Fred Moten is a professor at the University of California, Riverside. His work comprises several books of poetry, including Arkansas (Pressed Wafer, 2000), I ran from it and was still in it (Cusp Books), Hughson’s Tavern (Leon Works, 2008), B Jenkins (Duke University Press, 2010), The Little Edges (Wesleyan University Press, 2014) and The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions, 2014). His critical works include In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (University of Minnesota Press, 2003) and The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Autonomedia, 2013), which was co-authored by Stefano Harney. In 2009, Moten was regarded as one of ten “New American Poets” by the Poetry Society of America. His current projects include two upcoming critical texts, which will further explore his study of black art and social life.
I interviewed Fred Moten via Skype in August 2016. Fred was kind enough to spend nearly an hour with me navigating a discussion on poetry, passion, and the current and ever-looming state of our nation.
Doni Shepard: In a 2014 interview from the National Book Awards, in which you were a finalist for your collection The Feel Trio, your work was referenced as “riveting, lyrical, jumping, beat-poppin’, black devotion.” Your work continues to engage in conversation about experiencing and understanding black progress, pain, and the dedication to justice. In a time of such discourse in America, what are your thoughts on the way the mainstream media is engaging in conversations about police brutality and violence to black bodies in 2016?
Fred Moten: I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I probably don’t think about it very much because I don’t watch mainstream media often. It’s no different now than it ever has been. The root of the problem of police brutality is police. There is a relationship between the police, the necessity of their presence, and black people living in America. How is it that the presence of black people is used to justify the very idea of the police and the particular ways of engagement that police have with people? Now if the mainstream media ever even asked why can’t we mourn the social life that we murderously regulate and the lives of those we send to regulate it equally then that might be cool—or at least a place to start.
DS: Where do you think the most honest conversations are happening?
FM: The most honest conversations I’ve ever heard on the relationship of black people and policing are the conversations that black people have. There’s a lot of interesting stuff people are saying about policing and a lot of rhetoric around police brutality coming from folks who are concerned and folks who are activists and organizers. Some of that talk is more interesting than others. But none of it, the most advanced of it, is never anything other than what I heard around the dinner table.
Black folks have always understood something fundamental about police, how the police operate, and how policing works. I don’t know that there’s anything all that deep or new to be said about it. The thing that was important and legitimate to say thirty years ago, fifty years ago when the Panthers were most active, those things are still true now. The only real question is: How do we work towards the abolition of policing? Really this is just another moment in the long history of the question of abolition. People have been saying this forever, you know? It’s still true.
To be interested in poetry is to be interested in the music and the content that emerges as a function of social life in all of its complexity and richness and pain and beauty.
DS: How does the current state of black America change the voice of black poets? How do you define the relationship between politics and poetry?
FM: The current state of black America is the old state of black America. If there’s such a thing as a black poet and if there is such a thing as a particular role that a black poet has that is somehow different than anyone else’s role, I don’t think that role has changed since the time of Phillis Wheatley or George Moses Horton or Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks. It’s the same. The thing is, there are people who are interested in poetry, and I definitely believe that there is such a thing as poetry, and I believe it is possible and necessary for people to be interested in it. To be interested in poetry is to be interested in the music and the content that emerges as a function of social life in all of its complexity and richness and pain and beauty. So, we make music out of our lives, out of the way we live in order to hopefully make that living better. That’s my sense of what it is. There’s a bunch of possible ways to do that.
Do I think the conditions are special now? That there’s some specific role of the black poet? No. Conditions that exist right now, they existed ten years ago and they existed twenty years ago. The police didn’t just start shooting black folks. To run around acting like this is something new is embarrassing, as far as I’m concerned. By the same token, quite frankly, if a person decided that in the face of the latest murder of a black person by the police, or by the chairman of Goldman Sachs, or by the top lieutenant of some set of the Grape Street Crips, or whoever, if they felt that the way that they needed to respond was to write a poem about how beautiful this tree is that they are looking at right now, I still feel that this is a completely legitimate response. Ultimately, what do you do with the language that comes to you and who do you do it with? That’s the question.
But do we need 8,000 more poems that are describing some horrific thing that just happened to another black person? For me, no. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have those poems. I’m saying that doesn’t strike me as the only possible response. If that were the only possible response then it didn’t just become the only possible response now. It’s been that way. Black people have been getting killed in messed up ways for as long as there have been black people. That’s not to be cavalier, it’s just to say that a lot of times, people start running around talking about some special task that the poet has. It’s another form of self-aggrandizement.
The flip side is always some form of self-flagellation where you have to feel bad about not doing it this way, or even more often, where you can make a whole bunch of other people feel bad because they aren’t doing it this way. This or that thing that this individual does in response to the contingencies of social life is almost always negligent. It doesn’t matter how self-righteous or pontificatory you think you have a right to be when it comes to that. It’s nastiness and recrimination and name-calling going on in the so-called poetry world that for me is silly and disgusting. I’m uninterested in it completely. Involuntary exile from the poetry world for myself, to be honest, and I’m feeling pretty good about that.
DS: How has the current cultural climate affected the work you are producing now? What effect is this having on your curriculum as a professor?
FM: The issues that I have been concerned about as a teacher and as a writer, they were there before I was born and they are still here. I don’t feel like my primary concerns on a thematic level have changed. The only thing that I’m trying to do better is to organize better the form of my classes and the form that the writing takes. That primary task is really about collaboration and working with other people and trying to foster the most people in the most generative and loving forms of collaboration. But the themes haven’t changed. The content doesn’t change. The form changes and I’m trying hard to figure out a way to do better when it comes to those things.
I don’t want to do anything by myself. That’s horrible. I have these things that I feel obligated to do over the next year or so but I just really would like to finish them as quickly as possible. If I could just abandon them, I would, but I made some obligations and commitments to try and finish these things. So that’s what I’m going to do. But I’m never going to start anything where it’s by myself. At least that’s the way I feel about it right now. Even the stuff that was supposedly by myself was never really by myself. I don’t even want to pretend like that anymore.
DS: I think as poets and writers that we’re constantly—as much as it’s a solitary act—we want that connection and to collaborate and to kind of get that energy from the people around us and the world around us. That is a very relatable feeling.
FM: Everybody wants to be with other people. Nobody wants to be by themselves. Sometimes there’s a commonplace misconception of what it is to be a poet. Or at least I used to think that there was a set of commonplace misconceptions about what it is to be a poet that required people to isolate themselves even if they didn’t want to. Now I’m thinking maybe these aren’t misconceptions about what it is to be a poet. Maybe that’s what a poet really is—a person who isolates in the interest of a certain conception. The misconception isn’t about what a poet is but about what poetry is. Any poets who have isolated themselves is not what poetry is in the first place. At this stage in the game it’s the whole identity of the poet that’s the problem, but at the same time, it’s very difficult to extricate oneself from that way of thinking. It’s like a straitjacket. In a way, you’re trying to extricate yourself from it, but it’s just as delusionally heroic to fully embody it. It’s not some big thing where someone has to struggle against the identity of the poet. You just have to forget about it. So I’m trying to not struggle with it and turn that into some poetic theme. I just want to do something else and that’s all.
DS: Are there other poets or musicians you tend to gravitate to for a sense of connection? Are there any emerging artists you have been inspired or influenced by?
FM: There are certain writers whose work I have been invested in for a long time and I’ll never not be invested in them. Part of it is because those writers are the ones who are bigger than just themselves. They are these conduits, passageways through which someone discovers something bigger, and they are always the same. Amari Baraka, Nathaniel Mackey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Shakespeare, Samuel Delany, John Donne.
On the most basic level, my work has been primarily structured by love of blackness and love of black people, both of which are often conceived of by what you called the mainstream media as “unlovable.”There is also a whole bunch of new stuff that I love but I keep coming back to the ones I’m always interested in. It turns out that there’s always so much more to them than I ever thought.
Some of the folks maybe my own age or younger who I have been really enjoying reading the last few years are Renee Gladman, Mercedes Eng, Douglas Kearney, Kimberly Alidio. There’s a lot of great stuff so I’m trying my best to keep my eyes open and my ears open and pay attention.
DS: Who is your intended audience—or do you have an intended audience in mind when you write?
FM: No, not really, to tell you the truth. The audience is anybody who wants to read it. What I’m writing is definitely not for everybody. I don’t believe that it should be. I don’t think that there’s anything in what I’m writing that’s so absolutely necessary that anybody has to read it. There’s plenty of other stuff out there. I don’t have some sense of a mission I’m on that requires the world to be reading my work. On the one hand, I feel like I’m writing for anybody who wants to read it, but on the other hand, it makes perfect sense to me if no one ever wanted to read that at all. I would still probably be writing in some way. In this respect, it’s just not an individual thing. I don’t know that anybody is so absolutely indispensable.
DS: During your visit to Antioch [University Los Angeles, June 2016], you spoke about “loving the unlovable.” Can you expand on this? How do you integrate this concept into your work?
FM: It’s an imprecise way of saying things because, of course, the paradox is if the unlovable can be loved then it ain’t unlovable. But what I was talking about was specifically with regard to this song by Snoop Dogg called “Ups and Downs.” There’s this one moment in the song when he is speaking directly to men on death row and expresses love for them. “All my dogs up against the life sentence.” For me, it was a totally important and beautiful moment in the song because he is expressing love for folks that are often conceived of as the very embodiment of the unlovable. That capacity to express love for those who are generally perceived of to be unlovable is important.
The question is how can we sustain that? It’s interesting in the song just because I don’t know that the song is able to sustain it for much more than a second. The next lines of the song are really problematic, but for that one moment, something has opened up.
DS: How have you worked that into what you are currently producing?
FM: On the most basic level, my work has been primarily structured by love of blackness and love of black people, both of which are often conceived of by what you called the mainstream media as “unlovable.” I don’t know that I’ve tried to make some big set of theoretical or thematic claims about why black people should be loved. I’ve written from the assumptions that they are lovable.
DS: At the Antioch residency, you read a poem about your son experiencing bullying. How would you describe the influence of parenting in relation to the work you produce?
FM: My kids are constantly saying all of these really amazing things. If I have a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper, it’s great for me because I can write it down. So parenting on that level produces a great opportunity for plagiarism. [laughs] But also, it’s a deep and profound experience of being both more and less than yourself. It is also an experience of feeling this extraordinary vulnerability or precariousness and of actually embracing that rather than trying to resist. It’s basically like any other thing that’s really worth anything. It’s really fun and it’s really hard at the same time and it’s something that you immerse yourself in. You’re never out of it; you’re always in it. It’s this fundamental aspect of life that turns out to be like life itself.
DS: Your work in regards to form and structure appears to be deeply calculated. It moves. It transforms. While some of your work follows a traditional format, other pieces are fragmented, not capitalized, and splashed with voided space—always in motion, always appropriate and intentional. How would you describe the way you employ form to demonstrate resistance or activism in your work?
FM: I don’t know that it’s meant to demonstrate activism. Maybe nowadays I would say that it’s an attempt to demonstrate demonstration itself. To demonstrate that term “monstration.” That term is interesting. It’s all bound up with showing— even the miraculous. It’s also bound up with the notion of the monstrous, the strange, the radically disruptive. That’s also a fundamental aspect of life. To live is to be disrupted. To be challenged. To be faced with the surprising. The revelatory. We figure out a way to deal with that. How we ought to be able to deal with it is to embrace it, to love it. But often it turns out that how people devise ways of dealing with change or difference is to try to fight it or kill it. To suppress it or to regulate it. What I’m interested in is the writing being a field for the embracing of differences, rather than their suppression.
The best way to work across boundaries is to refuse to believe in them.
The primary precursor for that is the aesthetic feel, which for me is most prevalent within black music. That has always been the model for me, in terms of how to leave my own work open to what you might call the demonstrative or the miraculous or the monstrous even. Black music is beautiful to me. As Hortense Spillers says, it claims monstrosity rather than trying to reject it.
DS: In an interview with NPR, Douglas Kearney referred to you as “the perfect storm,” speaking to your ability to create vivid work through a combination of intellect and lyricism. Do you feel that using this multi-faceted approach assists your work in transcending barriers as a poet? What is the advice you would give to writers who would like to work across genres as you have between your poetry and critical work?
FM: The best way to work across boundaries is to refuse to believe in them. I know this is what Doug does in his work but to me this has always been a hallmark of art, and of black art more particularly. I don’t think that art accepts these artificial distinctions between theory and practice or between the discursive and the lyrical, between critique and celebration. That’s my opinion. It’s not a new opinion. It’s not a unique opinion. It’s a commonplace formulation, but it doesn’t feel any less true to me.
One of my favorite poets is John Donne; another is Amari Baraka. I don’t see that there is any simple acceptance of the distinction between critique and celebration or critique and lyricism in their work. By the same token, they are philosophers, whose work is equally as disruptive and dismissive of those artificial boundaries. The problem is these generic boundaries in the first place. It’s not that I don’t believe in genre. It’s not that I don’t believe in the differentiating force that emerges in writing. It’s just that it’s possible—as my friend and mentor Denise da Silva would say—to have difference without separability in writing. This is what all of the really good work out there is doing. It’s demonstrating, constantly. It’s difference without separability.
DS: You have been quoted as saying “poetry is a modality of organization.” What types of strategies do you employ in word choice throughout your poetic material? How do you suggest poets implement this intricacy to motivate change in their readers?
FM: I never think of it as trying to motivate change in a reader. I just assume readers change. They don’t need me to motivate them to do it. They don’t need motivation to do it. Stuff changes. Things change. People change. To the extent that there’s an intention behind what I’m doing, it is to be in praise of the stuff that I love and to try to do so in a way that people will enjoy. I don’t feel like I have some special set of things that I need to tell people. The stuff that I know is stuff that everybody already knows. Maybe it’s cool to be reminded every once in a while, but I don’t even know that I have some particularly special, indispensable way of reminding people.
It’s just fun and something that I need to do. I’ve got a temperament and I was brought up in a certain of way and it led to me being embedded in this kind of activity. It’s great. I feel lucky. I’ve got a job that allows me to do it. I get paid for it well. I feel very lucky that everything lined up for me this way, but the luck of it is almost fundamentally detached from any sense of me deserving it.
It’s also detached from any sense of me being able to somehow account for it or compensate for it or pay something back for it. I always get freaked out when I hear about these athletes talking about giving something back to the community. That always struck me as a form self-aggrandizement. Because first of all, anything that you would ever put forward as a recompense pales in comparison to what the community gave you. You can’t pay the community back for what the community has given you. The community don’t want you to pay them back; that has been my general experience of it. All those things are just the ways in which so-called individual achievement becomes this platform from which people constantly play out this oscillation between exaltation and shame. I’m not interested in that. It seems contradictory: You’ve got a lot to say but it’s only special if it’s relatable to what other folks have to say; it’s a saying that only comes into its own within the context of a choir.
That’s the way I feel, so when it comes to techniques and word choices and stuff like that, I don’t consider that. I once heard the great musician Cecil Taylor, they were asking him about what his composition method was. He was like, “Well, I play one note and then I try to find another note that will sound good next to it,” you know? I have one word and I try to find another word that will sound good next to it. Sometimes it will look good next to it. The only key thing is to not limit yourself in terms of what that next word might be. Try to have as big of a set of resources as possible for what that next word will be. Just don’t limit yourself. Try to make something that will make the people move.
Doni Shepard is a poet, mother, and lifetime learner currently residing in Phoenix. She spends her days managing content for a popular startup, mommying an extraordinary three-year-old, and serving as Lunch Ticket’s Poetry Editor. Upon nightfall you can generally find her in an insomniac haze binge-watching Shameless with a fluffy orange feline named Doobie. Her work has been featured by Dirty Chai, and can be found in the love anthology Spectrum 3: LoveLoveLove. She is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, concentrating in poetry.