Nathaniel Mackey on Evoking John Coltrane and the Visual Delights of Poetry

Peter Mishler Talks with the Contemporary American Poet and National Book Award-Winner

For this installment in a series of interviews with contemporary poets, contributing editor Peter Mishler corresponded with Nathaniel Mackey. Nathaniel Mackey was born in Miami, Florida, in 1947. He is the author of several books of fiction of “exquisite rhythmic lyricism” (Bookforum), poetry, and criticism and has received many awards for his work, including the National Book Award in poetry for Splay Anthem, the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society, the Bollingen Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Mackey is the Reynolds Price Professor of English at Duke University. Mackey’s Double Trio is available now from New Directions, and Nathaniel Mackey, Destination Out, a collection of essays dedicated to his work, was just released from University of Iowa Press.

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Peter Mishler: What has the experience been like for you of releasing three works at once as opposed to what we would call a single collection?

Nathaniel Mackey: Actually, I think of Double Trio as a single collection. It was written over the course of six years, which is right in line with the five-to-seven years it took to write each of my most recent previous collections, Blue Fasa (2015) back to, say, Whatsaid Serif (1998). It is, however, about six times the size of any of those collections, representing a surge and a change in my writing that one might call a quickening of pace or a stouter kind of persistence, a loping or lengthening measure perhaps. It came on by surprise and it just kind of took over.

After finishing Blue Fasa in 2012, I kept working on the Song of the Andoumboulou/“Mu” serial weave that had run through it and the previous two books, Nod House (2011) and Splay Anthem (2006), figuring on another 25 installments comprising the next book, as had been the case with those three. The title Tej Bet declared itself early on and that was then what I was working toward. The 25 installments declared themselves as well and in a year it surprisingly looked like the book was done. I continued work on the twinned, intertwining series, toward what I thought was the next book. No title announced itself. Several months in I realized that this was still Tej Bet, so when another year and another 25 installments had come round I saw it was a double book I’d been dealing with, a 50-installment Tej Bet. It turned out the same thing happened the next two years, a 50-installment double book entitled So’s Notice.

I didn’t know what was happening. All of a sudden a book a year, a double book every two years, where before a book would take me from five to seven years to write. Then one night in the fall of 2016, while I was poet-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome and at the beginning of what would eventually be a third double book, Nerve Church, I nodded off and found myself in a small living room lit only by a fire in the fireplace. To the right of the fireplace was a small table and on the table sat a boxed set of three books. It was too dark to make out the titles but I immediately thought, before waking up, coming to or whatever it was coming out of or back from this place would be called, “Double trio.” That’s how I came to know what this thing was that I’d been working on or working toward and what it was to be called. It would be a box set of three double books, Double Trio. I said to myself, “You can’t be lying up here in Rome, just a three-hour drive from where Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri was born, see what you just saw and think it was only a dream. That wasn’t just a dream, that was a Vision.” So I took it a collection comprised of 150 installments of Song of the Andoumboulou/“Mu” boxed in three double books was what was called for, what was being called for, that that was what my next collection would be.

PM: Would you be willing to describe the relationship between the third through fifth tracks of Meditations and Double Trio?

NM: Yes, of course. Meditations is one of my favorite records of all time. I’ve been listening to it since it came out in 1966. I still have the vinyl copy I bought back then and when I feel like listening to only one side or have time to listen to only one side it’s most often side two, taken up by the three tracks you mention, that I listen to. I’ve listened to it often enough over all these years for it to have engraved a subliminal imprint or template in me. That’s immediately what I thought and felt when I looked back over Tej Bet and So’s Notice in 2016 as I was at the beginning of what came to be Nerve Church and was now thinking of the three as comprising a single work. Tej Bet, beginning with, introducing and repeatedly returning to the “Anuncio’s Last Love Poem” series-within-a-series, hit me as corresponding with track three, “Love,” on Coltrane’s album, even down to Anuncio, aka Solito, being “all alone” in the first line of the first poem being not unlike “Love” beginning, as the liner notes emphasize, “with one man alone,” Jimmy Garrison performing solo on bass.

In addition, technically, formally, sonically, there’s that thing Trane does that I’ve tried to learn from and that’s especially evident when he comes in following Garrison’s intro, that way he has of using recursiveness and repetition-with-variation to gather, to layer, to build—ply upon ply and fold upon fold. It’s particularly discernible in the stripped-down, slow-tempo introductoriness heard in “Love.” I saw something analogous or correspondent in the way Tej Bet introduces iterations of three new series-within-a-series, “Anuncio’s Last Love Song,” “Lay of the Lifted” and “The Book of So,” to ply a multilayered gather.

I’ve listened to it often enough over all these years for it to have engraved a subliminal imprint or template in me.

I had consciously evoked Trane in titling the second double book So’s Notice, echoing his composition “Moment’s Notice,” but when I thought further about the possible Meditations imprint the word so’s connection with subsequence and consequence jumped out at me. It seemed an uncanny correspondence with the title of track four, “Consequences.” Reflecting on it some more and listening to the album again, I thought the thickening and the ratcheting-up and the upping-the-ante heard with the advent of “Consequences,” when Pharoah Sanders comes in, has its counterpart in the continued march of the series-within-a-series, the proliferations and complications carried by greater recourse to dialogue and colloquy, the further play of asymmetry and qualm and splinter that “Brother B’s First Last Love Song,” “I-Insofar’s Last Last Love Song” and such are examples of, and overall just the witches’ brew and the stirring-of-the-pot found in So’s Notice.

Late 2016, of course, when I’d begun the third double book, as yet untitled, and was doing this thinking about Double Trio’s cousinly relationship to “Love,” “Consequences” and “Serenity,” saw the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency and the doubling-down on ignorance and evil that came with it. I had to think of serenity, suddenly so incongruous a word, in relation to severity, a somewhat like-sounding, like-looking word that seemed at least equally apt.

So the volume that came to be called Nerve Church had to relate to or correspond with “Serenity” in an angled way, a refracted way passing through a stirring-of-the-pot much like So’s Notice’s, only more severe (while telling of severity), a seemingly inexhaustible tweaking or tuning. It does overall and by the end, I hope, get to something like Trane’s benedictory repose in “Serenity,” the blessing or the kiss it bestows, “a call or a calm,” as the last poem puts it, “come / from beyond or behind visible extent.”

That, anyway, is how I’d speak of the Meditations/Double Trio relationship today. I say a few things about it in my Author’s Note as well. I think about it a little differently every time I think about it, get a bit more at something else, other bits of it.

PM: I’ve read about your experience of writing down fragments that come into your head. Is there a sense of whether one of these fragments might be speaking more to “Mu” or the Song—or what phenomenon of composition is occurring that guides you toward bringing that fragment into one of the two poems?

NM: Very rarely does a fragment tell me which one it belongs to. How it gathers with other fragments and the character of those other fragments determine that. I can’t say, however, that it’s a determination I lose lots of sleep over or that it’s particularly difficult. Though it’s taken me a while to get to this point, these days I simply decide. In the 1970s and the 1980s, when the two series began, I had a stronger sense of them being distinct and I had a few notions as to what distinguished them as well, stylistically and content-wise.

Song of the Andoumboulou I saw as more given to what I thought of as sprawl, meaning longer lines and longer poems; contentwise, it would range about in various African and African Diasporic materials. “Mu” I thought of as tighter, meaning shorter lines and shorter (or at least thinner) poems, thematically playing on “mu” as inferring music, muse, myth (muthos), mouth and the lost Atlantislike continent Mu; it too would draw on African and African Diasporic material, in concert with a wider lens, a “world” lens perhaps. These grounds of distinction more or less held in the first two books, Eroding Witness (1985) and School of Udhra (1993), though it was getting harder to tell one from the other. The next book, Whatsaid Serif (1998), sidestepped the question, taken up entirely by 20 installments of Song of the Andoumboulou, and the fourth, Splay Anthem (2006), returned to it only to blur their identities, pronouncing them “now understood as two and the same, each the other’s understudy,” each the other’s “twin and contagion,” as I put it in the book’s Preface.

So for a while now I’ve been working with a sense of the two series as both splayed and braided, entwined and intertwined and rubbing off on each other always. When it comes to determining what goes where, it’s largely a notional, intuitive, improvisatory thing, a feel thing. At the macro level, an in-and-out weave has been my way of proceeding since Splay Anthem: an installment of “Mu” followed by an installment of Song followed by an installment of “Mu” and so on, with two installments of “Mu” followed by two installments of Song every now and then.

Very rarely does a fragment tell me which one it belongs to.

I still feel something of a different prompt or a different set of prompts working within one as opposed to working within the other, however slight the difference at times, along the original lines I indicated to some extent but with additional elements and motifs that have come up and accumulated over time. Hard to define though it is, I still feel a difference in atmosphere or climate or vibration working within “Mu” as against working within Song and vice versa. For good measure, though, I think of the difficulty of definition as having to do with there being, like the dark side of the moon, an occluded installment of Song underneath each installment of “Mu” and an occluded installment of “Mu” underneath each installment of Song. That’s the reason for the numbering scheme in which each series, most of the time, appears to progress by twos.

PM: Could you discuss your experience—what you were considering—when you first began laying out sections of your poems with significant blank space above them?

NM: Yes, the under-the-line sections, as I call them. That was quite a while ago, in the 1980s, when I was writing the poems that went into School of Udhra, and it happened pretty early, as my first use of an under-the-line section occurs in the third poem in the book, “Song of the Andoumboulou: 10.” It’s hard to completely retrieve what I was thinking at the time but I do recall being dissatisfied with separating the poem’s two sections with a bullet, which had come to be—and remains—my primary way of demarcating sections within an installment of “Mu” or Song.

The suggestion of a simple linear transition between the two just didn’t work in this case. It didn’t agree with the sense of their relationship that I was feeling, let alone capture it. Inserting a page break before the bullet, as I often do, didn’t solve the problem. The second section seemed of a different order of utterance and inscription compared to the first, on a different level or out of a different dimension or domain, a different register certainly but more, a refractive difference maybe, as if it involved an angled attitude imposed by the different medium or atmosphere it resided in, and my usual means of demarcation didn’t convey that.

So I experimented and played around with a number of ways of marking that difference, trying to mark that difference, a number of different layout approaches, and what finally seemed to answer the call was the one you ask about—setting the section at the bottom of the page under a short horizontal line following a page break, the last line of text resting on the bottom text margin. I liked the look of it. It had a graphic appeal. It had immediate and lasting visual attractiveness and traction—that is, it appeared to be saying something, its look and location were saying something.

It teemed with suggestiveness, as did the ambiguity or the liminality of what exactly it was: Addendum? Aside? Afterthought? Further thought? A more general furtherance? Footnote? Footnote, if that, to the preceding section or to the white space above it? Leftover? Remnant? Alternate ending? Aftershock? Subsidiary to what it follows or its own thing? It could be any of these or any combination of these, as the occasion required, signifying with an immediacy and a fleetness and an untrappability that seem to have been exactly what was needed. So it came to be something I had recourse to again and again, something I make regular use of going on 40 years later.

I’ve long been interested in the visual presentation of poetry, the look of the poem on the page, and this was a development that came out of that interest. As a reader, I often find myself attracted to the look of a poem, arrested while flipping through a book, for example, by this or that poem whose visual display appeals to my eye. Zukofsky says poetry affords pleasures of sight, sound and intellection, following Pound’s phanopoeia, melopoeia and logopoeia, and I include the poem’s look on the page among the pleasures of sight, phanopoeia. So there was that with the below-the-line section, its advent into my repertoire. Active and a part of it as well was an appreciation of that white space, the work it does as a kind of punctuation or as a kind of respite or pacer, especially as my lines have gotten longer and the poems have gotten longer, so that the page has gotten literally, visually denser. The white space on the under-the-line pages breaks that up and lets light in, air in, lets the book breathe. It’s like ventilation as one moves through the book and I like that.

PM: Do you ever end up arranging “parts” of these poems in an order for a collection of, say, 25 or 50 installments, or does their seriality also imply a linear process of making?

NM: For the most part, the latter applies. I tend to arrange the poems in a chronological order; the order of their appearance in the book follows the order of their composition. That’s been the case since Whatsaid Serif, whereas in my first two books, which are more miscellaneous, I was writing both inside and outside the two series and the organization of the books was more scattered. The books’ organization into sections and the organization of the poems in some of the sections by way of thematic flow intervened against a strictly chronological sequencing.

As a reader, I often find myself attracted to the look of a poem, arrested while flipping through a book.

Since Whatsaid Serif the books have been all Song and “Mu” and the arrangement of the installments and the sections within the installments generally follow the order in which they were written. I say “generally” and “for the most part” because there are exceptions every now and then—an installment or a section that seems a better fit in front of the one that was written before it or even in front of the one written before that one, so that’s where it ends up going. I give myself that liberty contra Spicer’s adamance about not looking back in serial composition. Others have done so as well and I suspect Spicer himself may have too. Poems and parts of poems arrive in time but not necessarily on time, not to mention time itself being out of joint, so I sometimes feel that something that just came in maybe should’ve come in earlier. We know that time isn’t necessarily linear and that even if it is it sometimes lags and sometimes it skips ahead, not to mention senses of circularity, hitch, surge, recursion, stagger, pendularity, periodicity and such, which the serial poem, the long song, is especially well suited to let assert themselves.

In my serial epistolary fiction From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, just to end on a side note, the exceptions to sequential arrangement reflecting the chronology of composition occur more often than in the poetry books. The dates on the letters became fictional early on, after only the first few, and there are many instances where a letter was written after the letter that follows it or before the one that precedes it. I wrote the last letter and the enclosed lecture/libretto that concludes Djbot Baghostus’s Run, for example, when the book was only about a half or two-thirds finished.

PM: Your work often comes up in scholarship regarding contemporary surrealism and I wonder what affinity you think your work has with—or if you ever felt engaged with—“movement/Bretonian” surrealism?

NM: I don’t consider myself a surrealist but I have a longstanding respect for surrealism and an interest in it that goes back nearly 60 years. I don’t recall when or under what circumstances I first heard of surrealism but I do remember going to New York in my late teens during my first year in college and seeing a Salvador Dalí exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art. That was in early 1966. I believe it was there, in the Gallery’s gift shop, that I picked up a copy of Anna Balakian’s The Literary Origins of Surrealism: A New Mysticism in French Poetry, which was my introduction to such poets as Breton, Apollinaire, Eluard, Aragon, and Reverdy. Reading it led me to seek out and read their poetry, which I found to be a useful counterpoint to the realist-empiricist-quotidian temper of the US poetry I was reading as I sought out models for my own fledgling work.

I definitely felt an affinity and I saw surrealism as something I could learn from. It was one of the models and resources I engaged with as alternatives to what I’ve come to call preemptive realism, the presumptions of realism and their foreclosure of tonal, formal and content possibilities I was interested in pursuing. I got excited, for example, when Breton’s thick volume What Is Surrealism?: Selected Writings came out in 1978. It was edited and introduced by Franklin Rosemont, a “movement” surrealist based in Chicago whom I was unfamiliar with until then, and it led me to seek out his journal Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion.

I found him and his Chicago surrealist circle especially interesting for the connection they made with folk culture and popular culture and vernacular culture more generally, especially their interest in black music. He published some of Cecil Taylor’s poetry in Arsenal and one of his associates, Paul Garon, wrote a book called Blues and the Poetic Spirit, which I taught in one of my classes back in the day. They were on to connections that Jayne Cortez, while not affiliated with the group, clearly and strongly, in my reading and hearing, exemplified.

By the time I became aware of the Chicago circle I had already gotten into surrealism’s reach beyond France. Lorca’s most surrealist work, Poet in New York, was one of my favorites among his books, and Neruda’s most surrealist, Residence on Earth, was likewise one of my favorites among his. Surrealism’s intersection with Caribbean Negritude in the work of Césaire was very important, of course, especially him and his work seen in the context later documented by Michael Richardson’s anthology Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean.

I took these events to be party to the surge, to what seemed a new kind of urgency or sense of readiness driving my writing.

So, yes, I’ve been attentive to and engaged with surrealism for a long time now and it’s no accident that the work of writers like Will Alexander, George Kalamaras, Andrew Joron, and Brian Lucas, who all identify with surrealism more directly and explicitly than I do, has repeatedly found a place in Hambone, the journal I edit. It’s also no accident, I guess, that my work comes up in scholarly and critical discussions of contemporary surrealism and that some critics and scholars point to elements of surrealism and, in some cases, magical realism in my writing, as I’ve been receptive to and conversing with anti-realist demands both inside and out. Non-naturalistic imagery, porous time frames, porous personhood, balloon suits, tiptoe ghosts and such aren’t even the half of it.

PM: Splay Anthem contained its illuminating preface for new readers, but I think this is the first time you’ve framed your poetry in such an expressly personal and political way in the introduction. Would you be willing to share a little about why it was important for you to do so?

NM: Well, I think it was exactly because I’m not autobiographical or confessional or what could be called a personal poet in any usual sense of the term and because I’m not a political poet in any usual sense of the term that I thought it important to mention the personal and political factors that bore on Double Trio. I felt that such factors affected it in a more insistent way than they had previous work, so I was to some degree foreshadowing and accounting for that in my Author’s Note. There had been this unusual and for me, unprecedented surge in the amount of poetry I wrote over that six-year period and I was trying to account somehow for that as well I guess—for myself as much as for the reader perhaps.

The events I referred to, my health problems and the country’s political about-face, were momentous and traumatic and singular enough to work their way into the poems repeatedly, however obliquely at times. I took these events to be party to the surge, to what seemed a new kind of urgency or sense of readiness driving my writing, a ratcheting-up of my urge to write and my capacity for writing. The machinations of a life-threatening disease or two will definitely get your attention, as will a backlash against a black president feeding a swing to the extreme right, fascism really. You’ll definitely find a heightened apprehension of precarity and an intensified regard for momentariness accruing to extremity on both fronts, the word your witness or respite. That’s, at least, how it’s been for me.

PM: Would you be willing to comment on Nathaniel Mackey, Destination Out in some way? Will you read the essays that are new in this book or let them be? I’m thinking that some of these aren’t collected from elsewhere. I don’t think I’ve come across the essay by Fred Moten elsewhere, for instance.

NM: Actually, all the essays are new. The book is the brainchild of Jeanne Heuving, its editor, who solicited essays from the book’s ten contributors, all of whom had written on my work before, and got the interest of Alan Golding and Lynn Keller, the editors of the Contemporary North American Poetry Series at University of Iowa Press, which published it.

Comment? Well, I’m pleased that they find my work deserving of such a book. There’ve been articles and essays in journals and chapters in books going back a while, but this is the first book devoted entirely to critical writing on my work. I consider it an honor. I’m not someone who dismisses or disdains critical writing, scholarly writing. I’ve appreciated it as a genre in its own right since my late teens and I’ve done plenty of it myself as well. I value it as a genre, so I look forward to reading the essays in the book. I consider myself my writing’s first reader and I’m always interested in what subsequent readers find in it.

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Double Trio

Double Trio is available via New Directions.

Peter Mishler
Peter Mishler
Peter Mishler’s first volume of poetry, Fludde, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, was published by Sarabande Books in 2018.





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