[ this text is published in Callaloo, Vol. 18, No. 4 ]
A few brief and informal conversations, occurring after we first met for the first time in 1991, led me to ask Nathaniel Mackey if we could speak more formally about his writing and teaching. He agreed, welcoming the presence of a tape recorder. The following conversation took place at Nathaniel Mackey's home in Santa Cruz on September 3, 1991. An edited version of this interview, given the title "Charting the Outside," was circulated in the November, 1991 issue of Poetry Flash, a northern California poetry newspaper. At the time of this interview, Nathaniel Mackey had authored two chapbooks of poetry, Four for Trane (Golemics, 1978) and Septet for the End of Time (Boneset, 1983). Eroding Witness, his full length collection, was selected by Michael Harper for the National Poetry Series (University of Illinois Press, 1985). Bedouin Hornbook (Callaloo Fiction Series, 1986), volume one of an ongoing prose work, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, had been published. Subsequently, Djbot Baghostus's Run (Sun & Moon, 1993), volume two of Nathaniel Mackey's serial prose, has been issued. A second volume of poetry, School of Udhra (City Lights, 1993), has been published, as well as two letterpress edition chapbooks of poetry, Outlantish (Chax, 1993) and Song of the Andoumboulou (Moving Parts, 1994). A collection of his essays, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (Cambridge University, 1993) has been put into print. A compact disc of his poetry, Strick, featuring musicians Royal Hartigan and Hafez Modirzadeh, has been released by Spoken Engine. Mackey is currently writing Atet A.D., volume three of From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. Nathaniel Mackey teaches at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and edits the magazine Hambone.
Christopher Funkhouser: In your work you take improvisation, jazz, and other styles of music and use them as a well-spring. Could you describe how you came to this and manage to keep it such a prominent part of what you do? Nathaniel Mackey: Probably the earliest aesthetic experiences for me were experiences with music, going back to when I was a kid. Certainly that's what that comes from and it has continued to be a very important part of my experience. Not that I started off listening to a lot of the music I listen to now. But music has always been a very important part of my life even when I was seven, eight, nine years old. Why I didn't take up an instrument and become a musician remains a mystery to me but I didn't and that has to do with circumstantial things which are just circumstantial things. Late in high school I got into reading poetry and fiction on a more serious level, as something other than what you did because it was assigned. I was actually beginning to do it because I was interested in it, because it was speaking to me in a meaningful way. Some of the literature I got into had analogies with music, though I wasn't always aware of it. Some of the writers who had an early impact on me were also engaged with music. William Carlos Williams was a writer whose work I got interested in when I was in high school. I didn't know about his interest in music, which wasn't that strong or that extensive, but later I found out about it, though it wasn't necessarily that I was hearing music coming through in Williams's work. Among those 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 relationship between writing, reading, and music which began to develop for me. Funkhouser: Was there anything equally as important as music as an influence? Mackey: The music was pretty close to and bound up with the religious for me. Some of the earliest music I was exposed to was the music in the Baptist Church, so the relationship between music and the spiritual was very strongly imprinted very early through the church experience. Seeing people respond to music in ways that were quite different from music being listened to in a concert situation, I mean people actually going into states of trance and possession in church, had a tremendous and continuing impact on me. It's no doubt one of the reasons I so often refer to and incorporate aspects of, say, Haitian vodoun, Cuban santeria and other trance rituals that involve music-dance as a form of worship. That was part of the music experience, the wider context into which the music experience extends. I don't know what else. Obviously one of the things is that I was interested in a variety of things, even as a kid, so there are a variety of things that were pertinent to my early development. I was a precocious reader, read a lot of different kinds of things and had an interest in mathematics and science early on. I don't know to what extent that comes in but it does. There was a time when I was reading philosophy, although it's been a while. I think all of those things play a part. It's easier to see the role that music plays because it's so pronounced and it has become a central preoccupation or the trope for a variety of preoccupations that such a work as From A Broken Bottle Traces Of Perfume Still Emanate builds upon. The poems participate in that in their own way, in both the musicality of the writing and the overt referentiality to music in the writing. For me music is so much more than music that when you ask "What else besides music?" it's hard for me to answer because music includes so much: it's social, it's religious, it's metaphysical, it's aesthetic, it's expressive, it's creative, it's destructive. It just covers so much. It's the biggest, most inclusive thing that I could put forth if I were to choose one single thing. Funkhouser: In the work -- the prose and the poetry -- there is an extreme lyricism that's transmitted from somewhere. What lineage do you see your work aligned with? Mackey: Well, I've already named Williams and Baraka. The larger tendencies in American poetry that they are a part of I relate to and relate myself to. Oppen, for example, whose line "bright light of shipwreck" I use as a subtitle to one of the poems in Eroding Witness. Some of the so- called "New American Poetry," the poets in Donald Allen's anthology, which I read and was very much impacted upon by in the mid-sixties. The Black Mountain "Projectivist" poets were very important: Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan. Denise Levertov early on was an important poet for me. I began reading poetry seriously in high school. I graduated from high school in 1965. It was when I went to college that I began to read more, began to read more contemporary, more recent stuff, more post-war poetry. Those were the people I was reading at that time. And, you know, one goes on reading and building on what one has read, and I've gone on to other people since then. A couple of Caribbean writers have been very important to me, Wilson Harris and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Other Caribbean writers as well, like Aimee Cesaire, and other writers, a range of writers. If I start naming them I'll name all day. There was a period when, for example, the new novelists of France, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and others -- I read their work quite attentively. I was a big fan of a Polish writer named Witold Gombrowicz. I remember reading and re-reading his novels. You know how it is: you read and you read and you read and some stuff you re-read. Funkhouser: Did you write at Princeton? Mackey: Yes. I had written a little bit, had gotten the impulse to write in high school, but hadn't written a whole lot. It was when I was in college that I started writing more and started thinking about that as something I wanted to do if I could. It was in college that I really began to invest in and investigate the sense of myself as a writer. Funkhouser: There were teachers there that helped you? Mackey: Not particularly. It wasn't so much that setting or any particular teachers there. There were teachers there that I talked to and liked and whose classes were an influence, but not in a direct sense of there being writers there who were teachers of mine. It was more the exposure to literature that I got in literature classes, the exposure to readings that took place on campus, and Princeton being only an hour-and-a-half drive from New York. I would go in and hear readings there, although there wasn't really a heavy reading scene at that time. Mainly what I did when I went into New York was hear music. That was one of the big stimuli that that allowed. I wasn't a creative writing major or anything like that -- I think I took one creative writing course the whole time I was in college and that was enough. But I wrote and I published in some of the campus literary magazines. Funkhouser: You manage to place, by virtue of being a publisher and via radio broadcasting, some of your creative output within the context of Western culture, not limiting it to African or Asian or some of the other reference points. Are you striving at all to facilitate any type of social change or awareness, or is it just art? Mackey: Well, if it can facilitate social change and awareness in a positive and progressive direction, then, certainly, more power to it. I don't want to overestimate or inflate what work of that sort -- doing a radio program, or editing a magazine, or writing poetry and prose -- can do. But certainly to the extent that categories and the way things are defined -- the boundaries between things, people, areas of experience, areas of endeavor -- to the extent that those categories and definitions are rooted in social and political realities, anything one does that challenges them, that transgresses those boundaries and offers new definitions, is to some extent contributing to social change. The kind of cross-cultural mix that a radio program like "Tanganyika Strut" offers diverges from a pre-packaged sense of what appropriate content for a radio program is, where one is usually offered a homogeneous program. There's a challenge in heterogeneity, whether it's radio programming, editing a magazine, one's own work, putting together a syllabus for a class or whatever. These are questions that resonate with all of the political and social urgencies that have to do with how do you get different people to live together in society in some kind of positive and productive way. Funkhouser: So where do you find your audience? Are you directing what you are transmitting as poet, as radio programmer, as teacher, to any specific audience or are you just throwing it out there? Mackey: I'm not just throwing it out there, I'm putting it out there, but I can't say that I am putting it out there with a particular audience in mind because the way in which audiences are defined is often dependent upon those categories that I mentioned earlier that are fixed and static and I think misrepresent reality in most instances. Therefore I can't let those senses of possible audiences be what dictates what I do. So I don't think about the given categories of audience. I think about doing what makes sense to me, what is meaningful to me, with the conviction that there are other people that it will make sense to, be meaningful to, and with the hope that what I'm doing will find its way to them and they'll find their way to it. That's the sense of audience I work with. To me it's more the work finding or defining, proposing an audience, than the work being shaped out of some idea of an audience, consideration of an audience, "this is what such and such a group of people wants to hear..." Funkhouser: There are writers, especially at this time, who are thinking that way because there's money in it. That's not why I was asking you though. Mostly I ask because a lot of the references in your writing are almost completely obscure to someone who is not really on-top-of-it as far as world music goes, as far as "outside" musics go. Someone naively picking up your books might think they were Pound's Cantos, with so many obscure reference points. For instance, most people would have no idea who Albert Ayler was, and so on. Automatically you might, in a way, sever some understanding. Mackey: Well, obviously you can say certain things about the audience for a work by looking at the character of the work. In many ways the work itself answers the question "What is the audience for this work?" If you look at a work that is making mention of Albert Ayler, then obviously that work is aimed at people who know who Albert Ayler is or are interested in finding out, would want to find out. You have to talk and write from what you know, about what you know, with what you know. You have to take the risk of speaking to people about things they may be unfamiliar with, just as there are things other people know that you are not familiar with. I have read people whose work spoke of things and made reference to things that I didn't know about, and reading that work has been an impetus for me to find out about those things. Since that has been my experience as a reader why wouldn't it be the experience of others? One doesn't have to be constantly looking over one's own shoulder asking, "Can I say this? Is the reader still with me?" I think you have to go with the faith that there are readers who are with you. You may not know who or where they are but you have to take that risk. Funkhouser: In a way it seems that that's what a lot of the outside jazz improvisers were doing, hoping by putting it out there that somebody would hear it at some point and be able to have some transcendence, or at least some type of unification with them. Mackey: Yes. When I first started listening to improvised music in my early teens -- up to that point I had mainly been listening to R&B and Rock 'n' Roll, popular music you hear on the radio -- it didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I don't know what it was about it that made me go back and give it a chance, but it was something I had to learn how to listen to. And I did learn how to listen to it, by going back and listening on repeated occasions. That was how I got into the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others in the early sixties. I came to the outside players later and had a similar experience with them. In high school I kept reading and hearing about Ornette Coleman in places like Down Beat. There was a lot of fuss being made about what he was up to, so I wanted to check it out. I remember buying an Ornette Coleman album and it just sounded very strange and weird. I couldn't figure it out but I kept listening to it and after a while it not only made sense to me, there was a beauty to it. It was unlike the beauty that I heard in Miles Davis or John Coltrane, but it was beauty. The ability to get into something that initially is forbidding or intimidating or just doesn't speak to you at all is one that is tested and proven. I tend to stay with things which may, on first or second or third hearing or reading, present me with difficulties that make it seem like it isn't going to go anywhere. You're right. What any experimental art is trying to get you to do is move beyond your preconceptions and your expectations regarding what should be happening, what's going to happen, what kinds of effects it should have, and enter a liminal state in which those things can be redefined in the way that the particular artist or piece of art is proposing. Funkhouser: A more specific question. At a "Poets For Peace" reading in February you read a poem called "Slipped Quadrant." You mentioned that the poem operates out of Islamic and Arabic materials or concepts. Which ones? Is your interest in these materials primarily poetic or is it something else? Mackey: Well, "Slipped Quadrant" makes reference to Sufis in Andalusia, and one of the particular Islamic thinkers I had in mind is Ibn 'Arabi, who wrote a book called Sufis of Andalusia. There's a point where the poem says "to be alive/was to be warned." A sense of omen, more than concepts per se, is how Islam comes into it. Ibn 'Arabi, in a famous episode early in his life, was asked by the philosopher Ibn Rushd, Averroes, what solution had he found in mystical trance, in divine inspiration, and did it agree with what one finds through speculative thought. He answered, "Yes and no. Between the Yea and the Nay the spirits take their flight beyond matter, and the necks detach themselves from their bodies." More generally, I'm interested in the Islamic/Moorish presence in Spain, and have been for a long time. How I got into reading about Islam I'm not sure. One of the early places where just the presence of Islam in the world was made apparent was that many of the black musicians I was listening to were interested in it and in many instances were converts to Islam. Yusef Lateef, for example. Then just learning more about history and the role of Islamic and Arab civilization in history. Later I became interested particularly in Islamic mysticism and heterodoxy. My introduction to Ibn' Arabi came by way of Charles Olson, who got very interested in him via Henri Corbin's books, a book on Ibn 'Arabi and a book on Avicenna. Those are some of the places I was finding people making use of thought from the Islamic world. I read around some, and have listened to a great deal of music from the Muslim world. An early musical interest of mine that continues is flamenco, which I began listening to back in the early sixties, partly because of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain. At the time I was taking Spanish in school and some attention to flamenco was a part of studying Spanish culture. The contributions of Moorish and Gypsy cultures to flamenco were very clear and obvious, its connections to North Africa, and so on. So it's part of my larger interest in the movement of cultural influences and exchanges over wide geographic areas, the cross-cultural mix that the planet is. As I said, some of the earliest articulations and manifestations of that I encountered in the music that was coming out of outside players, the black musicians of the sixties. There's an Indian musician who plays the shenai called Bismillah Khan. The first time I ever heard of Bismillah Khan was on a record by one of the Chicago reed players out of the A.A.C.M., Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre. He has a piece on one of those Delmark albums called "Bismillah." I have forgotten which instrument he plays on it. I don't think it's a shenai, but it's obviously imitating a shenai. About that same time I saw someone else mention Bismillah Khan and I decided to get hold of one of his records. A lot of the music and other things from other countries I have gotten into I have been led to by these musicians -- Don Cherry doing an album called Eternal Rhythm, on which he uses Balinese gamelan instruments, and things like that. There's this "world-ear" that many of the musicians were blessed with that led me to a lot of these things. Islamic music and the Islamic literature are intwined with one another in that way, and that mix comes up in Bedouin Hornbook, for example, where at one point a book such as Conference of the Birds, which is a Sufi text, is referred to. It's also the name of an album by David Holland, Conference of the Birds, with Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers and Barry Altschul on it. Those kinds of musical- textual, musical-literary-religious, music-literary-spiritual confluences are very much what Bedouin Hornbook and the poems are often touching the notes of and applauding. The Gulf War and all of the warmongering rhetoric that led up to it had a great deal to do with and came out of anti- Arab racism, a sense of Arab inferiority. That was one of the reasons it was so easy to mobilize and launch that war. What I said in prefacing the poem, which didn't specifically have to do with the war -- in fact it was written considerably before the war -- was simply that one of the things that made it so easy to go into that war was, first of all, the sense that the people that this country would be fighting against were non-entities culturally, historically, that they had never done anything that amounted to anything. In a very simple way, I invited people to think about the fact that we use Arabic numerals. One could go on and catalog the ways in which Western civilization likes to propose itself as the superior antithesis of Arab civilization when in fact it is indebted to Arab civilization. Arabs pulled Europe out of its Dark Ages, reintroduced it to what it likes to think of as its roots, the Greek philosophers, Aristotle, Plato and so forth. In saying that to preface the poem I wanted to underscore the way in which our intellectual activities can be a part of something that is oppositional to the formation of social attitudes and biases in a country such as this -- how as intellectuals, poets, writers, we're engaged in something that is looking at the complex interconnectedness of people, of cultures, in a way that is finally in opposition to the oversimplifications of experience and of identity that dominate the politics of this and too many other countries. That's what I was trying, in a nutshell, to say. Funkhouser: Those complexities seem to somehow possibly relate to the intricacies of mathematics, also the scientific realm. The title "Slipped Quadrant" might also imply this. Mackey: In "Slipped Quadrant" not in any extensive way, though when I was younger I was very involved with math and science. In fact, when I was in junior high school and high school I considered that the field that I would go into. But it's been a long time since I last sat down with a book of differential equations. It's also been a long time since I've gone through or even looked at a book on physics. But as reference points every now and then they have come in. "Slipped Quadrant" was playing with two things, two senses of the word quadrant, one of which is that when you have a pair of Cartesian axes you have each of those four parts as a quadrant. There was that sense, so you're right. There was a mathematical meaning to that term I had in mind. But also it's a poem that has to do with generations and wandering and so it was also a quadrant in the sense of a navigational device. The idea of "Slipped Quadrant" was the idea of a dislocation, something out-of-joint, talking not about Cartesian symmetry, equilibrium, settledness, but something that's shaken, something that is in trouble, something that's unsettled. Another reference in that title is Cecil Taylor's music. He has an album called Winged Serpents (Sliding Quadrants) and I was thinking about that: slipped quadrant/sliding quadrants, this whole idea of slippage and erosion, disequilibrium, unrest -- which his music is so majestic and outrageous an expression of. Funkhouser: Getting back to From A Broken Bottle Traces Of Perfume Still Emanate, I was wondering what you think the effect is of publishing in serial format, and how much of it is outlined in thought beforehand. Was there a concept from the start or is it just happening as it happens? As far as process goes, are the letters journalistic writing? Dreams? How edited is it? How is it progressing? Will it be a trilogy specifically or might it continue? Is the protagonist going to get killed at the end of the third book by the C.I.A.? Mackey: Well, I don't proceed with some mapped-out plan or some blueprint. I can't tell you how it's going to end. I didn't really know what I was getting into when I started that series. In fact, I would have thought you were crazy if you had told me years ago that I would be doing a third volume, at some point, of these little prose things that I had started to do. I started in the late seventies with the first few of those "Dear Angel of Dust" letters, and I didn't really know what was happening. "Dear Angel of Dust" is a phrase that really just came into my head. It came into my head before there was really even a letter or occasion, just "Dear Angel of Dust." At that point I didn't know whether it was something that would be a line or an image in a poem or what, but it spoke to me and intrigued me, resonated for me, and just held on and held on. The letters got started from an actual correspondence. A friend of mine to whom I'd sent a couple of poems or something wrote back with some questions. By way of talking about or addressing those questions I wrote it out in the form of a letter which began "Dear Angel of Dust" and made a copy and sent it to this friend. So it began in actual correspondence but it was like proposing another correspondence that I was allowing this friend to eavesdrop on, so to speak, though the thoughts were provoked by his questions. At that point I was getting interested in prose as something which could include, in a more explicit way, certain types and areas of information that I was interested in but that I couldn't work into poetry, at least not in such an explicit way as I could in prose. One can be discursive and one can use various modes of address, so I started writing a few of these letters. I didn't know how to think of them, whether they were prose poems or what. In any case, a couple of the first few that came occurred in the context of poems and are included in Eroding Witness. So it started off being meditational/manifesto type assertions which were making certain propositions about poetics that were related to the poems that they occurred in the context of. Then this idea of having N. form or be a member of a band came about and they really sort of took off in a direction of their own -- more narrative, and longer. When I started doing those first few I still didn't know just how much of that there would be. It just turned out to be something that grew on me. And it continues to go on. Funkhouser: It's a terrific form. Mackey: Oh yeah, it's right there, very immediate. It goes right back to the roots of the English novel and the fact that we often end up reading the letters of this, that or the other writer. It seemed like that form, which is episodic, which doesn't seek to totalize but to be just the expression of a particular occasion, fit my commitment to process. The serial form that you ask about -- I use it in poetry too -- is something that has been around for quite a while and has been increasingly used by poets and the advantages of it have been talked about quite a bit. It gets you away from, among other things, the idea of the well-made little poem that is self-contained and static. You begin to have work that carries over and that you pick up the resonances of and carry forth. It invites you to think about work that you've already done as incomplete and open to further articulation or modification, variation, which is a lot of what improvisation is, working out the suggestions that reside within a previous statement, a musical line or whatever. You start pulling things out of it that you didn't know were there. For example, the poem sequence "Septet for the End of Time," a sequence of eight poems at the end of Eroding Witness, for a long time was just that one poem "Capricorn Rising" which is the first of the eight. But I found that those three words that begin each of the poems, "I wake up...," just kept coming back. Funkhouser: And you do wake up... Mackey: Right. So the next thing I knew I had written another poem that began "I wake up..." and it took up with some of the imagery of "Capricorn Rising." I began to consciously go back in and work with that kind of literal re-articulation and further articulation of things that were resonant in "Capricorn Rising," letting it unfold into a particular sequence. That's one of the senses of open-form poetry to me: when something is apparently closed you can break it open and pull further implications and explications out of it. That's the process that I work with, in both verse and prose. Often writing is a form of re-reading for me, just going back and seeing things in something I've written that I didn't see before. So much writing comes out of reading anyway, reading other people, so why shouldn't it come out of reading yourself? Funkhouser: It is exciting, not just for the writer but for someone who is interested in the writer who can wait with interest for what is to come, and it's definitely a way to enliven literature. Then again, I've been thinking of your work as more than just literature, as something more like anthropology, especially with all the musicology and different spirits that come into it. Beyond this, there may be political implications as well, which brings me to ask you about your experience with being a black publisher, editor, poet, and teacher. Obviously it is intricately interwoven through the material, but is there any particular direction you're taking it? Mackey: Do you mean literary politics? Funkhouser: Sure, also cultural and social politics. Mackey: Well, some of this stuff we've already touched on. I think that politics is, among other things, laying claim to one's own authority. And that is obviously something people from socially marginalized groups are not encouraged to do. So simply being an author, and laying claim to one's authority, in that sense, is already fraught with political resonances, especially in the case of African-Americans, who less than 150 years ago were forbidden to read and write. There were laws against African- American literacy for decades and decades in this country. The monopolistic claim to literacy by the dominant white culture is one of the things that the African-American literary tradition has been at odds with and up against from the beginning. And we continue that. It hasn't gone away. There are other forms of authority besides one's writing. Being an editor, being a publisher. All those things are a part of doing it, of putting oneself in the position of making decisions, saying, "This is how I'm going to write" or "These are the pieces I'm going to publish." These are things that can't help being social and political in those senses, which seem to me perfectly obvious. Funkhouser: But it's not always stated forthrightly in discussions or in print. By and large, a lot of people aren't thinking of it that way, with such fortitude, of the poet or writer as an authority. Poetry seems to be a very subversive form of communication, almost, and can be very political. Maybe it's not politicized enough... Mackey: We have to make some distinction between literary politics -- which is the politics of power and distribution of power among writers and groups of writers -- and politics in the society at large, which is why I ask. What we've got is politics within politics. Certainly anybody who publishes or seeks to publish, who becomes a writer, is immediately involved in some arena of literary politics. "You write more like certain people than you do certain other people." "Your writing speaks more to certain groups than it does to other groups." "You have affinities with certain writers and certain audiences and certain other audiences can't stand you." Things like that. So that's inevitable. Inevitably you're doing something that is probably rubbing against somebody else. Funkhouser: Another reason I asked the question is because Western culture is overtly racist. Your experience with that is without doubt very different than mine. At the same time, you really thrive within it. Mackey: Well, like I said, people who are not supposed to speak with any authority claiming their right to speak with authority goes against the kinds of racism that you're talking about. The kind of challenging and questioning of categories that I spoke about earlier is very important to that too. Mixes of things that defy and redefine boundary lines are very important in the literary politics, cultural politics, and marginalized social politics of the time we're living in. What kinds of groupings, what kinds of work you publish in your magazine, what kinds of intellectual and other sorts of influences and predecessors you bring together in your work, all of those things speak to an order or possible order of things. I think that to the extent that they diverge from and challenge the accepted orderings and accepted boundary lines, the accepted, monolithic senses of what is possible, there's a seed in that. How long it will take to germinate, how big it will grow -- I think that when we're talking about things of this sort we're talking about a long range thing, we're not talking about immediate gains. All of this is trying to do something. The writing and these other activities come out of living, come out of the desires and demands we make upon living. Those desires and demands call for change because we're not doing the kind of living often enough that we want to be doing. The reasons for that include factors that can be changed, factors that we have some control of as human beings. Poetry, music, sculpture, or painting that speaks from that discontent and unrest is mobilizing an awareness that things are not what we want them to be and there has to be a movement towards them becoming what we want. That's the politics of art. That's always been the politics of art. Certainly in the foreseeable future it will continue to be the politics of art. Funkhouser: I remember from somewhere in your work the phrase "Antediluvian sense of design." I guess in a way that's what I just heard from you, at least in terms of the politics of art. Who are the visual artists of the time that you are interested in? Mackey: I'm not really up on visual arts. I can't really say much about visual arts. I consider myself not a terribly visual person. I'm just really not. I don't seek out the visual arts in the way I seek out music. Funkhouser: In sections I've read from the prose book that's about to come out there are descriptions of The Mystic Horn Society's "Quantum- Qualitative Increments." I am wondering if you've ever actually experienced this yourself in writing or performing. Mackey: Yes. I've certainly experienced it in writing. Since I'm not a musician I can't say that I've actually experienced it in musical performance, and I can't say that I've experienced it in reading my work, although there are some readings where your voice is dealing in nuances that it hadn't dealt in before. Some readings are better than others. Some readings you are able to hear, see, think implications in the words, or between the words, or among the words, that you are somehow able to translate in a way that you didn't foresee or think about in advance in your vocal rendering of a piece. That's happened, and I think it has something to do with the character of the occasion and the audience that one is reading to. There are certain times when I've read when I've sensed a quality of attention in the audience that had an impact on the way I read, in a way that I'm often writing about in the "Angel of Dust" letters, that sense that N. is often talking about of picking up on what's going on in the audience and that becoming a part of the performance, having an impact on the performance in some way. I've had that kind of experience in readings. One doesn't have that sitting by oneself and writing, but I've had the experience of breakthroughs when writing, words and formulations of a certain sort, new and unprepared for, that I didn't know were there, experiences where I had to ask, "Why now?" Funkhouser: Have you ever performed with music as texture or performed with musicians? Mackey: Not very much. I read at the University of San Francisco about a year and a half ago in a reading that included Allen Ginsberg, Diane DiPrima, and others. Don Cherry, who was there to accompany Ginsberg, came up while I was reading with flutes and some percussion instruments, gourd rattles and stuff, and began to play. This was not planned, was very spontaneous, about half-way through my portion of the reading. I knew he was going to show up because Ginsberg had mentioned it, and apparently he showed up while I was reading. I didn't see him come up on stage but I was reading and heard this flute and knew immediately who it was. So I had to alter my reading a bit. I had to listen to him, and he listened to me. Apparently it turned out pretty well. I haven't heard the tape but people said so. I haven't done a whole lot of that. The other thing that's kind of close to that, but really different, is that last spring, in a program called "Exercises for Ear," Dave Barrett, who's a musician in the Bay Area -- part of the Splatter Trio -- put together at Small Press Distribution and at New Langton Arts a program for which he got a number of writers and composers to come up with compositions that he and several other musicians performed. He invited me to take part in that. What I did was use a portion of the text from From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate which describes a composition. In fact, it's from that section that's in Conjunctions 16. There's a piece that's called "Udhrite Amendment." I simply sent that with some accompanying texts, because that portion refers to other things, some sections of Bedouin Hornbook. I sent those texts and simply said, "Can you get a performance of 'Udhrite Amendment' based on what's written here?" And they did. There was a performance of that at New Langton Arts in early June. But I haven't done a whole lot of that sort of thing. I've thought about doing it, reading to musical accompaniment, but just never found a musician who's around on a regular basis. Because the rhythms of the poems I write are so cut to my voice and my sense of placement and space and so on, it would really take some work to get to where I could, with some musicians, have the kind of interplay that would do both the music of their music and the music of my music justice. I realized that at the reading when Don Cherry showed up, that I had to alter some of my rhythms, in some ways make them less idiosyncratic to fit the music that he was making. Funkhouser: With regards to education: by and large, in the academy, when poetry is taught it is left on the page. Written and printed texts are read. There usually isn't as much exploration of audiotexts and sound as a part of poetry, when in actuality that's where the roots of poetry are. In your own teaching do you bring this in as an element? Mackey: When I teach I include as a part of the experience of a poem, to the extent that it is possible, hearing the poetry. That means in some cases getting recordings, when they're available, of the poet in question and playing it in class. If they're not available, and it's a poet I've heard read, I'll give students some sense of how that poet reads, how that poet sounds. If it's a poet whose work I haven't heard, I'll ask if there are any students who have heard the poet read. Just stressing how the poem sounds is not only important but indispensible to the experience of the poem. I'll have people read the work out loud, offer their senses of how it sounds, and talk about certain aspects of how the poem sounds, the rhythm, where the stresses are falling -- not in some scansion sense but what that has to do with what the poem is saying, how it's being said. I try to get the poem off the page. I think the experience of how the poem is on the page is important too. For me it's not an either/or situation. Both of those things are important. I write with the sound of the poem in mind. But I don't write poems that I expect to be fully digested simply by being heard. I write with the fact that people can go to the text in mind. I try to write a type of poetry that takes advantage of the possibility of reading and re- reading, even though I don't think that simply reading the poem on the page is enough. In some cases of poets who write poetry that is put forth as poetry that needs to be heard, has to be heard, is primarily oral, sometimes it makes for a poetry that is not very satisfying or interesting when it's on the page. I want both things to be happening. I want it to be interesting when you hear it, and I want it to hold your attention in both kinds of readings. I want it to hold your attention when you hear it and when you're reading it on the page. Funkhouser: I wanted to ask you about Hambone. How did it come about? Is it a life-long project? I'm fascinated by the Hambone network, by and large very unknown poets -- on a wide scale -- but the magazine in itself coming together so incredibly, and the last issue, number 9, tied together by the interaction and interview with Brathwaite, your relationship with him. It astounds me how few people know about Hambone. Mackey: It doesn't astound me! Going back a little bit, to something we were talking about earlier, which is the idea of networks of association and communities of interest, inclination, and affinity -- the cultivation and pursuit of that, the registration of that, is one of the central reasons for editing a magazine as far as I'm concerned. That was a central ambition I had when I started to edit and publish Hambone in the early eighties. I was actually reviving a magazine whose first issue had appeared in 1974 when I was still a graduate student at Stanford. It was in a different format and in a different situation, which we don't need to go into, but in many ways when I started Hambone again in the early eighties it was a different magazine, although I called the first issue I did in the eighties Hambone 2. For one thing, I was the sole editor, whereas in '74 I was working with other people. In any case, in the eighties my idea was to simply put my sense of a community of writers and artists on a kind of map, in one place. So in Hambone 2, in which all of the material was solicited, that meant having a talk by Sun Ra and poems by Robert Duncan, poems by Beverly Dahlen, Jay Wright, fiction by Clarence Major, Wilson Harris, poems by Edward Kamau Brathwaite and so on. That issue was sort of saying, "Ok, here's my map, a significant part of it, and we're going to call it Hambone." It seems to me that's what little magazines do, and do best. They put a particular editor's sense of "what's up" out there, and you find out who out there is interested in that. There are poets and writers that I have come to publish in Hambone since that issue, and have published several times, who have become repeat Hambone contributors, people I have gotten to know that I didn't know before I started publishing Hambone that I have gotten to know -- at least their work -- through them reading Hambone and seeing Hambone and feeling that this was a map that they had a place on. That's the function of a magazine, I think -- to create those kind of contacts and those kind of connections. Whether it will go on my whole life? I'm pretty sure that it won't. I don't know how much longer it will go on. Again, it was to make a particular mix available that one would not normally find -- for instance, Sun Ra and Robert Duncan in the same publication. Funkhouser: So are you teaching out of necessity, or are your feelings about it stronger than that? Mackey: I teach out of necessity but at the same time it's a necessity that I try to make useful in ways that further my concerns and things that I'd like to get done. The teaching I do is folded in and connected to the other things that I do. When we were talking about Hambone, you mentioned the interview with Brathwaite, and your sense that it didn't seem fortuitous, I guess, that I was talking to Brathwaite and I seemed to be talking about concerns that were his concerns and vice-versa. Well, Brathwaite is someone whose work I got interested in in the early '70's, and have read, and taught, and written critical work about. So I've been influenced by his work, I've been turned on to things by his work. That's one instance of how my work as a teacher is connected with my work as a writer. I'm at the university and one of the things that I do at the university besides teach is write literary criticism about some of the writers that I have published in Hambone. For example, in Hambone 2 there were writers like Brathwaite whose work I had been reading, in some instances teaching, and in some instances had written about, like Duncan and Harris. Paul Metcalf is someone whose work I have taught, although I haven't written on his work. Susan Howe was in that issue. I've taught her work. Jay Wright's work I've taught, though I haven't written extensively on it. Clarence Major I've taught and written on. So that's just talking about the connection between teaching and editing. Those are also writers who have informed my own work, and my own sense of what's possible in writing in various ways. Those things all go around in a circle with one another. I try to get teaching and being in the university to work with, complement, and reinforce the work that I do as a writer and as an editor/publisher. The occasion of that interview with Brathwaite was the fact that Brathwaite was here as a Regent's Professor for a couple of weeks at UCSC. He was here because I nominated him for it, in the same way that a few years ago Wilson Harris was here as a Regent's Professor because I nominated him. Both those visits resulted in me getting to know those writers better, resulted in some publication of interviews or whatever in Hambone, and student interaction. The quarter that Brathwaite was here I was teaching a course on Caribbean literature and we were reading, among other things, his work. He came and spoke to the class one day while he was here. I think we were reading George Lamming's work, who's also from Barbados, and Brathwaite talked a bit about Lamming's novel In the Castle of My Skin, about the Caribbean situation -- Barbados particularly -- and students asked questions and he answered them. So, again, regarding the question of audience, as an editor I'm interested in cultivating, creating certain kinds of audiences, reaching people with the work of people I think they should be reading. As a teacher I'm trying to do the same thing, and those things lend themselves to one another. It is no accident that I publish and teach some of the same people.