This interview tracks my genesis and early development as a poet and intellectual. My artistic and cultural education occurs during the late 50s, the 60s and the early 70s and takes place primarily in and around academic institutions: the liberal college, Antioch, which is in my hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and the nearby black state university, Central State, in Wilberforce, and the story, if not exactly concluding, comes to “a momentary stay against confusion” at Stanford University in Northern California where I did my MA in creative writing and a PhD in English.
“Mu,” one of Mackey’s ongoing poems, is based on the idea of giving voice to the elders of the Dogon people of central Mali. In some “Mu” sections the elders channel the souls of disgruntled dead; they bespeak the improperly buried.
In 1985, Eileen Myles was the new director of the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York. She asked me to curate a lecture series, the first such program at the church. I modelled the series at the Poetry Project on my earlier series New York Talk, giving it the amusing title, given the sometimes seeming resistance to poetics at the St. Marks at the time, St. Marks Talks. And talk it did.
I’ll begin with a playlist of PennSound recordings having to do with letters. While listening to this playlist on repeat, I was interested in the ways the tracks expanded, derailed, parodied, critiqued, or otherwise complicated the idea of intimate address. The addressees include imagined ancestors, public figures, an owl, various abstractions and inanimate objects, as well as the workings of language itself. Recently I’ve been listening to this playlist on random and I keep noticing new connections and contrasts between tracks.
This post’s playlist presents recordings from the PennSound archive that explore the continuum between language, music, and other types of sound.
I want to begin with a few related recordings of Nathaniel Mackey and his ongoing serial poem Song of the Andoumboulou. In Mackey’s introduction to a 1997 KWH reading he discusses the poem’s relationship to the Dogon funeral song of the same name, recorded by Francois Di Dio in 1974. Listen to Mackey’s poem Song of the Andoumboulou: 18. I am always struck by this moment when, near the end of the Dogon recording, as the pitch from the horn wavers up and down, I hear an ambiguity between what could be perceived as a human shout and the sound of a musical instrument. It’s this type of threshold point that has been in the back of my mind when I listen to poetry recordings lately.