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The Study of Literature Is a Complicated Grief: An Interview With Laura Mullen

By Harriet Staff

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At Full Stop, poet Laura Mullen talks to Kristin Sanders about her first prose memoir, Complicated Grief (Solid Objects, 2015). “Complicated Grief is an interrogation of our societal patterns, an attempt to see different types of patterns, of approaches. Or, as Mullen quotes Stein, ‘The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything.'”

“More so than your previous books of hybrid prose or poetry, this label of ‘memoir’ erases the safe demarcation between truth and fiction that poets often use as a sort of shield,” Sanders goes on to say. “How is this book situated in the lineage of women’s confessional writing?” Mullen’s response: “As if we weren’t always confessing!” More:

[Laura Mullen:] …There is no “shield,” I’m not being tricky to protect anything: I’m trying to get writing to be more like the experience (my experience) of the world. My experience is complex and resists most categorization and some of the acceptable performances of sincerity. And from the French feminists through Carole Maso to Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, Theresa Cha and Jean Toomer (among others) I came to hybridity, or the freedom to write a book that might look different instead of what we knew a book already to be—the liberty (because there is no money in it) to move away from imitation and…marketing. It’s been a long, slow (or so it seems to me) movement: I admire those who (like NourbeSe Philip, Lisa Samuels, Bhanu Kapil, Jena Osman, Ronaldo Wilson, and Myung Mi Kim) knew where they were going sooner. Whenever I hear anyone talk about difficulty, in my work or that of others, I just think it’s a confession about a lack of exposure: oops I missed a big part of Modernism!


We’ve talked a lot about women and aging in America: how it differs in European countries, which seem more comfortable with the beauty in aging, and how women don’t really discuss aging as a reality. We just buy the creams, products, services, etc. I think women and girls need to have this conversation more openly, and all the time. In this book you’re writing a sort of “warning that time decays beauties into ‘monstrous beings,’ while memory makes us each our own guest/(g)host” (viii). You write about the child and the crone, the Grandmother and Little Red Riding Hood. There are so many ways that a woman, in our society, tries to avoid being this “monstrous being,” and becomes a guest or ghost in her body instead. Do you think it’s possible to embrace or to reject the “monstrousness” of aging that happens seemingly only to women, not to men? Do you see writing, or art, as a way to avoid this inevitable decay into the “monstrous,” “ghostly” being?

I am as sure as I can be that in opening an acceptance of our minds (by way of writing that is not slavishly or even politely imitative, immediately market-friendly, or genre-safe) we will be helped to come to further acceptance of and joy in our bodies in all their manifestations. Narrow ideas about beauty kill art as well as intimacy and make caricatures of those we might otherwise be able to admire and wish to grow into—all those wonderful actresses lauded for looking 35 or 40 well into their 60s are monuments to the deadly force of the desire to be seen as still fitting the needs of the patriarchy. Sad. In my workshop I like to talk about what I call “The French Nose”: because on one of my visits to France I realized that what made French women so much more gorgeous than their American counterparts is that they find their fatal flaw and exaggerate it, play up to it, turn it into an unexpected source of beauty.

Later: “In some ways Complicated Grief is actually a book of literary criticism, or—it leans that way, I might say. What I call my obsessiveness functions or comes to light in the setting of the canon-as-trauma. The study of literature is itself a complicated grief, perhaps, in which we can’t get over Hemingway, for instance (some of us), or Brontë.”

Read it in full at Full Stop.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, January 28th, 2016 by Harriet Staff.