Gerald Schwartz

Kamau Brathwaite
ConVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey
We Press in conjunction with Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics, 1999, 320 pp., $14. [Order from SPD]

I have to begin a review of ConVERsations with Nathaniel Mackey by Kamau Brathwaite, Caribbean poet of Barbados and post-colonial critic, by going into some detail about its production, specifically its visual style. When you first open it, it seems to be the first book of its kind, a hybrid between MIT and MTV. What initially appears to be a computer-generated digi-style soon puts you in mind of hieroglyphics and pictographs. This book would be a post-modern illuminated manuscript, precious, aloof, if it were not so natural, instinctive. ConVERsations is not decorative, it is declarative, expressive.

The book is based on transcripts of poet's Nathaniel Mackey's 1993 live interview, conducted by Brathwaite at the Poet's House in New York City. Brathwaite is at large, developing, riffing on Mackey's (and audience's) free-associating investigation; his answers are laminated, dubbed with ensuing reflections issuing from his lifelong interest with world literature and expressive cultures. This is conversation as process. This collaboration sweeps an Argus eye over the fields of current world writing. Numerous examples of how language plays a decisive role in that it is so pronounced and is so central preoccupation or the trope for a wide variety of preoccupations: the social, the religious, the metaphysical, the aesthetic, the expressive, the creative and the destructive.

I found myself "playing" this book, reading and reading and reading and much of it I re-read. As experimental writing, it makes you move beyond your preconceptions and your expectations regarding what should be happening, what's going to happen, what kinds of effects it will have. This project will redefine many things. For example, much like Mackey's poetry, just when it seems apparently closed you can break it open and pull further implications and explications out of it. Just as Mackey lays claim to his own authority, becoming immediately fraught with political resonances, especially in the case of African-Americans, who less than 150 years ago were forbidden to read and write, we must consider the poet as an authority, practicing an often subversive form of communication—one always politicized. Mackey and Brathwaite make it clear that the shadows and language of world poets and writers could be the new ghost dance literature, the shadow literature of liberation that will enable tribal endurance.

ConVERsations tells us just how far categories and the things they become are defined—the boundaries between things, people, areas of experience, areas of endeavor—and it charts the extent that those categories and definitions are rooted in social and political realities. Anything one does to challenge them, that transgresses those boundaries and offers new definitions, is to some extent contributing to social change. The kind of cross-cultural mix that a book like this offers diverges from a pre-packaged sense of what appropriate content for a book is, where one is usually offered a slew of homogenous academic-speak. Many questions are asked, and they resonate with all of the social and political urgencies that have to do with how do you get different people to live together in society in some kind of positive and productive way. And when it comes to this, Mackey and Brathwaite have ears for the world, in much the same way as outsider jazz musicians and dub poets have. For example, we see and "hear" how Islamic music and literature are intertwined with one another. The kind of musical-textual, musical-literary-religious, music-literary-spiritual nexus presented on each page touch many notes, freeing our discourse from the usual rhetoric of attitude, bias and oversimplification of experience. ConVERations speaks to that challenge. And there's a seed in that.

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