[Wgcp-whc] WG/CP--Special Session this Thurs and minutes 9-22

richard.deming at yale.edu richard.deming at yale.edu
Wed Sep 27 01:13:38 EDT 2006


Dear All,

Just a reminder that the Working Group in Contemporary Poetics will be meeting
for a special session this Thursday at 3-5 in Rm 116 in the Whitney Humanities
Center.  For this session Nathaniel Mackey will join us for a discussion of his
work as a poet, critic, and anthologist.  His author page can be found at the
Electronic Poetry Center
(http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/mackey/mackey-bio.htm).  All are welcome to

The group met last Friday, Sept 22 for the first session of the new academic
work.  Mackey?s poetry collection Splay Anthem and his book of essays
Paracritical Hinge were the focus of the discussion in preparation for
Mackey?s coming visit.  I will keep the minutes of that session brief since
we will be revisiting many of these issues again on Thursday, after which I
will provide a more fulsome account.

In talking about Mackey?s work, we focused on a set of formal and aesthetic
challenges that characterize Mackey?s work.  The first of these was the dense
musicality of the work.  We noted that the complexity of the music often served
to disrupt an absorptive, overdetermining attention to the narrative frame of
what is otherwise a serial poem, linked over a series of books. In the preface
to Splay Anthem, Mackey notes that this collection takes up and extends two
earlier works: Mu and Song of the Andoumboulou.  Immediately, one is amidst one
of the issues that Mackey?s work most takes on, and that is a query into the
possibilities and limitations of lyric ?on-goingness.?  If narrative
apparatus is destabilized or pushed into the background, what keeps various
elements of a text (or musical composition) interconnected enough to convey a
sense of cohesion, yet a cohesion that does not overdetermine interpretive
expectations?  This is an issue of poetics that speaks, perhaps, to
epistemological as well as aesthetic concerns.

One model for looking at Mackey?s work was as maximal minimalism.  That is,
for some lyric poets, the text strips away as much narrative as possible in an
investigation into determining the barest elements that taken together
constitute narrative.  Examples of such poets might include Gustaf Sobin,
George Oppen, Michael Palmer, Emmanuel Hocquard (indeed, see minutes from last
semester in terms of the question of Hocquard and a poem?s dramatic staging
of voice), and Susan Howe.  Mackey, however, seems to include more and more
material?in particular recurring sound patterns, allusions, and musical
tropes?that still cut against expectations of how things would otherwise be
assembled to continue the poem?s forward motion.  In other words, how much
can a poet include and still resist an epic frame?

There were musical corollaries that were summoned to think through Mackey?s
poetics (jazz in particular is an artform that is part of Mackey?s palette of
source texts). One comparison was made with the composer John Adams, whose
minimalist works continually unfold in such a way that a central theme is not
the focus that provides a recurring structure.  Much like free jazz, the music
is wrested from a standard chord progression and each note works as a kind of
passing tone towards and away a new and ever developing tonal center. For
samples of Adams?s work see

The more direct musical analogue is indeed free jazz.  In fact, the work of Don
Cherry is immediately connected to Mackey?s poems as the term Mu is referring
in part to Cherry?s album of the same name. There was some question of what
Don Cherry?s Mu sounds like.  I am including a link to a music blog that has
a track available on streaming audio.

Mackey?s work is densely allusive and we talked about how it extends a
Poundian poetics that comes through Eliot (on one hand) and up through Charles
Olson and Robert Duncan on another.  Mackey?s allusions activate expectations
for narrative but then defer satisfying those expectations.  The question
remains whether or not one is supposed to recognize the allusions to jazz, to
African history and mythology, to other sections of the ongoing sequence, if
one is expected to go find the information (along an Eliotic model of readerly
responsibility) or whether the allusions activate the possibilities of other
cultural associations. Thus, the reader fills in material that seems to address
the allusive references even if they are different references than those
intended. In any event, these all serve to suggest but still make diffuse the
poetry?s lyric subjectivity, which seems in line with the way that Mackey
invokes nouns and names but then empties them out or ring Sausserian chord
changes on them (?nub? becomes ?Nubian? and ?nab? and so
forth?frayed becomes ?braid, etc or Mu, which is the name for the land that
the departed ancestors walked, its absence brought into view even as we remember
that Mu also means ?nothing?) so all nouns are in the process of becoming
something else or pointing out the contingent separations between nouns.

There is more, much more to say, as this first session was lively, generative
and provocative.  Here is a list of initial questions that we will use to shape
Thursday?s discussion:

There is a density of allusions to his poems.  What is his sense of the way
that these allusions are read by readers?  Pound and Eliot, similarly allusive,
would have expected readers to do the legwork to find these allusions'
references.  What is Mackey?s feeling about what a reader's responsibility
ought to
be in terms of seeking out the history, culture, and so forth that his poems
bring in.

How does Mackey?s critical work inform his poetry?

Mackey has noted the ways that Olson, Duncan, and Williams are models for his
work.  In what ways do his poems extend, critique, and answer those
        We noted a conscious attempt to ring all meanings out of each noun; how
are presence/absence articulated at the level of the letter for Mackey?

   How important is it to Mackey that the poem create a community in the world?
whom are they addressed?
        In thinking of Mackey?s work, what purpose is served by the
elaboration of what
might be called a canon of ethnopoetics?

Of use might be this article from Arizona Quarterly by Robert Zamsky that does a
terrific job working through the effects of jazz on and in Mackey?s work.

More briefly, here is a recent online review of Splay Anthem.

Two last items:

Of interest to group members in the NYC area: Suzanne Doppelt, author and
photographer, collaborator on the philosophy journal called Vacarme, an
important figure in the life of Pierre Alferi when he wrote Oxo (her photos
grace the book), is coming to NYC to present a show in November. Some of her
recent writing and photography is presented here...

Also, Jean-Jacques Poucel one of our tireless co-ordinators, and a leading
Oulipo scholar (his book on Jacques Roubaud is due out any day) has put
together an Oulipo dossier as part of the latest issue of Drunken Boat, one of
the most estimable online journals around.  Here is the curator?s note for
the dossier:

Curator?s Note: When I initially accepted the invitation to curate a special
feature on the Oulipo for Drunken Boat, I decided to explore the current
horizons of potential literature on the Internet, for what better place to
consider that expansive topic than in an online journal whose namesake, Arthur
Rimbaud, had promised to recount the latent birth of vowels? This dossier does
not purport to present an exhaustive overview of Oulipian, para-Oulipian, or
Ou-x-pian activities, but seeks rather to provide a sampling of recent work by
artists who take an interest in the pursuit of potentiality via constraint.
With few exceptions, I have selected work that may be readily approached on the
monitor, in some cases without providing translation, mostly because translation
or adaptation seemed (nearly) impossible. Since there is already quite a lot of
Oulipian and Ou-x-pian work available online, I have provided selected links in
appropriate places.

See the dossier here:

And why not preorder Jean-Jacques?s Jacques Roubaud and the Invention of
Memory today:

?The Working Group in Contemporary Poetry and Poetics meets every other Friday
at 3.00 PM in room 116 at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University to
discuss problems and issues of contemporary poetry within international
alternative and /or avant-garde traditions of lyric poetry. All are welcome to

DC al coda,

Richard Deming, Recorder

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