Famed lyric poet Nathaniel Mackey unites modernism, jazz and poets near and far | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Famed lyric poet Nathaniel Mackey unites modernism, jazz and poets near and far 

Nathaniel Mackey

Photo by Justin Cook

Nathaniel Mackey

Nathaniel Mackey is a major force in contemporary poetry—internationally, yes, but particularly in the Triangle. Ask his students, who follow his lead to mix poetry and criticism in a way that makes academia relevant to everyday life. Ask local poets who've hung out with him over drinks at Durham's Surf Club on Friday evenings, talking about how music sits on the page in Caribbean poetry or how the San Francisco Giants have been racking up World Series titles.

Though quick to laugh, Mackey is also one to quietly consider his words. After teaching for 31 years at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he has spent the last five at Duke, and he's still processing that transcontinental shift. "The rhythms of this place suit me at this point in my life," he says at last, with pauses perforating the sentence before his words gain momentum. "I'm getting kind of pastoral. I go back to California and it feels kind of hectic to me."

He chuckles facetiously before turning instantly sincere. "But certainly, in an oblique way, place registers in my work," he says. "I used to write about the coast and now I write about the forest. The imprint of California will always be with me, but I'm surprised by how little I miss it."

Mackey's body of work includes the collection Splay Anthem, which won the 2006 National Book Award. He's a former chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. His lifetime contribution was recognized this year with the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, which comes with $100,000.

"[His writing] is both elliptical and suddenly direct," says Joseph Donahue, a poet and professor at Duke, "quite dramatic and moving and then witty, like a voice talking to itself. This isn't like writing poems—this is a way of thinking and talking that this poet has wandered into, and you just want to keep going."

Donahue, who named one of his sons Nathaniel (after Mackey and Hawthorne), draws inspiration from the restless, iterative quality of Mackey's poetry and prose. This is embodied in two poetic series—"mu" and the "Songs of the Andoumboulou," an early form of humanity from Dogon mythology—and the cycle of novels (four of them, so far) gathered under the title From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.

Mackey's career as a poet, novelist and critic builds upon the work of American modernists such as Robert Duncan and William Carlos Williams and jazz visionaries such as Don Cherry and John Coltrane to create a new space for experimental, lyric verse. Through his presence and his work, Mackey connects disparate ideas and people, whether bringing together concepts of blackness, myth and music or gathering poets from both sides of the academic fence. He's really more of a condenser than a connector.

"The community of black experimental writers, the ones trying to engage in and studying that work—it's not the biggest community within black intellectual life," says poet Fred Moten, a former Duke colleague of Mackey's, who now teaches at the University of California, Riverside. "But those of us in it, we were these Nate Mackey-ites scattered across the country. I met a lot of my good friends in the academy in the search for more of them. Within that subset of folks who are thinking about fundamental questions about black art and black social life, there's no one more significant than Nate."

The idea of connection is embodied on every page of Mackey's work. The poems are made of small stanzas, unhinged from the left margin, often coupled like train cars by single words. As you read, you travel widely through geography, memory and history, but always with the sense that you're heading in one direction.

The "Songs of the Andoumboulou" series begins in Eroding Witness, an early Mackey book from the mid-'80s. The sequence now contains about 150 poems and counting. He didn't set out to write these lifetime projects; the projects found him.

"When I first started writing as a teenager, I was working with the sense of the individual poem, a snapshot aesthetic," he says. "At the same time, I was very moved by work with a longer projection to it—certainly on the musical front, with extended works like Charles Mingus' album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, which has different songs, but they're all part of a single work with a larger trajectory."

For Mackey, music and poetry don't have beginnings or endings. Instead, they are temporarily audible and visible manifestations of a deep, ongoing current. "One of the stirring characteristics of music for me is its recursiveness, that it revisits the material that it proffers," he says. "No one statement of it is final or comprehensive. There are always other possibilities and tributaries you can pursue. That's what I find myself doing in these serial works, revisiting tropes and phrases until it becomes more generative. That gives a sense of expansion and of being involved in this large endeavor that is not just one's own work or ego or confined to one's life."

After tapping into this current in Santa Cruz, Mackey has found it in Durham, too. The poetic community that has condensed around him sustains him.

"It's meant a great deal to me. It's one of the things that drew me here," he says. "It has proven to be lively and simpatico and copacetic. I feel more aesthetic variety among the poets here, which speaks more to me than the range in Santa Cruz. I've found a nice bevy of poets and students in the graduate ranks that are really interested in poetics and looking for ways to write creatively. Their ears are tuned to some really interesting stuff and we have some great conversations, so I'm a really happy guy."

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This article appeared in print with the headline "Triangle connector"

  • The Duke creative writing professor won the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize this year

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