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UCLA professor Harryette Mullen talks poetry themes ahead of Hammer Museum reading

Harryette Mullen smiles in front of a river. The English professor and poet will be reading selections of her work at the Hammer Museum on Thursday evening. (Courtesy of Hank Lazer)

Hammer Museum Poetry Series: Harryette Mullen

The Hammer Museum

Oct. 20

7:30 p.m.

This post was updated Oct. 18 at 8:59 p.m.

Harryette Mullen sees poetic stanzas in everyday life.

The English professor and poet will be reading at the Poetry Series presented by the Hammer Museum on Thursday night. Encouraged by her mother from a young age to engage in artistic activities such as singing and dancing, Mullen said writing poems has been a natural practice for her throughout her life. One of the reasons she said she gravitates toward the art form of poetry is because it resembles how music endows humans with voices that can be carried beyond time and space.

“The idea, to me, is to write across, around, through, over and under the particular ideas that are kind of scattered in my mind,” Mullen said. “With the poem, what I’m trying to do is find the poetic way of thinking about something.”

Poetry opens up possibilities for different interpretations, Mullen said, and the gap between readers’ understanding and writers’ intentions often interests her. She said it is harder to pinpoint the exact idea behind a poem as opposed to a piece of journalistic or nonfiction writing. She added that poetry often utilizes words with multiple meanings in deliberate ways.

“A lot of poetry is really about the slippage between words or within words, or the uncertainty of language, or the ability of language to do and say more than we thought or intended,” Mullen said.

Mullen’s poetry reflects a strong intimacy with words filtered through her experience as a Black woman, said Fred Moten, a professor at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Moten studied Mullen’s works, which he said are substantial to African American literature, in graduate school before attending a literary festival with her about 20 years ago. He said Mullen’s poems delicately integrate the contrasting emotions of grief and celebration. The book, “Muse & Drudge,” is one of his favorite works of Mullen’s, featuring four quatrains with lyricism matching the style of blues music, Moten said.

Although some of Mullen’s works touch on themes of gender and race, Mullen said she does not consciously write with her identity as a Black woman in mind, but simply expresses the perspective she has lived through. A specific message for her readers is not what she aims to include in her poetry, Mullen said. Instead, much of Mullen’s inspiration comes from mundane encounters, including overheard conversations and sound bites on the street, she said. To Mullen, well-written poems prompt readers to go over them repeatedly in order to recognize how the narrative unfolds from start to finish.

(Courtesy of Judy Natal)
Mullen sits in a chair with her hands in her lap. Fred Moten, a professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, said Mullen’s experience as a Black woman is reflected in her poetry. (Courtesy of Judy Natal)

[Related: LA Literary Lore: Poet Rhiannon McGavin maintains LA roots while exploring new themes]

Mullen’s poetry also displays influence from both jazz and blues music while echoing the works of a wide range of authors, such as Romantic poet William Blake and avant-garde novelist Gertrude Stein, said English professor and Mullen’s longtime colleague Stephen Yenser. Yenser, who is also the organizer and host of the Hammer Museum Poetry Series, said Mullen is a varied poet who simultaneously embodies scholarly knowledge and playfulness in her pieces.

“She’s rooted in tradition,” Yenser said. “On the other hand, she is extremely experimental and innovative. … She combines those two qualities – deep tradition and prodigious invention.”

[Related: New Hammer Museum series to explore ‘Invisible Man’ novel via weekly discussions]

Yenser said Mullen’s work is critical of American culture, sometimes incorporating references to slavery and an anti-misogynist viewpoint. Mullen’s narratives resonate with audiences because she touches on heavier topics such as bigotry and prejudice in American society through humorous writings, Yenser said. He said he hopes audiences can walk away from the poetry reading laughing and recalling what Mullen shares Thursday night.

Poetry is a constant companion for Mullen, she said, as well as a medium through which she has created a community with fellow poets, readers, students and teachers. Mullen said she is excited about seeing audiences from UCLA and the greater LA area, as this week’s event will mark Mullen’s first in-person reading since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mullen is also looking to publish another book titled “Open Leaves Poems from Earth” and a critical edition of her poetry titled “Her Silver Tongued Companion” in the next year.

“It (poetry writing) doesn’t seem foreign or strange or out of reach,” Mullen said. “It seems very much a part of life and not something that’s set aside in another place. … It’s part of how I continue to live.”

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