Epic World

Ruth Lilly Prize Winner Nathaniel Mackey speaks about his poetry of process.

Nathaniel Mackey, the recipient of the 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, is the author of more than a dozen works of poetry, including the National Book Award–winning Splay Anthem and the ongoing serial poems Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu,” projects that he has been working on for almost 30 years. Poet and critic Joseph Donahue, his colleague at Duke University, recently sat down with Mackey for a wide-ranging conversation, from the nature of epics and the significance of the past tense in Mackey’s work to why writing is like the play on a fishing line. What follows is a condensed, edited version of that conversation.

Congratulations on being named winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for “lifetime accomplishments.” Let me start, however, by noticing what might be called your discrepant engagement with the two key terms of the award. Can we really say “lifetime” in the singular, in that the spirit world of your ongoing twin poems Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu” is a place of multiple overlapping lifetimes? And, can we really say “accomplishments,” given that your poetry valorizes incompletion, failure, deferral, and fugitivity? Given this, are you still willing to accept the award?

Yes. Reluctantly. [Laughter.] One of the daunting things about these lifetime-achievement rubrics, though, is the sense of closure that comes with them. [Laughter.] Kind of ominous. Because I feel like I’m just getting started. I think serial work not only keeps that sense alive but probably intensifies it as one goes along. In some ways I feel more like I’m just beginning now than I did 30 years ago, partly because I have a bigger sense of what’s in motion, what’s moving, what the different strands and strains are. So the sense of capture and conclusion that a prize like this brings with it I can’t help but approach with, not ambivalence, but a complicated sense of what it means.

It’s interesting, this matter of living in a serial poem. Seriality has become for you a poetic form with a direct relationship to mortality and time and to living within time. The terms of your world assemble themselves in the early books. It’s almost only now that many of the pieces are in place.

Yes, it’s a poetry of process and a poetry of finding your way, a poetry of opening a way, but finding that what you found opens out into more stuff than the initial occurrences of it reported. It’s a way of living with what you’ve written, in some way living through what you’ve written, but also having an interaction with lived experience, not only of things outside the text but the text itself, the way they talk to one another, inform each other, tweak each other, goose each other. [Laughter.] That for me becomes a more multifaceted expanse as time goes on. The old expression “in the fullness of time” comes to have a lot of meaning.

Readers just coming to your poetic work will find themselves in the midst of an unfolding adventure. It’s a world of voyages, departures, arrivals, encounters, visits to and from the dead, visits to and from paradise. We’re wandering like we’re in the Odyssey, but we’re never quite sure who we’re with, or where, ultimately, we’re going. So I’m wondering about the sense of home in your epic world. Will we know it when we get there?

I think we know it when we get there. I think we get there variously, and we don’t get there once and for all. I’ve had repeated experiences of and senses of home, and one of the things these poems are registering is multiplicity—that home is not just the manifest geographic place that we’re born to, grow up in, and in many ways want to return to. It’s something else. It’s a sense of arrival, but to have that sense of arrival you have to come from some place. You lose the sense of arrival when you sit still. It’s the getting home that strikes so deeply for me, that sense of having gotten home. But there’s also a sense that home gets up and leaves after you’ve gotten there that propels the agitation and unrest that you talk about in the poems. It’s as if you get there and home gets up and leaves and you have to go chase it. It keeps moving on. That’s the kind of agitation and wandering spirit that runs through the poems.

You also, with the same depth and ferocity of thereness, know it when it’s not there, when it has moved on. Then you have to do some more work, adjust your vantage, tilt your head, do something to get it again. I remember a point in The Maximus Poems where Olson says that “he who walks with his house on / his head is heaven.” The people in the poems are trying to walk with their houses on their heads, trying to make such a heaven home.  

And it seems like that drama is constantly sounded. I guess there is the disappointment and heartbreak of things not being stable, but what seems to triumph is this kind of persistent sense of energy and searching.

That sense of arrival, and with it a sense of accord, permeates the moment. It’s there in such a way you can’t shake it off even when it’s no longer there. Certainly tones of lament come into the poems, but also a devotional assurance that the state of accord can be gotten to again.

I’m wondering about the underlying laws of the Mackey universe. If the world of your poems is epic, is what you have called a world poem, its form is derived from the experiment in serial form associated with the Black Mountain poets, a main practitioner of which was Robert Duncan, a poet you knew personally and have studied deeply. I was wondering how we might distinguish the Duncan world from the Mackey world, especially in relation to time. I have been thinking of storytelling as part of your poetry’s form, homecoming and departure. It seems to me that that this preoccupation with narrative distinguishes your seriality from Duncan’s or Creeley’s even, in the sense that their poems tend to present still moments, whereas in yours things are happening, which is a source of delight.

Yes, the narrative elements or certain narrative gestures are much more prominent and pronounced in my work than in Duncan’s or in Creeley’s, although there is a kind of narrative that goes on in Creeley’s work. Duncan’s work is often speaking in what I call a philosophic present, in that it’s saying this is life, in the various ways is can function. Significantly, and I’m not sure I know exactly why but maybe it’s just a mark of sensibility finally, my work has come to be given in the past tense, which has not always been the case. It wasn’t the case in the early work, but everything is in the past tense now. Someone writing about the work, whose name I can’t remember now, points out that we don’t get the sense that it is the past or about the past, but it’s not in what I call a philosophic present, which I think the lyric poem typically occupies. I think that move, which may just be a lateral move, a move to the side on my part, on first thinking about it, would be one obvious difference. But I do what I do now and I just left it to my development as a writer for whatever differences between me and the people I learned from to emerge. I don’t necessarily consciously pursue them, although there are things you see that you learn from in a reverse way, which might be something that isn’t yours, that’s not in the timbre of your voice, that’s not a part of your toolbox and won’t become a part of my toolbox. But this use of the past tense developed in a way that I couldn’t put my finger on. So maybe it’s closer to epic in that sense, because it does bring with it elements of story, storying, and narrative, as the old epics typically did—tell a story—although I never set out to be an epic poet or to be called a writer of epic.

I kind of like the way epic has come into colloquial use these days: “Oh, it was an epic concert last night” or “Those french fries I had yesterday were epic.” I like it that we can get epic satisfaction from the partial, the particular, the incidental. I like epic as a term of approval and approbation and praise. I’ll sign up for that. But I’m not trying to do what Homer did or what Virgil did or what the teller of the Sundiata epic did necessarily.

I understand that when you think of the post-Poundian epic, you are always telling this large-scale narrative, the ghost of the African American diaspora, of life in America. It is kind of telling the story of exodus.

The story of the tribe.

Exactly. And I’m very interested in that sense of time, because Duncan is interested in the infinite and the present. Your past, it’s not just the past tense, it’s also the past subjunctive. It’s a multiple past tense that you are always exploring. “Had we done this, this would have happened.” It’s about putting something in the past but also making it unstable or opening an angle, so that it’s not closed off.

Well, that has to do with tradition being broken, history being broken, not having the amenities of the belief that a story can be told, that it is a coherence that we have access to. There’s certainly a strong sense of diasporic dispersal coming through, but the diaspora is in many ways the breaking of the vessels of epic, at least epic in that traditional sense. I’m not trying to act like the diaspora and all that it means didn’t happen. I can’t, for example, try to write the story of my hometown, Santa Ana. Williams couldn’t do it with Paterson. We live in an exploded world, where the local exists as detritus and debris. We can put it into conversation with a presumed, impossible whole that it came out of or that it might be assembled into, but always with a provisional, subjunctive sense in my practice of it. The could and the would and the possible are active, and they’re a part of epic sensibility now. It’s not simply a straightforward rendering of a determinate story, a determinate history, a determinate, coherent tradition. With it comes a sense of detour and disruption, an alternative. What might have been is a phrase that comes up a lot in the course of these poems. [Laughter.] It’s a kind of subjunctive future that gets sensed.

Actually, I don’t quarrel with the term “epic,” I feel more comfortable with the term than I did 20, 30 years ago. When people started throwing it around back then, I just thought, you know, what’s that expression? “Don’t let your mouth write a check that your ass can’t cash.” I didn’t want to do that. Epic, at that point, sounded like that check. Insufficient funds. [Laughter.] But then epic aspiration or even a nostalgia for epic possibility becomes a part of the epic.

When you think about those woulds and coulds, there are those ancient epics that purport to tell the tale of the tribe. But, thinking about Dante and Blake and even Pound, there is also a kind of epic that explores the meaning of a vision. I’m thinking that’s what keeps the past subjunctive and the pastness from collapsing into despair. You gestured toward utopia, and that tradition in a lot of ways represents a positive moment. I wonder if within the arrival and departure there might be a sense of a trial or of being tested or of proceeding, however obliquely and laterally, forward.

That’s one of the things I took up with the figure of the Andoumboulou, the failed version of human being in Dogon cosmology. To take that up and to say, as I have, that the Andoumboulou are us is to say that we’re in a stage of trial and testing, where we are still drafting and redrafting ourselves, trying to get into that utopian possibility, that space. That place and that fulfillment would be human being in its most ideal visualization. That’s one of the things that propel the work and the various sensibilities that carry through it, and we’re kind of in the same place as when we were talking about home, the sense of accord that both haunts the work and stands in advance of it, beckoning.

The language of exegesis is crucial to your poems. Part of the hopefulness that continually surfaces in your poetry requires that someone can wrest meaning out of the phrase, that suddenly a whole new thing opens up. The exegete is a kind of salvific figure who is constantly showing that meaning is continually revealing itself or opening itself to possibilities.

And continually questioning where meaning resides and what possible other sites of meaning there might be. There is the spiritual exegesis running through but also a kind of interrogation of spiritual exegesis that wants to know, well, can this manifest at the material level. Do we resign ourselves to a division between spirit and matter, or is spirit some potential or some future that matter has on its itinerary? That’s probably what’s going on as well. Some of the recent installments of these serial poems are trying to figure that. I mean, what happens if Sophia runs for president—who is her running mate? [Laughter.]

The sense of style and cadence in your poems seems deeply unified and woven together, and so it always startles me when I think, these are people talking all the time. They are making jokes. They are needling each other. There is this sense that they know each other well. And that there is this playfulness, but that, also, there is this discursiveness going back and forth. I look back and I don’t know if this is so true of the early work. What can you say about that sense of people talking?

For whatever reason, the philosophic present, as evoked in a poem by the lyric “I,” is something, at least in its most overt form, that I drifted away from. That’s one thing that’s happened. To get the back and forth into it gives a dialogic dimension to the work. It’s something that felt right. I think it’s also the influence of my prose, my fiction. You have a band and they have discussions both on and off the bandstand, both with and without instruments, and there are agreements, arguments, debates. I think I got to that and recognized my need for that sooner in fiction than I did in verse. It was probably one of the reasons I took off into fiction in the first place. Eroding Witness is where the first “Dear Angel of Dust” letters occur, and there’s something about them occurring in the Song of the Andoumboulou series that’s saying I need this other dimension or space to work in, a more dialogical space, a more polyphonic space. That has more and more been the case as I’ve gone on. I think it’s with Whatsaid Serif and the whole business of the what-sayer—you have a narrative and a figure who both talks back to the narrative and elicits information from the narrator that might not have come out had it not been for the intervention of the what-sayer—that a kind of interruptive and explosive back-and-forth dimension of language comes in, where it’s not just a static pronouncement but you’ve got the play of pronouncement, and the play of pronouncement is foregrounded and featured in a way that it otherwise wouldn’t be. That, at a certain point, made a lot of sense to me at an immediate, intuitive level, feeling my way through form, feeling my way through what’s possible. It’s there, and I’m glad you noticed it. It also happens that the cast of characters grows. To say certain things, somebody else has to show up or someone who’s already there has to change his or her name to say it.

When I read this work, I’m thinking this is just such lively talk. This is a social space that feels good to be in even if there are snarky remarks here and there. You know, Yeats has that line that poetry is the argument the poet has with himself and rhetoric is the argument he has with the outer world. I’m curious about what the argument with yourself might be in these characters.

Well, I think they argue over where they are. Where are we and where are we going and, with that of course, where have we been? Just the qualitative exteriors of experience and to what degree they accurately report what’s going on is what I think the conversation is typically about. To get around inside that, you have to have multiple speakers, multiple perspectives. That’s often what they’re talking about. Those terms come into play, but they are also pressed to come into new terms, to try to give a new qualitative dress to something that simply can’t be restated. It can’t be restated, so it has to be neologized. There’s a lot of that going on. And the testing that goes with that neologizing is the intellectual and linguistic journey that these travelers are on. Ed Dorn used the phrase “road-testing the language” in an interview years ago, and it stayed with me. I’ve taught Dorn over the years, and Gunslinger is one of the texts of his I’ve taught. I get great pleasure from that work and, like you, I imagine it was a great pleasure for him to write it. There’s the pleasure of that, the pleasure of that back-and-forth. It’s like the play in a fishing line. The varying degrees of looseness and tension are a delight. I think one of the ways to keep writing going, alive and fun, is to try to get that going and to keep it going if I can.

I am always struck by how witty it is. It is not the thing that becomes immediately apparent when you are watching all the action in these characters, but they are very wry, clever folk and they are flirtatious and argumentative.

Men and women of parts. [Laughter.]

While it is not typical of you to volunteer such thoughts, I have been wondering about your recent personal encounters with the one we might identify as the Angel of Dust, the Mackeyean figure for Lorca’s duende. I have noticed an intensification of concerns in your work with grief, paralysis, and abandonment, with images of the human form as scarecrows and stick figures. You are resolute in exploring what might be called negative states of being. I know better than to ask you for wisdom, as you are against wisdom as such, but do you have anything hopeful to report?

Let the record show that the interviewee broke out into uncontrollable laughter. And asked, “Next question?” [Laughter.]

I don’t know if I have anything hopeful to report, but I do see the fact of hanging in there, in what I do report, as a sign of some kind of hope or hopefulness. But also a sign that I get solace, deep solace, from those reports. It is dark matter. And the hope is dark matter as well. And I can’t quite translate it into light matter, but there’s a tonal field that I’m lucky enough to access on occasion, and it does seem to be filled with the sort of thing I’ve been talking about: accord, home, that sort of thing. I think there’s hopefulness in that. To look the dark in the eye. It’s not like there’s much option.

When the world keeps serving up more dark matter to look at, you look at it. You see, well, can you sing it, can you dance it, can you get it to sing, can you get it to dance? What’s that line of Oppen’s? “I don’t mean that he despairs, I mean if he does not / He sees in the manner of poetry.” That has been a kind of touchstone for me, to be able to look into these things and not despair. I was introduced to despair and hope as antinomies, so I guess to answer your question in a kind of angular way is to say I look without despair and I guess, by definition, that would mean I look with hope.

Originally Published: May 6th, 2014

Joseph Donahue's poetry collections include Wind Maps I-VII (forthcoming 2019) and Red Flash on a Black Field (Black Square Editions, 2015), as well as Musica Callada (forthcoming 2019), Dark Church (Verge Books, 2015), Dissolves (Talisman House, 2012), and Terra Lucida (Talisman House, 2009), which are sections of the ongoing poem Terra Lucida.  He teaches in the English Department at Duke University.