Thursday, July 24, 2014

NATHANIEL MACKEY: Outstanding Poet, Critic, Scholar, Editor, Teacher, and Literary Innovator Wins Prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize

(b. 1947)

Nathaniel Mackey wins $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize
By Ron Charles
May 7, 2014
Washington Post
(Photo credit:  Nina Subin. Courtesy of New Directions)

Nathaniel Mackey has won this year’s Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The $100,000 lifetime achievement award — one of the richest literary prizes is the world — is given annually by the Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine.

Mackey, 66, has served as chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and now teaches creative writing at Duke. For decades he has been publishing poetry and prose, including a series of novels under the title “From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate.” His 2006 collection “Splay Anthem” won a National Book Award.

In a statement released Tuesday, Poetry magazine editor Don Share said, “The poetry of Nathaniel Mackey continues an American bardic line that unfolds from Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ to H.D.’s ‘Trilogy’ to Olson’s ‘Maximus’ poems, winds through the whole of Robert Duncan’s work and extends beyond all of these. In his poems, but also in his genre-defying serial novel (which has no beginning or end) and in his multifaceted critical writing, Mackey’s words always go where music goes: a brilliant and major accomplishment.”

Mackey described himself as “shocked” at the news. “I was at a skate park watching my 10-year-old son skateboarding,” he said. “The last thing I expected was to get news of winning a literary award. And then the surprise, a kind of disbelief, gave way to feeling very happy, of course, about the appreciation and the recognition of my work the award represents.”

Leading poets and scholars in America were quick to celebrate Mackey’s recognition.

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey said, “It’s wonderful to see Nathaniel Mackey receive this award. It is evidence of the great diversity in American poetry — and a sure sign that it’s thriving.”

The poet Edward Hirsch, who serves as president of the Guggenheim Foundation, called Mackey “a leading African American experimental writer, who has developed a dramatic improvisational style, a poly-vocal lyricism.” Praising the way he “blurs generic boundaries,” Hirsch said, “I would call him a poet of ongoingness involved in a kind of spiritualist or cosmic pursuit.”

Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, described Mackey as “one of our country’s great lyric experimenters, able to weave a multiplicity of phrases and voices into a song of spiritual reckoning.”

New Directions, a small, august press in New York, has published four of Mackey’s books, including his most recent collection, “Nod House” (2011). A new poetry collection called “Blue Fasa” will be published next May.

Jeffrey Yang, an editor at New Directions, said, “Mackey’s work is like putting a quarter in a jukebox, and the song that emerges is like nothing you’ve ever heard. His poetry feels like it exists in a parallel universe. The influence of the deep history and rhythms of jazz and world music jumps out at you immediately, but then the many other levels of his poems sink in and take you into a very unique poetic space that is in conversation with other cultures and arts. To me, he’s like a revered elder (but is too young to be one!) and carries on the modernist tradition of pushing the boundaries of the art.”

Mackey will officially receive the Ruth Lilly Prize at a ceremony at the Poetry foundation in Chicago on June 9.

(Photo credit Nina Subin. Courtesy of New Directions)


Nathaniel Mackey
Contemporary American poet

Nathaniel Mackey was born in Miami, Florida, in 1947, and grew up, from age four, in California. He is the author of five chapbooks of poetry, Four for Trane (Golemics, 1978), Septet for the End of Time (Boneset, 1983), Outlantish (Chax Press, 1992), Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20 (Moving Parts Press, 1994), and Four for Glenn (Chax Press, 2002); five books of poetry, Eroding Witness (University of Illinois Press, 1985), School of Udhra (City Lights Books, 1993), Whatsaid Serif (City Lights Books, 1998), Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2006), and Nod House (New Directions, 2011); and an ongoing prose work, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, of which four volumes have been published: Bedouin Hornbook (Callaloo Fiction Series, 1986; second edition: Sun & Moon Press, 1997), Djbot Baghostus’s Run (Sun & Moon Press, 1993), Atet A.D. (City Lights Books, 2001), and Bass Cathedral (New Directions, 2008); the first three of these have been published together as From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Volumes 1-3 (New Directions, 2010). He is also the author of two books of criticism, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge University Press, 1993; paper edition: University of Alabama Press, 2000) and Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25, a compact disc recording of poems read with musical accompaniment (Royal Hartigan, percussion; Hafez Modirzadeh, reeds and flutes), was released in 1995 by Spoken Engine Company. He is editor of the literary magazine Hambone and coeditor, with Art Lange, of the anthology Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (Coffee House Press, 1993). His awards and honors include the selection of Eroding Witness for publication in the National Poetry Series, a Whiting Writer’s Award in 1993, election to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets in 2001, the National Book Award for Splay Anthem in 2006, an Artist’s Grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007, the Roy Harvey Pearce/Archive for New Poetry Prize in 2007, the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society in 2008, and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, and teaches at Duke University, where he is the Reynolds Price Professor of English.

More Praise…

“He is the Balanchine of the architecture dance.”

— David Hajdu, The New York Times Book Review on Nathaniel Mackey

“In both Song of the Andoumboulou and 'Mu,' Mackey describes the music he hears––its history, players, sounds. But more often than not he transposes the music he hears into words, channeling the spirit, re-incarnating it into the English language.”
— Travis Nichols, Stop Smiling on Nathaniel Mackey's Nod House

Whatsaid Serif
by Nathaniel Mackey
City Lights Books, 1999

by Kofi Natambu
Ishmael Reed's KONCH magazine
February, 2000

As we know from both ancient and contemporary lore the gift of song is our greatest link to the massive forcefield we call music. Its material agent is sound and its expressive/structural foundation is language--that always powerful and redemptive reminder of the human capacity for the transformation as well as transmutation of existential being. Intimately aligned with language is the medium of poetry which derives its energy and sense of identity from the frontiers of language itself bringing those who read and listen to it heavily encoded messages from the frontlines of consciousness. It is this consciousness that extraordinary poets evoke when they literally and figuratively weave and interweave their markings with that of past encrypted forms and symbols. A consciousness not of origins but of memories and desires tracing and tracking their myriad narratives thru the broken and spiralling corridors of time. These poets provide us with tangible histories of that which cannot be eclipsed but often remains both tantalizingly elusive and mundane. At this intersection of the quotidian and the sublime lies the concrete magic of poetry.

One of our most useful and profound guides to this consciousness that seeks and speaks the language of philosophical possibility as melodic song and rhythmic grace is Nathaniel Mackey, a writer of astonishing clarity and precision who never sacrifices the visceral yet subtle emotion that the struggle for the minute "nuances of truth" always brings. Mackey, a critically acclaimed and much respected literary editor (Hambone) as well as writer of poetry and prose fiction forms, is a veteran professor of literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has for the past two decades been engaged in an epic, painstaking and exhilarating quest for a simultaneously mythic, gnostic and historical understanding of how we, "a rough draft of human being" as Mackey puts it, are inextricably linked to the Andoumboulou, a failed earlier form of human being in Dogon (West African) cosmology. In Mackey's view of this mythology we are in fact the Andoumboulou or rough draft.

Through the textural renderings of this experience as inscribed and encoded in words transformed by short line positionings and rhythmic displacements Mackey works to return language 'back' to the rasps and outpourings of tonality found in Dogon funeral rituals where rebirth, renewal and thus the eternal possibilities of redemption and reconciliation can flower and assert themselves. In Mackey's creative and imaginative ruminations this on-going quest contains the seeds of fulfillment, a quenching of the thirst for existential awareness and social community--but not without recognizing the historically informed, hardwon and bluesbased nature of this struggle. This is where harmony attempts to enter the musical and linguistic universe (omniverse?) for Mackey. Consider this section from 'Song of the Andoumboulou: 20':

I was the what-sayer.
Whatever he said I would
say so what.
Boated whether
we came by train or by
bus, green light
loomed on the horizon.
Where we were might've
been the moon...

survival egged us on, a
bird made of tin
pressing its beak
to the smalls of our
backs. Spectral
This while on our
way to Ouadada,
vowed we'd
let nobody turn us
around, thought we
saw Dadaoua. To the outer
principalities of Onem we were
brought, bought,
on blocks, auctioned

It was a train we were on,
peripatetic tavern we
were in, mind unremittingly
elsewhere, words meaning
than the world they
pointed at, asymptotic
tangent, Atht it was called...
Sophic rail we
stood at listening.
was on the jukebox, "To Be"
Spooked flutes hollowed
us out,
sophic not-ness...South, more
news of slaughter. Something
we saw we hoped we only
imagined we saw. "They
kill us,"
Mbizo yelled...

It is precisely in such stark and spectral circumstances that narratives, narrators and metaphysical wanderings become linked to a much broader and panaromic perception and even understanding(s) of the 'meaning of experience.' What Mackey provides is a linguistic and graphic mapping of the journey across the interior and exterior terrains of history as consciousness. In the spaces between utterance and 'communication' lies one's own rendezvous with destiny-- a destiny that we make as it is shaping and transforming us. Through this portal of reality, language allows us to glimpse how and why passages of time and space are both created and accessed. What the poet does is to speak and write that which remains unspoken and unwritten but is nevertheless alive. In this way gnosis, semiosis, and mythos meet and crossfertilize each other in order that humanity (the Andoumboulou) can make itself heard, seen and known. This is the crossroads that the blues singers and Jazz musicians speak of and express thru the languages of their particular mediums. Mackey's epistemology is steeped in this notion of tradition-as-contemporary function. As a result what comes through in his work are intensely lyrical evocations of this epistemological approach in motion:

Song of the Andoumboulou: 23
--rail band--

Another cut was on
the box as we pulled
in. Fall back though we
did once it ended,
of a Dove" sung so
sweetly we flew...
The Station Hotel came
into view. we were in
Bamako. The same scene
glimpsed again and
again said to be a
As of a life sought
beyond the letter,
preached of among those
who knew nothing but,
at yet
another "Not yet" Cerno
Bokar came aboard, the
elevens and the twelves locked
in jihad at each other's
throats, bracketed light
lately revealed, otherwise

Ultimately these poetic holographs of life culled from markings and inscribed gestures found in the signage of Time are on-going intertextural evidence of our collective existence on the shores of memory and desire. From this centered space the Andoumboulou re-discover that earth which they have been told about many times in the past. It is Mackey's musical rendering of language that allows them (us?) to be both seen and heard. So sayeth the eternal practice of the poet as what-sayer.

Bio Note

Online Works
MACKEY @ PennSound

poetry foundation

Nathaniel Mackey at MLA: Audio and photos from Mackey's December 2002 reading and discussion at the MLA
"Cante Moro" (essay)


Song of the Andoumboulou: 23 from Postmodern Culture, 1995
Phrenological Whitman from Conjunctions, 1997
Song of the Andoumboulou: 48 from Web Del Sol/Facture
Sound and Severance from Callaloo, 2008
Nathaniel Mackey Reading on UCtelevision, 2008
About the Author:
Chris Funkhouser on Nathaniel Mackey's Recent Work, Winter 1994
Peter O'Leary's "Some Ecstatic Elsewhere," EBR, 1995
Paul Naylor's "The 'Mired Sublime' of Nathaniel Mackey's Song of the Andoumboulou," Postmodern Culture, May 1995
An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey conducted by Chris Funkhouser, 1995
Special Issue of Callaolo on Nathaniel Mackey, Spring 2000
J. Edward Mallot's "Sacrifical Limbs, Lams, Iambs, and I Ams: Nathaniel Mackey's Mythology of Loss," Contemporary Literature, 2004
Luke Harley's"Music as prod and precedent: Nathaniel Mackey's niggling at the limits of language," in Jacket 32, 2007
Norman Finkelstein's "Nathaniel Mackey and the Unity of All Rites,"Contemporary Literature, 2008
On Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25 (CD, with Hafez Modirzadeh

EPC page by Katie Price, June 2010

Nathaniel Mackey
b. 1947

Born in Miami and raised in Southern California, poet, novelist, editor, and critic Nathaniel Mackey earned his BA from Princeton University and his PhD from Stanford University.

Mackey cites poets William Carlos Williams and Amiri Baraka, in addition to jazz musicians John Coltrane and Don Cherry, as early influences in his exploration of how language can be infused and informed by music. In a 2006 interview with Bill Forman for MetroActive magazine, Mackey addressed the relationship he seeks between music and his own poetry: “I try to cultivate the music of language, which is not just sounds. It’s also meaning and implication. It’s also nuance. It’s also a kind of angular suggestion.”

Mackey is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Nod House (2011), the National Book Award-winning Splay Anthem (2006), Whatsaid Serif (1998), and Eroding Witness (1985), which was chosen for the National Poetry Series. He has published several book-length installments of his ongoing prose work, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, beginning with Bedouin Hornbook in 1986. David Hajdu described the prose project as “not simply writing about jazz, but writing as jazz” in a 2008 New York Times Book Review piece on the fourth volume in Mackey’s series, Bass Cathedral (2007). Hajdu characterized the movement of language in the volumes as “kinetic and also contemplative, elegiac and mercurial, sometimes volatile.” The first three volumes of Mackey’s series were published together by New Directions in 2010. A recording of Mackey’s work Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25 was released in 1995 by Spoken Engine Company, with musical accompaniment by Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh.

Mackey coedited Moment’s Notice (1993) with Art Lange, and American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (2000) with Robert Hass, John Hollander, Carolyn Kizer, and Marjorie Perloff. Mackey has broadcast jazz and world music as a DJ on local noncommercial radio since the late 1970s, an endeavor he describes as similar to that of bringing together journal issues during his long tenure as the editor of Hambone magazine: “You segue, you juxtapose, you mix,” he noted in the MetroActive interview. Mackey’s critical work includes Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993) and Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (2005). His many honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts; the Roy Harvey Pearce/Archive for New Poetry Prize; and the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society. From 2001 to 2007, he served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.

Mackey taught for many years at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is currently the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University.

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.


As If It Were “This Is Our Music”
Day After Day of the Dead
Eye on the Scarecrow
More poems by Nathaniel Mackey

Nathaniel Mackey
Miami , FL
Chancellor 2001-2007

Poet and novelist Nathaniel Mackey was born in 1947 in Miami, Florida. He received a BA degree from Princeton University and a PhD from Stanford University.

His books of poetry include Nod House (New Directions, 2011); Splay Anthem (2006), which won the 2006 National Book Award in Poetry; Whatsaid Serif (1998); Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20 (1994); School of Udhra (1993); Outlantish (1992); Eroding Witness (1985), which was selected for the National Poetry Series; Septet for the End of Time (1983); and Four for Trane (1978).

He is also the author of an ongoing prose work, From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, of which four volumes have been published: Bass Cathedral (New Directions, 2008), Atet A. D. (2001), Djbot Baghostus’s Run (1993), and Bedouin Hornbook (1986), the first three of which are collected in From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Volumes 1-3 (2010).

The poet Robin Blaser has called Mackey’s work “a brilliant renewal of and experiment with the language of our spiritual condition and a measure of what poetry gives in trust—‘heart’s/meat’ and the rush of language to bear it.”

Also a critic and literary theorist, Mackey is the author of Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993). He is the editor of American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (2000, with Carolyn Kizer, John Hollander, Robert Hass, and Marjorie Perloff) and Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (1993, with Art Lange). He also edits the magazine Hambone. In 1995, Strick: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-25, a compact disc recording of poems read with musical accompaniment, was released.

Nathaniel Mackey has received numerous awards including a Whiting Writer’s Award and a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship. He is the Reynolds Price Professor of English at Duke University and served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007. Mackey currently lives in Durham, North Carolina.


Well now we know. I’d like to thank the judges for honoring my work with this award. To be chosen by such a distinguished group makes it all the more an honor. I’d also like to thank my publisher, New Directions, for publishing the book, in particular my editors, Barbara Epler and Jeffrey Yang for their enthusiastic, indeed rhapsodic response to the manuscript two years ago. Further, I’d like to thank Jeffrey for the extraordinary care he gave the book through every phase of production.

For me, it’s an especially resonant pleasure to be selected for an award of which William Carlos Williams was the first recipient. Williams was my first initiator into modern poetry and he became an abiding influence and presence, beginning with Pictures from Brueghel and Patterson, which I read as a teenager in the 1960s. His insistence that we have to go back to the beginning, find ground, and correlate on a new ground, has long stayed with me.

If I may, I’d like to read a passage from the end of Splay Anthem:

This award allows me to think that the poem’s “we” is more inclusive than I thought. I appreciate that. So again, my thanks to the panel of judges, and the National Book Foundation, and all of you. Thank you.

Nathaniel Mackey
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Born    1947
Miami, Florida
Citizenship    American
Alma mater    Princeton University;
Stanford University
Genres    Poetry

Nathaniel Mackey is an American poet, novelist, anthologist, literary critic and editor. He is Professor of English at Duke University and a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets. Mackey is currently teaching a poetry workshop at Duke University.

He has been editor and publisher of Hambone since 1982 and he won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2006.[1] In 2014, he was awarded a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.[2]


1 Biography
2 Poetry
3 Fiction
4 Criticism and editing
5 Awards
6 Resources
7 External links


Nathaniel Mackey was born in 1947 in Miami, Florida. He obtained his B.A. from Princeton University and his PhD from Stanford University. He taught and lived in Santa Cruz from 1979 to 2010. He is currently a professor at Duke University.


Mackey's books of poetry include Four for Trane (1978); Septet for the End of Time (1983); Eroding Witness (1985), which was selected for the National Poetry Series; Outlandish (1992); School of Udhra (1993); Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20 (1994); Whatsaid Serif (1998); Splay Anthem (2006) and a chapbook Outer Pradesh (2014).

"...Mackey's series of improvisatory jazz-inspired fictions locates a ground between invention and listening that he defines as the source of culture itself. All culture, for Mackey, is a form of listening to what "we" are collectively improvising."
Barrett Watten[3]

Mackey's poetry combines African mythology, African-American musical traditions, and Modernist poetic experiment. His several ongoing serial projects explore the relationship of poetry and historical memory, as well as the ritual power of poetry and song.


Mackey has published four volumes of an ongoing prose project entitled, From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate: Bass Cathedral (2008), Atet A. D. (2001), Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993) and Bedouin Hornbook (1986).

Criticism and editing

Mackey is the author of Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993), an influential book of literary theory, and more recently of Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (2004). He has edited the avant-garde literary journal Hambone for more than 15 years, and co-edited Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose with Art Lange(1993).


2006 National Book Award, Poetry, for Splay Anthem[1]
2007 Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award
2010 Guggenheim Fellowship


^ Jump up to: a b "National Book Awards – 2006". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-04-08.

(With acceptance speech by Mackey, essay by Megan Snyder-Camp from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog, and other materials.)

Jump up ^ Charles, Ron (May 7, 2014). "Nathaniel Mackey wins $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize". The Washington Post. Retrieved 10 May 2014.

Jump up ^ One Year Plan: Post 36: 7/17/07 Watten's piece is called: "Great Books 1–10 + 2: Thumbnail Algorithms"

External links

Mackey's page at The Academy of American Poets
Mackey's EPC author page
Groovedigit's Mackey page
Author Page at Internationales Literatufestival Berlin Mackey was a Guest of the ILB ( Internationales Literatufestival Berlin / Germany ) in 2005
"Add-Verse" a poetry-photo-video project Mackey participated in