Fred Moten is a scholar, critic, essayist and poet; in 2009, he was recognized as one of 10 “New American Poets” by the Poetry Society of America. Moten lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. His evocative and multifaceted works in academia and poetry delve on themes of African-American studies, performance studies and the characteristics of human emotions through the elements of the audio-visual. His poetry collections include “The Little Edges,” “Hughson’s Tavern” and “The Feel Trio,” which cemented his poetic prowess by becoming a finalist for the National Book Award. He visited Yale this week to give what was a stunning poetry reading and decided to sit down with WKND to share his story, his work process, his inspirations and all the advice he had for budding writers and poets. I arrived early, feeling eager and anxious, to our 1 p.m. meeting in lobby of The Study. He arrived on the dot, walking calmly, dressed casually as if he was meeting an old friend. Within the first few seconds of our interaction, I felt the same way.
Q: Can you tell me a little about your childhood? What made you who you are today and why are you a poet?
A: The first 13 years of my life, I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada. My mom was a schoolteacher, and my father did various kinds of manual labor – janitor, maintenance and stuff like that. But I grew up in an environment that was very musical, an environment where people really loved language, so I think I just learned in that environment how to appreciate language. It’s funny; for a long time even though I was writing poetry, I didn’t really think of myself as a poet. And then after a while, it just seemed disingenuous so I stopped pretending and said OK, I’m a poet. But now I’m kind of back to the point of not feeling that way anymore. I think what I am is someone who really loves poetry, and I was raised to love it.
Q: When did you start writing poetry – or anything really?
A: Well, I had a friend when I was in grade school – I guess we were in the seventh grade – named Robert Shearing and we used to take popular songs from the time and change the lyrics. You know, in this totally adolescent boyish way and try to make them sort of as dirty as we could. We had a version of Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom that was pretty obscene. That’s where I started. But I guess I must have started really writing in high school because I brought some poems with me to college. Then when I basically flunked out of college and had to go home and work for a year; I wrote a lot of poetry that year, and I think that’s when I really started being more serious about it.
Q: Do you remember the instance when you first felt proud of your poetry or gained that initial confidence?
A: When I went back to college, the main person who really fostered me as someone who is writing and publishing poetry was someone who published my first book. It was a great poet in Boston, William Corbett ’82 DRA ’89. Of all the people, he’s the one who helped me most to get started. I remember my best friend in college was a member of Bill Corbett’s expository writing class at Harvard. I wasn’t a member of the class but my friend, Stefano Harney, was, and so I met Bill through Stefano at a bar close by campus. He gave me a book that he inscribed to me, and I still have it. Stefano and I would go to his house for dinner; it was like being introduced to this really rich, deep poetry world that Bill was a key figure in. So anytime poets, particularly poets within the same sort of a community of experimental poets, would come to Boston or Cambridge, they would end up at Bill’s house. Everyone was there. Basil Bunting and Lee Harwood, who was a great British poet. He was friends with Robert Creeley. Seamus Heaney was at his house. You know, it was being part of this literary world and that was wonderful.
Q: Was it overwhelming to suddenly be thrust into this world?
A: I think it would have been if I had known more about it? If I’d known who the people were. I was sort of ignorant and I didn’t know who Lee Harwood was; I knew he was a friend of Bill’s long before I knew he was an amazing poet. And if I knew that beforehand, I probably wouldn’t have been able to talk to him. It was an introduction to a world of art and I hadn’t had an access to it before.
Q: What are you up to these days?
A: I’m also just a regular old English professor so I do a lot of English professor sort of writing. That is kind of what I have been working on pretty heavily over the past six or seven months. I’ve continued to do collaborative work with a few people. My old friend Stefano, we work and write together. I’ve also been doing some art stuff in performance work. In a long-term collaboration in life, with our children and the scholarship we’re engaged in, I’m working always with my partner, Laura Harris. Mostly, I’m just interested in collaborating with folks and working with folks.
Q: Have you ever taught a creative writing class?
A: Only a couple of times and only in the context of MFA programs where you just visit. Have I taught poetry composition? I don’t really like to do it, it seems crazy to me in a way. But I teach a lot of classes on poetry [as literature] so it’s a big part of what I’m doing as a teacher.
Q: How do you teach poetry?
A: In the course of time, my ideas about poetry have changed. In the sense that I was much more inclined, in a more or less normal way, to equate poetry with verse and therefore oppose poetry to prose. Now, I kind of tend to think that poetry is something that occurs in verse and in prose – and in criticism and in theory and in philosophy and in a literary frame. So I’m kind of interested in poetry in a sort of broader way and not just in writing but in other modes of artistic practices.
Q: Do you find yourself writing your own poems while you’re teaching?
A: I haven’t written any new poems in about seven months. I came to a fork in a road with regard to poems as a particular form. I still think that I’m interested in poetry, and I’m writing poetry: I’m just not writing poems. To tell you the truth, I really started writing poetry, and lots of poems I should say, when my kids were born. It’s because with the kids, I no longer had these long stretches of time that for me were devoted to criticism and to critical work. Instead I would have free moments in like little 15 minute swatches, and I found that I couldn’t get much done in criticism in those moments but I could write two or three lines in poetry or work on my poems. So I guess I became more prolific in writing poems that moment just because my kids were little and I was changing their diapers or driving them around every place. Nowadays, they don’t really want any attention at all, so maybe that’s part of the reason why I’ve gotten back into criticism.
Q: Why do you write and what do you write about?
A: I don’t know; I just like to do it. I tend to think writing is something people of less refined talents can do. It takes a certain level of patience and dexterity to play an instrument, a specific coordination between hand and eye to paint or sculpt, but for poetry, you just need a computer. It’s a matter of listening to music in language, whether it’s your own or other’s. So it just feels like something you don’t need to do a whole lot of ability to do. I write about stuff that’s just going on in the world. My criticism is primarily in Afro-American literature and culture.
Q: What were some of your inspirations?
A: As lyricists, I was really influenced by Stevie Wonder. Maybe later on and even now, lyrically James Brown has been very important to me. In terms of poets, Bill Corbett is one of the greatest living poets; he has a special connection between his words and his ear, I love how all of it sounds. Nathaniel Mackey, Amiri Baraka … there’s too much good stuff. I’m actually just interested in finding out who the next person is; who is it that I don’t know about? Somebody will look at me and go, man, you’ve never read such and such, and then, all of a sudden, that will start another five-year love affair.
Q: From all your upcoming projects, what can we expect to see soon?
A: Well, I’ve got some critical books coming out next year. It’s like a big collection of essays that’s coming out in three volumes. It’s called – well, the three volumes will all have different titles – but the overall title is “consent not to be a single being.” That stuff will be all out by the end of 2017. Then I’ve got one other book of criticism that I’m working on now that’ll be out by the year after that. Then we’ll see. I’ll be doing something, I hope.