Papers of prize-winning poet/writer Nathaniel Mackey acquired by Emory

June 16, 2014

Story image
Nathaniel Mackey

The papers of acclaimed poet Nathaniel Mackey, who won the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in May, have been acquired by Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL).

The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, given by the Poetry Foundation, is a $100,000 lifetime achievement award, one of the most lucrative literary prizes in the world. Mackey also won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2006.

"It was a thrill when Mackey’s papers arrived at MARBL in April, just a month before the poet won the Lilly Prize," says poet Kevin Young, curator of literary collections and of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at MARBL and Atticus Haygood Professor of English and creative writing at Emory.

“MARBL has become synonymous with poetry and is known worldwide for our tremendous African American collections,” Young says."Mackey’s remarkable papers extend our collection’s myriad strengths, while deepening our sense of the literary and musical traditions that Mackey so eloquently embodies.”

“Mackey has one of the most influential creative and intellectual voices of our era, with work that spans poetry, criticism, fiction, and more,” says MARBL director Rosemary Magee."It is very meaningful for us to have him represented in our collections with so many other significant writers and, especially, just as his work gains such well-deserved recognition.”

About Nathaniel Mackey

Born in Miami in 1947 and raised in Southern California, Mackey earned his BA in English from Princeton University and his PhD in English and American literature from Stanford University. He has taught at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Southern California, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is currently the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University.

Mackey, who was cited in a recent New York Times article as an influence on a generation of African American writers and poets, has written in a range of genres. In addition to poetry, Mackey writes prose, nonfiction, novels and criticism and has served as an editor of anthologies such as"Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose” (1993). Since 1982, he has also served as the founding editor and publisher of Hambone, a groundbreaking literary magazine with a continued focus on innovative writing and contributors of various racial and ethnic backgrounds.

A New York Times Book Review article describes one of Mackey’s novels as"not simply writing about jazz, but writing as jazz.” Young agrees:"Drawing from jazz, he’s writing through the music and using its aesthetic to govern his own. But he’s also describing what he sees through a jazz lens that proves remarkable both in terms of music and of experimentation and language.” In a recent Poetry Foundation article, Mackey described his writing process as"a way of living with what you’ve written, in some way living through what you’ve written, but also having an interaction with lived experience.”

Mackey’s books of poetry include"Nod House” (2011);"Splay Anthem” (2006), winner of the National Book Award in Poetry;"Whatsaid Serif” (1998);"Song of the Andoumboulou: 18-20” (1994); and"Eroding Witness” (1985), which was selected for the National Poetry Series. He has also published prose volumes including an ongoing work,"From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate,” which contains four volumes:"Bedouin Hornbook” (1986),"Djbot Baghostus’s Run” (1993),"Atet A.D.” (2001) and"Bass Cathedral” (2008). Mackey is the author of critical work such as"Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing” (1993) and the editor of"American Poetry: The Twentieth Century” (2000),"Moment’s Notice: Jazz in Poetry and Prose” (1993) and a special issue of Callaloo on the Caribbean novelist Wilson Harris.

The value of Mackey’s papers for researchers

The MARBL collection of Mackey’s papers contains correspondence, manuscript drafts, printed material about Mackey, research for his works, audiovisual material and born-digital material. (All but the born-digital material is now available for research.) Its wide-ranging correspondents include many major writers of the past half-century, from Amiri Baraka to Terry McMillan, Rosemarie Waldrop to Jay Wright.

Young says researchers will be able to follow Mackey’s writing process and explore how the influence of jazz develops in his poems, both sonically and visually. They will also be able to trace the intertwined genres of his writing.

“That breadth is really important,” Young says."It contributes to his stature as a figure in African American and international letters.”

The collection also contains publication documents for Hambone, including printing records and submissions from issues 2 through 18.

“Hambone is a very influential journal,” Young says."It has long featured a range of writers, dealing with music and experimental writing. With those records now part of the MARBL collection, visitors here will be able to see up close the workings of a contemporary and crucial journal.”

Pellom McDaniels III, faculty curator of African American Collections and assistant professor of African American studies, viewed the collection before it was brought to Emory.

“What I found most impressive about the Nathaniel Mackey Collection was the level of detail maintained relative to the creative process,” McDaniels says."From the inception of an idea and its crafting into something deep and meaningful, to the distribution of the final work of art for consumption, Mr. Mackey has been involved in every facet. For students and researchers utilizing this collection, the amount of work required to achieve and sustain success as a writer, scholar and publisher will be very clear.”

Although the papers are unprocessed, they are open to researchers. Those who want to work with the Nathaniel Mackey collection can make an appointment on the Using MARBL webpage, where they can find forms and information about scheduling a research visit. Other questions can be directed to the MARBL staff at marbl@emory.edu or 404-727-6887. MARBL is operating in a full-service capacity from interim space on level 7 of Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library until fall 2015 while its regular space undergoes a major renovation.