restricted access An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey
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Callaloo 23.2 (2000) 703-715

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An Interview With Nathaniel Mackey

Charles H. Rowell

This interview was conducted by telephone between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Santa Cruz, California, on February 21, 1997.

ROWELL: When we, your contemporary readers, open the first pages of Eroding Witness and School of Udhra, we are immediately challenged. We have read much contemporary poetry, but we are immediately thrown off balance, because your poetry forces us, however gradually, to change our notion of what poetry is, one with which we have lived very comfortably. I am not referring here to the allusions or references in your poems. We know how to use the library. But your poems change the terms, it seems to me, of what a poem is, what we generally know the poem to be. I wonder what you would say if some of your readers--especially uninitiated readers--asked you to provide them with a guide that would assist them in the reading of your poems.

MACKEY: I don't know if I can because I'm not exactly sure what the terms most people bring to poetry are these days. I might be presuming if I distinguished my work from what I took to be those terms. Could you say a bit more about what you take it the typical reader brings as a model of poetry to the reading experience?

ROWELL: As you know, contemporary poetry, as opposed to fiction, has a very small audience. That small group of general readers is familiar with a particular kind of poetry, most of which has that autobiographical or confessional bent--that is, the first-person voice which almost echoes the reader's or someone whose experiences the reader recognizes. In other words, the familiar first-person voices of contemporary poetry usually recount experiences or issues that seem everyday and immediate. Your poems, on the other hand, operate from a site that is not immediately familiar. In that sense it is different from the contemporary poetry we regularly read. Your poetry operates in an epic field, in a cosmic field, a field beyond what is immediate in our daily lives. We do not associate ourselves with the first-person voice in your poems. Your poems take leaps. Your poems inhabit spaces that we don't immediately know. They are spaces of the spirit. They are spaces in meditation. They are spaces in musical frames. They are spaces beyond this physical landscape. They are spaces beyond time. What is the uninitiated reader to do? After all, you're providing for us a new way of reading the world. And that new way, we don't know until we get locked into the text. But can the general reader go that far without help? [End Page 703]

MACKEY: You're right that the confessional or autobiographical mode is a disposition that many writers of poetry write out of and many readers read with the expectation of finding. But it's also one that has been, at least in my reading of 20th-century poetry, critically interrogated by the theorizing and the practice of a good number of poets. I write informed by the fact that there is a strain, especially in 20th-century poetry, which does not presume that the poem is the vehicle for representing and revealing the travails of a discrete first-person subject, with consistencies of tone and voice and perspective and with constraints upon what that voice can chart, both in literal spatial and temporal terms and in terms of what that single voice can believably be taken to know or to be able to utter. There are a number of different senses of poetry in circulation. While there may be a dominant model, a model that most readers would be expected to bring to the poem, the models that I've been most engaged with as a reader, as a writer, as a teacher and as a scholar haven't been that mainstream or dominant model. I have to pause a little bit to even think about what my practice is and what...