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Nathaniel Mackey, Poet and Teacher

Published By Robert Zimmerman / published on: March 8, 2015

Acclaimed poet Nathaniel Mackey's writing workshops are open to any undergraduate who's keen to put thought into verse.

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 the University of California, 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 joined 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—he is 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 is the first time he has been 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 reflects that background—in addition to his poetry workshops it includes seminars in topics such as African American experimental writing and the work of William Carlos Williams.

I sat down to talk with him a few weeks after he had read at Salon, a very successful evening of poetry sponsored by Duke’s literary magazine, The Archive, so that was the first topic of conversation. We also discussed his approach to teaching poetry and the place of poetry in the academy, among other things. What follows is an edited transcript.

-Robert Zimmerman

It was great to hear you at the poetry salon a few weeks ago. How did you feel about the event?

As I said that night, 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. 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.

It’s a really important event and I hope that it becomes a yearly event, something that we expect and look forward to. But it really depends on student initiative. I don’t think it should be done top down.

I’d like to hear about the courses you teach. Are they mostly poetry and creative writing?

I teach a range of courses. I have a PhD in English and American Literature, so I was trained as a literary critic/scholar. For all the years I’ve been teaching, this is actually the first time I was hired as a creative writer.

One of my areas of specialty is modern and contemporary poetry and poetics. I also teach courses in African American and Caribbean literature. I’m a modernist, a contemporarianist. Some would say a post-modernist. I teach a lot of literature that comes out of that zone.

Including in your writing classes?

When I teach writing workshops I include reading as a part of that. Poets, writers, need to read. But the workshops are undergraduate classes, 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].

But 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 it 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 the student whose work we’re discussing to talk about what he or she had in mind, and we talk about whether 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 can take its own direction.

Yeah. I tell them that the aim of the workshop is to make them more conscious writers, for them 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.

Who are the students that take these workshops? I guess you can count on some English majors. Are there other majors that show up a lot?

Yeah, 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.

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 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, 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 complaints 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 the admissions office would be good, too.

I’m sure those folks get a lot of input from all sides! But for what it’s worth, I do hear a lot of conversations about building a culture of arts and humanities on campus, both in Scott Lindroth’s office [(the Vice Provost for the Arts)] and through my work with Humanities Writ Large.

I would think that a fair number of students must come to your workshops because of their 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 ways 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.

So how do you navigate between all their different interests and yours?

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. 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.

For students who want a closer one-on-one relationship with regard to a particular poem, or just throughout the semester, I have office hours. And I have students who come in, and we sit down, and go through their 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.”

There’s a sense out there that it’s bad when art settles into the university. This comes up a lot with jazz. There’s this idea that jazz musicians are supposed to learn their craft hanging out in nightclubs, that something important gets lost if it’s taught in a classroom.

If you academicize it you’re going to suck the life out of it. The same kind of argument goes on with writing.

Do you have an answer to that?

My answer is that it’s just another track. 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—to produce art that has a pulse is always a challenge. 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. So many of the poets and writers that I read and got inspired by were anti-academic. Many of them ended up in academia. Those doors opened up and we dealt with it.

But I keep reading that poetry is dead, just like jazz. Is there any truth to that or is it just endless noise?

It’s endless noise. That’s the motivation. Poetry is always going to be around because it’s just so close to what we are as a species—Homo sapiens, the language makers and the language users. Going back to our cave times, poetry has been a kind of levitator. I don’t see it going away. It gets reborn in new forms like spoken word, among young folks, and it takes on new life that way.