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.
Arlene Keizer’s first reading of Philip’s Zong! #6 is the second in a series of five such readings we are currently publishing. Recently we published Evie Shockley’s, and soon we will publish pieces by Kathy Lou Schultz, Meta DuEwa Jones, and Gary Barwin. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
The Bone Alphabet
I came to M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) with too much knowledge to offer the text the complete and utter astonishment it deserves. When I received the invitation to write about Zong! #6, I was already thinking about the way Philip’s book disassembles language and forces readers to consider how “un-telling” the already partial and fragmented tale of an obscene, unspeakable sea voyage might shake the structures that made such a voyage possible (structures that have been altered but are still in place).
Stephen Burt’s short essay on Rae Armantrout’s “Spin” is the fifth of five first readings of that poem we are publishing in this new series. The series page can be found here. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
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That we are composed
Composed: put together, by someone, like novels, cantatas, or poems; or else put together by no one, as rocks are composed of chemically and geologically distinct minerals, as atoms are composed of electron shells around a nucleus. We have distinct and separable elements (we contain multitudes). We may not know it. What are those elements?
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.
David Caplan’s first reading of Rae Armantrout’s poem “Spin” is the fourth of five we will publish in this new series. Others by Jennifer Ashton, Katie Price, and Dee Morris are available at the First Readings series page. The next set of first readings will describe encounters with NourbeSe Philips’s Zong #6. — Brian Reed, Craig Dworkin, and Al Filreis
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When first reading a poem, I focus on particularly evocative or puzzling moments — a phrase or two, some technical gestures, a flourish, a stylistic oddity, an apparent redundancy. I am searching for points of orientation and disorientation. I also often consider the poem’s structure; I want to know how it organizes language. My questions are rudimentary. Like Auden, I ask of the poem, “How does it work?”