Nathaniel Mackey

Nathaniel Mackey

Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: Poetry

Competition: US & Canada

University of California, Santa Cruz

One of the most respected experimental writers in the country today, Nathaniel Mackey is the author of ten books and chapbooks of poetry, including Four for Trane (1978), Septet for the End of Time (1983), Outlantish (1992), and the highly influential serial poems Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu.” The first installments of the poem series appeared, with other poems of his, in Eroding Witness (1985), which was selected for the National Poetry Series, and School of Udhra (1993) included further expansions of them. But Whatsaid Serif (1998) and Splay Anthem (2006) consisted solely of new buddings of Andoumboulou and “Mu.” Splay Anthem won both the National Book Award in Poetry and the 26th Annual Northern California Book Award in Poetry. As he continues to develop Andoumboulou and “Mu” he acknowledges that they have become “two and the same, each the other’s understudy, . . . the other’s twin or contagion, each entwines the other’s crabbed advance.”

Scores of his poems have appeared in such noted literary journals as The Iowa Review, Callaloo, Conjunctions, Chicago Review, and Hambone, of which he is the editor. His poems have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry four times (1988, 1990, 2002, 2004) and have been widely anthologized, in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997), Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (1994), The Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry: 1993-1994 (1995), and The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry (2006), among many other collections. He also edited American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (2006), with Carolyn Kizer and Guggenheim Fellows John Hollander, Robert Hass, and Marjorie Perloff.

In addition, with Art Lange he edited the anthology Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (1993). That Mr. Mackey’s own work is infused with and to an extent shaped by his long love affair with jazz is evident in both its subject matter and structure; appropriately, then, several of his poems were included in The Jazz Poetry Anthology (1991) and Jazz Poems (2006). In addition, in 1995 Spoken Engine Company released Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25, a CD of Mr. Mackey reading his poetry accompanied by percussionist/ethnomusicologist Royal Hartigan and composer/instrumentalist/theorist Hafez Modirzadeh on flute and reeds, jazzmen both.

Mr. Mackey is also well known for From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, which he describes as “an ongoing poetic novel and an ongoing series of poetic novels, a boxless boxed set.” Like Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu,” this prose work has been in progress since the 1970s, with four installments thus far: Bedouin Hornbook (1986; 2d ed., 1997), Djbot Baghostus’s Run (1993), Atet A.D. (2001), and most recently Bass Cathedral (2008), which was selected as one of that year’s 100 Notable Books by the New York Times; the first three were published together as From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Volumes 1-3 (2010). As Florence Wetzel makes clear in her review of the first three volumes for (1 January 2011), once again Mr. Mackey employs jazz as not only the frame but the undergirding of his work, which traces the adventures of an avant-garde jazz band and uses language “infused with the energy and sensibility of jazz.” It is perhaps the language he employs that most impresses Ms. Wetzel: “The architecture of his sentences is a wonder; he creates flowing constructions that hold themselves aloft and create musical waves of language. . . . [H]e enjoys showing the black holes that lurk behind everyday speech, and the heartbreaking humor of relying on something so ephemeral.”

In addition to his own poetry and poetic prose, Mr. Mackey has published two works of literary criticism: Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing (1993) and Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (2005).

Educated at Princeton (B.A., 1969) and Stanford (Ph.D., 1975) universities, Nathaniel Mackey is currently Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University. Before accepting this position at Duke, he was a member of the English Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1974-76), a member of the English Department at the University of Southern California (1976-79), and for many years a member of the Literature Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz (1979-2010), where for the last two years of his tenure he was Distinguished Professor of Literature. Among his honors are a Whiting Writer’s Award (1993) and election to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets (2001-07).

During his Guggenheim Fellowship term, he worked on his sixth full-length volume of poetry, as yet untitled, a further interweaving of Andoumboulou and “Mu” to follow his most recently published volume, Nod House (2011), and continued working on the fifth installment of From a Broken Bottle, tentatively titled Late Arcade.


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