Commentaries - February 2014
Evie Shockley’s first reading of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! #6 is the first of five we will publish in this second set of short essays in the new series. We will soon add first readings of Philip by Arlene Keizer, Meta DuEwa Jones, and Kathy Lou Schultz, among others. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
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If I remember correctly, my first first reading of NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! was a listening. In that I was lucky, because Philip is a beautiful reader of her own work, reciting in a quiet, steady voice that makes even the harshest, most guttural sounds in the English language (“l/anguish”) sound comforting — and also because hearing parts of Zong! read aloud gives one assurance that it can be read on the page. Introduced by Tonya Foster, one of the curators of the Segue reading series at that time, Philip took the stage in the darkened performance space of the Bowery Poetry Club and led us into a particularly dark (or Enlightened?) moment of world history. Listening has often provided me a powerful entry point into works that I might otherwise have floundered around in for a while.
For works like Philip’s that have a strong conceptual or procedural component, I often also begin by reading an artist statement or interview — some authorial discussion of what is at stake and why s/he has gone about creating the poem in an unconventional and perhaps opaque fashion. Is this cheating? There are those who argue that a poem should be able to stand on its own, without paratextual accoutrements. I’d argue that a reader should say thank you politely when offered a hand getting into a complex, nuanced poem of this sort. Philip’s “Notanda,” a “making of” essay on Zong! (included in the book), is great gift. From it we learn what the Zong was (a slaveship), where it was going in 1781 (Jamaica), and why it stands out among the many, many, many slaveships and voyages involved in the transatlantic slave trade over a few hundred years (because of a calculated shipboard massacre masquerading as insurance fraud).
By the time I arrive at the page where Zong! #6 is inscribed, in other words, I’m not reading blind. I know the language of this poem was once (still is) the language of a legal decision, in which trial and appellate court justices in England were able to consider the merits of an insurance claim for the loss of property — 140 African people, deliberately thrown overboard to prevent them from dying of dehydration at their owner’s expense — without considering it, even potentially, as murder. The decision is being made to tell on itself. The story of those massacred (and those remaining enslaved) is being offered a space in which to tell itself.
I see the circularity of the language as it is laid out on the page (particularly in the book, where the phrases “and calm” and “— from the maps” are farther to the right than the version available online). Though the linear reading is the one Philip gives, we can take note of the way legal reasoning — with its supposedly logical “therefores,” its agentless “it is saids,” its firmly delimited “the evidences” and “the maps” — chases its own tail until, dizzy, exhausted, it spins us out on a would-be new trajectory (with the last three lines, the O becomes a Q) that is somehow exactly where we started (questioning, therefore, the age).
But we’re not exactly where we started. Though the phrase repeats, the lines break differently: “question therefore / the age” becomes “question / therefore / the age.” The first “therefore” hides behind, or huddles against, its “question”; it knows, if you will, that it is supposed to mark an inference based on foregoing information, but no information precedes it within this poem. In its second appearance, however, it stands solidly on its own line and on the evidence of contradictions. Similarly, the first occurrence of “the age” is undercut by the immediately following phrase: “eighteen weeks.” As a period of time, four and a half months (especially rendered in weeks) does not seem especially long. But we are told to question it: eighteen weeks of what? Eighteen weeks at sea, on board a sailing vessel, with winds that are ominously “calm.” That might indeed seem like an age. And the unqualified “age” that ends the poem feels much more expansive, feels like an era when people and documents lie about what it means to call Africans cargo and treat them as property — lie blatantly, in the face of contradictory evidence — a period, say, of a few hundred years …
And where is everybody? The I has gone missing. The other speakers are abstracted (“it is said”). The you is understood (“question / therefore”). The Africans are understated: “Zuka Tuwalole Urbi Femi Chuma.” Understated :: below deck. Underwritten :: the fine, fine print.
And that is how I do a first reading of this kind of poem. I gather up everything at hand that might be useful in a quick reconnoiter; I go into the poem with all my wits about me; and I tell myself stories about the language, listening closely for what sounds true.
Evie Shockley is the author of two books of poetry — most recently, the new black (Wesleyan) — and a critical study, Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry (Iowa). Currently serving as creative writing editor for Feminist Studies, Shockley is an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
Steve McLaughlin represented the Kelly Writers House on a committee steering the University of Pennsylvania through its “year of sound” (2013-14). Needless to say, sound is right down our audiophilic alley. Steve organized an event as part of the theme year at the Writers House — held on February 4, 2014 — and it featured experimental radio host and producer Benjamen Walker. Audio and video recordings of the full program are available, but today we are releasing a Kelly Writers House podcast, number 35 in the series, that offers a 15-minute excerpt of the hour-plus-long program. The excerpt was edited by Matt Bernstein.
Benjamen Walker's work has been heard on the BBC, NPR, and the CBC. His current podcast is called “The Theory of Everything” (a member of the brand new PRX podcast network RADIOTOPIA, toe.prx.org). He also hosted a program called “Too Much Information” on WFMU. He uses both fiction and nonfiction in his work and often interviews his friends as well as experts.
1997 was a relatively quiet time, between the first and second Intifadas, in Israel/Palestine (Wiki here): a period of sustained tensions but relatively few new acts of violence after the 1998 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, with 1100 air strikes, Hezbollah counterattacks, and numerous civilian casualties, which led to the 1999 election of Ehud Barak and withdrawal of Israeli troups. In 1997 there had been three major suicide bombings in Israel, one at a centrally located cafe in Tel Aviv in March, and two in Jerusalem markets in July and September. These were the present politics in which the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics, collective editors of the journal Poetics Today (published by Duke University Press), invited three Language writers (myself, Charles Bernstein, and Bob Perelman); four American critics (Charles Altieri, Maria Damon, Jonathan Monroe, and Tyrus Miller), and a small but focused group of international scholars (including Mihhail Lotman, Koji Kawamoto, Toshiko Ellis, and Alison Mark) to present their work. Sponsors included the American narrative theorist Brian McHale and Israeli scholars Meir Sternberg, Tamar Yacobi, and Karen Alkalay-Gut. The conference was attended by faculty and students from Tel Aviv and other Israeli universities and, significantly, one scholar from a Palestinian university—who traveled to the conference via Cairo. By all measures a success, the conference led to much productive work, significant exchanges, and a two-volume feature in Poetics Today (20:4 and 21:1).
I want to put this event into the context of the present—not to retrospectively apply any form of current judgment, but to acknowledge that the political situation has changed dramatically. The ASA call for an academic boycott, and the BDS movement itself, comes after an acceleration of not just "tensions" but of sustained human rights violations that affect millions of lives, in the absence of any resolution to the fundamental questions of Israel/Palestine. Rather, we are aware of a constant background of resisted diplomacy; construction of settlements; housing demolitions; travel restrictions; and intolerable living conditions for the majority of Palestinians. But there is a second half to the political response to this ongoing, intractable situation, namely the use of an academic boycott of Israeli universites—and thus the breaking off of precisely the kind of scholarly contact and exchange that I participated in in 1997. I have argued, in the preceding post, that two forms of universal right involved here are not in conflict—human rights and academic freedom—and that the willing suspension of academic freedom as a political gesture of protest involves a faulty means-end rationale by the best account. The question then rises: what precisely is being given up when intellectual and cultural contacts, scholarly and creative exchanges, are sacrificed on political grounds?
To assess the value of the 1997 conference, one could simply look at conventional, professional measures, such as the quality of the work produced and its importance for the field(s)—namely poetics and avant-garde studies. The double of issue of Poetics Today is without doubt an outstanding collection of essays; its publication helped revive the theory to the avant-garde (arguably stalled since the general acceptance of Peter Bürger's historicist critique in The Theory of the Avant-Garde), and it placed new forms of experimental practice squarely at the center of this revision. I contributed a key chapter of The Constructivist Moment, on Language writing as an avant-garde social formation, which I wrote specifically to give at the conference. The conference also brought the formalist/structuralist methods of its founders, who invited Roman Jakobson to deliver a lecture at its founding in 1975, into contact with new movements who took language and the avant-garde as primary, but not simply as "the tradition of the avant-garde." There is a larger discussion to be had about the nature of "poetics" as a discipline and a zone of experiment now, but this event could be seen as a significant transitional moment from a formalist (and Eurocentric) paradigm to a reconfigured global poetics with a necessary component of the avant-garde. But even these critical frameworks are too restricted for coming to terms of the larger cultural politics of traveling to Israel/Palestine for an academic conference on avant-garde poetics, between intifadas, in 1997. It is the minor details of that event that are of greater significance, in both positive and negative terms.
The first minor detail was what it meant for scholars (not to mention avant-garde poets) to travel to Israel at that time (and how that compares to restrictions on travel that are the subject of the MLA's recent resolution). I booked a flight that changed planes at Amsterdam, from Northwest to El Al, and that was the first wake-up call. Alone in an underground room with three Israeli security officers, I was grilled about the conference, asked about my paper, and told to rehearse its argument. I had to produce a copy of the paper to back up what I said, I recall. Once on El Al I had my first, revisionist, take on what the state of Israel might mean: I found myself in an ethnically homogenous group of Israeli citizens, not an international flight; if felt as if I had already arrived in its territory. There was something markedly populist about this group—they were the people, not business travelers, not the elite—and this registered in turn the socialist as well as Zionist aspects of the state. Meanwhile, a welcome message began playing on the TV screen—in fact, a propaganda clip in mourning for the assassinated premier, Yitzak Rabin, who was seen by many as the last hope for a negotiated and peaceful solution. I have always found the definition of collectivity as an act of permanent mourning to be deeply suspicious, and Rabin was portrayed as only the last of many sacrifices. It was the relation of the politics of mourning to the homogenous passengers that gave me my first insight into where I was going. On arriving, I remember finding the Tel Aviv airport to be remarkably small, cluttered, inconvenient, and tense. One's first impulse was to get out of that place, which I did—arriving shortly at the concrete block beach hotel, on the corner of Max Nordau Street, that would be our residence over the next week. I like being in the "zone"—defining a zone as a territory that is both removed from and continuous with everything else—and this was, a bit ominously, one of them.
[In the next post, I will continue on the politics and poetics of the conference, and further travels in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem that were as much a part of the event as its academic content. In reading back from the present moment, and the politics of academic boycotts, I will want to assess the ethics of the conference itself—again both positive and negative—but also the loss of knowledge that would result from foregoing such an experience.]
[EDITOR'S NOTE. My own concern with minimal forms of poetry & verbal composition goes back to the 1960s & discoveries I was making & creating in Techncians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin & connecting to experiments in our own time by poets like Ian Hamilton Finlay & others connected most specifically with what we were then speaking of as concrete poetry. That there was a complexity of thought & act behind this was another point I had to make – both “there” & “here” – & still that point seemed obvious enough. I called it, for Finlay & others, “a maximal poetry of minimal means,” & where I got into it myself, I found it helped to cool off, to set another temperature for what was otherwise my work. It’s with thoughts like this in mind that I approach Seymour Maynes’s long-running project of what he calls & practices as “word sonnets.” In their one-word verticality I’ve found a strong resemblance too to the look & feel of Chinese poetry that led Ernest Fenellosa to see in the immediacy of the Chinese graphic/visual ideogram (set one per line) “a splendid flash of concrete poetry.” The following, then, is from Maynes's recent gathering, Ricochet (University of Ottawa Press), composed over a short period of time & conceived by him as a single & unified series. (J.R.)]
The word sonnet is a relatively new variation of the traditional form. In essence, it is a fourteen line poem, with one word set for each line. Concise and usually visual in effect, this “miniature” version can contain one or more sentences, as the articulation requires.
Each of the word sonnets in the following sequence attempts to be a pithy and suggestive poem in its own right. Many draw on the seasons and also aim for a compact resonance that may attract the reader to return to them again and again.
Copyright © 2004 Seymour Mayne.
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