Fred Moten is a professor of poetry at UCR. In the field of black studies, he works at the intersection of performance, poetry and critical theory. Last year, his book, “The Feel Trio,” was nominated for a National Book Award in poetry. Moten, who received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, spoke to UCR Magazine about the awards ceremony, teaching at UCR and coming home to the Southwest.
UCR Magazine (Lilledeshan Bose): How were the National Book Awards?
Fred Moten: I wasn’t expecting much from the ceremony, (but) it was nice, and my wife and I were able to go to New York for a couple of days. We had two days to ourselves, and the kids stayed with her parents. So I was happiest about that. And it was nice to be in New York. And you know, they had an open bar…
Were you disappointed that you didn’t take home the award?
No. It was a totally nice surprise to even be on the long list, let alone be on the short list. And I think that it was particularly nice for my press, Letter Machine Editions, which is a very small.
I’m hoping that if nothing else, the acclaim that the book has gotten will result in them being able to publish more poets.
How are you adjusting to life in Riverside?
I actually live in Los Angeles. I’ve lived in Los Angeles on and off for probably half of the last 20 years. And I’m from Las Vegas originally, so this area is more like home to me. The terrain of Riverside and the mountains and everything is definitely like Vegas. So in that sense, it’s kind of like being back home. Though they were both born in Los Angeles, this has been a bigger adjustment for my kids (ages 7 and 10), coming from a smaller town in North Carolina.
You have family in the area, though. Was that a big reason why you decided to move back?
That was one of the things. It’s kind of the holy grail for academic couples to have jobs in the same place, or at least in the same area. My partner teaches at UCR too. Her name is Laura Harris. She is in the Media and Cultural Studies department. So partly we moved because it was a chance for us to work in the same university. But the main attraction is that cross CHASS, I have friends and colleagues whose work I respect a lot. To be able to work closely with them was a total step up for me. I feel like I made a real vertical move to an institution that I like much better, and with which I am more compatible intellectually than Duke, which is where I was before.
That is interesting because Duke is ranked pretty highly as a university.
It’s expensive and it’s elite and it has a lot of money. It’s not that there weren’t good people and the students weren’t perfectly fine and intelligent and all that, but for what I do, in the particular field in which I work, this is a step up.
It elevates UCR to have you here as well!
Well, I don’t know about that (laughs), but … I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley. I have a feeling of affection and allegiance to the UC system, or at least to what it means and what it can and should be to go to a public institution. In particular, I feel like the folks who work in black studies in the UC System have been people that I follow, and who have been important guides and mentors for me. Like Angela Davis and Herman Gray in Santa Cruz; Cedric Robinson in Santa Barbara. Sterling Stuckey and Dylan Rodriguez here at UCR. Robin Kelley at UCLA. The kinds of questions they ask, and the commitments they have, have always determined the way want to go. So for me, it’s an honor to be here; to be back in the UC system.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got a couple of critical projects that I have been working on for a long time that I’m hoping to finish this year. One of them is called, “consent not to be a single being.” It’s a kind of informal critique of phenomenology, which is a particular discipline in philosophy that privileges the individual subject as both an object and an agent of thought. What I am trying to do is understand black social life as a field in which the idea of the individual subject or the individual agent is constantly disrupted. So that book is working through that problem.
And then there are a couple of collections of essays, individual pieces that I’ve been working on and have published over the last ten years or so. I’m just stringing them all together chronologically. In a way, these books are kind of a bridge between my first critical book and “consent not to be a single being.”
I also have another poetry book just out called, “The Little Edges.” These are mostly occasional pieces, commissioned work I started doing for curators and with people doing art and performance work in museums. So some of that writing sort of started out as scripts for performances and then responses to particular paintings. There are some shorter lyric pieces, too. I’ve been messing around in the last few years with what people might call prose poems. But the term I’ve been using is “shaped prose.” It’s just kind of establishing margins on the computer on the typewriter and trying to figure out ways to have those spatial and visual margins correspond to the rhythmic and musical contours of the poem.
Let’s talk about your poetry. You liken the energy and vibe of your work to jazz. To you, what came first, listening to jazz or poetry?
I don’t know. I’ve gotten to the point now that I don’t even know the difference anymore. But I grew up in a house where there were two things that were given great value. One was a kind of verbal dexterity and wit. I grew up around folks where no one ever said anything plain. People were constantly making these really complicated and interesting aesthetic decisions from minute-to-minute and from sentence-to-sentence. When I was messy and wouldn’t clean up my room—well, for my mother, it wasn’t good enough for her to say, “Go clean up your room, you’re messy.” She looked at me and said, “You lazy germ” and then we both started laughing. Maybe my feelings were supposed to be hurt but, really, all they were was tickled. I have always thought this was an amazing formulation she came up with. She was Shakeseparean, as far as I’m concerned and I’m just trying to be like her.
So yeah, the people in my house and in my neighborhood really valued witty and complicated speech.
At the same time, something else that was always highly valued in my house was music. So these things were just part of the atmosphere in which I grew up. I don’t know which came first and I don’t know that there is a division between poetry and music.
How has it been teaching at UC Riverside?
Again, 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.
What are five books that you would want everyone to read if you could give them a reading list?
I don’t like to give reading lists. Five? There’s five million!
How about three books that changed your life?
The book I taught last quarter, which is called the “Bedouin Hornbook” by Nathaniel Mackey. And then, a book by Samuel R. Delany that I love called, “The Motion of Light in Water.” And then, well, there’s an essay by a great literary critic named Hortense Spillers called “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Those are three texts that definitely changed my life and have structured pretty much everything I’m doing right now.