Words that bleed music
Postbop jazz in the poetry of Amiri Baraka and Nathaniel Mackey
In his preface to Blue Fasa (2015), Nathaniel Mackey reflects on what is arguably the key preoccupation in his oeuvre: the relationship between music and language. Mackey’s comments emerge out of a sense of disquiet with the way the two modes of communication are often presumed remote from the other by today’s artists and scholars. Identifying an “ongoing split between poetry and musicality perhaps,” Mackey suggests the lyric has become “widely equated with phanopoetic snapshot, bare-bones narrative, terse epiphany and the like much more than with music.” However, the root of lyric, as Mackey reminds his readership, is lyre, the stringed instrument used by ancient Greeks to accompany songs and recitations. Mackey has been “unable to forget” this etymology, he tells us, though “at times” he has wondered if it were “something I’d made up or been misinformed about” (BF xi).
This question of whether music has been wrongly eviscerated from contemporary understandings of the lyric is taken up by Brent Hayes Edwards in Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (2017). Edwards focuses on the way that African American artists such as Duke Ellington and Ralph Ellison often used the term lyric or lyrical when describing their compositions. He notes that for these artists, lyric and lyrical were useful terms, but only if the musical component signified by the word was retained. On the “most fundamental level,” Edwards writes, lyric is a literary term “that signals a certain musicality or suggests a mode of writing informed by, imbued with, or redolent of the ephemerality and affective force of musical performance.” Given this, Edwards proposes that this denial of the “musical” in discourse about the lyric might indicate entrenched attitudes that still mar American poetics:
While some of the commentators engaged in contemporary debates around the viability of lyric as a term of literary criticism have suggested usefully that we should consider a much broader range of musical performance in evaluating the “musicality” of literature, it is remarkable how seldom African diasporic literature is taken up in discussions of the “new lyric studies.” If the question of music is indeed central to defining the lyric, one might have expected on the contrary that black literature would be indispensable in the discussion, given the degree to which it emerges out of a complex engagement with vernacular expression in general and music in particular.
Mackey demurs from elaborating on this matter in his Blue Fasa preface; as it stands, his point vibrates with an implicative resonance that is deeply political in its own way. But Mackey does go on to mention another writer, Amiri Baraka, who was well known for his bravery in calling out racist tendencies in the arts and American society at large. Like Mackey, Baraka wrote consciously “lyric” poetry, going against the grain of prevailing thinking about the lyric, especially later in his career when constructivist poetics was in the ascendancy. And like Mackey, Baraka saw music and language as deeply intertwined, similarly aiming to “pluck, bow, strum, scrape, scratch” (BF xii) at the edges of linguistic signification in a way analogous to what the postbop instrumentalists were achieving with musical tones. An expert liner note writer, Baraka relished the challenge of putting his shoulder to a genre of writing that has tended to be considered “ancillary” material by scholars, as Edwards puts it, reduced to “subordinate afterthoughts, stray jottings that are inherently of secondary importance in relation to the music.” But Mackey never saw liner notes this way. To him, they were not merely must-read accompaniment to recordings, but stimuli for literary innovation. In his Blue Fasa preface, Mackey singles out one snippet of Baraka liner notes that have especially inspired him throughout his career as a writer:
The long song, the long poem, particularly the serial poem, the extended lyric, is one in which carol and qualm, carol and qualification, carol and caveat run as one. This is what Amiri Baraka heard in John Coltrane’s “I Want to Talk about You” on the Coltrane Live at Birdland album: “instead of the simplistic though touching note-for-note replay of the ballad’s line, on this performance each note is tested, given a slight tremolo or emotional vibrato (note to chord to scale reference), which makes it seem as if each one of the notes is given the possibility of ‘infinite’ qualification.” (BF xii)
As one can see from the above, Baraka was incredibly alert to the literary possibilities presented by postbop jazz. Coltrane’s “I Want to Talk about You” was not merely engaging for him as a musical text, but was heard as issuing forth an aesthetic of ‘“infinite’ qualification” that Baraka could then rework on the page using poetic language. Whereas James Baldwin, half a step before, saw music and language as fundamentally discrete, Baraka resisted what Edwards calls this “theory of musical immanence.” For Baraka, music, especially African American experimental jazz, was apostrophic, inviting the writer to find the words to respond to its clarion call. And in laying the groundwork for an art that aims to explore the fertile interface between innovative jazz and literature, it would be difficult to overstate the influence of Baraka’s example on Mackey. Something of a renaissance man in letters, Baraka, prior to his passing in early 2014, enjoyed a multifaceted career as a poet, dramatist, essayist, critic, teacher, and social activist — not dissimilar, in terms of range, to Mackey’s own career as a poet, novelist, essayist, editor, broadcaster, and university professor. Baraka experimented, and found success, with many different literary forms, writing such important works as Blues People: Negro Music in White America (1963), the Obie-winning play Dutchman (1964), and the experimental short novel The System of Dante’s Hell (1965). Yet his greatest achievements, arguably, have been as a poet, and a poet who approached music as his primary interlocutor. Aldon Lynn Nielsen credits him as “clearly the most significant figure” in a diverse poetic front in the late fifties and early sixties that reconfigured postwar modernism with a distinctive African American slant.
If Mackey has aimed to bring what he calls the “sympathetic strings” of jazz into language, a richly reverberate, connotative field that is politically engaged in sophisticated ways, it was Baraka’s early jazz writing that served as his point of departure (BF xi). Baraka, as a New York-based poet/critic in the late fifties and early sixties, was a literary pioneer in his attempts to explore the liminal space between postbop jazz and poetry. For Mackey, Baraka’s liner notes, such as for Coltrane Live at Birdland (1964), and his first two poetry volumes, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961) and The Dead Lecturer (1964), provided stunning instances of what might be possible in jazz-inflected writing. This is lyric verse that obeyed, in its most restless and hermeneutically irreducible form, what Mackey calls “an aesthetic analogous to that of music — mercurial, oblique, elliptical.”
Mackey’s “critical engagement” with Baraka’s work evolved over five decades. As a student at Princeton, he wrote his senior thesis, “The Conversion of LeRoi Jones,” in 1969, and he has held a close interest in Jones/Baraka’s writing ever since. Still, Mackey’s response to his predecessor has not been without ambivalence — and for scholars of American poetics, it is crucial to understand the faultlines at work here. Mackey balks at the construction of “monoliths,” viewing these as symptomatic of a society that responds to marginalized peoples in reductive and oversimplified ways, and in no way has his engagement with Baraka come at the expense of lesser-known African American voices. On the contrary, he has written on Clarence Major (“To Define an Ultimate Dimness”) in Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993), and published a wide range of black writers in his own magazine Hambone. In addition, Mackey has taught work by Jay Wright, Ed Roberson, Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, Fred Moten, Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, Bob Kaufman, Melvin B. Tolson, Sterling Brown, David Henderson, Erica Hunt, and C. S. Giscombe, among others, and guided pupils in graduate research on African American poetics as part of his university responsibilities.
While Baraka is far from the whole story in Mackey’s writing, it would certainly be remiss of scholars to gloss over his importance. Baraka’s “enormous, tremendous” engagement with black music preceded Mackey’s own, and his conception of poetry as speech musicked was instructive at a time when many — the Language poets most notably — were moving in a more formalist direction. Arguably Mackey has been more theoretical in his poetics, more expansive culturally in his references, and gone “deeper in his own throat,” to paraphrase Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse,” in his focus on melopoeia, Ezra Pound’s term for the “tonal structure” of a poem. But it was Baraka’s idealistic and erudite cross-disciplinary poetics which led the way for his writing project in the first place.
“Anabatic Jukebox,” from Blue Fasa, provides a case in point. The seventy-third part of Mackey’s long-running “Mu” serial poem, “Anabatic Jukebox” showcases Mackey’s well-honed method of engaging dialogically with musical recordings, many of which might be unfamiliar to mainstream Western audiences. Mackey’s knowledge of African American and “world” musical traditions is legendary; for thirty years he deejayed a weekly radio program, Tanganyika Strut, in Santa Cruz that gave airtime to music from around the world. In fall 2009, around the time that Mackey was working on the Blue Fasa poems, he obtained a World Music Network recording, Introducing Mamane Barka (2008), that piqued his interest. The “Mamane” figure in the poem that subsequently emerged is Malam Mamane Barka of Niger, a master of the biram, a five-stringed harp that is the sacred instrument of the Boudouma people that live on Lake Chad in eastern Niger. Mamane Barka, a nomad of the Toubou tribe, had learned the boat-shaped biram after meeting the world’s only known master of the instrument, Boukar Tar, in 2002. According to Sandra van Edig’s liner notes for the recording, Tar had gifted Mamane, an accomplished musician, with his last biram after teaching him “the secrets of the holy instrument and the lyrics of the mystical songs.”
An exchange of secret knowledge, from one master at the end of his life to a younger musician, is thus conveyed in Mackey’s poem. But “Anabatic Jukebox” invokes another baton exchange of recondite expertise to an heir apparent. John Coltrane’s late-period Cosmic Music (1968), released posthumously, includes a track, “Reverend King,” written and performed by the saxophonist in honour of Martin Luther King, Jr. Coltrane plays bass clarinet on this track, an instrument that had been given to him by the mother (Sadie) of his former bandmate, Eric Dolphy, after the latter’s death in Berlin on June 29, 1964. In doing so, Coltrane eulogizes Dolphy, the multi-instrumentalist who sometimes featured on his albums from the early sixties, including Africa/Brass (1961) and Impressions (1963).
Mackey, in the below excerpt from “Anabatic Jukebox,” provides his own homage to Boukar Tar, Coltrane, and King. As is customary in Mackey’s spectral tableaux, characterization is left imprecise, as is detailed description of time and place. A musically attentive “I,” possibly the author, pronominally expands, Whitman-like, into a “we,” who respond with a mix of emotions to the music on the “jukebox.” Mamane Barka’s songs of personal hardship, loneliness, and nomadic survival initially register collective distress, but the arrival of Coltrane’s bass clarinet, via musical flashback, provides relief in a way akin to a warm “anabatic” wind for the previously chilly surrounding environs. Inspired by the recognizable, if rare, sound of Dolphy’s clarinet in Coltrane’s expert hands, the uprooted “we” launch into an outpouring of hand-slapping revelry (“high carouse”) that makes them feel “young again.” For the travelling “we,” Coltrane’s music thus functions as what Wilson Harris would call a “phantom limb.” It provides a sense of felt advance, felt recovery, a partial compensation for catastrophic severance. Yet the “we” are also cognisant (“knew better”) of how ephemeral, and dependent on this ameliorating impact of music, this relief will be:
For now it was only a window I stood
at, a boat-bodied harp on the box as I
looked out. Mamane looked over my
shoulder, “Reverend King” the next
came up … Laughter broke out, we’d
all been weeping. Sob held at bay by
giggle, we burst out laughing, happy
hear time turn back … Trane’s bass reed
made us laugh, keep crying, Dolphy’s
clarinet’s high carouse … Ribcage theater.
Tease. Tickle. Long fingers working
was down deeper, laugh though we
did although we wept. We slapped hands and
were laughing, happy to be young again,
not knowing better,
knew better. (BF 46)
In Late Arcade (2017), Mackey’s most recent work of epistolary fiction, Coltrane’s name appears on quite a few occasions, and invariably in a way synonymous with the very highest artistry. N., whose letters to the “Angel of Dust” comprise the novel, quotes Roy Haynes, the renowned drummer, who, during his formative years, attempted to make the challenging transition from bebop to free jazz, describing the experience of playing alongside Coltrane as akin to a “beautiful nightmare.” Something of Haynes’s awed, even terrified, encounter with Coltrane’s virtuosic sublime is captured here. The travelling “we” make an abrupt transition from lachrymosity to ebullience, but their newfound “anabatic” joviality seems fraught, rickety, tempered with the blues. Variable margins and line lengths convey this sense of joy shadowed with angst. Enjambment, too, such as the shifting of the pun “cut,” suggesting both a recording and a physical wound, to a solitary position at the end of the line, perturbs any sense of syntactic systematization and epistemological coherence. Read aloud, the words move with a jittering quality that hints at a much larger uncertainty. If Mackey, as he suggested recently in an acclaimed address, is fascinated by precarity as an aesthetic, with its roots in the breath and lungs, this is poetry that very much achieves that aim.
Coltrane’s fingers, in this above tragicomic, laughing-crying vignette, probe “what / was down deeper.” And this poignant shuffle between tragedy and comedy makes one think of Ralph Ellison’s description of the blues, the music upon which jazz was originally founded. For Ellison, the blues is best thought of as an “impulse” in which the artist aims to ultimately transcend experiences of personal catastrophe by “squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” According to this definition, Mackey and Baraka, both Coltrane aficionados from way back, are blues poets too; over long careers, they have strained to give expression to, and ultimately transcend, the emotional substrata of black experience. They have done so, however, using the more denotative medium of language rather than musical tones.
Both Mackey and Baraka have also been part of what Barrett Watten, approaching each poet’s work from across the divide of Language writing, would call the tradition of symbolist mythopoesis. When using Mackey’s term “precarity,” a word originally addressing the uncertain condition of immigrant or migrant workers, intermittent workers, female and young workers in early twenty-first century Europe, and brought into contemporary discourse by Judith Butler, I hint at the importance of negative space in Mackey’s writing as a site of meaning arguably as significant as the words themselves. Watten has described Baraka’s poetry as “haunted by what does not come under the rule of the signifier (including any political position, Marxist or otherwise).” While this observation is applicable in relation to some aspects of Baraka’s more socially oriented post-conversion poetry, Mackey’s writing is not at all haunted in this way. On the contrary, poems such as “Anabatic Jukebox” suggest that Mackey has actively cultivated the slipperiness of the nonsignified as a place of semantic resonance.
Charles Bernstein has eulogized Robert Creeley’s “often gloriously stuttering poetry of the 1950s” as playing “outside the tune” of lyric poetry “as surely as Charlie Parker, only to come back around to it again, making it strange and familiar at the same time.” Mackey and Baraka were each Creeley devotees early in their careers, but turned not so much to Parker and the other beboppers for artistic guidance but to the nascent experimental jazz of the generation that followed. The question of blackness, of course, as black writers living during the ferment of the civil rights movement and afterward, is central to their poetries as well. Both Baraka and Mackey have identified themselves with Western lyricism, albeit with caveats. Baraka, who was affiliated with the Beat/Black Mountain avant-garde early on, wrestled with what Mackey calls “the Cartesian separation of the ego from the rest of the world” while working towards situating his own oppositional, politically useful space within the lyrical tradition. But Russian Formalist–inspired constructivism was never the answer for Baraka; indeed, he ultimately had a debate with Watten in June 2000 in which their differences became all too apparent. Mackey, similarly rooted in Black Mountain projectivist poetics, has long pursued his own idiosyncratic, even contrarian form of a “turn to language” that is arguably as linguistically conscious as any of the Language writing he has published in Hambone. Insisting on the lyric’s heterodox potential, as Robert Duncan advocated, Mackey has crafted a poetic space for himself that challenges, in complex ways, what he calls the “will to dominate” embedded in the Western tradition of lyric subjectivity.
A further complication arises from the fact that Baraka’s poetic voice — or “method,” as the Language poets would call it — was volatile and mutable, arguably more so than Mackey’s has been over the course of their careers. In 1997, Mackey told Charles Rowell of his long attraction to Louis Zukofsky’s idea, as paraphrased by Creeley, of writing one main poem one’s whole life. Mackey found this a “very freeing idea” because it allowed one to
work in the poem with a certain intensity that does not have to be resolved in that particular poem. It allows you to get into areas that are alive and resonant in ways that you can’t shut down and wouldn’t want to shut down in a resolute way within the boundaries of a single poem.
Baraka, in contrast, has been more chameleonic in his aesthetic predilections, later embracing cultural nationalism and then Third World Marxism after turning his back on Greenwich Village eclecticism. But if there was any moment in Baraka’s career that sparked Mackey’s interest, and remained a generative wellspring, it was his early jazz writing. Jones/Baraka’s liner notes for Coltrane Live at Birdland made a “particularly strong impression” on Mackey, as his quoting from them in Blue Fasa indicates. Partly it was the subject matter — Coltrane was the “most significant” influence on Mackey’s thinking in his late teens, as he recalled at a July 1991 Naropa conference alongside Creeley, Clark Coolidge, and Steve Lacy:
Just in the area of sound, a kind of majesty, a kind of resonance, but within that resonance and within that possibility of a lushness that ran the risk of being maybe too satisfied with itself, there was this being on the edge, a sense of tangency.
Refusing to settle for a bland artistic status quo, and deaf to any notions that music had its own native intelligence of sorts that eluded linguistic response, Baraka wanted to achieve a new form of literary expression that somehow enacted something of Coltrane’s affective power in language. It was a “challenge” to capture Coltrane’s “strong and suggestive” music through words, Mackey noted, but it was one that Baraka was taking on “beautifully.”
Even today, there is an intellectual energy, razor-sharp humor, and linguistic playfulness in Baraka’s jazz writing that provides an obvious precursor to Mackey’s epistolary series From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Not lost on the young Mackey, either, was the progressive political imperative that underpinned Baraka’s prose. Jazz criticism up until then, as Baraka asserts in his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” had tended to divorce jazz from its social context. Acutely conscious, from his own personal experience, of the social dynamics in the jazz scene, Baraka saw this as an act of willful ignorance from (mostly) white writers towards African American intellectuality. To counter this, he demanded jazz critics not merely brush aside the question of context, but situate the music within its culture. As Scott Saul puts it, Baraka wanted critics to ask why Coltrane appeared to be screaming on the saxophone, rather than merely appreciate it.
Postbop, new thing, or free jazz, as it was variously called, was almost entirely an instrumental, nonvocal music, and yet Baraka found it profoundly meaningful. As a poet, the challenge for Baraka was thus to find ways of articulating this mostly nondenotative meaning in language, of capturing its affective essence in words. Baraka, in his liner notes, began reaching for philosophy. Of Elvin Jones’s cyclonic drumming on “Afro-Blue,” he writes: “Beautiful has nothing to do with it, but it is.” European ideas of beauty, stemming from Plato, through Kant and Schopenhauer, were rendered irrelevant: Baraka heard a new, exhilaratingly post-Western art being created on the rim of his ride cymbal. But this was because Jones’s drumming, like Coltrane’s wailing soprano above, sprang from an altogether different time and place to European art — “New York’s bowels, and that subway full of all the things any man should expect to find in something’s bowels” (BM 64).
If Baraka’s Coltrane Live at Birdland liner notes whetted Mackey’s appetite, it was Baraka’s next album-related commentary, for Archie Shepp’s Four for Trane (1964), which really triggered ideas for a new jazz-inflected prose. On this album, one of Shepp’s most fiery avant-garde statements, Baraka begins by criticizing a philistine business culture that, up until then, had failed to give Shepp an opportunity to record as a bandleader:
Listening to this album, Four for Trane, one can see what we are being deprived of … This group that Shepp has gotten together for this date cannot fail to delight and inspire anyone really interested in moving human expression. First of all, Archie Shepp has risen very quickly, in my estimation, to the first rank of “post-Trane” tenor players … Archie is playing himself, like many of the other younger musicians around these days, a great many of whom have been moved by Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor to explore deeper wellsprings of emotion, and have come up singing their own songs … Like Shepp, [alto saxophonist John] Tchicai carries the world-spirit in his playing, what is happening now, to all of us, whether we are sensitive enough to realize it or not. Contemporary means that; with the feeling that animates our time. Shepp, Tchicai, and the other players on this album do just that. (BM 156–57)
Baraka lauds Shepp and Tchicai for producing sincere, thought-provoking art that captures the zeitgeist and defies stale conventions. And while Baraka hadn’t yet found a literary equivalent in black poetry, or any New American poetry for that matter, he was determined to provide it himself. “Let my poems be a graph of me,” he writes in “Balboa, the Entertainer,” refuting the impersonality of the first-person voice that was then being recommended by New Criticism and adhered to in dogged fashion by most poets of his era. With its challenging semantics — Baraka’s first-person “I” in this poem appears to struggle with how he might write poetry that addresses the needs of what he calls “The People” — and hollowed out poetic lines, “Balboa, the Entertainer” is a fine example of the poetry on display in The Dead Lecturer. Mackey, warming to Baraka’s aesthetic project, was impressed. He claims that this type of jazz-inflected writing made The Dead Lecturer his “bible” of sorts as a young writer, and remained that way “for quite some time.” But it was Baraka’s comments on the final track of Four for Trane, Shepp’s “Rufus (Swung His Face At Last To The Wind, Then His Neck Snapped),” that most lingered with Mackey. In a moment of startling insight, Baraka hit upon something of the quintessence of free jazz, Mackey thought:
John Tchicai’s playing on “Rufus” comes back to me again. It slides away from the proposed. He is so precise and exact in his registrations. (BM 160)
Slides away from the proposed. The question for Baraka was how to achieve a similar method of controlled restlessness in poetry, this praxis in music of sliding from one often unconnected motif to the next before tonality settles. Mackey’s most substantial statement on his jazz-poetry forebear is his essay “The Changing Same: Black Music in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka” (1978), written while working as a young academic in Southern California. Here Mackey quotes from Baraka’s poem “The Measure of Memory (The Navigator),” also from The Dead Lecturer, to demonstrate how Baraka was “writing” the new jazz into words. With its short, chiselled lines, frequent enjambment, and blank spaces acting as implicative voids, “The Measure of Memory (The Navigator)” refuses to let meaning settle. In doing so, it exemplifies an aesthetic of epistemological slipperiness that Mackey has long worked within:
That we disappear
to dance, and dance
when we do,
And wield sentiment
like the dumb man’s voice
like the cold environment
of need. Or despair, a trumpet
with poison mouthpiece, blind player,
at the garden of least discernment; I
stagger, and remember / my own terrible
blankness and lies.
The boat’s prow angled at the sun
Stiff foam and an invisible cargo
of captains. I buy injury, and decide
the nature of silence. Lines and speed
decay in my voice.
What caught Mackey’s attention most about these lines, from the poem’s third and fourth stanzas, was their “ratio of statement to imaged evocation, the way it kept changing.” Mackey identified a “mobility of thought” being advanced in a way analogous to the musical moves being made by postbop soloists. Eschewing semantic linearity, Baraka’s rapid-fire images have what Mackey calls a “mercurial, evanescent quality” that sought to “assassinate any expectations of traceable argument or logical flow.” Tchicai’s solo on “Rufus,” for Baraka, typified this aesthetic. Played above Reggie Workman’s rapid bass line, the Afro-Danish saxophonist uses pantonal melodic motifs that refuse to adhere to what might be considered logical tonal direction. As key becomes increasingly blurred and unrecognizable, it is left to Tchicai’s sequential motifs and austere, ghostlike timbre to give the piece its focus and formal coherence. A similar principle applies in Baraka’s poem: while images, such as the three similes above, glide speedily from one apparently random situation to the next, the connective, as Mackey reminds us, is “neither logic nor discourse, but the poet’s voice.”
But the “voice,” or “method,” of the musicians during this period was rapidly changing. In the early sixties, the increasing radicalism of postbop music — the ever-more-rapid movement of the new thing musicians away from familiar chord changes, regular rhythms, and head/solo structures towards the “free” forms and collective improvisation arrived at on recordings such as Coltrane’s Ascension (1965) and Taylor’s Conquistador! (1966) — compelled Baraka toward new, more politically engaged literary activities. It was an awkward leap; while Coleman, Coltrane, and Taylor, with albums such as This Is Our Music (1960), Live at the Village Vanguard (1962), and Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (1962), respectively, were moving further away from the vox populi, choosing to play abstruse music that seemed less and less commercially oriented, Baraka suddenly decided that his poetry needed to become more socially aware. Mackey experienced this change firsthand early in his relationship with Baraka, and it probably had a lasting impact.
Baraka’s turn made for a potential paradox, if being socially aware meant a turn toward populism, away from “difficult meanings, meanings not already catered to,” as the poet himself phrased it in “Gatsby’s Theory of Aesthetics” (TB 132). Walter Allen, reviewing Baraka’s anthology The Moderns (1963), was aware of this inconsistency, calling Baraka’s expression populist modernism a “contradiction in terms.” Baraka had coined the phrase to describe what he calls “the best of twentieth century American writing,” work that manages to bring elitist and populist conceptions of art together in a productive exchange. Later critics interpreted this would-be highbrow/lowbrow synthesis as an attempt to sidestep criticisms from fellow Black Arts activists of Baraka’s supposed “downtown” literary exclusivity prior to his much-publicized move to Harlem in December 1965. Mackey, however, was unconvinced about populist modernism’s merit as an artistic praxis — and deeply skeptical about the motivations that were prompting its invention in the first place.
Mackey, after all, has never been drawn to writing that conveyed content in simplistic or reductive ways. Not unlike his imaginary jazz band in Late Arcade, who record an album tellingly titled Orphic Bend, he has preferred an angular or “bent” voice rather than what Lorenzo Thomas calls the “dictatorial” style of Black Arts writing. And it was this shying away from the “dictatorial” that perhaps drew him towards Duncan’s mythopoesis, and other more hermetically minded writers, as a student at Princeton and later Stanford. After reading Baraka’s Black Magic (1969) and other expressivist writing from this period, Mackey became convinced that this move towards the direct and dictatorial, rather than the oblique, elliptical poetry of The Dead Lecturer, was indeed the trajectory that Baraka’s writing seemed to be taking. Mackey’s senior thesis at Princeton, which was supervised by Robert Knapp, has never been published, and there are no plans for that to change. But he outlined its contents for me in a 2008 conversation at Santa Cruz. When I proposed that Baraka’s mid-sixties conversion had left him “bewildered,” Mackey disagreed, maintaining that Baraka’s transition was understandable given the times in which he lived. Still, he argued that
the general cast of [Baraka’s post-conversion] work was in a direction that, I felt, didn’t deliver on what the earlier work seemed to promise. I recall in the thesis referring to him as something of an American tragedy, talking about the pressures on him that he himself gives us a window into in his writing, that push him in a certain direction. Certainly, some of it is contextual, environmental — growing up where he did, when he did, as opposed to me growing up where I did, when I did. But I think also something of it is personality and temperament. Inner chemistry. [Laughter.] And you know Baraka has his unique inner chemistry, which has baffled and bewildered people on occasion, when they have found themselves dissociated from or under attack or whatever. It seems to me that that is something about Baraka that is not entirely explained by saying that he grew up in Newark in a certain point at a certain time, because other people grew up in Newark at the same time. We don’t have a lot of Barakas running around.
Mackey’s views on his forebear’s post-conversion writing strengthened as the seventies unfolded and new Baraka publications appeared. Having been solicited to review Werner Sollors’s Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a “Populist Modernism” (1977) for the Winter 1981 issue of NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Mackey used this forum to offer some trenchant criticisms of Baraka’s recent work. In “Baraka in Bohemia,” Mackey argued that Baraka’s “populism” was more pretension than reality, and amounted to little more than him
latching onto an image or an idea of the oppressed — usually pictured as an army-in-waiting under his command (see, for example, The Slave) — in order to argue the superiority of his own insights and sensibility over those of some adversary, be it W. D. Snodgrass, Allen Ginsberg or, more recently, Nikki Giovanni or Haki Madhubuti.
Mackey was siding with Sollors, who shared his skepticism towards Baraka’s most recent guise. But he went further. Noting his subject’s anti-European, antiacademic positioning, Mackey lamented this philistine element in Baraka’s post-conversion writing that, given his earlier history, was simply “lame.” Especially unconvincing was the way Baraka’s rigid adherence to ideological beliefs was forcing him into some awkward and scarcely believable reappraisals of postbop jazz. In a series of essays later collected in The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues (1987), Baraka chided Anthony Braxton — as well as Leo Smith, Anthony Davis and the Art Ensemble of Chicago — for what he called their “Tail Europe” music. Blithely ignoring his earlier enthusiasm for musicians such as Cecil Taylor, who managed to synthesize European art music (Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, and others) with the black improvisatory tradition, Baraka now decided that these players were guilty of
bourgeois elitism that thinks that what they are doing is isolated, for instance, from black folks because it is too “heavy.”
In a 1976 interview with Sollors published in the book’s final section, Baraka provides a portent of these criticisms from The Music. Singling out Coltrane’s post–A Love Supreme (1961) music as an example of artistry which fails to synthesize “the most advanced and the most popular,” Baraka ties himself in knots trying to win the argument:
It reaches a point where it’s very close, where it comes from the people, then goes into a form that is advanced but still drawn so much on the people that it comes together. In a fantastic form that is very advanced and very close to the people. But then it goes off into something else, becomes metaphysical, he begins Eastern religions, goes into OM, then it actually gets further and further away from the people and gets more and more boring, too. To see that kind of curve is what I am trying to see, the whole dialectic of that … I have most of [Coltrane’s] records, you can hear the changes and you can see why. He becomes much more self-conscious, much more me-centered, much more metaphysical, abstract, away from what’s actually happening here. Working people, for instance, cannot sit for two hours listening to this — you’ve got to go to work. You’ve got something to do. That whole question of just being able to lay out there, with a little marijuana and lay for hours, that’s the petty bourgeois kind of thing.
Mackey, who has occasionally been introduced as the “Cecil Taylor of poetry” at cultural events, must have gritted his teeth. Baraka, trailblazing innovator of his youth, author of poems such as “The Measure of Memory (The Navigator)” which “[push] the limits of what we take to be meaningful,” was suddenly imposing constraints on experimentalism. For someone who, in 1966, had described Coltrane’s challenging later recordings, such as Ascension, as “a way into God. The absolute open expression of everything” (BM 193), it was a conservative tack. But it was probably even worse than that. For Mackey, abstraction, black abstraction, was an inherently political act, a means of disrupting grids of expectation which underestimated, even denied the possibility of, African American intellectuality. And Baraka’s abandonment of black intellectuality in favour of “accessibility” was discordant with the political aims that drove postbop musicians in often bristling defiance of these grids of expectation. As Mackey pointed out to Foster, one of the things that new thing saxophonist Marion Brown, Baraka’s close friend and former housemate in Cooper Square, East Village, said about the “new music” of the sixties was that he sensed
that many of the people who were bothered by the music and were reacting against it were bothered by the level of abstraction of the music and the way in which that level of abstraction being engaged in by black musicians diverged from and called into question certain notions regarding black people’s relationship to abstraction, the idea that black people, if not in fact incapable of abstraction, tend to shy away from it in the direction of the immediate, the physical, the athletic, the performative.
Little wonder that one of Mackey’s first poems of significance, the Coltrane-themed “Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun” (1977), focused on restoring the abstract, hermetic, mystical aspects in the saxophonist’s music — all traits that the Black Arts poets tended to regard as politically irrelevant. Likewise Bedouin Hornbook (1986), Mackey’s first book of epistolary fiction, which was motivated by this “very deliberate impulse” on the author’s part to
foreground that intellectuality in a writing which does not try to shed its reflectiveness in the service of a presumed immediacy, instantaneity, or emotionality.
Black music, Mackey argues, has “in too many instances and for too long” been burdened by its reputation as “the embodiment of or being seen as the embodiment of” these types of attitudes. Baraka, by turning his back on abstraction, was undermining his own political project, and betraying the political imperatives of the new music which he had previously venerated. And for a poet whose work and career, Mackey adds, “have received far more attention than those of any other African American experimental writer, largely due to the conversion narrative that’s now put at the heart of it,” Baraka’s shift in this direction was doubly disappointing.
Mackey has addressed this issue in interviews, candidly but always with respect for his predecessor. He recognizes that Baraka’s own “inner chemistry,” to use his phrase from our interview, was a factor here; that it was Baraka’s own “class anxieties” that were driving such contortions in his thinking and pushing him away from his better instincts as a writer. Given Baraka’s determination to be a public figure, as well as a poet, Baraka’s own self-described “petit-bourgeois” upbringing in Newark, as the son of a postman and social worker, became inconvenient among his Third World Marxist associates. Another important difference thus becomes apparent between these two writers: Mackey’s nonchalance about class issues compared with his predecessor’s intense self-wrangling. As Mackey has noted, unlike Baraka, he was raised in the working class, and “certain kinds of turmoil and self-critique” that grew out of Baraka’s middle-class upbringing simply “don’t apply” to him. Mackey knew the scene, and understood the reasons behind much of Baraka’s fretting about his identity. Yet he never became comfortable with Baraka’s preparedness to use poetry as a vehicle to exorcise his demons about his own ideologically awkward background.
The generational gulf between the two writers, of some thirteen years, comes into play here as well, and tempers Mackey’s criticisms. Baraka’s “different historical moment” led to him having to work through issues that younger black experimental poets have been less impaired by due to his pioneering efforts. As Mackey himself generously put it, Baraka “had to fight fights I didn’t have to fight.” And Baraka’s attempt to do what so few (if any) others have done, fuse together mostly white literary modernism — white “were it not for him” in many instances, as Mackey points out — with black musical modernism, was an enduring achievement. By publishing a black writer such as A. B. Spellman in Yugen alongside Charles Olson — just as Mackey published Sun Ra, Wright, and Major alongside Duncan, Beverly Dahlen, and other white writers upon assuming sole editorship of Hambone in 1982 — Baraka was challenging the notion of literature as a “dividing line between black and white.” Mackey reflected on these challenges faced by Baraka — the intense prejudices towards black literary capacity, and the ghettoization of black literature — in “Expanding the Repertoire” (2000). He declared Baraka a signal example of “certain constraints” held in place by America’s racialized dichotomy at that time, constraints poeticized in volumes such as Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note and The Dead Lecturer. For Mackey, Baraka’s “anxieties” over the anomaly he took himself to be
bespoke the power of that taxonomy and its attendant simplicities, their power even over someone whose existence and work prove them wrong. “Having been taught that art was ‘what white men did,’” he wrote in the introduction to Home in 1965, “I almost became one, to have a go at it.”
As time passed, Baraka’s “having a go” at jazz writing continued to evolve, even as his political responsibilities in Newark took up ever more of his time. While Mackey was exploring his “Mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou serial poems in his full-length volumes Eroding Witness (1985), School of Udhra (1992), Whatsaid Serif (1998), Splay Anthem (2007), Nod House (2011), and Blue Fasa, Baraka continued writing jazz-themed poetry, such as “Am/Trak”(1979) and “In the Tradition”(1980). He tried his hand at the long poem as well, the underappreciated Wise, Why’s, Y’z (1995). When performed aloud, with all of Baraka’s performative elements (microphone tapping, humming of jazz melodies, onomatopoeic exclamations, and so on), these poems were usually successful as expressivist texts. But the standard was unreliable. In 1988, Baraka submitted two poems to Hambone, “Oedipus as Culture Hero” and “Changes Changing,” which Mackey published after spending time with Baraka while the latter was visiting UC Santa Cruz for two weeks as a Regents Professor. Otherwise, Mackey embraced other poets — Duncan, Olson, Harris, Wright, H.D., Federico García Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Aimé Césaire, Ed Dorn, Djuna Barnes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Witold Gombrowicz, and Nathalie Sarraute, among others — whose poetic ideas more closely aligned with his own at that point in time. But then, many years later, came a Baraka poem such as “Fashion this, from the Irony / Of the World,” which Mackey requested for publication in Hambone 20 (Fall 2012) after hearing it performed live at Duke University, that reignited Mackey’s then-flagging enthusiasm for his jazz-poetry forebear.
What appealed to Mackey in “Fashion this, from the Irony / Of the World” was the way that Baraka married his political agendas with a methodology much more reminiscent of some of the coruscating slipperiness in The Dead Lecturer. Whereas much of Baraka’s post-conversion work relinquishes the commitment to hypotaxis-under-pressure seen in his early verse, Mackey saw this poem as something of a return to form; he thought it a “brilliant late distillation and crystallization of so much of what Baraka was about.” Admittedly, Baraka’s poem hardly moves with the imagistic speed of his early verse, and there is a hint of the Manicheanism that blights much of his later poetry. But one does encounter a heart-on-the-sleeve first-person voice, a deftly layered use of the demotic, and a jazz-drenched textuality that are recognizably Barakaesque. “Fashion this” reminded Mackey that Baraka “never lost his stuff, no matter how varied the uses he put it to or how uneven the results.”
I speak with the rage of Angels
Them that be with Marx.
I speak with the clarity and inferno of the necessary
Like my man John on Patmos watching skyvision and
Digging it was all commercials.
I speak like Ali Baba (“The Arabian Pope”)
Who when he spoke the magic words,
“Open this sucker up,” and the mountain swang, envisioned one day
There would be a John named Trane who would blow the same shit
I blow with the deep fear of John on the island looking at the actual devil
Working out ways to speak with the “rage of Angels” has been one of Mackey’s challenges as a black writer, too. In Late Arcade, Mackey’s band members, all Coltrane devotees who have cut their teeth on postbop improvisation, dwell upon this question of art and politics. N., in one of his letters, worries about the matter to such an extent that it gives him a headache. But he then comes to the following conclusion, which might be considered a little surprising given Mackey’s longstanding refusal to “conflate” poetry and politics:
Sometimes you have to go for the jugular. Sometimes you have to show circumspection the heel of your hand. Sometimes, put upon by dilatory compliance, you have to shove more than suggest. (LA 141)
If Mackey has shown signs of being more explicitly political of late, Splay Anthem — a National Book Award–winning volume dedicated to Wilson Harris — marks a turning point in this regard. Mackey’s loosening commitment to the hermetic is foregrounded early in the volume. In “Lag Anthem: ‘mu’ eighteenth part,” the fourth titled poem in Splay Anthem, the lost tribe find themselves overstaying their welcome in the “city / of Lag” (SA 17). This twice-realized nonprogression — lagging in Lag — prompts them to “spontaneously laugh,” a reaction not dissimilar to the bathetic giggles that supplant the tribe’s tears in “Anabatic Jukebox.” Later in “Lag Anthem,” war, or possibly terrorism, provides a backdrop:
Bullets flew, bombs fell
outside, century’s end as
ever. (SA 17)
The adjective andoumboulouous, Mackey tells us in his Splay Anthem preface, is his own neologism. It refers to “man’s inhumanity to man,” the seemingly endless cycle of suffering that mankind inflicts upon itself (SA xi). “Nub,” moreover, metonymically describes the post-9/11 United States under President George W. Bush. As Mackey explains, it refers to the “shrunken,” increasingly globalized world at large (“planet Nub”), and carries overtones of ancient African civilization (“Nubia”) and Harris’s phantom limb (“Numb”) as well. Mackey writes of his desire to cure this condition, but “homeopathically,” via his poetry’s own “recourse to echo” rather than, say, through Baraka’s later, more instrumental language. Yet this desire cuts both ways: while yearning for a better future, Mackey laments poetry’s limited capacity to effect political change. “The long odds against that,” he argues, with a hesitancy reminiscent of the stuttering eloquence of a Thelonious Monk piano solo,
are enough to induce an exasperated scat or an incipient stutter or a lapse into baby talk (Nuh) … the advent of “unsay’s / day” as it is in “Song of the Andoumboulou: 58.” (SA xv)
The only way out of the purgatorial condition of “andoumboulouousness,” Mackey proposes, is by confronting the problem and starting all over again. And in advocating this return to first principles to achieve societal regeneration, postbop jazz again leads the way. Mackey tells us, in his Splay Anthem preface, that he was thinking of Don Cherry’s “Teo-Teo-Can,” the fourth track from “Mu” Second Part, a 1969 “world music” recording that helped inspire the whole “Mu” serial poem. In this track Cherry resorts to “a sort of coo-baby talk,” which Mackey hears as a call for new beginnings (SA ix).
In “Anabatic Jukebox,” this gesture toward “coo-baby talk” is evoked in a personal way. His lines “Tease. Tickle. Long fingers working” refer to his own playful paternal interactions with his then-toddler son, tickling him on the ribs, threatening him with a little “ribcage theatre” (BF 46). But in contemplating this idea of regenerative new beginnings, and Cherry’s onomatopoeic replication of the sound of a baby being tickled on the chin or ribs, or uttering its first words, Mackey was thinking of some lines from Baraka’s jazz journalism as well. In “A Jazz Great: John Coltrane” (1963), Baraka, in his preconversion guise, lauds the “freshness” of Coltrane’s more experimental recordings. He admires Coltrane’s soprano playing on My Favorite Things (1961) and notes the role that Monk, Coltrane’s collaborator in 1957 during a legendary six-month session at New York’s Five Spot Café, had played in guiding him towards artistic greatness. Referring to one Coltrane concert in 1957, not long after his collaboration with Monk had ended, Baraka observed:
One night he played the head of “Confirmation” over and over again, about twenty times, and that was his solo. It was as if he wanted to take that melody apart and play out each of its chords as a separate improvisational challenge. And while it was a marvellous thing to hear and see, it was also more than a little frightening; like watching a grown man learning to speak. (BM 59)
Mackey first heard Coltrane perform as an eighteen-year-old at the Village Gate in New York, and the memory stuck. “Song of the Andoumboulou: 58,” a poem which could be said to exemplify Mackey’s poetic style, enacts a similarly revelatory, if frightening, moment of mature rebirth that Baraka heard in Coltrane’s music. As Mackey’s lost tribe moves closer to “Nub’s low skyline,” their “Raw knuckles / pounding the dirt” to the extent that “Bloodrun / carried / us away,” violence seems omnipresent, and a desperate tone abounds (SA 112). This is poetry that embraces direness, bardic poetry which takes us, however uncomfortably, into the midst of crisis. But Mackey, as he explained to Paul Nelson in 2012, sees the encounter itself as culturally curative. In facing the era’s horror, and in refusing to shy away from the challenges being faced, “a glimmer of hope” emerges for a better world.
Baraka fought harder than most for a better world, both as a poet and activist. Upon hearing of his passing, on January 9, 2014, Mackey reflected: “I think of beginnings, germination, generation.” In poems such as “Anabatic Jukebox” from Blue Fasa, one can observe how Mackey has learned from Baraka’s jazz aesthetic and developed it in ways that even his own more recent literary influences, such as Duncan, Harris, and Kamau Brathwaite, might not have foreseen. Employing a generative language that veers away from denotative simplicity, Mackey has composed poetry that brings the “sympathetic strings” of jazz into language yet studiously avoids didacticism. Mackey’s words, whether in Splay Anthem, Blue Fasa, Late Arcade, or any of his other writing, still “bleed” with African American struggle, as Baraka’s always did. But the casualties are never the art itself. One can only wait to see what new layers Mackey can add to his already stunning project of word-music invention.
5. Ibid. Edwards, in Epistrophies, analyzes the opening of Baldwin’s 1951 essay “Many Thousands Gone” to demonstrate the latter’s view that music is a “story” that apparently cannot be rendered in any other medium (9). Such an insistence on medial separatism was countered by Baraka throughout his career. For example, in his April 6, 2002 “Talk at the Free Jazz Weekend at Penn State,” Baraka claimed that music and language were “always combined for me” and never a “separate thing.” See Mixed Blood, no. 1 (2005): 14.
6. In “Paracritical Hinge,” a September 1999 talk given at the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium in Ontario, Canada, Mackey discusses some of the ways that he, like Baraka before him, has opposed any notion of music/language separatism and actively worked in the other direction. Mackey traces the origins of From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, mentioning the “dreams” that he had during his late teens and early twenties “of playing with some of the greats of the music,” including Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and others. He also tells an anecdote about a concert that he attended in 1977 at the Century City Playhouse in Los Angeles which “planted the idea” of having a narrator (N.) writing as a musician. Mackey, just prior to the concert, saw advertisements at the venue for “outside” music on Sunday nights featuring an ensemble called A Love Supreme, which was all the invitation he needed to attend. Once at the venue, the lights were lowered and Mackey soon discovered that he was in fact the sole person in attendance. “It was a strange experience,” he recalled. “The band played and I sat, an audience of one, listening, wondering why, in a city of over two million people and a greater metropolitan area of several more million, I was the only person to show up.” For Mackey, the rather “mystical” experience had ramifications as an artist, reinforcing his belief that music and language can, indeed should, partake in interdisciplinary conversation.
I felt as though I’d been summoned. It felt as though I was part of the band, had been inducted into the band. It started me wondering, at least, what being in such a band might be like. That one of the members of the band read poetry from a notebook at one point during the concert not only seemed intent on saying the music invited poetic support, literary assistance or accompaniment, but seemed as well to be directed at me.”
Nathaniel Mackey, “Paracritical Hinge,” in Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 212–13.
7. In “Amiri Baraka Analyzes How He Writes,” an interview with Kalamu ya Salaam for African American Review, Baraka agrees with this summation. He calls himself “a poet” first and foremost, who “would not think of writing a play or a piece of fiction unless it was poetic in the sense of investing the same kind of attention to the lines, and the rhythm, and the imagery” as he would when writing poetry. He continues: “I know that as far as the day-to-day America of my own mind, I’m a poet. That’s the only thing I will do without somebody bothering me or asking me to do it. I don’t need anything or anyone to do that. I will write poems because I am alive.” Amiri Baraka, “Amiri Baraka Analyzes How He Writes,” interview with Kalamu ya Salaam, African American Review 37, no. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn 2003): 217.
8. Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 46. Nielsen mentions David Henderson, Lorenzo Thomas, A. B. Spellman, Russell Atkins, Calvin Hernton, Oliver Pitcher, Tom Postell, Harold Carrington, Lloyd Addison, Elouise Loftin, Norman H. Pritchard, Julia Fields, Clarence Major, Jay Wright, Tom Weatherly, Bob Kaufman, and Ray Bremser as among those who comprise this “diverse poetic front.”
11. Nathaniel Mackey, “Interview by Edward Foster,” in Paracritical Hinge, 283. In a July 18, 1991 interview with Nielsen (from 4:50 to 10:56), Mackey refers to the “king of the mountain mentality or syndrome” endured by black writers in American literature. Following prompting from Nielsen, he describes it as “more than unfortunate — it’s really a tragedy” how many African American writers, such as Kaufman, Wright, Alexander, and Roberson, tend to “fall through the cracks” and “don’t get heard” while others, such as Baraka and Toni Morrison, are regularly anthologized and enjoy national prominence. As an example of how important African American work goes neglected, Mackey cites Roberson’s Lucid Interval as Integral Music (1984). He calls it a “great book,” and comparable to what the Language writers were then achieving in terms of its examining of “the way language shapes our perceptions and our realities and so forth” and its “dismantling of standard linguistic procedures.” Mackey has vigorously sought to counter this “distortion” (Nielsen’s word) of the literary scene by seeking out neglected poets such as these for publication in Hambone. The full audio file of the conversation can be heard at PennSound.
12. Mackey, “Interview by Christopher Funkhouser,” in Paracritical Hinge, 251. Mackey here says of his jazz-poetry forebear: “Among the writers I was reading early on was Amiri Baraka, whose engagement with music is enormous, tremendous. It was one of the things that galvanized the relationships among writing, reading, and music which began to develop for me.” Baraka describes poetry as “speech musicked” in his liner notes for New Music — New Poetry, a collaboration with David Murray and Steve McCall. Baraka here states: “Poetry, 1st of all, was then and still must be, a musical form. It is speech musicked. It, to be most powerful, must reach to where speech begins, as sound, and bring the sound into full focus and highly rhythmic communication. High Speech.” Amiri Baraka, vocalist, New Music — New Poetry, with David Murray (saxophone and clarinet) and Steve McCall (drums), India Navigation 1048, 1982.
13. At the end of his 1950 manifesto “Projective Verse,” Olson argues that the projective poet goes “down through the workings of his own throat to that place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings.” Pound first used the term melopoeia in “How to Read,” a 1931 essay collected in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. T. S. Eliot (New York: New Directions, 1968). Robert Duncan later utilizes Pound’s three categories, of which melopoeia is one (the other two are phanopoeia and logopoeia) in his 1956 essay “Notes on Poetics Regarding Olson’s Maximus,” in Fictive Certainties (New York: New Directions, 1985), 68–75. Four essays by Mackey have addressed music-language relations: “The Changing Same: Black Music in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka” (1978), “Sound and Sentiment: Sound and Symbol,” (1987), “Cante Moro” (1994), and “Blue in Green: Black Interiority” (1996).
14. Mamane Barka’s journey to Lake Chad to meet Boukar Tar and the Boudouma people was funded by a UNESCO scholarship, van Edig writes. Upon arrival, Mamane Baraka received a “warm welcome” from Boukar Tar “who had thought his instrument had already seen its last days.” See Mamane Barka, Introducing, World Music Network, 2009.
17. Mackey’s lecture “Breath and Precarity,” considering the salience of breath in post-World War II black music and experimental poetics, has been performed at numerous venues across the United States since 2015, and in June 2018 will be published in the anthology Poetics and Precarity, ed. Myung Mi Kim and Cristanne Miller (SUNY Press: The University at Buffalo). The term “precarity,” as Mackey clarified to Barry Johnson after his November 11, 2016 Eddings Lecture at Reed College, relates to a “condition without predictability or security,” such as that experienced by refugees fleeing war in the Middle East. See Barry Johnson, “Nathaniel Mackey: Black Breath Matters,” Oregon Artswatch, November 12, 2016.
19. Watten has commented on his differences with Baraka in Jacket2; see “Entry 3: More on Orono.”
23. Mackey has published Ted Pearson, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Carla Harryman, Steve Benson, Bob Perelman, and Tom Mandel in Hambone, and become friends with these writers. But he has never “sought” to be identified with any literary movement, tendency, or school. In saying that, he has cultivated plenty of contacts and associations over the years, especially through the editing of Hambone, and has “been in touch” with the poetry scene “to the degree [he] needed to be” (Mackey, “Interview by Brent Cunningham,” in Paracritical Hinge, 324).
24. Baraka, grounded in Olson’s field poetics, resistant to any notion that content should be led by form, and long a champion of demotic speech in poetry, was hostile to what he perceived as the academicism of Language school thinking. These attitudes came to the surface during his “debate” with Watten at Orono, Maine in 2000. Mackey is also adamantly not a Language writer, albeit for different reasons. With his allegiance to Duncan’s symbolist mythopoesis and loose affiliation with the Duncan-spearheaded poetics program at New College in San Francisco in the early eighties, he is far more closely associated with a scene that was regarded by many as the antithesis or enemy of Language writing during the Bay Area “poetry wars.” Until moving north to Santa Cruz in 1979, Mackey had only a cursory awareness of Language writing via conversations with Barbara Einzig and Michael Davidson, and some inquisitive glances at Poetry Flash. But, as he explained in 2008, he was never part of the original Language poetry “get-together,” and does not identify himself with Language writing. (Mackey, conversation with the author, UC Santa Cruz). In a conversation with Sarah Rosenthal in 2006, Mackey addresses this topic of the San Francisco “turf wars” slightly differently. He insists that he was actually able to stay “outside” of these conflicts because he “didn’t feel affiliated” and “didn’t have any use for being in the fray.” He remembers having “more basic concerns” as a writer at that time, such as “whether the writer in me was being gobbled up by the academic, the critic,” and preferred to appreciate the diversity of the Bay Area literary scene, its “variety of persuasions, aesthetics, schools,” rather than take sides. See Sarah Rosenthal, “The Atmosphere is Alive: An Interview with Nathaniel Mackey,” New American Writing 24, (2006): 59–60.
25. “Voice” is a concept that has attracted plenty of debate in postmodern poetics. Charles Bernstein explains the reasons for adopting the term “method” (rather than, say, “voice” or “style”) in his essay “Writing and Method,” in “Poetry and Philosophy,” special issue, Poetics Journal 3 (1983): 6–16. Following Bernstein, Language writers tend to prefer the term method, regarding voice, as Ted Pearson puts it, as “a bromide which assumes that poetry must issue, or be read to issue, from a unifying subject” (Ted Pearson, email correspondence with the author, March 7, 2010).
28. Nathaniel Mackey, “Poetry and Jazz” panel with Clark Coolidge, Robert Creeley, and Steve Lacy, Naropa Institute, Boulder, CO, July 1991. The full quotation, from around 29:50 of the audio file, is as follows: “John Coltrane … who really at that time was the most obviously heavy influence on my thinking. Monk was more of an influence at that time than I knew at the time, and that becomes more and more clear to me as years go by. But Trane certainly early on. One of the things was just in the area of sound, a kind of majesty, a kind of resonance, but within that resonance and within that possibility of a lushness that ran the risk of being maybe too satisfied with itself, there was this being on the edge, a sense of tangency, point of departure again to go back to Andrew Hill.”
30. Scott Saul, “Baraka’s Blues People,” Harvard University Press Blog, January 10, 2014. In This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), Iain Anderson examines the way jazz journalists prior to Baraka tended to show little interest in the lives, attitudes, and political beliefs of African American musicians. As Anderson’s research illustrates, this was systemic. Down Beat, which, after the demise of Jazz Review and Metronome in 1961, was the dominant jazz publication in the United States with an average readership of 51,750 per issue (1963), employed almost exclusively white editors and columnists throughout this period. Indeed, Dan Morgenstern (editor 1964–73) recalled only one African American, Bill Quinn, ever working at the magazine in a full-time editorial position (Anderson, 206). Furthermore, between 1960 and 1963, as Anderson points out, the magazine launched a strident attack on explicitly political African American art, with Abbey Lincoln’s album Straight Ahead, for example, pilloried by Ira Gitler as the music of a “professional Negro” rather than an artist.
33. Mackey, “Interview by Paul Naylor,” 345. Mackey here describes Baraka’s early poetry and liner notes as “among [his] first literary influences,” along with William Carlos Williams’s Pictures from Brueghel and poems from Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry. Baraka’s “simultaneous involvement” with jazz and with “tendencies in contemporary writing of which [he] was just becoming aware” made him “extremely important” to Mackey, as he explained to Naylor (345).
36. Nathaniel Mackey, “The Changing Same: Black Music in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka,” in Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 40.
37. In 1967, while a third-year undergraduate, Mackey arranged a Baraka reading at Princeton after serendipitously meeting the author in a Greenwich Village bookstore. (Mackey had been searching for a copy of Baraka’s just-released volume of short stories, Tales, and saw Baraka nearby, thumbing the pages of Black Moses, David Cronin’s biography of Marcus Garvey.) The subsequent event, held on November 28, 1967, in Princeton’s Alexander Hall and organized by the Association of Black Collegians (ABC), turned out to be an educative encounter, to say the least. In the months prior, Baraka’s work had been championed within the ABC by Mackey and a former roommate, Darryl Johnson, and there were high hopes that Baraka’s reading would be an uplifting experience for all involved. Indeed, two weeks before the event, Mackey is quoted in the Daily Princetonian, explaining that Baraka is known for “incorporat[ing] the ghetto way of life into his writing … [showing] that it’s not inferior just because it’s not middle-class white.”
Baraka’s appearance, however, was something of a letdown. As Mackey recalled, he “didn’t speak very much with us or make much eye contact. He talked almost entirely with his [Spirit House] companions. Then, of course, they went onstage and read and put on skits and the reading concluded with him lecturing us, as a group, from the stage.” Afterwards, Baraka disappeared from the event with barely a word, declining to attend the ABC’s proposed reception. It was all “hard to digest,” Mackey says, “especially in the wake of visits by some pretty big-time figures who had met with some if not all of us and who had not at all behaved that way — [Muhammad] Ali, [Kwame] Touré, [Roy] Wilkins, [Michael] Thelwell. We were left to reflect on what his approach offered that theirs didn’t and vice versa. A critical reflection it turned out. He lost ground with all of us that night” (Nathaniel Mackey, email correspondence with the author, November 14, 2015).
However, there is some little-known personal history on Baraka’s side that probably impacted the way that he behaved that evening. Mackey got a scholarship to Princeton, along with a range of other Ivy League universities, but Baraka missed out on this opportunity. Racism appears to have played a part. In a 2011 interview with Alan Fox, Baraka explained that he “would’ve gone” to Princeton, his local Ivy League university, “but there was a quota on blacks when I got out of high school and only one black could get into Princeton that year. That was 1948. And it wasn’t even — it was clear; it was not hidden.” Four years before the Princeton visit for the ABC, Baraka had pilloried the university in his essay “A Dark Bag.” In a review of John Pepper Clark’s Song of the Goat, Baraka laments that the Nigerian-born poet was then enrolled in Princeton’s graduate school. “For sure, nothing he could ever learn at Princeton would help him write so beautiful work as Song of the Goat,” he writes. See Amiri Baraka, Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966), 128.
40. Nathaniel Mackey, “Song of the Andoumboulou: 14,” School of Udhra (San Francisco: City Lights, 1993), 12. Lorenzo Thomas, “The Character of Consciousness,” African American Review 37, no. 2/3, Amiri Baraka issue (Summer–Autumn, 2003): 190.
47. At a 1994 reading in Woodstock, for example, Mackey was introduced in this way. This prompted Christopher Funkhouser to quip that the opposite might equally have been true: that Taylor could equally be called “the Nathaniel Mackey of music.”
49. Mackey, “Interview by Edward Foster,” 282. Baraka comments on his “very close” relationship with Marion Brown in a January 3, 2011 piece for JazzTimes. He remembers Brown, a sideman on Shepp’s Fire Music (1965), as a “quiet yet intense” person whose mind moved “very rapidly” from one topic to the next. Baraka lost contact with Brown after his move to Harlem in 1965 and never saw him again.
50. For a close analysis of this poem, see Luke Harley, “An Apollonian Scream: Nathaniel Mackey’s Rewriting of the Coltrane Poem in ‘Ohnedaruth’s Day Begun,’” Sydney Studies in English 36 (2010): 77–107.
55. Kalamu ya Salaam, “A Conversation with Amiri Baraka,” February 17, 1998.
61. Baraka’s two-week Regents Professorship trip to Santa Cruz had been initiated by Mackey’s colleague and soon-to-be-wife Pascale Gaitet, who had become interested in Baraka’s work from Diane di Prima. Mackey “saw a lot” of Baraka during his stay in Santa Cruz, “escorting him to events, driving him to town when he needed something off-campus, etc., so that a lot of our interaction was informal, casual.” He came to appreciate a very different person to the firebrand encountered at Princeton:
He had mellowed a great deal with age, recognition and ideological changes. He was open, talkative, friendly, and his interactions with students couldn’t have been more different from what I’d experienced twenty years before. One day I went to lunch with him and about five or six undergrads on the wharf. He couldn’t have been more pleasant and engaged; he seemed to really enjoy talking with them and they were thrilled. (Mackey, email correspondence with the author, November 14, 2015.)
Mackey followed up in the months afterwards by writing Baraka, requesting material for Hambone; he wrote back with the two poems mentioned ready for publication.
62. As Mackey observed in a February 20, 2014 email, Baraka’s submission of “Fashion this, from the Irony / Of the World” came about because two of Mackey’s students at Duke invited him to read at the university’s undergraduate literary magazine’s literary festival. Baraka read this poem — which Mackey had never seen or heard before — at the festival in 2012. Afterwards Mackey, liking the poem, asked Baraka if he could publish it in Hambone. He agreed and sent through a copy. (Nathaniel Mackey, email correspondence with the author, October 29, 2016.)
66. In his interview with Foster, Mackey argues that poetry and politics are “much more different than they are similar,” a belief that he recognizes makes him maybe “a minority voice in more ways than one” on the contemporary poetry scene. Mackey, “Interview by Edward Foster,” 273.
67. Mackey borrowed the phrase “ribcage theatre” from Araya Asgedom, whose piece “The Lament at Ribcage Theater” was published by Mackey in Hambone 13 (Spring 1997). Mackey’s use, he explained to me in a September 5, 2015, email, differs from Asgedom’s. The latter capitalizes it, “Ribcage Theater,” but Mackey doesn’t, so his use “refers more specifically to the thorax: a vital, vulnerable bodily site, heart and lungs, and so on.”
68. Mackey, interview by Paul E. Nelson, August 24, 2012. The full quotation, from 9:00 of the “Part 6” audio file, is as follows: “However dark the passages that the writing leads you through may be, I think that … there is some hope that by looking at the dark, not looking into the dark, not evading it, we can work our way through it.”
69. Mackey, Facebook status update, January 15, 2014. Mackey stayed in touch with Baraka since his Santa Cruz visit in 1988, having dinner at his home in Newark in 1989, alongside Gaitet and David Henderson, exchanging letters, and speaking on the phone for business reasons. In 1989, when Mackey was working on Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose (1992), he sought Baraka’s help in obtaining contact information for Amus Mor. Baraka read three more times at UC Santa Cruz while Mackey was there, including in 1998, the year Whatsaid Serif came out. In 2013, Mackey’s chapbook Anuncio’s Last Love Song, the poetry volume that precedes Blue Fasa, had just been published by Three Count Pour. As was his habit, Mackey sent Baraka a copy to his Newark address. Mackey received a handwritten postcard in return, which read “Ah, Romance throughout the premises. Asante for it. The tale goes on!” (Mackey, email correspondence with the author, November 14, 2015).