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9. Hearing a New Musical Instrument: Harryette Mullen’s Critical Lyricism

MANSELL, Lisa (2013) 9. Hearing a New Musical Instrument: Harryette Mullen’s Critical Lyricism. In: ABlaze with Poetic Fire: Black Poetry, Black Music. Ashgate, Burlington VT. (In Press)

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Michael Palmer said that “reading Harryette Mullen is like hearing a new musical instrument,” and indeed, what is most striking about her poetic work is a bold, diverse innovation drawing from, simultaneously, jazz, blues, hip-hop, soul, classical, avant-garde atonaltites. Mullen is a virtuosic, textured hybridist whose work evolves beyond binaries of black influence versus white influence and into a more complex arena of post-genre, and perhaps even the post-national—a blended space of identification. This reflects and negotiates our critical and philosophical ideology towards a multiplicity, fragmentation, and the plural. Following on from this is the notion that Black musics represent these critical shifts. For example, the evolution of Hip-hop as an isolation of funk-beats that are then repeated, or funk’s isolating of rhythmical syncopation and bass-beats to privilege them over lyric and traditional melody are examples perhaps of deconstruction. Contextually, this is a reflection of the de(re)construction of Black identity during this post-Civil-Rights-Era period. Mullen’s poetry is a development of this ‘isolate-then-blend’ progression.

The other strand of the essay concerns the position of Black music in the context of Western musical terminology. The blue notes that form the signature of black (and now, arguably, white music) are referred technically as accidentals. This is perhaps revealing terminology. The accidental has become the mainstream. This has implications for our thinking in terms of minority and dominant, ‘accidental’ and ‘purposeful’. The theme of improvisation is also manifest in the term ‘accident’ and the essay will refer again to Mullen as a way of challenging these binary positions and opening the space to more complex, and plural points of identification in African-American identity.

Black Music, Black poetry is a forthcoming title from Ashgate which “links a diverse body of writing to a black musical tradition, Black Music, Black Poetry offers readers a fuller appreciation of the diversity of approaches to reading black American poetry. The contributors take up the issues of black cultural authenticity, musical imitation and performance, and the influence of black music on poetic practice as they relate familiar figures such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes and lesser known writers like James Emanuel.” This book supports Ashgate’s research interest in Black writing, heritage and performance and follows examples such as Ramey. 2008, The Heritage Series of Black Poetry, 1962-1975. By publishing my research on Black diasporic avant-garde poetry with Ashgate, I am directing my writing to a wide, but also specific audience of researchers who understand that Ashgate publish a number of books on this particular topic.
Dr. Gordon Thompson, is an Associate Professor, English, American and African American Studies, City College of New York and Director of the Black Studies Program, City College of New York, Director of the Langston Hughes Festival, City College of New York, and Director of RAP-SI (Retention, Achievement, Professionalism Success Institute), program of the Black Male Initiative, CUNY. His Recent publications include
The Assimiliationist Impulse in Four African American Narratives, (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011) and Five chapters in: Black American: A State-by-State Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Alton Hornsby, Jr (ABC-CLIO Imprint, 2011)

Item Type: Book Chapter, Section or Conference Proceeding
Subjects: Q200 Comparative Literary studies
Q300 English studies
Faculty: Previous Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies > Journalism, Humanities and Social Sciences
Depositing User: Lisa MANSELL
Date Deposited: 29 Apr 2013 14:33
Last Modified: 29 Apr 2013 14:33

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