Dub-Ritual Poetry

Back in the spring of 2018 I was invited to contribute a collaborative poetry experiment to the forthcoming anthology, Original Plus Dub (Hesterglock Press, 2019) edited by Paul Hawkins and Richard Skinner. The premise: to work with a collaborator (Dolly Dollycore), each producing an ‘original’ (text/poem/artwork, etc.) then swap works and ‘remix’ each other’s original piece. We were given some background on the nature of ‘dub’, and the rest was up to us.

What struck me most in the definition of ‘dub’ – a music genre that predominantly remixes original recordings into new sounds – was (unsurprisingly for a poet) a tangential etymological connection. ‘Dub’ is connected to the word ‘duppy’:

“The word “duppy” also relates to “dub” through Jamaica’s history of intra-racial terror, violence, and murder that is often overlooked in favor of Jamaican ideologies of racial solidarity. The ghosts of these victims, or “duppies”, are thought to be captured best within the dub instrumentals. To describe dub in his study “When Echoes Return”, Louis Chude-Sokei states, “Its swirling echoes are metaphors of loss while the disembodied voices and gunshots mimic the sound of ghosts, the sudden dead.”” 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dub_music

I had first encountered the word ‘duppy’ in Andrea Brady’s introduction to M. Nourbese Philip’s performance of Zong! at the Globe Road Poetry Festival in 2015. I hadn’t seen that live performance, but I had seen Nourbese perform from Zong! a few days before when she came to Brighton for a special Hi Zero event with Nat Raha.

In her introduction, Andrea Brady says that Nourbese Philip’s poetry ‘unlocks those stories that can be told only by not telling … in order to open up spaces in which we all might live’. She introduces the performance by saying that Philip becomes ‘a shaman … a keeper of secrets and silences – those spaces in language which mark the absences of the dead.’ Zong! is a book-length poem that enters into the un-telling of the massacre in which ‘as many as 140 slaves were thrown overboard to cash in on their insured value’, using only the language of the single legal document that addresses this case. In Zong! Nourbese Philip opens up spaces to mark the absences of the African men, women and children who suffered this and other similar fates.

Brady explains that Nourbese Philip’s ‘work to reimagine the poetry reading in particular as a collective, durational or improvisatory performance holds that space in ceremony: a space to praise the ancestors, draw the community together, and force us to confront the ghosts of our particular and historical memory.’ Here the ghosts remain, reclaiming space, jostling with the living that we may be confronted by their untold stories, and in so doing, confront the untold histories of ourselves.

In her performance of Zong! Nourbese Philip invokes ‘spectral beings’, such as ‘duppies, zombies or jumbies inhabiting a world that is not truly ours – aware that somewhere out there, in another world, there is a parallel universe, where we could become truly embodied, with embodied addressors, so to speak’. The performance becomes a ritual space in which ‘the distance between these two worlds becomes smaller’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8oDLJDztRBM

The duppies are the ghosts – the returned – those who have suffered and died as a result of racist colonial practices. The poetry performance-ritual creates a collective space in which they might breathe again, and we might imagine another world holding their presence in conjunction with our own.

Every aspect of what Nourbese Philip is doing in her writing and performance of Zong! appeals to me here, and it’s this sense of ‘duppy’ that I wanted to explore through the collaborative project for Original Plus Dub.

Working with Dolly – someone whose work in ritual and poetics complements my own, who brings new angles, energies and ideas; and who I felt certain would resonate with the nuanced vibe I had in mind for the project – we each set about creating our own ‘original’. We were each interested in addressing the ghosts of our particular and cultural memory, especially in relation to colonial violence and its legacy. As we were writing, news of the Windrush Scandal brought that legacy into our present moment and we each took the opportunity to explore colonial racial violence through this contemporary lens.

I created my own durational poetry-writing ritual, in which I used collaged language from the news and the words of those who had been affected to write a poem instead of listening to the BBC’s disgustingly scheduled reading of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. The resulting poem, ‘Whispers of Windrush’, is here. Like Zong!, this poem works with the ‘untelling’ through gaps and silences. The poem itself was too long to use in the anthology, so I layered it and condensed it into what then became my ‘original’ for the project. Dolly had also written a long poem on the same subject, and we felt the echoes and refractions that these two poems offered each other made an interesting and appropriate starting point for our ‘dub’ ritual.

For our dub remixes, we both wanted to create a ritual that would allow us to connect with the underlying stories and energies at work in our poems – the stories of those, past and present, who have suffered at the hands of racist colonial violence, creating a connection between the lives and stories (un)told in Nourbese Philip’s Zong! and the current condition of the Windrush Scandal explored in our own poetry.

We chose to hold the ritual in November, close to the time of the Zong! massacre, on the beach – where we could invoke the energies of the sea, stones, wind and fire to work with our words and create the dub remixes.

Murmuration above the West Pier, Brighton – invoking the energies for our dub-ritual

Facing each other, we each read our own poem to the wind.

Facing the sea, we read each other’s poems to the water.

Quoting from Zong! we gave each other’s poems to the waves & pebbles.

With a brief, wind-blown fire & the inner heat of rum, we gave our poems to the ritual.

dub-ritual poems

At the end of the ritual, we took each other’s poems home to remix in collaboration with one another and the elements, mindful of the presence of the duppies in Nourbese Philip’s Zong!. I carried Dolly’s poem, folded into the pages of my copy of Zong! where it dried, and created my dub remix from the remains. Dolly did the same to mine.

The dubs in our ritual collaboration became duppies: the returned spectres of colonial racial violence in contemporary Britain; the silences of the untold; the repetitions and echoes of (one) another’s words.

dub-ritual remix: stones, poem, Zong!

All four poems will be included in the forthcoming Original Plus Dub anthology from Hesterglock Press (May 2019).

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