Mullen is a scholar and a poet whose poetry examines the intersection of gender, race, erotics, and the avantgarde. The linguistic and syntactic experimentation of her poetry places Mullen firmly in the avant-garde tradition that stretches from Gertrude stein to the poets of the language school. The racial concerns of her poetry also locate her in the rich tradition of African-American experimental poets, such as Norman H. Pritchard and Nathaniel mackey.
Born in Alabama and raised in Texas, Mullen received a B.A. in English from the University of Texas, Austin. Mullen has taught at Cornell University and the
University of California, Los Angeles. She completed graduate work at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the history of consciousness program, where Mackey directed her dissertation. Mullen has published four books of poetry, the most recent being Muse & Drudge (1995), and a critical work, Gender, Subjectivity, and Slave Narratives (1998).
Instead of using figurative techniques such as simile and metaphor, Mullen uses metonymy, anagrams, and puns (which are associative not symbolic) to invite the reader to collaborate in making the text's meaning. For example, the interpretive possibilities in just one line from her Stein-inspired work Trimmings (1991) are many: "Girl, pinked, beribboned. Alternate virgin at first blush". This section, about an African-American girl uncomfortably dressed, demonstrates the connections between clothing and gender (the pressure of being "beribboned" can manifest itself in eating disorders that might make her "be rib boned"), clothing and race (being "pinked" not only implies that she is dressed in pink but also that the unwanted clothing is an attempt to make her pass for white), and clothing and sexuality (her "first blush" could be a blush of her cheeks but also her first menstruation or sexual experience).
Although many African-American anthologists do not consider her experimental work to be sufficiently representational of a black voice, Mullen believes that her poetry can usefully address racial concerns while also challenging the categories that make "racial" writing something other than avant-garde or feminist writing. Indeed Mullen's first work Tree Tall Woman (1981) employs a stable ethnic voice throughout the collection, but since that volume Mullen's poetry has engaged multiple and fragmented voices. These voices are often not overtly racialized because Mullen's work focuses more on the material words themselves (the fact that they are often puns or anagrams, for instance) than the content to which those words refer. Mullen's poetry represents the convergence of the political and the poetic in innovative forms that enact fruitful alternatives (not just oppositions) to the dominance of identity-based lyric poetry in the contemporary poetic world.
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