I first read M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! #6 within the context of her book-length work, Zong!, which I had ordered after hearing about it from several friends who had attended, or participated in, performances of the work while it was still in progress. I approached the book with a feeling that this poem was crucial and I needed to catch up with what my friends had experienced. I also longed for my poetry communities in San Francisco and Philadelphia, where I had at times attended multiple poetry readings within the space of one week. I felt an increased sense of urgency indicated by the capital letters and exclamation point on the book’s cover: ZONG!
My most recent scholarship focuses on what I term the Afro-Modernist epic. I have found that understanding the contextual framing of these long works is essential to reading any of their individual parts, and the poem text of Zong! is surrounded by numerous frames.
Herman Beavers, Salamishah Tillet, and Kathy Lou Schultz joined PoemTalk producer and host Al Filreis to talk about Claude McKay’s widely anthologized sonnet, “If We Must Die” (1919). Its content advocates counterviolence in response to racist violence; its form is the exquisitely constrained Shakespearean sonnet, aligned with English poetic mastery. Does pushing through this formal constraint bring McKay’s speaker toward freedom or fatedness? Does the sonnet as a formal choice befit a cultural inside or an outside?