Academic journal article African American Review

Harryette Mullen, "The Queen of Hip Hyperbole": An Interview

Academic journal article African American Review

Harryette Mullen, "The Queen of Hip Hyperbole": An Interview

Article excerpt

On September 20-24, 1999, the poet, essayist, and short story writer Harryette Mullen was Writer-in-Residence at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, along with novelists John Edgar Wideman and Percival Everett. The program which brought the authors to the campus is known as the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop Series and operates under the auspices of Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters, based at the University of Virginia.

One day prior to the Series' official opening, Mullen read from her 1995 poetry collection Muse & Drudge at the Two Friends Bookstore, located in the West End Mall near the campus of Morehouse College, to an audience of college students, faculty, and community members. A lively discussion followed. During the week, Mullen conducted daily poetry workshops and met with students individually for one-on-one critiques of their writing. On Wednesday evening, September 22, 1999, students from the poetry workshops and those in the fiction workshop (conducted by novelist Percival Everett) read from their works created and/or refined in the workshops.

A compelling and hypnotic poetic voice that exposes layers of societal concerns by accessing the everyday sights and sounds of life, Mullen is the author of four books of poetry: Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse, 1995), S*PeRM**K*T (Singing Horse, 1992), Trimmings (Tender Buttons, 1991), and Tree Tall Woman (Energy Earth, 1981). Her forthcoming collection of prose poems Sleeping With the Dictionary will be published in 2000. Mullen's work has been included in several anthologies, including Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African-American Poetry, edited by Jerry Ward (Penguin, 1997), and African-American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology, edited by Al Young and Ishmael Reed (HarperCollins, 1996). Mullen is the 1994-95 recipient of the Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry, and she currently teaches African American literature and creative writing at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA).

I managed to sit down with Harryette Mullen on Friday, September 24, 1999, before the Public Reading by Mullen, Wideman, and Everett which culminated the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop Series. In a two-hour interview, she and I discussed the development of her writing career, her influences and inspirations, her writing techniques, and her advice to young writers.

Williams: Let me start by asking where were you born, and is this the same place, as a child, that you first claimed as home?

Mullen: I was born in Florence, Alabama, but I left there when I was about three years old, so I only have some very vague memories of that. I have supplemented those memories by visits to my grandparents later in life. I actually grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. I've lived in several different places in Texas, and I lived briefly in New Mexico. I've also lived in New York--upstate, in Ithaca. I'm now living in Los Angeles. I also spent time in Santa Cruz, California, as a graduate student.

Williams: How has your home base (or bases) influenced your writing--the poetry, short fiction, and scholarly essays?

Mullen: I believe that my work is probably influenced by geography even though I don't think that geography is a major theme or topic in what I'm writing. But I do believe that I have a Southern or Southwestern emphasis in my work. In many of my works I have sprinkled Spanish words that relate to my growing up in Texas and living in northern and southern California. Spanish is always in the background; it's that other language that cohabits with English. I studied Spanish in school even though I am not fluent in it.

Williams: Can you recall your first writing experience, the one that made you say, "Yes, I am a writer"?

Mullen: Well, there were different stages. I've loved to write from childhood. I wrote to entertain my family, my friends, and myself. …

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