An antonymic exploration
“Poetry Communities and THE Individual Talent” — if THE individual talent is that of T. S. Eliot, then why am I here? If including the definite article is not intended by the conference organizers to actually describe anyone or anything, I can be more comfortable, but in general the antonymic is my preferred mode: isolation instead of community, collectivity instead of individuality, and clumsiness instead of talent. But “collectivity” doesn’t quite do it; it’s too purposeful and suggests focused endeavor. It might be more interesting to consider a surround of creativity, or uncreative, haphazard, epiphenomenal creativity, an environmental aura of spasmodic restlessness without clear agency, as a model for a poetics that erodes any lingering traces of Eliotic attachment to talented individualism. Although, it must be conceded that his wistfulness for disappearance into a personality-less tradition — albeit because of his overwhelming sense of personality — resonates with Michel Foucault’s (and John Keats’s and Jack Spicer’s) observation that the writer disappears into writing.
“Tradition,” by which Eliot meant the Western literary canon, has been wisely reconceived here as the folksier and pluralized “poetry communities.” There are, indeed, traditions comprising paraliterary heritage, but they are largely anonymous and hence more interesting. But the individual talent? The invidious talon? The toxic infection? Talent’s etymology alone qualifies it for suspicion, as its travel from weight to currency to penchant to giftedness solidly implicates it in the world of commodities, while Eliot’s use of the word as metonymic for “person” or “poet” overdetermines its status as alienated labor, an extraction of one appealing and desired resource from the “standing-reserve” of the populace in exchange for prestige, professional advancement, reification as a name, and so forth.
Why resurrect this embodiment of an outmoded literary ambition almost half a century after Foucault wonders whose multiple and anonymous murmurs waft him downstream on the history of discourse? Individual talent is the corpse of the dross — Shelley or Orpheus bobbing along in the celestial stream of anonymity — solidifying on the surface of molten metal. The corpse itself is a cenotaph, marking some deeper and more diffuse locus of creative activity, until itself sinks, a Lycidas body without a place and a place without a body: in other words, a poem? The poem/object, like the individual talent, floats on unfathomable oceanic murmurs. Foucault writes:
I would have preferred to be enveloped in words, borne way beyond all possible beginnings. At the moment of speaking, I would like to have perceived a nameless voice, long preceding me, leaving me merely to enmesh myself in it, taking up its cadence, and to lodge myself, when no one was looking, in its interstices … I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; … I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open … All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck.
Is he echoing Eliot’s desire to disappear into an institutionalized discourse — tradition — without having to reckon with it as a cultural formation? Or is he yearning for a greater anonymity? I would like to think so, given that his touchstone is consistently Beckett. “What does it matter who is speaking?” asks the happy wreck floating on the boundless poem of the sea. This drunken boat is first Rimbaud and then Foucault, linked by a queer outsiderhood that is still a subject of hysterical concern even though these two figures are safely crucial to the Western cultural canon. Foucault’s voice borne along by the murmur is the individual talent floating above his antecedents, but he and Rimbaud both disavowed their individual talents — the poet by abandoning poetry and disappearing from the poetry community, Foucault both by disappearing into the community of anonymous sex and through his radically anti-individualist writing.
What can be said about this intertextual dérive, the voice of the poet as flotation device suspended above the larger poem of anonymity? In the one case, the voice is the boat, tossed and torn, delirious with its abject power, borne along the surface of the oceanic poem. It is not the poem itself, but the poet who utters the poem transcribed for our reading pleasure, though indebted to the larger, inarticulable poem, the maternal sea, for its form-shattering impulses — regardless of the nature of the tamed-down lines traced on the page. Rimbaud revels in his insignificance, but not really; his voice is that brilliance that lives to tell the tale, or dies into the murmuring language that engulfs and speaks through him.
The word murmur, through its m’s, connects la mer, the sea, and la mère, the mother; the proto-sinaitic alphabet uses the glyph for “water” to indicate the “m” sound; the M’s humps represent waves visually even as the word “murmur” onomatopoetically performs water’s trickling, rushing, or lapping at the shore, the waves forming a skirt, or a mother’s lap overlapping with dry land. Both poets know they owe their stature to anonymous antecedents, to the vast communities of word-users who go unrecognized. Foucault was committed to the complexities of non-canonical historical actors and events; Rimbaud “liked absurd paintings, pictures over doorways, stage sets, carnival backdrops, billboards, colored prints, old-fashioned literature, church Latin, erotic books badly spelled, the kind of novels our grandmothers read, fairy tales, little children’s books, old operas, silly refrains, naive rhythms” — in other words, bad and anonymous art. Both of them owe their creative lives to the primordial slime of collective clumsiness.
Clumsiness is by far the most interesting antonym put in play by the conference’s title (even more than isolation) so it’s worth spending a little more time on it than the other, less nuanced options. The incommensurability of one’s desires and ambitions when graphed against one’s abilities is one definition of “punk” — having strong aspirations that one lacks the competence to achieve. The punk aesthetic was known for its faux-stupid affect and its rejection of technical display, its affirmation of crudeness and dissonance as positive signifiers. Punks made clumsiness cool. Can there be a clumsy poetics? As many of you know, doggerel is a favored scholarly topic for me.
So be a girly man
& sing a gurly song
Take a gurly stand
& dance with a girly sarong
You are a militant Islamist
Which makes the world really pissed.
Can I come over — tonight? Can I come over — tonight?
What do you think I want to do? That’s right.
And we will have a real cool time tonight.
This, of course, is a knowing clumsiness, one used to great effect for pathos, humor, or teenaged lust. Nonetheless, studies of stupidity (Avital Ronell), failure (Judith Halberstam), and discomfort (Sianne Ngai) have valuable lessons for poetry scholarship.
Works by individual and talented poets (who were certainly part of poetry communities) like Jack Spicer’s “The Dancing Ape” and Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” thematize isolation as well as physical or verbal clumsiness; in Spicer’s poem, the poet/ape dances clumsily around happily entwined couples, who despite their comfort in each other’s arms “feel the terror in his gait of loneliness.” The second half of the almost-sonnet wonders what might happen if one of the other creatures were to reach out to him. The final word is “kiss,” a delayed off-ryme of “loneliness.” However, just as cross-stitching, once a beginner’s activity, is now considered a quaint and precious art, Spicer perceives his own elevation through poetry, remarking in a later poem, “an ape / Is likely (presently) to be an angel.” However, “the Dancing Ape,” an early poem (1949), is far more “improved” and craft-conscious than his later sublime stutterings. He became a better poet as his work grew clumsier, lonelier, and less invested in redemption.
Clumsy: from a Scandinavian word meaning too numbed from the cold to be able to properly coordinate one’s movements. In other words, clumsiness isn’t inherent but circumstantial. Talent, too, could be disentangled from the notion of agential individuality, and reconceived as a diffuse environmental surround. Such a concept could provoke an ecopoetics that questions the necessity for human catalytic activity. Anthropologist Stuart McLean has proposed a non-human creativity that inheres in the interactions between organic and inorganic elements that includes both human and non-human movements and activities. An interviewer in an online supplement to the journal Cultural Anthropology characterizes McLean as “[w]orking outside the Western habit of binarization that locates creativity in a lively ‘culture’ distinct from a dead ‘nature.’” In contradistinction to this stark dualism, McLean points to an “experimental, multi-agentive and pluralistic” notion of creative processes centered on “the bringing forth of new material, linguistic, or conceptual formations.” Tellingly, it is through imaginative literature — read as poetry and storytelling, including an account of literary attention to the city of Venice — that McLean hypothesizes “the participation of human acts of imagining and fabulation in the processes shaping and transforming the material universe.” And McLean in turn cites Tim Ingold, another anthropologist, whose book, Lines: A Brief History, has much to say to poets (as well as map makers, geographers, musicologists, walkers, talkers, and so forth). Ingold argues that “materiality can be more suggestively and less anthropocentrically engaged by focusing not on objects, which are always in some sense already culturally specified, but on substances and their transformations.” In other words, the slow decay or buildup of chemical incursions on materials, the repurposing of made objects and their eventual disintegration, their long lives, from pre- to post-object or commodity status, not only instantiates a poetics but leads me also to ask, “What would the long life of a poem be, beyond the banalities of a ‘publication history’?” The etymology of each word, the graphic history of each letter, the poem’s peregrinations in every volume, in every translation, the provenance of the rags or other plant matter from which the paper was made that it was first printed on and the recycling plant it ends up in after being deascensioned from a provincial library that once had one hip librarian, the dyestuffs of the inks and their histories, and so forth ad infinitum. Because such projects are impossibly vast, they work better when left as suggestions. Cecilia Vicuña’s short film from the 1980s, What is Poetry To You?, in which she asks this question of poets as well as a variety of street people in Bogota, must inspire further versions of itself; Darren Wershler’s concept of “findables,” poetic materials that are left in their raw state rather than be transfigured by “professional” poets, promises similar unboundedness.
Clumsy is also, of course, the Yiddish-based “klutzy” which, though almost homophonic and certainly homonymous, has a different etymology, that of “klots ‘clumsy person, blockhead,’ lit. ‘block, lump,’ from M.H.G. klotz ‘lump, ball.’ Cf. Ger. klotz ‘boor, clod,’ lit. ‘wooden block’ (cf. clot). From the insensate by external conditions to the putatively insensate by nature, the lumpen stays below the low, incapable of acting on its own behalf (i.e. unuseful for any ‘revolution’).” The klutz finds her apotheosis in Charles Bernstein’s long poem “The Klupzy Girl,” in which she is so lacking that she doesn’t even merit a proper spelling of her lack. But she is the muse, the Mona Lisa, of his prodigious output, and she is an artist in her own inadequacies. I should have called this “Collective Klutziness” for its Yiddish-bundt overtones — fingers numb’d from overwork in the needle-arts/shmatte trade, labor s/heroes who died in Triangle fire and rose to make eccentric verse — .
Clumsiness as beginner’s mind rather than expert talent (referencing here Kaia Sand’s Jacket2 blog entry on inexpert investigation) as well as our earlier observations about the letter M): In thinking about the alphabet as a starting place, and in particular the doggerel that accompanies primers (“a is for apple,” etc), there’s no better place to find a display of beginner’s clumsiness than the cross-stitch sampler, which for several hundred years in Euro-American history marked a girl’s entry into semi-literate domestic labor and religious obedience. I’m sure you’ve all seen these samplers: the alphabet, a set of single-digit Arabic numerals in a few different “fonts,” perhaps a religious rhyme, a couple of birds and/or a floral wreath with a patterned border, all executed in a series of tiny or gross crosses arranged pixel-like to form the images. Initially, samplers (from exemplum, an example to be followed) comprised a variety of stitches to be used for later reference. Often they were the first thing a girl-child learned to make, though the extant samplers we now have, dating at the earliest from 1598, were made at about ages eight to fourteen. The girls’ lessons then evolved to include not only stitchery but, as noted, basic alpha-numeric and religious subjectification à la Althusser. The cross-stitch is the simplest stitch to execute, and of course it repeatedly reinscribes, in crudest simplicity, the primary symbol of virtuous self-sacrifice that is the organizing trope of Western civilization. It’s made on open-weave linen or wool cloth that makes the stitching easier: counting threads — two per stitch — ensures that the crosses will be of uniform size and hence look less clumsy. The cross is made on the diagonal, athwart the standard Cartesian grid weave of the cloth, thus suggesting some tension working against the simple x/y duality. But clumsiness underwrites the entire enterprise: simplicity, lack of coordination, the stringency of the don’t-color-outside-the-lines discipline. In its increasing obsolescence in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the necessity to hand-make and decorate cloth declined, and counted cross-stitch became, on the one hand, a leisure pursuit for middle-class European women, and on the other, a merely disciplinary, non-utilitarian training for children in orphanages: genteel servitude or brutal servitude, ornamentation or abasement … The tradition of handwork is linked, through the sampler, to traditions of literacy as an interpellative discipline. As Pat Crain points out in The Story of A, “the cross secures the alphabet’s place in institutional power, helping to embody its regimes in the child through repetitive physical gestures” (22).
More recent, non-Christic iterations of the X have emphasized erasure rather than the raised presence of the martyr’s scar on the surface of the s(k)in-tissue. Malcolm X assumes a universality through repudiation of an identity, a gesture Kamau Brathwaite echoes in his X-Self, and which invokes the many literary, cultural, and personal projects that have worked to either performatively mask, eradicate, abandon, or only partially efface a standing textual (or otherwise embodied) entity to call attention to injustice, invisibility, incompleteness, etc. as a gesture of activism or antinominianism; of autonymism, of anonymity. Ex stands for expatriate or ex-partner, exposition, exhibition, exit. It’s a cartwheel across/pinned to a griddy surface, so wrong it’s write. X’s spikes get caught in M’s diaphanous caresses, trapped in her maybe-benign web, willy-nilly, the poet tipsied about on a smooth-turbulent surface-depth.
And so forth.
Once mastered, basic alphabetic literacy combined with the easiest stitch on the coarsest material can be soothing, subtly creative, satisfying, and occasionally defiant (see Hester Prynne, poet and artist). The current “subversive cross-stitch” trend, like the “stitch and bitch” trend, isn’t really subversive in any politically or culturally meaningful way, but as anonymous girly stuff of the first order, it is potentially poetic. Plus it’s a supremely sociable activity.
In an agonal chiasmus disguised as a happy ending, girls learning to make patriarchal Xs and boys happily drowning in maternal Ms find that their activities overlap in the expanse of Anonymous’s capacious body — in her lap, where they sit for hours absorbing the voice that is poetry to them.
The Dancing Ape
The dancing ape is whirling round the beds
Of all the coupled animals; they, sleeping there
In warmth of sex, observe his fur and fuss
And feel the terror in his gait of loneliness.
Quaint though the dancer is, his furry fists
Are locked like lightning over all their heads.
His legs are thrashing out in discontent
As if they were the lightning’s strict embodiment.
But let the dancing stop, the apish face go shut in sleep,
The hands unclench, the trembling legs go loose —
And let some curious animal bend and touch that face
With nuzzling mouth, would not the storm break
And that ape kiss?
Appendix II (from Online Etymology Dictionary)
O.E. læppa (pl. læppan) “skirt or flap of a garment,” from P.Gmc. *lapp- (cf. O.Fris. lappa, O.S. lappo, M.Du. lappe, Du. lap, O.H.G. lappa, Ger. Lappen “rag, shred,” O.N. leppr “patch, rag”), from PIE root *leb- “be loose, hang down.” Sense of “lower part of a shirt” led to that of “upper legs of seated person” (c.1300). Used figuratively (“bosom, breast”) from late 14c.; e.g. lap of luxury, first recorded 1802. From 15c.–In 17c. the word (often in plural) was a euphemism for “female pudendum,” but this is not the source of lap dance, which is first recorded 1993.
“take up liquid with the tongue,” from O.E. lapian “to lap up, drink,” from P.Gmc. *lapajanan (cf. O.H.G. laffen “to lick,” O.S. lepil, Du. lepel, Ger. Löffel “spoon”), from PIE imitative base *lab- (cf. Gk. laptein “to sip, lick,” L. lambere “to lick”), indicative of licking, lapping, smacking lips. Meaning “splash gently” first recorded 1823, based on similarity of sound. Related: Lapped; lapping.
“to lay one part over another,” early 14c., “to surround (something with something else),” from lap (n.). Figurative use, “to envelop (in love, sin, desire, etc.)” is from mid-14c. The sense of “to get a lap ahead (of someone) on a track” is from 1847, on notion of “overlapping.” The noun in this sense is 1670s, originally “something coiled or wrapped up;” meaning “a turn around a track” (1861) also is from this sense. Related: Lapped; lapping; laps.
There are three things I want to tell you about publishing and community.
Increasingly, I see publishing as the act of making language public. That action may result in a book, a broadside, a postcard, a wall installation, or an audio tour. In any case, it results in something that can be experienced away from the body of the “writer.” Publishing includes curation and framing. Always. If I print 100 copies of my beautiful new poem, and pass these poems out to you, then I am publishing within a frame. There is the size of the paper, the color, the font, the layout. The method of delivery. I pass a single sheet of paper out to you at an academic conference. I may send several sheets of paper in the mail, paper that is perfect bound, trimmed, covered, and called a book. I may sell that book to you at the AWP book fair, at LitFest Pasadena, or at a reading. I may put a postcard in that book, a postcard printed with a line from a poem by Jennifer Karmin, and when you send that postcard in the mail, you help me publish too.
Les Figues publishes books. We also curate events, which we often record. We have worked in other capacities too. We have participated in extended residencies and/or collaborations with other organizations, such as Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and the Metabolic Studio.
There is more to say, but let me conclude this first point here: the form of the publication affects the content, and distribution is part of the form.
On the subject of community: I like the idea of community, but the idea of community requires the obedience or consent of its members. Community is made through agreement. People agree to a set of values; they agree to enforce those values as a community. The community is considered good. The pursuit of the ideal is considered good. When a group has an idea of “good” as something abstract and separate from individual actions, then individuals may begin to act in perfectly horrible ways and call it good. They may act horribly in the name of good, and so language becomes violent.
We must consider both ideas and actions. Theory and praxis. She may say she loves the people, but how does she treat the folk? (Another question: who does she count amount the folk?)
In the lovely, beautiful world of poetry, community is an ideal. Poets love their communities; we are at a conference about emergent communities. Community has both an economic value and a social value. For poets, the ability to speak the discourse of community is a career asset.
Community is often the most that we have. Community is a feeling. And I like to feel.
The mission of Les Figues is not to publish per se, but to create conversations between readers, writers, and artists. Publication creates one kind of conversation between a reader and a writer. There are other conversations too, and I consider all of these to be the work — the idea and practice — of Les Figues.
1. Confirm time and format with Q.E.D. writers/participants Lincoln Tobier, Brian Teare, and Michael du Plessis.
2. Fill orders. Pick postcard to include in package. Consider the purchase and which other book they may like.
3. Talk to Melissa Buzzeo about her performance on violence and community at Naropa. Oh, it sounds like it was very good!
4. April, current intern, coming in today. She really likes to hand-make books and use the spiral-binding machine. Perfect.
5. Go to Metabolic Studio. Meet with Terence and Janet about distribution of Preserving a Home for Veterans. Finish preparing cover files, and give files to Larry for making plates. Double check that plates came out good. Double check Larry’s make-readys. Figured out that Larry printed about a quarter of a million sheets in order to make this book.
6. Yes, Coco and Matias. Let’s standardize the comma format.
7. Interview interns, along with board member Amy Hood.
8. Hire summer interns. Super excited about this upcoming group.
9. Read Elizabeth Hall’s edits of Trisha Low’s introduction to Lividity. Wonderful, Elizabeth. Wonderful, Trisha.
This paper was presented at the Emergent Communities conference, University of California, Santa Cruz, May 4, 2012, at 2:30 p.m.
Of the many recognitions that rush to mind as I read Nourbese Philip’s thirst-quenching essay, the boldest is the memory of a woman who, at a gathering of writers and scholars not many years ago asked me, in a hotly confidential tone, “but, Mecca, do black people really read?” She was a white woman much older than me, one who I knew, and who was very comfortable with her own relationship to words. Three facts about that moment burst forward as I read “Wor(l)ds Interrupted”: that I do not remember how I responded to the question, that I felt a furious block in my throat and body at its asking, and that the fury of that silence has shaped my dealings with language since.
Philip’s essay names that fury, gives it flesh, and lays out its work in the world. “Wor(l)ds Interrupted” breaks down the silence that surrounds black diasporic letters, and links it to a fleshy history that acts, moves, and speaks today. Black language, she shows, is written in ambivalence — in a vexed relationship to a form of expression that on one hand, no matter its purposes, “is always doing another function … proving your personhood,” and that on the other hand, extends from a history in which literacy itself is illicit, illegal, and dangerous. By remapping Caribbean history onto the corporeal, kinetic dimensions of Afrodiasporic experience, she shows how the fury of silencing abides within black language, and how any response — “literate” or otherwise, “legible” or not — is a railing against History’s continuing violences against Afrodiasporic humanity.
Here, this railing takes shape in the linguistic reconstruction of history’s body, and the forms through which histories can be told. Philip concurs with the logic of scholars like Kamau Brathwaite who, as she puts it, “insists that we do not speak in iambic pentameter nevrhavnevrwill that the nolanguageofourown is staccato explosive shattering on rocks …” Yet for Philip, Caribbean language’s resistance to Western literary conceits is a form in itself, one that “explodes” the meaning of linguistic/literary form by highlighting its inseparability from motion, movement, and corporeality. Thus, to Ezra Pound’s pantheon of legible poetic structures (which includes melopoeia as the influence of music, phanopoeia as the presence of the visual, and logopoeia as the place of memory in poetic hermeneutics), Philip demands that we “add kinopoesis” to account for the movements and experiences of bodies as a central presence in black diasporic literary texts. Scratching past Pound’s prescriptive notions of “How to Read,” Philip reveals “a kinetic language drumming a beat with the bone of memory against the gun metal skin” of Afrodiasporic history. This poetics of movement reconfigures Pound’s “ordering of language” by subsuming each of its elements into the black body. It reveals the literate within black music, rewrites visual iconography of blackness, and does its work through and upon history’s persistent memory.
Philip’s kinopoeia is the dangerous, unspoken answer to the question of “How to Read” black language and literacy. It is the voice within what appears as black silence, a voice that, in its supposed illiteracy or illegibility, articulates the “unspeakable” places of death, violence, and impossible humanity in the living history of the African diaspora. Caribbean syncretic languages; black readers’ ambivalence toward the vexed necessity of literature; and black writers’ noncomformity to “the yambic pant pant panta meter” (a phrase that links the privileging of iambic pentameter to both the erotic and reproductive commodification of black bodies and the breathless silencing of black people) are all parts of Afrodiasporic unwriting of Western form.
Philip approaches this unwriting by recreating history as a craft tool. History, in Philip’s cartography, is both person and persona, figure and form. Taking as her point of departure the moment of Europe’s contact with Africa, when “History stopped dead in its tracks … took a deep breath then continued changed forever,” she opens space for another vision of History, one in which its use as a proper noun can reflect not only its Western imperial authority, but also its status as a character capable of choice, and of change. Like diasporic letters, this History is ambivalent, ambiguous, and inextricably linked to the body. Through an authoritative third-person voice, we are presented with the image of “the blank indifferent face,” but are also met with that face’s ability to “reflect … the linguistic distortions of the kari basin” and the diaspora.
Through this kinopoetic personification, Philip’s History can outreach third-person narrative authority and be absorbed into Philip’s first-person black woman voice. Her story begins as competing “scripts and histories” clash around the Caribbean,
Exchanging fluids with the atlantic across a chain of islands bulwarked
against an ocean bearing the dying and the dead … here History stopped
dead in its tracks hiccupped took a deep breath then continued changed
tries her tongue … coming from this place of inter/ruption of eruption
and irruption from explosion and plain ole ruckshun so I was thinking
to force the unhistory of the kari basin into a logical linear script doing the
experience (is it an experience or an event that repeats itself in
syncopated time) a second violence it retraumatizing in today’s tongue
so the contradictions hanging right out there
When Philip’s ungendered, past-tense History stops “dead in its tracks,” it gives way to a woman figure, who “tries her tongue” at speaking history into the present tense. This female voice is an “irruption” into a dominant masculinist, patriarchal narrative of imperialism, separated from its former self by a full (though fractured) line of white space, but proceeding along the horizontal plane of the page nearly without pause. The feminine voice of History quickly becomes Philip’s own narration, as, speaking through History’s first person, she explains linguistic violence against Caribbean people from her perspective as a black Caribbean woman — a speech act that corrects the very historical miswriting it names.
By subsuming History’s body into a black female voice tuned against hegemonies of form, Philip draws connections between historical linguistic violences and those violences’ most silenced objects — black women’s bodies. She creates a History whose “tongue” works not only against white linguistic dominance, but also as “a tributary that can contain the blachisseuse the washer woman the higgler the jamette the obeah woman and mad bad black witches a tributary coming from dis place the space between /me myself and i ’n i …” In eschewing mono-vocal narration, disavowing the primacy of pentameter, and toppling the sacred “order” of European language, she makes space not only for what Brathwaite calls “the African aspect of experience in the Caribbean,” but also for black womanhoods silenced by imperialism and patriarchy alike. Her irruptive poetics hails the quick-talking woman “higgler” (a British term used to describe market traders in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean); the defiant “blachisseuse” (from “blanchisseuse,” a term for French washer-women and the name of the village in former French colony Trinidad notoriously impossible to settle because of its corrugated terrain); and the simultaneous sexual autonomy and sexual objectification of the “jamette,” which Philip defines elsewhere as “A ‘loose’ woman, a woman of loose morals whose habitat is the street” (so called for “jambette,” the French term for “legs” or “leggy”). All these figures become part of the multivocal chorus of “mad bad black” women from whose perspective Philip’s first-person voice re-speaks the history of black diasporic language.
As she turns to locate her own work in history’s maelstrom of misreadings of blackness, Philip’s voice becomes the voice of all these figures, and of the free-moving legs, elusive tongues, and unconquerable bodies they hail. And if we understand “dis place the space between” as Philip does in her groundbreaking essay of that title, as the space between black female legs, we see the way of Philip’s words as a “tributary” to unvoiced diasporic histories coming straight from their capacious, inaudible, furious sources. Or, more precisely, from black women’s wor(l)ds themselves.
So, with Philip’s closing reminder of the unspeakable erasure of black linguistic being “today,” I feel invited to read all this as the answer to that conference participant’s throat-choking question. The question of whether black people “really read” is a question of whether black people in the diaspora really write, really speak, or should bother to — a question about whether black languages can exist and matter in History’s grand scheme. To all of these questions, Philip delivers a guttural “yes,” unmissable and unmistakable by those who care to learn to hear it.
3. See Nourbese Philip’s “Dis Place The Space Between” in Feminist Measures: Soundings in Poetry and Theory, ed. Lynn Keller and Christianne Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 290.
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.” 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.” 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.
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.
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.” 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. 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).
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.
The Unhistory of the Kari Basin
… site of massive interruptions for the most part fatal first nations african asian european life interrupted like tectonic plates these once-upon-a-time discourses scripts and histories jam up against each other to create trough and mountain in shake shudder and shimmy fault lines adjust themselves attempting to fix History and free the future —
around the kari basin
exchanging fluids with the atlantic across a chain of islands bulwarked against an ocean bearing the dying and the dead brushed and touched in its most secret places by the northeast trades that bring sahara dust and hurucan here History stopped dead in its tracks hiccupped took a deep breath then continued changed forever
she tries her tongue … coming from this place of inter/ruption of eruption and irruption from explosion and plain ole ruckshun so i was thinking to force the unhistory of the kari basin into a logical linear script doing the experience (is it an experience or an event that repeats itself in syncopated time) a second violence it retraumatizing in today’s tongue so the contradictions hanging right out there where english is my mother tongue is my father tongue … is a foreign anguish synapses waiting for a pulse a charge of energy that jumping across the yawning gap ontological and epistemological that is and is History that is the kari basin home to the poor/path-/less harbour/less spade …  drifting along a current towards the sea that is History — 
have you no language of your own/no way of doing things the rich old european lady asks the emigrants did you spend all those holidays/at England’s apron strings this current insists that we do not speak in iambic pentameter nevrhavnevrwill that the nolanguageofourown is staccato explosive shattering on rocks volcanic and coral alike surrounded by a sea now an aquamarine that beckons now a hard and baleful steel grey that repels nolanguageofourown moves is restless is kinetic add kinopoesis to pound’s ordering of language phanopoesis melopoesis logopoesis wherever european and african tongues have faced off against each other wherever the european has attempted to impose his tongue on the african the outcome has been a kinetic language drumming a beat with the bone of memory against the gun metal skin of the sea scatting soughing coughing laughing into vividity patwa nation language creole pidgin vernacular demotic an ting an ting …
many rivers feeding this current i calling brathwaitian many rivers we done cross carrying the memory marronage exile hurucan and volcano they criss and cross the kari basin regardless of language so that césaire martiniquan poet turned mayor founder of negritude tells us nous sommes un peuple du volcan we are a people of the volcano nor was he talking only of mt pelee nous sommes un peuple du volcan that is History
violently spewing us out to take root wheresoever our spores land in all the miscegenated fragmented languages of the kari basin pushing up gainst that yambic pant pant panta meter to yowl in the blank indifferent face of History that is the sea as the voice catches breaks into spiritual caiso mento reggae calypso rapso dub rap dance hall and … stateside it would be blues jazz r&b rock and hip hop …
walcott tempts then tames the iambic pentameter sparring with the dactyls of calypso in the spoiler’s return I see these islands and I feel to bawl / “area of darkness” with v.s. nightfall this is an other current winding and wining its way to the archipelagic necklace around the neck of the History as odysseus sails into the kari basin the other mediterranean home to those poor path-/less harbour-/less spade (s) who today cleave the waves of the original medi-terranean the between of africa and europe look to europe for salvation exchanging accra lagos tunis for lampedusa a new and not so new middle passage freighted yet again with african bodies here in this not so new world that paz reminds us began as a european idea where we need must imagine the past the better to remember the future in this new mediterranean that is perhaps a mediation between africa asia europe and first peoples the islands lock arms circle the sea the kari basin turn their backs on the atlantic at least temporarily
she tries … is a postmodern text the german critic insists to me many many years ago and i remembering the socratic method used by a former law professor reply it is if you say it is but you losing something perhaps the most significant aspect of it if don’t you understand how the kya kya kya kari basin postmodern long before the term was coined code switching bricolage the “end” of History all that and more she tries … beginning in the swirling waters of the kari basin
she tries she listens she hears the echoes of the silence of the woman’s voice like io the priestess turned heifer by zeus did when she regained the power of speech trying her tongue as if for the first the two currents meandering to the sea that is History carrying caliban not sycorax the mad bad witch from algiers i too resist
the yambic pant pant panta meter to allow the nonsense that is the genealogy of language in the kari basin to surface ode to a daffodil and all that attempting a tributary that can contain the blanchisseuse the washer woman the higgler the jamette the obeah woman and mad bad black witches a tributary coming from dis place the space between
me myself and i ’n i have been trying to figure out what zong! is a conceptual work i am told and once again i understand why it fits the definition or is it that the definition fits it
like the surface of the sea that is
zong! reflects the linguistic distortions of the kari basin as well it is simultaneously cipher and mask raising questions of what can be and can’t be said or spoken pointing perhaps to a poetics of the unsayable even less amenable to yambic pant pant panta meter i digress here
to talk briefly of haiti monstrosity/obscenity/blackened stump of a tongue/ torn/ out/ withered/ petrified/burnt/on the pyres of silence from whom the west averts its gaze while simultaneously considering it only through the lens of pity and charity i reflect on haiti to enter more deeply the idea of cipher and mask the secret the unsayable which haiti presents and re/presents whether embraced or not the haitian revolution is one of the signature defining moments of the modern kari basin as the cuban revolution is for other reasons nous sommes un peuple and all that
Not only were the revolution and its implications for the Enlightenment self-understanding of freedom repressed from the modern historical and theoretical imagination, but they were also, to begin with, “unthinkable,” which is to say, indigestible, inassimilable, within the ready-made categories of European Enlightenment thought… david scott writes repeating michel-rolph trouillot
or how does one write a history of the impossible
which is my question
how does one write a poetry of the impossible can there be a poetics
of the impossible the unsayable in other words
tell the story that cannot be told yet must be told through the cipher the mask
the secret writing itself like the vévés of voudon spiritual designs scripted on the earth itself in white powder because there is so much the west is unable to digest finds unthinkable does not wish to perhaps cannot assimilate without itself changing about the african african practices and culture
which brings me to music although there were laws
aplenty against the drum against african music and dance enslaved africans did not have to prove their personhood through music indeed europeans often dismissed their music as noise proof of their subhuman qualities it was in language and through language that they would have to prove english is my mother tongue/is my father tongue if they could control the language speak it write it then they increased the possibility of being the equal of the white man or woman does this go some distance towards explaining why writing has not played a similar role as music in afrosporic communities why it plays a more ambivalent role it is always signifying more than meaning serving another function proving your personhood like christianity evidence of your distance from your primitive african state
how then does this affect a poetics
a poetics of that which cannot be said there was and possibly still is good
reason to distrust writing in the kari basin after all its function was to record and encode laws that meant the obliteration of all connections for african peoples it encapsulated the law that controlled you defined you a thing
if you acquired it it advertised your leaving something negative behind
if you didn’t you remained among the terrorised expected to speak in yambic pant pant panta meter
so we telling a story
in trinidad and tobago about
a book they calling ti talbay the story saying that you could only read this book to a certain point that if you reading beyond that point you going crazy leaving your life and going to the forest to wander around for ever and i thinking what a powerful cautionary tale about the power of writing and the word and the need to be careful of it in a society in which writing is charged with so much that is negative
is ritual perhaps the way through the unsayable is zong! perhaps a ritual work masquerading as a conceptual work mirroring the act of stripping away the spirit of the african mask or carving leaving only the form the work masquerading as something else while doing another kind of work this is how african spiritual and cultural practices have survived the hostile societies of the afrospora it is how certain indigenous cultural practices survive the present day christianization and islamicization in africa
there is very little space to speak of the ritual function of poetry particularly as it relates to a work like zong! it comes out of a particular 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 i think of zong! as doing a form of soul work for those who died unmourned i think of the impossibility of ever knowing what happened the impossibility of making whole that which has been rent asunder i think of writing in the face of the yawning chasm of oblivion that was the lot of africans and …
at least three levels of impossibility
— living within the european idea that the not so new world begins with an idea that makes no provision for the is in us except perhaps as fodder
— fragmentary records that pass as History in a deliberately amnesiac culture
— the lacunae in the master narratives as they relate to us how to bypass the master narratives
voices crackle fade in
and out as from a bad phone line
the poetics of the fragment as a way to read the kari basin to interpret
the ghostly voices
notes from a journal
I walk the beach almost every day and as is my custom I collect shells
I find the fragments of shell more beautiful than the whole ones… am aware of preferring
the broken ones and enjoying the challenge of trying to figure out the identity of the shell
from the fragment. Again an awareness of how this mirrors issues here—we are
fragments of a whole but can still be identified as part of that whole.
The islands themselves are volcanic and coral fragments.
There is a wholeness that exists in the fragment — as the whole exists in the fragment of
the text, perhaps, although not visible — as a memory, a resonance. Found a cowrie
shell — the whole back is missing, but from the front the shell appears whole — is
— the mode and mechanism of communication language is itself fatally flawed designed to convey the european idea and ideal … oh sinner man where you gonna run to
so perhaps ritual offers a way through this thicket of impossibles
masquing and secrecy weave themselves into the fabric of kari basin culture the orisha divinities masquerading as catholic saints so ogun hides behind st michael and in turn st michael holding his sword made of iron stands in for ogun whose metal is iron a secret held in the open a silence translating itself into another language santeria candomble lukumi voudon all work along these song lines of silence and unsilence tempting translations of the unsayable i am committed to retaining an ambivalence of the sacred object in this case the poem and what better motif for ambivalence than the sea tidal ever shifting ever changing a liquid archive that holds the secret of History in subterranean spaces to release them all in its own time
many rivers many tributaries two currents at least running towards the sea that is
sharing the tradition of call and response rooted in african aesthetics the call in this case being an attempt it lasted almost half a millenium in the case of the transatlantic slave trade to denude the african of all humanity to devalue whatever traces of humanity remained to repress to silence the shout the scream the stomping the field holler the mourning ground the shouts and moans of the spiritual baptist the response it can be seen in the two main currents is a talking back anywhichway byanymeansnecessary refusing the yambic pant pant panta meter they call it speaking truth to power today i dub it marronage running away slave rebellion slave revolt i call it nanny of the maroons jamette and obeah woman i call it makandal boukman toussaint dessalines castro bogle
i call it zong! insisting in the response that to be is
to mean and is
sufficient that making meaning and making meaning mean is the response to everything that would insist that the victim has no meaning it applies more than ever today
A version of this essay is forthcoming in White Wall Review.
9. Marronage refers to the practice of Africans escaping slavery and setting themselves up in self sufficient communities. In some instances, as in Suriname, Africans who had escaped fought the armies of their former masters, eventually signing peace treaties with European powers.
10. Aimé Césaire, along with Leopold Senghor, developed the idea and theory of Negritude. After living several years in France, Césaire returned to Martinique, where he became mayor of its capital city for many years.