Open House Presents: Housten Donham with Fred Moten

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For 2015, The Conversant is partnering with Open House, a new online journal of poetry and poetics. In this piece, Open House co-editor Housten Donham interviews Fred Moten about his book The Feel Trio [Letter Machine Editions, 2014], which was nominated for a National Book Award.

Housten Donham: The visual appeal of The Feel Trio is one of the first things that struck me. Many of the poems stretch horizontally across the page, some in multiple columns. The visual field is utilized in a variety of ways. Did you work directly on the final arrangement of the poems on the page when they went to print? What was your practice for determining the right look to these poems?

Fred Moten: I think that, for lyric poetry, there’s a shape that is often manifest. It’s something that, depending on the length of the poem, can be anything from a block to a column. Think of the sonnet—a form which offers some of the most highly exalted lyric poems—which takes that block shape. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote lots of sonnets, and I still find myself drawn to that block form. And so, the idea of a block was very much in my mind in the first section of the book, “block chapel.” But what I was very consciously trying to do was distort the block, or distend the block; to lengthen it out, to make it longer, make it wider. I was still interested in the same geometry, but I just wanted to diversify that geometry a little. And eventually, in “block chapel,” the block breaks into shards, fragments, loose ends, rougher edges. “Block chapel” begins with that block in mind and then tries to break it up and diversify it. And “come on, get it!” [the second section of The Feel Trio] is almost like an explosion of that block all over the page and into different columns. “I ran from it and was still in it” [the third section] is a kind of reconsolidation of that block, but in a certain way. Let’s say that the block is a mode or form of a certain kind of lyric subjectivity. The rupture of that block, of that shape, is also a rupturing of the spatial and temporal frame of that subjectivity. When it re-coalesces in “I ran from it and was still in it,” it’s like I want to recuperate that shape—but after the fact of that shape having been disconnected from that subjectivity. The irony of that, if you want to call it that, is that the use of the word “I” in “I ran from it” is meant to also indicate that even that word, that sound, that marker, has been broken away from that kind of normative lyric subjectivity.

So the visuality of the book was bound up with some of these things I had been thinking about. And what was cool was that I pretty much had the book laid out the way I wanted it to be laid out. So I was just very lucky that the book’s designer, HR Hegnauer, was very fastidious, careful, and caring of how I wanted it to look. HR was very responsive to what I wanted on the page and what kind of spacing I wanted. And Josh [Joshua Marie Wilkinson, of Letter Machine Editions] was really generous too, even to the point where the book is a different shape than the other books that Letter Machine has published. He was just very nice and accommodating when we realized that some of the lines on the page required a different shape to the book. The fact that he was very careful and indulgent and open to that has been great for me, because the next book that came out, The Little Edges [Wesleyan, 2014] is also a wider-sized book, and I think that maybe after they saw how nice The Feel Trio looked, it made them more open to transforming their model too.

HD: This is another visual question: in your use of the column, I’m reminded of the work of the minimalist poet Robert Lax. Because this is such a visually active book, I was also reminded of the work of N.H. Pritchard, another experimental poet working in concrete forms. Your work might be related to this tradition of concrete poetry, but it clearly transcends the category, in that these poems don’t strike me as “text-objects,” exactly. Are there any poets, or traditions, which you think particularly influenced The Feel Trio?

 FM: There’s a relationship between what your eyes see, what your ears hear, and what your brain is thinking. And, for me, the other element of that would be your mouth, and how the words feel coming out of your mouth. So you’re trying to figure out what the relationship is between those things, and that relationship isn’t always in sync. I’ve been influenced by many different poets. When I was in college I took a class called “The Modernist Long Poem,” and it was a revelation to see that they were using the whole page. And you realize that this is just something that can be done. But some of my other influences have been in the way that in certain kinds of experimental film, and in some narrative film, there’s a way of working against the grain of a kind of strict synchronization between the visual track and the soundtrack. There’s this really interesting book by the film critic Kaja Silverman called The Acoustic Mirror, in which she works through not just the disruption of that synchronization, but some of the political, sexual, and gender implications of that disruption. So I was really interested in how I could create a kind of coordination, or a kind of relation, you could say, between what you might call the visual track and the soundtrack of these poems. I didn’t think that they had to be in strict synchronization, but that they could be syncopated, rather than synchronized.

I’ve also been really invested and interested in experimental music and experimental forms of musical notation. People like Anthony Braxton or Cecil Taylor or Cornelius Cardew, who had to develop new modes of musical notation that created a different relationship between the composition and the performance. So those things have influenced me, too, in figuring out interesting ways to engage with the relationship between your mouth, your ear, your breath, your brain, and your eye.

HD: The other most immediate element I’m impressed by in The Feel Trio is sound. You utilize a lot of repetition, anaphora, and a constant movement between the syntax of everyday speech and that of lyric. There are also multiple overt references to song, to singing, and to music. How do you see this book operating on the level of sound, both in form and content?

 FM: The two biggest influences for me are Amiri Baraka and Nathaniel Mackey. And part of what’s striking about those two is their intense engagement with music—particularly, with black music. And so I’m just following behind them in that respect. I’m also following behind them in the intensity with which they think about these questions in their poetics. Baraka has an essay from the 60s called “How you sound??” It’s about this essential, irreducibly important phonic register that need not be indexed to a normative lyric subjectivity. The essay does, however, definitely index a mode of lyricism that has been explored and cultivated precisely by folks who have both been refused access to that normative subjectivity but who have also refused that normative subjectivity themselves. In both Mackey’s work and Baraka’s work, they’re always trying to get to something that you can hear in an emphatic way, like in James Brown, or in Betty Carter, or in Coltrane. That was the path that they took, that they established for folks like me to follow along behind. And obviously it’s not just them. I feel like that same pathway was very originally and beautifully blazed before them by Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Zora Neale Hurston. There’s a specific set of protocols within the general frame of black poetry, black writing, and black music that I’m operating within.

HD: What were some of your earliest experiences with poetry, and how did those experiences influence your later work?

FM: I grew up in a house where people were listening to music all the time, so those are my earliest experiences. It was a big deal for me when a person who was a former student of my mom’s, who was like an older brother to me, Mike Davis, brought over a copy of the Bob Marley and the Wailers record, Rastaman Vibration. I remember also when Marvin Gaye’s record What’s Going On came out. And I remember those “middle period” Stevie Wonder albums from the seventies, from Talking Book all the way through Hotter than July. The thing that was great was the album covers would fold out, and you could read the lyrics. And that was a major thing for me, to be able to read those lyrics written out as verse. I feel like Marvin Gaye, and Marley, Stevie Wonder, folks like that, were really conscious of the lyrics as lyric. One of the first things that I was conscious of experiencing as poetry was Stevie Wonder’s lyrics. Stevie would do this stuff, man, where he would come out with these really convoluted, inverted ways of saying stuff. These long, almost epic similes. Like, he has a great song called “As” in Songs in the Key of Life and one of the lines is “As the earth around the sun knows she’s revolving.” If you say that shit out loud. . . you know, the average kid in school hands that in, it’s gonna be covered in red, right? Now if you sing it, it makes perfect sense. What he’s done is, he’s subordinated sense, or what he has to say, to melody. It doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of meaning, or devoid of sense. Sense and meaning are subordinated to sound in the interest of a content, in the interest of a feeling. Poetry is always doing that. Rhyme schemes and meters require you to convolute and invert and disrupt syntax. There’s a reason I write something as a poem as opposed to writing it in newspaper-style prose. Because at a certain point, I’ve decided that what it is I want to say is subordinate to the sound, subordinate to a kind of feeling, a content that only that sound can provide.

I would go home to Arkansas during the summer to live with my grandmother, and she loved poetry. She was always reciting Keats, and this poem “The Chambered Nautilus” [Oliver Wendell Holmes], and this great poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar called “In the Morning.” She would wake me up by reciting that poem because it was a poem about waking up. I was lucky I was around people who were really invested in poetry and in language. I grew up in an atmosphere where people were just really invested in it, embedded in it, in an aesthetics of language. No one ever wanted to say anything plain. Why would you want to do that? Everybody I grew up around, all the people who raised us, everybody was constantly engaged in poetry—at least that’s what it feels like to me now.

HD: There are many references to cities and towns throughout the book, which makes me wonder: what is this work’s relationship to place? Are there particularly places or landscapes that you feel are more generative than others?

FM: There’s this term that M. Nourbese Philip uses, “Afrospora,” which is a twist on diaspora. I’m operating within an Afrosporic tradition, a tradition of dispersion and displacement. So the place that I’m always in is called displacement. That’s my place. Just on a personal, familial level: since I was twelve, thirteen years old, I’ve moved virtually every five years. There’s a kind of vagabondage that I’m caught up in. This constraint to move is something that I’m interested in not only because it corresponds in a larger way to black history, but also because it’s part of my own personal history. And I’m interested in what it is for me to embrace this displacement, this vagabondage, and to claim a certain kind of homelessness, which was moved by way of a critique of the very idea of home and of all the nasty political brutalities and vulgarities that surround and accompany that notion. So, place is very important, but the place that I’m always in, precisely because I’m always moving, is displacement.

HD: In relation to place, I feel like I’m often following the shredded threads of narrative throughout this book, particularly in reference to veiled events, figures, and names. What do you think is the function of these references to stories and to characters who never become especially clear to us?

FM: I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative. There are certain novels that I really like, but for the most part I have a hard time maintaining my attention through novels, through contemporary fiction. I feel bad about it, because I know there’s a lot of great writing going on. But the idea of a single narrative thread, or even of a braiding of independent but interlocking narrative threads, or a kind of structural relation between discrete but interacting characters. . . I’m less interested in that than I am in sense, feelings, visions, sounds; these little shards of experience that are moving in the world in ways that can’t be indexed to a single narrative line or a single character, at all. I’m interested in trying to avail myself of that as material, for writing, but not in the sense of trying to recreate a single story, or even a sort of braid or rope of other people’s stories. It’s all jumbled up and tangled up. And that kind of separation that I think narrative usually applies is not what I’m interested in, so much.

HD: This subversion of narrative maybe has something to do with one of the most central aspects of The Feel Trio, for me, which is this free flow of thought and language. This is precisely what makes me hesitate to liken this work to concrete poetry. There’s the faint trail of a subject being drawn, but the language seems to do what it wants—this activity seems more akin to music than communicative language. Do you feel a need to communicate something with your work? If so, what might that be?

FM: I once heard my friend CAConrad say, “I don’t want to write poetry, I want to be poetry.” And I feel like what I would like to do is to be an instrument of poetry, a servant of poetry. What I understand poetry to be is the practice in which we cultivate and serve and protect our sociality by constantly changing it, by constantly disrupting it and improvising upon it. And I would like to be an instrument of that, a participant, so to speak, in that practice. Poetry not only cultivates that practice, but it also engages that practice. It is that practice and it is also the documentation of that practice. I guess what I mean is that I would like to be a documentary instrument, a camera eye, or a recording apparatus—some kind of a seismograph to register feeling up to the point at which whatever I think I mean when I utter the word “I” fades away.

I know that I don’t have anything original to say. And I’m not trying to have something original to say. I would like to be able to say, at the end of it all, that there would be moments in which I was actually able to become an instrument. It’s difficult to do that. Betty Carter has this great song called “Ego,” and the punchline of the chorus is, “your ego got in the way.” My ego is constantly getting in the way of my being an instrument. But having something to say is the least of my concerns. To me, poetry begins with the willingness to subordinate whatever the hell it is that you have to say.

HD: In that context, why did you choose to end The Feel Trio with “I am fmoten”?

FM: I was trying to do something very specific. As I said before, in “I ran from it and was still in it,” I’m interested in this experience of breaking subjectivity within a tightly constrained space. The “place” in the first part of “I ran from it,” that first lyric block, is Angola prison, in Louisiana. It’s just a prison cell. I’m interested in the relation between the prison cell and the sonnet, basically. What does it mean to run from something while you’re still in it? That was the issue I was trying to work through. One of the constraints that we are held within is the whole history of the meaning and value that is attached to the “I” and to the proper name. What I wanted to try to do was reclaim these shapes, reclaim these spaces—even reclaim the “I,” the proper name—while at the same time detaching them from all the metaphysical weight and value that has been attached to them. I have a colleague I worked with at USC, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and she pointed out to me that if you take my first initial and my last name, fmoten, it’s an anagram for foment. We were always talking about fomenting whatever—foment the surface, foment rebellion. That last poem begins “I am foment.” People may want to say that foment is an anagram for fmoten. And I want to say, no, it’s the other way around: fmoten is an anagram for foment.

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