caught in a holdup."
I said to myself, "I can't believe this is happening."
BH: You'd just come from Ithaca.
HM: Ithaca was so small and tame. The winters were tough but I did find good friends
and colleagues in Ithaca. It had that small town feeling. But even in Ithaca, which
seemed so peaceful, I was two doors from a crack house. I never even knew what was
going on until my neighbors got rid of the drug dealer.