Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Two standard repositories of the English language, Roget’s Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary, provided inspiration and source material for Sleeping with the Dictionary, Mullen’s fifth volume of poetry. A critical success, the collection was selected as a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Its popularity spawned new interest in Mullen’s previous books, three of which were reissued in a single volume, Recyclopedia: “Trimmings,” “S*PeRM**K*T,” and “Muse and Drudge” (2006).

Critics liken Harryette Mullen to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and to Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), both poets revered for their experiments with language. Hughes incorporated elements of jazz, as both subject and structure, in such poems as “The Trumpet Player.” Brooks employed African American vernacular in such poems as “We Real Cool.” Mullen credits her elementary school teachers in Fort Worth, Texas, with introducing her to African American poetry, and she continues the pedagogic and poetic legacy as both a poet and a professor. Mullen teaches creative writing and women’s literature at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Two important influences on Mullen’s poetry derive from her graduate studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The work of avant-garde poet Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), known for her experimentation with poetic form, is a model for Mullen’s own creative wordplay. Additionally, Mullen encountered a technique known as “S + 7,” derived from the French Oulipian movement. In this word game, one word is substituted for another in its grammatical class (nouns for nouns, verbs for verbs, adjectives for adjectives, and so forth) by counting seven up or seven down from the original word’s place in the dictionary.