“When I say I love poetry I’m really saying that I love surprises,” says Frederick Charles Moten, professor of English at UCR.
The Feel Trio Listen to Fred Moten reading an excerpt from his latest book
“Poetry is important today because it’s fun and beautiful; it allows us to celebrate and to critique, two activities that are indispensable now more than ever.”
Moten had quite the surprise when he was nominated as one of five finalists for the National Book Award in Poetry for his collection “The Feel Trio” (Letter Machine Editions), named after the jazz improvisational trio of Cecil Taylor, William Parker and Tony Oxley.
He describes his lauded collection as a preliminary report rather than the last chapter of his lifelong observations. He likens the energy and vibe of his three-part work to that of the cult jazz trio.
On Teaching Highlanders
In this Q&A (read the whole interview here), Fred Moten talks about the difference between teaching at UCR and other universities.
How has it been teaching at UC Riverside?
My field is black studies. And within the field of black studies, I’m interested in art. So everything I do is situated around the interplay between the beautiful and celebratory aspects of our art on the one hand, and the terrors and horrors of Afro-American and Afro-diasporic history on the other. So you’re always caught in the dialectic … caught isn’t the right word, but you must inhabit the space in between. I found it extremely difficult to convey this to my students at Duke. So in a lot of ways, I felt like my teaching at Duke was remedial.
So it’s kind of like getting them up to speed to understand you and the concepts?
One of the really important things that I think, it’s really important to imagine that the world could be better and my students here can do that. Most of them. Most of my students at Duke, I think, could not do that.
Was it the idea of entitlement?
To me, the students’ inability to imagine that the world could be better was a form of impoverishment. I thought my students at Duke were underprivileged. There was all this stuff that they couldn’t do and all these things that they couldn’t think. And maybe those inabilities were functions of being given so much. I don’t know. I don’t want to make it that simple. But many of them had trouble with the idea that the world could be otherwise. And many of them didn’t have a whole lot of sympathy for anybody who didn’t have that trouble. So it meant that the stuff that I was teaching was often not so interesting to them.
So here in Riverside…?
I feel like I’ve got a lot more students who are interested in what I do and who are not only interested in it but already have advanced knowledge about some of the things that I’m trying to study. So I feel like I can work at a much higher level. And at the same time, the demands that the students make on me are much more intense.
What does that mean?
I have to work harder because they ask more questions and the questions that they ask are deeper. The questions that they ask put me in a position where I don’t have an answer ready at my disposal. They’re asking questions that then become my questions. Duke students tended to ask me questions that I could answer.
[Here at UCR] I get a good number of students that come in and ask, “What should I read?” Or you suggest they read something and they read five things! I had a few undergrads at Duke who would do that kind of thing, but not many. I’m sure there were more throughout the university but there weren’t very many who were interested in what I was teaching.
Moten Talks About Teaching at UCR
In this Q&A, Moten says why UCR feels like home, and what makes his UCR students special.
Born in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1962, Moten comes from a family music of lovers. “Most of the folks in my family were very brilliant and poetic in the way they used language in ordinary situations. Everyone was infected by, everyone’s speech was infused with, poetry.”
However, Moten is reluctant to give himself that title, although many of his peers — including those who nominated him for the National Book Award in Poetry — have done just that. “I still haven’t had the moment — the one when I’ll know I’m a poet. And I’m not particularly worried about having any such moment, either,” notes Moten.
“I think I’m just one of many people who is interested in poetry, and who loves poetry. Sometimes I write things down that I hear; and I like to make patterns and shapes with words and sounds. But who doesn’t?”
Moten’s journey to UCR is just as lyrical. “I came to UCR in the hope that I would find more students who would be truly interested in the kinds of classes I had to offer. And even my wildest dreams and expectations have been exceeded.” He also credits the brilliance of his colleagues in the English department.
“The importance of poetry is only intensified by the ubiquity of its presence,” says Moten. “The more poetry the better.”