Nathaniel Mackey's Splay Anthem—a sprawling sequence of experimental poems that interweaves jazz, eroticism, African spirituality and American conscience—won this year's National Book Award for poetry. PW caught up with Mackey last week to talk about the state of poetry.

PW: How do you feel about winning?

Nathaniel Mackey: I'm greatly honored by the award. I felt that the book would get some good reviews, but this is way beyond anything I saw on the horizon. I'm also very moved by the expressions of congratulations that I've gotten since the award was announced, especially the feeling expressed by a lot of people that this is not only a good thing for me and my work but an important thing for poetry more generally, especially poetry coming from the place in the aesthetic spectrum that my work comes from: the experimental, avant-garde, vanguard or difficult.

PW: Your win is a real vote of confidence for experimental writing.

NM: It's a reason to hope that the aesthetic range that gets validation and recognition is opening up. But also, it's a reason to hope that work such as this will find a wider readership beyond the sequestered community of reading and readers that it's normally in. It's a little premature to see it as a definitive sign, but it is a reason to be heartened.

PW: Winning this award may make you into a sort of ambassador for poetry, in that people might begin to ask you more general questions about the art form. Do you think the audience for poetry is widening?

NM: I think that the audience for poetry has widened in recent years and maybe it's continuing to widen—I hope so. The whole poetry slam phenomenon has created an interest and widened the audience for poetry in significant ways. There's a lot that needs to be done, obviously. But poetry is one of those things that just won't go away, and people keep rediscovering it. I think every generation has a poetry boom, or gives a boom to poetry, gives itself to poetry. There is also a growing sense that poetry has great variety to it, that there are many ways of going about it. I think with the recognition of that variousness, there's been a growth in the audience.

PW: In your acceptance speech, you said, "This award allows me to think that the poems' 'we' is more inclusive than I thought." Who did you imagine you were speaking for when you wrote the book, and how do you think that group has expanded now?

NM: One doesn't know exactly, and that's one of the things that causes anxiety with regard to that pronoun. Certainly it diverges from the typical lyric poem practice, which is to privilege the "I," the first person singular, the personal and the private. But this "we" kept popping into the poems. Over the years it's come to be a defining feature of my work. Readers might define the "we" in terms of the community that goes under the rubric of experimental or avant-garde, or they might define it ethnically; readers might tend to see an African-American writer using the term "we" to refer to African-Americans. So how that "we" is going to be understood is one of the questions I've been thinking about. I've come to believe that the answer resides in very important ways with the reader. Earlier this year, I was at Wesleyan University where I was reading and met with a class that had read Splay Anthem. This question of the "we" came up, and one of the students said something that was quite resonant for me, which was that he didn't experience the "we" as presumptuous or as an imposition; he experienced it as an invitation. I guess that's what it is—an invitation to the reader to identify, to include him or herself.

This article originally appeared in the November 22, 2006 issue of PW Daily. For more information about PW Daily, including a sample and subscription information,click here»