Looking Up Harryette Mullen

Interviews on Sleeping with the Dictionary and other Works

by Barbara Henning

Introduction by Juliana Spahr

Six years after Harryette Mullen and Barbara Henning first met at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Café, Henning proposed she do a postcard-format interview of Mullen that would allow for a “very small postcard space in which to respond …The idea of cards flying through the mail & overlapping.” Thus began what is now the first segment of Looking Up Harryette Mullen, unique collaborative conversations that offer a candid look at the influences, politics, and poetics that inform Mullen’s poetry, specifically her books Trimmings and Muse & Drudge.

In these small postcard spaces, which soon expanded into lengthy letters, race and gender, Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Houses, Salt-N-Pepa, black English and Spanglish, to name just a few of topics, are discussed as the two poets travel around the country, letters and postcards overlapping, as layered and thrilling as the poems that they unpack.

The conversation expands even further in the second set of spoken interviews that include concerns as far-ranging as the Heaven’s Gate cult, Oulipian constraints such as S+7 and lipograms, syllabic rhymes, and Aimé Césaire. In stunning detail, Mullen and Henning discuss the origins of each poem in Mullen’s award-winning collection Sleeping with the Dictionary. For poets and readers of poetry interested in witnessing how a brilliant, singular writer embarks on the journey of generating work to scholars researching the inception of Mullen’s poems, this book informs by way of techniques and vitality as Mullen guides the reader through her poetry from A-Z. Twenty-five photos interspersed throughout the conversations act as visual annotations. Included are images of the Babydoll House of the Heidelberg Project; the original handmade “Ask Aden” poem that Mullen drew for her nephew; and her “Dim Lady” poem side-by-side with Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady” Sonnet 130. Besides being a significant pedagogical tool to teach Mullen’s poetry, Looking Up Harryette Mullen generously offers a rare glimpse into process and practice and the poetry community.

mullenHarryette Mullen was born in Alabama, grew up in Texas, and currently lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches courses in American poetry, African-American literature, and creative writing in English and African-American Studies at UCLA. Her poems, short stories, and essays have been published widely. Her poetry is included in the latest edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature and has been translated into Spanish, French, Polish, Swedish, and Bulgarian. Her poetry collections include Sleeping with the Dictionary, a finalist for a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Recyclopedia, winner of a PEN Beyond Margins Award.

henningBarbara Henning was born in Detroit and moved to New York City in the early eighties. Professor Emerita at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus, she continues to teach creative writing and American literature courses for Naropa University, as well as LIU. She is the author of three novels, seven books of poetry, and a series of photo-poem pamphlets, including most recently, Cities & Memory (Chax Press), Thirty Miles from Rosebud (BlazeVOX), and My Autobiography (United Artists). In the nineties Barbara was the editor of Long News in the Short Century.