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The Atmosphere is Alive: Nathaniel Mackey in Conversation

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Nathaniel Mackey
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Sarah Rosenthal: Sometimes you create a superimposition of images. In Splay Anthem you have the couple in the bedroom and then in comes the image of the bar/lounge. Sometimes it seems as if the people I'm seeing in the bar are still the couple, while other times they seem to be a whole group of people. This superimposition draws my attention to what different images share. For example, both the bedroom and the bar are sites of a search for an altered state, which can be brought about by alcohol, or verbal or physical intimacy, or dreams. The mixing of pronouns furthers this sense of simultaneity or braiding of images or locations.

Nathaniel Mackey: It's palimpsestic in that sense. The images are atop one another. But they're also revising and erasing one another to some extent. I like the phrase "altered state." They're altering one another. There is a desire in the poems for steadiness and the everlasting, yet it's complicated by the desire to move on and not let things simply devolve into the status quo, the static, stasis in some stultifying sense. There's a lot of emphasis on movement in the poems, and there's a lot of questions about ultimate arrival, about whether there is such a state or place. It's a poetry of seemingly endlessly altered states. The endlessness of those alterations is by turns a source of joy and a source of lament—ecstatic but haunted by the fact that one then moves on, that ecstasy doesn't last forever.

SR: Paul Naylor has written that "the desire for [a] state of 'two-ness' is the driving force behind Whatsaid Serif." I think of your poetry as pursuing a dialectic between oneness and two-ness, or between oneness and multiplicity. Your figure of the archetypal lover couple seems to enact such a dialectic. Couples want to merge and can momentarily achieve a feeling of merging. Yet that feeling inevitably dissolves and the two are back in their separate places again. This movement between merging and separating seems to come up often in your work.

NM: It's one of the dimensions of the way I've been working with the pronoun "we" in recent years. That "we" runs the gamut from the he/she couple to larger groupings—you mentioned "nation"—that the title Splay Anthem evokes. One of the things that makes the anthem "splay"—an awkward anthem, a disturbed anthem—is the fact that one is of more than one mind in this desire to be a part of a "we," whether it's a couple, a nation, or some other collectivity. This ambivalence splays the anthem, the unifying song of whatever the collective is. The collectivity that these poems seem to be about or to chronicle in some way, the lost tribe that sometimes goes by the name of the Andoumboulou, seems to be some renegade group whose relationship to established collectivities is a fugitive one. This lost tribe is in flight from such established groups and seemingly in search of some alternative way of bonding. The alternative that they seek is marked by the word "splay." This is an anthem that wants to open out, that is ungainly—I think "ungainly" is one of the synonyms for "splay"—that is wary of the harmonies and the symmetries of conventional, bonded ways of public belonging. Again, a musical reference suggests itself. I always think of Albert Ayler's music as a kind of anthem for a collectivity that doesn't exist and maybe can't exist. Ayler was one of the avant-garde jazz saxophonists of the sixties. There was an old New Orleans marching band quality to his music. He'd have titles like "Truth Is Marching In" or "Our Prayer." There was a very millenarian sense of expedition and arrival in his titles and in the music, but also a strangely backward-reaching quality as well. One of the things that's always stayed with me is some critic referring to Ayler's music as sounding like a Salvation Army band on acid. I think the critic meant it pejoratively, but I thought, That's an interesting possibility. Because when you think about the missions of the Salvation Army, that's certainly a laudable thing. And on acid, I mean—if the Salvation Army band on acid isn't a splay anthem, then that title means nothing.

So that oblique, outward-bound impulse toward some alternate collectivity, some alternate form of bonding and belonging, informs the perturbations that we've talked about, which take place on the individual male-female romance level but also in the sense of lost or diminished possibility that comes across in the sense of having moved into the republic of Nub at the end of the book, where the collective seems to be diminished and insufficient and stifling. That last section of the book is very much informed by the atmosphere in this country over the last several years post-9/11—the sense of diminishment—"diminishment" being the term that keeps coming up when I think about the contraction and the circling of the wagons that we've suffered and continue to suffer and that the leaders of the country continue to inflict upon us. Hence that sense of "nub" –the "[n]ot yet / nation of Nub" and all that stuff that's coming into those last poems in Splay Anthem, which I had no way of forecasting when I began the book.

SR: Did you begin the book before 9/11?

NM: Oh, yes. I must have begun Splay Anthem somewhere in '96. I was finishing "Fray" in the summer of 2001 and going into the fall. And then the "Nub" section came.

SR: So the poetry is your own form of direct response to world events.

NM: It has always been that. It doesn't announce that in a topical way, but again, the atmosphere is alive. One of the things that that figure... "we lay on our backs," is trying to get at is a state of receptivity and reverie that is returned to again and again and again. The phrase is speaking, among other things, of that intuitive openness that I talked about earlier as being something that I want to keep in the writing process, that sense of feeling my way. And feeling my way, I'm imprinted by what happens. I'm multiply imprinted. Again, it's a palimpsest.

Excerpted from A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area, published by Dalkey Archive Press, www.dalkeyarchive.com, copyright © 2010 by Sarah Rosenthal.