- An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey
A few brief and informal conversations, occurring after we met for the first time in 1991, led me to ask Nathaniel Mackey if we could speak more formally about his writing and teaching. He agreed, welcoming the presence of a tape recorder.
The following conversation took place at Nathaniel Mackey’s home in Santa Cruz on September 3, 1991. An edited version of our afternoon of dialogue, given the title “Charting the Outside,” was circulated in the November, 1991, issue of Poetry Flash, a northern California poetry newspaper.
At the time of this interview, Nathaniel Mackey had authored two chapbooks of poetry, Four for Trane (Golemics, 1978) and Septet for the End of Time (Boneset, 1983). Eroding Witness, his full length collection, was selected by Michael Harper for the National Poetry Series (University of Illinois Press, 1985). Bedouin Hornbook (Callaloo Fiction Series, 1986), volume one of an ongoing prose work, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, had been published. Subsequently, Djbot Baghostus’s Run (Sun & Moon, 1993), volume two of Nathaniel Mackey’s serial prose, has been issued. A second volume of poetry, School of Udhra (City Lights, 1993), has been published, as well as two letterpress edition chapbooks of poetry, Outlantish (Chax, 1993) and Song of the Andoumboulou 18–20 (Moving Parts, 1994). A collection of his essays, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge University, 1993) has been put into print. A compact disc of his poetry, Strick, featuring musicians Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh, has been released by Spoken Engine. Mackey is currently writing Atet A.D., volume three of From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.
Nathaniel Mackey teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and edits the magazine Hambone.
In your work you take improvisation, jazz, and other styles of music and use them as a well-spring. Could you describe how you came to this and manage to keep it such a prominent part of what you do?
Probably the earliest aesthetic experiences for me were experiences with music, going back to when I was a kid. Certainly that’s what that comes from and it has continued to be a very important part of my experience. Not that I started off listening to a lot of the music I listen to now. But music has always been a very important part of my life even when I was seven, eight, nine years old. Why I didn’t take up an instrument and become a musician remains a mystery to me but I didn’t and that has to do with circumstantial things which are just circumstantial things. Late in high school I got into reading poetry and fiction on a more serious level, [End Page 321] as something other than what you did because it was assigned. I was actually beginning to do it because I was interested in it, because it was speaking to me in a meaningful way. Some of the literature I got into had analogies with music, though I wasn’t always aware of it. Some of the writers who had an early impact on me were also engaged with music. William Carlos Williams was a writer whose work I got interested in when I was in high school. I didn’t know about his interest in music, which wasn’t that strong or that extensive, but later I found out about it, though it wasn’t necessarily that I was hearing music coming through in Williams’ work. Among those writers I was reading early on was Amiri Baraka, whose engagement with music is enormous, tremendous. It was one of the things that galvanized the relationship between writing, reading, and music which began to develop for me.
Was there anything equally as important as music as an influence?
The music was pretty close to and bound up with the religious for me. Some of the earliest music I was exposed to was the music in the Baptist Church, so the relationship between music and the spiritual was very strongly imprinted very early through the church experience...