Poet performs unique works at Literary Festival

Jill Brower

As Harryette Mullen stood before the 50-plus people packed into the chairs, floor and every corner of the Saint Augustine Center’s DeLeon Room, it seemed as if she were not reading from her books of poetry, but instead, straight from the dictionary.

And in a way, she was. Mullen’s most recently published work, aptly titled “Sleeping With the Dictionary,” was described by a Barnes & Noble.com reviewer as the “offspring of her collaboration with two of the poet’s most seductive writing partners, Roget’s Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary.”

Mullen, a well-known language poet, spoke to a University audience on March 17. Her readings from “Sleeping With the Dictionary,” and her four previous books, constitutes the third event in this year’s annual Literary Festival.

“Mullen’s work is interestingly experimental,” Dr. Lisa Sewell said. Sewell and Professor Daniel Vilmure teach the Contemporary Authors class which hosts the Literary Festival speakers.

“She has produced the most interesting work of any African American poet, and it’s great to have that kind of work represented in the Literary Festival.”

Sewell first saw Mullen speak at another poetry reading, which inspired her to invite Mullen to the University. “I went to hear her read two or three years ago, and that’s why I asked her to come,” she said. “I just like her as a person, in addition to her being an important poet.”

Mullen also spoke to Sewell and Vilmure’s class on March 18, answering their questions about the poems they had studied.

Many of the poems in “Sleeping With the Dictionary” feature word games, stringing similar-sounding words together in order to convey a deeper message.

“I enjoyed Mullen’s visit because it was a great way to watch someone absorb the world around them,” Reagan Kenwell, a senior in the class, said. “It opened my eyes to how many true life connections there are if you take the time to observe the world around you.”

Vilmure noted Mullen’s visit was a success because of her down-to-earth response to the audiences. “One of the nice things about the Literary Festival is the chemistry you experience when it comes to the artists,” Vilmure said.

Mullen’s poetry reflects her fascination with the English language and her research in the field of African American literature. She studied English and Literature at the University of Texas, Austin and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

She taught for six years at Cornell University before moving to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she currently teaches.