Blackburn Festival "The Mackey Sessions" in Review

Thursday, October 11, 2018
Written by Matia Guardabascio, Photos and Video by Quantá Holden
Photo of Nate Mackey and band during keynote reading

To begin the Fall 2018 semester, the English Department unveiled its long-planned Blackburn Festival: The Mackey Sessions. The product of well over a year of planning, the three-day poetry festival centered on the work of Duke’s own Professor Nathaniel Mackey, a prolific poet whose work spans decades, continents, and generations.

The English Department, in an effort to make The Mackey Sessions a university-wide collaboration, partnered with the Vice Provost for the Arts, Franklin Humanities Center, Duke Performances, Duke Divinity School, The Rubenstein ArtsCenter, and the departments of African & African American Studies, Music, Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies, Religious Studies, and Literature. The Mackey Sessions also presented an opportunity to expand beyond the university audience and into the Durham community. To that end, the English Department also partnered with The Durham Hotel and So & So Books of Raleigh. 

The result of these collaborative efforts was what many attendees described as a “once in a lifetime event.” Guests traveled from all over the country and the world to attend, one even coming from as far as South Africa to participate.

The festival began on Thursday, September 20 with an opening reception at The Durham Hotel followed by poetry readings by Fred Moten and Ed Roberson, both highly respected and widely read poets themselves. More than one hundred people crammed into the event space at The Durham to hear their riveting performances. Audience members ranged from undergraduate and graduate students to professors from universities across the country, and members of the local community.   

Photo during Q&A session of one of the Mackey Sessions Workshops
Workshop Q&A 

The festivities continued on Friday, September 21 at The Durham Hotel with two daytime workshops focused on specific themes in the work of Professor Mackey: a morning session On Music led by Duke English Professor Tsitsi Jaji, and an afternoon session On Myth led by Professor J Kameron Carter. Both sessions operated as a mix of panel discussion and Q & A from the audience.

On Friday night was the much-anticipated performance by the man himself, Nate Mackey.  For the centerpiece of the Blackburn Festival, the English Department worked with Duke’s brand new cutting edge arts center, The Ruby. On Friday night at The Ruby Lounge, Nate Mackey, accompanied by a quartet of local musicians Our True Day Begun Soon Come Qu'ahett, performed his long song as a four-part piece interwoven with the sounds of the Euphonium by Dorian Parreott II, the Oud by Jason Lentz, the upright bass by Vattel Cherry, and percussion on the tambourine and the xylophone by Sandy Blocker. 

To the delight of an audience numbering nearly two hundred, Nate Mackey and his band of seasoned musicians delivered a wholly inspired and captivating performance. Had the English Department staff not been recording the entire night on video, then none would be able to experience or relive this momentous evening. Following the performance, the poet received a line of well-wishers and fans, and signed countless books.

Photo of musician Genevieve Palmer
Musician Genevieve Palmer

The Blackburn Festival came to a close the following day with a casual brunch affair at The Durham Hotel featuring an open poetry reading. Led by Professors Joseph Donahue and Priscilla Wald of the English Department, more than twenty poets, including some former students of Nate Mackey, performed poems to the tune of an upright bass, played by local musician and UNC Ph.D. candidate in Music, Genevieve Palmer. At the conclusion of the brunch event, the poet of honor offered his sincerest gratitude to all who participated in the events of the festival.

A triumph of collaboration and the creative spirit, the Blackburn Festival was immensely successful and will be remembered fondly for years to come.