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Sleeping with the Dictionary (New California Poetry #4)

Harryette Mullen


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Harryette Mullen's fifth poetry collection, Sleeping with the Dictionary, is the abecedarian offspring of her collaboration with two of the poet's most seductive writing partners, Roget's Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary. In her ménage à trois with these faithful companions, the poet is aware that while Roget seems obsessed with categories and hierarchies, the American Heritage, whatever its faults, was compiled with the assistance of a democratic usage panel that included black poets Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, as well as feminist author and editor Gloria Steinem. With its arbitrary yet determinant alphabetical arrangement, its gleeful pursuit of the ludic pleasure of word games (acrostic, anagram, homophone, parody, pun), as well as its reflections on the politics of language and dialect, Mullen's work is serious play. A number of the poems are inspired or influenced by a technique of the international literary avant-garde group Oulipo, a dictionary game called S+7 or N+7. This method of textual transformation--which is used to compose nonsensical travesties reminiscent of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky"--also creates a kind of automatic poetic discourse.

Mullen's parodies reconceive the African American's relation to the English language and Anglophone writing, through textual reproduction, recombining the genetic structure of texts from the Shakespearean sonnet and the fairy tale to airline safety instructions and unsolicited mail. The poet admits to being "licked all over by the English tongue," and the title of this book may remind readers that an intimate partner who also gives language lessons is called, euphemistically, a "pillow dictionary."

Praise For Sleeping with the Dictionary (New California Poetry #4)

"Thoroughly delights and constantly surprises. Consisting primarily of short prose poems, this collection highlights Mullen's finely tuned sense of humor and sharp social criticism."
— African American Review

“Mullen does not have a Platonic relationship with the dictionary. She does not strive to represent ideas, but to experience an erotic encounter with language in which meanings proliferate. These poems are driven not by control but by possibility as a value, "scattering scat / sporadically all over / forever diaspora." As Sleeping with the Dictionary illustrates, such an affair can be quite a roil in the play.”
— Georgia Review

"Manipulating language that is "corny," "lame," or "bad" — such as archaism, slang, dialect, etc. — Mullen creates puzzles that urge us to confront the historical and social specificity of the linguistic perspectives we bring to reading."
— Modern Language Studies

“These idiosyncratic, gleeful poems are designed not to lull or dolefully solace, but to joke, jeer, babble and commit disorderly conduct till standard hierarchies and power relationships are quite discombobulated.”
— Newsday

"Sleeping with the Dictionary engages questions of racial, sexual, community, and cultural politics within a rigorous yet playful framework of formal experimentation. . . . What is wonderful about Mullen's poetry is that its moments of disruption, cultural reference, and punning are moments that might be read completely differently by different readers."
— Chicago Review

"A delightful, challenging collection. Mullen's words do indeed play well with others—they engage in humorous, ironic, and scathing play (sometimes all at the same time) with other words in her poems and with the "other" of the reader."
— Callaloo

University of California Press, 9780520231436, 104pp.

Publication Date: February 22, 2002

About the Author

Harryette Mullen is Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Tree Tall Woman (1981), Trimmings (1991), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), and Muse & Drudge (1995).