Nathaniel Mackey Awarded 2015 Bollingen Prize

February 2, 2015

By Nancy Kuhl

Nathaniel Mackey has been named the winner of Yale’s 2015 Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, joining a list of past winners that includes such luminaries as Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, E.E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore.

“I’m thrilled to learn that I’ve been awarded the Bollingen Prize,” Mackey says. “Joining so distinguished a group of recipients makes it especially moving. I’m deeply honored by the recognition and endorsement the award represents.”

Of Mackey’s work, the three-member judging committee said: “Nathaniel Mackey’s decades-long serial work—Songs of the Andoumboulou and Mu—constitutes one of the most important poetic achievements of our time. Outer Pradesh (2014)—jazz-inflected, outward-riding, passionately smart, open, and wise—beautifully continues this ongoing project.”

Mackey has authored numerous books of poetry, including the National Book Award-winning Splay Anthem (2006), Nod House (2011), Whatsaid Serif (1998), and Eroding Witness (1985), which was chosen for the National Poetry Series. His most recent book, Outer Pradesh, was published in 2014. Additionally, Mackey has published four book-length volumes from his ongoing prose work, From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, including Bedouin Hornbook and Bass Cathedral.

Among other honors, he has received the Whiting Writer’s Award, the Stephen Henderson Award from the African American Literature and Culture Society, and a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship. He served as a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007. Mackey is the Reynolds Price Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University.

Of Outer Pradesh the judges said: “The book’s epigraph is Jean Toomer’s assertion of modernist open-endedness and generic not-belonging: ‘There is no end to ‘out.’’ Mackey applies this endlessly outward-going passage to an ecstatic, exilic experience, as a group of travelers—a ‘philosophical posse’—makes its way across an Indian province. What they and we encounter on this journey is a pre-history embodied by ‘old-time people’ whose songs must be heard. Together we find ourselves within an improvised social continuum that grows larger, stranger, more remote, and more consoling at every turn. Memory becomes a site of social commentary and collective vision. Mackey’s epic of fugitivity forms a stunning meditation on being.”

The Bollingen Prize in American Poetry, established by Paul Mellon in 1948, is awarded biennially by the Yale University Library to an American poet for the best book published during the previous two years or for lifetime achievement in poetry. From its controversial beginnings in 1948, when the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress awarded the prize to Ezra Pound for The Pisan Cantos, the Bollingen Prize has honored the literary accomplishments of poets whose work continues to define modern American literature. The prize, administered by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, includes a cash award of $150,000.

Among the most prestigious prizes awarded to American writers, the Bollingen Prize has been a force in shaping contemporary American letters. Early Bollingen Prize winners—Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, E.E. Cummings—are today widely considered to be writers whose work defined a new American literature of the twentieth century. More recent winners—Louise Glück, Gary Snyder, Jay Wright, Adrienne Rich, Susan Howe, and Charles Wright—represent exciting stylistic diversity in American writing. Throughout its history, the Bollingen Prize has recognized and celebrated the very best in American poetry.

This year’s judges were Al Filreis, Tracy K. Smith, and Elizabeth Willis.

Al Filreis is Kelly Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, faculty director of the Kelly Writers House, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, co-director of PennSound, and publisher of Jacket2—all at the University of Pennsylvania. Among his books are Secretaries of the Moon, Wallace Stevens & the Actual World, Modernism from Right to Left, and Counter- Revolution of the Word. He has taught a massive open online course, “ModPo,” to 118,000 people worldwide in the last three years.  

Tracy K. Smith is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, and the author of three books of poetry: The Body’s Question (2003), which won the Cave Canem prize for the best first book by an African-American poet; Duende (2007), winner of the James Laughlin Award and the Essense Literary Award; and Life on Mars (2011), which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, will be published this spring.

Elizabeth Willis’s most recent book, Address (2011), won the PEN New England / L. L. Winship Prize for Poetry. Her other books of poetry include Meteoric Flowers (2006); Turneresque (2003); The Human Abstract (1995), which was selected for the National Poetry Series; and Second Law (1993). Her Selected Poems is forthcoming in 2015. Willis has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the California Arts Council, and the Howard Foundation. She is the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing at Wesleyan University.

More information: Bollingen Prize for American Poetry Website

Poet Nathaniel Mackey, photo by Gloria Graham, courtesy Wikimedia.