Friday, September 05, 2008

Word Play, Intelligence, Irony: The Poetry of Harryette Mullen

UCLA poet/professor Harryette Mullen opened her reading Thursday at the Vermont Studio Center with two poems from BLUES BABY, "some of the first poems that I published," she said. Right away she put the audience on notice: laugh with the absurdities and familiar quandary (girl gives away too much of herself to lover) in "Omnivore," then grapple for the implications threaded through "You Who Walked Through the Fire."

Mullen's confident, lyric reading proceeded through a wide selection of the poems in SLEEPING WITH THE DICTIONARY. She'd made notes of which poems, which pages, but soon found the numbers a tad off -- so resorted calmly to locating the poems by title in the volume, since they're arranged alphabetically in this abecedarian collection.

After spilling merrily the poems "All She Wrote" (a great series of excuses for not having replied!), "Coals to Newcastle, Panama Hats from Ecuador," "Junk Mail," and "Dim Lady," she began to draw the mixed audience of poets and artists into the fabrication processes behind the poems. For instance, for "Dim Lady," she started by playing within the rules she set for her creative writing students at UCLA, showing them that "found poetry" was all around them and could be used as a springboard into writing. As she went into "Present Tense," she explained, "I think a lot of the poems actually just come from the noise of Los Angeles, which comes from the film industry and the celebrity machine," and the noise leaks past her "walls" and enters her writinng, so that the poem concludes, "our story unwinds with the curious twist / of an action flick without a white protagonist."

But don't take the "found poetry" and accumulated noise notions as a description of this work, which is clearly well honed and meticulously crafted (as well as side-splittingly funny; wish you could have seen how surprised some listeners looked as laughter exploded from them at several points!). I especially enjoyed "The Anthropic Principle," with a title of which Mullen said, "As I understand it, it's the idea that the universe revolves around us." She called the poem a kind of collaboration between her and public radio. It begins, "The Pope of cosmology / addresses the convention" -- and ends, after a body that's funny and thoughtful at once, "like the arcane analysis / of a black box / full of insinuations of error."

Mullen's poetry is not simply a playful display of language; its multiple layers and sideways assertions about race, ego, and politics demand attention and effort. She also feeds off her own sense of language that twists through misunderstandings. Her poem "Denigration" allows a potential reading even of the title as De-Negration: it's a tongue-leaping exploration of words that spill around the sound and meaning of "nigger" -- or, as she said, "about someone who was fired for using a word that sounds like another word" (remember? -- that was last year's scandal of talk TV).

Near the end of the reading, Mullen's choice for a powerful assertion of self against social/political structure (that's my phrase, not hers -- her language is much more fun than that!) was "We Are Not Responsible." The poem begins, "We are not responsible / for your lost or stolen relatives."

Finally, even if Mullen's name is new to you, you may have already run into one of her best known poems: "Wipe That Simile Off Your Aphasia." In addition to multiple pulications, the poem was displayed on the buses in Santa Monica, California, as part of that region's version of Poetry in Motion. And "poetry in motion" is a good description of Mullen's work. Interested in reading some of the poems in full, or hearing one of her bright, clear, good-humored readings? Check her web site (, which has several pieces to read and one to listen to.

And oh yes, of course, Kingdom Books is excited that she kindly signed two of her early books for us. Check out and click on Browse & Buy, then type Mullen into the Author search box.

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