A deep-reading of form in “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-Folk” by Douglas Kearney (p. 90, What I Say)

I started looking through “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-Folk (An Aquaboogie Set in Lapis)” by listening. As in “Zong!,” the subject matter deals with the throwing overboard of slaves on the Middle Passage; as with “Zong!,” I was severely impacted, but had almost no clue where to start looking, so I thought that hearing a reading of the reading might help me now as it helped last week.

The poem bears a few similarities to “Zong!;” the subject matter, the way in which it seeks to provide some narrative to voices prematurely cut, and the way in which form is intrinsically tied to the meaning of the poem. Whereas in “Zong!” it was the silence, overlap, and spacing of words that gave me an almost claustrophobic feel, in “Swimchant,” the interactions words themselves become violent. They literally “dive,” careening downwards in the very first line (“never learned to swim/but me sho can di v  e”), off to the side of staunch, all-caps, large font text which reads, in part, “O,VERMILLION SHIP… OVER MILLIONS SHIPPED,” referencing both visually and literally the millions of slaves shipped through the Atlantic, as well as the physical ship that the first line “dived” from. Underneath the “dive” is a line of text, bobbing and choppy across the page like the waves of an ocean. Underneath the waves are lines and phrases jumbled, mashed, and slapped together, mirroring the franticness of the men and women who had made that “dive”, as well as the “hammerheads” that would tail the ships, waiting for someone to be thrown overboard; different font styles, sizes, italicizations, widths, all caps and lowercase, all show the number of voices lost in the sea, and further add to the chaos of the piece.

This is where I got to before I heard Kearney’s reading (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbeGLipkNjU). I was shocked when I first heard it, not only because Kearney is a master storyteller and performer, but also because his reading was completely different from how I had read the text. I’d read down the first page on the left, and then down the second page on the right; Kearney read left to right, across both pages, a choice that I thought was interesting, given that in my book the lines of text on the second page that corresponded with the lines of text he read on the first page had all been shifted up almost a full inch. I looked at the poem online, and sure enough, in their version (https://personalmagazine.wordpress.com/current-issue/), the words ran straight horizontal across the pages, creating one long line of text; of course there was still a disjointed and chaotic feeling to the piece, but not nearly as much as when the line of one voice is cut in two across a double page spread. In the “original” version and in Kearney’s reading, lines of individual narrative had been preserved; here in the anthology, every voice of every individual “Mer-Folk” had been spliced, to the point where I couldn’t even recognize their voice anymore.

The questions I have then are: What does this do to their stories? What, if any, is the “correct way” to read this poem?

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Translation as Space Creation in “What I Had to Have”

Last week, we started discussing translation as an alternative way of knowing—of not only making texts legible for others, but gleaning new meaning from the text as well. This idea feels liberating to me, as I usually view my own task within translation work as a responsibility to act as a vehicle between languages, maintaining as much of the multiplicity of meaning and texture of language between languages as I can. Additionally, I was raised in a bilingual household, and as such, my understandings of one language are of course inflected by the other. There are words in Japanese that are called up for me by words in the English (outside of so-called literal translations) which in turn affect my reading of the original English word and its meaning in a text. I’ve never been able to represent this liminal space between two languages in a way that feels genuine; any attempts to do so—to use multiple languages in one poem, for example—have felt performative and like a show of erudition and language ability rather than an intimate representation of my own thought process.

Mendi Lewis Obadike’s “What I Had to Have” (pp 198), however, really struck me as a meaningful expression of non-monolingual reading and meaning production.

For background, the Nicholas Guillén quote at the top of the page comes from the titular poem in his book Tengo (1964), which is described by the Latin American Literary Review as “reflect[ing] a tone of hope and optimism brought about by the triumph of the Cuban revolution.” The title of the present poem is a relatively conservative translation of the latter half of the sentence, “lo que tenía que tener.”

Simple at first, this translation of the title makes me wonder about the passage of language and idiomatic phrases. For example, it appears that the etymology of the English “have” lies in the Old English habban, while the Spanish “tener” comes from the Latin tenere, to hold, and the two are explicitly not related. Why, then, have we ended up with analogous idiomatic phrases “have to” and “tener que,” so seamlessly utilized in this translation? A relatively thorough Google search doesn’t seem to show me the origins of the uses of “tener” to express “deonic necessity” (as in “must,” or an obligation, rather than possession; a phrase that I just learned for this response). So the question arises; how do both of these languages have this same phrasal usage? Did one influence the other?

Within the text, Obadike somehow continues to hold us in a space between the two languages, even as we read the English. (cn: water/breathing under water metaphor, in brackets) [While reading, I felt almost as if I was being kept slightly under water, with my head being guided gently back to the waterline as I tried to create meaning from different phrases only in an English context.] “Tenet” is a belief that can be held in English, but I don’t believe you can “possess” a belief in the same way in Spanish; yet, this word is also tied to the Spanish because it shares the same etymology from “tenere” and even looks similar to “tener.” Similarly, “tangible,” by being a word in both Spanish and English, is not categorically a word from one or the other. The readers thus float between the two languages, feeling the influences of both in what we may read from the piece.

Personally, this poem reads to me as a gentle but insistent way of taking literary space. Obadike wrote about the relationship between Langston Hughes and Guillén in her dissertation, which she discusses in the inaugural post on her blog. She writes that she “wanted to have access to the kind of Diasporic artist exchange [Hughes and Guillén] had. They were and are important to me as a Black artist, but as a Black woman artist, I wondered if this sort of possibility really existed for me.” This kind of exchange and community making is only made possible by visibility of artwork, through which one can find others creating similar or complementary art. This poem feels like an attempt to establish this space, tenable and tender and built on an existing literary history.

Yet, while this understanding of the poem seems to line up with how the poem feels to me, I honestly don’t know what to do about “Giuliani.” The parallelism of the first line (“on Giuliani, on Guillén”) in the poem seems to suggest that they might be a historical figure or literary influence I just don’t know, but a Google search doesn’t return any cogent results. Perhaps this is someone that just was not archived or noted to the degree that Guillén was, or perhaps a name that represents such a person.

My personal association with the name Giuliani is, unfortunately by nature of being a New Yorker, Rudy Giuliani. A quick search for related Guilianis and Guilléns backs up this idea and brings up a case in 2006, in which Rudy Giuliani was suspected as part of a large family conspiracy in the death of an Imette St. Guillen (not going to link the wiki page here because I don’t think the content is relevant, but cw for murder, sexual assault in case anyone decides to look it up); I again, don’t know what to do with this information.

Finally, this brings me to my final point in this response. After sleuthing around a bit more than perhaps the book calls for, I found that this particular poem was first published in Obadike’s own poetry collection, Armor and Flesh, in 2004. Given that the preface focuses so heavily on historical periods and their interplay, and even that this anthology project is split at by years, I find it really odd that no years (if not of writing, then of first publication) are given for each of the poems. I understand that such information might induce the reader to make comparisons between pieces solely based on time period, as if they were all part of the same literary lineage. Yet, this still feels like a violent removal of context from each poem, directly caused by the process of anthologizing. As we discuss what it means to assemble and include poems in an anthology, I wonder how this omission of context changes the reader’s view of each text and their understanding of the anthology as a whole.

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Better Get It In Yo’ Soul

While reading the poem by T.J. Anderson III, I found myself trying to tie the title/epitaph to the words. I had heard Charles Mingus’ music before, but not this song. So, to give myself a complete image, I decided to read the poem while listening to the song mentioned. The piece is completely instrumental with a rushing rhythm motif led by the upright bass (Charles Mingus’s primary instrument) and wailing horn lines accompanied by a wailing voice in the background. Thus, Charles Mingus never actually says “Better Get It In Yo’ Soul,” but that doesn’t necessarily stop him from expressing that idea in other ways. I think it is interesting that Anderson chooses to use an epitaph containing words that were never actually said in verbal conversation, rather expressed in another medium.

This, I think, primed me to read the poem, but focus on my visceral reactions to words, rather than the flow and congruity of the words/phrase. The poem starts with “this is my house my house this is where I live no can of snow paint can splatter no wide-eyed boy wanderer can disturb…” following this clear no ___ can ___ form. However, after a while this breaks down until we start to get no ____(insert descriptive phrase/noun)___ in succession without verbs to complete their action. Thus, we must rely on the imagery and our personal responses to complete the expression of the poem; we must ‘get it in our souls’ to feel the rest of the action.

Thus, to me, this poem is about expression through sensation through reaction through imagery rather than expression through words.

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A Visual Response to Zong!


This is a visual response to NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! Reading the spaces in the poems, I was inspired to create a piece that meditates on and examines the texture of space. Each drawing is a meditation on the Gregson v. Gilbert case, of bodies overlapping and sinking in the ocean, of the permanence of this atrocity. I want to quote Christina Sharp’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, to highlight the ongoingness of this violence:

The amount of time it takes for a substance to enter the ocean and then leave the ocean is called residence time. Human blood is salty, and sodium, Gardulski tells me, has a residence time of 260 million years. And what happens to the energy that is produced in the waters? It continues cycling like atoms in residence time. We, Black people, exist in the residence time of the wake, a time in which “everything is now. It is all now” (Morrison 1987, 198). [1]

The blue is meant to gesture towards water. The blocks gesture towards an attempt to account for the lives lost because of their innumerable-ness. However, I do not consider this as a satisfactory working through of anything. There is no name, no identity, no specificity that reconcile the lives of those who were and who are still affected by the Atlantic slave trade. Rather, it is an incomplete narrative, an attempt at “un-telling” the story that cannot be told.

[1] Sharpe, Christina Elizabeth. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. London: Duke University Press, 2016. 41

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Food and violence, in words and action

One of my favorite poems from What I Say was Tisa Bryant’s “Tzimmes “(24-25) (I recognize I am biased towards this poem because of my own upbringing- this is one poem whose specificity speaks to ingredients and dishes I grew up with). The connection between food and violence grows throughout the poem:

“sugar burns”

“food soldiers against forgetting, packs a wallop”

“some slaves departed before their bread had time to rise”

“a ship bearing the seed of cane and hard labor sustained by empty calories”

I read this poem over and over. Food becomes the conduit where history breaks. Histories of biblical slavery become histories of American slavery become histories of today. In the poem, there is no history as the meal is prepared, because the violence inserts itself into the present. Even when we show care through food, violence lurks beneath sweetness.

History collapses when it comes to food. Farmworkers in the United States still cannot form unions under labor law, because farm work is built on the backbone of slavery and carries that weight into every bite we take.  Through the lens of this poem, I want to invite the class into mobilizing around the connections between food, identity, violence, and abolition. I want to invite you to join us in mobilizing to NYC on March 15 to stand in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as they escalate their Boycott Wendy’s campaign

The Action: On March 11th – 15th, the CIW will be launching a historic Freedom Fast directly outside of the offices of Wendy’s Board Chair and investor Nelson Peltz. The Fast will pressure Wendy’s to sign onto the Fair Food Program, which raises wages and eliminates sexual assault in the tomato fields where Wendy’s sources. We will be joining the CIW on the final day of the Fast to march and tell the corporation #timesupwendys.

How to get involved: There will be buses leaving from 2 Kennedy Plaza and 75 Waterman Street in Providence at noon on March 15th, returning late that night. You can learn more and reserve a seat on the bus by filling out our registration form here.

Which brings me back to the poem- consumption as a site of violence, violence as a site of history, and history as bound up in food– this poem is why I am drawn to this work. Centering the voices/supporting the actions of farmworkers is the only way that interlocking systems of violence against people and land at the base of our food system will systemically shift. Much like poetry- this shift comes from listening and responding to the asks of those impacted and the legacies of slavery on people and land.

I’m here for any questions about the action, and hope you’ll consider joining us on March 15th in NYC. Thanks! 

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20 Questions After Reading What I Say

Here is a running list of questions about art and literature which are inspired by this weeks reading of What I Say:

  1. Does this anthology act as a counterweight to the ongoing tokenism of Black authors in published collections, or does it add to the problem?
  2. Is exclusivity necessary in creating an anthology?
  3. If exclusivity is not necessary, what are the criteria, if any, for a poem to be recognized as “worthy” of publication?
  4. Can canon-making in literary arts ever be a form of resistance?
  5. Is canon-making inherently exclusionary?
  6. Is it the work of poetry to “destabilize language”?
  7. Are poets from a racial minority more capable of destabilizing language?
  8. Can Black poets ever be truly “experimental”?
  9. In what ways is experimental poetry an evolving concept?
  10. Is experimental poetry translatable?
  11. (Because I was reading on a kindle) How does technology (especially e-books) change/impact the reading of experimental poetry?
  12.  What are some innovative ways to write experimental poetry in the digital age?
  13. What are the implications of poetry that is inaccessible?
  14. What makes a poem inaccessible?
  15. Unteachable?
  16. Pretentious?
  17. Did the editors of this anthology show any obvious biases?
  18. How does the title of the anthology relate to its poems?
  19. Is “innovative” the right word to use to describe the poetry in this anthology?
  20. Is success in the literary world arbitrary?

~ Blessed Sheriff

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90% professor anthology

While this anthology had many great writers I hadn’t yet heard of, I also found myself bothered time and again by the inaccessibility of some of the pieces. Some of this discomfort should be sat with and felt through regarding my whiteness, and we’re all educationally privileged by being at Brown. Still, I was amazed to find that 26 of the 29 writers in “What I Say” were college / university professors—although a good amount of these writers did not claim this title in their bios at the back of the book. I found myself thinking What about the spoken word and slam poets? What about singer/songwriters and rappers? What makes these poets different? I don’t have much of an answer, although I will say that there were some poems I had trouble enjoying because I didn’t know enough of the words to understand what the verses were saying. I used a dictionary, but it’s hard to feel a poem when you have to use a dictionary so many times to know what it’s saying.

Inaccessibility also made me wonder who the audience is for these writings. I imagine that a lot of the readers are tied to colleges and universities, just like us. If anything, this anthology stirred up my search for writers/artists outside the academy—which usually points me toward music. I want to know the dividing lines between experimental poets and “bad poets,” to understand where elitism comes into this distinction. It also brought me back to wondering if we really need to divide musical and non-musical poets. What’s the benefit of doing so? Musician-songwriters are (in my experience) often on the cutting edge of experimentation. So why distinguish?

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