Arts + Culture

Walking through Los Angeles inspires new book of poetry

Supermarkets, the UCLA botanical gardens and bus rides served as sparks for UCLA professor's book, 'Urban Tumbleweed'

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Harryette Mullen
Reed Hutchinson/UCLA

The latest book by award-winning poet and UCLA English professor Harryette Mullen combines two of her most enjoyable activities that she wanted to do more of: walk and write poetry.

The result is 366 short tanka poems that Mullen wrote for "Urban Tumbleweed" (Graywolf Press, 2013). The book chronicles her walks throughout Los Angeles and beyond and was written over the course of a year and a day to suggest continuity.

"It’s a little slice of my L.A. because there are so many L.A.s," said Mullen, a UCLA English and African-American studies professor who’s been nominated for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for previous poetry books. "I’m always surprised when I’m driving around and get lost and I see a whole new area I’ve never seen before."

Mullen also wants her poems to prove that L.A. can be an inspiration for nature poetry, a concept that isn’t always obvious to her students or, for that matter, many Angelenos.

"They say, ‘We live in a city. We can’t relate to nature poetry,’" Mullen said. "One of our issues with nature is that we’re all about control, and nature is telling us every day, ‘No, we’re not in control.’"

"We get these big reminders from time to time that it’s not all about us," she added.

She playfully titled the book "Urban Tumbleweed," which is a slang term that refers to plastic grocery store bags that litter city streets.

Urban tumbleweed, some people call it,
discarded plastic bag we see in every city,
blown down the street with vagrant wind.

The poems are written as tanka, a Japanese poem that traditionally features 31 syllables and is printed as a single line of text. Most of Mullen’s tankas have 31 syllables but are written in three lines.

Tankas are the predecessors of the shorter haiku, but don’t have the same popularity in the U.S. as in Japan, Mullen said.

"In Japan, everyone who writes knows about haiku and tanka, and they try both," she added.

In honor of Japanese poets who write about cherry blossoms every year, Mullen included her own poetic "take" on the blooms:

Visiting with you that spring in Maryland,
how often I wished I could gather
those bright cherry blossoms into tanka!

The university’s Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Gardens, bus rides to and from UCLA and Mullen’s Westside neighborhood, and even supermarket trips were all sources of inspiration for the poems.

"Where does California’s produce go?"
shoppers ask in supermarkets stocked
with Mexican avocados and Chinese garlic.

Los Angeles natives will recognize other mainstays too, such as the Venice snake charmer.

Adorned with snakes around his neck
like jewelry, he knows that the most beautiful reptiles
are not always the most venomous.

Published this past fall, the book has received positive reviews in such media as the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio.

More importantly, Mullen said, her mother is a big fan of the book because she’s been able to understand the poems.

"She said, ‘Those last couple of books were head-scratching,’" Mullen said with a laugh. "I think it’s a book that’s reaching out to people who might think they don’t have time for poetry."

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