Nathaniel Mackey 1947-
(Full name Nathaniel Ernest Mackey.) American poet and novelist
The following entry provides information on Mackey's career from 1987 through 2002.
Mackey is best known for poetry and prose that encompasses themes and rhythms from multiple cultures, most notably incorporating the musicality and spontaneity of improvisational American jazz. One of his best known works, “The Song of the Andoumboulou,” is a serial poem that began in his 1985 volume, Eroding Witness, and has been published in subsequent units since then. In his role as long-time editor of the literary journal Hambone, Mackey nurtures innovation and cross-culturality in the creative arts by publishing the work of both young and established writers, visual artists, and musicians, spanning a wide spectrum of ethnic traditions. Mackey further develops the relationship between world music and poetry by sharing his knowledge of African American and Third World musical movements through radio broadcasts, lectures, readings, and workshops.
Mackey was born in Miami, Florida, and raised in California. He developed a love for music as a child, around age eight or nine. His earliest childhood experiences with music and religion came from his family's involvement in a Baptist church, where he noticed that people responded to music in a spiritual setting differently than the way they responded in a more formal concert setting. The “states of trance and possession” he says he observed then were later recalled when he became familiar with the religious practices of Haitian vodun and Cuban Santería. His subsequent perception of the kinship of music, spirituality, and the search for cultural identity became an abiding theme in his poetry and fiction.
Mackey began to develop an interest in improvisational jazz during adolescence. The music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, among others, would become particularly influential in Mackey's approach to writing. As a student at Princeton University, Mackey studied mathematics, but also began to explore contemporary literature and his own writing. Following graduation, Mackey taught public school mathematics for one year and then began to pursue a Ph.D. in English and American literature at Stanford University. He taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Southern California before joining the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1979, where he has taught courses in creative writing, twentieth-century fiction and poetry, African American literature, culture, and music, and Caribbean literature. In 1993, Mackey won the Whiting Writer's Award.
Mackey's first poetry collections were the chapbooks Four for Trane, published in 1978, and Septet for the End of Time, which appeared in 1983. The title of the first volume honored legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, signaling the aesthetics of jazz as a key influence in the poet's work. The second volume drew on a wide spectrum of cultural influences including the Koran and the society of West Africa, introducing themes of cross-culturality that are also characteristic throughout Mackey's poetry.
Eroding Witness was Mackey's first major collection of poetry. It earned a National Poetry Series selection the year it was published. The serial poems “mu” and “Song of the Andoumboulou,” for which Mackey has become well known, each began in this volume, which also includes the poet's earliest chapbook works. The “mu” series continues in Outlantish (1992) and School of Udhra (1993). “Song of the Andoumboulou” continues in the latter, as well as in Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20 (1994) and Whatsaid Serif: Song of the Andoumboulou 16-35 (1998).
Mackey has also published three books of experimental fiction, Bedouin Hornbook (1986), Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), and Atet, A.D. (2001), and a volume of literary criticism, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993).
Mackey's poetry is absent of a consistent voice or textual style. Instead fragmented, fleeting voices, not unlike instruments heard in improvisational jazz, are used experimentally to produce an effect of complex spontaneity and intertextuality. Throughout Mackey's writings the search for cultural foundations and identity is a recurring theme. Mackey scholar Mark Scroggins notes that “such a quest is especially important for an African American poet who writes innovative poetry.”
Influenced by the various aesthetics of jazz, world music, and the works of twentieth-century writers including Henry Dumas, Robert Duncan, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams, Mackey's works are accepted by the poet's contemporaries as a unique contribution to the tradition of American modernist and postmodernist innovative poetry. Mackey's reputation among his peers as a significant contemporary poet in America may be assessed by the publication in 2000 of an issue of the quarterly literary journal Callaloo that was devoted entirely to essays about Mackey and his work. According to Ginger Thornton, managing editor of Callaloo, contributors were “very enthusiastic about the idea, and many even wrote specifically for or about Nate.” She further commented, “You don't usually, in the case of a living poet, have contributors who write specifically in honor of that person.”