An Interview with Laura Mullen

Cactus May

About Laura Mullen

About Cactus May

I first met Laura in an undergraduate poetry workshop at CSU. If I had one word for that class it was high energy (it defied one word). And it was dynamite. She has a particular kind of fire. Laura is quick, witty and says what she says-- and then thinks it. A type of jazz, she seems to me. A constant stream of energy, a whirling out, a dance on the horizon. Mark Sanchez asked me to interview Laura for Nieve Roja. He was looking for something insightful. I took it on as a personal challenge. It's not easy to talk with Laura. She's very fast, and fiercely intelligent. I figured my best strategy would be to keep her off balance. The scene is a local table, old-town Fort Collins, May 1998, a brick wall and a sunset through a plate-glass window.

CM: How would you introduce yourself to Virginia Wolf?

LM: Let's see...First I would get down on my knees; then I'd put my forehead on her toes (laughing) and then I'd make some kind of whinny puppy noises.

CM: Why write?

LM: I write because I have to. When I was 14 I tried to kill myself. A friend of mine, who's rather callous, says wonderfully, "The teen girl thing to do." My grandmother gave me a journal. Some brilliant insight on her part made her think that if I could write some of it down maybe I wouldn't take it out on myself, or extinguish myself. And that seems to have been the case. I mean some how writing offered a space into which I could say some of what the world didn't seem to allow me to say-- what seemed to me necessary words about what was wrong.
Read Laura Mullen's early poem,
"Ode for an Envelope"

CM: Is it therapy or an investigation?

LM: In part it's an investigation for me. It's kind of hard to be a teacher because I'm really not very clear. I'm not a person who has lots of ideas. I only find out-like right now-I only know what I'm going to say because I'm saying it. The brain is running after the mouth going, "What'd it do? What'd it do?"...(laughs)..."Oh no, get a leash on that thing... Don't poop there!".... So, it is an investigation. I really don't know what's going on inside me until I see it outside.

CM: Why Poetry?

LM: Because of the leaps it allows you to take; because you're not going to have to make sense in the normal way.
Part of the problem was the words I had inside me didn't fit into the narrative which was the narrative of a normal happy family--a completely absurd narrative in a family of alcoholics; however, enforced heavily. And so poetry subverted that. It made a space for leaps and gaps which feels more true to how it is inside...thinking.

CM: Is writing natural?

LM:, no. I don't know. What is natural? (laughing and sipping her coffee) Drinking is definitely natural. Everything else is up for grabs.

CM: Is writing controlled or uncontrolled?

LM: Both. I stop writing when the control kicks in. I have periods of silence where I think I should be writing 'X' and because I can't write 'X', or 'X' doesn't feel good, then I stop writing entirely, because what's actually happening is inside 'Y' wants to come out and there's no room for it in the narrative. I've given myself what I'm going to write.

CM: How about politics and poetry, do they mix?

LM: I think so. Well, you know, whenever people start mixing them overtly it turns into propaganda. But poetry is necessarily polysemous—it's necessarily open to criss-crossing meanings, slippages, faults. If you want to make a singular, uni-vocal political statement, well then, poetry probably isn=t the place to do it because you'll find, if you're actually writing a good poem, your ideas are slipping and sliding, coming up against each other in ways you couldn't have anticipated; you might be denying the same thing you're affirming, if the poem is good enough.

CM: So the model is one of slippages.

LM: I think there are politics involved in asking people not to make sense the way they've made sense before--in asking people to put the world together in a new way. That's a political gesture. Rhyming is a political gesture. But I don't exactly feel like, oh gee, every time we put a word down it's political. (laughing) No. But there are politics in the best poetry, it seems to me, in the best creative writing of any kind. The problem is various readers will find various politics. (A short and rare pause).

What we're making are sites that are like natural sites. You can't exactly walk into a natural site and say it means 'X' means 'Y'. To one person it means one thing and to another person it means another thing. So, I would say write what you need to and attend the marches you have to.

CM: What's the antithesis of Poetry?

LM: Faculty meetings...(laughs) actually, I have to take that back. I'd love to say that but the truth of the matter is I feel rather strongly (and it's a deep shame for me) that actually, there is no antithesis to poetry. Anywhere we find an antithesis of poetry we've failed as poets to see the poetry there.

CM: What do you wish you had invented?

LM: What do I wish I'd invented?...(laughs) That's a really good question. My immediate answer is the automobile...(still laughing) because I love the automobile.

CM: What do you wish had never been invented.

LM: Leaf blowers....That was easy.

CM: Is writing solitary or more community oriented?

LM: Interestingly enough, that question makes me want to ask you, it stops being a solitary question...which, I think, is a partial answer. You write in some ways alone--even if you're collaborating--but I would never have written poetry seriously if I hadn't met a reader who took my poetry seriously. I would have stopped.

CM: Then when you write, do you have a reader in mind?

LM: No, it's not that clear. But somewhere you're thinking of someone who will get this.

CM: Three writers for the aspiring writer.

LM: I don't think I could narrow the field--you can't know with young poets. You just have to throw a whole bunch of stuff at them and see what happens.

CM: You're an animal; what kind of animal are you?

LM: Oh, God....(laughs) I'm a bunny rabbit. I know no one believes that, but inside I'm a bunny rabbit. This whole tough thing is to hide the bunny rabbit.

CM: Is there such a thing as talent?

LM: Yes. That's the thing we don't want to admit. We're in school pretending it's not true, but it's true. We all know it's true. That's why it's scary.

CM: What about perfection? Can you get close to the area of 'perfect'?

LM: No. I only keep yearning for the thing that use to happen a lot when I first started, where I would just be able to go to sleep feeling like a fucking genius. I would write very late a night so I could go to bed saying, "I am a genius." And then I would wake up in the morning and think, oh, no, I'm not a genius. But going to bed thinking I am a genius is a rush.

CM: Laura, one more question. Is there an exercise that you might recommend to writers, maybe something that works for you?

LM: I'm not so good a person to ask. I'll say in passing that there's a great book called The Practice of Poetry which is full of exercises by various writers, and I have a list on my computer of exercises. Sometimes I play with them, but the truth of the matter is mostly I'm a little bit at the mercy. I take dictation all the time, so that when inspiration comes, I'm ready. But I just force myself to write; most of it's garbage, and, every now and then because I've been writing, it hits. It's the Jack Nicklaus quote, which I love: "The more I practice the luckier I get."

Read the poem, "The War," in Laura Mullen's second collection of poems, After I Was Dead, forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press in April 1999.

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