Reflecting on, Reframing, and Revising Approaches to Texts: Teaching M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!*, Again

As I sit here designing and prepping for a course I have not taught before, I reflect, as always, on previous texts, pairings, and themes I have used in the past. The course is Critical Thinking, Composition, and Literature; in other words, the choices for texts and critical approaches are endless. Its course aims also align with a writing about literature course I have taught in the past. My initial thoughts go to that course and the current historical moment where language is being stripped of meaning by political figures with more vigor than ever before, though definitely not a new practice.

This past December, I took part in a short series of posts about treating literature as political where I reflected on my approach to teaching generally and my approach to teaching Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt was an easy way into that conversation because he provides a traditionally structured fictional narrative that is specifically depicting government corruption while illuminating racially motivated shortcomings in journalism. I am not suggesting that Chesnutt’s novel is in anyway simple; my students struggled with it for a variety of reasons. It is a text that students can open and tangibly point to a passage they deem political. This is not the case with many pieces of literature. Their political elements may be harder to see or, in the case of writers like Ishmael Reed, may require a knowledge of historical events and cultural moments readers may not possess. Moving beyond the content, the political can also be present in the form. This creates distance between students and the political elements of form because there isn’t necessarily something explicit for students to point to as political.

For instance, what would you do when presented with this poem?

Screenshot (76)

Screenshot (77)

More importantly, what questions would you pose to students to help them enter this poem? (This is the opening poem to an experimental collection that gets increasingly difficult to decipher as it progresses.) Once students have entered the poem, how do we help them understand why the form is political? Helping students understand form as a political statement is not the same as telling them why form is a political statement. Showing students how form becomes political is the task.

I first taught, Tobago born, Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip a few years back in the same class I taught Chesnutt which was composed of both majors and non-majors. Her expeZong!rimental poetry collection Zong! (in which the above poem appears) was challenging for students, as I suspected it would be; it was, and still is, challenging for me. I don’t pretend to hold any answers to it which is part of what makes it so much fun for me to teach. This is also one of the purposes of the text: How do we make meaning out of the slave trade? There is something much more genuine when I don’t have a certain reading of a text to lead students through. The classroom discussions turned into a series of “what if” approaches as we played with the text. For those unfamiliar with Zong!, blogger Wandy Felicita provides a fairly succinct description of the text and its cultural/historical context and get yourself a copy.

My experience teaching Philip’s Zong! didn’t have any moments that would have made it into another edition of our teaching fails. ZongWhy fix it if it isn’t broke? Rethinking my approach to teaching the collection comes from a desire to get even more from the text than before. Last time, we only tackled “Os,” the literal bare bones of the collection. This time, I also want to move though the remaining sections “Sal” (salt), “Ventus” (wind), “Ratio” (rain), “Ferrum” (iron), and “Ebora.” It is also motivated by the fact that the summer course I am prepping meets three hours a day, four days a week. Thinking about how much further we can get when not limited to the 50 min class session fills me with vision. (In case you were wondering–because of course you were!–to the right is a an example of one of the 50 pages that make up “Ferrum.”)

Managing the Supplemental Materials

Philip includes supplemental materials at the end of the text: the court case decision, a glossary of terms, and excerpts from the diary she kept while writing the collection. Each of these pieces can be used as a tool to understanding her project. They provide insight and show the evolution of her work. Being an experimental text, however, can also lead to the over reliance on these supplemental materials. This over reliance combined with, or perhaps caused by, student anxiety surrounding experimental poetry results in students coming up with the same reading of every poem in the collection. Every discussion about every poem boils down to “Philip said she was doing X, well that is what this poem does.”

I appreciate the supplemental materials, but they serve as those little kid water wings that give parents and kids a false sense of security in swimming pools and, as trained swim instructors like myself adamantly argue, increase the risk of child drownings. Part of the work of teaching this text is convincing students to take those water wings off and swim without them. I don’t want to entirely disregard Philip’s framework for Zong!, so I respect her supplemental materials as I pull students away from them.

First, I use the supplemental materials to show why we shouldn’t rely on them so heavily. Philip’s approach to her project changed between the first section and the following ones because she was too limited. The first section is comprised solely of words that appeared in the one page court ruling on the case. By the second section, she has moved on, taking liberty to chop those words up and use any part of a word to construct new words. I suggest to my students that the same is true for us. The court case document was initially helpful for our understanding of the project of the collection, but after that, it becomes as much of a hindrance for our understanding as it did for Philip.

Second, I ask students questions that slowly pull them away from the supplemental materials. Here are a few from my series of leading questions:

A piece of the whole: I try to zoom students in by asking them to think about each poem serving a different purpose to get us to her main aim. “If her large project is about how language fails to articulate the atrocities aboard the Zong, the following court case, its disappearance from history, and the slave trade as a whole, what piece of that is represented in ‘Zong #[insert poem number here]’?”

“The Death of the Author”: While I don’t go quite as far as Barthes, I do encourage students to question our reliance on the author’s statements by asking them to assess her proposed goals. “Even though Philip tells us what she was trying to do, it doesn’t mean she has successfully done it. Let’s say we are arguing that a poem or the collection does something entirely different, what would that be?”

There are many other questions and ways of challenging student reliance on the supplemental materials. My experience is that students’ discomfort with the experimental nature of this collection will make them grab hold and not let go of anything that helps them make sense of it. This leads to a fun game I like to play with the poems.

The What if…? Game

The “What if…?” game is really about teaching students how to engage with experimental poetry. Here are some of our “What if…?”s:

The visual: We look at the poems and ask what the form or layout on the page encourages us to do with it. “In some of Philip’s Os poems there is a pull between line breaks and columns. What if we read the poem from top to bottom, as columns, instead of from left to right?” This approach still respects Philip’s project and challenges students to experiment as readers, similarly to Philip experimenting as a writer.

The aural: We play with voice. Going back to “Zong #1” pictured above. “What if there are multiple speakers to this poem? How does that change the impact of the poem? What if they are all saying this together at the same time? What if it is being said in rounds, like when little kids sing the ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ song?” As a class, we try various readings of the poem. We do this with many of the Os poems—often playing with the white space on the page, often changing the number of speakers, sometimes a call and response style.

The decisions we make in our “What if..?” empowers students and loosens their grip on the supplemental materials as they start forming their own understandings. We did this a few times, but teaching it again, I would do a lot more of this because of its success.

 Language and My Old and New Supplemental Materials

As I am returning to teach this text again, but for a course with slightly different aims, I am keeping many of my earlier practices as outlined above and bringing in some new pieces to help us get through some of our anxieties about experimental poetry.

When I previously taught this text, I had students work with The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. We looked at some of the maps together to correct or filling blanks left from their previous education on the Middle Passage. I also asked them to explore some of the other features on the database and write a brief explanation of what they did and what they discovered. We also listened to Philip read from her collection.

Two additional texts I am bringing in as lenses for approaching Philip’s collection are Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel Prize speech and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Both of these get at the issues of language and form that my students struggled with. We will be starting with Morrison’s speech, and then we will move onto Lorde’s essay collection before beginning Zong! Morrison and Lorde will work to bring students into the conversation about the political in language use and forms of writing. In this way, they will come to Philip’s collection with a broader scope of where and how her work can be positioned in the African American literary tradition and among black women writers.

Unexpected, but Temporary Roadblock When Teaching Zong! to Majors

As I mentioned above, the course was comprised of majors and non-majors, roughly 1/3 majors to 2/3 non-majors (but there were a few who have since converted). I bring this up because it impacted my experience teaching the text. The experimentation with form pushed my English majors too much, and they hit a wall. They struggled to get anywhere with the poems. My non-majors, however, were ready to go wherever the collection and our discussions took us. Reflecting on this difference and the statements my majors did make, the opposing reactions to the collection came from a different knowledge base about poetry. My majors had begun taking the survey courses in early British and early American literature. They had much stricter rules for poetry and how to approach poems than their classmates. This disrupted their ability to meet Philip’s on her terms and manifested in a strong resistance to her work. Because it was so challenging and what they had previously learned about poetry did not prepare them to engage with her, they got mad and disqualified it as both poetry and worthy of study. We got through it, but it took a lot of challenging those previous assumptions and having them consider how we moved from 13th century writing style to what we have now in the 21st century: Experimentation!

*Note: This poetry collection came onto my radar in 2012 during my participation in a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, “Teaching African American Literature,” held at Penn State. My teaching approaches were inspired and developed from conversations about this text that took place during those three weeks.

Misattribution and Repurposing the Captivity Trope: Teaching Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie with Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God

PALS Note: We are excited to have a guest post from Randi Tanglen on complicating the discussion of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative through the work of two contemporary Native American poets. Tanglen is an Associate Professor of English and director of the faculty development and teaching center at Austin College. 

9780312111519I often teach Mary Rowlandson’s 1682 Indian captivity narrative The Sovereignty and Goodness of God in early American and American frontier literature classes. The narrative tells of Puritan Mary Rowlandson’s six-week captivity with the Narragansett and Wampanoag people of New England during King Phillip’s War in 1676. Very popular with British and colonial audiences alike, it went through four editions in its first year of publication and 23 editions by 1828. Today Rowlandson’s captivity narrative is heavily anthologized and regularly taught in a wide range of American literature courses as an example of Puritan spiritual autobiography and the Indian captivity narrative form. In my classes, I teach Rowlandson’s captivity narrative to demonstrate how the captivity trope and its anti-Indian rhetoric have been deployed in American literature and culture to justify the perceived rightness of usually white-provoked wars and the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

PALS contributor Corinna Cook recently discussed how she asks student to consider the ways in which “Native peoples draw on and similarly repurpose aesthetic patterns, literary tools, and textual practices of colonial origins.” So in order to illustrate what captivity narratives scholar Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola calls the “the complicated nexus of politics, cultures, identities, and ethnicities at the heart” of any captivity experience and its various depictions, I make it a priority to teach Native representations of and responses to the trope of captivity when I teach white accounts of Indian captivity. To that end, I teach two Native rejoinders to Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative after my classes have read it: Louise Erdrich’s (Chippewa) 1984 poem “Captivity” and Sherman Alexie’s (Spokane Coeur D’Alene) 1993 poem of the same title.

Both poems suggest that Rowlandson did not leave her captivity experience with the absolute certainty about white cultural superiority that the captivity trope tries to reinforce and thereby subvert the political purpose and cultural meaning of the colonialist captivity trope.

The Misattribution

Both poems open with an epigraphic misattribution that might prevent students from initially seeing the powerful ways in which both poems repurpose the captivity trope. With the exception of a few changed words, Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems both begin with the same epigraphic quote ascribed to Rowlandson:

He (my captor) gave me a bisquit, which I put in my pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fearing he had put something in it to make me love him.

The epigraph goes on to credit the quote to “the narrative of the captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, who was taken prisoner by the Wampanoag when Lancaster, Massachusetts was destroyed, in the year 1676.” My students, familiar with Rowlandson’s narrative, point out that this quote addresses some of Rowlandson’s most accentuated concerns: food and sexual vulnerability.

However, when students go back to look for the epigraphic quote that spurs the dramatic situation of both poems, they realize that it cannot be found anywhere in Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. This is because the epigraphic quote actually comes from the more obscure 1736 captivity narrative of a different Puritan captive named John Gyles, who wasn’t necessarily afraid of “loving” his Maliseet captors, but rather their French Jesuit allies. Although to a present-day audience these words may seem laced with erotic implications, the most literal meaning is that Gyles feared a priest would convert him to Catholicism.

Although it could be that Erdrich and Alexie (who seems to be writing in response to both Rowlandson and Erdrich) purposefully included the misattribution, students sometimes grapple with the inaccuracy. Once they know the origin of the epigraph, I asked the students to consider the following questions for class discussion and essay prompts:

  • Do you think the incorrect citation was intentional or an oversight by the poets?
  • What is the poetic effect of this “misattribution”?
  • What does this specific epigraph bring to each poem that would otherwise be lost?
  • Is there a quote from Rowlandson’s narrative that would serve as a more effective epigraph?
  • How does the epigraph help us see something new about Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative?
  • How does the epigraph contribute to the cultural work of each poem?
Erdrich’s Use of “Captivity”

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Through John Gyles’s misattributed epigraph, Erdrich’s “Captivity” picks up on Rowlandson’s simultaneous desire for intimacy with and the fear of contamination by a Native other. Throughout the poem, a speaker in the voice of Rowlandson revisits scenes of her captivity, describing her repulsion to her captives’ culture, yet her attraction to the specific individuals within it. Early on, the speaker is able to “recognize [the] face” of her master, and is able to “distinguis[h] it from the othe[r]” “pitch devils.” Students usually note that even in the early lines of the poem, by discerning the sound of her master’s voice, the speaker engages the process of individualizing and, thereby, humanizing, her master. Immediately after this recognition, though, the speaker admits that “There were times I feared I understood/his language,” or, as students regularly point out, that the speaker fears identification and intimacy with her master and his culture.

And even though the speaker had “told myself that I would starve/before I took food from his hands,” when her master offers her the meat of an unborn fawn she eats it and finds it to be, “so tender/the bones like the stems of flower.” Students always pick up on these lines because they reference one of the most memorable moments in the captivity narrative. Rowlandson states that she would never eat the “filthy trash” offered by her captors, but a few weeks later finds the meat of a fawn “very good.” The next stanza of the poem intimates that Rowlandson had a sexual encounter with her master, after which the “birds mocked” her and the “shadows gaped and roared”—evidence that God was displeased. But as she becomes more accustomed to her captors’ culture, the speaker realizes that her master doesn’t notice these signs of a Puritan God’s displeasure, and eventually she too, figures that God might not punish her for whatever intimacy developed between her and her master.

When Erdrich’s Rowlandson confesses that “Rescued, I see no truth in things,” students see the connection to the end of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative when she admits, “I can remember the time, when I used to sleep quietly without workings in my thoughts, whole nights together: but now it is other wayes with me,” the only indication of uncertainty or doubt in Rowlandson’s account of her Indian captivity.  Students often conclude that Erdrich’s “misattibution” of Gyle’s words must have been intentional. By revealing the interchangeable nature of captivity texts, the poem is able to expose the instability of white cultural identity represented by the trope of captivity.

Alexie’s Malleable Mary Rowlandson
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via Wikipedia

Alexie continues with Erdrich’s appropriation of Rowlandson’s captivity narrative by  responding to her “Captivity” poem with his own of the same title. Since the poem similarly opens with the same quote from Gyles but attributed to Rowlandson, it enters an intriguing intertextual conversation with Erdrich, Rowlandson, and even Gyles, which leads to rich classroom discussion. The speaker in Alexie’s prose poem tells and retells a variety of captivity scenarios that transport versions of Mary Rowlandson into present day reservation life. In the first stanza of Alexie’s poem, the daughter of a white Indian agent runs out of the reservation classroom, “waving her arms wildly at real and imagined enemies.” Echoing the same language as Erdich’s shared epigraph, the speaker wonders, “Was she afraid of loving us all?” Students often associate this line with the white fear of intimacy with a Native other embodied in Rowlandson’s narrative and revealed in Erdich’s poem. By maintaining Erdich’s original use of John Gyle’s words, Alexie offers commentary on the power and malleability of cultural tropes; the speaker at one point reminds the reader that “The best weapons are stories and every time the story is told, something changes. Every time the story is retold, something changes.” The poem moves Mary Rowlandson from the seventeenth century into the twentieth—she is the scared new white girl at a reservation school, the only survivor of a car crash on the reservation, a woman drinking coffee at the reservation 7-11. As students come to realize through class discussion, Alexie’s modern Mary Rowlandsons aren’t captive of a Native other, but rather of the pernicious limitations of the colonialist captivity trope.

In each of the poem’s fourteen stanzas, Alexie makes Rowlandson herself a cultural trope, a representation of white contradictory and ambivalent responses to and fear of Native people and cultures in Rowlandson’s day and our own. Some students even wonder if a “white boy…who spent the summer on the reservation” is a reference to John Gyles, which the students see as an intertextual clue that Erdrich and Alexie were both conscious of the misattribution. The speaker reports that “It was on July 4th that we kidnapped him and kept him captive in a chicken coop for hours.”Bringing so many iterations of Mary Rowlandson and even John Gyles types into the present day emphasizes the historical nimbleness of the colonialist captivity trope, but also the power to change it. Alexie’s speaker asks: “Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?” Linking these words to the epigraph, students wonder if that Native voice will ask the white captive to “love him.”

Implications and Resources
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via Slabcity Gang on Flickr

When considering the goal of both poets to highlight the long-term impact of European colonization on Native cultures, the epigraphic quote shouldn’t be written off as a “misattribution” or poetic flaw. This limits students’ capacity to interpret the works. Rather the poems are commenting on the historical and on-going use of the captivity narrative to promote assumptions of white cultural superiority and the instabilities inherent in those assumptions. Teaching Erdrich’s and Alexie’s poems in conversation with Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative allows students to recognize the subversive re-salvaging of the colonialist trope of captivity. For many students, this diminishes some of the power of Rowlandson’s ethnocentric, anti-Indian rhetoric and they are able to engage more deeply with the narrative itself and consider its present-day implications.

Resources:

Ben-Zvi, Yael. “Up and Down with Mary Rowlandson: Erdrich’s and Alexie’s Versions of ‘Captivity.’Studies in American Indian Literature, 2012.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. U of Michigan P, 1999.

Bio:

Randi-Tanglen6

Randi Tanglen is associate professor of English and director of the Robert and Joyce Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence in Teaching at Austin College in Sherman, Texas. She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on “Teaching Western American Literature.”