- The Far Side of Mastery: An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey
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The equipment of experiment remains ambiguous. This is because equipment moves in several directions at once and has different valences. On the one hand, equipment is the “action or process of [End Page 183] equipping or fitting out.”1 It moves toward the thing being equipped. On the other hand, equipment is concrete and has a distinct shape: it can be “anything used in equipping,” such as “necessaries for an expedition or voyage.”2 Or, perhaps, necessaries for an experiment.
How, then, do we conceive of the equipment of experiment? For Nathaniel Mackey, one of the most influential writers working today, experimentalism adapts equipment and experiment alike, retooling the very equipment of art. The cover art adorning volumes one through three of Mackey’s ongoing serial fiction, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, presents the reader with the head of a claw hammer, but the hammer’s handle is a flute. This retooling, designed by Darren Haggar, is emblematic of Mackey’s work, in which a variety of forms merge and morph to the tune of the history of black music in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. In the interview below you will find Mackey’s references to other objects that have been modified to make new musical instruments: the steel drum, for instance, improvised from empty oil barrels. Such improvisations permeate his body of work. Consider Hambone, the literary journal that Mackey has edited for more than thirty years. The titular Hambone is at once the figure of a well-known call-and-response rhyme—“Hambone, Hambone, where you been? Around the world and I’m going again,” a figure who moves toward and away—as well as the name for an improvisational form of percussion in which a musician uses his or her body as a drum. Thinking about the journal Hambone as an improvisation—an experiment in contemporary letters that offers a call to writers and a response to the field of contemporary writing—suggests the extent to which Mackey’s experimental work orients itself toward an “opening of the field,” to cite a poet whose work has influenced Mackey’s own.3
Like the hammer-flute, Mackey’s work poses definitional problems by engaging questions of form and affordance, the qualities of a medium that supposedly define its use. This is certainly the case with Mackey’s literary works, such as his ongoing serial poems “Mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou, which have reached “the one hundred twenty-second part” and number 142 in their respective sequences, and continue to appear discretely in literary publications.4 These ongoing serial poems are “two now understood as two and [End Page 184] the same, each the other’s understudy,”5 as Mackey puts it, and have yielded six full-length books of poetry: Eroding Witness (1985); School of Udhra (1993); Whatsaid Serif (1998); Splay Anthem (2006); Nod House (2011); and Blue Fasa (2015). The first of these volumes also contains the initial letter (in a book-length work at least) in the serial epistolary fiction From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. This latter work of fiction is made up of four distinct books: Bedouin Hornbook (1986); Djbot Baghostus’s Run (1993); Atet A.D. (2001); and Bass Cathedral (2008). The first three are now available as a single volume from New Directions under the full name of the sequence. Mackey has also published two books of criticism. Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing appeared in 1993. Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews was published in 2005. He has also co-edited Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose with Art Lange (1993) and has been sole editor of Hambone since 1982. Mackey’s reputation certainly rests on his writing, and his works have been honored with a National Book Award for Splay Anthem (2006), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (2014), and the Bollingen Prize (2015).
Yet just as Mackey’s serial...