Mullen, Harryette 1953–
Harryette Mullen 1953–
Harryette Mullen is best known as a poet but has also written short stories, essays, and non-fiction prose. Mullen, who has been called the “Queen of Hip Hop Hyperbole” by the Hispanic writer, Sandra Cisneros, has published five volumes of poetry, and her work has been included in several anthologies. Mullen’s creative use of homophones, metaphors, puns, and aphorisms, make even her short poems seem longer, almost filled with meaning and imagery. She writes from the vantage point of being African-American, female, and a feminist. Her poetic style is that of a language poet. According to Joan Houlihan, a critic for The Boston Comment, “The Language Poet must construct, not just a poem, but an uber-poem, a poem that does more than ‘mean’ something, a poem that eclipses westernized thought structures, transcends cultural products, and frees minds enslaved by capitalism. Radically PC (Poetically Correct), Language Poets strive to create a new world order.”
Mullen was born on July 1, 1953, in Florence, Alabama. When she was three years old her family moved to Fort Worth, Texas where they were the first black family to have moved into the neighborhood. Mullen remembers that, at the time, Texas was a segregated state and that her new neighborhood was hostile, to say the least—many neighbors moved immediately after their arrival. Not only was Mullen the wrong color, she did not sound right either. As she explained to Cal-taolo, her family had come from Pennsylvania and spoke “proper” English as opposed to “black English” and were accused of sounding “seddity or dicty or proper.” Mullen’s grandmother, on the other hand, lived in a neighborhood where many Mexican Americans lived and, as a young girl, she picked up a few phrases and practiced her Spanish with the neighbors. Later, Mullen studied Spanish in school, although she never became completely fluent.
Her family stressed literacy and education, but her peers valued creative word use and above all, a good storytelling. All the neighborhood children learned witty and humorous greetings, taunts, and insults filled with rhymes and rhythms. Mullen’s poetry, rich with dialect and word play, reflects her diverse environment. In an interview with Barbara Henning for the Poetry Project, Mullen explained, “The linguistic, regional, and cultural differences marked by southern dialect, black English, Spanish, and Spanglish are fundamental to how I think about language, and how I work with language in poetry. My attraction to the minor and the marginal, to the flavor of difference in language, has something to do with this sense of heteroglossia that was part of the environment of my childhood in Texas … The heterogeneity of these various communities has influenced me, often in complex, unpredictable, and subliminal ways.”
Mullen began writing as a young girl mainly because she loved to write. While in high school, she wrote a poem for an English class assignment which was, in turn, submitted to a contest by the teacher. Her poem won and was published in the local newspaper, but she did not consider herself a poet until after high school when she began attending and participating in poetry readings. Eventually, Mullen fell into the habit of writing
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; University of California, Santa Cruz, teaching assistant, 1985-89, visiting lecturer/dissertation fellow, 1988-89; assistant professor, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1989-95; associate professor, University of California, Los Angeles, 1995-.
Awards: Dobie-Paesona 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; Katherine Newman Award for Best Essay, MELUS, 1996; artist residency, Virginia for the Arts, 1999.
poems and sending them to magazines and journals for publication. In 1981 Mullen published Tall Tree Woman, a collection of poems that reflected the lives of traditional southern black women. The book, written during the time between earning her BA and attending graduate school, was very much influenced by the Black Arts Movement. By the time she earned her doctorate in 1990, Mullen had already been identified as a poet. Mullen explained to Emily Allen Williams in an interview for African American Review, ” I feel that I need to write in order to know what I think and what I believe. It’s a way of keeping in touch with the inner landscape, I guess. And it makes me more alert to the outer landscape. I pay more attention to things with a different spirit with a certain alertness.” While she was in graduate school, Mullen became acquainted with language poetry while taking a class from Nathaniel Mackey.
Mullen has cited Gertrude Stein as her primary muse for her second book, Trimmings, although at first, she did not like Stein’s work. Mullen confessed to Barbara Henning, “I remember that the first time I tried to read Stein, I really couldn’t stand it. It was boring and repetitious in a way that I found obnoxious. Years later, after I’d been reading more intensively and thinking more critically about language, when I returned to Stein, especially Tender Buttons, I was astonished at the freshness of her language, which still seems innovative and intriguingly enigmatic. What really struck me was the complexity of meaning found in the utter simplicity of her syntax. It reminded me of sophisticated baby talk, and I am very interested in baby talk, a marginal language used mainly by women and children. Tender Buttons appeals to me because it so thoroughly defamiliarizes the domestic, making familiar ‘objects, rooms, food’ seem strange and new, as does the simple, everyday language used to describe common things.”
Mullen’s third book, S*PERM**K*T is about women and their complex relationship with food, and being consumers in a patriarchal society. Mullen explained in the African American Review, ” You know, sometimes you see a neon sign and some of the letters are burned out, or you see a sign with letters that have fallen off… and, within the word supermarket, the word sperm is there.… This title is meant to have two possible readings: Its supermarket or spermkit, as some people call it. And it’s looking at the supermarket as a kind of synecdoche of consumer culture.” Mullen also wrote S*PERM**K*T poems to provoke readers to be conscious of how advertising affects consumers, and how we identify with products and brand names, “We really are what we eat, what we consume.”
The title of her fourth book, Muse & Drudge, came from the idea that in traditional poetry, the poet, typically a European white male, draws inspiration from a woman—a muse. Yet there usually was a woman who performed all the drudgery of housework. Mullen told the African American Review, ” This inspired individual has, on the one hand, the muse for inspiration, which is this ethereal spiritual being, and, on the other hand, this drudge or laborer who provided the material condition … I was thinking of that through the lends of black women or women of the African Diaspora, who have been both the muse and the drudge.” In 2001, six years after Muse & Drudge was published, Mullen wrote, Sleeping with the Dictionary, about which Publishers Weekly declared, “All the work here is full of such energy, invention, and pleasure that the dictionary surely awoke refreshed.”
In 2002 Mullen was teaching African-American Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California at Los Angeles where the poetry and literary scene was very lively. Los Angeles has been a very hip spot for poetry and poetry can be found in the most unsuspecting places. For example, poetry was published on billboards, and for an entire month Mullen’s poem, “Wipe That Smile Off Your Aphasia” was featured on the city buses as part of the Poetry in Motion program.
African American Review, Winter, 2000, p 701.
Publishers Weekly, December 17, 2001, p 85.
How Contemporary Poets are Denaturing the Poem, Part II, www.webdelsol.com?LITARTS/Boston_Comment.bostonc2.htm
Harryette Mullen’s web page, http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/mullen/
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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