Harryette Mullen Named 2022 Humanities Division Distinguished Alumnus

Each year, UC Santa Cruz’s five academic divisions—Arts, Baskin School of Engineering, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Physical and Biological Sciences—select one former graduate student/a/i as a distinguished graduate student. The awards ceremony for the 2022 cohort will take place on April 23 during the graduate weekend.

Harryette Mullen (MA Literature ’86, Ph.D. Literature ’90)— Poet, writer, and established scholar — was named a Distinguished Alumnus of UC Santa Cruz’s Humanities Division in 2022.

She said UCSC faculty, as well as the Santa Cruz poetic community, both influenced and encouraged her work. Late UCSC professors and poets Al Young, Lucille Clifton, and Norman O. Brown profoundly influenced her at the university. She also befriended professor emeritus Roz Spafford, Cowell Provost John Lynch, and Ph.D. alumna bell hooks. Michael Cowan, Nathaniel Mackey and Priscilla Shaw supervised her thesis.

“I was already a published poet when I came to Santa Cruz,” Mullen said. “But I didn’t lose my connection to this poet myself because UC Santa Cruz gave me the space to grow intellectually as a poet and a scholar.”

Mullen published his first book of poetry Tree Big Women in 1981, written while attending the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned her undergraduate degree. Since then she has published dozens of poems, stories, books and essays worldwide. His work has been reprinted in over a hundred anthologies. She is the recipient of dozens of scholarships and has received many prestigious awards, such as the PEN Beyond Margins Prize, the Elizabeth Agee Prize, the US Artist Fellowship, the Jackson Poetry Prize and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship. His book, Sleep with the dictionary, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

When Mullen arrived in Santa Cruz as a college student, she had less than $100 to her name and found herself navigating a rocky real estate market. bell hooks introduced Mullen to Roz Spafford, who rented a garage from Mullen.

While pursuing her doctorate, Mullen worked in writing programs run by Spafford; as a teaching assistant for Emeritus Professor Michelle Cliff and as a reader for bells in women’s studies classes. When Bell Hooks published his first book, Am I not a woman, in 1981, Mullen wrote a book review for a local newspaper of the time, The Santa Cruz Express. In addition to her temporary assistant roles, Mullen has also worked in graduate admissions, the EOP Summer Bridge Program, and the Women’s Reintegration Writing Program to support herself financially. John Lynch hired her as a graduate resident at Cowell.

“I was working for a living and I wanted something related to what I was trying to become – a teacher, an academic – and I wanted to stay close to the university community,” Mullen said. “All these jobs showed me different sides of college.”

His doctorate. The dissertation examined stories of runaway slaves as literary texts focusing on the writings of Frederick Douglass and Harriett Jacobs.

“It was all very exciting; it wasn’t always clear in a literature department or an English department at the time that these texts could count as literature,” Mullen said. “So I was very excited to write about them not only as historical texts, but also as literary texts.”

After obtaining his master’s degree in literature in 1986 and while writing a doctoral thesis. in literature in 1990, Mullen pursued a fellowship with the Center for Black Studies at UC Santa Barbara. From there, she was hired to teach at Cornell University. She spent a year on leave as a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Center.

Currently, Mullen is a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She has taught many creative writing classes and American and African American literature classes. While a professor at UCLA, Mullen continued to work as a creative artist. She recently published a short story in Indiana Review and a series of collages in Air/Light Magazine. Edinburgh University Press will publish a critical edition of his poetry in the fall of 2022.

“At UCLA, I’m fortunate to have brilliant colleagues in a department that encourages interdisciplinary study and innovation,” Mullen said.

Lifelong learning—a family tradition

Harryette Mullen can’t remember a time when she didn’t write poetry. When she was younger, however, her writing took many different forms – short songs, humorous verses and comic strips, stories for friends, greeting cards for the holidays.

His mother was a teacher and had taught Mullen and his sister to read and write before they started attending school in Fort Worth, Texas. When Mullen was between the ages of 8 and 12, his mother was working toward her BA and MA in Education at the University of North Texas. Mullen and her sister often accompanied their mother to the university library while their mother studied.

“College felt like a utopian space,” Mullen said. “It wasn’t like the community where we lived; it was different. There were valuable resources that we didn’t have in our community, so i think i was drawn to college as an accessible paradise where books on all subjects were available all the time.

Later, Mullen, her sister, and their mother all enrolled at the University of Texas, Austin⁠—their mother was pursuing her doctorate. while Mullen and her sister were students.

Santa Cruz Connections

Mullen published his first book of poetry Tree Big Women in 1981 and embarked on a book tour that took her from Texas to New Mexico to California. She read in Berkeley at an event hosted by Ishmael Reed, LA Watts Towers and the Santa Cruz Bookstore. It was only when she was enrolled in a doctorate. student at UC Santa Cruz that she recognized Santa Cruz as a stop on her book tour.

“Pacific Avenue was like a hippie museum,” Mullen recalled. “I suddenly remembered that I had been here before, on this poetry tour from Texas to California for my first book. Apparently one of the places I read about was Santa Cruz because I definitely had deja vu when I saw those hippies in the mall.

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