The Rumpus Interview with Laura Mullen


Laura Mullen is the author of eight books: Complicated Grief, Enduring Freedom: A Little Book of Mechanical Brides, Dark Archive, Murmur, Subject, After I Was Dead, The Tales of Horror, and The Surface. Recognitions for her poetry include Ironwood’s Stanford Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Rona Jaffe Award. She has been a MacDowell Fellow and a frequent visitor at the Summer Writing Program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. Her collaboration with the composer Nathan Davis, “a Sound uttered, a Silence crossed,” will be performed at Williams College in May. Recent poems have appeared in BOMB and are forthcoming in The Nation and Poetry.

Complicated Grief is named after a persistent complex grief disorder, but the book is more thrilling than depressing in its incredible examination of pain lasting long after the initial loss or trauma. I found myself reading certain sections again and again in order to experience them in different orders, and returning often to the introduction to unpack its charged, pleasantly confusing, mesmeric layers.

Laura and I talked over email about obsession, the development of germ theory, cycles of abuse, and the idea of protection.


The Rumpus: One quote in particular that struck me in this furious and gorgeous barrage of an introduction, which you call the “Demonst(e)ration,” was “Decaying matter is so horrible a poison that certainly no aspects of the individual can provide protection” (viii). You also bring in ideas concerning Frankenstein, 19th century body-snatchers, Derrida’s ideas about de-monstration, otherness, self-assembly, and Stein’s “Identity a Poem.”

Mullen coverLaura Mullen: I love that you call it a “furious and gorgeous barrage.” That helps me see the relation between the introduction and the book’s final section, where writing about a fire (and about the attempt to understand the event), also becomes an attempt to understand how writing might get closer to the fire, in so many ways. But the quote you cite is likely to be from Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), the inventor of germ theory, whose research helped curb childbed fever, though his findings waited quite some time for confirmation. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (whose mother died ten days after she was born) wrote a novel that anticipates Semmelweis’s discovery and serves as a parable for the destructive power of decaying matter. In Frankenstein there is a transfer first of life into death (in the creation and animation of the monster), and then of death into life, as the monster takes his revenge on the father who gave him life but withheld recognition.

Rumpus: How did you come across Semmelweis, and others you quoted from in the introduction? I guess what I’m asking is, what was your research process like for this, if “research process” is the right phrase. Did you seek out books that you needed in your daily life, to continue looping through this prolonged grief? Or was it a more intentional search for items you could bring into this project?

Mullen: Oh my research. Well, I got an English Degree. And I got that degree in a certain time/at a certain place. If you add UC Berkeley + 1984 the other side of the = is “new historian” meaning that I studied with and was influenced by those who were interested in how the personal shaped the political (and literary), how science and literature might interact, and what the body got to do with it. But I’m revisiting my education in this text in part to query that education. If we take seriously the idea that the stories we want to hear shape the stories we can (and want to, and are allowed to) tell, then the canon emerges as something to examine very carefully. When I encountered “The Lady of Shallot” (to take a “for instance” allusion from the many in the book, this one from the “Etiology” section) it was still considered a “great poem.” What does that poem—or rather a particular presentation of that poem (hey, admire this!)—do to a young woman? What message is she getting about her limited potential in the world and the fatal danger of desire and any attempt to actualize desire? And isn’t the canon a “loop”? Is the professor who insists we read Ernest Hemingway again instead of Gertrude Stein “obsessing”? Because although I did a BA in English, an MFA in Poetry, and a year’s worth of a PhD, Stein was an author I had to discover on my own. She wasn’t on the syllabus anywhere in all that time.

Rumpus: I’d like to return to the idea of protection that occurs in Semmelweis’s quote. Complicated Grief in some ways seeks to provide protection, or to take it away, or something else altogether?

91xspqhB2qLMullen: The failure of protection, the importance of recognizing the ways in which we influence (and infect) each other—the fact that being an “individual” can’t protect you—these are issues I’ve been thinking about for a while. In 2005, in conversation with Jennifer Dick, I noted that:

“Influence” is itself influenced, coming from an Italian word for the outbreak of a disease (influenza, outbreak). Influence is that which flows across—permeates—the boundaries of the self.

And Complicated Grief is a text that announces, from the start, in its citation of influence, dense intertextuality and hybridity, a failure of some apparent or usual protections, and a need to re-examine “identity” in the light of an acknowledgement of our entanglements and interdependence. (The virgule on the jacket doesn’t serve to hold “Memoir / Poetry” apart but [re]marks a failure to keep the genres separate.)

But I might say I’m interested in finding new and more humane modes of safety, and in exposing the arbitrary and superficial protections that have failed us.

Rumpus: That’s fascinating. Could you say more about what you mean by humane modes of safety?

Mullen: Maybe one way to think about it would be in the context of the historical development of germ theory. The problem of childbed fever was not significant until the development of a male-dominated medical establishment made possible the situation in which a professional might move from touching a corpse (for the purposes of study) to putting his unwashed hands up against, or into, a woman in labor. The boundary between expert and amateur was an imposed social-cultural “protection” which actually exposed a number of women to a fatal disease, because decaying matter, as the fireman said of fire (cited in the book’s final piece, “Torch Song”) “ain’t got no rules on it.”

There’s a nice clear difference between real protection (wash your hands, or wear a condom) and the fake protection offered by institutions which often come, finally and sadly, to be much too interested first of all in protecting their own power. Given our examination of the behavior of our police forces at this moment the question of protection has an extra resonance, yes? It seems all “protection” has to be monitored, considered, weighed and justified—I am suggesting we do that (but it’s something Mary Shelley (and Gertrude Stein) also suggest). “Torch Song,” the book’s final section, looks at an arson committed by someone hired to protect the wilderness from fires, a catastrophic failure of protection!

imagesRumpus: Can you talk more about your intention for this introduction? It felt incredibly important, for this book. Did you always plan to have an introduction like this? How do you think the book would change if there was no introduction, or if it came at the end?

Mullen: I can tell you that I shaped the book very deliberately, after a great deal of thought, and that I insisted this piece function as a prologue, but I find the word “intention,” in your question, confusing (“trust the art,” as D.H. Lawrence said, “not the artist”). These speculations are perhaps better responded to by text and reader, rather than author. Helen Vendler calls this kind of interrogation of a work “roads not taken,” suggesting that it’s useful, when writing critically, to consider what differences it makes to the work or the encounter with the work if changes are made. It’s one way of better understanding your experience, comparing it to other possible experiences you can imagine having.

Rumpus: Complicated Grief is your eighth book. How was the experience of writing this book different, compared to that of writing the others?

Mullen: With Complicated Grief I can say that there was a certain simplification in the process. Getting older means less wasted effort, things are clearer earlier. Being young meant flailing around a lot, especially as I was trying to invent new shapes without a ton of models. I had Paterson, and The Art Lover, to guide me for The Tales of Horror (written from 1988-’97 and published in 1999), but I still was so lost, back then, as I tried to understand what I was writing and how it went together. There was a draft of that manuscript that had all these brightly colored paper clips on the pages so I could visualize what I saw as the book’s themes and threads—that was a long time ago. Complicated Grief was written in larger and more coherent (if disparate) shapes. The question was how they fit together. The mind is coherent, trust that was the best writing advice I ever got (I got it from Carole Maso and I pass it on). It’s true, and clearer and clearer as one grows and gains an improved sense of who one actually is (as versus who one was supposed to be).

The most important aspect of writing the pieces that make up this eighth book was yielding to my obsessive side, letting my own “complicated grief” in on the process. You can imagine how tempting it is to try to fight the part of you that loops and loops, caught up in tangled sorrow from which it seems there’s no escape. We live in a culture that insists on “moving on” (even while our loyalty to and love of the franchise and the sequel give away a larger loopiness). But I tend to dwell or obsess or meditate, and I came back to, for instance, the figure of Dickens’s “Miss Havisham” with some (self) recognition if not relief. Miss Havisham is an important feminine literary figure in the tradition of Antigone (though it’s significant that Antigone is fighting to bury something and Miss Havisham refuses, as it were, to bury the corpse). Like Hamlet, she’s focused on what everyone would rather not know or would like to forget, and she seems crazy / stuck as well as bitter, but she’s also a perfect prototype of a performance artist. She’s intentionally hard to deal with, anticipating Carolee Schneemann, say, or Sophie Calle, or the courageous Ana Mendieta, re-enacting a rape in her Iowa City house, inviting the audience to remain with the violated body, the evidence of violence. It’s painful, but it’s part of the recognition that makes real healing possible, if healing is possible (the jury is out on that, that’s the usual phrase—should I say the jury is deadlocked?). Staying with the pain, attending to it, being present to and with it—that’s the task, because that’s the only (as far as I can tell) hope of finding a way forward.

9780520242944Rumpus: The idea of looping and looping is really appealing to me. And in Complicated Grief, you seem to be looping into what everyone would rather not know just like Miss Havisham. It’s almost a relief, to sink into obsession, to really give in to it.

Mullen: I know what you mean about the relief of giving into the obsession (this is why I’m such a rabid Sophie Calle fan), but it is worth asking who decides what’s an “obsession” and where it differs from meditation or the kind of deep dwelling on a subject we see in philosophy or the work of Robert Wilson, for instance? When Terry Riley gets stuck on a “C” note or Alvin Lucier repeats “I am sitting in a room…” (playing with the “r-r-resonant frequencies” until the words dissolve) we don’t say they’re “obsessing”! And when people line up for yet another movie sequel we don’t ask why they can’t “get over it” or “move on.” So when we’re told to “move on” or “let go,” we should take a look at who is saying it and why, and when we see repetition happening it’s worth trying to understand it before attempting to shut it down. Miss Havisham is a glitch in the smooth functioning of the Patriarchy, enforcing awareness of a moment of social disaster and personal shame, something it seems she would want us to forget (but no one would forget). (Maybe an interesting “discussion question” for readers of Complicated Grief might be, “What do Terry Barton and Miss Havisham have in common?”?) In the “Intervention” section of the book we go into that looping from a battery of positions (where healer and sufferer are blurred). I’m very interested in “repetition and revision” (to use Suzan Lori-Parks’s phrase) and in the culture’s desire to loop or repeat. The performance group The Ant Farm redoing JFK’s assassination in Dallas was an event that struck a chord with me, especially when one of the members said they’d only intended to do it once, but the Dallas audience insisted they repeat the performance. And now the new Star Wars film is breaking all previous box office records. (Why might we want to revisit those characters, that narrative, those jokes and tropes again, in this way, right now? I wonder what it will turn out to reveal about the economics and politics of this moment.) Is it possible that where the subject is socially approved (tah tah tah TAH tah, it’s war) almost no one thinks we’re “stuck,” but when we think too much about what no one else wants to think about, as well as when we think without the thoughts evolving, then we’re seen as trouble (and / or troubled)?

Rumpus: The question of how Terry Barton and Miss Havisham are similar is a great one. And even as—or especially as—someone who only vaguely understands what the whole Star Wars deal is about, I agree. Didn’t we already have a bunch of those films, and why did people want another one so badly?

I can see in many places how this book is interested in power, and ways of protecting power. Protection is certainly a word that carries a strange weight to it these days. But I wanted to ask about “Torch Song,” which is about one of the worst fires in Colorado’s history, the Hayman Fire, which burned 138,000 acres and destroyed 133 homes. I thought this was a beautiful last segment to encounter in the book, in part because it is confusing. It doesn’t pin anything down.

Mullen: I like your image. One might say that “Torch Song” is, in part, about the urgency of the effort to pin things down and what wild dart throwing that desire leads to. There’s a poem, from the collection After I Was Dead, called “Appearances” which ends with the image of “the worked-over, punctured canvas” of a Matisse painting, “the traces of everything it took / to come to this.”images-1 Wherever something is “pinned down” there’s a little hole—at least one—more likely many. With the Hayman fire, because of Barton’s lies and the structure of what we expect of presentations of reality (which impacts journalism so directly), I could see the ‘pin the tale’ (as it were) move (and change) prick by prick, day by day. In a museum in El Paso, Texas, there’s a map that shows all the places the border between the U.S. and Mexico has been (because it shifted)—I find it very clarifying (not confusing) to be reminded that everything we feel like we’ve really pinned down is transient, arbitrary, and marks the site of a painful if not violent negotiation, one that may not have ended.

Rumpus: In “Trust,” in which you talk about being molested by your fencing instructor, you break a long silence, 41 years. I can’t help but return to this idea of protection. You wonder why your parents failed to be canny, savvy, careful, because this man taught you for free, and you bring this idea of protection back to yourself. “What the fuck is the bugle blast of my furious impatience. I wanted to be smart enough (fast enough) to be safe and to keep those I love safe.” How did the idea of keeping safe, both yourself, and others, permeate the rest of Complicated Grief? Does working through the details, recalling fencing language, the act of remembering, contribute to a kind of self-protection? What was toughest for you in writing “Trust”?

Mullen: What was toughest for me in writing “Trust,” was reliving it, turning and facing this. We move on and we don’t move on, you know? She’s still there—and by “she” I mean me—caught in that windowless room, that bad bargain and that violation. No one can touch me, sexually, without activating that memory. But I had walled, I thought, that time off. I say that and then want to say “and I got off lightly”! There’s a recent case in Baton Rouge, haunting me, where a mother left her twelve-year-old daughter to be babysat (every day for months) by a known pedophile and his four perverse friends, and just yesterday the news broke of the bodies of two children, dead after long-term physical abuse, found in a storage locker in California. What hardest for me is, I suppose, what’s hardest for my country. Admitting how ill we are, how deep the damage goes, how constantly the abuse cycle is repeated and how horribly we have failed those who most deserve our care and protection. I hope, by being honest about what happened to me, to help nourish a culture of honesty that might make something different—and better—possible. We really need to squarely face the issue of child abuse in America, and to look at our perversity, our illness. Though we don’t have a cure for cancer we at least have stopped being too ashamed to even say the name of the disease—and the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic is edifying, isn’t it? Shame shuts down productive thinking, and I’d like to open the doors. It’s a first step.

Rumpus: Last question. the dedication to this book reads, “For you— / —at last.” Is this “you” a specific person?

Mullen: Oh (this said with a laugh), everyone asks this question. No way am I gonna answer it!

Maria Anderson's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Sewanee Review, McSweeney's, Alpinist, and Best American Short Stories. She lives in Bozeman, Montana. More from this author →