Nathaniel Mackey discusses the relationship between athletics and poetry | Arts

Nathaniel Mackey discusses the relationship between athletics and poetry

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Nathaniel Mackey - PHOTO BY JUSTIN COOK
  • photo by Justin Cook
  • Nathaniel Mackey
This week, we published a profile of Duke professor Nathaniel Mackey, one of the leading experimental lyric poets in the country, if not he world. We couldn’t fit in the following fascinating thoughts from Mackey on how the athletic activities of his school years may or may not influence his poetry, so we wanted to share them below.

INDY: You played football in high school, and pole-vaulted in high school and college. Do athletics play any role in your poetics?

NATHANIEL MACKEY: I don’t know. If so, then it’s very deep. There’s obviously a great psychic impact for me. Among the dreams I have, I dream about playing those sports, pole-vaulting in particular. The football dreams tend to be anxiety about my coach. But the pole-vaulting dreams are exactly the opposite—they’re really exhilarating. Pole-vaulting is something like flying; it has that quality of liberation and release. Not a year goes by that I don’t dream about those two sports.

I haven’t really thought about it, but I think there’s something about rhythm. You hear that a lot when sports people talk about getting into a rhythm. Certainly, pole-vaulting is a pretty compact example of that. You run down a runway, you plant the pole and there’s a moment when you’re going down and kind of hanging, and then it catapults you up. It’s all about this conversion from horizontal motion to vertical motion. It’s a pretty complicated negotiation. Multiple velocities and changes are going on there.

I think there’s probably some remnant or translation of that in the rhythmic disposition that I’m drawn to in poetry, especially a kind of rhythmic variety within a compact space. I do think that somatics and proprioception impact our writing in ways that are probably not provable or disprovable.

I remember reading an interview with Gary Snyder about the rhythm of labor—stacking stones—having an influence on the poems he was writing at that time. It makes perfect sense. In one sense, it’s the most obvious thing in the world, but it doesn’t often get talked about. I feel there is some kind of bodily disposition that manifests itself in the way poems are written.

I would think that somewhere, that sports experience is at work. Certainly, when we talk about these things, sports metaphors often come into it.

Writing is so much about segues and transitions and juxtapositions and turns and all that stuff that’s analogous to what we do with our bodies when we work or do a chore or dance or do athletics. My work is full of bodily imagery and reports on bodily experience, so it would follow that whatever arc of experience involving rhythm would work in the sensibility.

Robert Duncan and the New American Poetry generation were very much a part of my coming to the art and learning about it. There was a kind of rediscovery of physiology. Charles Olson was talking about breath and the breathing of the poet. There was an appreciation of the bodily impact on writing that hadn’t been there, because the poem had been regarded as an abstract artifact that sat on the page. But the New Critics didn’t want to talk about biography.

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