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Mackey in Cork, Ireland, 2005. Courtesy of the author

In an era when poetry is increasingly compressed to fit our iPhone screens, Nathaniel Mackey has been writing two astonishing long poems—“Mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou—across multiple books for the past thirty-five years. “Mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou are two ongoing sequences beaded with his insights on cosmology, grief, ancestry, migration, and black life. The utterance mu suggests “mouth,” “myth,” but also “muse,” whereas Mackey defines Andoumboulou, taken from Dogon myth, as “a rough draft of human being, the work-in-progress we continue to be. . . . The song of the Andoumboulou is one of striving, strain, abrasion, an all but asthmatic song of aspiration.”

Perhaps more than any other contemporary poet, Mackey is deeply inspired by jazz, especially Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and John Coltrane, all of whom informed his belief that black ontology need not be tied to testimony or narrative but can be felt through what Mackey calls “a communication of inference.” This language is improvisatory, paratactic, his lyric strands drifting through time, place, and persona. Mackey is also inspired by an avant-garde lineage of poets ranging from William Carlos Williams to Robert Duncan, as well as by his friends, the poets Fred Moten and Ed Roberson. Mackey’s poems are hypnotic praises, dirges, feverish dream songs of an unnamed diasporic voyage, songs that are always reaching for, but never arriving at, a destination.

Born in Florida in 1947 and raised in a working-class family in Southern California, Mackey attended Princeton to study math and instead turned to poetry. Afterward, he studied at Stanford, where he earned a Ph.D. in literature. His first chapbook, Four for Trane, was published in 1978. His most well-known collection, Splay Anthem, won the 2006 National Book Award, and his work has been recognized with other prestigious awards, including the Bollingen Prize and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Mackey has published two books of criticism, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993) and Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (2005), and five other books of prose, the most recent being the epistolary novel Late Arcade (2017). Mackey taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for several decades and is now the Reynolds Price Distinguished Professor at Duke University.

We met in April 2016 in New York, both for this interview and to participate in an event where poets talked to local high school students. Mackey, who is tall with an upright, regal bearing, had on a black T-shirt and wore his long, graying dreads loose. While known for his formidable intellect, in person he is kind and down-to-earth. With the students, he was at ease, even playful. Asked about his influences, Mackey said, “I stole a lot from my kids, like, one of them said, ‘When can I go back to Chucky Jesus?’ That’s in my book.”

Our formal interview began after the visit, in front of an audience at the 92nd Street Y. It resumed a few days later in the lobby of his hotel in Midtown. We didn’t speak again until winter 2019, when we tied up the interview over email. During that gap, Mackey’s concept of Andoumboulou—humans as rough draft, man’s inhumanity to man—gained urgency in the face of rising fascism and accelerating climate change. But it also continues to offer the distant and gnostic hope that our struggle is cyclical and ongoing, and that if and when we are gone, there will be something else.

INTERVIEWER

How did Andoumboulou start?

 

NATHANIEL MACKEY

In the early seventies, when I was working at a radio station in Northern California, KTAO in Los Gatos, I found an album of Dogon music in the station’s library, Les Dogon, which had funeral songs on one side, and one of them was “Song of the Andoumboulou.” I was struck by the quality of voice in the singing. It has a raspy sound to it that appealed to me. And then there was the business of the deceased being reborn in another world, which is marked by a trumpet blare. There were these very textured tonalities that have a kind of braiding quality to them. Before I really knew more about the Andoumboulou—there was very little about them in the liner notes—I was invested in that particular song and that particular title.

I was beginning to be attracted to writing in series, writing sets, so I decided to stay with that in a set or series called Song of the Andoumboulou. It would be made up of poems that roughly have to do with mortality and sexuality and with the kinds of symbolic counters that are used to talk about them.

INTERVIEWER

The first line in Andoumboulou is, “The song says the / dead will not / ascend without song.” When you’re talking about mortality, is this a kind of remembering?

 

MACKEY

Yes, it’s a kind of remembering. The song does remember the deceased, and it’s the song that helps the deceased move on—to ascend, in the words of the poem, to the next life. I wanted to take that and apply it to senses of transition and, hopefully, ascendance within life, moments where one feels one has to move on and move up. I didn’t know it would become an ongoing, theoretically endless series—

 

INTERVIEWER

Did you think it was going to last thirty-plus years?

 

MACKEY

No, I didn’t sign the contract. I was too young to go steady. At that point I didn’t think that it was an open series. But, as I look back on it, I think you can feel the unrest and the dis-ease with closure even in my first book, Eroding Witness (1985), which ends with an eight-poem set called Septet for the End of Time. I mean, here you have something that’s called Septet, suggesting seven, but it’s got eight poems, it’s comprised of eight. It’s already dealing with senses of insufficiency and surplus. That disequilibrium keeps things in motion, ongoing.

INTERVIEWER

You have remarked that for you the Andoumboulou as a poetic figure basically means that the human race is a rough draft, a work in progress. In Blue Fasa you write, “Draft, meant drift, meant scheme, meant sketch.”

MACKEY

I didn’t find out about that aspect until I read The Pale Fox, Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s study of the Dogon, which talks about the Andoumboulou as an earlier form of human being, kind of a trial form that didn’t work out.

That’s when I got through to the sense of the Andoumboulou as a kind of metaphor for us and our present, you know, failed condition, the Andoumboulou as a failed form, a rough draft of humanity. It became a way for me to look at it as not just a funeral song, but also as something I could bring other stuff into, our failure to live up to the most ideal senses of humanity, for one. The Dogon also—even though African cultures are thought of as oral cultures, and certainly the oral component is a defining feature—the Dogon are very much into graphics, into markings and visual signs. So, the foregrounding of texture—rasp, abradedness, rub as prototextuality—alongside the Dogon valorization of graphic marking led me to think of the Andoumboulou as rough drafts, rough drafts of humanity. When we, à la Robert Burns, talk about “man’s inhumanity to man,” we’re talking about our continuing Andoumboulouousness.

INTERVIEWER

I love that word. I want to say it all the time.

MACKEY

I start every day with it, in front of the mirror. I say, Andoumboulouousness. Never failed me yet. It’s the idea that we’re hopefully evolving, that we’re hopefully getting better, that we’re a draft closer to what we mean when we say humanity in an idealistic sense. And it seems that this fits the serial poetic form, which is in some way the poetics of drafting. Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls her long serial poem Drafts. This emphasis on provisionality, working toward whatever perfection or whatever perfectability there might be, is something that at the formal level is reinforcing and signifying what, at a kind of thematic level, this business of Andoumboulouousness is getting at. Reading The Pale Fox, I came to the sense that my poem was about the Andoumboulou but also about Andoumboulouousness, that it’s never satisfied with any of its iterations, that it will continue to go on and on and on.

INTERVIEWER

Your poetic practice seems very much about this process-oriented way of writing. In Splay Anthem’s introduction, you say that the song of the Andoumboulou “is one of striving, strain, abrasion, an all but asthmatic song of aspiration.” And there are dual meanings to aspiration. Pair it with asthmatic, and it’s breathing. But there’s aspiration and striving, too.

MACKEY

Over the years the Black Mountain emphasis on breath has come to me to be not really a program or practicum for the line but something that’s more metaphorical or metonymic, that’s about strain and stress and anxiety. It has to do, in the largest way, among these poets of the U.S., with the Cold War and having entered the nuclear era. But it’s also coming in via the influence of African American music. There’s been a race war going on for centuries, registered by musicians from the group against which that war has been waged. When I listen to Coleman Hawkins play the saxophone, or Ben Webster—when I listen to any number of saxophonists—I hear something about their breathing. I hear breath being made evident, manifest, palpable almost. I hear breath being not passed over but lingered with and brought to the fore in a way that makes us think about and reflect on it, makes us think about its provisionality, the precarity that threatens it. This all resonates with “I can’t breathe,” Eric Garner’s last words, and the entire spectrum of vulnerabilities they bring to mind and that African American art and culture have built an aesthetic on.

You know, James Brown falling to his knees, sweating, losing five pounds, with that straining voice saying, “I’m so weak,” the house going crazy, is just beautiful, scarily so, sometimes. The inhabitation of frailty and precarity—conditionedness—is one of the things I think is going on in my writing, or, at least, informing the ideas and the context out of which it comes.

INTERVIEWER

Can you discuss your ideas of poetry and breath in relation to Black Lives Matter? You gave a lecture called “Breath and Precarity” in which you talked about the importance of breath in both poetry and jazz, about Charles Olson’s idea that a line is a measurement of breath but also about how breath is jazz, like how much a saxophone can sound like a sigh or a shortness of breath. If we can breathe, we are relaxed, we are living, but you also discuss the precarity of breath in the statement “I can’t breathe.”

MACKEY

“Breath and Precarity” grew out of a poem I wrote in the wake of the murder of Eric Garner, a poem in the “Mu” series called “The Overghost Ourkestra’s Next.” Variations on the line or idea that “no matter we couldn’t breathe, we blew” occurred or came to me as I thought about the approach to breath and breathing taken by black horn players. I thought about it in relation to the cutting off of breath, specifically black breath, of which the killing of Garner was yet another horrid instance. I heard the way these horn players have with breath as an artistic othering of the asthmatic conditions imposed on black folk, the asphyxiations imposed on black life, an othering in which the intentness and evidentness of breath and breathing spoke to their social othering’s revocation of breath. I heard an antiphonal or dialectical relationship between the two. I was thinking about a blowing-without-breath that ranges from Hawkins’s or Webster’s use of subtones to John Tchicai’s or Sonny Rollins’s asthmatic, apprehensive stutter to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s or Roscoe Mitchell’s triumphant or defiant or put-upon recourse to circular breathing. By making breath more evident, more material, more dwelled-upon, they make black breath matter, implicitly insist that black lives matter. “Unable to breathe though we were, we blew” is one of the ways it’s put in the poem, a line of thinking I ended up dealing with in a more extended, expository way in “Breath and Precarity.”

That involved reviewing the breath-based poetics of Olson, Creeley, Baraka, and Ginsberg, all of whom were influenced by black music and all of whom influenced me. I see that poetics as less literal, less organic, less a matter of finding and following one’s natural or normal breathing patterns than I did when I first encountered it in my teens and early twenties. I’ve come to see it as being about the ability to alter the rhythm of one’s breathing, to construct alternate breathing patterns. Breath becomes a vehicle for senses of duress exactly with regard to breath, which is to say exactly with regard to life. This bears not only on a racist society in which black lives demonstrably don’t matter but on an era that doesn’t seem to be sure life matters.

INTERVIEWER

How has your role as a critic informed your poetry?

MACKEY

The two have walked hand in hand. As I mentioned, “Breath and Precarity” actually began as a poem, and I can think of many cases where it’s been the other way around, where something I was looking into for my criticism entered my poetry and/or my fiction. The myth of Gassire’s lute is a good example. In the most general sense, I’d say my criticism has informed my poetry very organically and intimately. It’s no accident, no coincidence, that the various writers and artists whose work is addressed in my criticism are those who have informed and influenced my writing. I went to school in their work. My criticism might be said to be my class notes. At the same time, I had some ideas about the kind of writing I wanted to do and the place I wanted to occupy, so part of my role as a critic, as I saw it, was to look for and find precedent for that, to shed light on and advocate for it. The concept of “discrepant engagement” gave my first book of critical essays its title and encapsulated both my critical outlook and my creative practice.

INTERVIEWER

I wanted to ask you about your relationship to the long poem and how your work departs from the Western epic but also engages with it.

MACKEY

Well, the work of Williams entered my life in my teens and was pretty important to me. His late work is what I started with, Pictures from Brueghel and Paterson. I found out subsequently that Paterson was part of an effort, the writing of a modern epic, that included others—Pound’s Cantos. H.D.’s long poems. Melvin Tolson’s work, and others’. So this long-poem thing—trying to make it fit modern conditions, which are really the dissolution of the conditions that made for the ancient epic, with collectivities that are not as easily defined and with heroism harder to find—it seemed to me that somehow the lyric poem wanted to and needed to go on. It could lament the absence of the conditions that we think of as requisite for the epic. I say it’s not an epic, it’s a singing amid heroic waste, the waste of what used to be seen as heroism or the absence of what used to be seen as heroism, in an unheroic time. It’s a “we” that’s trying to constitute itself, that’s in search of what would constitute it, simultaneously lamenting the long odds against it. That, in a nutshell, is how I think of it.

INTERVIEWER

The “we” comes up again and again in Splay Anthem, Nod House (2011), Blue Fasa, and your older collections. Can you talk about the first-person plural? In Splay Anthem, the “we” appears to be an other “we,” a “we” in opposition to nation and state. But then other times, the “we” is more personalized, as though the “we” is the “I” shadowed by ancestors.

MACKEY

In my earliest writing, going back to when I first started trying to get serious about it in my late teens and early twenties, I had this impulse to use that pronoun. I wasn’t so given to the “I,” which is where we all start. I didn’t have a particular “we” in mind. It was just the aspiration of or toward that “we” that seemed on some instinctive level bound up with my impulse to write. It troubled and vexed me for a long time, because I didn’t know whether I had a right to it. What is that line of Robert Duncan’s? “Would-be shaman of no tribe I know”? I was kind of in that situation. What “we” was I speaking for? Of course, one was expected to write the first-person-singular narrative—the confessional, that kind of mode. I wasn’t particularly interested in doing that. So that was a cause of consternation as well. I didn’t want that “I” to be my “I.” I wanted it to be an “I” that would take on the traffic of many personalities and personae and things.

It took me a while to get comfortable with or just to accept that this was what I wanted to do, but I started doing it, often with a flickering, changing sense of what the “we” signified. Probably, bottom line, it signifies a kind of invitation—extended to me at some remote instinctual level and then extended to the reader. But it’s a “we” that’s also, as you say, other, having the sad experience of being an other, and it’s wary of the very proposition of constructing a “we,” because a “we” has to have a “they,” and this is a “we” that has a lot of experience being a “them.” So there’s a lot of pronominal agitation going on, especially as it comes into play with “they” and into play with the singular first-person “I.” It’s trying to speak to some kind of collective condition, or at least to a shared condition that may not yet have achieved collectivity, or to the aspiration to have that achievement. But, yes, it’s often very close to me, too. It’s a variable “we.” Sometimes it’s very large, sometimes it’s as intimate as two people, sometimes it’s a small group hanging out in the forest, or on the corner—

INTERVIEWER

Sometimes it’s you and Ted and Fred and Ed.

MACKEY

Sometimes it’s me and Ted and Fred. It’s company. We find ourselves members of a variety of “we’s.” And the indeterminacy of that “we” from the point of view of a reader—who might ask, Which “we” is he talking about?—I think of as an invitation. It sets up questions for readers. Am I a part of this “we”? Does this include me? Do I want to sign up for it? Do I identify, do I not? I can leave that unresolved from reader to reader.

INTERVIEWER

You resist the monumental—that’s another characteristic that sets your serial poems apart from other epic poetry. It’s more about the voyage.

MACKEY

I think that the alignment of my work with music is probably one of the things that accounts for that. There’s an ongoingness to music that I’m picking up on. I think I read somewhere, probably in Baraka at some point, writing about a piece of music, the statement, “There was no reason for it to ever end, but it did.”

Improvisational jazz is always subject to being opened up and releasing further disclosure and variation—so, you know, the sense that you never arrive at absolute closure. Whatever closure you do arrive at—or achieve, if you want to use that word—is temporary and provisional. Jazz musicians do end the song, but they’ll play the same song the next night and it’ll be different. So they haven’t exhausted all the possibilities of the song, they’ve just given us one iteration of it, one of its possible iterations. The idea that you have arrived at some point where you’ve said it all, that’s horrendous. Who would want that? Why would you want that? It’s like Pound thinking that he could basically sum up life, you know, in a hundred cantos. That’s megalomania. It’s common sense that you can’t do that. Anybody who thinks that they can, that a work of art can contain life, is just working out of delusion. In fact, one of the pleasures of the art is that it keeps on keeping on.

INTERVIEWER

So you’re going to be writing forever.

MACKEY

Yes, there’s kind of a guarantee to that, isn’t there?

INTERVIEWER

You got into jazz from your two brothers. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

MACKEY

My discophilia I get from the two of them. The younger of my older brothers, Richard, is eight years older than me. He’s the one I got jazz from. Thomas, who’s twelve years older than me, had a huge record collection, lots of 45s but also plenty of LPs. He was listening to Little Richard and all the pop and R&B singers of the fifties. He was especially fond of a singer named Toni Harper. My mother listened to gospel music, and she’d get into blues as well. The radio was always going. That was the age of kids getting transistor radios. Even in grade school I had a radio next to my bed, and I usually went to sleep with music playing.

I was a big fan of pop music, I knew all the Top 40 stuff, but it would wear out. There was an inexhaustibility to jazz. You could listen to a piece or an album again and again over long periods of time and not get tired of it. Something about that seemed to be important. I can still listen to jazz records I bought when I was seventeen and not be bored at all.

When I first started hearing about jazz, reading about it in the late fifties and early sixties, jazz was considered a kind of intellectual music. It was considered difficult. It wasn’t thought of as music that everyone could get. That appealed—I liked the puzzle, I liked the challenge. I think the thing that I liked most about it, though, was that it was not easily exhausted. It was something that I could keep coming back to.

INTERVIEWER

How has your listening to, say, Don Cherry or Ornette Coleman influenced your poetry?

MACKEY

Probably in ways I can’t talk about terribly well. I think that it gets into your sensibility. It, in some way, gets into your body. I remember reading an interview with Gary Snyder back in the day. One of the books he published was called Riprap. He had been doing a kind of work, putting stones together using a kind of hammer to tap them into place. He said he noticed that while he was doing riprap the rhythm of that work got into his poems. It got into his body and then came out of his body into the poems. That made sense to me. If something like that can get into you rhythmically and have an impact on your writing, then something like music, you would think, would have an even greater impact. I mean, it’s pleasurable, for one. It’s a lot of things that doing riprap work is not.

INTERVIEWER

It goes straight to the senses.

MACKEY

I do think the music that one listens to has a deep impact on one’s rhythmic and bodily disposition. When I was growing up, books and records and that sort of thing were a way of enlarging my world. You know, that’s what art seemed to be for. That’s what culture seemed to be for. That’s what education seemed to be for—these things that brought other cultures and other ways of experiencing the world to you. With music it was especially evident, because the jazz musicians I was listening to had such large ears. They were listening to music from all over the world and bringing it into their music. When I was a teenager, one of the first records I listened to and ever really got into was Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. Then I found out that Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane were listening to Pygmy music from the Ituri Forest. Yusef Lateef was playing exotic instruments—or what we think of as exotic instruments—from the East. So, the music had a world ear, a world reverberation, and jazz itself, I came to see, is a world music, it’s listened to everywhere. A kind of globalism came into my life, came into my ears really early. Jazz introduced me to a good deal of the music that I’ve subsequently added to my palate. I got into flamenco via jazz. I started listening to Indian music. Coltrane was interested in Ravi Shankar, so I checked out Ravi Shankar. One of the Chicago musicians, one of the AACM musicians, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, had a piece called “Bismillah” that seemed to be an allusion to Bismillah Khan, the Indian shehnai player, so I checked out Bismillah Khan. A lot of this just started out with me as a young person, trying to get to the world. I wanted to find out where the world was, what was happening in the world. Listening to the radio and these other forms of travel—reading, records, that kind of thing—were important.

I went on to become a DJ for many years. I did a jazz show as an undergraduate at Princeton on the campus station, WPRB. I’ve worked at various noncommercial stations in Madison, Wisconsin, and Northern California, including years and years in Santa Cruz, at KUSP, where I did a program called Tanganyika Strut, which was a mix of jazz and world music. That’s left its imprint on me. I’ve been a listener for so long that even when I’m not listening to music, it’s there.

INTERVIEWER

I was trying to think of a poetic term for what you do with music, because poetry that’s inspired by paintings is called ekphrastic. Some people have said that term could also encompass music. But it seems so embedded in the visual arts. Do you have a term for poetry inspired by music?

MACKEY

I don’t have a term for it. In fact, I’ve long tried to think of one. It’s not melopoeia, to use one of the terms that Pound brings up, because it’s not really melody, or not just melody. We’ll have to invent one.

INTERVIEWER

Douglas Kearney called it “synthetic.” Synthetic ekphrastic form. I think he got that from reading an essay of Moten’s, but I don’t know—

MACKEY

Synthetic ekphrastic. I would try to borrow from Ornette Coleman and Ezra Pound and say, maybe, harmelorhythmic? Harmelorhythmopoetic or something like that.

INTERVIEWER

We’ll coin that term. What were your first experiences of poetry?

MACKEY

In grade school we had to memorize and recite Longfellow and that kind of stuff. I sort of liked that, the process of memorization and learning that there were these relationships among the words in the poem that were mnemonic aids. I was learning rhyme, of course. It’s one of the easy things to pick up, end rhyme. But I was also learning relationships like assonance and alliteration that would help me memorize the words. It was interesting to see those relationships that way, and having to recite the poems from memory made you do that. But I wasn’t real thrilled with the way poetry and literature were taught in junior high school and high school, where it was more a matter of looking at interpretation, paraphrase, author biography and such.
I actually found math and science more interesting at that point, because there you were definitively decoding and deciphering something.

I started writing stories and poems as assignments in English classes. But then I got to reading around in anthologies and things like that. William Carlos Williams’s work I discovered at the public library.

INTERVIEWER

How did you encounter Williams? What about his writing inspired you?

MACKEY

I got to him by happenstance, really. I used to go to the public library to do homework and the kind of research projects we had to do in high school. I was walking by the new arrivals shelf and one of the books that had just come out—so it must have been 1963—was Pictures from Brueghel. I was fascinated by the name William Carlos Williams. I was getting interested in poetry at that point, so I picked it up and started thumbing through it. I looked at it and one of the things I was struck by was how accessible it was, how direct it was. It made me feel kind of good about my ability to deal with poetry. But I was also struck by the way the later poems in the book are arranged on the page, that three-part step-down thing that he got into with the variable foot. So I checked it out and took it home and started reading.

I went to Paterson next. One of the things that appealed to me was its density and its difficulty. A thing I enjoyed about math was that it was a kind of hermetic language. I was good at math, I had done analytic geometry and differential calculus in high school. I remember buying a book that was way beyond me at that point, a book on differential equations. But I bought it anyway because, for one thing, of the look of the equations. Greek letters, you know, are used a lot, along with other symbols I wasn’t familiar with. I was drawn in just by the look of it. It was a hermetic text, brimming with recondite content and promising recondite meanings that I couldn’t quite get to then. I was interested in the fact that I would eventually crack that code if I kept on in math. I liked looking at it and seeing how much of it I could figure out just based on what I knew from calculus and the math I was already familiar with. I think that with poetry it was kind of the same thing. A text like Paterson seemed to me to be a hermetic work, and modern poetry more generally, at that point, was that for me. I was interested in learning how to read it, learning how to decipher it, learning how to crack the code.

I read Amiri Baraka around the same time. I first got introduced to him as a senior in high school. One of the first jazz records I bought was Coltrane Live at Birdland. He wrote the liner notes for it, which are fantastic. I had seen somewhere that he was a poet, and that’s what led me to go out and find his poetry. The book that was around then was The Dead Lecturer. I loved that book. It was a bible for me. The sense of an artistic community that was not confined to one medium began to emerge. Okay, here’s this guy who’s in poetry and he’s writing about this music that I like, and then I read up on him. In the back of The New American Poetry he’s talking about Williams and Olson as influences, so I begin to see a community of poets and a larger community of artists. That interests me, that there’s a kind of communication among artists that I call a communication of inference.

INTERVIEWER

Not only were you the first person in your family to go to college, you went to Princeton.

MACKEY

Yes, and I could do with it whatever I wanted to do. There was no pressure on me to become a doctor or a lawyer, any of that stuff. I come from a working-class family. We lived in housing projects in my early years. My mother was on welfare in Rodeo, in Northern California, before she started doing domestic work in Santa Ana, in Southern California, after we moved there. My uncle did construction work. In my teens I worked with my brother-in-law, who was a janitor. They knew that whatever I did, I wasn’t going to be doing that, and they thought being a professor was a big deal. I had a roommate at Princeton who was from a white middle-class family in Palo Alto. When he decided to major in philosophy, he caught hell from his parents. They wanted him to go into one the professions, doctor or lawyer, or become an engineer, major in something practical.

INTERVIEWER

Did you find it to be an easy transition, coming from a black, working-class family, to go to Princeton? Did you find a community there immediately, teachers who were accepting?

MACKEY

It wasn’t easy, but there were black students there. I think at that point our class had the largest contingent of black students to have been admitted. While I was there, there were, by the time I was a senior, somewhere between 150 and 200 of us, and that’s at a school of 3,200. It wasn’t a lot, but we had a black students’ association, and there was a community. There were things about it that turned me off, but at the same time, I went there to expand my world. I knew there would be things that would be different and not all of them would agree with me or me agree with them. The preppy culture was something I had never seen. But, you know, there were a lot of things I got from there. It wasn’t until I was an undergrad that I heard literature talked about in an interpretive, analytic way that really intrigued me. Freshman year I took a course that was pretty popular called Introduction to Modern Literature. We read Lorca, we read Gide, we read Dostoyevsky and others.

It really broadened me intellectually and culturally, as well as geographically. The East Coast is very different from the West Coast. I didn’t know I had a California accent until I went to Princeton and people remarked on it. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. There were students from all over the country and international students as well, which turned out to be something that was important to me.

Also, it was close to New York, so I got to go to New York a lot—go to the museums, go to hear music, go to poetry readings, plays, movies, things like that. The first time I heard Allen Ginsberg was at a reading he gave with Peter Orlovsky at Town Hall. Early in my freshman year I heard Coltrane at the Village Gate, the one time I heard him live. The thing that was hardest for me to deal with at Princeton was being so far away from home. I struggled with that for the first year, maybe into the second year. I thought about transferring to a California school, but I hung on. And I’m glad I did. I recognized it as an opportunity, a pretty rare one, so the things I had difficulties with I just had to deal with. My mother reminded me when I wrote her these despairing letters, she said, Well, this is the decision you made. You made it and you had good reasons for making it. Now you’re just going to have to tough it out.

INTERVIEWER

Did you take poetry classes? Any workshops?

MACKEY

I took a workshop in my junior year. At that point I needed to stop writing in a closet. I needed to get some reaction, to see what other people thought of what I’d been writing, because at that time I was starting to take it seriously, like it was something I would like to pursue, and I needed a reality check. It was helpful.
I took only one workshop and I didn’t want to go the M.F.A. route. I figured that so many writers I saw had ended up teaching at a university or college, and if I was going to do that, I might as well get the best green card for it, the Ph.D. I had applied to a number of schools and I decided that Stanford was the one I wanted to go to, but I asked them to defer my admission for a year. I didn’t want to go directly after four undergrad years, I thought I was kind of burned out and could use a break. And that was right. So I went and taught algebra at a private school in Pasadena. It turned out that one of my colleagues, who was teaching French, also wrote, and she had some friends who were students at Cal State LA and were taking a writing class with a fellow named Henri Coulette. I remember going over and sitting in on that class with her and them.

When I got to Stanford, I knew people who were in the writing program, but I wasn’t in the workshops. Reginald Gibbons, who was a classmate of mine at Princeton, was there. Anyway, I started to interact with him and other young writers who were there. We would show one another stuff every now and then.

INTERVIEWER

So there wasn’t one actual poetry mentor that you had.

MACKEY

Only at a distance. I was just reading and trying to learn how to write from what I read. I wrote like Baraka for a while, I wrote like Creeley for a while, I wrote some Ginsberg poems. I just learned that way. The workshop was useful in that it showed me that people don’t see the poem the same way you do. You then have to arrive at some decision about whether that matters to you, how much it matters to you, and how it matters to you. I’m a sensitive type. I decided that taking a lot of workshops might put too many people in my head. It was good to have feedback, good to have a place to take one’s work, good to have a place to write for, but I could see how a prolonged curriculum of workshops could make you too reliant on outside input.

INTERVIEWER

Talk more about your process of composition.

MACKEY

A lot of it is phrasal. It starts with phrases, phrases that I find interesting in some way. A phrase might be interesting for its syntax, interesting for its rhythm, interesting for the truth it tells, interesting for its imagery, interesting for its sound, its phonic relationships, any number of things.

INTERVIEWER

So you have floating phrases?

MACKEY

Yes. I write them down and I build on them. That’s basically how I write. Phrases come to me, some short, some long. Sometimes little sentences, sometimes really long, run-on sentences come to me. Sometimes there’s a word, especially when you’re dealing with a neologism or a coinage, that’ll be the spur. Phrases and phrasing, which is what jazz is all about. A three- or four-word phrase will come to me and it’ll be interesting for some reason. Either the syntax is interesting or there are assonantal relationships in the phrase that are interesting or the image that it conveys is interesting. It can be some combination of those things, or maybe it’s just that it’s using words that are not very common but that I find attractive in one way or another.

INTERVIEWER

So are these phrases that you get from researching?

MACKEY

They can come from anything, from anywhere. They can come from reading, sometimes from misreading. It can happen in overhearing speech or with something on the TV or the radio. The first act of my process is to write those things down when they happen. I’ve learned over the years not to let any of it go. It’s not that all of it’s going to prove to be useful, but anything that occurs to me that I think has some potential for a poem, I write down. I don’t have to do it so much now, but for years I would always have a spiral notebook. Now I have the notebook feature on the phone, which makes it easier. Anyway, that’s what I do, write these things down. There are times when you know that what has come to you is part of some larger thing and that now’s the time to get to that larger thing. There are other times when you know that now’s not the time and you just put it away and put whatever else comes later away. Then at some point—no, it’s not at some point but on a regular basis—you sit down and try to figure out what those pieces belong to.

INTERVIEWER

What about your relationship and approach to the line?

MACKEY

It’s intuitive, though my poems, I think, by now have a characteristic appearance on the page.

INTERVIEWER

Very much so. I see the Williams influence, with the enjambments.

MACKEY

And the diagonal drift on the page.

INTERVIEWER

I would love to hear about that.

MACKEY

My tendency is to drift over to the right-hand side of the page as I move down through the poem. That’s what I mean by diagonal drift. That’s the Williams imprint, because those three-part step-down lines—I think he saw them as one line that was divided into three—had a sharp diagonal drift. Then he would return to the left margin and start again. The drift in my poems is not as sharp. It goes down farther and it incorporates not a three-line unit but the whole poem. In fact, I have to watch myself to keep my poems from ending up looking like a duck’s bill or something of that sort. Anyway, there’s a kind of drift that seems to be a part of the body language of the poem, and that’s maybe coming out of my somatic disposition. It just seems right and fitting to me. I’m trying to give some sense of a kind of syncopation, a kind of rhythmic unsettledness in the look of the poem, although it’s not, strictly speaking, a score for how I read it. I want there to be a visual music on the page, a jagged dance down the page. Robert Farris Thompson’s book Flash of the Spirit talks about the visual syncopation of African textiles, the kente cloth and so forth. When I read that, it occurred to me that I had seen something similar in Williams, a graphic dance, graphic syncopation. I think that’s why I give so much attention to putting these poems on the page, which only makes things harder for me because then I have to deal with typesetters who don’t get it.

When I write my poems out before I get to the keyboard, I just write them out as a block of prose. Then something comes into play when I’m at the keyboard, something that I translate as I move them from the notebook, as I go from prose to verse. I’m actually at the point now where I do more writing at the keyboard, but that movement out of the notebook remains important.

INTERVIEWER

And what about the relationship between the ongoing poems and the shape of the book?

MACKEY

It’s all one ongoing poem, but the book as a unit of composition is also one of the guiding principles within it. That’s something that I picked up from Robert Duncan, especially from The Opening of the Field. I don’t start off with knowing what the guiding light of the book is, but when I get significantly into it I start taking stock. I’m kind of looking and saying, Well, what’s going on here? Is there something going on here that names it as a book, that stamps a certain identity on it? Blue Fasa is not Splay Anthem, although they are part of the same ongoing work. It’s really that at different times your concerns are different. One of the things you locate in the process of naming and defining the book is what seem to be your concerns, judging by the poems you have written to that point. That then informs how you round out the book, although you’d like to leave loose ends loose. You don’t want the book to clamp shut like a coffin lid.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when to end the book?

MACKEY

Well, it’s partly a constructivist decision. Everything is ongoing and the work is theoretically unending, but we live within certain conventions of dissemination. We have books, which are like status reports on the process. You get a certain momentum as you write, especially in serial work, because you’re building a vocabulary, for one thing, and the more you write the larger that vocabulary gets and the more you have to draw on.

INTERVIEWER

Is there a break between books?

MACKEY

A rest period? No, I just keep going. I just keep going. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve built up some momentum. And a language. And a world that I’ve gotten to know better and that I can move around in more nimbly, more quickly, and, I think, more confidently than I was able to twenty or thirty years ago when I was just getting to know it, just starting to invent it.

I’ve been experiencing, since around 2012, an unusual outburst or upsurge in that work. Now the unit of composition I’m dealing with is fifty installments of the two intertwined poems, rather than twenty-five. Things sped up. It got to where, between 2012 and 2018, I wrote around twenty-five installments a year, collected now as three double books, Tej Bet, So’s Notice, and Nerve Church. New Directions will issue them as a box set under the title Double Trio (2021). I’ve been working on another double book, for which I recently got a title, nodding to Cecil Taylor, Calling It the Eighth or the Tenth or the Thirteenth and the Fourteenth. I’m not sure how long this pace, this upsurge, will last, but if it lasts long enough I’d be happy to wait eight years for another box, Double Quartet.

INTERVIEWER

With Splay Anthem, why did you decide to have an introduction?

MACKEY

I think we have to help create an audience and a readership for our work. One way to do it is to say a bit about what the conceptual hinterland is that lies behind the poems, that lies behind the work. I realize that in my critical work, to some extent, I had been doing that, but in an indirect way. When Splay Anthem got accepted at New Directions, my editor there, Jeffrey Yang, suggested writing an introduction or a preface of some sort, because the work was ongoing, they were publishing it as my first work with them, a book that had predecessors and that would hopefully go to a wider readership that hadn’t necessarily read those predecessors. That might be a way of bringing new readers up to date or at least of owning up to the fact that the book was a part of something that had already been going on. So, having been thinking already about how I would situate what I was up to and then getting that suggestion from him, which was both a practical publisher’s or editor’s concern and an intellectual concern of Jeffrey’s, I thought of it as an interesting challenge, a useful project, to sit down and in a compact way say, This is what it is. It was a very rewarding writing experience. I had to clarify some things to myself, but at the same time I had to keep it from becoming too tight a ball.

INTERVIEWER

I was thinking about your introduction, because you talk about difficulty, and some would say that your poetry is difficult. A poem is difficult because of its levels of access, right? There might be some difficulty with your poetry because of your references, which range from African cosmology to jazz musicians. Do you feel a pressure to clarify that?

MACKEY

I don’t think all of it can be clarified. I like works that have some mystery to them. Now, in academia, people would rather talk about difficulty than about mystery, and that’s probably why that word keeps coming up. It’s that inexhaustibility that I talked about earlier. I like works that seem to have a life of their own.

I don’t set out to decode my work. I don’t write that way and I won’t write about what I write that way, because that would be undoing the very thing that makes the whole thing compelling for me. I can enjoy works that I feel that I get, but I also, maybe even more strongly, enjoy works that I get some of but have the sense I have not gotten all of. I especially like work that gives me the feeling there’s more to get—that I might, by having a conversation with somebody who brings different equipment to bear, or with the artist, learn something. I respect the otherness of the work. Work that I’m totally shut out by, I can’t say that I enjoy. If I keep coming back to something and I’m just not getting in, I’ll have to say it’s not for me. And I’m okay with a reader coming to that point with my work.

It’s like, Coltrane was asked at one point, What do you say about people who say they don’t understand your music? And he says, Well, they’re probably telling the truth, they probably don’t understand it. And that’s okay. Not everybody is going to understand it.

INTERVIEWER

I’m also curious about mystery, difficulty, in the way other people understand your poetry. I thought the essay “Other: From Noun to Verb” beautifully clarified the two different ways, the other as noun versus other as verb, and how artists like yourself may be an other, because of sociopolitical or economic reasons, and from that position you other poetry, via form and language.

MACKEY

Well, hopefully we’re also othering the avant-garde, experimental tradition. One of the things about that tradition, the way it’s grown up in Western arts and letters, is that there’s a certain historical teleology that tends to go with it, which is that the more avant-garde or experimental or advanced art gets, the more it moves toward pure form. Ortega y Gasset writing about modern art as the dehumanization of art was getting at something like this. So the progress of art is measured by its distance from presenting human subjectivities. Somebody like Clement Greenberg talks about arriving at a point of artistic purity, where the art is not about anything, where it’s abstract and it’s about its own constitution if it’s about anything. It’s pure form.

Other is what we do to that tradition, because we bring something to it, content that hasn’t been there before. And, of course, there’s a lot of anxiety and resentment about that. We have a weird sense of disenfranchisement coming from the celebrated center all of a sudden, like, Oh, we can’t be that kind of outsider. We can’t claim that kind of marginalization. The whole bohemian thing was basically a split within the bourgeoisie, épater le bourgeois, in the European tradition, and they masqueraded as the true others. That’s how they got into “primitive art.” But when the people who were actually the heirs of that tradition—

INTERVIEWER

Like Artaud taking from Japanese Noh theater, or Dubuffet with the whole primitivism, art brut thing. These “innovators” would take from these non-Western traditions, and then they would couple it into their own aesthetic, and it’s like, We have discovered a new form, there is this new worlding that’s happening.

MACKEY

Yes. Jack Kerouac calling himself a jazz poet is a lot more palatable and digestible than LeRoi Jones standing up and calling himself a jazz poet. That’s why you have a discourse that delegitimizes and problematizes authenticity. The debate over race and the avant-garde, race and experimentalism—­experimentalism has a pedigree that includes a very small group of people, so other people, however much they’re working in that vein and should be discussed in that connection, don’t tend to be. That’s changing some, because of younger people and younger critics like Evie Shockley, Anthony Reed, Timothy Yu, Dorothy Wang, but you can still see those walls being upheld by the older critics. Things do change, though, and there are now more critics able to see through that. Paul Naylor’s book Poetic Investigations: Singing the Holes in History, for example, is a book that has a chapter on my work, on Susan Howe’s work, a chapter on Lyn Hejinian’s work, a chapter on M. NourbeSe Philip’s work, and a chapter on Kamau Brathwaite’s work. It’s pretty much a Hambonista book. All those writers have been published in Hambone, as has Paul himself. That book came out a while ago actually, 1999 or something like that. That would be a sign that some people have gotten the message.

INTERVIEWER

Returning to our conversation after a few years, your concept of Andoum­boulou takes on new urgency. When we first talked, Trump was not yet in office. Now, the House has impeached, Britain’s Parliament has a Conservative majority, and climate change is accelerating faster than scientists initially predicted. Has Andoumboulou shifted for you with the current time?

MACKEY

I don’t know if it has shifted so much as been confirmed again. We’re still that rough draft, and there are strong forces and powerful vested interests that work to keep us that way and, in fact, to roughen us even more. We’re seeing that in Trump, Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and the rise of the Right all around the world. I don’t declare myself an ecopoet, but when Brad Morrow solicited work for the “Earth Elegies” issue of his journal Conjunctions, I had a “Mu” poem from a couple of years ago to send him. “We were singing the death / of the earth, deep study, getting ready to be gone,” it says at one point.

The current situation is horrible and horrifying and it can’t help but enter and inflect one’s work in manifest and not-so-manifest ways. I find the word politics coming into both Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu” in recent years to an extent that it didn’t before. I find a neologism coming in, decapitism, which is saying something about capitalism and what it’s doing to us and to the planet. I find references to “the apprentice prez,” “the reality-show prez,” “the puppet prez” coming in. These things are a part of the field we tend and it’s no surprise they make their way in.