Born in Alabama, Harryette Mullen grew up in Texas, the daughter of teachers and the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of Baptist ministers in the still-segregated south. While completing a B.A. in English at the University of Texas at Austin, she began writing seriously, participating in the burgeoning black arts movement in the 1970s. She received a Ph.D. from the History of Consciousness program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and teaches African American literature and creative writing at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her works include four collections of poetry, most recently Muse & Drudge (Singing Horse Press, 1995), and a critical study, Gender, Subjectivity, and Slave Narratives (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
Known for her innovative, “mongrel” lyric poetry (as Mullen puts it in a 1996 interview with Calvin Bedient published in Callaloo: “We are all mongrels” ), Mullen is concerned to diversify the predominant aesthetic of “accessibility” that characterizes contemporary African American poetry and criticism. In “’Ruses of the lunatic muse’: Harryette Mullen and Lyric Hybridity” (Women’s Studies 1998), Elizabeth Frost terms Muse & Drudge a “poetic hybrid” that draws on both Stein and blues, among other influences—a lyric long poem exploring “the diverse influences and languages of a miscegenated culture” (466). The interview that follows was conducted on May 25, 1998 in Los Angeles, where Mullen lives and I had arranged to meet her just prior to the 1998 American Literature Association Conference in San Diego.
Cynthia Hogue: I want to start with your origin tale. How did you start writing? Why?
Harryette Mullen: You could say there are several origins. There’s the origin of writing which for me goes far back, since I could hold a pencil. I’ve been writing to entertain myself and writing rhymes, stories, and cartoons as gifts to other people... making booklets for friends, and greeting cards for family members with little rhymed verses in them that I would illustrate. I always had a notebook as a child and I would sketch in it and write in it. This started because my mother was always working She was the breadwinner. She taught at an elementary school and she would often have to go to meetings and she had other jobs as well. So we always knew we had to be quiet and entertain ourselves. My sister and I read a lot and we both scribbled and drew a little bit. It was a way of keeping us out of trouble.
The first time I had a poem published was in high school and it just happened because the English teacher made everyone write a poem. That was our assignment. She submitted the poems to a local poetry contest and my poem was chosen as the winner. It was published in the local newspaper. So that was my first published poem. As an undergraduate I continued to write for my own amusement and also I went to poetry readings. There were lots of African and African American poets coming to visit the University of Texas and I tried to go to as many readings as possible. Some of my friends were writers too. So I just kept writing. Then one of my friends insisted that I had to do more with my poetry. He was a poet and knew that I was writing, but I wasn’t attempting to publish my work, wasn’t participating in readings. I was at an open reading one night and he asked me, “Are you going to read your work?” I said, “I didn’t bring anything,” and he said, “We’re going to go home. I’m going to sign you up on the list and by the time you go home and get your stuff it’ll be close to your turn.” That was the first time I read in public and after that, I really started to think I could face an audience and see myself as a poet. I had been writing forever but not thinking that what I wrote was poetry or that I was a poet, but writing and drawing and reading all went together. They were all part of the...