Poet, novelist, and critic Nathaniel Mackey is Duke University’s Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing. He joined Duke’s faculty in 2010, moving from California, where he grew up and then, after his studies and his first few faculty positions, spent over 30 years as a professor at UC Santa Cruz.
Mackey’s poetry has gathered considerable acclaim, most recently earning him two prestigious awards—the 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the 2015 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, where he joins a list of twentieth century poetic luminaries including Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, and W.S. Merwin.
He told an interviewer from the Duke Chronicle that he tries “to stress to [his] students that writing is not a sprint, it’s a long-distance run” and that has certainly been true in his case. His ongoing series of epistolary novels, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, now encompasses four volumes: Bedouin Hornbook (1988), Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), Atet A. D. (2001), and Bass Cathedral (2008). It follows the sometimes fantastical career of a fictional avant-garde jazz ensemble and is grounded in Mackey’s intimate knowledge of the music—Mackey a long-time host of jazz radio shows and has collaborated with a number of jazz musicians in live performance and recording.
The Bollinger Prize committee noted similar qualities in his poetry.
Nathaniel Mackey’s decades-long serial work — ‘Songs of the Andoumboulou’ and ‘Mu’ — constitutes one of the most important poetic achievements of our time. ‘Outer Pradesh’ — jazz-inflected, outward-riding, passionately smart, open, and wise — beautifully continues this ongoing project.
The book’s epigraph is Jean Toomer’s assertion of modernist open-endedness and generic not-belonging: ‘There is no end to ‘out.’’ Mackey applies this endlessly outward-going passage to an ecstatic, exilic experience, as a group of travelers — a ‘philosophical posse’ — makes its way across an Indian province. What they and we encounter on this journey is a pre-history embodied by ‘old-time people’ whose songs must be heard. Together we find ourselves within an improvised social continuum that grows larger, stranger, more remote, and more consoling at every turn. Memory becomes a site of social commentary and collective vision. Mackey’s epic of fugitivity forms a stunning meditation on being.
Surprisingly, given his prominence as a poet and novelist, his appointment at Duke was the first time he was hired as a creative writer. He has had a parallel career as a scholar and literary critic, focussing on modern and postmodern literature in the U.S. and the Caribbean. His teaching portfolio at Duke includes both poetry workshops and seminars in topics such as African American experimental writing and the work of William Carlos Williams.
I sat down with him in his office on the third floor of the Allen Building, amongst his books of poetry, literary criticism, and jazz criticism and biography. Our conversation touched on his approach to teaching poetry, the place of poetry in the academy, his undergraduate experience, and more. What follows is an edited transcript.
What did you think of the salon?
As I said the other night during the salon, it's been really nice for me to see that happen here. This is my fifth year, and I think that was the third time it's been held. It's one of the few occasions where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates who are interested in poetry have a chance to get together and talk to one another, hear one another's work. It's a really important event and I hope that it becomes a yearly event, but it really depends on student initiative. If there aren't the students to do it, then it doesn't get done. I don't think it's something that should be done top down.
I was very happy with what I heard, the range of poetry from everybody, and I think the inclusion of the music was a real asset.
Can you tell me about the classes you teach?
I teach a range of courses. I have a PhD in English and American Literature. One of my areas of specialty is modern and contemporary poetry and poetics. I also teach courses in African American Literature, and Caribbean literature. And I teach a beginning poetry workshop and an advanced poetry workshop. This position at Duke is actually the first time I was hired as a creative writer. And when I teach writing workshops I include reading as a part of that. Poets, writers, need to read.
Workshops are undergraduate classes, though, and one of the things undergraduate writers need is an audience. They need to be heard, and they need to hear what people have to say about their work. Primarily, they need to hear from their peers. They're not necessarily taking the class because they want to get my feedback. Although, they can't avoid it [laughs].
In my workshops, I aim to create an environment in which that kind of interaction between students can take place. I have them bring in work on a regular basis, and part of the assignment for the rest of the class is to read that work and come prepared with comments. Usually in a workshop a student will bring in work for discussion four or five or even six times a semester, depending on the size of the class.
After we've had some initial discussion, I invite students to talk about what they had in mind, and we talk about how well the poem delivers that or not. But then sometimes we also have to ask, how important is what you had in mind?
One thing I say to them over and over again—they probably get tired of hearing me say it—is that as the writer, you're the first reader of the poem. Sometimes you have to look at what you've written as though someone else wrote it, because it may be telling you something that you didn't know was there.
The material takes its own direction.
Yeah. I tell them that the aim of the workshop is to make them more conscious writers, to think about what they do, to be aware of what they do, to be aware of what decisions they make, of what the words are doing, what the line breaks are doing, what the sounds are doing. Even what the orthography is doing, what the look of the poem on the page is doing.
At the same time, we can’t forget that the unconscious has an important role to play in the process. Sometimes there are these intuitive cues that pop up, that can lead you to a poem that may not be quite the one you thought you were writing, but it can be a better poem.
Are there types of students you see repeatedly, particular majors or something? I assume you can count on some English majors.
Yeah, there are, of course, the English majors, although a surprisingly large number of the students are not English majors. When I taught at UC Santa Cruz and previous places, the writing workshops were made up mostly of English and Literature majors. But that's not the case here. In a workshop, half or more of the students are not English majors. Some of them are in the sciences or something else, math, or they're pre-med.
Last Spring we had a couple of math/science majors in the class, and they were doing a lot with that as subject matter. And, you know, we had classes where the two of them would start talking with each other about linear equations and all that stuff and, you know, we just had to surrender and let them talk [laughs].
But I find it interesting and exciting to hear students bringing in material from their classes that are not particularly literary, bringing it into their poems. I remember having a fellow who was really into geology a few years ago and you'd get a lot of geology in his poems, which was great, because we learned something about geology. But it also, then, raised the question of how you deal with information in your work, especially information you can't expect the average reader (whatever, that mythical beast looks like) to know. How much work do you have to do for that reader? Different people do it different ways.
On the other hand, some of the students are English or literature majors, they've read a lot of the canonical figures and the not-so-canonical figures. They've been taking workshops since High School and they want to continue to do it as part of their curriculum. And I hear complains from some of those students, the humanities-oriented types, that they haven’t found quite the environment that they expected to make that kind of interest thrive.
Hopefully things like the Salon will improve the situation.
Yes, but I think having more students who declare those interests catch the eye of admissions office would be good, too.
They get a lot of input from all sides, but we’re working on it. I’m hearing regular conversations about that, especially through my involvement with Humanities Writ Large. So stay tuned.
I would think that a fair number of students would come to your workshops through an interest in rap and hip-hop.
Yeah, a lot of the students come via hip-hop and its influence on the slam scene and spoken word. I always feel there's a place for that in my classes. Often students who come out of that background are coming to the workshop because they want to get more of the literary bent, to see in what ways that can influence the spoken word work and in what way the spoken word can influence the literary work.
Usually in a class there's a range of styles and idioms and senses of poetry that are represented by the students. Pretty much in every class, spoken word is represented.
What is your role in the class?
I try to keep an open environment where different stylistic and thematic perspectives can coexist, I'm certainly not trying to get them to write like me, or the particular school of poetry that's been most important to me. My orientation invariably comes up. You have to be yourself. But pedagogically you try to not let that be a heavy weight in the room.
But if they do want more of my feedback, then they're free to do that. And I have students who come in, and we sit down, and go through the poem word by word. That's what poetry is made of, word choices, and we'll talk about why this word isn't really working, why it's not doing what you want it to do, and I'll suggest some things, or I'll say, "I can't think of anything that you might replace that word with, so let's just brainstorm right now. You start."
The advanced workshops are run the same as the beginning ones?
They’re similar. When I came here, the admissions to the classes were handled a bit differently than what I was used to. We still haven't been able to develop much of a sense of progression, although we have instituted some measures to do that, but the prerequisite is consent of the professor, basically.
One of the things that does tend to differentiate the advanced from the beginning is that students in the advanced class are more self-generating. In beginning, students often need assignments and exercises, things to get them going. Especially things to get them going off the beaten track.
That's the basic difference. The kids in advanced tend to have not only done more writing, but done more reading. I tell them all, we're all always beginners in a way when it comes to writing.
On the other hand, there were some who come in and they've been taking workshops in High School and they want to continue to do it, and they see it as something that they want to have as a regular part of their curriculum. [fit some of his criticism in with this?] Some of the students come from very literary English major or literature major type, they've read a lot of the canonical figures and the not so canonical figures. Others come completely outside the literary world.
There is a sense out there that art is somehow compromised once it enters academic. I come across this most often in discussions of jazz. Back in the day, jazz musicians learned their craft on the road and in clubs, at the University of 57th Street. There's a feeling that once jazz education is institutionalized and formalized, something essential is lost.
The nightclub versus the concert hall. The road versus the academy.
Right. The idea that jazz improvisation is taught in the classroom strikes some people as wrong. Is it like that with poetry?
The same kind of arguments go on with writing. The idea that writers are people who learn their art in the school of experience, outside of the Ivory tower, and if you academicize it you're going to suck the life out of it. That certainly has been applied to jazz.
Do you have an answer to that?
My answer is that it’s just another track. I mean, to produce art that has a pulse is always a challenge. If you're out on the road or you're having a hard time of it or whatever, that doesn't make you an artist. Every artist has the challenge of making art out of his or her experiences, his or her environment. Being in an academic environment just presents a different kind of challenge.
Years ago I remember someone talking about my generation of poets being the first generation to go to graduate school. We arrived at that cusp. I certainly experienced some anxieties about it. All of the folks that I was reading, that were kind of models writing for me, they were so anti-academic. Many of them ended up in academia. Those doors opened up and we dealt with it.
So the academy has made more space for creative writing. I don't think that's a bad thing, I don't think it's creating bad writers. The whole idea that it’s something that can be taught may take away some of the glamour, so-called glamour, from it in the public’s imagination.
I just say you can find your muse anywhere. You can find it on skid row, you can find it in the Chapel here at Duke.
The Goff family land in South Carolina
(video stills by John-Sesrie Goff)
This past fall, Jon-Sesrie Goff moved from Philadelphia to Durham to enroll in Duke’s Master of Fine Arts In Experimental and Documentary Arts (MFAEDA) program. In the ten years since he graduated from The New School, his work ranged broadly through both marketing and media production. Most recently, he was a camera operator for two feature documentaries—“Evolution of a Criminal,” a double award winner at the 2014 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and “Out in the Night.” Both will be shown on PBS this year. He also taught filmmaking classes at Villanova and Westchester University.
When he decided to return to school for graduate work, the focus on non-traditional storytelling in Duke’s MFAEDA caught his attention. The fact that computational media was built into the core curriculum—something he didn’t see in a lot of other programs—was a big draw. Another plus was something he did not find in the core curriculum at Duke but did find in other programs—courses like Introduction to Production, which, given his experience, didn’t seem like the best use of his time. The program at Duke allowed him to hit the ground running, so, as he says, “I'm making work now and not in my second year.”
One semester in, he has a major project underway, an exploration of the ways African American families in the North “have maintained relationships to communities and land in the Gullah-Geechee coastal region, from Hampstead, NC to St. Augustine, FL and the rituals and traditions that have been preserved there.” The ties date back to the twentieth century’s Great Migration northward of six million African Americans.
The idea emerged from the course Documenting Personal Narrative, taught by visiting professor Marco Williams. It’s rooted in Goff’s own history. His family owns land in South Carolina that has been passed down since Reconstruction.
“It's just barren land, nothing's on there,” he says, “so I'm using that to see what stake I personally have in South Carolina considering that I was raised in the Northeast.”
Initially, Goff has taken a traditional documentary approach. “I conducted a couple of interviews of family members and did a visual treatment of the land as it exists now. And I spent some time researching old deeds and things like that.”
Those are just the first steps towards a “more experimental or non-traditional way of telling the story.” One possibility he’s considering is to drive down the coast, documenting it at fixed increments. The idea was an outgrowth of Bill Noland's course, The Ongoing Moment.
“That course and David Gatten’s Experiments in the Moving Image are helping me identify experimental treatments of this documentary work,” Goff says.
His subject is much larger than his family’s story. The U.S. is in the midst of a reverse migration. As “the concentrations of black communities shift from North to South for the first time in decades,” Goff writes, “I am interrogating what stake millennials have in this region’s preservation.”
Goff was also attracted to Duke’s MFAEDA because it’s based at a major research university instead of a specialized art school.
“Having a curriculum that's open enough to allow you to take classes in any department or any school on campus is really enriching if you're trying to tell a good solid story,” he says. “To be able to talk to anthropologists or scientists and get their perspective to inform your work is just as useful as talking to cinematographers and editors on how to technically complete it.”
Those resources, it turns out, extend beyond Duke’s campus. Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies coordinates the Lehman Brady Chair, a joint professorship hosted by Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. Marco Williams, this year’s occupant, played a key role in setting Goff’s project in motion. And MFAEDA program director Tom Rankin has helped Goff connect with other documentarians and researchers familiar with the Gullah-Geechee region. One is an American Studies graduate student Rankin is advising at UNC, whose more theoretical perspective complements Goff’s aesthetic, narrative approach.
Goff has found that the program’s broad intellectual resources attract a fascinating collection of students, and they’re doing work that’s “amazing and out of the box.”
“Our interests are widespread and diverse,” he says, “but we’re able to connect through this medium that we all share in common.”
After a performance of Sting's musical The Last Ship in mid-November, a couple of exceptional Duke theater alums and a transformative faculty member talked about their connection to Duke. Aaron Lazar graduated in 1998 with a music degree. The Last Ship was his ninth appearance in a Broadway show. Nathaniel Hill is a 2012 graduate of the Theater Studies program. In his senior year he produced Ragtime—Duke's first Graduation with Distinction project in production. Standing next to them was a man who played a crucial role in both of their college careers—Emanuel "Manny" Azenberg, an eminent Broadway producer who doubled as a professor at Duke for many years.
This is Lazar's story, lightly edited.
I got a scholarship to sing in the opera department that was new. They had just brought Susan Dunn down from the Met to teach and create the opera program, and so I was very grateful for the scholarship. It required me to be a music major, so I was majoring in music and then minoring in pre-med. My parents were going to be very happy because they'd have a nice Jewish doctor in the family, and then two things happened. One, I took Manny [Azenberg's] class. I'd never read a play before, and the first play we read was Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, which was absolutely a joke for me, I seriously didn't understand a word of it. Manny's entire class hinges upon visceral essays in response to the play that you've just read. I couldn't write anything, I didn't understand anything that I read, so I made up some... crap, I'm sure. And I got to meet Tom Stoppard here, on stage, a couple of weeks ago, and tell him that story. He was very gracious. Anyway I took Manny's class. And then a drama professor at Duke, Jeff Storer, and Jody McAuliffe, cast me in Carousel. Carousel was a reintroduction to musical theater for me. I'd done some musicals in high school and said I wouldn't have time to do it in college because I'd have to get good grades and all that. And then, after Carousel, professors started pushing me, saying, you should try it, you should try it. I kept my parents happy after, because the MCATs are good for 3 years. I went to graduate school for theater for 2 years at Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and then I had one year to get a job. I got a job six months in and then never wanted to take the test again and so, here we are.
Nathaniel Hill went from his senior production at Duke into the professional world, where, among other things, he served on the general management team for The Last Ship. This past fall he returned to campus during DEMAN (Duke Entertainment Media and Arts Network) weekend to share his experience with students coming along behind him. As he says in the video, DEMAN is "an amazing program that's been created to help students who don't necessarily want to be doctors and lawyers get their toes wet in the business, get that first internship and start meeting people, which is so important in our business."
It's worth quoting comments Azenberg made about his Duke class when he received the 2012 Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre. Lazar, it turns out, had exactly the experience his professor intended him to have.
For 25 years Azenberg also taught a theatre course at Duke University, where he was famous for handing out in class plays with the covers and title pages ripped off, so that he could elicit an unbiased “visceral response” from the students. “It was a fun course and the kids were challenged,” he says. “If they didn’t understand the play, they would have to just say that, not that they hated it. By the end of the semester, hopefully, they actually had some confidence in their own opinion and also recognized that all the arts are subjective.”
The Perfect Detonator, the Duke University Department of Theater Studies fall MainStage play, finished a successful run this past November. The play, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, was adapted and directed by Duke theater professor Jody McAuliffe.
McAuliffe’s work follows Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as he reads Conrad’s story of an anarchist cell in nineteenth-century London plotting to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, a major symbol of science and industrialization at the time. As the play unfolds, Conrad’s fictional tale intersects with Kaczynski’s real-life bomb plots in the United States. "Like the Unabomber, Conrad saw industrial society as at odds with the human heart,” McAuliffe says.
As McAuliffe told the Duke Chronicle, the genesis of her project was an encounter with the work of filmmaker James Benning, who came to Duke in 2013 as part of the visiting artist lecture series Immersed in Every Sense 2.
“Benning had reconstructed Henry David Thoreau's and Ted Kaczynski's iconic cabins,” McAuliffe said. “He used these structures to reflect on utopian and dystopian versions of social isolation. Benning’s visit reignited my interest in the controversial figure of Kaczynski, particularly in his connection to Thoreau. I developed a plan to read the books that Kaczynski kept in his cabin and I started, fatefully, with Conrad’s 'The Secret Agent,' a most significant book for Kaczynski.”
McAuliffe pursued the natural connections between her production and the work and concerns of the broader academic community. Tim Nichols, an expert on counterterrorism and homeland security and Executive Director of Duke's Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program, was involved in the rehearsal process. After the opening-night performance he led a public discussion of domestic terrorism, joined by fellows from his “National Security Decision-Making” class. Two nights later, Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies Beth Holmgren presented “A Brief Intro to Joseph Conrad, a Man Between Empires.”
McAuliffe, who is Chair of Theater Studies and Professor of the Practice of Theater Studies and Slavic and Eurasian Studies, found collaborators in other arts departments, as well. Her sound designer was composition graduate student Ben Daniels, and the choreography was provided by Clay Taliaferro, an emeritus professor of dance.
In fall of 2014, The Archive, a long-celebrated undergraduate publication at Duke University, presented its third Salon in Von der Heyden Pavilion on Duke's West campus. Salon is a celebration of poetry and music designed to showcase the extraordinary literary talent of both Duke's faculty and student population and to encourage the appreciation and enjoyment of poetry on campus.
The event drew an crowd of over a hundred in spite of the fact that, across campus, the men's basketball team was playing its first game of the season. The program included readings by professors Nathaniel Mackey, David Need and Deborah Pope, graduate students Pete Moore, Jessica Stark and Damien-Adia Marassa, and undergraduates Destiny Hemphill, Tony Lopez Jr., Hannah Moyles and Jason Fotso. They took the stage in three sets, a professor, a graduate student, and one or two undergraduates. Violist Laura Quillen and a string quartet made up of Jonah Yousif, Olivia Lin, Nathan Hsieh and Indy Rajan provided musical interludes between the poetic trios.
Salon was conceived and produced by students. This year's organizer was sophomore Andrew Tan-Delli Cicchi, who came to the project with a philosophy that the written word is meant to be shared.
Parad9se or Parade Yes
Well the angels are near
or when I spot Diz goatee in the crowded clusters of saints marching in
my living room cathedral. So many number at sixes and sevens
R was 9 the way Parker blew em off Basquiat’s brain vinyl.
Troops more numerous only than dreams. nobody knows
no more than dreams. no more dreams than dreams, only
darn-that-dream of dreaming for more dreams die, awaken.
I want to be curator of all of those dreams, licked up by giant webs
into the swinging matrix of this infinity of Cousin Mary dreams and
Naima and ashe callings. Names taking away my other names and
given me to the spirit of all names, plunging me into flesh and material physical
somatic and corporeal, carnal names and spirits.
Sound and vision names calling out my memorized names, forgotten names,
my only other nicknames: only the spirit of all other names calls
when it comes for me to recognize cocooned in
streams of electric rhythm laughter in that number
dreams in the name
I just learned to sing.
A poem by Damien-Adia Marassa, read at the Salon. Marassa is a PhD candidate in the program in English at Duke University who researches and writes about African diaspora letters and literacies in the Americas. He has taught undergraduate courses at Duke on the roots of American writing, literature and contemporary poetics. His critical work can be found in The Johannesburg Salon, Free Verse, and Discourse. His poetry has been included in the anthology Send Loose Change published by Manic Caravan.
“Our vision for the Salon was to create a space to celebrate poetry,” Andrew says, “to both honor and appreciate the work of our poets and also to encourage more to share and engage in this poetry community, as writers and readers.”
Andrew invited students like-minded poets to read their own works: “To us, the potential and power of poetry is not achieved simply by sitting in a room, reading and writing by yourself. It’s sharing your way and eye for beauty with others, with the world. More than anything, poetry is about community.”
“What we believe is that there is a rich culture of poetry out there in the Duke population,” he says, “but rarely is poetry afforded the physical platform it deserves.”
The result was a wonderfully diverse collection of poets taking turns at the same podium, each sharing their distinct voice and vision with a warm, attentive audience. For Duke's lovers of poetry, it was a treat.
Robert Rauschenberg, The Ancient Incident (Kabal American Zephyr), 1981.
Duke students had an unprecedented opportunity to engage with the works of the eclectic and self-proclaimed radical visual artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) during the exhibition Rauschenberg: Collecting & Connecting, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke.
The exhibition, which closed on January 11, 2015, included more than thirty works from Rauschenberg's own collection as well as selected works from San Francisco artist Bruce Conner who, like Rauschenberg, produced works using a variety of mediums. For the exhibition, two of the Nasher’s gallery pavilions were organized into eight sections to display the works; many were on view for the first time.
Professor Kristine Stiles, the France Family Professor of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, who served as guest curator, taught a two-semester seminar in connection with the exhibition. From this immersive experience Duke undergraduates Taylor Zakarin, Lauren Acampora, Emma Hart and Jacqueline Samy expanded their study of the literature on Rauschenberg, and executed original essays resulting in the students graduating with distinction for their involvement with the exhibition. Samy had this to say about her experience:
From the selection of works to be included in the show to the writing of wall texts and explanatory gallery texts, the two-semester seminar was challenging and rewarding. The trip to the Rauschenberg Foundation in New York, where we had the opportunity to meet scholars and personal acquaintances of the artist, provided insight into the artist's working method, inspiration and revolutionary aesthetic conceptions. Intellectually, the seminar stimulated me to make comparisons and connections between the philosophies of artists spanning cultural, temporal and historical differences throughout the 20th century.
Her essay along with the other students' are available in an on-line catalogue which was part of the project. The exhibition and the seminar together provided an opportunity for students to engage more deeply with this elusive visual artist and serve as another example for how the arts connect to the broader student academic community.
Rauschenberg: Collecting & Connecting was made possible by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, New York. At the Nasher Museum, the exhibition was made possible by Trent Carmichael; David L. Paletz Innovative Teaching Funds; Office of Academic Affairs, Trinity College, Duke University; Parker and Otis; and Nancy A. Nasher and David Haemisegger.