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About this poet

Harryette Mullen was born in Florence, Alabama, and raised in Fort Worth, Texas. She has earned degrees in English and literature from the University of Texas at 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 Urban Tumbleweed (Graywolf Press, 2013), Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse Press, 1995), S*PeRM**K*T (Singing Horse Press, 1992), Trimmings (Tender Buttons Books, 1991), and Tree Tall Woman (Energy Earth Communications, 1981). Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge were collected into Recyclopedia (Graywolf Press, 2006) which received a PEN Beyond Margins Award. In 2002, she published both Blues Baby: Early Poems (Bucknell University Press) and Sleeping with the Dictionary (University of California Press), 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.


Multimedia

From the Image Archive

 

Page 34 / if your complexion is a mess

Harryette Mullen, 1953
if your complexion is a mess
our elixir spells skin success
you'll have appeal bewitch be adored
hechizando con crema dermoblanqueadora

what we sell is enlightenment
nothing less than beauty itself
since when can be seen in the dark 
what shines hidden in dirt 

double dutch darky 
take kisses back to Africa
they dipped you in a vat
at the wacky chocolate factory

color we've got in spades 
melanin gives perpetual shade
through rhythm's no answer to cancer
pancakes pale and butter can get rancid

From Muse & Drudge, page 34, by Harryette Mullen, published by Singing Horse Press. Copyright © 1995 by Harryette Mullen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

From Muse & Drudge, page 34, by Harryette Mullen, published by Singing Horse Press. Copyright © 1995 by Harryette Mullen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Harryette Mullen

Harryette Mullen

Harryette Mullen's work is driven by wordplay, allusion, and popular cliche, and is centered in a larger tradition of African American writing.

by this poet

poem
Sapphire's lyre styles
plucked eyebrows
bow lips and legs
whose lives are lonely too

my last nerve's lucid music
sure chewed up the juicy fruit
you must don't like my peaches
there's some left on the tree

you've had my thrills
a reefer a tub of gin
don't mess with me I'm evil
I'm in your sin

clipped bird
poem
the essence lady
wears her irregular uniform
a pinstripe kente
syncopation suit

she dreads her hair
sprung from lock down
under steel teeth press gang
galleys upstart crow's nest

eyes lashed half open
look of lust bitten
lips licked the dusky
wicked tongued huzzy

am I your type
that latest lurid blurb
was all
poem

The botanical garden is just as I remember,
although it is certain that everything
has changed since my last visit.

How many hilarious questions these fuzzy
fiddleheads are inquiring of spring
will be answered as green ferns unfurl?

Walking the path, I stop to pick up