Tuesday 8 April 2014

Review of an October Performance of M. NourbeSe Phillip’s 'Zong!'

 Missing The Boat: Zong! Reading[s] & Performance in 2013
 Joseph LaBine
            After viewing Julian Alystyre’s video “NourbeSe at Naropa-Wake for Trayvon Martin”[1] and participating in a group reading at the University of Windsor this October, I think it is necessary to highlight the differences between conventional, one person readings of Zong!, by Philip herself or individual readers,  and collaborative performances, like the two I’ve just mentioned. Something occurs during the performance of the text—something—that is phenomenological. It disrupts the usual encounter of reading because the experience of reading is fundamentally altered when the text is read in a group. By performing Zong!, I believe readers move past abjection in the text and transcend the horror of the historical narrative intertwined with the poetic.
            Recently, I have seen several articles attempting to describe the effect felt at collaborative public readings of Zong[s], or responding to performances of Zong!—performances both watched and/or engaged in. Of note, are Susan Holbrook’s “M. NourbeSe Phillip’s unreceoverable subjects,” an essay which responds to a performance by Phillip only and Janet Neigh’s “Dialogues with M. NourbeSe Philip,” which describes a group reading. For the singular reading Holbrook suggests the reader is unable to transcend the horror of the historical account delivered in the poems—the murders that occurred on the slaveship “Zong”— the performance does not end with “joy and relief”; the slaves are drowned, their voices reduced to silence, “the story can never fully emerge” (Holbrook par. 1). I was inclined to agree until witnessing the phenomenon of a collective group reading of the work. Neigh describes an experience similar to mine:
Handing out about twenty photocopies of Zong!, [NourbeSe] 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. (Neigh par. 1)
So far, no one (to my knowledge) has conducted a study of these performances and theorized how they might change meaning within the text. This is my main concern, because Zong! is a work that requires multiple reading strategies, multiple interpretations of voices/languages/words/silences, it seems apt that performance-reading is one of the methods we consider critically. I am particularly interested in how oral and aural aspects of the text—the zongs heard and spoken at a reading—change our interpretation of the poems on the page. I am focussed on a certain mnemonic function that interrupts syntax and how we read the text internally, thus changing meaning—reversing our memory of the narrative as we hear and re-hear the poems verbally. I am not the only person to read the text in this way, Jasper Appler has argued in “ZONG! a Narrative Told Without Telling” that performance is the life of the text, “narrative relies on the oral and aural for animation…even in a private reading the text takes life only once you speak it” (1). This is true. The verbal phenomenology of Zong! interrupts how we receive the meaning of the text internally. Phillip’s exclusion of punctuation and syntactical markers allow the text flexibility to change with aural interruption; the rhythm and flow of the poem changes like the movement of waves.   
The “mesmerizing cacophony” that Neigh describes parallels the recording of the uWindsor reading available via this YouTube link:
By comparison this recording (and overall experience) makes the single-voice performance of Philip reading “Zong 5” from “Marcella Durand’s Pennsound Picks” (available on the Jacket2 website), seem small and pointed rather than offer the poignancy of the larger reading. The individual voice does allow listeners to focus more on the words it is speaking, there is a singular intonation or incantation, but this type of reading limits meaning and the possibility for multiple meanings by mnemonically reinforcing one way of interpreting Zong!. I have written elsewhere about Dislocation poetics as a function of diaspora literature. To put it simply, I believe the horrors of the slave ship are represented in the text of Zong!; families were separated, passengers were placed beside other Africans that spoke different languages, the cargo was divided according to size, shape, and sex. The fragmentation on the page reflects the dislocation felt by the enslaved Africans travelling on “Zong.” We, as readers, experience the horror of the historical narrative and text abjectly—we are beside ourselves when trying to interpret the fragmented text but our experience mirrors the dislocation felt by the passengers aboard the ship.
            I believe this dislocated horror is the main significance/problem surrounding reading method and mnemonics in the text. Neigh’s observation that participants in the Waterloo reading were given photocopies is also worth considering—disorientation is heightened when readers work from fragments rather than the whole book with its index and glossary as reference. The experience of reading aloud becomes almost entirely aural (the rustling of paper can be heard on the Windsor recording) as participants try harder and harder to make sense of the fragments they have been given. At the uWindsor reading, I read from a printout of early publications of “Zong!#25 and Zong!#26”[2] from the journal boundary 2. I found that because I only had a small portion of the first sequence of poems that I quickly ran out of reading material and had to repeat lines. Towards the end of our reading I noticed a mnemonic shift in what I was reading. Because of the lack of punctuation, I picked a rhythm and inserted my own punctuation and syntactical interpretations. I will say that there is no wrong way to read Zong! but repetition has a function of entrenching one reading, however, when the momentum of the rhythm of that repetition is set by a group and the groups shifts, slows, or speeds up—these phenomena of collaborative reading forces participants to adopt different mnemonic structures change their inserted markers, syntax, and ultimately the interpreted meaning of the poems. I noticed a line-shift in the piece I was reading. At the start of the recording my voice can be heard reading the lines:
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
was was… (Philip, boundary 2, 8)[3]
Because of a shift in rhythm of the group, something that occurred by accident possibly, something, I omitted a “was” so that “the cause” became “the remedy,” which became “the record,” but a new record and one in which my thinking about the narrative had changed.
In my first interpretation, I clung to the events recounted in the notes on the case of Gregson v. Gilbert (Philip 210-211). I tried desperately to associate meaning to words during the dislocated act of reading aloud amongst many other voices. However, the only meaning I could associate was that of the atrocity itself, the horror that in the eyes of the captain and crew “the result was justified” (8).  The slaves still had no voice and the speaker of my zong was the cold emotionless court room reporter. However, after the omission of the “was” something spiritual happened; agency shifted, the passengers became the speaker, became one voice speaking from underneath the water. My interpretation began to move past the horror and transcend it. The poems now became about giving silenced voices agency.
            There is such a possibility for multiplicity of meaning and variety of interpretative methods within Zong!. But, because of the fragmented nature of the text and underlying historical narrative, readers like myself will cling to the historical narratives to construct meaning. Orality, the divergent rhythms of a group reading, mnemonic turns, these are the keys to shifting agency and giving voice to silence within the poems. Neigh classifies the group method as part of “Phillip’s ongoing commitment to poetry as a radical mode of historical inquiry and radical protest” (Neigh par.1). Every reading becomes either an opportunity to reinforce the horrific narrative, or to revise memory each time by interrogating what voices might have said.

Works Cited
Appler, Jasper. “ZONG! a Narrative Told Without Telling: Evocations of Mythology in Zong!.” Companion Reader to M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!. Windsor, ON: Flat Singles Press, 2014.1-29. Print {Forthcoming}.

Holbrook, Susan. “M. NourbeSe Philip’s unrecoverable subjects.” Jacket2. Kelly Writers House, 29 March 2013. Web. 18 Nov. 2013.

Neigh, Janet. “Dialogues with M. NourbeSe Philip.” Jacket2. Kelly Writers House, 17 Sept. 2013. Web.18 Nov. 2013.

Philip, M. NourbeSe. “Deadly Notes: Atlantic Soundscapes and the Writing of the Middle Passage Slave Ships.” Conference Paper. University of Windsor. 28 Oct. 2013. Print.
---. Zong!. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.
---. “Zong! #25 and Zong! #26.” Boundary 2 33.2 (2006): 8-9. Web. 21 Oct. 2013.

Shockley, Evie. “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage.” Contemporary Literature 54.4 (2011): 791-817. Web. 19 Dec. 2013.

[1] “NourbeSe at Naropa-Wake for Trayvon Martin” is certainly a ‘performance’ rather than a simply a large scale reading of the text. Alystyre’s video on Vimeo is private, was viewed privately, and thus I’ve only cited it within the body of this essay. However, I think it is crucial that video or audio recordings of performances like this one should be put into the public domain. The participants in the “wake” dressed in white and held candles throughout the reading, these elements designate performance and are crucial to forwarding the text as performance art.
[2] Philip, M. NourbeSe. “Zong! #25 and Zong! #26.” boundary 2 33.2 (2006): 8-9. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. The number and positions of these poems in the book have since been reversed with the journal version of now “Zong! #26” appearing first on page 43 with the number 25 with the block sequence following on page 45 with different line breaks.
[3] For the purposes of continuity I have decided to work through the original journal publications of the two poems I read at the reading. The pages cited are from boundary 2.