Not many poets can claim a three-decade stint as a DJ. For prize-winning writer Nathaniel Mackey, however, music and writing have always been deeply intertwined. In fact for Mackey, writing often starts with listening.
“Sometimes I will feel a line or phrase as a pulse before I have the words for it, and later I find the words,” Mackey said.
“Music of all sorts has been important to me. And I’m interested in the musicality of language itself.”
Music entered Mackey’s life before writing did. As a teenager, he tuned in to jazz luminaries such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Later he hosted “Tanganyika Strut,” a weekly radio show of jazz and world music that ran for some 30 years on Santa Cruz, Calif., public radio station KUSP. In a tape that Mackey still owns, his infant daughter can be heard gurgling in the background, keeping her dad company in the studio.
Meanwhile, he wrote poems shaped and colored by music, by the improvisations of jazz and the rhythms of calypso, R&B, flamenco and more.
In recent years, that poetry has garnered such honors as the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Award and, most recently, Yale University’s Bollingen Prize. The latter award places Mackey in select company. Previous winners include such luminaries of American poetry as Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens and e.e. cummings.
Mackey writes novels and criticism as well as poetry, and edits the literary journal Hambone. He is best known for poetry, though, especially two long series of interconnected poems that have unfolded over years.
Finding a Different Tempo
Both series are named for musical works. “Song of the Andoumboulou” takes its title from a funeral song of the Dogon people in Mali, West Africa. “Mu” began as a tribute to jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and his album by that name.
Some have called the poems “writing as jazz.” From one poem to another, themes and ideas recur, with variations and elaborations. Recurring phrases bend in new directions, the way a saxophone player bends a note. Those qualities drew Duke colleague Joseph Donahue, also a poet, to Mackey’s work years ago, before he came to Duke.
“There’s deep knowledge of jazz in his work and philosophical intelligence,” Donahue said. “But those would just be notions if it weren’t for his extraordinary ear.
“You don’t need to know all the stuff he’s into to be drawn into the work. If you just open any one of his books, you can see musicality on the micro level. It has this wonderfully percussive hypnotic quality.”
Years after he began writing the “Mu” poems, Mackey finally met the man who inspired the series.
He was reading at a benefit in San Francisco one summer night when Don Cherry happened to be on the bill as well, along with Allen Ginsberg and others. Mackey mentioned that Cherry’s music had inspired his own work.
“[His work] has this wonderfully percussive hypnotic quality.”
Then he started reading, and as he did, he heard music behind him. He didn’t turn around, but he recognized the playing.
“I didn’t see him come up,” Mackey said. “I was reading and all of a sudden the sound of his flute came up and I knew exactly who it was. I was listening to him and he was listening to me.
“I almost felt like I was dreaming. It’s the kind of thing that happens in my fiction and it was happening to me. It felt like a moment outside of ordinary time.”
Mackey seeks such moments that defy ordinary time. He admires jazz improvisers who stretch a song’s boundaries as they perform. He loves Charles Mingus’ “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” which consists of a single continuous piece in movements. He happily remembers a John Coltrane show that consisted of one long song.
At a time when brevity rules, when bits and bytes flood our screens and airwaves, slowing down to listen to one long song can seem radical. For Mackey, that’s precisely the point.
“The long song, whether in music or in poetry, increasingly appeals to me,” he said. “It creates what I call fugitive time — time that really is a flight away from the ordinary, from quotidian time, profane time.”
The Poet as Teacher
Mackey arrived at Duke five years ago, leaving Santa Cruz to become Duke’s Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing. If his children haven’t quite adjusted to North Carolina’s sultry summers and wacky response to snow, Mackey says he has.
“My writing has changed in response to where I am,” he said. “I notice that I write about the forest more than the ocean now. But I’m surprised by how little I miss it.”
After years teaching ever-larger classes, he relishes leading small seminars of 6-10 students.
In his undergraduate poetry workshop, the atmosphere is warm and collegial, even when the professor challenges students’ assumptions. Mackey isn’t interested in creating followers, though.
“I don’t want to clone myself,” he said. “I want students to find some new ground.”
“I want students to find some new ground.”
In a recent class, a student referred to one of his “most successful” poems, and Mackey asked how the student gauged that success.
“He was measuring by the number of retweets,” Mackey said. “So we ended up having an interesting conversation about measures of success.
“If you write with a notion of success bound up in how successful you are on Twitter, you are already having a certain kind of poem dictated to you. Do you want your aesthetic choices to be determined in that way?”
On a recent Tuesday, Mackey let his undergraduate students launch the discussion before offering his own reading of the text. When he did step in, he did so carefully.
The class was responding to a student’s poem. In one section, Mackey wanted the student to reach for a fresher turn of phrase. He turned to the student and reminded him of a strong passage from the student’s own work.
“When you’ve set the bar that high, we’re not going to settle for less,” Mackey said, smiling.
“Do you want your aesthetic choices to be determined in that way?”
The razzing felt friendly, like something one musician might say to another in a session, to encourage a more adventuresome solo.
Other students chimed in at that point, pointing out where they felt the poem succeeded and where it fell short.
Mackey invited the student to read some more. Then he settled back in his chair, to listen.
Nathaniel Mackey’s new volume of poetry, “Blue Fasa,” is due out May 5 from New Directions Publishers. His other works include the poetry collections “Nod House” and “Splay Anthem,” which won the 2006 National Book Award. His works of fiction include “Bedouin Hornbook” and “Bass Cathedral.” Read more about Mackey’s work and find examples of his poems at Poetry Foundation and Poets.org
“Nathaniel Mackey’s Long Song” is a project of Duke University’s Office of News and Communications. It was reported and written by Alison Jones with videography by Carson Mataxis, design by Jonathan Lee and editing by David Jarmul and Geoffrey Mock.
It is the first installment in the “Taking Note” series, which features profiles of Duke humanities faculty.
© Duke Today, April 16, 2015