Dialogues with M. NourbeSe Philip

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

Recently the Canadian Caribbean poet M. NourbeSe Philip has begun to experiment with collaborative public readings of her book-length poem Zong! I had the good fortune of attending one of these readings at the end of May at the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies Annual Conference at the University of Waterloo. Handing out about twenty photocopies of Zong!, she provided the audience with page numbers and instructed us to read these pages along with her without worrying about staying in unison. A mesmerizing cacophony ensued, as voices moved under, over, and around each other. Zong! illustrates Philip’s ongoing commitment to poetry as a radical mode of historical inquiry and racial protest. This trans-generational lyric is made only of language taken from the Gregson v. Gilbert decision, a 1783 legal case resulting from the deliberate drowning of 150 slaves. At first I could only hear my voice through the torqued syllables of the poem, but eventually it began to fade as the sea of voices swallowed it up. This group recitation amplified the ritualistic dimensions of this watery text. By inviting her audience to participate, Philip destabilizes the equation of poetic voice with authorial presence fostered by the traditional format of modern poetry readings to navigate us to a different mode of utterance. For me, these collaborative performances form an essential part of the poem’s reading pedagogy, compelling us to read and discuss the dissonance together. The collection of exchanges in this feature takes up this challenge. As Philip acknowledges in her lyrical essay “Wor(l)ds Interrupted,” which forms the centerpiece of the conversation, she herself is still “trying to figure out what Zong! is” and she invites her audience to explore how to read the poem with her.

Published in 2008, Zong! has sparked a considerable amount of scholarly attention for such a recent text — heralded both as a radical work of conceptual poetics and as a spiritual lament for the unmourned dead. In “Wor(l)ds Interrupted, Philip reflects on the critical reception of Zong! and she discusses its relationship to her previous writing. Locating her work in the “swirling waters of the kari basin,” she explores how this space has been “postmodern long before the term was coined.” Characterizing the entire New World as a “site of massive interruption,” she proposes that the nonlinear and fragmentary qualities of poetic discourse are well suited to articulate the visceral effects of the interruptive experience of the Americas and to reclaim its disruptive potential.

Evie Shockley and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan both take up the pressing question of how to read Zong! in their responses to Philip’s “Wor(l)ds Interrupted.” In Sullivan’s commentary “‘Unsayable Secrets’ of Diaspora’s Bodily History,” she focuses on the gendered dimensions of Philip’s rupture to dominant histories through the tracing of black women’s bodily memories. Shockley encapsulates her position through her playful title, “Is Zong! Conceptual Poetry? Yes, It Isn’t.” She argues that Zong! provokes a reconfiguration of what conceptual poetics might become by loosening the divisions between body, mind, and spirit. This feature also includes a written version of the interview that followed Philip’s collaborative reading at the Canadian Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies Annual Conference. Two Canadian scholars, Veronica Austen and Phanuel Antwi, invite Philip to reflect on the relationship of her poetics to spirituality, national identity, and contemporary politics. The interview builds on conversations that run throughout the feature and that embark on reading Zong! together.