Audio

Question Therefore the Age: A discussion of M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

November 17, 2017

Al Filreis: I’m Al Filreis and this is Poem Talk at The Writers House where I have the pleasure of convening three friends in the world of contemporary poetry and poetics to collaborate on a close but not too close reading of a poem. We’ll talk, maybe even disagree a bit, and perhaps open up the verse to a few new possibilities and we hope gain for a poem that interests us some new readers and listeners. I say listeners because Poem Talk poems are available in recordings made by the poets themselves as part of our pennsoundarchivewriting.upenn.edu/pennsound.

Today, I’m joined here delightedly in Philadelphia at the Kelly Writers House in our wexler studio by Alexandria Johnson, a multi-disciplinary artist and performer originally from Dallas Texas who’s work in dance and movement has led to projects with choreographers such as Hope Boykin, Ronald K. Brown, Darrell Grand Moultrie, who’s currently working with the Francesca Harper Project, who’s shared her love of dance throughout the US and in Canada, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Uganda and England, and who’s poems and essays she sees as expanded media of movement. And by Tracie Morris, a poet who has worked extensively as a page based writer, sound critic, scholar, band leader, and multi-media performer who’s sound installations have been presented at the Whitney Biannual, MOMA, and pretty much everywhere. Who’s most recent book is Hand Holding: Five Kinds. And who recently co-edited Best American Experimental Writing with Charles Bernstein, who directs the MFA program in performance and performance studies at Pratt, who’s PennSound page gives us a sense of the great range of her work including “Katrina Blues”, “Mahalia Theremin” one of my favorites, “My Great Grand Aunt Speaks to a Bush Supporter”, and “African”, a mesmerizingly radical reiteration of Afro-Shakespearean voicing that I’m glad to say is the final poem that 180,000 people so far have studied and discussed in the open online course called ModPo. And by Amber Rose Johnson, who earned the title of the Poetry Out Loud National Resistance or Recitation Champion, I think they’re probably the same, and has since been featured on the Words for You poetry album along side Meryl Streep and James Earl Jones, equal billing I hope, on NPR’s The Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor, on MSNBC’s the Melissa Harris Perry Show, big fan of that show, did she step down from that? She resigned in the middle of the campaign, didn’t she? And also, not Mellissa but Amber Rose, on stages across the US and who’s current research explores Caribbean poetic theory and anti-colonial literatures of the black Atlantic. Thank you Alexandria for coming all the way from New York.

 

Alexandria Johnson: Thank you for having me.

 

Al Filreis: This is your first time at The Writer’s House.


Alexandria Johnson: This is my first time at The Writer’s House, it’s been wonderful so far.

 

Al Filreis: That’s great, really happy to have you. Tracie Morris, it’s always a total pleasure to have you hear in the friendly confines.

 

Tracie Morris: This is not my first time at The Writer’s House, this is not my seventh time. I love this place.

 

Al Filreis: So glad that you’re here. And Amber Rose, all you had to do is sort of stroll down Locus Walk to be with us, but still it feels really great to have you here.

 

Amber Rose Johnson: No, it’s wonderful. I’m excited about my growing relationship with The Kelly Writer’s House.


Al Filreis: Cool, I’m excited in return. The four of us today are here to talk about talk about six sections from the long poem titled “Zong!” by NourbeSe Philip, published as a book by Weslyan in 2008. The sections we will discuss are numbers 2, 3, 6, 11, 21, and 26, and these sections can be found respectively on pages 5, 6, 14, 20, 37, and 45 of the Weslyan edition. Philip’s PennSound page includes several really compelling performances from “Zong!”. The recordings of all six of our sections will come from a Segway Series reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York, given on February 17th 2007, a year or so prior to the publication of the book. Here now is NourbeSe Phillip performing 6 poems from “Zong!”.

 

NourbeSe Philip: Zong! #2

 

the throw in circumstance

 

the weight in want

 

in sustenance

 

for underwriters

 

the loss

 

the order in destroy

 

the that fact

 

the it was

 

the were

 

negroes

 

the after rains

 

Zong! #3

 

the some of negroes

 

over

 

board

 

the rest in lives

 

drowned

 

exist did not

 

in themselves

 

preservation

 

obliged

 

frenzy

 

thirst for forty others

 

etc

 

Zong #6

 

Question therefore

 

the age

 

eighteen weeks

 

and calm

 

but it is said …

 

— from the maps

 

and

 

contradicted

 

by the evidence …

 

question

 

therefore

 

the age

 

Zong #11

 

suppose the law

 

is

 

not

 

does

 

not

 

would

 

not

 

be

 

not

 

suppose the law not

 

— a crime

 

suppose the law a loss

 

suppose the law

 

suppose

 

Zong! 21

 

is being is

 

or

 

should

 

is is

 

is

 

be

 

being

 

or

 

been

 

is was

 

is

 

should be

 

or

 

have been

 

is there

 

was

 

should

 

was not

 

should be

 

or

 

have been

 

is there is

 

or

 

being

 

there

 

is was

 

is is

 

should

 

and

 

have been

 

there is

 

was

 

there

 

Zong! #26

 

was the cause was the remedy was the record was the argument was the delay was the evidence was overboard was the not was the cause was the need was the case was the perils was the want was the particular circumstance was the seas was the costs was the could was the would was the policy was the loss was the vessel was the rains was the order was the that was the this was the necessity was the mistake was the captain was the crew was the result was justified was the voyage was the water was the maps was the weeks was the winds was the calms was the captain was the seas was the rains was uncommon was the declaration ws the apprehension was the voyage was destroyed was thrown was the question was the therefore was the this was the that was the negroes was the cause.

 

Thank you.

 

Al Filreis: Let’s just talk about what we heard. Alexandria, I couldn’t help but watch you dance and sway, especially listening to #26. Can we talk about the music of it? And I guess, the challenges to get to the extremity that’s being mined here and reported out of documentation. The ethical extremity of the poem in it’s presentation creates a really important reader experience, and we have this incredibly beautiful, musical experience. It’s so hard at first to reconcile those two. Can we talk about the music, what was — it was in your head I think.

 

Alexandria Johnson: What was moving me? I think very much there is a churning or a circling or cycling that happens in the repetition, and what it produces in my body is regurgitation. If we think about generational trauma or a blood memory, the question that comes up, how do we carry this, or how do we reconcile this and continue to move forward? So what’s moving in my body is this remembering with each cycle of her words, and repeating “was the” and then each word after bring up a new memory. I feel like my body wants to find ways to understand what it is she’s saying in more than just words or in more than just timing and tempo but also feeling.

 

Al Filreis: Perfect way to start. Tracie to you on generational memory, Alexandria’s phrase, I think of so much of your work as engaging body, voice, and what gets produced by voice, and the words you can put on the page as a result of that, as generational passing down documentation, witnessing, testimony, etc. So can you say more? Is generational memory a helpful phrase for you, and what do you do with it?

 

Tracie Morris: Well, I wonder how the recognition of the story that she’s telling, how she’s articulating something that hasn’t been well known in public discourse before, how that’s revealed. I think what Alexandria’s talking about in terms of it being revealed through the body, how one engages with the body before one knows what is actually happening, is one way of discovery. But there’s another way in which we discover the poem even if we do know what it’s about before we hear. I’m just interested in the contrast. One of the things that’s most jarring and exciting to me about this work and the way we’re talking about it is the way that she engages with the limitations of language.

Al Filreis: Amber Rose, you’ve really thought about this work. Can we give some background? What is the material from which she’s drawing this language.

 

Amber Rose Johnson: So, all the words of the poems are coming from this two page document Gregson v Gilbert case, or more commonly known as the Zong case which is included at the very end of the work. In 1783 there was a slave ship that was travelling to Jamaica, and the trip which would normally take 4 weeks, 6 weeks, something like this, ended up taking nearly 18 weeks because of navigational mistakes primarily, though there were other islands they could have landed on. But they were trying to get to Jamaica, it was taking a very long time. As water was being spent, as water was spoiling, the captain of the ship made the decision to throw nearly 150 slaves overboard so that he would not have to be responsible for the cost of the slaves on the ship, but was trying to remove that cost from himself and put it on the underwriters, so he would be able to claim insurance money on lost cargo. So what NourbeSe is trying to do I think is to uncover the stories of these African slaves and what actually happens in the ship by what she calls “locking herself within the text”, and creates this long book of poetry just using what’s in this insurance document.

 

Al Filreis: Thank you. And it’s a real extraction, if we look together at Zong! #21 starting on page 37, we get a visceral, just a sliver of extraction. Alexandria, the language of 21 is full of the verb “to be”. How would you respond to a skeptic who says, I get the concept here but why is there so little left of the documentation? Why does she make such a radical choice?

 

Alexandria Johnson: I think it reflects what we have to go off now, there is not much left. There is this filling in that has to happen. I think even the writing on the page points to this in how it’s written out. There’s these large spaces in between, and when I listen to this I almost have this urge to pace or walk or to figure out how to fill the space between the words, the space between not knowing or what would be the skeptical nature of these words. I think it’s a reflection of where we are.

 

Al Filreis: That’s great. It’s not a conceptual project in the sense of just retyping the document, but it is. Almost as if to say we can’t reproduce the testimony, we can’t reproduce the experience.

 

Tracie Morris: The question of existentialism is the fundamental root of the text. What is is? What is a something vs a someone? This is the fundamental question of the entire book, and this might be one of the reasons why in luck 21 the question is, what are we talking about when we’re talking about materiality? When one extends to the idea that one is going to take a kidnapped human being, and through this transition, make them an object. That’s what’s happening; first you have the Africans, then the Africans are kidnapped, then the Africans are kidnapped to be socialized to become non-human entities. The thing is, what are the implications of that? The implication is you’re no longer a person, you’re an object. And the “is” is the fundamental question. What is this material?

Amber Rose Johnson: I think what she’s doing is by stripping back some of the words, she’s exposing the nature of the English language. She talks about critiquing the European project. What some might call a deconstructionist text, yes but she’s doing that to expose the ways that language works to dehumanize the black body, the make the black body into a thing. She talks about the law approaching the realm of magic in it’s ability to hide those things.

 

Al Filreis: A question I have for all three of you at this point, this is — and it’s really a dull phrase when you think about the power of this work — but it’s an experiment in language strategy, taking a document and deploying it like this. When such an experimental language strategy, which in our world, contemporary American poetics, is often thought of as kind of depersonalizing and a cold strategy, a lot of avant-gardists are thought of less humane than they could be, this obviously has the opposite effect. My question for the three of you is how does NourbeSe Philiip pull this off? Using an experimental strategy that often leaves people cold to extremely charge a highly charged ethical situation to create a more rather than less socially engaged work of art.

 

Tracie Morris: One of the things we have to wrestle with is what happens when things are disappeared, when people are disappeared, how do you gather them? She’s reconfiguring the idea of detritus and saying, she’s pulling it together. It made me think about other environments where the banality of detail illuminates a story or becomes politically charged. I thought ironically about Al Capone and taxes. They couldn’t get Al Capone on murder so they got him on taxes, but that was enough. What kind of ledger do we have, when do people take the time to not disappear a fact? When they have a sort of banal investment. This is a reconfiguration; I want to get insurance money, so we find out all these Africans were murdered because someone wanted to get their insurance money.


Al Filreis: That’s the reason it went to court.

 

Tracie Morris: Right. Otherwise that story would be disappeared just like the people. It’s very interesting how she’s taking the receipts, as we say contemporarily, and adding a three dimensional notion to it.


Al Filreis: What’s the difference between a work of recovery, which is often important in genocidal situations, in mass murder, just recovering the documents and representing the documents? She doesn’t do that here. She represents a version of the documents.

Amber Rose Johnson: I think part of what’s really important about what she does is that NourbeSe does not give us a story of these folks. She does not imagine for us a mother and daughter, she does not give us the comfort of imagining friends or folks who knew each other before or a father, she doesn’t do that. But what she does do is by peeling back the language she draws our attention to the void. She tells us it’s the story that can only be told by it’s untelling. So she strips back the language to point us to the void where we might see these folks, where we might feel something —

 

Al Filreis: And we do the work.

 

Amber Rose Johnson: And then we do the work. And the work constantly changes. Every time you read this poem you can feel or hear something different. I think that’s what’s really powerful; not that NourbeSe puts in her idea of what’s happened, but she tries to peel it back so we might bare witness to what is missing and mark that space.

 

NourbeSe Philip: suppose the law

 

is

 

not

 

does

 

not

 

would

 

not

 

be

 

not

 

suppose the law not

 

— a crime

 

suppose the law a loss

 

suppose the law

 

suppose

 

Al Filreis: Can we look together at Zong! #11 which refers to the law? This is a miracle this one, because she takes from the trail transcript, or the reporting of the trail, and she comes up with some very big ideas. On the left side she gives us a bunch of “nots”. And there’s this phrase, “Suppose the law”. Let’s all add some observations.

 

Amber Rose Johnson: Suppose the law is noting how the law can mediate between what is and is not, to go back Tracie to your point on being and the word “is”. The law can shift between what is and what is not by it’s literal presence or worldly presence.

 

Tracie Morris: Yeah, there’s a subjectivity to how language is used and when it fails us, when it fails our humanity. And when it affirms our humanity. In the middle, “suppose the law”, it’s almost like the law is the fulcrum of a sea saw. This is a classic strategy for rhetoric, for poetry, is to create these two binaries. You have on the one hand, on the other. It’s not even, even at the bottom. If it’s a sea saw, if we use that as our imagination, then the bottom is the thing that’s holding the sea saw to the ground. And those words are “suppose the law is law, suppose the law, suppose”. It’s not a steady foundation.

 

Al Filreis: There’s not a lot of ground there when suppose is the ultimate ground.

 

Amber Rose Johnson: That last suppose though makes me think of who is doing that supposing, who has the right to suppose the law one way or another? There’s this haunting that happens all through the text, and it’s not just the haunting of the folks that were thrown overboard, it’s also the haunting of Captain Collingwood, it’s also the haunting of the judges, it’s also the haunting of all of these voices. So I wonder then, when we’re left with that suppose, who is the one supposing the law?

 

Tracie Morris: Well there’s two ways of knowing suppose, right? In this, she’s talking about it both ways. The supposition, and how you are supposed, like the position. The supposition and the position.

 

Alexandria Johnson: Definitely in listening to this the first time, I had the idea that the nots were in parenthesis, so it’s a parenthetical not.

Al Filreis: Like is not, like a side whisper.


Alexandria Johnson: Exactly. Thinking choreographically, I could imagine this section being a little humorous or ironic, and I’m thinking that using the satire or irony as a way to approach the weight of this text in a way that can be understood by many people. Using humour as the force to break the barrier of understanding of this is what really happened. I’m going to have you laugh in this moment because of this gesture or because of this repetition or parenthetical not, but I need you to understand that this is deeper than a hahaha.

 

Al Filreis: That’s really good. Bitter irony leads to, in this particular section, to the really radical and upsetting conclusion that where as we used to think of language as law and law as language, and then you have a document that focuses on what Tracie correctly described as kind of a side issue, so the language that emits from the legalistic experience is to her mind useless. So that we encounter the problems of testimony about life in extremity, about genocidal action that the language cannot possibly contain. Suppose the law a loss. This is language loss, this is the problem of not being able to say what happened. Therefore we have this alternative strategy.

 

Amber Rose Johnson: For both language and law, the logic behind it is grammar. She talks about this. All of grammar is kind of tossed on it’s head all throughout this work, but there’s a strategy in that, in the unsettling organization of the grammar or the disorder of the grammar, which I think is done to show exactly what you’re saying, the loss of language. To disrupt what is comfortable about language, what allows us to trust that language is actually communicating the thing that it is supposed to communicate.

 

Tracie Morris: I feel that much of what we’re discussing now is about the performance of language. This is very Austinian discourse on speech theory and what it is that language does when it does things.

 

Al Filreis: Give us the seminal text.

 

Tracie Morris: How To Do Things With Words. So what is the language doing, how is it performing. It made me think of another important text in this regard which is Beloved, and how in the formulation of Beloved there was this abstraction of language. Because other types of beings are not concerned with grammatical — they’re construct is not based on grammar, it’s based on some other thing. It’s just interesting to think about how rich language is in it’s success or failure because it’s material, it’s material that’s being reconstructed in a bunch of ways. Throughout the book, one of the things that makes the book itself so important, is that she keeps investigating different ways in which language, varieties of language, fail and also succeed in ways that go beyond literal meaning.

 

Amber Rose Johnson: I really appreciated you saying language is a particular kind of material to be manipulated, because I was thinking back to your earlier comment Alexandria, about rhythm. I think what happens in some of these is that rhythm and feeling and language are all put on equal plains as material to communicate the untelling of this story. She’s working through rhythm, she’s working with our visual, she’s working with the material page, and there is as much focus on those other elements as there is on language.

Alexandria Johnson: I totally agree. I feel like these materials are techniques or resources from which movement can be made.


Al Filreis: That’s really great. You’re a performance studies person, so you read this book. You probably took off your performance studies hat a little bit, but what’s it like —

 

(LAUGHING)

 

Al Filreis: Is that possible? What’s it like to engage this work as someone who’s in performance studies.

 

Alexandria Johnson: We’ve opened it up a little bit, or a lot actually, of how the text performs and how the rhythm is informative of movement and performance, how even the tone of her voice — For me, I noticed a large tempo change from Zong #2 to #3, there is this incredible slowing down in Zong #3 which opened up the floor, the space for there to be more exploration of that space. I approach these all as tools. The words on the page are tools, their structure on the page are tools, the sound and tone of her voice is a tool, the speed in which she speaks or the calm in which she speaks, these are all tools. These tools can be used to create the story that’s not on the page, they can be used to create a story that is on the page. I think it’s up to the performer to decide what story then will be told using these tools.


Al Filreis: Tracie Morris, as performer so poet, I know this is right up your ally. You think of the poet as doing exactly what Alexandria said, and the poet ought to be —

 

Tracie Morris: I appreciated Alexandria’s point for that reason. It starts here, but it’s not limited to this framework, it’s not even limited to this genre of expression. I think really good art does that, it inspires. But not in a vague way, in a very concrete way. If Alexandria’s a movement person, how does she translate without the restrictions of language, which NourbeSe Phillip has already removed, how can I think about that and reconfigure that in my discipline, in my different ways of understanding and embodiment.

 

Alexandria Johnson: In dance we have this idea that you learn the technique only to abandon it, the abandonment gives you the freedom to tell the story through those techniques. I think “Zong!” is a wonderful place to learn techniques and to see the abandonment on the page, and to hear it in the space as well.

 

Al Filreis: There’s the recovery of abandonment which is very hard to recover in a context like this. In your observation, we move from #2 to #3, and she in a sense abandons the even quiet tone of #2 and gets going in #3. Let’s look at #2. What are the reasons why NourbeSe in the performance at Segway caught fire here and really moved. I think one of them is the use of underwriters, which is such a powerful word we should probably talk about it. For me, the rhetoric effect “the it was”, I’m hearing Kamau Brathwaite or Nathaniel Mackey, deploying the word “it” to refer to “itness” to refer to denotation, which clearly failed here. Legal denotation didn’t help anybody. So does anyone want to talk about underwriters or the “it was”. Underwriters is a giant, “Zong!” like pun, right?

 

Amber Rose Johnson: The under for me is haunting, and maybe this is also a good time because I keep looking at, on the page, this line.

 

Al Filreis: Yeah, what’s happening there?

 

AM: The line beneath the line at the bottom of each page in this first section called “Os” which means “bones”. There are a series of names and NourbeSe talks about, in the Notanda at the end of the book, she talks about trying to find the names of the people who were thrown overboard the ship, but those names were not recorded. Then she receives a document and it says, “Meager girl, Negro sick”, so on and so forth. So she works with an author to come up with these Yoruba names to put below the text, as if to say these might be some of the names that we might imagine for the folks that are thrown overboard.

 

Al Filreis: It almost becomes in memoriam to those people.

 

Amber Rose Johnson: It does right, but it’s so haunting. That line, that’s a brutal line for me.

 

Al Filreis: You’ve just helped us with underwriters. One sense is insurance people, underwriters. Secondly, literally under the line, the underwriters are the people who are memorialized pseudonymously, I guess. And the third sense is this whole idea of supposition as the ground. The thing that is underwriting social contract through language.


Tracie Morris: One of the things I love about this collection, and certainly the poems we’ve been looking at, is the way she makes us think rigorously about language and about the etymology of language. It’s so hard to pull of what she’s doing. There’s a certain sort of heightened realization to craft that she has, that I just have to give a shout out for. She’s doing this in so many ways to make us think about the root cause of the utterance of these words. Not just in this volume but period. Where does this word come from? Also, what does it mean to do something as elegant as normalize African names in the context of an English language book. It’s kind of hard as you all said to talk about a word, because you realize you can’t be passive with any word in this entire book.

 

Al Filreis: Isn’t this what poetry does when it’s doing it’s best? All these things at once?

 

Tracie Morris: I would say that would be the truth, Al Filreis.

 

Al Filreis: Before we rap up, I’d love to look at Zong! #26. Again, because I’m across from Alexandria I couldn’t help noticing a swaying. This is prose, the closest we get to a block, it’s very powerful.

 

Alexandria Johnson: What I was most taken by was the dramatic change of structure on the page. To go from these intricate structural arrangements of the other writings to this paragraph form. I felt that although we may be used to the paragraph forms in other writings, to have it here in this context, I felt she was really saying something and having it be contrasted to the other works.

 

Al Filreis: Cool. After all this work, we’re on page 45 and she gets to reclaim the paragraph because she so much fed up with paragraphs earlier, and then it comes back. Amber Rose, thoughts on 26?

 

Amber Rose Johnson: Yeah, I think what she’s doing there maybe is drawing attention to the grammar that we want to associate with the paragraph form, and filling it with all these words. Remedy, evidence, need, circumstance, policy, so on and so forth and it goes on and on and on. And then the final line, “Negros was the cause”. Meaning to me, you can put every word, every white word under the sun here, you can come up with a million reasons, but “Negros was the cause”, blackness was the cause, that was the only reason for these people to be thrown overboard, not because of all these other reasons and words and grammars and logics that we can pretend are true. Or that we want to trust. She leaves us just with “Negros was the cause” to kick back up against that paragraph that she lays out.

 

Tracie Morris: You could argue that it starts as an interrogation. We could say, “was the cause etc?”. The answer to the question to speculation is, this was why. One of the things that struck me about it, because this is the last poem in this segment of the cycle, is that it feels like a culmination of a lot of the words that she’s used before pulled together. It’s almost as if it’s the beginning of the book in a way, that there are these atoms floating in the universe or bodies floating in a sea, or bodies all over the continent, and then they come together on this ship. This is the new beginning of the story, all these different elements come together and now we’re at a new beginning. That made me think about something she says later in the book about New World Africans as a distinction from African Americans. I was so interested, as Amber Rose used that term a lot, the haunted and haunting way of thinking of a New World. Just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s better, it’s like anti-Darwinian, but this is the new world for them, and this boat is a new world. This idea of creating new forms out of the variety of material, and it doesn’t mean just because it’s newly constructed doesn’t meant that it’s good, but that we’re in uncharted waters again. I just think her concentrating the text at the end of the first part of the cycle is saying, we’re beginning again. She does that throughout the book.


Al Filreis: That’s great, thank you. We could go on a long time the four of us talking about this amazing work. Let’s go around and each of us say one thing that you came here ready to say but didn’t get a chance, the way the conversation went.

 

Tracie Morris: Well, I’ll say one thing that struck me about the care she took with this material. You feel her heart is in it. But also how important the theme of travel is as an existential concept. What does it mean to travel involuntarily? What does it mean to stop travelling involuntarily? What does it mean to be dropped off involuntarily? All of these ideas about travel, how she did her research travelling to different continents, literally and in her mind, just the idea of movement and travel that we consider especially in the age of the Internet a privilege and wonderful right. She questions that existentially also.

 

Al Filreis: Yeah. Alexandria Johnson, final thought?

 

Alexandria Johnson: I think the final thought I have is how to see the end as the beginning, is what I’m really taking and what I got from these readings, from these poems. I think it’s evident in many of the works, as Tracie was saying, and I also feel that I think that is where we are in society, is how to make these ends the beginning. How do we create from this point? How do we create from what we may have perceived as loss or lack or not enoughness? What is there to be created for all of us, or for whatever it is that we’re wanting. I think that this work is a really wonderful inspiration for what we want to visualize, manifest.


Al Filreis: Thank you. Amber Rose, final thought?


Amber Rose Johnson: My final thought is around voice, and the importance of reading this book out loud. Whenever I’ve seen NourbeSe give a reading, she’s always invited other folks up toward the end, invited other folks up on stage to read with her. I think she thinks about this as, as much as it’s doing incredible work on the page, as something that also is to exist off the page, not just one voice but in a community of voices. There’s something powerful that happens when a group of people, particularly a group of women, read this work together. If there are folks that have not read it and who get their hands on it, I would encourage you to bring it into your voice and see how that changes your experience of loss and migration and movement.

 

Al Filreis: Thank you. My final thought kind of follows from things that Alexandria’s been saying about the space leading to movement or suggesting movement in the sense of dance. Kamau Brathwaite did some investigating in a concept of limbo, the origin of limbo, which Nathaniel Mackey takes up specifically acknowledging Brathwaite in a pretty well known poem called “On Antiphon Island” where limbo is the thing that both is the in more recent times, the mainstream recreational pseudo-Caribbean thing you might do on a cruise ship or something, but the historical memory as Brathwaite and others explored is the learning, in as playful a way as possible, to negotiate the small space below deck. So limbo has become a dead metaphor for the liminal, in between space, not hell not heaven. It doesn’t end. These two poets are thinking about that Afro-Caribbean experience of limbo, and here although limbo is not specifically referred to, the whole thing seems to be making do with space and making the body of the poem navigate and negotiate the limits of space in memoriam of people who are below deck. We like to end poem talk with a minute or two of gathering paradise, which is a chance for many of us or all of us if we’re quick, to spread wide our narrow Dickinsonian hands — speak for yourself Al — and gather a little something really poetically good, something happening in the poetry or poetics or arts world that you would recommend. Amber Rose, you seem like you have some paradise you want to share. Do you?


Amber Rose Johnson: I do. It’s not an event, it’s just a book I have on my mind that everyone should read. It’s called At The Full and Change of the Moon by Dionne Brand. It might have come out in 1999, that might be a lie, but it’s not a recent book. I was just gifted yesterday a first edition copy of the book, hardcover. It was very nice. So I want to revisit it. It’s a really absolutely incredible and deeply poetic novel that everyone should read.

 

Al Filreis: Thank you. Alexandria, gather some paradise. What do you want to recommend.

 

Alexandria Johnson: I have been on a very large Octavia Butler journey, and I’m currently reading Wild Seed, and this is after The Parables, so I’m suggesting anything Octavia Butler, anything to inspire your imagination in creating new things.

 

Al Filreis: Speaking of new things, Octavia Butler. Thank you for that recommendation. Tracie Morris?

 

Tracie Morris: In my hands is a wonderful anthology called Word: The Gathering of Thoughts. This is published by The Gathering of the Tribes. It’s an anthology of collaborations between poets and visual artists, and it’s a really wonderful mix bag. It’s put together and organized, co-edited by the man, the myth, the legend Steven Cannon who is just a remarkable fixture of many social scenes and has been for a long time. It came out this year and it’s really fantastic pairings of visual art and poetry. It’s a lovely, slim little volume. It’s very weighty, really dense, beautiful piece.


Al Filreis: My gathering paradise has to do with Tracie Morris, that would be enough just Tracie Morris as paradise, can we stop? Best American Experimental Writing, the aforementioned new anthology called BAX — I don’t love “BAX” —  but Best American Experimental Writing BAX. It’s really good and it’s just out. I want to quote two things from it. The guest editors, you and Charles Bernstein were the guest-editors this time, and the preface is really great. It’s very timely, it has a kind of 2016 oh my god feel to it. So one thing you say about the avant-garde and telling marginal stories, how they do work together despite the reputation sometimes as the avant-garde as being insular; “Avant-garde often invokes a hermetically sealed tradition, hobbled by it’s own triumphalism. We need avant-garde literary history to revolutionize overly narrow lineages and to acknowledge that the revolution of the world was fomented by writers who operated both inside and outside the cultural ethnic religious or racial mainstreams, which is to say, along with a host of literary scholars, artists and anthologists from the past few decades, avant-garde history has not always acknowledged it’s innovators. At the same time, many of those hostile to what they call avant-garde poetry gerrymander the term to suit their foregone biases against it. Rather than saying avant-garde, we say “on guard”. Wake up, poetry is about to begin!” And I can’t help but pick something out from the book. This is Tanya Foster who’s a poet that I admire. It’s a poem called “In Tongues”. I just want to read the last stanza of that.

 

These yawns into which we enter as into a harbor—

Come. Go. Don’t. says the vocal oceans which usher

each us, so unlike any ship steered or steering into.

A habit of place and placing a body.

 

Which choruses of limbs and wanting, of limp

linger in each syllabic foot tapping its chronic codes?

 

And “codes” is c/odes, codes. Tanya Foster “In Tongues” in BAX. Thank you for producing that. That’s all the supposing the law of loss we have time for on Poem Talk today. Poem Talk at The Writer’s House, it’s a collaboration of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing and the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania and The Poetry Foundation, poetryfoundation.org. Thanks to my guests, Alexandria Johnson, Tracie Morris and Amber Rose Johnson. And to Poem Talks directors and engineers today, Zack Cardiner and Annie Fang. Thank you Annie, wave to the crowd. And to Poem Talk’s editor the same amazing Zack Cardiner. Next time on Poem Talk, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Mahary Entezari and Leonard Schwartz will join me to talk about two poems by the Persian language poet Fatemeh Shams. This is Al Filreis and I hope you’ll join us for that or another episodes of Poem Talk.

Hosted by Al Filreis and featuring Amber Rose Johnson, Tracie Morris, and Alexandria Johnson.

Program Notes

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