Among all the poets in this collection, Mullen would be the one most likely to be labeled experimental, a label she would welcome. Mullen’s oeuvre presents interesting questions about audience, language, identity, race, and the place of theory for African American poetry—and all poetry. Her poetry and literary criticism revitalize common topics such as the oral tradition, folklore, and the blues, offering new perspectives. Her publication history is a study in the dilemma of the black poet as expressed in the work of poets from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Rita Dove, as she has navigated among audience expectations and the conventions of racial identification, challenging what it means to be black, what it means to be a poet, and most especially what it means to be a black poet.
Mullen was born in 1953 in Florence, Alabama, where her father was a social worker and her mother a teacher. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her childhood was filled with family, school, and church (two extended family members were Baptist ministers). Moving at age three to Fort Worth, Texas, Mullen experienced segregation as well as a fruitful exposure to Latino/a culture and language. Mullen earned a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin in 1975; she went on to earn in English both an MA in 1987 and a PhD in 1990 at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She held a range of jobs through her undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate years that exposed her to an array of people and cultures. She taught at Cornell University from 1990 to 1995 and then moved to UCLA, where she currently is a professor of English.
Mullen’s poetry appears to be very different from volume to volume, changing in voice, technique, and themes. Throughout, Mullen has been interested in language and also in the audience’s relationship to the work. Her first chapbook of poetry, Tree Tall Woman (1981), shows affinities with the Black Arts Movement in its selection of racially marked themes, an emphasis on family and community, and an accessible voice (in what she terms the aesthetic tradition of the “authentic” voice). Following that