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Harryette Mullen wins $50,000 poetry prize

April 7, 2010 | 10:50 am

Poet Harryette Mullen, a professor at  UCLA, has won the Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets and Writers Magazine. Now in its fourth year, the substantive prize carries with it an award of $50,000.

In their announcement of the award, the judges wrote that Mullen's work is "brilliant and enigmatic, familiar and subversive. Like jewels, her poems are multifaceted and shoot off lights. Mullen uses the techniques of sound association, innuendo, and signifying, and this way makes the reader alert to the cunning of the English language."

Considered an innovative, experimental poet, it came as a surprise in 2002 when her poetry collection "Sleeping with the Dictionary" was a finalist for the National Book Award. "Harryette is bringing a new kind of voice," poet Toi Derricott told The Times that year. "Sleeping with the Dictionary" was also nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

In a 2002 L.A. Times profile of the poet, Renee Tawa wrote:

"Sleeping With the Dictionary" (UC Press), was inspired by the influences that pinball through her consciousness, from the 20-year-old shoe-store jingle to the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles to an African American courtship ritual exchange. Her poems fool with anagrams -- words made by rearranging letters such as "tan" and "ant" -- and echoing, or riffs on words that sound alike: "Ocean Potion odd jobs Oingo Boingo okey-dokey old gold/googa-booga/Only the Lonely oodles of noodles ... " she writes in "Jinglejangle."...

Growing up in Fort Worth, Mullen discovered wordplay on the playground, where second-grade boys and girls recited flirtatious exchanges: "What's cookin' good looking?" "Ain't nothin' cookin' but the beans in the pot, and they wouldn't be if the water wasn't hot." She was raised by a single mother, who was a schoolteacher, and other relatives including her grandfather, a Baptist minister.

"I remember the bookcase with the glass front, my grandfather's books. I remember sitting on his knee, and he's reading to me from Mother Goose, and I can still picture the cow jumping over the moon, and the crooked man with the crooked stick.... All of that is still there," she said, tapping her forehead.

Previous winners of the Jackson Poetry Prize are Tony Hoagland, Linda Gregg and Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who read at President Obama's inauguration.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Harryette Mullen in Venice, Calif. Credit: Hank Lazer.