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Harryette Mullen, Poet

  • By Meg Sullivan, Irene Fertik
  • Published Feb 1, 2003 8:00 AM

The idea for Harryette Mullen’s latest book of poetry came to her in her sleep — literally.

“I woke up in the morning and something was poking me in the back,” recalls Mullen, an associate professor of English and African-American studies.

The author of “Sleeping With the Dictionary” had fallen asleep with her frequent collaborator: the American Heritage Dictionary.

“I use the dictionary to inspire me,” Mullen explains.

The approach resulted in more than the collection’s title poem — a loving tribute to the poetic powers of dictionaries. Published last February by the UC Press, “Sleeping With the Dictionary” has steadily drawn acclaim. The 85-page collection was selected last fall as one of five finalists for the 2002 National Book Award in Poetry. As the nation’s preeminent literary prize, the National Book Award recognizes books of exceptional merit written by Americans. When octogenarian Ruth Stone won the award, Mullen, who teaches poetry writing and African-American literature, said she figured “it was all over.”

But then last month, “Sleeping With the Dictionary” was selected as one of five finalists for the 2002 National Book Critics Circle Awards in Poetry, given each year by the nation’s 700 or so active book reviewers. Winners will be announced Feb. 25.

Mullen, whose four previous collections were published by small presses, is still pinching herself.

“For years, I’ve been satisfied with very little: one person saying, ‘I like that poem,’ or a publishing house agreeing to print a poem,” she says. “I just wanted to express myself.”

The transplanted Texan traces the impulse to growing up among Baptist ministers, typists, printers, educators and clerks. “All my closest kin had jobs that involved words,” she says. Meanwhile, she credits black teachers in the state’s segregated school system with awakening a love of poetry by introducing her to Harlem Renaissance poets Langston Hughes, James Weldon and others.

Another shot of inspiration in the 1960s was the rise of the Black Arts Movement, the literary arm of the civil rights and black power movements.

“Black poets didn’t see themselves as isolated artists,” she says. “They wanted to take poetry beyond the walls of the library and into the street.”

Steeped in this ethos, Mullen explored black and female identity in such early collections as “Tree Tall Women” and “Blues Baby,” which have recently been combined in a single volume — “Blues Baby: Early Poems” (Bucknell University Press).

“Sleeping With the Dictionary” represents something of a departure. More frequently avant-garde than overtly political, the collection takes inspiration from all manner of wordplay: acrostic, anagram, homophone, parody, pun and random word-replacement games.

“African-American poets are much more integrated into American literary culture than in the past,” she says. “In the 1960s, we had something to prove and we did it. Now we’re aware of our need to innovate. In fact, as we’ve explored our heritage more thoroughly, we’ve discovered that we have been innovative all along.”.