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 the National Book Award– winning Splay Anthem (2006) 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, National Book Award winner Bass Cathedral (2007). Hajdu characterized the movement of language in the volumes as “kinetic and also contemplative, elegiac and mercurial, sometimes volatile.”
Mackey co-edited 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). From 2001 to 2007, he served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
Mackey has taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, since 1979.