Spotlight: S*PeRM**K*T (1992) by Harryette Mullen

mullen-harryette

Harryette Mullen (Photo by Graywolf Press)

A year ago, I had never heard of Harryette Mullen. I suppose I hadn’t heard of Michael Ondaatje either. I’ve had the privilege of learning about so many incredible (contemporary) poets recently, and among them is the wonderful Harryette Mullen, who has quickly become one of my favorite poets for the way she twists words into new puns and meanings. You can’t skim Mullen, otherwise, you end up with a very bizarre mental image and miss all the carefully chosen words and syllables woven together to create true art.

S*PeRM**K*T was originally its own book, published in 1992. The original book is out of print, but not to worry! You can still find it in her collection, Recyclopedia (2006), which also features two of her other stunning collections, Trimmings and Muse and Drudge (only $10 on Amazon). I’ve read Trimmings and once I’m out of Finals Week’s clutches, I’ll get through Muse and Drudge. Very excited, all the more reason for summer to hurry up and get here.

Both Trimmings and S*PeRM**K*T were inspired in part by Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, which is another fantastic set of poetry that I’ll probably end up talking about at some point.

The neat thing about S*PeRM**K*T though is the title. It can be read three ways:

  • “supermarket,” for the central setting of these unique list poems
  • “sperm kit,” for the poems’ references to sexuality, fertility, and gender and
  • “s-perm kit,” a reference to hair treatments, which plays on Mullen’s discussion of race in the poems.

Each part of the series focuses on a different product or set of products, and a lot of it reads like a series of enthusiastic advertisements.

I can’t stress this enough, Mullen is a wordsmith. S*PeRM**K*T tackles issues such as women’s health and sexuality, homelessness, classism, racism, and many more. She is a master of using pun in poetry, making even a poem that’s only a couple lines long have a wealth of meanings and interpretations behind it.

I highly recommend folks take the time to look into her. She grew up in Fort Worth, which is very close to my own hometown, so that’s cool. Another neat fact, Mullen also apparently appeared in The Black Candle (2012), a documentary about Kwanzaa directed by MK Asante and narrated by Maya Angelou. She’s currently a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and you can bet your buns that if I’m ever in LA, I’m gonna try to sit in on one of her lectures because she is truly remarkable and it would be an honor just to be in her presence.

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