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Nathaniel Mackey

(b. 1947)


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(b. 1947), poet, novelist, essayist, music critic, editor, lecturer, and educator.

Florida-born Nathaniel Mackey was raised in California, graduated from Princeton University with high honors, and earned a PhD in English and American literature in 1975. From 1976 to 1979 he was director of Black studies at the University of Southern California and assistant professor in both the English department and the ethnic studies program. He joined the faculty of the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1979, where he is a professor of American literature.

Evidence of the Black diaspora echoes throughout his writings. His poetry, prose, and essays situate African American poetry in diverse poetic and cultural traditions: North American, African, Caribbean, and, to some extent, Latin American. He argues that these poetic traditions reciprocally influence each other. The formal experimentation in his writing disrupts any notion that either African American poetry or poetry produced by either “white” or “non-white” Americans is created in an ahistorical vacuum, a disruption that in turn complicates the definition of the North American poetic tradition. To illustrate this, Mackey, in his critical meditation on American poetry entitled Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993), describes his project as one that situates black writers from the United States and the Caribbean as well as from the so-called Black Mountain school under a common rubric.

He explains that “creative kinship and the lines of affinity it effects are much more complex, jagged, and indissociable than the totalizing pretensions of canon formation tend to acknowledge.” Thus, by bringing their “writing into dialogue and juxtaposition with one another” he demonstrates thatcorrespondences, counterpoint, and relevance to one another exist among authors otherwise separated by ethnic or regional boundaries …. This fact is especially relevant to the current institutionalization of an African-American canon and the frequent assumption that black writers are to be discussed only in relation to other black writers.

correspondences, counterpoint, and relevance to one another exist among authors otherwise separated by ethnic or regional boundaries …. This fact is especially relevant to the current institutionalization of an African-American canon and the frequent assumption that black writers are to be discussed only in relation to other black writers.

Mackey has written scholarly articles on and been influenced by the poetry of Robert Duncan, Edward Brathwaite, Robert Creely, Amiri Baraka, and Ishmael Reed. William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Federico García Lorca, Aimé Césaire, and Pablo Neruda also had an early influence on his work.

Difficult to categorize in academic terms, his writing questions boundaries between prose and poetry, and especially between writing music; his writing particulary speaks out of and back to jazz. He foregrounds the production of both poetry and jazz as an intellectual project.

His books of poetry include: Four for Trane (1978), Septet for the End of Time (1983), Eroding Witness (1985), Outlantish (1992), and School of Udhra (1993). His prose texts include: Bedouin Hornbook (1986), an epistolary novel, and its sequel, Djbot Baghostus's Run (1993), as well as a volume of collected essays, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing (1993). Edited volumes include Hambone, a literary magazine (1974–1992), and Moment's Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (1993).

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Subjects: Literature.


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