In an era when poetry is increasingly compressed to fit our iPhone screens, Nathaniel Mackey has been writing two astonishing long poems—“Mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou—across multiple books for the past thirty-five years. “Mu” and Song of the Andoumboulou are two ongoing sequences beaded with his insights on cosmology, grief, ancestry, migration, and black life. The utterance mu suggests “mouth,” “myth,” but also “muse,” whereas Mackey defines Andoumboulou, taken from Dogon myth, as “a rough draft of human being, the work-in-progress we continue to be. . . . The song of the Andoumboulou is one of striving, strain, abrasion, an all but asthmatic song of aspiration.”
Perhaps more than any other contemporary poet, Mackey is deeply inspired by jazz, especially Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Don Cherry, and John Coltrane, all of whom informed his belief that black ontology need not be tied to testimony or narrative but can be felt through what Mackey calls “a communication of inference.” This language is improvisatory, paratactic, his lyric strands drifting through time, place, and persona. Mackey is also inspired by an avant-garde lineage of poets ranging from William Carlos Williams to Robert Duncan, as well as by his friends, the poets Fred Moten and Ed Roberson. Mackey’s poems are hypnotic praises, dirges, feverish dream songs of an unnamed diasporic voyage, songs that are always reaching for, but never arriving at, a destination.
Born in Florida in 1947 and raised in a working-class family in Southern California, Mackey attended Princeton to study math and instead turned to poetry. Afterward, he studied at Stanford, where he earned a Ph.D. in literature. His first chapbook, Four for Trane, was published in 1978. His most well-known collection, Splay Anthem, won the 2006 National Book Award, and his work has been recognized with other prestigious awards, including the Bollingen Prize and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. Mackey has published two books of criticism, Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (1993) and Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews (2005), and five other books of prose, the most recent being the epistolary novel Late Arcade (2017). Mackey taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for several decades and is now the Reynolds Price Distinguished Professor at Duke University.
We met in April 2016 in New York, both for this interview and to participate in an event where poets talked to local high school students. Mackey, who is tall with an upright, regal bearing, had on a black T-shirt and wore his long, graying dreads loose. While known for his formidable intellect, in person he is kind and down-to-earth. With the students, he was at ease, even playful. Asked about his influences, Mackey said, “I stole a lot from my kids, like, one of them said, ‘When can I go back to Chucky Jesus?’ That’s in my book.”
Our formal interview began after the visit, in front of an audience at the 92nd Street Y. It resumed a few days later in the lobby of his hotel in Midtown. We didn’t speak again until winter 2019, when we tied up the interview over email. During that gap, Mackey’s concept of Andoumboulou—humans as rough draft, man’s inhumanity to man—gained urgency in the face of rising fascism and accelerating climate change. But it also continues to offer the distant and gnostic hope that our struggle is cyclical and ongoing, and that if and when we are gone, there will be something else.
How did Andoumboulou start?
In the early seventies, when I was working at a radio station in Northern California, KTAO in Los Gatos, I found an album of Dogon music in the station’s library, Les Dogon, which had funeral songs on one side, and one of them was “Song of the Andoumboulou.” I was struck by the quality of voice in the singing. It has a raspy sound to it that appealed to me. And then there was the business of the deceased being reborn in another world, which is marked by a trumpet blare. There were these very textured tonalities that have a kind of braiding quality to them. Before I really knew more about the Andoumboulou—there was very little about them in the liner notes—I was invested in that particular song and that particular title.
I was beginning to be attracted to writing in series, writing sets, so I decided to stay with that in a set or series called Song of the Andoumboulou. It would be made up of poems that roughly have to do with mortality and sexuality and with the kinds of symbolic counters that are used to talk about them.
The first line in Andoumboulou is, “The song says the / dead will not / ascend without song.” When you’re talking about mortality, is this a kind of remembering?
Yes, it’s a kind of remembering. The song does remember the deceased, and it’s the song that helps the deceased move on—to ascend, in the words of the poem, to the next life. I wanted to take that and apply it to senses of transition and, hopefully, ascendance within life, moments where one feels one has to move on and move up. I didn’t know it would become an ongoing, theoretically endless series—
Did you think it was going to last thirty-plus years?
No, I didn’t sign the contract. I was too young to go steady. At that point I didn’t think that it was an open series. But, as I look back on it, I think you can feel the unrest and the dis-ease with closure even in my first book, Eroding Witness (1985), which ends with an eight-poem set called Septet for the End of Time. I mean, here you have something that’s called Septet, suggesting seven, but it’s got eight poems, it’s comprised of eight. It’s already dealing with senses of insufficiency and surplus. That disequilibrium keeps things in motion, ongoing.
You have remarked that for you the Andoumboulou as a poetic figure basically means that the human race is a rough draft, a work in progress. In Blue Fasa you write, “Draft, meant drift, meant scheme, meant sketch.”
I didn’t find out about that aspect until I read The Pale Fox, Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen’s study of the Dogon, which talks about the Andoumboulou as an earlier form of human being, kind of a trial form that didn’t work out.
That’s when I got through to the sense of the Andoumboulou as a kind of metaphor for us and our present, you know, failed condition, the Andoumboulou as a failed form, a rough draft of humanity. It became a way for me to look at it as not just a funeral song, but also as something I could bring other stuff into, our failure to live up to the most ideal senses of humanity, for one. The Dogon also—even though African cultures are thought of as oral cultures, and certainly the oral component is a defining feature—the Dogon are very much into graphics, into markings and visual signs. So, the foregrounding of texture—rasp, abradedness, rub as prototextuality—alongside the Dogon valorization of graphic marking led me to think of the Andoumboulou as rough drafts, rough drafts of humanity. When we, à la Robert Burns, talk about “man’s inhumanity to man,” we’re talking about our continuing Andoumboulouousness.
I love that word. I want to say it all the time.
I start every day with it, in front of the mirror. I say, Andoumboulouousness. Never failed me yet. It’s the idea that we’re hopefully evolving, that we’re hopefully getting better, that we’re a draft closer to what we mean when we say humanity in an idealistic sense. And it seems that this fits the serial poetic form, which is in some way the poetics of drafting. Rachel Blau DuPlessis calls her long serial poem Drafts. This emphasis on provisionality, working toward whatever perfection or whatever perfectability there might be, is something that at the formal level is reinforcing and signifying what, at a kind of thematic level, this business of Andoumboulouousness is getting at. Reading The Pale Fox, I came to the sense that my poem was about the Andoumboulou but also about Andoumboulouousness, that it’s never satisfied with any of its iterations, that it will continue to go on and on and on.