Harryette Mullen was born in Florence, Alabama, and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. She has earned degrees in English and in Literature from the University of Texas, Austin, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Early in her career as a poet, she worked in the Artists in Schools program sponsored by the Texas Commission on the Arts, and for six years she taught African-American and other U.S. ethnic literatures at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Her books include Tree Tall Woman (1981), Trimmings (1991), S*PeRM**K*T (1992), Muse & Drudge (1995)—the latter three of which were collected into her most recent book, Recyclopedia (Graywolf, 2006) which received a PEN Beyond Margins Award. In 2002, she published both Blues Baby: Early Poems and Sleeping with the Dictionary, a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry.
Though her work is driven by an obsession with wordplay, allusion, and popular cliché, it is also centered in a larger tradition of African American writing, with particular emphasis on representations of black women. While Gertrude Stein functions as a key figure behind the prose poems collected in Recyclopedia, much of Mullen's work necessarily extends beyond Stein's brand of linguistic play, combining it with similarly language-obsessed poets like Melvin B. Tolson, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks.
The poet Michael Palmer has noted that reading Mullen's work "is a bit like hearing a new musical instrument for the first time, playing against a prevalent social construction of reality."
Mullen was the 2009 recipient of the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Her other honors include artist grants from the Texas Institute of Letters and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation of New Mexico, the Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry, and a Rockefeller Fellowship from the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Women's Studies at the University of Rochester. Harryette Mullen teaches African-American literature and creative writing in the English Department at the University of California, Los Angeles.