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July 20, 2001Philosophy Hall LoungeColumbia UniversityFrom the Academy Audio Archive

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.


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Souvenir from Anywhere

Harryette Mullen, 1953

 

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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
Awakened too early on Saturday morning 
by the song of a mockingbird 
imitating my clock radio alarm.
				
                *

Walking along the green path with buds 
in my ears, too engrossed in the morning news
to listen to the stillness of the garden.
poem

We need quarters like King Tut needed a boat. A slave could row him to heaven from his crypt in Egypt full of loot. We've lived quietly among the stars, knowing money isn't what matters. We only bring enough to tip the shuttle driver when we hitch a ride aboard a trailblazer of light. This comet could scour the

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