“The Song Sung in a Strange Land”: An In­ter­view with Nathaniel Mackey

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Nathaniel Mackey was born in Mi­ami, Florida, and raised in Cal­i­for­nia. A poet, nov­el­ist, scholar, and edi­tor of the lit­er­ary jour­nal Ham­bone, Mackey earned his BA from Prince­ton Univer­sity in 1969 and his PHD from Stan­ford Univer­sity in 1975. For more than thirty years, Mackey was a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture and cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Cruz, and he is cur­rently the Reynolds Price Pro­fes­sor of Cre­ative Writ­ing at Duke Univer­sity. His most re­cent book of po­etry, Nod House (New Di­rec­tions, 2011), con­tin­ues the on­go­ing se­rial work of “Song of the An­doum­boulou” and “Mu” from his previous col­lec­tions. His next book of po­etry, Blue Fasa (forth­com­ing from New Di­rec­tions), con­tin­ues in this vein through “Song of the An­doum­boulou: 110.” Mackey is cur­rently at work on a new po­etry book, ten­ta­tively ti­tled Tej Bet, and on the fifth vol­ume of his se­rial work of epis­to­lary fic­tion, From a Bro­ken Bot­tle Traces of Per­fume Still Em­anate, ten­ta­tively ti­tled Late Ar­cade. His awards and hon­ors in­clude the Na­tional Book Award in po­etry for Splay An­them in 2006, the Roy Har­vey Pearce/archive for New Po­etry Prize in 2007, a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship in 2010, and the Ruth Lilly Po­etry Prize from the Po­etry Foun­da­tion in 2014. This in­ter­view be­gan as an in­quiry into the twin fig­ures of dis­place­ment and or­phan­hood that re­cur through­out Mackey’s work. The con­tin­ual at­tempts to re­cover place and self are am­pli­fied by the on­go­ing and dual recog­ni­tion of loss and place­less­ness, which cre­ates a dizzy­ing edgi­ness to the work’s prof­fered con­so­la­tions. Part sur­vival­ist’s tale, part dis­course on the im­pos­si­bil­ity of re­turn to home­land, Mackey’s work in­scribes for his read­ers the abil­ity of lan­guage to at once hurt and haunt our cul­tural present. This in­ter­view was con­ducted as an e-mail ex­change that be­gan Fe­bru­ary 18 and con­cluded May 23, 2013.

An­drew Mossin: Read­ing your re­cent work in Nod House, I was struck by the voic­ing of dis­place­ment that runs through­out your po­etry but seems to have reached in this new vol­ume a re­viv­i­fied pitch, a kind of call­ing out that is at the same time a call­ing in. I have in mind lines from “Song

of the An­doum­boulou: 83,” where you write, “Or­phans they saw them­selves to be,” and “A new­born’s cry cried / aban­don­ment.” I won­der if you could re­flect on dis­place­ment and or­phan­ing as in­sis­tent con­cerns across your po­etry.

Nathaniel Mackey: Yes, these fig­ur­ings of or­phan­hood and the fig­ure of the or­phan come out of feel­ings and thoughts and cer­tain senses of things that go back a while. I wrote about them some in the es­say “Sound and Sen­ti­ment, Sound and Sym­bol,” com­pound­ing “or­phan” with “or­phic,” lyric im­pulse with the ex­pe­ri­ence of aban­don­ment, loss, es­trange­ment. Dis­place­ment fig­ures in as well. There’s a reg­gae song by The Melo­di­ans, “Rivers of Baby­lon,” based on Psalm 137, that I re­mem­ber: “How can we sing King Al­pha’s song / In a strange land.” I was think­ing about things like that and the black spir­i­tual “Mother­less Child” (men­tioned in the es­say), and I also had the im­por­tance of lit­eral or­phans like Louis Arm­strong and Ella Fitzger­ald and of in­sti­tu­tions like the Jenk­ins Or­phan­age Band to African-amer­i­can mu­sic in mind, not to men­tion Bach and oth­ers out­side of African-amer­i­can mu­sic. African-amer­i­cans, Ja­maicans, and other New World Africans, of course, can be said to’ve been or­phaned by the slave trade. It’s a fig­ure that ap­plies in mul­ti­ple ways and at var­i­ous lev­els—so­cial, af­fec­tive, cos­mic, psy­chic—and I tried to get at some of that in the es­say, which was a kind of tak­ing stock of cer­tain strains that had been run­ning through my writ­ing and think­ing and through that of a num­ber of writ­ers, mu­si­cians, artists, and oth­ers whose work I’d been pay­ing at­ten­tion to. It was an es­say that, more than any other I’ve writ­ten, drove me and seemed to write it­self, in­sist on it­self and in­sist it­self on, ar­riv­ing and ad­vanc­ing more in the man­ner of a poem than other es­says have. It was a kind of crys­tal­liza­tion, one that I’ve been hark­ing back to in re­cent books, echo­ing the es­say’s ti­tle in those of po­ems like “Sound and Sem­blance” and “Sound and Cere­ment” in Splay An­them and “Sound and Sub­se­quence” and “Sound and Sus­te­nance” in Nod House. I think fig­ures ac­crue to and build on feel­ing, and it’s no doubt the case that or­phan­ing speaks of and from an emo­tional dis­po­si­tion I’m both in­clined to­ward and see ap­ply­ing be­yond my­self. The or­phan is such an ar­che­typal fig­ure, re­cur­rent not only in my work but in world cul­ture, be­cause it tugs at the roots of our sense of be­long­ing and the mix of anx­i­ety and solace that goes with that sense. In the pas­sages you cite and across my work more gen­er­ally, it reaches into Gnos­tic senses of a mis­con­ceived cos­mos, Or­phic no­tions of be­ing aban­doned into birth. As for the re­viv­i­fied pitch you men­tion, that prob­a­bly has to do with the

in­crease in dis­place­ment and the in­creased at­ten­tion to dis­place­ment that typ­ify the his­tor­i­cal pe­riod we’re in. It has to do as well, as I’ve got­ten older, with my ex­pe­ri­ence and in­creased aware­ness of the fact that we’re all even­tual or­phans. Even in the best of cir­cum­stances, we some­day lose our par­ents, as our chil­dren will some­day lose us. So you get lines like, “Sad / el­dren, even­tual mys­tics, or­phans / they’d even­tu­ally be” in “Song of the An­doum­boulou: 71.” There’s maybe more to it, a lot to it, per­haps, and the po­ems them­selves, es­pe­cially as the work goes on, are some­thing of a re­flec­tion on such feel­ings and fig­ures, but these are some of the thoughts that come quickly to mind.

AM: Yes, and it’s that sense of singing in a strange land that your work so of­ten seems dis­posed to­ward. As you write in “Sound and Sen­ti­ment, Sound and Sym­bol”: “Mu­sic is wounded kin­ship’s last re­sort.” You’ve been asked be­fore about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween mu­sic and your work, but I won­der if you could speak to this sense of the mu­sic you call up in your po­etry and fic­tive prose as “kin­ship’s last re­sort.”

NM: Yes, it’s wounded kin­ship’s last re­sort. Per­haps all kin­ship is wounded, in­com­plete, short of its ideal, but the more bla­tant breaches of con­nect­ed­ness and fel­low feel­ing seem es­pe­cially salient. The con­clu­sion of Mis­sis­sippi Masala, a movie about noth­ing if not le­sion, dis­place­ment, and con­flict, with its im­pli­ca­tion that mu­sic can, if only for a time, heal di­vi­sion, is one of nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of what’s long been a com­mon­place no­tion. Al­bert Ayler’s “Mu­sic Is the Heal­ing Force of the Uni­verse” is another. Wounded kin­ship isn’t the only thing the lan­guage of mu­sic and the mu­sic of lan­guage at­tend, but they can and do bring a cer­tain solace to it, mix­ing con­so­la­tion and com­plaint with in­ti­ma­tions of a more fully re­al­ized kin­ship. Ge­orge Lam­ming said of the Bar­ba­dian vil­lagers in his novel In the Cas­tle of My Skin, “The word is their only res­cue.” I think that has wider ap­pli­ca­bil­ity. The word is our res­cue, whether spo­ken, writ­ten, sung, or non­ver­bally in­toned, in part be­cause the lan­guage of mu­sic and the mu­sic of lan­guage ac­cent a tend­ing-to­ward—“point­ing­be­yond-it­self” in Vic­tor Zuck­erkandl’s anal­y­sis of tonal mo­tion, Ezra Pound’s “tone lead­ing of vow­els,” etc.—that might well be the be­gin­ning of kin­ship, or a ther­a­peu­tic or cathar­tic ana­logue to it, at least. This is a sug­ges­tion po­etry of­ten makes, though not al­ways in a cel­e­bra­tory way or at least not with­out be­ing cel­e­bra­tory and cau­tion­ary both, haunted by the “only” in Lam­ming’s state­ment. This is a predica­ment or prob­lem­atic that my own work, whether po­etry or prose, is much caught up in, as you note. The song sung in a strange land asks how can it be

sung in a strange land, lament­ing lost con­nec­tion and reach­ing to­ward would-be con­nec­tion, ten­u­ous con­nec­tion per­haps. There’s a story about Lester Young I’ve cited be­fore in which he calls the keys and pads of his sax­o­phone his peo­ple. His lis­ten­ers re­sponded by want­ing to join those pads and keys, that polity, that place, call­ing him Pres. Trum­peter Earl Cross, in a sim­i­lar vein, said, “I would like to walk around the street look­ing like a trum­pet.” Po­etry’s place as wounded kin­ship’s last re­sort is to be the coun­try and kin the medium it­self of­fers. The mu­sic of lan­guage and the lan­guage of mu­sic en­act an es­trange­ment of their own, an in­oc­u­la­tive tack per­haps, maybe a com­pen­sative tack. I re­call Robert Dun­can say­ing at the Iowa Ol­son con­fer­ence, “We prac­tice dis­place­ment.” The word wants to be its own realm, to en­act and in­habit a land of its own, an al­ter­nate home of its own. This is another sense of Lam­ming’s “only,” as well as mine in “heads crowned / in / sound only in / sound” in “Sound and Sem­blance.” This is an as­pect of the solace it pro­vides, a kind of re­moval, a fugi­tive im­pulse I’ve writ­ten about else­where, a tend­ing-away. “Only” can be read as a limit but also as an added do­main.

AM: Read­ing back into your work, I found this quote from Be­douin Horn­book that stood out for me in the con­text of the con­nec­tion your com­ments sug­gest be­tween pro­vi­sional home­land and per­pet­ual seek­ing. Here you write, lis­ten­ing to and read­ing the liner notes to Pharoah Sanders’s solo of “My Fa­vorite Things” on Coltrane Live at the Vil­lage Van­guard Again!, “It’s as though he drank wa­ter from a rusted cup, the tenor’s voice such an asth­matic am­bush of it­self as to trou­ble ev­ery claim to a ‘com­posed’ ap­proach. To me it bor­ders on prayer, though prayer would here have to be re­vised so as to im­pli­cate hu­mil­ity in some form of dé­tente—an un­easy truce or eleventh-hour treaty—with hubris, part prayer, part witch’s brew.” Can you talk about how you see your work as man­i­fest­ing this con­nec­tion be­tween un­cer­tainty and prayer?

NM: Well, I wasn’t talk­ing about prayer per se in that pas­sage. I was us­ing prayer as a foil, play­ing it against and fold­ing it into a mu­si­cal per­for­mance that doesn’t sound or seem as ob­vi­ously re­lated to prayer as does Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” or “Alabama” or Pharoah’s “Morn­ing Prayer” or “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord” or any of a num­ber of oth­ers. I was try­ing to talk about some­thing I heard in the cir­cum­spec­tion Pharoah starts that solo with, the pro­bity of his sotto voce tack or what wants to be pro­bity, a kind of trep­i­da­tion, it seems. I was try­ing to say some­thing about the fury this gets into, a pitch of com­plaint

that would be hubris­tic in the con­text of prayer, and I was try­ing to talk about what I heard as pro­lix­ity and ob­structed speech con­sort­ing, Pharoah seem­ing to’ve been gath­er­ing him­self all along for that halt­ing, hes­i­tant state­ment of the melody to­ward the end. It was a nu­mi­nous ex­trem­ity I was try­ing to get at. Ru­dolf Otto’s ex­am­i­na­tion of the nu­mi­nous ex­pe­ri­ence in The Idea of the Holy had a strong im­pact on me when I read it in my late teens, and his no­tion of the sense of one’s crea­ture­li­ness as a part of that ex­pe­ri­ence is at work in a later let­ter in Be­douin Horn­book that re­lates to the pas­sage you cite. In that let­ter, N. dreams he’s in North Africa with a group of Su­fis who prac­tice a form of prayer in which they mimic an­i­mals—bray like horses, bark like dogs, meow like cats, and so on—so as to hum­ble them­selves be­fore and ac­knowl­edge their sep­a­ra­tion from Al­lah, the fact that to God, they’re only as an­i­mals are to men. N. goes on to say some­thing about this, to call it an in­oc­u­la­tion of loss, mourn­ing aban­don­ment as though in ad­vance, only to find that a piece of glass has got­ten caught in his throat. He coughs as force­fully as he can to dis­lodge it, mak­ing the yelp of a bark­ing dog. That yelp, tak­ing the place of dis­course, is N.’s sub­mis­sion to a cer­tain an­i­mal abid­ance, to be­ing “an an­gel on all fours,” as Djuna Barnes puts it in Night­wood. I heard and hear a like abid­ance in the gruff, it­er­a­tive in­sis­tence of Pharoah’s solo, a not al­ways joy­ful noise but a de­vo­tional noise none­the­less, an ex­pec­to­rant noise, as though he would cough up sep­a­ra­tion if he could. His and Trane’s re­course to an ex­pec­to­rant or would-be ex­pec­to­rant grum­ble and shriek is an ad­mis­sion of the lim­its of know­ing—ag­nos­tic and ag­o­nis­tic. What this sug­gests is that prayer is an act of union or of seek­ing union that has to guard against pre­sum­ing to have at­tained it. I’ve been in­flu­enced by lis­ten­ing to de­vo­tional mu­sic from Asia—the Bauls of Ben­gal, dervish mu­sic, In­dian bha­jans, Pak­istani qawwali, and so on—and by read­ing de­vo­tional lit­er­a­ture such as that of Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Mira Bai, and Kabir. One finds, in both the mu­sic and the lit­er­a­ture, an al­ways un­set­tled re­la­tion­ship be­tween union and sep­a­ra­tion. I’ve re­cently been read­ing Divine Flashes by Fakhr-al-din Iraqi, a thir­teenth-cen­tury Per­sian poet. It’s filled with pas­sages like this one:

I want Union with Him He wants sep­a­ra­tion for me— so I aban­don my de­sire to His.

Per­haps, as in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween John Donne the cleric and John Donne the poet, po­etry as a prac­tice of dis­place­ment is prayer’s way of stand­ing guard or prayer’s hedge against pre­sump­tion, a way of re­main­ing true to es­trange­ment, keep­ing watch. Per­haps po­etry is prayer’s bad con­science. In my work, when prayer comes in, it’s of­ten qual­i­fied, as in the pas­sage you cite or in “‘John Coltrane Ar­rived with an Egyp­tian Lady,’” a poem whose sub­ti­tle is “be­lated prayer” and whose via neg­a­tiva ac­knowl­edges limit and sep­a­ra­tion:

no sheet of sound en­shroud the Fount of this fevered Brook be­com­ing one with God’s Eye, not a one of these notes

come near to the brunt of the in­audi­ble note I’ve been reach­ing to­wards

I don’t think I’ve writ­ten any other po­ems iden­ti­fied as prayers, even in the at­ten­u­ated form spec­i­fied in this one, though my work does, both po­etry and prose, con­tain ref­er­ences to prayer and even prayer­ful mo­ments. On the whole, how­ever, I’d like my writ­ing to amount to a long, it­er­a­tive, would-be ex­pec­to­rant song of the sort I’ve been sug­gest­ing.

AM: That no­tion of prayer as a “not al­ways joy­ful noise but a de­vo­tional noise none­the­less, an ex­pec­to­rant noise,” sug­gests an in­com­ple­tion that is per­pet­ual, a bod­ily in­ter­rup­tion, a noise from within our­selves that can never find ad­e­quate re­lease. And there’s a recla­ma­tion and a los­ing at the same time go­ing on through­out your work, an ab­sorp­tion in re­turn that is also an un­der­stand­ing of re­turn’s im­pos­si­bil­ity, of “re­main­ing true to es­trange­ment.” Can you talk a bit more about what kind of unity your po­etry may be af­ter, com­ple­tion of what lost piece?

NM: I’m not sure I think about it quite that way. Maybe “union” is a bet­ter word than “unity,” bet­ter stress­ing the act or the in­ci­dence of con­ver­gence, mo­men­tary con­junc­tion or the move­ment to­ward con­junc­tion— in­ter­mit­tent, hit and miss. It sounds, to me at least, less like a per­pet­ual state. In any case, po­etry seems to me to be less about unity than about

drift, the an­i­mate de­bris of some turn­ing un­der, some catas­tro­phe it com­mem­o­rates and whose ef­fects it keeps alive to out­run. In its very body and ways of be­ing it does this: verse, trope, stro­phe. Maybe the unity of turn­ing, the per­sis­tence of turn­ing, is the unity my work is af­ter or at least the unity it wants to make its peace with, as though, as with Iraqi, any other were not our lot. Jay Wright has writ­ten, “I wait for the turn­ing to teach me.” Like­wise, it’s not so much a par­tic­u­lar unity or a par­tic­u­lar kind of unity my work is af­ter as an ap­proach to unity taught by turn­ing. N. writes in the let­ter I re­ferred to in my last re­sponse, “The in­oc­u­la­tion of loss pro­posed an ‘it’ to which one at best had only a dif­fer­en­tial ac­cess.” Turn­ing, to­ward as well as away, is dif­fer­en­tial ac­cess, the “Verge that we wanted verge” in “Song of the An­doum­boulou: 50” sam­pling Lorca’s “Verde que te quiero verde” with his “long­ing with­out ob­ject” not far in the back­ground. I don’t think of my po­etry as be­ing driven by de­sire for a par­tic­u­lar unity or for in­cor­po­ra­tion of a par­tic­u­lar lost piece, ame­lio­ra­tion of one spe­cific loss or lack. While it does ex­press de­sire for var­i­ous kinds of union (ro­man­tic, so­cial, mys­ti­cal, and so on) and does re­fer to the tran­si­tory at­tain­ment of them, the un­der­ly­ing drive is a long­ing that out­lives its os­ten­si­ble ful­fill­ments, reach­ing be­yond its os­ten­si­ble ob­jects. Fig­ures of cir­cling come up in the poem I just men­tioned, as they do else­where in my work, that of the ring shout es­pe­cially (“we cir­cled, an earth­bound or­bit / want­ing / out we went up on, low Satur­nian shout, / rings / we walked”). They sym­bol­ize whole­ness or sought-af­ter whole­ness or the seek­ing of whole­ness per­haps, but it’s a whole­ness that can only be sym­bol­ized, not de­liv­ered. What they de­liver is the per­sis­tence of turn­ing, a will­ing­ness to go on turn­ing.

AM: Much of your work seems drawn to this fig­ure of a “catas­tro­phe” that is and isn’t named, a state of “drift,” as you say. In your pref­ace to Splay An­them, you tell us that “even the gnos­tic in­dict­ment of his­tory as night­mare and delu­sion car­ries a pre­scribed awak­en­ing which, if gno­sis is to be gnos­tic enough, would have to al­low it might it­self be only a dream.” How might you re­late this seem­ing ten­sion be­tween the spir­i­tual and the ma­te­rial realms to the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence your writ­ing “turns un­der” from the “ob­jec­tive or­der­ing of his­tory” that your work also seems to shun?

NM: Yes, there’s ten­sion and there’s also play. Drift is the ten­sion and play be­tween spirit and mat­ter. Spirit wants to be un­bound. It’s the ten­sion be­tween spirit and let­ter as well, the play be­tween spirit and let­ter, the tan­gen­tial way of know­ing that the ex­pres­sion “you get my drift”

gets at, not to men­tion the turns spirit and let­ter take to­ward each other and away from each other. Lan­guage, es­pe­cially po­etic lan­guage, repli­cates or is in­fused with the re­la­tion­ship be­tween spirit and mat­ter, the traf­fic be­tween spirit and let­ter, its ana­logue. These, though, are gen­eral ways of putting some­thing that po­ems bring a more finely grained fo­cus to. “De­gree Four,” in School of Udhra, for ex­am­ple, is a poem whose ti­tle im­plies in­ter­ro­ga­tion and duress, a step be­yond the third de­gree, an in­ter­ro­ga­tion and a test­ing we’re sub­jected to by ex­pe­ri­ence and his­tory. “His­tory” is a term the poem ges­tures to­ward and ges­tures with, sug­gest­ing it to be marked by points of ex­trem­ity and by fact and fig­ure in an un­ruly mix:

Took to be­ing taken past the break­ing point, mut­tered leg­less, “Hard light, be our wit­ness,” won­der­ing why were they no match for drift. Saw that this was what his­tory was, that thing they’d heard of. Fer­ried across Mid­night Creek on a caiman’s back. . . Saw them­selves made to eat un­cooked ric e. . .

At points the poem al­ludes to the Sara­maka of Suri­name, the de­scen­dants of en­slaved Africans who es­caped the plan­ta­tions and suc­cess­fully fought a war of lib­er­a­tion against the Dutch in the eigh­teenth cen­tury. Richard Price’s book about the Sara­maka, First-time: The His­tor­i­cal Vi­sion of an African Amer­i­can Peo­ple, was on my mind at the time. (Re­cently I used a pas­sage from it as an epi­graph to one of the po­ems in Nod House.) The Sara­maka ap­proach to his­tory and the telling of his­tory, es­pe­cially that of the pe­riod in which they fought for free­dom known as First­Time, is one I felt rap­port with. They in­sist on ret­i­cence, in­di­rec­tion, and frag­men­ta­tion, a gapped, wary nar­ra­tion that’s more po­etic ap­pre­hen­sion than the telling of his­tory in its con­ven­tional mode. Nar­ra­tive, straight­for­ward sto­ry­telling ranks low among the forms in which First-

Time knowl­edge is main­tained and trans­mit­ted be­cause of their sense that First-time is dan­ger­ous, a time of dan­ger and a time about which knowl­edge and talk are dan­ger­ous. I bring up “De­gree Four” as a place where sev­eral of the strands you ask about run to­gether, the de­sire to be un­bound and turn­ing things un­der be­ing, per­haps, more pro­nounced than in other po­ems one could point to but by no means ab­sent from them, how­ever more muted. It might work as a mi­cro­cosm of and a meta-com­men­tary on the larger body of work to some ex­tent, the al­lu­sion to First-time dis­course not sim­ply sam­pling the Sara­maka but touch­ing fig­u­ra­tively on ori­gins and in­cep­tion more gen­er­ally and on a cer­tain risk we weather in our re­course to them, an ex­plo­sive de­mand we make on them, and they on us. “Never another time / like the first but / to be free of its / mem­ory” reads al­most like a warn­ing in the neigh­bor­ing poem “Melin,” one ex­am­ple of the way the po­ems bear on one another and them­selves refuse to be bound. As with the ten­sion and play be­tween spirit and let­ter par­al­lel­ing that be­tween spirit and mat­ter, the po­ems in a sig­nal way, I think, par­take of what they report.

AM: Yes, there’s that move­ment, that sen­sual and mys­tic drift, that call­ing the po­ems them­selves in­sist on, part of the “ret­i­cence, in­di­rec­tion, and frag­men­ta­tion” to which you re­fer here. And I hear in these lines echoes of your “Lul­laby in La­gos—‘ mu’ fifty-sev­enth part—” where you write:

Sprawl crowded the eye as we looked out the air­plane win­dows, lay ghost and holy, caught as catch could, etch no ar­chi­tect had seen fit . . .

There seems such long­ing, the dis­pen­sa­tion to­ward lost home­land, all of which in­hab­its a space that is racially marked, but not only, wherein the con­cept of race ap­pears as “lay ghost,” a form of un­know­ing as much as a form of know­ing, of readi­ness and in­cip­i­ence. In what ways do you feel that the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of “race,” the very idea that racial oth­er­ness does ex­ist, has changed in your work over the years?

NM: I don’t think of “lay ghost” as a form or a term in which race or the idea of race ap­pears. The word “lay” in prox­im­ity to its re­verse back-for­ma­tion “un­lay” be­gins to ap­pear with a cer­tain in­sis­tence in Nod

House, first oc­cur­ring in “Song of the An­doum­boulou: 71.” I wanted the wide range of mean­ings that ap­ply to “lay”—from not be­ing of the clergy or of a par­tic­u­lar pro­fes­sion to the way a stretch of land lies or ex­tends, from a line or plan of ac­tion to a sim­ple nar­ra­tive poem or bal­lad, from a qual­ity or char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of rope to the act of coition, from a melody or a song to a lair or a covert—to be ac­tive in and avail­able to a reader’s un­der­stand­ing both of it and of its coun­ter­point with “un­lay,” but race was not among them. In “Lul­laby in La­gos,” “lay ghost” car­ries all of this as well as be­ing a play on the name of the city (“La­gos’d”), which is per­haps where you find the racial read­ing you re­fer to. It’s also a play on Jack Spicer’s play on lo­gos, “low ghost” (“It was / lay not low I thought as we / de­scended”), and it’s nearly ho­mophonous with the Span­ish word for “far,” lejos, a re­la­tion­ship that comes up later in the poem. A fur­ther pars­ing far­ther on, “It wasn’t lay, it wasn’t low, it wasn’t lie,” echoes “‘Lay low lie,’ we lip-sync’d, / salaam’d” in “Song of the An­doum­boulou: 62,” both an­tic­i­pat­ing the “Aylelo­lay lole­lay” of Puerto Ri­can jíbaro mu­sic that comes into “Song of the An­doum­boulou: 85,” a sig­na­ture fea­ture of jíbaro mu­sic that Vic­tor Hernán­dez Cruz has pointed to as an ex­am­ple of the Is­lamic in­flu­ence on Puerto Ri­can cul­ture. I re­hearse this net of con­nec­tions and as­so­ci­a­tions to say that the po­ems are not so much con­cerned with the con­cept of race as with a con­cept of her­itage that’s mul­ti­ply de­ter­mined. I’ve long em­pha­sized cul­ture and so­ci­ety over bi­ol­ogy and ge­net­ics, as in my es­say “Other: From Noun to Verb,” where, whether so­cial or artis­tic, oth­er­ing rather than oth­er­ness is what gets at­ten­tion. I don’t see that there’s been much change on that front or that the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of race or the rat­i­fi­ca­tion of racial oth­er­ness has had much place in my work. I hope I can say this with­out it be­ing con­fused with all the go­ing on about a pos­tra­cial so­ci­ety we’ve seen in re­cent years, which is at best a wish­ful way of claim­ing we’ve achieved a pos­tracist so­ci­ety and at worst a de­vi­ous way of ar­rest­ing progress to­ward it. The so­cial con­struct known as race con­tin­ues to ex­ist, as do its con­se­quences, and to say that my work has not been greatly con­cerned with trac­ing the lin­ea­ments of that con­struct is not to say that it or those con­se­quences have gone away. In “Lul­laby in La­gos,” to look a bit more closely, the “lay ghost” is the ur­ban sprawl men­tioned in the pas­sage you quoted, the lay of the land seen from the air­plane as it de­scends into La­gos, a sprawl from which plan or plan­ning, lay, how­ever much it once ex­isted, has flown, re­placed by a catch-as-catch-can ac­cre­tion no ar­chi­tect or city plan­ner is in charge of. The roof­less build­ings men­tioned ear­lier in the poem, aban­doned af­ter an ini­tial out­lay of money was ex­hausted, em­bez­zled, or rerouted

else­where, are signs of a dis­ar­ray that has not yet been re­cov­ered from, and that’s not about race, how­ever much Europe’s mo­bi­liza­tion of the idea of race put it in mo­tion. The “lay ghost” is a cer­tain leg­i­bil­ity or lo­gos ap­pre­hended in dis­ar­ray, and it goes on from there to be the lag be­tween ex­pec­ta­tion and ac­tu­al­ity, an­tic­i­pa­tion and ar­rival, pre­con­cep­tion and pres­ence, place and the mu­sic made in or about it, “as if” and “the / is of it.” It sug­gests a ghost­ing or a spook­ing of ex­pe­ri­ence or a non­co­in­ci­dence of ex­pe­ri­ence with it­self, a lag or a non­co­in­ci­dence that the “we” of the poem are hard-pressed to see hold­ing sa­cred as well as pro­fane po­ten­tial (“lay ghost and holy”). A poem, as Robert Cree­ley pointed out, is a com­plex of oc­ca­sions, and this one came, in part, out of a short visit to La­gos for a friend’s wed­ding in 2007, which was my first and so far only trip to sub-sa­ha­ran Africa. I be­gan writ­ing it a week or so be­fore I left for Nige­ria, wrote some of it while I was there, and fin­ished it af­ter I re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia, so it has some­what to do with al­ter­nate and over­lap­ping time frames, al­ter­nate and over­lap­ping forms of travel, and men­tal and phys­i­cal frames and forms, not with­out pathos and lament.

AM: You seem to be sug­gest­ing here a re­spon­sive­ness to forms of so­cial oth­er­ing that in­clude but are not lim­ited to the con­struct of race. You also men­tion Jack Spicer and the con­nec­tion to his pun­ning on “lo­gos,” and as Robin Blaser, in his es­say “The Prac­tice of Out­side,” ar­gues about Spicer’s work,

Op­po­si­tions and po­lar­i­ties are ba­sic to in­tel­li­gence and. . . they re­open the en­tire range of the aes­thetic as per­cep­tion re­lat­ing di­rectly to the for­ma­tion of pub­lic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial life. A heavy hand to lay on po­etry, that del­i­cate, pretty thing that has cost some po­ets their lives and san­ity. The pub­lic, the po­lit­i­cal and the so­cial are all forms of thought and ex­pe­ri­ence, and ac­cord­ing to Jack’s ar­gu­ment, these must be­gin again, be­cause we are in­side the death of these forms, the “fix” of them.

Given this po­si­tion­ing of Spicer as a poet, par­tic­u­larly in re­spect to con­structs of man­hood, could you talk about how your work in­vokes this po­etic her­itage?

NM: That is a heavy hand to lay on po­etry, and I’m tempted to say it’s a mean­ing of “lay ghost” that might have been in play with­out me know-

ing it, a Shel­leyan sense of rel­e­vance not yet laid to rest. It’s a heavy hand to lay on any ac­tiv­ity not lit­er­ally and pri­mar­ily in­volved in the pub­lic, the po­lit­i­cal, and the so­cial, but it’s true that many ac­tiv­i­ties that are not im­me­di­ately pub­lic, po­lit­i­cal, or so­cial have im­pact in or im­pli­ca­tions for those realms and that we can in­clude po­etry among them. I re­call read­ing “The Prac­tice of Out­side” with a good deal of ex­cite­ment when it ap­peared in The Col­lected Books of Jack Spicer in 1975. I marked and un­der­lined many pas­sages in it, and, re­turn­ing to my copy and tak­ing a look, I find that the last sen­tence of the pas­sage you quoted is one of them. It’s an es­say that I’ve quoted from in my crit­i­cism, and I should add that the emer­gence of the Repub­lic of Nub in Splay An­them prob­a­bly owes some­thing to the idea of “Im­age-na­tion,” the ti­tle of a poem se­ries that runs through Blaser’s The Holy For­est, the first of which I read around the time I read “The Prac­tice of Out­side,” as well as to Ol­son’s “to write a repub­lic / in gloom.” I’ve also writ­ten on Spicer’s work in my crit­i­cism, not to men­tion cc’ing him in the very first “Dear An­gel of Dust” let­ter I wrote. His and Blaser’s place in the po­etic her­itage I draw on is pretty clearly spec­i­fied, so I won’t be­la­bor it here. I do, though, want to fo­cus on the use of the word “fix” in that pas­sage and sug­gest an an­tin­omy be­tween it and “flux” that I think en­cap­su­lates the ar­gu­ment that’s be­ing made and the sense of a cer­tain type of po­etry’s con­tes­ta­tion of in­hibitive con­structs. A po­etry of flux, which Blaser and Spicer wrote and which I think I write, wants to free lan­guage of its fixes or, if not free it of them, com­pli­cate them, keep them mov­ing, to out­pace, ag­i­tate, or out­ma­neu­ver the ten­dency to­ward fix­ity and sta­sis that a less re­flex­ive use of lan­guage pro­motes. By im­pli­ca­tion or anal­ogy, it wants to do the same for the pub­lic, the po­lit­i­cal, and the so­cial. Blaser says that the way we use lan­guage is the key to our so­cial forms. The re­cur­rence of ideas of un­easi­ness, re­ver­sal, dou­bling, dis­ap­pear­ance, in­com­ple­tion, and such through­out the es­say be­speaks a re­sis­tance to clo­sure that those forms at­tempt to over­come and by which they are them­selves, in­evitably, un­done. A po­etry of flux goes with that re­sis­tance. It un­fixes, or at least it seeks to un­fix. It is a po­etry of com­mo­tion, to use another word Blaser likes; a po­etry of dis­tur­bance, to use one that his and Spicer’s as­so­ci­ate Robert Dun­can liked; a po­etry of con­nivance, to use Édouard Glis­sant’s word from one of the epigraphs to Splay An­them. I bring Glis­sant in to make the point that this po­etry of flux that I feel my­self to be in­volved in has to do with a her­itage that isn’t con­fined to Spicer and Blaser. I don’t know if your ques­tion was meant to deal specif­i­cally with their re­con­sid­er­a­tion of con­struc­tions of man­hood, but I’ll

take it in­stead to the larger theme of per­son­hood posed by Jay Wright, another poet in this her­itage. The line I quoted ear­lier, “I wait for the turn­ing to teach me,” res­onates with Blaser’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Spicer’s prac­tice as “tropic—in the turn,” but be­yond that, I’m re­minded of Wright’s in­volve­ment in what he calls “the search in these Amer­i­cas for a break­ing of the ves­sels, for a re­def­i­ni­tion of per­son­al­ity, . . . the task, to use Wil­son Har­ris’s words, of the re­def­i­ni­tion of the per­son.” My point isn’t only that Wright is a part of this her­itage and that Wil­son Har­ris is a part of it as well, but that a po­etry of flux is a po­etry of changes, a po­etry of change, that re­def­i­ni­tions of per­son­hood are part and par­cel of changes in life pos­si­bil­ity that such a po­etry im­plic­itly seeks and at times ex­plic­itly seeks. It may not al­ways lead or leg­is­late à la Shel­ley, but it’s a point in a larger field of change, a more or less la­tent, more or less man­i­fest ad­vo­cate or agent of change. That’s how I see the po­etic her­itage of which I’m a part bear­ing upon the pub­lic, the po­lit­i­cal, and the so­cial.

AM: Your com­ments here re­call Dun­can’s as­ser­tion in The H.D. Book that “re­al­ity is not only re­ceived but also cre­ated, a creation in which the poet, the lan­guage, the be­ings who have arisen in man’s posses­sive dreams and vi­sion as far as we know them, all par­tic­i­pate as creators of a higher re­al­ity.” I read your work from School of Udhra with this con­text in mind, par­tic­u­larly that book’s jour­ney through mul­ti­ple voic­ings of per­son­hood, the lan­guage of a sin­gu­lar “I” slip­ping among and be­side sep­a­rate in­sep­a­ra­ble voices of he, she, we, and they. How do you see this range of selves show­ing it­self in your work as a whole, as it ex­plores the twinning and union that we dis­cussed ear­lier?

NM: I agree that writ­ing is more a creation or con­ju­ra­tion of per­son­hood than a record­ing of it, that ex­ten­sions of self in­ter­sect ex­tin­guish­ments of self in pred­i­ca­tions whose com­pass goes be­yond the given or the ap­par­ently given. A char­ac­ter in one of Wil­son Har­ris’s nov­els, Black Mars­den, says of the “di­ary of in­fin­ity” he keeps, “My book is not au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. I lose my­self in it.” Such a sense is one I’ve wanted to be in­volved in. What you de­scribe here is a cer­tain way of work­ing with pro­nouns that I be­gan to get into in pur­suit of that in­volve­ment, that de­sire, that sense—the treat­ment of pro­nouns as sub­stan­tive and ab­stract both, the en­jamb­ment, so to speak, be­tween cor­pus­cu­lar and con­cep­tual senses, “they” not only “them” but “them-ness” or “they-ness,” “he” not only “him” but “him-ness” or “he-ness,” and so on. Such con­struc­tions as “They the re­ced­ing we we might’ve / been,” “the we / he, she and I were

haunted by,” “the he she would’ve / oth­er­wise wanted,” “the we we’d be” and “they the would-be we” oc­cur and re­cur in School of Udhra and sub­se­quent books, phras­ing that trou­bles the work of de­mar­ca­tion that pro­nouns typ­i­cally per­form. I’ve been try­ing to sug­gest more por­ous ex­pe­ri­ences of self, to in­ti­mate senses, ap­pre­hen­sions, and as­pi­ra­tions that dis­rupt ideas of sov­er­eign, dis­crete group­ing or iden­tity, ideas of isolate, bound en­tity or be­ing. This has to do with the fact that in many ways we’re got­ten to or got­ten into by an os­ten­si­ble out­side or by os­ten­si­ble oth­ers, and as well with a drive or de­sire to make such union more man­i­fest. A pas­sage in “Song of the An­doum­boulou: 18” in What­said Serif sums up a cer­tain side of this de­sire, a frus­trated utopic side that wants, as Jac­ques Lacar­rière puts it in an epi­graph I use, “to re­move the very cat­e­gories of I, Thou, He, and to be­come We”: . . . Mono­physite lament, one we, Ouadada, that we would in­clude, not re­duce to us. . . He to him, she to her, they to them,

“Ouadada” is “Wadada,” the reg­gae/rasta word for “love,” given a French ren­der­ing to sug­gest the Maghrebi and other fran­co­phone African lo­cales that the po­ems move through in this part of the book. It’s meant to close geo­graphic as well as pronom­i­nal dis­tance, to merge, as “to be­come We” would, such dis­parate venues as Kingston, Algiers, and Ban­di­a­gara. It’s true that it’s in School of Udhra that this sort of as­ser­tion or sug­ges­tion be­gins to have a prom­i­nent place, but there are things that an­tic­i­pate it in my first book, Erod­ing Wit­ness. There’s the shared or adopted “I” of per­sona po­ems like “Ghede Poem,” “Ohnedaruth’s Day Be­gun,” and “The Phan­tom Light of All Our Day,” and there are lines like “All the gath­ered / ache of our / sev­ered selves” in “Gris­gris Dancer,” where the at­ten­dance to sev­er­ance and sev­er­al­ness in the con­text of hoodoo opens a line of re­course to mys­ti­cal, erotic, re­li­gious, and so­cial un­der­stand­ings of mul­ti­plic­ity that in­forms the fea­tures and the the­mat­ics you men­tion. Given your ques­tion, I think of this “gath­ered / ache” in re­la­tion to Jay Wright’s “aching prodi­gal,” a fig­ure and phrase that oc­curs in his first book, The Home­com­ing Singer, and that could be said to epit­o­mize his work, not only the home­com­ing of the book’s ti­tle but tak­ing leave, home-leav­ing, the ache of grow­ing pains. The move­ment

opaque pro­nouns, “per­sons” whether or not we knew who they were...

out from the “I”-cen­tered nar­ra­tives of that first book is the re­def­i­ni­tion of per­son­hood we’ve been dis­cussing, and with it, home gets larger and larger, more and more mul­ti­ple, as does the self and the poem. From in­ter­sub­jec­tive trans­fer and di­a­logue to cross-cul­tural pli­ancy and play, var­i­ous in­sis­tences and fea­tures come into such work. In my case, these in­clude those I’ve al­ready touched on and oth­ers, no­tably an en­sem­b­list ethic or im­pulse that’s most ob­vi­ously at play in the for­ma­tion of the mu­si­cal band in the “Dear An­gel of Dust” let­ters and in the band of trav­el­ers that’s come to be so salient in the po­ems, each of the two bands a cast and an act of cast­ing that sit­u­ate and in­fil­trate per­me­able, im­pinged-upon “I’s.” The range of selves and sev­er­ances this en­tails runs the gamut, hav­ing to do with the var­i­ous ways in which we find our­selves cut into and cut up, the var­i­ous ways in which we deal with and learn to live with it be­ing so—on­to­log­i­cally, so­cially, psy­chi­cally.

AM: Mov­ing from this sense of “selves and sev­er­ances,” I won­der how you see these themes you’ve it­er­ated above re­pro­duced in what seems like an on­go­ing en­gage­ment in and prob­ing of the dis­clo­sures, dis­place­ments, and re­peated sev­er­ances of the sen­su­al­ity and eroti­cism of love. There seems here and through­out your work a wor­ry­ing of this re­la­tion and its dis­place­ment, the way­ward­ness of union be­tween man and woman, men and women, he’s and she’s, of en­forced re-recog­ni­tion of “what would all / again and again / fall away . . . ,” as you put it in “Far Over—‘ mu’ four­teenth part—” from School of Udhra. More re­cently in “Anun­cio’s Fourth Last Love Song—‘ mu’ ninety-fifth part—” from your new chap­book, Anun­cio’s Last Love Song, you write, “Scav­eng­ing love, love took its toll / or the dream of it.” Love’s “toll” here and else­where in your po­etry seems in­sti­ga­tory and por­tend­ing of other bro­ken re­la­tions. Could you speak to how erotic love plays out in re­la­tion to other mo­tifs in your work—its cosmological and mytho­log­i­cal en­gage­ment, its eth­i­cal pull to­ward the kind of re­def­i­ni­tion of per­son­hood you al­lude to above?

NM: Love is one of the things I had in mind when I wrote of be­ing got­ten to or got­ten into, cut into or cut up, in my last re­sponse. It’s a ma­jor thing in­side my work and out, in­side my work and pretty much ev­ery­one else’s, not to men­tion the world out­side our work. That’s not news. In the Theogony, He­siod calls Eros, in Nor­man O. Brown’s trans­la­tion, “the most beau­ti­ful of the im­mor­tal gods, who in ev­ery man and ev­ery god soft­ens the sinews and over­pow­ers the pru­dent pur­pose of the mind,” which Charles Ol­son ren­ders, in lines that have stayed with me, “love . . .

which un­nerves the limbs and by its / heat floods the mind and all gods and men into fur­ther na­ture.” Such “fur­ther na­ture” bears upon re­def­i­ni­tions of per­son­hood. Poet af­ter poet, singer af­ter singer, di­arist af­ter di­arist have tes­ti­fied to a dis­tur­bance of self or an un­set­tling and an aug­ment­ing of self brought on by love, a vex­a­tion of self that min­gles am­pli­tude and de­ple­tion—a more com­plex, con­tra­dic­tory sense of self than so­cial def­i­ni­tions tend to in­stall and to in­sist on. I’m not sure what the eth­i­cal pull of this is, as it seems to com­pli­cate if not un­der­mine the senses of per­sonal con­tain­ment that ethics re­sides in, a con­tain­ment or would-be con­tain­ment that led Ol­son to com­plain of the “sub­sti­tu­tion of so­ci­ety for the cos­mos,” call­ing it “cap­tive and deadly.” I’ve writ­ten about the com­pet­ing claims of cos­mic am­pli­tude and so­cial con­tract or con­trac­tion in my crit­i­cism, the es­say on Wil­son Har­ris’s As­cent to Omai and the es­say on Robert Dun­can’s Viet­nam War po­ems get­ting into what states of in­spi­ra­tion and arousal do to hu­man­ist as­sump­tions of per­son­hood and the mores that go with them. I won’t go into that here, ex­cept to say that such con­cerns come up in my po­etry and fic­tion, in, for ex­am­ple, the “Tilted sky, turned earth. Bent wheel, burnt / we. / Bound I. In­sub­or­di­nate / us” of “Song of the An­doum­boulou: 12” in School of Udhra. Look­ing at this a bit fur­ther, the fig­ure of cut­ting and that of the knife or blade oc­cur­ring ear­lier in the poem touch on as­pects of the cosmological and mytho­log­i­cal en­gage­ment you ask about:

Saw my­self bled, be­lat­edly cut, in­verted blade atop Eshu’s head, saw­tooth cloth of an egun­gun, thun­der whet the edge of a knife. And what love had to do with it stut­tered, bit its tongue. Bided our time, said only wait, we’d see.

The knife is the rit­ual knife of ini­ti­a­tion, “in­sti­ga­tory and por­tend­ing,” as you put it. The pas­sage bears the in­flu­ence of read­ings in an­thro­pol­ogy and ethnog­ra­phy (not with­out a nod to Tina Turner), the great at­ten­tion paid to rites of pas­sage from ado­les­cence to adult­hood in that

lit­er­a­ture, cir­cum­ci­sion rit­u­als and such. Jay Wright is again rel­e­vant, as he too has drawn on such lit­er­a­ture, and there are cer­tain texts we both re­fer to, Vic­tor Turner’s The For­est of Sym­bols on the Ndembu and Mar­cel Gri­aule’s Con­ver­sa­tions with Ogotem­mêli on the Do­gon most no­tably. The blade and the cut oc­cur more of­ten and more ex­plic­itly in his work, the “cut of some other voice,” the “cut into these con­flicts,” the “cut . . . / into this spe­cial kin­ship,” the “cut. . . away from my mother,” and as­ser­tions like “From ev­ery twoness cut from it­self, / the scar gives rise to one” in Di­men­sions of His­tory. In The Dou­ble In­ven­tion of Komo, there’s the an­nounce­ment that “Each word is my knife’s / in­ci­sion,” af­ter which we read of “mother of my cut­ting,” “the knife’s ethic / and on­tol­ogy,” “love’s knife,” “the ex­act­ing knife,” and come to such dec­la­ra­tions as “What is true is the in­ci­sion. / What is true is the de­sire for the in­ci­sion” and “I pro­tect what at­taches me to heaven / by ev­ery in­ci­sion in ev­ery body I cast away.” In an­thro­po­log­i­cal texts and con­texts, the rit­ual knife wields a so­cial man­date, a par­ing of iden­tity in ac­cor­dance with col­lec­tive sanc­tion, telling the ini­ti­ate to leave cer­tain as­pects of iden­tity be­hind and move on to oth­ers, to leave a cer­tain iden­tity be­hind and move on to another. It cor­rals a po­ten­tially dis­rup­tive sex­ual awak­en­ing and au­tho­rizes ap­pro­pri­ate sex­ual iden­tity and be­hav­ior. Turner writes that rit­ual is “a mech­a­nism that pe­ri­od­i­cally con­verts the oblig­a­tory into the de­sir­able,” and it oc­curred to me that po­etry is a rit­ual in which in­ci­sion is the in­scrip­tion of a per­son bent on con­vert­ing that con­ver­sion (con­vert­ing the de­sir­able into the oblig­a­tory or at least ac­cent­ing the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two), a per­son wary of so­cial obli­ga­tion, the knife the nib of that per­son’s pen. Here, the so­cial-func­tion­al­ist cir­cum­ci­sion knife merges with the knife atop the head of Eshu-eleg­bara, the Yoruba-fon or­isha whose supra­mun­dane power it rep­re­sents. Point­ing sky­ward and whet­ted by thun­der, it brings the ce­les­tial into play, a strain of cos­mic­ity into play. The truth of the in­ci­sion is that we’re cut into and cut up in mul­ti­ple ways and on mul­ti­ple fronts. The blade is mul­ti­va­lent, the cut a two-way cut, cos­mic and so­cial, a re­minder and an au­gur of the rend­ings we’re heir to, the vi­cis­si­tudes of love among them.

AM: In a com­ment made by Ol­son about Dun­can in your es­say on Dun­can’s Viet­nam War po­ems, Ol­son says of Dun­can, “He’s put on the robe,” a ref­er­ence to Dun­can’s as­sump­tion of a “pub­lic, more ora­tor­i­cal voice” in the po­etry he was writ­ing dur­ing this pe­riod. With­out re­hears­ing what you’ve al­ready writ­ten in your es­say on Dun­can and else­where, I won­der how you view the “risk of in­fla­tion” you de­scribe in Dun­can’s

work in re­la­tion to your own prac­tices as a poet. How do you bal­ance the risk of “prodi­gal rift” with the con­comi­tant urge to an­nounce and cel­e­brate that rift as an el­e­ment in po­etry’s cosmological cut into the poet—a cut then trans­lated into the poem?

NM: The risk of in­fla­tion comes with the ter­ri­tory. I’m not drawn to as­sum­ing a more pub­lic, ora­tor­i­cal voice, but that’s not the only form the risk of in­fla­tion takes. Charles Ives wrote that mu­sic is “the art of speak­ing ex­trav­a­gantly,” and the same can be said of po­etry, per­haps more point­edly, given that po­ems are con­sti­tuted of words. I’d sug­gest that po­etry runs a risk of ex­trav­a­gance that ac­counts for both the at­trac­tion and the wari­ness we feel to­ward it as read­ers and as writ­ers. We think of it as a cut above other uses of lan­guage, a dis­tinc­tion we em­brace but also feel anx­ious about, wary there might be some­thing spend­thrift about the po­etic, some­thing prodi­gal about it. It seems to me that a good deal of think­ing about po­etry and of calls for change in po­etry has to do, in one way or another, with ex­trav­a­gance. Wordsworth’s pro­mo­tion of the speech of “the com­mon man” is a call for less of it, the Sur­re­al­ist yok­ing of dis­par­i­ties wants more of it, and so on. It’s a tar baby ei­ther way, but es­pe­cially so for those who want less of it or want out of it, the re­place­ment of one form of ex­trav­a­gance with another tend­ing to be the re­sult. Spicer’s state­ment about want­ing the lemon in the poem to be an ac­tual lemon, while it would quell the ex­trav­a­gance of the “prodi­gal rift” be­tween the word and its ref­er­ent, is it­self a riot of ex­trav­a­gance. Like­wise, when Amiri Baraka makes the as­ser­tion that “po­ems are bull­shit” in “Black Art,” knock­ing po­etry off its pedestal both in dic­tion and dec­la­ra­tion, it’s only to make ex­trav­a­gant claims for the ex­cep­tions to that as­ser­tion be­gin­ning with the word “un­less” and fill­ing up the rest of the poem. There’s not much rea­son to think it would be oth­er­wise. Ac­cord­ing to tes­ti­mony rang­ing from an­cient myth to mod­ern physics, we live in an ex­trav­a­gant cos­mos that’s not bri­dled by hu­man­ist ameni­ties, a fact of which we’re even­tu­ally symp­to­matic. This makes the ques­tion of bal­ance a dif­fi­cult one. What­ever bal­ance is achieved is pro­pri­o­cep­tive, felt in the body of the writ­ing or the read­ing, but it’s not fail-safe, and I won’t pre­sume to have cap­tured it or to be able to talk about how. I’d feel a ner­vous­ness do­ing so that’s not un­like the ner­vous­ness in the pas­sage the phrase “prodi­gal rift” oc­curs in:

Prodi­gal rift an aroused we tossed off, I was what was left. Talk made

NM: Well, Baraka’s a com­pli­cated case, of course, more than war­rant­ing the great deal of ma­te­rial that’s been writ­ten on him and the great deal that’s no doubt yet to come. I don’t oc­cupy any­thing like the ag­i­ta­tive po­lit­i­cal space he’s come to be known for, but he was one of my ear­li­est in­flu­ences and var­i­ous as­pects of his work con­tinue to in­form what I do. The ti­tle of the Coltrane poem I quoted from ear­lier is a line from one of the po­ems in his first book, Pref­ace to a Twenty Vol­ume Sui­cide Note. Any­way, by ex­trane­ity I meant be­ing ex­tra­ne­ous, left out of group co­her­ence, “tossed / off” by “an aroused we.” I’m not sure a charge comes with it, much less a re­spon­si­bil­ity. It’s more the space of a cer­tain free­dom, for bet­ter or worse, lat­i­tude that ac­crues to marginal­ity, ner­vously pur­sued though it may be. That lat­i­tude or li­cense comes at the price of ap­par­ent ir­rel­e­vance, ap­par­ent un­re­al­ity, hence the com­pen­sat­ing claims to the con­trary we of­ten en­counter. Baraka’s “po­ems that kill” and Spicer’s “My vo­cab­u­lary did this to me” may well be re­lated, both in­sist­ing that po­etry can mat­ter, that it can do some­thing, that it can ac­tu­ally have an ef­fect in the world. That this ef­fect is lethal in both for­mu­la­tions may not be co­in­ci­den­tal; it may sig­nify the des­per­ate­ness of a need to con­nect, to as­sert con­nec­tion, to close the “prodi­gal rift” that sit­u­ates po­etry in re­la­tion to the larger so­ci­ety. Baraka is right, in a sense, that po­ems are bull­shit. Spicer is right, in a sense, that no­body lis­tens to po­etry. Both state­ments have to do with a per­cep­tion of po­etry rather than po­etry. Some of the po­ets in that gen­er­a­tion, com­ing on the my lips move, fish­like . . . I was the rem­nant I fought the feel­ing I was.. .

I do think about bal­ance, which might only be drift and ex­change at best. Ex­trav­a­gance verges on ex­trane­ity, the feel­ing or state of per­sis­tence out­side some ar­rived-at union, a left­over, maybe hung-over, sense of rift and re­mains. Prodi­gal­ity is a risk po­etry not only runs but runs with, re­sis­tant or not.

AM: Part of what you seem to be ad­dress­ing in your dis­cus­sion here of Baraka is the re­spon­si­bil­ity that not only po­ets bear for this cut into the real, but the re­spon­si­bil­ity that read­ers must bear as well. How do you see that re­spon­si­bil­ity for read­ers of your po­etry and fic­tion? In other words, in all the ways you put be­fore your read­ers real rift, real dis­place­ment, real prodi­gal­ity, what is it—if you can say—that you want your read­ers to do?

heels of Au­den’s “Po­etry makes noth­ing hap­pen,” kind of went crazy, rhetor­i­cally at least, try­ing to prove him wrong. I hope my ref­er­ence to these two po­ets wasn’t mis­lead­ing; the ex­trav­a­gance or in­fla­tion of their claims to “the real” was ex­actly my point. I doubt that I’m in­no­cent of ex­trav­a­gance, but I’m pretty sure mine doesn’t take that par­tic­u­lar form. I don’t pur­sue my work think­ing about the re­spon­si­bil­ity of my read­ers or with par­tic­u­lar things in mind that I would like them to do. Peo­ple who take writ­ing se­ri­ously, as writ­ers or as read­ers, do so for a rea­son, for more than one rea­son, “out of deep need,” as Zukof­sky says, and these needs and rea­sons vary. They vary from per­son to per­son, and they even, over time or with mood or oc­ca­sion, vary for the same per­son. I can talk about res­cue as I did ear­lier, fol­low­ing Lam­ming, as it’s a sense I’ve got­ten and con­tinue to get from writ­ing that mat­ters to me, but I wouldn’t say that read­ers bear the re­spon­si­bil­ity of feel­ing res­cued or be­ing res­cued or that that’s what they ought to do. To pro­nounce, in such a to­tal­iz­ing way, on what read­ers should do with my work doesn’t ap­peal to me or make sense to me. If pressed, I might in­deed say that I wish read­ers would find, if not res­cue or respite (to get another “r” word in), some sort of rally of sen­si­bil­ity and spirit. But that would be a wish, not a com­mand.

AM: I won­der how you might con­nect your work as a teacher of po­etry, then, to what you say here. What is it you want to com­mu­ni­cate to your stu­dents about this “deep need” to ex­plore and move freely into and among po­ems—not in a to­tal­iz­ing way, but with that spirit of as­pi­ra­tion with which you punc­tu­ate your own work as a poet?

NM: What I say above, not just in my last re­sponse but in all of them, is al­ready con­nected to my work as a teacher of po­etry. I couldn’t of­fer a bet­ter ex­am­ple of how I think about, talk about, and teach po­etry than this con­ver­sa­tion we’ve been hav­ing. My roles as writer, reader, critic, and teacher run to­gether. I don’t leave any of them be­hind when I step into the class­room; nor, of course, is teach­ing con­fined to the class­room. But it should be self-ev­i­dent that deep need is some­thing you can only teach in­di­rectly if at all, by ex­am­ple or con­ta­gion. You sim­ply of­fer stu­dents an op­por­tu­nity to find that they have it. At the prac­ti­cal level, I’ve found my­self go­ing back to some­thing else out of Zukof­sky over the years, es­pe­cially with stu­dents who are rel­a­tively in­ex­pe­ri­enced with po­etry or who feel in­tim­i­dated by it, and that’s his state­ment that po­etry af­fords a “range of plea­sure . . . as sight, sound and in­tel­lec­tion,” his plainer ver­sion of Pound’s phanopoeia, melopoeia, and lo­gopoeia. I stress the word

“plea­sure” and stress the word “range” and em­pha­size the sense ap­peal of po­etry, sense not only as mean­ing, im­pli­ca­tion, and sug­ges­tion but as sen­sory ap­pre­hen­sion—how a poem sounds and how it looks on the page, as well as what it re­ports re­gard­ing sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, trans­fers and ex­changes among the senses, trans­la­tion of sense ex­pe­ri­ence into thought and idea and vice versa, and so on. I agree with you about the reader’s free­dom and the work he or she does in read­ing the poem, but I wouldn’t want what I’ve said to be taken as dis­mis­sive of the poet’s role, the poet’s con­cerns, the poet’s in­ten­tions, the poet’s points of ref­er­ence and such. What’s on the poet’s mind or ap­pears to be on the poet’s mind is in­deed some­thing we at­tend to in read­ing the poem. Read­ers want to know what they can about that, dis­cern what they can about that, and part of teach­ing po­etry is dis­cussing that, even if it’s only a dis­cus­sion of the pos­si­bil­ity and the prob­lem­at­ics of such knowl­edge, the lim­its of such knowl­edge, and the lim­ited rel­e­vance of such knowl­edge. That’s also a part of what you do as a teacher; you ac­quaint stu­dents with the par­tic­u­lar poet’s po­et­ics, ideas, con­text, and so on. You don’t, how­ever, do that at the ex­pense of the life of the poem, what Har­ris calls “the in­nate life of the word,” a life that ex­tends be­yond what’s on the poet’s mind, what the poet in­tends. It’s that arena, the life or an­i­macy of the poem it­self, that the work and the free­dom of the reader en­gage. I like to talk about that and to sug­gest that it’s the poet’s deep need for the medium it­self that taps into that life and that an­i­macy, that all artists have such a need for and a pri­mary re­la­tion­ship with the medium or ma­te­rial in which they work. The Ba­hamian pain­ter Amos Ferguson refers to his can­vases not as paint­ings but as paint, sign­ing them “Paint by Amos Ferguson.” Like­wise, one of Roscoe Mitchell’s early al­bums is called Sound, one of Cree­ley’s early books is called Words, and Baraka has a story called “Words.” The medium and ma­te­rial of writ­ing is lan­guage, and just as a good deal of what I do as a writer and as a reader is nec­es­sar­ily a mat­ter of find­ing my way in lan­guage, a good deal of what I do as a teacher is en­cour­ag­ing and help­ing oth­ers to find their way, as read­ers and as writ­ers, in lan­guage. I like to talk about this as the pur­suit of homo faber’s dream, the dream of trans­for­ma­tion, the word’s con­struc­tion of the al­ter­nate home I spoke of ear­lier.

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