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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 35 / the essence lady

Harryette Mullen, 1953
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 she wrote her
highbrow pencil broke

From Muse & Drudge, page 35, by Harryette Mullen, published by Singing Horse Press. Copyright © 1995 by Harryette Mullen. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

From Muse & Drudge, page 35, 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
arrives early for the date
to tell him she's late
he watches her bio clock balk on seepy time
petals out of rhythm docked for trick crimes

flunked the pregnancy test
mistimed space probe, she aborted
legally blind justice, she miscarried
scorched and salted earth, she's barren

when Aunt Haggie's chirren throws
poem
Pulling out of the old scarred skin
(old rough thing I don't need now
I strip off
slip out of
leave behind)

I slough off deadscales
flick skinflakes to the ground

Shedding toughness
peeling layers down
to vulnerable stuff

And I'm blinking off old eyelids
for a new way of seeing

By the rock I rub against
I'm
poem
just as I am I come
knee bent and body bowed 
this here's sorrow's home 
my body's southern song

cram all you can 
into jelly jam 
preserve a feeling 
keep it sweet 

so beautiful it was 
presumptuous to alter 
the shape of my pleasure
in doing or making

proceed with abandon 
finding yourself where you are