Mullen, Harryette (Romell)
MULLEN, Harryette (Romell)
Nationality: American. Born: Florence, Alabama, 1 July 1953. Education: University of Texas, Austin, 1971–75, B.A. in English 1975; University of California, Santa Cruz, 1985–89, M.A. in literature 1988, Ph.D. in literature 1990. Career: Instructor, Austin Community College, Texas, 1975–77; temporary office worker, Manpower, Austin, Texas, 1977–79; artist in the schools, Texas Commission on Arts, Beaumont and Galveston, 1978–81; teaching assistant, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1985–89; visiting lecturer/ dissertation fellow, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1988–89; assistant professor, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1989–95. Since 1995 associate professor of English and African American studies, University of California, Los Angeles. Awards: Dobie-Paisano fellowship, 1981–82; Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico artist grant, 1982; literature award, Junior Black Arts Academy, Dallas, 1986; Rockefeller fellowship, Susan B. Anthony Center for Women's Studies, University of Rochester, New York, 1994–95; Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry, 1994–95; first prize, Katharine Newman Award for Best Essay, MELUS, 1996; artist residency, Virginia Center for the Arts, 1999. Address: Department of English, University of California, Los Angeles, Box 90095–1530, 2225 Rolfe Hall, Los Angeles, California 90095, U.S.A.
Tree Tall Woman. Galveston, Texas, Energy Earth Communications, 1981.
Trimmings. New York, Tender Buttons Books, 1991.
S*PERM**K*T. Philadelphia, Singing Horse Press, 1992.
Muse & Drudge. Philadelphia, Singing Horse Press, 1995.
Freeing the Soul: Subjectivity, Race, and Difference in Slave Narratives. London, Cambridge University Press, 1999.*
Media Adaptation: Seven Cabaret Songs, music composition by T.J. Anderson, with lyrics from Muse & Drudge, 2000.
Critical Studies: By Stephen Yenser, in Partisan Review (New York), 61(2), spring 1994; "Signifyin(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino" by Elisabeth A. Frost, in Postmodern Culture (Cary, North Carolina), 5(3), May 1995; by Calvin Bedient, in Callaloo (Baltimore, Maryland), 19(3), summer 1996; by Fred Chappell, in Georgia Review, 50(3), fall 1996; interview with Cynthia Hogue, in Postmodern Culture (Charlottesville, Virginia), 9(2), January 1999.* * *
Harryette Mullen is a feminist language poet who writes from her experience and knowledge and from her desire to understand herself as an African-American woman. Although she uses language in a highly creative, symbolic, and playful way, her poems conjure up illuminating images of a woman in a patriarchal culture and of a black person in a white culture. Throughout her poetry Mullen's use of metaphors, homophones, aphorisms, allusions, blues, and jazz—particularly the woman's voice—allows her to pack a wealth of meaning into a short space. When one delves into Mullen's poetry, even reading between the lines is important.
Mullen began to write poetry as a child growing up in a middle-class family of schoolteachers and ministers in segregated Texas, and she published her first poem in high school. She was exposed to African literature and Afro-American folklore at the University of Texas, but she heard women and black writers only at local readings, for at the time they were not studied as part of the canon. Her first book, Tree Tall Woman, which was published in 1981, was influenced by the black arts movement, in which black writers took as their subject the positive aspects of their culture.
In a doctoral program in the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Mullen became a student of Nathaniel Mackey, a black language poet. In an interview with Cynthia Hogue in Postmodern Culture in 1999, Mullen cited Gwendolyn Brooks and Lorenzo Thomas as being "important" to her work. But it was reading Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons that led Mullen to her second book, Trimmings, which was published in 1991. As Elizabeth A. Frost states in the article "Signifyin(g) on Stein: The Revisionist Poetics of Harryette Mullen and Leslie Scalapino" (Postmodern Culture, 1995), "Mullen marks her text with both 'mainstream' speech and the black vernacular in what she calls a 'splicing together of different lexicons' …" Frost adds, "Mullen appropriates cliches linked to African-American culture and forces us to ask what 'black' and 'white' culture actually consist in—where the lines are drawn." For example, one of Mullen's short evocative pieces reads, "Her red and white, white and blue banner manner. Her red and white all over black and blue. Hannah's bandanna flagging her down in the kitchen with Dinah, with Jemima. Someone in the kitchen I know." Mullen's homage to Stein thus takes the older poet's playfulness with language a step further by placing the language within a racial and gender context.
If Trimmings is considered to be poetry about women with clothes, Mullen's next book, S*PERM**K*T, which was published in 1992, can be seen as poetry about women and food. As the title indicates, S*PERM**K*T is a takeoff on supermarket consumerism within a male culture, on the way in which women are seen and constructed by advertising.
Muse & Drudge, published in 1995, is written in quatrains. In "'Ruses of the Lunatic Muse': Harryette Mullen and Lyric Hybridity" (Women's Studies, 1998), Frost calls the work "a long poem as blues: fragmented and improvisational, disjunctive in its continuities." She says that "Mullen mixes the influences of avant-garde groups too often considered in isolation: like poets of the Black Arts Movement, Mullen experiements with a speech-based idiom, but, like language-influenced writers, she launches her cultural critique by rejecting the rules of syntax and fashioning a distinctively visual, punning, and allusive play with language."
Influenced by both literary and folkloric studies, Mullen invokes Sappho, the ancient Greek lyric poet, along with the loudmouthed Sapphire from the old Amos 'n' Andy radio show. Sapphire, once a perjorative name, is now being reclaimed by black women. In a stanza from Muse & Drudge, Mullen cleverly reclaims Sapphire and further posits Sappho as a blues singer: "Sapphires's lyre styles / plucked eyebrows / bow lips and legs / whose lives are lonely too."