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.
“Body on fire, spangles. Light to sequin stars burn out at both ends.”
“When a dress is red, is there a happy ending. Is there murmur and satisfaction. Silence or a warning. It talks the talk, but who can walk the walk.”
Trimmings was for me a way to think about women and language. I don’t think there is necessarily any “feminine language” except in the sense of those qualities we regard as feminine. Gender is a set of signs which we tend to forget are arbitrary. In these prose poems I thought about language as clothing and clothing as language, wondering especially why writing by women has been as ephemeral as fashion. Other concerns were the use of women as aesthetic objects in art and literature, the use of women’s bodies in advertising and pornography, the use Freud made of “hysteria” of his women patients. Trimmings proceeds metonymically and associatively, from women’s clothing to women’s bodies; from a word to another word. linked by association—since women are also called skirts, petticoats, fluff, trim. Words like pink and slit are especially at home in the sewing catalogue or the girly magazine. The words pink and white kept appearing as I explored the ways that the English language conventionally represents femininity. Of course if I regard gender as a set of arbitrary signs, I also think of race—as far as it is difference that is meaningful—as a set of signs. Traces of black dialect and syntax, blues songs and other culturally specific allusions enter the text from the linguistic contributions of Afro-Americans to the English language.
(this note originally appeared in Kevin Killian’s magazine, Mirage)
The loveliest melodious variations made guilelessly of the mention of the objects tender— “a long dress,” “a red hat,” “a blue coat,” “a purse” and its food–we she’s and he’s have and Eve’s ever tasted, the things who became the same as the buttons with which we fasten together our wearings. Thank you very much Harryette from Gertrude and me for the continuing of the making of this being if stuff in this particular way in the writing.
A form of address, as we are not just what we adorn, locates Harryette Mullen’s ever more modulating etudes—a poetics of cultural markers, the rhythms that make us us, new beats in a promenade of innovating charms.
Short but pictureful poems with their own special music.
Trimmings was republished as part of the trilogy, Recyclopedia (Graywolf Press)
along with S*PERM**K*T and Muse & Drudge.
Recyclopedia received a PEN Beyond Margins Award.
Trimmings be republished in the forthcoming