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Nathaniel Mackey wins National Book Award

September 29, 2007

Nathaniel Mackey wins National Book Award
By Kwan Booth (November 22, 2006-Oakland Post)
Staff Writer

In a turn of poetic justice, African American poet Nathaniel Mackey has been awarded the 2006 National Book Award for his latest poetry collection, “Splay Anthem.” With the distinction, Mackey joins a short list of black writers including poets Ai and Lucille Clifton and novelists Charles Johnson and Alice Walker.
Splay Anthem was selected from 13,000 works submitted by publishers from around the country. Mackey, known as a poet, critic, fiction writer and professor, has written 14 books during his 27 year career, while teaching literature at UC Santa Cruz and serving as editor for the influential multicultural journal “Hambone.”
Countee Cullen’s famous poem, “Yet Do I Marvel”, notes what a “curious thing” it is “to make a poet black and bid him sing”. When that poet displays an experimental nature in his work, playing with syntax, meaning and sound, that curiosity often results in cultural obscurity. The award is a high point in the career of the poet who, although respected for his creativity, has not received the attention many feel he deserves.
James C. Hall writes in his essay “Contacts: Writing By and About Nathaniel Mackey” that “While there is little question that Mackey is ‘recognized’, his rich body of literary work has not been engaged (that is to say written about) with the energy that one might expect.”
Mackey emerged at the end of the black arts movement, heavily influenced by free jazz, experimental and traditional African music. He admits to following the path laid by poets William Carlos Williams and Amiri Baraka, another Black writer who structures his work within a jazz context.
In an interview with Christopher Funkhouser, he reveals that reading Baraka “was one of the things that galvanized the relationship between writing, reading, and music which began to develop for me.”
A longtime radio host on FUSP FM in central California, Mackey’s Sunday evening show “Tanganyika Strut” moves from world music and jazz to poetry and commentary, often dipping into difficult artistic territory not given much airtime elsewhere.
Ever the iconoclast, Mackey knows his work challenges readers and listeners (he’s also released a CD of poetry and music). But he demands the effort, both from his audience and himself, saying that he is most drawn to work he has to revisit several times.
“What any experimental art is trying to get you to do” he explains, “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.”

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