Teaching without a Text: Close Listening to Kamau Brathwaite’s Digital Audio Archive

Resumen (en traducción)

Las nuevas tecnologías de los medios, desde la grabadora hasta la computadora, permitieron el revolucionario enfoque poético de Kamau Brathwaite; Asimismo, las tecnologías digitales nos permiten estudiar y enseñar su obra pionera de nuevas formas. Este ensayo sostiene que la enseñanza y el estudio de Brathwaite deben comenzar con la palabra audible, no el texto escrito, y que los archivos y plataformas de audio digital pueden desempeñar un papel clave para permitir este enfoque. Los archivos de audio digital como PennSound y Poetry Archive permiten a los estudiantes y académicos acercarse al trabajo de Brathwaite escuchando atentamente una amplia gama de grabaciones de sonido. Este ensayo demuestra la utilidad de este enfoque de escucha atenta al aprovechar la plataforma digital de archipelagos para entrelazar su texto con la voz grabada de Brathwaite. No solo demuestra el valor de abordar el trabajo de Brathwaite a través de grabaciones de sonido digitales, sino que también aboga por un cambio mayor de las convenciones críticas, pedagógicas y ensayísticas en los estudios literarios a través de un desvío metodológico de la página.

Dedicated to the memory of Kamau Brathwaite, 1930–2020

All that I have of her is voices.

Kamau Brathwaite, "Ancestors"

New media technologies enabled Kamau Brathwaite’s revolutionary poetic approach; digital technologies likewise enable us to study and teach his groundbreaking work in new ways. I teach Brathwaite’s work at both undergraduate and graduate levels in a state research university in New Zealand that attracts students from a diverse demographic and with a wide range of abilities. I most often introduce Brathwaite’s work in a second-year course on poetry and music, in which I seek to challenge the primacy of the written text and the clear-cut distinction between poetry and music. I find that approaching poetry in this way requires my students and me to unlearn the traditional focus on the written text in literary studies, but that the pedagogical rewards more than compensate for this challenge. Students begin my courses with no particular background in orature. Yet once these digital natives have overcome their initial prejudices favoring written text, they find that a close listening approach empowers them to be not just better listeners but better readers. Such an approach draws on students’ everyday experiences of orality and recording technologies through downloaded and streamed popular music. By using these same digital media to listen to Brathwaite, the students heighten their consciousness of critical facets of his poetry that are difficult to teach from the page alone. Based on this experience, I argue here that teaching and studying Brathwaite should begin with the audible word, not the written text, and that digital audio archives and platforms can play a key role in enabling this approach. Digital audio archives allow students and teachers to approach Brathwaite’s work by listening closely to a wide range of sound recordings. The digital platform of archipelagos in turn enables me to demonstrate this close listening approach by allowing me to interweave my words with Brathwaite’s recorded voice.

A close listening approach to teaching literature challenges critical as well as pedagogical conventions through a methodological turn away from the page. The lack of and need for close listening to modern and contemporary poetry has been recognized in a wide range of work from the 1990s onward.1 The past decade or so has seen a particularly marked upsurge in new scholarship on poetry performance and recording.2 The increasing emphasis on the spoken word in the study of poetry is reflected in and enabled by online platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, through which many poets in and beyond the Caribbean now distribute their work. The turn to the recorded word is also marked by audio-archive projects such as the Poetry Archive and PennSound.3 Yet despite this increasing attention to and availability of recordings via the internet, close listening remains a largely unexplored field and one that is particularly important and valuable in the classroom context.

Nowhere is close listening more necessary and fruitful than in the case of Brathwaite. Many have noted the importance of performance to Brathwaite’s poetics. His celebrated performance of Rights of Passage at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London in 1967 was the first public event of the Caribbean Artists Movement. The performance itself was proposed by Caribbean Artists Movement cofounder John La Rose after listening to a tape-recording of Brathwaite reading the work.4 Brathwaite himself recalls how his Oxford University Press editor agreed to the inclusion of the allegedly incomprehensible “Rites” in his 1969 Islands only after he heard the text performed.5 Gordon Rohlehr and Elaine Savory similarly note the impact of Brathwaite’s performances on listeners.6 There are thus good reasons to believe Brathwaite when he claims that “if you ignore the noise . . . then you lose part of the meaning” and advocates “a music literature.”7 Yet approaches to his work, with the notable exception of brief discussions by Loretta Collins and Kenneth Sherwood, tend to place the audio text in a subordinate position to the written.8 And among all these examples of scholarship, it is only Sherwood who includes recordings as accompaniment to the essay; even then, the recordings and essay sit side by side.9 In contrast, this essay seeks to use the digital medium to integrate audio clips and analysis and so model the kind of close listening approach required for both studying and teaching Brathwaite.

A close listening approach enables students to explore Brathwaite’s intertwining of performance, versioning, sound, music, and vernacular with his political, historical, and social concerns. First, it upsets students’ assumptions about the primacy of the written text and encourages them to treat each recording, live rendition, and equally variable written text as a performative instantiation of a poetic text that exists only in and through its multiple performed, recorded, and written versions. Second, it highlights how this versioning is the product of Brathwaite’s use of oral and musical forms, from vernacular language to jazz and calypso, as well as of changes in twentieth- and twenty-first-century sound recording and of the turn to vernacular and dialect in modernist poetry. Third, teaching Brathwaite through audio rather than written text allows students to grasp in a concrete way Brathwaite’s emphasis on sound and voice as an embodiment of the history and politics of the Caribbean. It thus also draws attention to the politics of the classroom situation, which, like Brathwaite’s poetry, requires listening and response through aural and oral acts of communication.

Audio Texts and Versioning

Close listening challenges the primacy of the written text and thereby allows students to grasp the significance of Brathwaite’s poetics of versioning: his continuous rearrangement and re-presentation of existing poems in new forms. The term versioning as I use it here is itself intimately connected to the history of sound recording in the Caribbean. In the early 1960s, Jamaican producers began to use dub plates (impermanent acetate discs) in the “process of ‘versioning,’ a method of serially recycling recorded material developed by producers desiring to ensure the longest commercial life for a given piece of recorded music despite economic constraints and a limited pool of musicians.”10 By the mid-1960s the DJs who operated the sound systems in Jamaica had begun to rap, or “toast,” over the music—hence their increasing need for remixed instrumental, or “dub,” tracks. Emerging from this recording and performance culture, version became “one of the most important words in reggae,” in which there are sometimes “literally hundreds of different versions of the same rhythm or melody.” More broadly understood, the continuous remixing of existing material in new versions is arguably “at the heart . . . of all Afro-American and Caribbean musics.”11

Scholars have drawn analogies between Caribbean literature and musical versioning practices. Evelyn O’Callaghan, for instance, reads Caribbean women’s fiction by analogy with the versioning practice of dub.12 However, the connection between Brathwaite’s work and dub versioning is arguably more direct and even literal. Brathwaite first developed his versioning practice through sound recordings at the same time—and partly in the same place—that dub versioning emerged.

Brathwaite first acquired a tape recorder in 1960 while on leave from a position in Ghana, and he immediately began using it to record a series of “8 or 9 jazz poems”: “I wrote them . . . a few days after my first return to Barbados in 1960, returning them into my new reel-to-reel Philips tape recorder, accompanied on my record player . . . by the pieces that had inspired the poems.”13 In these “jazz poems,” six of which were published in Kyk-Over-Al, Brathwaite combined two audio reproduction machines—the record player and the tape recorder—to produce a multitrack version.14 His tape-based versioning practice anticipated the dub versioning that was at the time developing in Jamaica, to where he would relocate in mid-1963, a year after returning permanently from Ghana to the Caribbean. If “from the global perspective . . . Jamaica’s emphasis on versioning facilitated the transformation of formerly fixed pop songs into the more fluid, remix-based conceptions of composing typified by today’s digital technology,” Brathwaite’s tape-based versioning practices made a similar contribution to poetry. Brathwaite used tape to develop a versioning practice that is, like dub music, “mutable and modular,” in which each poem or series of poems can be reworked in multiple audio versions.15

Though not widely recognized, Brathwaite’s use of audio versioning played a critical role in the composition of his Arrivants trilogy: Rights of Passage, Islands, and Masks. “I knew right away . . . that it called for ORAL RESONANCE,” Brathwaite recalls of Rights of Passage. “I mean I just had to read it out onto tape almost at once and all the drafts after the first one were influenced by the sound on the tape.” Tape was, in fact, the poem’s first medium of “publication.” According to the liner note to a CD version of the The Arrivants, the first publicly aired recording was made in Jamaica in 1965 “on his reel to reel ‘with all the natural sounds inside it’—wind, waves, cocks crowing, dogs barking, cars passing, people walking, talking.”16 Brathwaite’s account reveals the value he places on each recording—be it mixed with music or ambient noise—as a unique version of his poetic work.

Listening to recordings of Brathwaite not only reveals the importance of audio recording to his versioning practice but also highlights the importance of the various audio media through which his work has been recorded and the possibilities and challenges of approaching such audio work through the digital archive. Between the 1950s and his death in early 2020, Brathwaite produced audio versions across a variety of media and formats. These versions include his recorded broadcasts for the BBC program Caribbean Voices in the 1950s; the recordings made on a portable transistor reel-to-reel tape recorder in the early to mid-1960s; the recordings made on a large Akai reel-to-reel machine for the Caribbean Artists Movement in London in the late 1960s; the LP versions of his Arrivants trilogy released in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the cassette tape recordings of his readings and lectures from the 1970s to the 1990s; and the digital recordings across various formats made over the last two to three decades.

Today it is much easier to teach Brathwaite through close listening thanks to the distribution of multiple recordings of his work online through sites such as PennSound. Digital archives enhance the ability of teachers to present Brathwaite’s recordings in class and of students to access those files outside class. At the same time, these digital audio files threaten to diminish our attention to the different media used to record these performances. It matters, for instance, that Brathwaite first made extensive use of homemade audio recordings through the medium of reel-to-reel tape. It also matters that listeners approaching the LP versions of The Arrivants would encounter the albums framed by a series of liner notes and artwork. And for The Arrivants in particular, the tape-recorded and LP versions also shaped the structure of the texts, which were, for instance, punctuated in the LP versions by the division into A and B sides. In contrast, the 2004 New York City Segue reading sampled in this essay is born digital. Such differences tend to be obscured when students encounter a series of downloadable MP3 files. However, it is precisely for this reason that teaching Brathwaite through close listening is also an opportunity to have students reflect on the specificity of these media and how we encounter them differently when we approach them through online digital archives or through this online multimedia essay.

Close listening to Brathwaite should also prompt us to consider the incompleteness and contingencies of the archival record of sound recording. What is currently available online, for instance, is only a fraction of the extant audio record associated with Brathwaite. Moreover, many predigital recordings, such as the 1965 tape-recording of Rights of Passage that Brathwaite’s cites as the poem’s first form of publication, have likely been lost forever.17 Brathwaite’s archive in Jamaica, destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, reportedly contained many unique audio recordings. Close listening to Brathwaite enables a larger reflection on the nature of digital audio archives: what they can tell us and what they leave unsaid.

Grasping versioning through close listening also provides a way into Brathwaite’s use of oral and musical traditions. Brathwaite’s use of music has been extensively documented and analyzed by Rohlehr, Collins, Lilieth Nelson, Donette Francis, and others. One way to develop a sense of close listening attuned to musicality is for students to listen to the sources Rohlehr identifies alongside the poems.18 The effectiveness of this approach is, however, greatly enhanced by listening to Brathwaite’s texts in recorded performances. These performances often verge on song, underscoring the connections Rohlehr identifies and adding a layer that is not present in the written text. Examples of the shift to song are plentiful in Brathwaite performance and include:19

"Negus" (extract)

"The Twist"


"Caliban" (extract)

"Soweto" (extract)

Also present are instances of drum-like repetition, as in:20

"Nights" (extract)

"Shepherd" (extract)

"Wings of a Dove" (extract)

"Angel/Engine" (extract)

Through close listening to such recordings, students interrogate the intertwining of Brathwaite’s work with oral and musical traditions that themselves produce many versions, as in multiple performances or recordings of the same song.

A close listening approach does not imply that the written text is unimportant but allows students to recognize that each audio text constitutes a version as significant as any written version. The notion of versioning in Brathwaite’s work (related to the broader notion of “othering” that Nathaniel Mackey applies to Brathwaite’s poetry) is often addressed in criticism and teaching through Brathwaite’s reworking of earlier poems and cycles in books such as his 1992 Middle Passages and 2001 Ancestors and through his Sycorax video-style: the graphic textual versioning practice that he developed on his Apple Mac computer in the 1980s.21 Yet many of Brathwaite’s versions, such as, for example, the 1994 Barabajan Poems: 1492–1992, started life in a recorded oral performance, and, consequently, his poetics of versioning is equally approachable through close listening to recorded audio texts.22

Through close listening, students encounter rich examples of Brathwaite’s versioning and rearrangement of poems. “The Rwanda Poems,” for instance, exists, in a published version under that name, only as an audio recording of a 1994 performance, although the closely related cycle “Rwanda” appears in print as part 3 of “New Gods of the Middle Passages” in Brathwaite’s 2001 Kamau Monograph.23 In the “New Gods” version, however, not all of “The Rwanda Poems” falls into the “Rwanda” section, and the poems are reordered and arranged alongside additional poems and other print material. The performed cycle “The Rwanda Poems” is itself an amalgam of poems from The Arrivants, including “Negus” and part of “Caliban,” and newer work, again reflecting Brathwaite’s practice of refashioning his existing material. In the recording of “The Rwanda Poems,” Brathwaite explains how his versioning practice includes both his Sycorax video-style and his performances. He describes how the poems “are layered or interfaced with some earlier material . . . to create another effect from that earlier material.”24

Extract from the introduction to "The Rwanda Poems"

Similarly, in many other readings, Brathwaite presents newer material alongside poems from The Arrivants, structuring this combination into a narrative of personal biography or a framework for thinking about Caribbean history in the present.25 Likewise, in his 2004 Segue performance at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, Brathwaite creates an alternative and integrated cycle deriving mainly from The Arrivants. He follows the final line of “Atumpan,” “may we succeed,” with the opening lines of “Naming,” “How then shall we / succeed?”26

Transition from "Atumpan" to "Naming"

He thus seamlessly links two poems separated by more than one hundred pages in the print version of his trilogy.

Close listening overcomes the bewilderment that some students––and likewise scribal poets and critics—experience at Brathwaite’s recycling of poetic material. As Savory points out, Brathwaite’s versioning practice contradicts “Western traditions of creativity since the Renaissance” that “have elevated originality.” At stake here is an idea of creativity as “process, and performance, and revisioning,” arguably more akin to “many African, oral cultures.”27 Close listening conveys such a conception of creativity to students by placing each printed and written poetic version in the familiar context of repeated concert performances, recordings, or remixes of a single song or piece of music.

I encourage students to think about Brathwaite’s versioning techniques by asking them to listen closely to his performances and then to compare them to the written text. Encouraging students to listen for differences heightens their attention to the text (audio and written), to word changes, and to the relationship between page and stage. Students hear how Brathwaite frequently extends or modifies repetitions and introduces new sung or nonverbal elements, especially drumming. For example, students can hear poems such as “The Twist” in quite different versions in his 2004 Segue and 1988 Pittsburgh International Poetry Forum performances. In each case, it is not only that the words are different and the drumming accompaniment varies but that each version places the poem in a radically different context. Equally, they find that Brathwaite sometimes cuts sections from poems in performance, as in his Griffin Poetry Prize performance of “Kumina.”28 At other times he runs one poem into another, as in the combining of “Xângo at the Summer Solstice” and “The Twist” in his Segue reading.29

Transition from "Xângo at the Summer Solstice" to "The Twist"

They also note that Brathwaite frequently interrupts his poems to comment on them.30 Close listening to all these variations provides the basis for a discussion of the text informed by an awareness of its constitutive multiplicity.

Brathwaite’s poetics of versioning can be related to what he calls “montage” and “calibanisms,” the name he gives to his punning word combinations and new coinages.31 To illustrate the role of montage, I have students listen to Brathwaite performing “The Emigrants”32 in his 1987 International Poetry Forum performance.

"The Emigrants" (extract) and discussion of montage

In this performance, Brathwaite interrupts the poem to say that this is the first time he used the technique of montage in his poetry, referring to how the poem superimposes the experience of Caribbean migrants traveling to Britain after the Second World War on Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas. I point out to my students that Brathwaite’s own interjection about montage itself constitutes another layer in the montage and that more generally the interplay between the many versions of his poems in his books and in his recordings functions in this montage-like, juxtaposing, multilayered way.

In addition to drawing a parallel between Brathwaite’s montage techniques and his versioning of his poems, I also note how these versions are larger-scale instances of his reiterations and rearrangements of words. These word repetitions—or “insistences,” in Gertrude Stein’s sense—appear frequently in Brathwaite’s punning, paronomastic poetry.33 For example, Brathwaite links “semicolons” and “semicolonies” in “Negus,” and “canon” and “cannon” in speaking about the difficulties of escaping the tyranny of English literature in his 1987 International Poetry Forum talk and poetry reading.34

On canon as cannon

Close listening to “Negus” demonstrates the relationship between word repetition and the repetition of entire poems in Brathwaite’s performance poetics. In the style of a preacher, Brathwaite builds “Negus” around the repeated word “it” and the phrases “it is not” and “it is not enough.”35

"Negus" (opening lines)

This word repetition parallels the repetition of the poem itself in various performances, in which it is frequently used by Brathwaite as an introductory piece.36 Just as the word “it” builds up a mesmeric power as it is repeated haltingly in Brathwaite’s performance, each repetition of “Negus” allows the poem to accumulate new resonances. By close listening to such variations in the selection, ordering, and instantiation of his poems, students recognize how the repetition and variation of set elements from the single word to the poem become critical structural devices in Brathwaite’s poetics.

Oral and Musical Forms

When students recognize that Brathwaite’s poetry exists in multiple versions with no one definitive text, they apprehend a feature that ties his work—and his audio texts in particular—to oral folk traditions and popular music. A simple but critical example of the importance of musicality and sound to Brathwaite’s poetics comes from “Calypso” in The Arrivants, which Brathwaite uses in History of the Voice to exemplify the need to break out of the iambic pentameter and English literary tradition.37 In reading the print version of Brathwaite’s History of the Voice, however, we encounter precisely the problem with approaching his work through the written text. In the essay Brathwaite explains how, when read aloud, the poem’s calypso rhythm works “to break down the pentameter.”38 And yet without the benefit of hearing Brathwaite perform these lines we have to take it on trust that the poem overturns rather than evokes the pentameter beat.

Listening to Brathwaite discuss the poem “Calypso” in his 1987 International Poetry Forum performance, however, provides a vivid illustration for students of how the poem resists conventional English prosody, an illustration that directly challenges the primacy of the written text and, simultaneously, underscores the importance of oral and musical traditions. In his recorded discussion of “Calypso,” Brathwaite performs the distinction between poetry on the page and in performance as the difference between a conventional English poetic reading and an almost sung version using the timed rhythm of the calypso beat.39

Discussion and performance of the opening lines of "Calypso"

Brathwaite reads the opening lines twice. His first reading demonstrates how, “on the page,” the poem has “almost the hint of the dreaded pentameter.” He goes on to explain, however, that the poem should be read with attention to the kaiso rhythm signaled by the title. In his second reading of the poem, Brathwaite demonstrates his point by performing the opening lines accompanied by his own drumming and in the musical or timed rhythm of a calypso.40 The difference between spoken and musically timed speech evident in the recording unsettles the stress patterns of standard English in a way that recalls the distinctive stress given to the final syllables of some words in some varieties of Caribbean English. I point out to students that the deviations from expected stress patterns and traditional English meters parallel the way Western music fails to “differentiate between the many patterns of accent that are possible in a musical period,” a failure that led early European listeners to falsely conclude that there was no concept of musical period in African music.41 Brathwaite’s performance also dramatizes a debate within anglophone Caribbean poetry about the relationship between European prosody and Afro-Caribbean rhythm. His recorded performance of “Calypso” implicitly opposes Derek Walcott’s assertion, made in a 1977 interview, that “Calypso is pentametric in composition.”42 The recording not only demonstrates to students the limits of reading the text on the page but also highlights the capacity of Brathwaite’s use of voice and music to dramatize battles over language and poetic and musical traditions.

Other performances in which Brathwaite moves into song also highlight his adaptation—or versioning—of musical forms. I have students listen to examples such as “Ancestors,” which ends in the “blues” “Sookey dead-o,” and the concluding “bongo man a come / bruggadung” of “Soweto.”43

"Ancestors" (extract)

"Soweto" (extract)

Such instances of song provide a context too for the more clearly communal and spiritual music-making invoked and performed in “Angel/Engine.”44 These moments of song are also the places where Brathwaite will most often deviate from his published written versions, especially by varying the number of repetitions or sometimes even skipping whole sections or adding new lines.45 These variations highlight the context of live performance, Brathwaite’s consciousness of the need to entertain, and the powerful grip that these musical moments have on his audience (they are the most likely to be followed by applause in live performances).

Close listening also reveals how Brathwaite’s use of dialect and music appeals to and builds on a modernist legacy of vernacular speech, popular music, and improvisation. The use of vernacular, or what Brathwaite calls “nation language,” can be heard and appreciated in poems such as “The Dust” and “Rites,” which students find much more readily comprehensible in recorded performance than on the page.46 For some scholars, Brathwaite’s use of vernacular and popular music echoes T. S. Eliot’s “revolutionary voice of early modernism, a voice that challenges Standard English poetry with new types of speech and forms of popular culture.”47 What most scholars miss, however, is the literalness of Brathwaite’s “listening to Eliot.”48 I play recordings of Eliot to my students, noting how Brathwaite cites hearing “Eliot’s actual voice––or rather his recorded voice . . . ––not the texts” as being influential on his development.49

Audio technologies play a key role in Brathwaite’s poetics and in his own formative listening to recordings of Eliot and others. I find students become more conscious of the role of audio technologies when they connect Brathwaite’s recording and sampling poetics to their own use of digital audio files. I ask students to compare Brathwaite’s practice to their own construction of a personal canon through audio collections and playlists. Using Brathwaite’s example, my students have created their own playlists of poems and music in response to Brathwaite’s poetry.50

Brathwaite has long used audio technologies, drawing on his personal recordings and playlists of poetry and music in his own poetic compositions and in his talks and writing about poetry. The latter is exemplified by his essay History of the Voice, which includes an extensive discography. Subtitled “An Electronic Lecture” when it first appeared in print, the essay started life as a talk that involved the interplay of Brathwaite’s live voice and a variety of poetic and musical recordings complied on a mixtape. Brathwaite emphasizes the importance of the recorded word and what a reading of the published essay misses: “I have to have a tape recorder for this presentation.”51 Here Brathwaite also highlights the fact that the published essay is itself an edited transcription of a recording of a live performance of the lecture.52

Through a close listening approach, Brathwaite’s turn to the technology of the computer can be seen in the light of his earlier use of audio technologies. Close listening to Brathwaite helps reveal the multiple ways his use of oral, folk, and musical traditions engages twentieth- and twenty-first-century technologies, from radio to the computer.53 Recognizing Brathwaite’s indebtedness to audio technologies unsettles the contention that his use of the new technology of the computer contradicts his earlier emphasis on folk, oral, and musical forms.54 A close listening approach to Brathwaite underscores how his use of popular music and popular music itself arise out of innovations in recording and transmission technologies—including the World Wide Web through which his recordings are available for teaching and study today.

Politics and Performance

Through close listening, students also become attuned to the political and social significance of Brathwaite’s recorded performances, which address an audience and demand a response. The pedagogical challenge here is to assist students in relating their relatively straightforward descriptive analysis of Brathwaite’s performances to the complex relationship between performed word, performer, and audience. These issues are, of course, also at stake on the page, but the context of performance, particularly recordings of live performance, prompts students to question the nature and political significance of the relationship between listener and speaker.

I illustrate to students the political significance of Brathwaite’s performances through close listening to his use of the limbo. In his Middle Passages lecture, he uses the limbo refrain to challenge the audience: “Limbo is a psychophysical ritual that awaits us. . . . We all got to get under in order to get over.”55

On the limbo

Here the popular dance becomes a figure for the Middle Passage, just as it does in his poem “Caliban” from Islands, the third part of Brathwaite’s Arrivants trilogy. Brathwaite even interrupts his 2004 Segue recording of “Caliban” to underscore the symbolic significance of the limbo, thus offering another version of the poem that by directly addressing the audience draws the listener in.56

"Caliban" (extract) and discussion of the limbo

Similarly, in the Middle Passages performance, Brathwaite uses the limbo to address the audience directly and demand a response.57 The performance thus draws attention to the embodied situation of listener and performer through the embodied process of the limbo dance. In this way Brathwaite produces a poetic practice that demands response—sounding, listening, and being heard, not being “mum,” silent, or “dumb.” 58

On "the society of mum"

"Shepherd" (extract)

Brathwaite’s challenge suggests the political importance of close listening—of an approach to teaching that refuses the “mum” of silent close reading in favor of the sound of the recorded word. “Reading is an isolated, individualistic expression,” Brathwaite argues. “The oral tradition on the other hand makes demands not only on the griot but the audience to complete the community. The noise and sounds that the maker makes are responded to by the audience and are returned to him.”59 Listening to Brathwaite perform and discuss the limbo allows students to recognize the dance as a central figure for the embodied act of performing and listening—for Brathwaite’s “Caribbean-centered vision of the complex conversation between self and community.”60 Simultaneously, it allows them to grasp how the dancer’s bent body registers the paradoxical situation whereby reliving the Middle Passage becomes a source of strength.

Close listening enables students to hear such unexpected shifts and paradoxes in Brathwaite’s performances. In particular, students become aware of how performance complicates Brathwaite’s claim of producing an authentic, “total Caribbean experience.”61

On the opening lines of "Calypso" as coming "out of a total Caribbean experience"

Listening, we do not know where the poem is leading, and so we must pay attention to the twists and turns of performance. Brathwaite emphasizes this uncertainty at the start of his performances by, for example, claiming, “I’m going to try something that I have never tried before,” or “I can’t be certain about anything—I might not even be able to read at all.”62 Each performance is something new; thus authenticity in his poetry is not something essential but continuously in flux.

In his 2004 Segue reading in New York City, Brathwaite provides just such an unexpected twist by improvising a new version of the poem “The Twist” at the conclusion of his performance. In this new version Brathwaite returns to the poem that he had performed earlier in the reading, but this time, to conclude his performance, he dramatically alters the final verse, presenting the poem as a self-referential comment on his appearance on stage “on a night like this,” the poem’s final line.63

Reprise of "The Twist," Segue reading

In his 1988 International Poetry Forum performance, however, Brathwaite locates the poem in the context of the aborted US Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and his own return to the Caribbean, to a situation of neocolonial entrapment: “The go-go girls . . . are still trapped in this eternal treadmill, . . . the ghetto becoming a necklace, . . . not of beauty but of a kind of neoslavery.”64

On "neoslavery" and "The Twist"

The apparent hopelessness of this latter context contrasts with the perhaps more hopeful lines in the Segue reprise: “Feel the hunger, feel the passion pull upon your strings, watch her, twist her, love her on a night like this.” Together the two contexts also highlight the problematic position of the poet as performer embodying a situation that might be, as he describes the English language, both “a model and a prison.”65

On English as "a model and a prison"

That is, on the one hand, performance offers up the possibility of a genuine communal situation and so of “love.” But on the other, performance presents a potentially exploitative situation, one that parallels both the prostitution of the “shanty town . . . girls,” and also the manipulation of the audience by the poet, who, like the dancer, pulls “upon your strings.”

“The Twist,” then, highlights how slavery has been exchanged for the neocolonial sex slavery of prostitution fed by US tourism and by the US Marines to whose colonial presence in the region Brathwaite refers in introducing the poem in his 1988 International Poetry Forum performance. But hearing the poem also links this situation to the act of performance itself by implicating the listener and the poet in this situation of voyeurism and exploitation. The attractiveness of the song as performed by Brathwaite belies its depiction of suffering and so parallels the attractiveness of the dancers, which hides their desperation. In his 2004 Segue reading in New York, Brathwaite presents the limbo as both a form of nightclub entertainment and a reenactment of the cruel, back-breaking suffering and labor of the Middle Passage and slavery. Similarly, in the same New York performance, Brathwaite performs “The Twist” to focus attention on the cruel suffering underlying the smiling face of entertainment for the tourist and, by implication, for the literary armchair traveler to exotic locations.

Yet, as I note to my students, the relationship between performance, exploitation, and emancipation is even more critical and complex in “The Twist” and in Brathwaite’s poetry generally. After all, Brathwaite, in “Jazz and the West Indian Novel,” responds to Walcott’s assertion that “we must teach our philosophy to reach above the navel” by arguing, “It is around this very navel that the battle ranges. The alternative tradition is belly-centred: in the beat, in the drum, the apparent bawdy”; it is “belly-drum centred.”66 Similarly, in “Calypso” Brathwaite appeals to the calypso as the locus of a “total Caribbean experience,” even as the poem acknowledges that this appeal seems to reinforce what Rohlehr terms the “new minstrel stereotype” of the mid-twentieth-century “image of the Trinidadian as a happy-go-lucky calypso-singing masquerader.”67 Listening to the Segue recording, students hear Brathwaite pose the question “How can we succeed?” They also hear him identify an answer to that question in the “belly-drum centred” tradition developed throughout the reading, from the “it / it / it” of “Negus” through the “Kon kon kon kon / kun kun kun kun” of “Atumpan” and the “dumb / dumb / dumb” of “Shepherd” to the revolutionary “beat dem drums / dem” drumbeat of “Wings of a Dove.”68

"Negus" (opening lines)


"Shepherd" (extract)

The passage of this drumbeat recalls Brathwaite’s account of the dancer of the limbo as a symbolic reenactment of the Middle Passage. The drumbeat allows the voice to emerge from its very dumbness—out of the nadar, nothingness, and silence of the literal and metaphorical Middle Passage—into the “Kingdom of the word,” a word that Brathwaite extends into a long wavering note in his Segue performance of “Negus.”69

"Kingdom of the word," extract from "Negus"

Close listening to “The Twist” in the context of the Segue reading thus underscores the interplay between exploitation and emancipation in Brathwaite’s poetics through the poem’s affirmation of rhythm and music emerging from injustice and suffering and through the way this tension revolves around the poet’s act of performance. The turns of meaning in “The Twist” make the poem a figure for Brathwaite’s performative poetics, most powerfully and unsettlingly evident and teachable through close listening to the digital archive of his recordings.

Many of the critical relationships––between versions on the page and in performance, between oral traditions and audio-recording technologies, between the performer and the performance––that one can explore in Brathwaite’s work through a close listening approach are equally important to classroom teaching. A final reason for close listening to Brathwaite is that it makes us, as teachers, address the demands that the classroom places on our students and ourselves to be close listeners and performers, aware of all the twists and turns that our shared acts of speaking and listening might bring.

  1. Early examples of the increased attention to the audio text can be found in Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead, eds., Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992); Adalaide Morris, ed., Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); and Charles Bernstein, ed., Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). ↩︎

  2. For example, Lesley Wheeler, Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008); Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009); Tyler Hoffman, American Poetry in Performance: From Walt Whitman to Hip Hop (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011); Jill S. Kuhnheim, Beyond the Page: Poetry and Performance in Spanish America (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014); Javon Johnson, Killing Poetry: Blackness and the Making of Slam and Spoken Word Communities (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017); Juha Virtanen, Poetry and Performance during the British Poetry Revival, 1960–1980: Event and Effect (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017); Lytle Shaw, Narrowcast: Poetry and Audio Research (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018); and Wendy R. Williams, Listen to the Poet: Writing, Performance, and Community in Youth Spoken Word Poetry (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2018). ↩︎

  3. See the Poetry Archive,, and PennSound, a project of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, University of Pennsylvania, Although Caribbean poets are generally underrepresented in these archives, PennSound does contain numerous digital and digitized recordings of Brathwaite’s work (, and according to Janet Neigh, the Poetry Archive, thanks to the Caribbean Poetry Project, “features more Caribbean poets than most.” See Janet Neigh, “Digitizing the ‘Sound Explosions’ of Anglophone Caribbean Performance Poetry,” archipelagos journal, no. 1 (June 2016),↩︎

  4. Anne Walmsley, The Caribbean Artists Movement, 19661972: A Literary and Cultural History (London: New Beacon, 1992), 83. See also Jacob Edmond, “Global Rhythms: Setting the Stage for World Poetry in 1960s London,” University of Toronto Quarterly 88, no. 2 (2019): 269; and Jacob Edmond, Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 35–36. ↩︎

  5. Brathwaite recollects that, prior to the performance, the editor’s advisors had “suggested to him that it [“Rites”] should be taken out . . . on the grounds that it would not communicate to their public.” Kamau Brathwaite, International Poetry Forum performance, recorded 7 February 1988, Pittsburgh, PennSound,, at 32:52–33:10. ↩︎

  6. Gordon Rohlehr, “West Indian Poetry: Some Problems of Assessment,” part 2, Bim 14, no. 55 (1972): 134; Elaine Savory, introduction to Middle Passages: A Lecture, by Kamau Brathwaite, recorded 18 July 2005 at Ryerson University, Toronto, CD, Sandberry Press, 2006, at 4:57–5:28. ↩︎

  7. Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon, 1984), 17; Kamau Brathwaite, Middle Passages: A Lecture, at 38:48–52:00. ↩︎

  8. See Loretta Collins, “Rude Bwoys, Riddim, Rub-a-dub, and Rastas: Systems of Political Dissonance in Caribbean Performative Sounds,” in Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies, ed. Adalaide Morris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 185–88; and Kenneth Sherwood, “Elaborate Versionings: Characteristics of Emergent Performance in Three Print/Oral/Aural Poets,” Oral Tradition 21, no. 1 (2006): 132–36. ↩︎

  9. The eCompanion of four audio files that accompanies Sherwood’s “Elaborate Versionings” (as well as a downloadable PDF of the essay) are at At the end of the essay Sherwood includes a transcription of Brathwaite’s recorded performance of “Angel/Engine” side by side with the print version. ↩︎

  10. Michael E. Veal, Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2007), 55. ↩︎

  11. Dick Hebdige, Cut ‘n’ Mix: Culture, Identity, and Caribbean Music (New York: Methuen, 1987), 12. ↩︎

  12. Evelyn O’Callaghan, Woman Version: Theoretical Approaches to West Indian Fiction by Women (New York: St Martin’s, 1993).  ↩︎

  13. Kamau Brathwaite, The Poet and His Place in Barbadian Culture (Bridgetown: Central Bank of Barbados, 1987), 19. ↩︎

  14. Kamau Brathwaite, “Six Poems,” Kyk-Over-Al, no. 27 (December 1960): 83–86. ↩︎

  15. Veal, Dub, 216–17, 214. ↩︎

  16. Kamau Brathwaite, liner notes to The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy, CD, Savacou North SA 001, 2001. Although it is presented partly in the third person, this description of the recording process is almost certainly written by Brathwaite himself. The entire note is attributed to “a dream by Kamau Brathwaite” and shifts freely between third and first person. ↩︎

  17. For more on this 1965 recording of Rights of Passage, see the liner notes to The Arrivants; Walmsley, Caribbean Artists Movement, 41; and Kamau Brathwaite,”Comments on CAM Text,” part 2, 1 January 1991, 19, Caribbean Artists Movement: Papers of Anne Walmsley, GB 2904 CAM/14/1/2, George Padmore Institute Archive, London. I know of no extant copies of this 1965 recording nor of the recording of his History of the Voice lecture, which Brathwaite notes was one of the items in his archive damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Gilbert. See Sonya Posmentier, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 193. ↩︎

  18. Gordon Rohlehr, Pathfinder: Black Awakening in “The Arrivants” of Edward Kamau Brathwaite (Tunapuna, Trinidad: Gordon Rohlehr, 1981), 333–40. ↩︎

  19. MP3s of these poems are at “Negus” (extract: 4:17–35), “The Twist” (first version), “Atumpan,” “Caliban” (extract: 8:20–32), “Shepherd” (extract: 00:00–27), and “Wings of a Dove” (extract: 1:40–1:53), recorded at the Bowery Poetry Club, 1 May 2004, New York City, are found under “Segue Reading.” “Soweto” is in the 1988 International Poetry Forum recording, at 47:00 (extract 56:33–57:12). ↩︎

  20. “Nights” is in the recording of Cross-Cultural Poetics, radio show hosted by Leonard Schwartz, show no. 94 (2005), at 12:59 (extract: 15:42–58). “Angel/Engine,” recorded 19 October 1997 at “XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics Conference,” is under its own heading (extract: 0:00–27); also available in the eCompanion to Sherwood, “Elaborate Versionings” (see note 9). ↩︎

  21. See Nathaniel Mackey, “Other: From Noun to Verb,” Representations 39 (1992): 52. Kelly Josephs’s essay “Versions of X/Self” is typical of this common emphasis on these print Sycorax video-style versions; see Kelly Baker Josephs, “Versions of X/Self: Kamau Brathwaite’s Caribbean Discourse,” Anthurium 1, no. 1 (2003): n. p. I use versioning rather than revision, the term Savory favors in her account of mainly page-based versions of Brathwaite’s poems, in order to the underscore how Brathwaite’s recording practice is analogous to dub versioning with its rejection of the notion of an original version, a rejection that Savory herself notes is critical to Brathwaite’s iterative poetics. See Elaine Savory, “Journey from Catastrophe to Radiance: A Review Essay Locating Kamau Brathwaite’s Words Need Love Too (2000) in the Context of his Life and Work,” Transition 99, no. 1 (2008): 126–47, doi: 10.1353/tra.0.0077. ↩︎

  22. Kamau Brathwaite, Barabajan Poems: 1492–1992 (New York: Savacou North, 1994). On the links between Brathwaite’s video-style and his recorded performances, see also Graeme Rigby, “Publishing Brathwaite: Adventures in the Video Style,” World Literature Today 68 (1994): 710. ↩︎

  23. Kamau Brathwaite, “Rwanda,” part 3 of “New Gods of the Middle Passages,” Kamau Monograph, Caribbean Quarterly Monograph Series (Mona, Jamaica: Caribbean Quarterly; University of West Indies, n.d. [2002?]): 123–42. ↩︎

  24. Kamau Brathwaite, introduction to “The Rwanda Poems,” track 2 of Kamau Brathwaite and Allen Ginsberg (extract: 0:42–57), recorded 6 October 1994, CD, Academy of American Poets, 2004. ↩︎

  25. See Brathwaite, International Poetry Forum performance, recorded 10 February 1987, Pittsburgh, and 1988 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound. See also Brathwaite, Middle Passages: A Lecture↩︎

  26. Brathwaite, transition from “Atumpan” to “Naming,” Segue reading (complete reading), PennSound (extract: 13:20–14:45). ↩︎

  27. Savory, “Journey from Catastrophe,” 136. ↩︎

  28. Kamau Brathwaite, “Kumina,” in Born to Slow Horses (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2005), 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize performance,↩︎

  29. Brathwaite, Segue reading (complete reading), PennSound (extract: 40:24–41:05). ↩︎

  30. Sherwood, “Elaborate Versionings,” 134. ↩︎

  31. Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Sun Poem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 100. ↩︎

  32. Kamau Brathwaite, 1987 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound (extract: 34:31–37:51). ↩︎

  33. Gertrude Stein, Gertrude Stein: Writings, 1932–1946, ed. Catharine R. Stimpson and Harriet Chessman (New York: Library of America, 1998), 288. ↩︎

  34. Kamau Brathwaite, “Negus,” in The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 224; Brathwaite, 1987 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound (extract: 2:19–38). ↩︎

  35. Brathwaite, “Negus,” Segue reading (extract: 0:00–0:21). See Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 262. ↩︎

  36. Brathwaite’s versionings of “Negus” can be heard in “Nation Language and Other Revolutions,” Cross-Cultural Poetics, radio show hosted by Leonard Schwartz, show number 16, recorded 2 February 2004, PennSound, at 3:10; International Poetry Forum performance, recorded 3 November 1999, International Poetry Forum Archive,, at 19:29; Poetry in Performance, vol. 2, CD, 57 Productions, 2003; “The Rwanda Poems,” Kamau Brathwaite and Allen Ginsberg; and Segue reading, PennSound. ↩︎

  37. Brathwaite, History of the Voice, 17–18. ↩︎

  38. Ibid., 17. ↩︎

  39. Brathwaite, 1987 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound (extract: 9:40–11:24). ↩︎

  40. The rhythm of Brathwaite’s performance conforms closely to Shannon Dudley’s representation of the basic perceived calypso beat. Shannon Dudley, “Judging ‘By the Beat’: Calypso versus Soca,” Ethnomusicology 40, no. 2 (1996): 277, fig. 4c. ↩︎

  41. Ibid., 272. ↩︎

  42. Derek Walcott, in William Baer, ed., Conversations with Derek Walcott (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 62. Walcott’s comment came a year after Brathwaite presented the first version of his “History of the Voice” lecture at the 1976 Carifesta in Jamaica. In the lecture, Brathwaite discusses how Walcott’s poetry deploys Caribbean language and idiom (what Brathwaite calls “nation language”), but he also identifies a colonial residue in Walcott’s commitment to the pentameter. ↩︎

  43. Brathwaite, “Ancestors,” 1987 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound, at 16:39 (extract 19:35–20:13); and “Soweto,” 1988 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound, at 47:02 (extract 56:50–57:07). In the text I follow the typographic treatment Brathwaite gives “Soweto” in Middle Passages (New York: New Directions, 1992), 83. ↩︎

  44. Brathwaite, “Angel/Engine,” found in the eCompanion to Sherwood, “Elaborate Versionings”; at PennSound; and in the 1999 International Poetry Forum performance, International Poetry Forum Archive, at 1:08:00. ↩︎

  45. Brathwaite, “Kumina” and “The Twist,” in Segue reading, PennSound. ↩︎

  46. Brathwaite, “The Dust,” 1999 International Poetry Forum performance, International Poetry Forum Archive, at 38:14; and “Rites,” 1988 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound, at 36:15. ↩︎

  47. Charles W. Pollard, New World Modernisms: T. S. Eliot, Derek Walcott, and Kamau Brathwaite (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004), 136. Other accounts of Brathwaite’s echoes of Eliot can be found in Matthew Hart, Nations of Nothing but Poetry: Modernism, Transnationalism, and Synthetic Vernacular Writing (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Jahan Ramazani, “A Transnational Poetics,” American Literary History 18, no. 2 (2006): 332–59. ↩︎

  48. “Listening to Eliot” is the title of a chapter in Pollard’s New World Modernisms↩︎

  49. Brathwaite, History of the Voice, 30–31n41. ↩︎

  50. For example, one student, Zoe Taptiklis, created a playlist of recordings of poetry and music in response to the work of Brathwaite and Ishion Hutchinson. See “The Playlist,” Braithwaite&Hutchinson—Anthologies of Sound: Listening to the Caribbean,↩︎

  51. Brathwaite, History of the Voice, 17. ↩︎

  52. The published version of History of the Voice is an edited transcription of the lecture as delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as part of the 1979 English Institute at Harvard University. However, despite contacting the transcriber, Houston Baker Jr., I have been unable to locate a copy of the recording. The lecture was first presented at Carifesta in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1976. However, only the question-and-answer session—not the lecture itself—is preserved on tape in the archives of the Library of the Spoken Word at the University of West Indies, Mona. See Sonya Posmentier, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 193. ↩︎

  53. Loretta Collins, “From the ‘Crossroads of Space’ to the (Dis)Koumforts of Home: Radio and the Poet as Transmuter of the Word in Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Meridian’ and Ancestors,” Anthurium 1, no. 1 (2003): n.p., <doi:10.33596/anth.2>. ↩︎

  54. Pollard, New World Modernisms, 126. ↩︎

  55. Brathwaite, Middle Passages: A Lecture (extract: 41:11–42:53; quotation: 42:22–42:48). ↩︎

  56. Brathwaite, “Caliban,” Segue reading, PennSound (extract: 3:42–7:42). ↩︎

  57. Brathwaite, Middle Passages: A Lecture, at 41:11–42:53. ↩︎

  58. Brathwaite, Middle Passages: A Lecture (extract: 3:36–49). Brathwaite, “Shepherd,” in The Arrivants, 185; and Segue reading, PennSound (extract: 00:00–27). ↩︎

  59. Brathwaite, History of the Voice, 18–19. ↩︎

  60. Elaine Savory, “The Word Becomes Nam: Self and Community in the Poetry of Kamau Brathwaite, and Its Relation to Caribbean Culture and Postmodern Theory,” in Writing the Nation: Self and Country in the Post-colonial Imagination, ed. John Charles Hawley (New York: Rodopi, 1996), 38. ↩︎

  61. Brathwaite, 1987 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound (extract: 11:10–23). ↩︎

  62. Ibid., at 0:16; Segue reading, PennSound, at 3:38. ↩︎

  63. Brathwaite, “The Twist” reprise (no. 14), Segue reading, PennSound. ↩︎

  64. Brathwaite, 1988 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound, at 20:17–22:09. ↩︎

  65. Brathwaite, 1987 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound, at 0:39–1:06. ↩︎

  66. Kamau Brathwaite, “Jazz and the West Indian Novel,” in Roots (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 74, 75. Brathwaite refers to a phrase from Walcott’s poem “Tales of the Islands”: “Teach our philosophy the strength to reach / Above the navel.” Derek Walcott, The Poetry of Derek Walcott, 1948–2013, ed. Glyn Maxwell (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), 31. ↩︎

  67. Brathwaite, 1987 International Poetry Forum performance, PennSound, at 11:20–23; Rohlehr, Pathfinder, 101. ↩︎

  68. Brathwaite, “Atumpan,” Segue reading; Brathwaite, “Shepherd,” Segue reading (extract: 00:00–27); Brathwaite, “Negus,” Segue reading (extract: 0:00–0:21); and “Wings of a Dove,” Segue reading, PennSound (extract: 3:04–14). ↩︎

  69. Brathwaite, “Negus,” Segue reading, PennSound (extract: 0:33–0:50). ↩︎

Jacob Edmond

Jacob Edmond is a professor in English at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Make It the Same: Poetry in the Age of Global Media (Columbia University Press, 2019) and A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature (Fordham University Press, 2012). His essays have appeared in Comparative Literature, Contemporary Literature, Poetics Today, Slavic Review, and The China Quarterly.