Is 'Zong!' conceptual poetry? Yes, it isn’t.

M. NourbeSe Philip. Photograph by A. L. Nielsen.

In Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry, I discuss at length Harryette Mullen’s book-length blues epic, Muse & Drudge. Mullen is an African American poet whose work has been unreservedly embraced across a range of audiences as exemplary of black innovative poetics. Muse & Drudge — along with others of her books — is taught in courses designed to illuminate modernist and postmodernist genealogies within US poetry and, likewise, in courses surveying the tradition(s) of African American poetry. My analysis of Muse & Drudge identifies and problematizes the tendency for both of these contexts to produce (differently) skewed readings of this complex, polyvocal text. Especially of concern here, in the context of NourbeSe Philip’s brilliant and urgent meditation “Wor(l)ds Interrupted,” is the pattern I noted in which critics who are focused on avant-garde poetics are disposed to highlight the blues as a source of the “content” — including language and ethos — of Mullen’s text, while centering the treatment of its experimental structures and its innovative impulses around her readily acknowledged interest in Gertrude Stein’s work. I hoped that, by juxtaposing Muse & Drudge with other African American women’s innovations upon the epic tradition, my discussion of it would bring to the foreground the extent to which African American literature and culture not only constitute subject matter, but also motivate and generate many of the unusual formal gestures and principles that make the poem so irrepressibly alive and intellectually provocative.

Philip’s essay addresses an analogous issue, one that clearly troubles her. Just as Mullen’s experimentation is sometimes portrayed as indebted to Stein, Oulipo, and Language poetry in ways that downplay or distort important legacies of African American innovation upon which she draws, Philip has seen her most recent work, the book-length poem Zong!, claimed for the category of conceptual poetry in conversations that divorce it from the postcolonial Caribbean traditions with which her poetics are equally — or perhaps even more — engaged. She associates this move, in her own elliptical style, with similar ones made in other aesthetic contexts, in which the influence of European-originated formal devices, like iambic pentameter, are discussed in terms of their relative influence upon the work of a Derek Walcott or a Kamau Brathwaite. Instead, she suggests, these poets “tempt” or “resist” the traditional English meter, an active engagement in which their poetics alter the form as much as the inverse; she invites us to hear the rhythms of calypso and the “brathwaitian current” of “nation language” running through the “yambic pant pant panta meter” that the encounter between English and “kari basin” prosody engenders. As to Zong!’s relationship to conceptual poetry in particular, she recognizes the affinities between them: “erasure of the author     apparent appropriation of found text     working within a rigidly defined set of rules    its composition is inextricably linked to the computer.” But, she insists, “you lose something” by reading her work solely through that frame — something that underlies and emerges within the text that she calls “spiritual,” for lack of a more satisfying term.

Philip insists upon the importance of ritual in “afrosporic” work like Zong! that is fundamentally connected to our sensual, embodied experience of the wor(l)d: “there is very little space to speak of the ritual function of poetry …     which comes out of a particular extended historical moment that is the kya kya kya kari basin   a moment that extends into the present    is resonant     am tempted to say     redolent     with aspects of ritual and spirit.” These ritual enactments of spirituality in the “kari basin” are vitally connected for her with the survival of African cultural and spiritual practices that slavery and colonization tried to destroy. Emphasizing the way such practices hid themselves in plain sight, Philip asks: “is zong! perhaps a ritual work masquerading as a conceptual work?” Perhaps. As Édouard Glissant has asserted, “We demand the right to opacity.”[1] But if so, the decision to use the conceptual as “mask” for the ritual should not be discounted, but instead treated as an equally important element of the poem.

I totally understand and appreciate Philip’s argument that her goals for the poem and its achievements exceed the boundaries of “conceptual work,” as such work is typically described in avant-garde poetry circles. Her resistance to having Zong! reduced to a “purely” cerebral, wholly process-oriented work is in part a refusal to perpetuate the familiar paradigm in which black writing is instrumentalized as a means of “proving your personhood.”[2] Additionally, this resistance marks the vital significance of the poem’s dual (at least) impulses: Zong! enacts a critique, but also effects a catharsis or, more accurately, works through a problem that lies at the intersection of the emotions, the psyche, and the soul, if such a thing can be spoken of in the twenty-first century’s secular spaces. Bearing these points firmly in mind, I want to argue for the importance, nonetheless, of continuing to situate Zong! in the conversation about conceptual poetry. As indicated by the title of the powerful little volume by Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms, the contours of conceptual poetry are still very much in flux. The visibility of a work like Zong! within the field of vision of this debate may push critics and scholars to work beyond notions of “pure” and “impure” commitments to certain rigidly process-based notions of conceptualism, to develop a working definition that can accommodate broader, more (w)holistic approaches. The OED reminds us that while the current definition of “conceptual” focuses entirely on the brain — “of, pertaining to, or relating to mental conceptions or concepts” — a now obsolete definition of “concept,” as a transitive verb, evoked the (female) body’s reproductive capacity — “to conceive (in the womb)” — which suggests a connection that the related word “conceive” still invites us to make. Place and Fitterman make a space for this argument (without necessarily making this argument) in their Notes:

7a1. If conceptual writing is considered as representation, it must be considered as embodied. As embodied, it must be considered as gendered. As gendered, it must be considered. Race is also a consideration. Consideration is what is given to complete the acceptance of any contractual offer. The social contract hinges on such embodied considerations.[3]

That a poem highlights the raced and gendered body, as such, then, need not automatically expel it from the realm of “conceptual work.”

But Philip’s writing pushes us to take the question one step further, to ask whether conceptual poetry can embrace not only mind and body, but the third thing — call it “spirit” or “soul” — that calls for and is nurtured by ritual. Jay Wright has this to say about the risk Philip takes in following her vision in this direction, in the afterword to his poem The Double Invention of Komo:

A poet who has a theory of existence, in which spirit and vision matter — one, in which, like Bambara, he conceives of society as a living, articulated body, where all parts have complementary roles in constant relation — must inure himself to the sneer in his audiences’ voices. They believe him enthralled to something static, immature, and exotic. The creative ground this poet finds in ritual can at best be tolerated.[4]

The poet risks this misapprehension because of the vital importance of her work: “as the truly guiding sensibility of [her] community, [she] continually leads the way in recreating the progressive forms of the communal myth.”[5] Zong! is in this like work by other innovative black poets in the “(k)new world” — such as Anne Spencer’s garden poetry, Nathaniel Mackey’s ongoing serial Song of the Andoumboulou, Will Alexander’s Exobiology as Goddess, and, of course, Wright’s Double Invention of Komo — insofar as this poetry is similarly — visionarily — concerned with metaphysical questions or issues of cosmology. In my recent essay on Zong!, I deliberately included a close reading of one of the poems, in order to open the discussion of the text to elements therein that a focus exclusively on the concept and process of its creation may not be able to adequately illuminate.[6] The emergence and particularities of the work’s “spiritual” facets are among those I attempted to engage (though not explicitly under that heading). Future close readings that critics will, I hope, perform, should enable us to think productively about what the aleatory aspects of Philip’s process make space for in spiritual terms.

Let the concept of the “kari basin” be a model for the concept of (a) “conceptualism”: a “site of massive interruptions,” where “scripts and histories jam up against each other creating trough and mountain       in shake and shudder shimmy fault lines adjust themselves attempting to fix History and free the future.”



1. Édouard Glissant, The Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189. Jonathan Monroe gets credit for reminding me of Glissant’s formulation when he quoted it on the May 20, 2012, podcast of PoemTalk.

2. Vanessa Place and Robert Fitterman’s essay “Notes on Conceptualisms,” in the book of the same title, introduces the discourse of “purity” into their discussion (see, e.g., 16). Place and Fitterman, Notes on Conceptualisms (Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Press, 2010).

3. Ibid., 35.

4. Jay Wright, The Double Invention of Komo (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), 112.

5. Here Wright quotes Isadore Okpewho, from his paper “Principles of Traditional African Art.”

6. Evie Shockley, “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage,” in “American Poetry, 2000–2009,” ed. Michael Davidson, special issue, Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (Winter 2011): 791–817.