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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

 

Black Nikes

Harryette Mullen, 1953

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 planet. Make it sparkle like a fresh toilet swirling with blue. Or only come close enough to brush a few lost souls. Time is rotting as our bodies wait for now I lay me down to earth. Noiseless patient spiders paid with dirt when what we want is star dust. If nature abhors an expensive appliance, why does the planet suck ozone? This is a big ticket item, a thickety ride. Please page our home and visit our sigh on the wide world’s ebb. Just point and cluck at our new persuasion shoes. We’re opening the gate that opens our containers for recycling. Time to throw down and take off on our launch. This flight will nail our proof of pudding. The thrill of victory is, we’re exiting earth. We're leaving all this dirt.

Originally published in Santa Monica Review, fall 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Harryette Mullen. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

Originally published in Santa Monica Review, fall 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Harryette Mullen. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

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
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
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
sun goes on shining
while the debbil beats his wife
blues played lefthanded
topsy-turvy inside out

under the weather
down by the sea
a broke johnny walker
mister meaner

bigger than a big man
cirrus as a heart attracts
more power than a loco motive
think your shit don't stink

edge against a wall
wearing your