Tongue of the Computer

Cover image for conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey by Kamau Brathwaite. [An orange book cover on black background. At the center of the cover is a white, vertical rectangle with a pixelated doodle in black ink.]

On November 18, 1993, the Barbadian poet, literary critic, and historian Kamau Brathwaite met with American poet and editor Nathaniel Mackey for a public discussion at Poet’s House in New York City.1 The pair had been friends and colleagues for over a decade, Mackey having published Brathwaite in early issues of the 1982 poetry magazine Hambone. They settled in for a lengthy oral survey of Brathwaite’s work, covering the effect his studies in Ghana and the UK had on his understanding of Caribbean identity, the Barbadian spoken tradition which he’d previously termed “nation language,” his beloved Arrivants and Ancestors poetry trilogies, and his move to the United States in 1991 for a professorship in Comparative Literature at NYU. This talk with Mackey—Brathwaite’s first public event in New York—occurred five years into a radical shift in his writing method, one that would redefine his relationship to his computer’s word processor.

Six years after the Poet’s House event, Brathwaite worked with We Press and the journal XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics to publish a transcription of the discussion, expanding the hour-long conversation into a sprawling, heavily-annotated, visual history of his work—a now-essential key to following the poet’s writing and influences.

The book, conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey,2 has a large trim-size for a poetry volume, measuring 8.5 × 11 inches. Its soft cover and 320 pages allow it to flop open on one’s desk, revealing text spreads that change significantly as one pages through it. The original substance of the conversation is typeset in Courier in squarish, fully-justified text blocks, which Brathwaite often interrupts with in-line, bracketed citations at a smaller point size. Longer annotations are signaled by narrowed, right-shifted columns, vertical lines running the length of the left side of the text block, double-stroked frames (sometimes multiple framed texts on a single page), and sudden, significant changes in typeface and point size. The typefaces would have been available in 1990s Apple word processors and design software: Chancery, Times New Roman, Antique Olive, Avant Garde Gothic, Stop, Century Schoolbook, Latin, Arial, and New York, to name a few. Brathwaite bitmapped some of these types almost beyond recognition by printing them with his Apple StyleWriter printer, which necessitated the use of photo-offset printing to faithfully reproduce his typesetting for publication.3 These arrays of black pixels are in formal conversation with the pictographic glyphs from the dingbats typeface Cairo, as well as Brathwaite’s own pixel drawings. His signature use of deliberate misspelling and double entendre occur throughout the conversation and annotations, which reference excerpts from his own poetry as well as the words of Caribbean luminaries such as Derek Walcott, Walter Rodney, Bob Marley, C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, and Sylvia Wynter.

Spread from conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey by Kamau Brathwaite. [A scanned open book page with justified columns of text, in a monospaced font in various sizes, sometimes bolded or italicized. The final paragraph is in a sans serif, slightly larger, bolded and shifted to the right.]

The typographies in conVERSations are an exemplary specimen of what Brathwaite called his “Sycorax video style,” a “new pathway” his poetry took after enduring three traumatic events in the previous decade. In 1986, he lost his wife Doris “Zea Mexican” Brathwaite to cancer. Two years later, Hurricane Gilbert triggered a mudslide that destroyed his home, library, and personal archive in Irish Town, Jamaica. And one stormy night in 1990, three men broke into his Kingston flat and bound, gagged, and robbed him. One of the men put a gun to Brathwaite’s head. The weapon either malfunctioned or was not loaded, but he heard the click of the trigger, an event he later described as a kind of murder by “ghost bullet.” Now regarding himself as someone who “was dead but had not died,” he began to transcribe a series of dreams—intending to restore or reinvent his psyche—in this new video style. This writing would be collected under the title DreamStories (1994),4 a book whose design initially confounded its publisher. Brathwaite described the process at a 1996 writers conference:

By the time I came to DreamStories,… I had developed another technique within my writing, which I call the Sycorax video style, in which I try to visualize hearing. In other words, instead of simply an auditory experience of the poems, I tried to put on the page what sound looked like. And using the computer, I make all sorts of things happen on the page. To do this, you really require a mural—you require a larger space than the publishers of the twentieth century, apparently, are prepared to provide.… [Video style] is a mural of the imagination. And the publishers refused. They said “a larger book would not fit appropriately on the shelf.” And so I had to spend the whole summer collapsing these DreamStories into this rather crowded space.5

And at the 1993 Poet’s House conversation:

The publishers are now struggling with it because what happened during this time was not only a revolution into surrealism or into dream states,… but the very concept of writing had altered, and it was as if I had gone back to the middle ages. I wanted to create those scrolls, and the computer gave me that opportunity. So I began what I call my “video style” in which I try to make the words themselves live off the page. In fact the ideal development would have been the creation of video.… That is the direction that some of us will have to go into because that is where the images are most evident: the enjambments, the dissolvements, the bringing together of times, the audacities which are possible in this kind of thing.… It’s not graphics. It is purely the use of fonts from a certain kind of computer, but it also expresses the nature of a person whose vision has been obscured by a landslide of awesome proportion, and out of which it is necessary to travel. But the traveling is essentially an underground and implosive journey.6

His insistence that this method is a video style might have come from the motion he observed on his computer monitor while composing his book pages. Picture him enlarging type, changing column widths, tracking words, zooming in, and scrolling his document. The printed volume points us back to these events. Take pages 138–39 of conVERSations, where Brathwaite has again interrupted the main thrust of the discussion with an annotation, inserting sections from the diary he wrote and published following his wife’s death.7 These sections, typeset in Geneva, are given discrete windows, linked together by their section numbers. When the second section reaches its generous bottom margin, it resumes its position at the top margin of the following page, as if Brathwaite is scrolling us through his working file before signaling the return to the main conversation with a large, pixelated, drop cap T. Here the enjambment is one of text overflowing its frame. A dissolvement from 1986 to ’93.

Pages 138–39 of conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey by Kamau Brathwaite. [A scan of an open book double-page spread. On the left page, the text is segmented into two boxes, which are stacked but misaligned. On the right page, the text is in a regular paragraph style, and begins with a big drop-cap T. ]

Brathwaite invokes Sycorax, the witch mother to the slave Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, to revisit what he called “the most amazing accurate protean and applicable description of colonialism and slavery and their consequences that we have.”8 Born in Algeria and banished to the play’s unspecified island while pregnant with Caliban, her powers commanded control of the moons, tides, and spirits. Sycorax is long dead in the play, but her name strikes fear and disgust in the heart of the colonizing sorcerer protagonist Prospero, and sparks an impulse of linguistic revolt in her orphaned son. 

By the 19th century, two hundred years after The Tempest’s first performance, Shakespeare had taken up his place as Britain’s archetypal poet, and was therefore emblematic of the values the British Empire was exporting to its colonies around the world. Literary scholars Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman have written that The Tempest was “probably the most important play of all for this idea of Shakespeare,”9 a legacy of which many 20th-century Caribbean writers and scholars are well aware. In 1969, the Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire wrote his own version of the play, which has Caliban acting much more the radical militant than the character Shakespeare wrote. Césaire’s Caliban sees Sycorax as deeply connected to the natural world, another precious entity defiled by pollution and extraction: “Dead or alive, she was my mother, and I won’t deny her! Anyhow, you only think she’s dead because you think the earth itself is dead.… It’s so much simpler that way! Dead, you can walk on it, pollute it, you can tread upon it with the steps of a conqueror. I respect the earth, because I know that Sycorax is alive.”10 Later in this exchange Caliban refuses his own name, the better to purge himself of the imperialist language and politics that have corrupted his island home; he demands to be known simply as “X.” In her book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, the Italian activist and scholar Silvia Federici reminds us that Sycorax (dis)embodies the “world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeah woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.”11

To Brathwaite, Sycorax is an ancestor to be celebrated through computer composition. He at times refers to her as having possessed his machine, transforming it into a portal through which he communes with the Caribbean spirit world—one more connection to Iwa, Obeah, Xângo. His medium in two senses: material holding data, and conduit to the dead.

Parts of DreamStories have Sycorax’s name as a kind of shorthand for any reference to Brathwaite’s computer. In his introduction to “Dream Chad (a  story),”12 he recounts some of the difficulties he experienced during his early desktop computer use in the late ’80s. Back then he used an Eagle Computer, which he kept at his home in Irish Town, Jamaica, and which he left there as a kind of “emotional anchor” to his late wife while he attended a residency at Harvard in 1988. In Cambridge, he rented an Apple Macintosh SE through the school’s equipment loan office.13 While composing “Dream Chad,” his Mac repeatedly overheated and crashed. At one point it served him an error stating that his file was in use somewhere else, prompting his suspicion that his Jamaican Eagle was aware and resentful of his American Apple. He then rented a third computer, retyped his story, and successfully printed it out. It was after this episode, while Brathwaite was still visiting the U.S., that Hurricane Gilbert swept through his home, destroying a significant amount of his library and archive. The Eagle miraculously survived. Brathwaite emerged from this experience with an increased concern for memory loss, writing “that if I dont take care and get the archives out of there - as Yale (1991) had < so generously invited me to do (nobody in the Caribbean being, as far < as I can see, remotely interested or concerned) - that the story of this < dream cd very well eventually come true.” He writes of a vision wherein his late wife warns him of the possible destruction of his computer work. Her voice is set in a thick, centered, pixelated script typeface that fills an entire spread.

In conVERSations, Brathwaite tells of the difficulties he’s encountered while searching out a memory institution that will faithfully collect and maintain his work. He acknowledges that he alone cannot steward these documents through the hurricane season, and says he’s received a few uncertain offers from libraries at Boston University, Yale, and NYU—offers which, in part, influenced his decision to teach in the U.S. The force of the hurricane and the tidalectics of the Caribbean require a poetry all their own, but if the files aren’t properly protected, these weather patterns destroy their own documentation. This helps Brathwaite understand the specific “unconnected”-ness that the Ivy League has to hurricanes; the library system at Harvard wouldn’t exist if Cambridge were regularly prone to such fierce storms.14

A spread from conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey by Kamau Brathwaite. [A scan of an open book double-page spread. Three boxes enclose paragraphs of text, which appear in different fonts, some blown up and pixelated, or decorative.]

In a 1976 lecture/essay on the relationship between Caribbean music, literature, and the voice,15 Brathwaite described the hurricane as a specifically archipelagic experience, a natural phenomenon that his Anglocentric primary school education simply could not prepare him to write about. This realization—that British English and iambic pentameter cannot adequately produce a Barbadian literature—leads into his theory of Barbados’s simultaneously new- and ancient-English, Barbadian creole English, which he calls “nation language.” It’s a prismatic language, not a mere dialect, that was only made possible through the violence of the Atlantic slave trade, and which its speakers now must use to make their past and future. In scholar Yanie Fécu’s words, Brathwaite “relies on nation language not just to build a personal lexicon of grief but to articulate the historical specificities of Afro-Caribbean culture.”16 For an address at the 2010 National Black Writers Conference in Brooklyn, Brathwaite returned to this subject matter in an expanded sense:

My archives, your archives, our archives. But by archives, I’m not thinking of musty or air-conditioned rooms, almost inaccessible. Tombstones of stalwart abbott. I’m speaking of archives of sound, of memory. Archives of the oral. Archives of spirit. The library as mbira, the thumb piano on which you play the troubles and the travels of your soul.… Archives of ownership, of reclamation, of record, of discovery, of yourself in a strange land by the still or turmoil waters where you lay down and weep, where you lay down and dream, where you become free. The oral moment here as text becoming.… I mean a slave knows that the slave is free when he or she has reclaimed his archives.17

Brathwaite once defined a word processor’s “curser” [sic] as the “tongue of the computer.”18 This pointer (another click) is the interface through which he styles the spatial and textural qualities of his words. It’s the muscle that forms a kind of graphic notation appropriate to the sound of the nation language for which he advocates. Without the tongue, the mouth cannot form speech sounds. To designate this writing method as a video style is to remind readers that these texts passed through a screen, to suggest that his pages are frames approximating motion, and to believe that the sounding out of his words completes and preserves each page.

In a 1990 essay titled “Concerning the Poem’s Information,”19 the Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant noted that the personal computer might show the way to a poetics. While skeptical of the growing interest in having these machines cough up poetry—limited to an increasingly vertiginous repetition of a yes/no/yes/no binary—he theorized that they could facilitate a synthesis of the spoken and the textual, one in which computer composition is the “written resolution” of an “economy of orality.” Both great theorists of creolization, Glissant and Brathwaite identified a promising surface on the prism of creole society through which one sees that programming language and nation language overlap. These paragraphs might be misread as a kind of naïve optimism toward the future of computing. Written in a decade in which old-new ways to designate digital property narrow our scope, best to remember that Brathwaite once likened writing with a computer to him having joined the mercantilists.20 While he acknowledged that the economic forces that produced the personal computer are the stuff of Prospero, he recognized that such writing-in-light took him back to the times of hieroglyphics, illuminated manuscripts, and Aztec murals as much as it linked him to cameras, screens, and graffiti. A prismatic understanding of language always has more surface area. It returns us to and makes a time “when the written word could still hear itself speak.”21

This essay is from the Annual 2022, which will be available from December 15, 2021.

[1] Kamau Brathwaite in conversation with Nathaniel Mackey at Poet’s House (November 18, 1993), 33:30. This is the recording that would become conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey.

[2] Kamau Brathwaite, conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey (Staten Island: We Press/Minneapolis: XCP: Cross-Cultural Poetics, 1999).

[3] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum describes this process in his lecture ”The Poetics of Macintosh: Recovering the Digital Poetry of Kamau Brathwaite and William Dickey” (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2016), 01:02:08.

[4] Kamau Brathwaite, DreamStories (Trincity: Longman, 1994).

[5] Kamau Brathwaite, lecture at the Caribbean Writers’ 10th Anniversary Literature Conference on St. Croix (1996).

[6] Kamau Brathwaite in conversation with Nathaniel Mackey, op. cit., 38:30.

[7] Kamau Brathwaite, The Zea Mexican Diary (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1993). This book is one of the first to employ the author’s Sycorax video style.

[8] Kamau Brathwaite, conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey, op. cit., p. 177. 

[9] Peter Hulme and William H. Sherman (eds.), The Tempest and Its Travels (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000), p. 173.

[10] Aimé Césaire, A Tempest [Une Tempête, 1969], trans. Richard Miller (New York: TCG Translations, 2002), pp. 18–20.

[11] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004), pp. 11, 107, and 232.

[12] Kamau Brathwaite, “Dream Chad,” DreamStories, op. cit., pp. 46–50. Also see Gordon Rohlehr’s synopsis of this poem in his excellent introduction to the book.

[13] Brathwaite doesn’t list the exact model in his writing. Matthew G. Kirschenbaum deduced that this would have been the computer model available at Harvard at this time, op. cit., 45:05.

[14] Kamau Brathwaite, conVERSations with Nathaniel Mackey, op. cit., pp. 308–10.

[15] Kamau Brathwaite, History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (London: New Beacon Books, 1984).

[16] Yanie Fécu. “Sycorax’s Other Son,” Cabinet Issue 67 (Spring 2019–Winter 2020), pp. 99–100.

[17] Kamau Brathwaite, National Black Writers Conference (Brooklyn: Medgar Evers College, 2010).

[18] Kamau Brathwaite, endnote to “X/Self’s Xth Letter from the Thirteen Provinces,” X/Self (Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 127.

[19] Édouard Glissant, “Concerning the Poem’s Information,” Poetics of Relation [Poétique de la Relation, 1990], trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 81–85.

[20] Kamau Brathwaite, X/Self, op. cit., p. 80.

Bryce Wilner is a graphic designer, educator, and reader based in Brooklyn.