UCLA English professor explains how ‘the beauty, diversity and fragility of life’ inspired her latest work
Harryette Mullen has a singular way of connecting readers with the world around them.
This spring, her work was included in a public art installation as part of New York City’s Park Poems initiative, a collaboration with the Poetry Society of America. Previously, and closer to home, Mullen wrote an original poem for UCLA Magazine that celebrated the small pleasures of everyday life, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The celebrated poet, literary scholar and UCLA English professor was elected in April to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The same month, her collection “Open Leaves / poems from earth” was published by the independent Black Sunflowers Poetry Press.
“Open Leaves” brings readers closer to nature at a time when climate change is transforming our planet in ever more visible ways.
While creating works for the new collection, Mullen found herself “contemplating the beauty, diversity and fragility of life,” she said. “As a species, we are creative as well as destructive, clever enough to envision and develop innovative systems to mend the damage we are doing and minimize future harm.”
Mullen teaches poetry, African American literature and creative writing at UCLA. Her eight previous collections include her 2002 book “Sleeping with the Dictionary,” a finalist for the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
In an interview, she spoke about the landscapes of her childhood, the inspirations for the literary and cultural references in “Open Leaves,” and what she’s planning next.
How would you describe your own relationship with the natural world, and how has that relationship inspired your recent work?
Typically, I’m an indoor person who has to make time in my day to walk outdoors. As someone who has nearly always lived in cities, large or small, I am delighted to encounter beauty wherever I find it in the urban landscape — I’m not always compelled to go “in search of nature,” knowing that we are already part of the natural world.
Walking in the city inspired my previous collection, “Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary.” I wrote “Open Leaves” during the pandemic, when it felt more urgent than ever to get moving outdoors after hours of teaching and attending meetings remotely.
“Open Leaves” is inspired by Japanese poets and others who extend the practice of tanka and haiku, a tradition of poetry that often engages with the natural environment. In each section, pages of haiku verses appear between pages of poetic prose, alongside artwork by Tiffanie Delune. The verse highlights earthly beauty and the sumptuous bounty of wild and cultivated spaces, while the prose considers the ways we human beings tend to separate ourselves from the rest of the natural world, forgetting that our sustenance is rooted in earth.
Has a connection with your natural surroundings always been a meaningful part of your life?
As children growing up in a mid-sized Texas city, in a family of modest income, my sister and I helped tend our organic household garden, which included keeping bins for earthworms and compost. Tangled blackberry vines along with plum, pecan and fig trees grew in our yard, visited by squirrels, snakes, lizards, insects, opossums and songbirds. We also enjoyed visits with friends living outside the city limits, who raised their own produce and livestock on small family farms, and shared delicious food harvested from their acres.
My memories of “nature” include car trips with scenic views of rolling hills and wildflower meadows, lakes and rivers, and the big blue Texas sky, lit by brilliant stars at night. We went fishing with our grandfather at a nearby lake, and a favorite neighborhood “adventure” was riding our bicycles as far as we could wander, stopping to play in public parks and explore an abandoned nursery with overgrown plants.
Years later, I ice skated to relax after a day of teaching at Cornell University. To avoid driving on the icy Ithaca streets, I routinely walked uphill to the campus in snow boots and layers of wool and winter fleece. Having never before experienced extreme cold weather, I remember my surprise the first time I encountered, along my path, a frozen waterfall, like a monumental ice sculpture.
“Open Leaves” includes several epigraphs, ranging from work by other poets to schoolyard chants to the words of public figures. How does that device complement your writing?
They help to situate my work in a variety of contexts, from literature, folklore and popular culture to historical and contemporary discourses recalling our habitual use and misuse of Earth and her naturally renewable yet finite resources.
In this book, as in “Urban Tumbleweed,” I place my work in the company of the African American writers Sonia Sanchez and Richard Wright, whose work was inspired by Japanese haiku. I think this book resonates with the call from Sanchez to “be one with the earth.”
What do you hope readers will take away from this collection in particular?
I hope they will enjoy it, first of all. I hope they take time to savor it and allow its images to enter their thoughts and dreams. As Delmore Schwartz wrote, echoing William Butler Yeats, “In dreams begin responsibilities.”
By that, do you mean that you hope readers will become inspired by your words to think more about the environment or protecting the planet?
Surely this is an urgent issue for everyone. I wrote to celebrate what exists now that might be lost to us if we continue down our current path. It’s a reminder of what is at stake in the future of life on Earth.
What are you working on now?
I am working intently on two book projects: a critical edition of my previous poetry collections, with essays from five literary scholars, that Edinburgh University will publish in 2024, and a work in progress for publication by Graywolf in 2025. As I write and revise poems for this book, I am placing pieces in literary journals. A poem from my new collection has been selected for the annual anthology, “The Best American Poetry.”
Poetry represents only a portion of your creative output. Where are you focusing your attention as a literary scholar?
My critical articles and interviews shine light on underappreciated and forgotten works. I had a hand in the rediscovery of two innovative novels written in the 1970s by African American women, “Oreo” by Fran Ross, and “Francisco” by Alison Mills Newman, that New Directions has reissued. Both novels had remained out of print since their initial release in 1974 from small independent presses.
Particularly with artificial intelligence making its way into writing and creative arts, what do you see as the future of poetry?
I believe that people will continue to read and write poetry, an inherent form of human creativity. Even though we may compete with text-generating machines and algorithms remixing vast databases of language sourced from human writers and speakers, I think we will always seek original and unique expression of our shared humanity.