“Revise, Revise, Revise.”
Fred Moten thus began his talk on Wednesday, Oct. 3, quoting from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “North Haven,” an elegy to her fellow poet and friend Robert Lowell (The New Yorker, “Works on Paper: The Letters of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell,” 11.03.2008). Careful not to spend too much time on his personal relationship with Bishop’s work, Moten nevertheless found in “North Haven” a kernel of an idea which would animate the reading, manifesting his thoughtful reconsideration of academic work and inviting the audience to also see study as an “ongoing process of revision.”
Professor of English and longtime friend of Moten Amitava Kumar introduced the talk with a similar theme in mind. He quoted from Moten’s most notable work “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study,” reading aloud, “It cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment” (Fred Moten, “The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study,” 2013). The diverse sampling of poetry, critique, music and theoretical rumination that followed these thoughts was illuminated by their radical vision.
Fred Moten, poet, scholar of black studies and renowned cultural critic, came to Sanders Classroom on Oct. 3, to deliver the annual Elizabeth Bishop lecture, hosted by Vassar’s English Department. Over the course of his career, Moten has written extensively about Blackness, aesthetics, poetry and continental philosophy. The definition of a protean academic, Moten has collaborated with a diverse suite of artists, including video artist Arthur Jafa, DJ and writer Julianna Huxtable, writer Maggie Nelson and filmmaker Wu Tsang. He currently teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, and he has formerly held academic posts at Harvard University, the University of California, Irvine, Duke University and Brown University.
Over the course of an hour, Moten read several poems as well as shared anecdotes and reflections. The poems came from two of Moten’s collections, “B. Jenkins,” published by Duke in 2010, and “The Little Edges,” published by Wesleyan in 2015. His poems move between fragmentary utterances, colloquialisms and detailed, descriptive prose-like writing, leaving plenty of space for him to expand upon and explore the ideas and experiences within the poems.
The talk embraced these blurred lines between music, poetry and philosophy; however, in characterizing his style, it is hard to call it interdisciplinary. Nor would is it necessarily a global or universal style. His frequent allusions to collaborators and friends, to their many stories and experiences, makes me think that the best descriptor for his itinerant traversing of discourses may be social. His poetry and writing do their best to speak and listen. Nevertheless, Moten is unabashedly conceptual. He stated, “A lot of what I put in my books of poetry is criticism.”
The first of his poems was titled “hard enough to enjoy,” from “The Little Edges,” written about the choreographer Ralph Lemon. Moten read, “Feel me? That’s why I always ask you if you feel me. Because I know you feel me. I ask you if you feel me because I know you feel me” (Fred Moten, “The Little Edges,” 2015). The physicality of words and speech weaves through all of Moten’s poems, as if to emphasize that––though the subjects of his work are mobile and fleeting––their interactions, the aesthetics of those interactions and their resultant meanings, are relentlessly physical.
Moten then moved onto another poem, “eve is a texture, dave is centering,” from the same collection, in which he imagines the acclaimed gender studies scholar Eve Sedgwick eating salad from a bowl made by Dave the Potter. He digresses, speaking about Sedgwick’s beautiful hands, recounting his experience meeting her at a concert by free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor and then discussing Taylor’s funeral. He brings up the work of fiction writer Samuel Delany, who had what Moten calls “intense erotic fixation with hands” before returning to Taylor and the stolid beauty of Taylor’s face in the casket, juxtaposing it to his weathered hands, like “hammers for playing on the piano” (Fred Moten, “The Little Edges,” 2015). Taylor, incidentally, was an admirer of Sedgwick, and Moten encourages us to hear her through Taylor’s music. He ends this thought by saying that, like poet Amiri Baraka who wrote about racism and the American Civil Rights Movement, he separates ghosts and spirits and finds it unproductive to live with the dead. The multiple layers of Moten’s musing flesh out the valences of influence, interaction, spontaneity and fixation, which prove common to all creative and intellectual practice.
Before introducing his poems “frank ramsey nancy wilson” (from “B. Jenkins”) and “nancy wilson saves frank ramsey” (from “The Little Edges”), Moten asked the audience if he could play a song. After a few murmurs of assent, he began another anecdote: “I am a product of my mother’s house, and in my mother’s house, there was music all the time.” He quickly pivoted from an everyday reminiscence back to his natural tone of sophistication, quoting the recently deceased American philosopher Stanley Cavell: “Am I ready to avow that my mother’s mother tongue, which is music, is my own.” He then played two versions of the same song, “Save your Love for Me” by Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley—the first a studio recording, the second a live version which his mother had kept on vinyl and which he had recently digitized. The music was a formidable and haunting modern jazz trot, with Wilson’s vocals serving as a perfect counterpoint to Adderley’s alto sax.
Next, Moten remarked on Frank Ramsay who was an analytic philosopher at Cambridge before the war. He was the only one there, Moten laughed, who wasn’t afraid to confront the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The opening line of Moten’s next poem was one of Ramsay’s famous quips, a response to Wittgenstein’s pronouncement “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: Ramsay replies, “what can’t be said, can’t be said, and it can’t be whistled neither” (Fred Moten, “The Little Edges,” 2015).
Of all the different components of speech, voice is one of Moten’s particular fixations. In his essay “Black Mon’in’” he writes of a moan at a funeral expressing the wordless anguish beyond language. Yet perhaps there can be a positive wordlessness as well: “frank ramsey nancy wilson” ends with the line, “But the unutterable will be––unutterably––enjoyed in what has been enjoyed.” Moten read the audience another poem on the same theme, this one titled “sweet nancy wilson saved frank ramsey.” The final lines loop back on themselves to create an echoing clarity: “though it can’t be said, said in leaving / singing, said in leaving / it unsung, song of desire, safe from desire, saved in desire” (Fred Moten, “The Little Edges,” 2015).
In the question and answer session following the lecture, Professor of Philosophy Osman Nemli asked Moten about another one of Nancy Wilson’s songs “Never Will I Marry,” connecting it to the paradox of showing and saying in Wittgenstein’s work and, by extension, in Moten’s poems about Frank Ramsey. Can these two concepts, showing and saying, ever be married? Moten answered carefully, taking several moments to collect his thoughts. Though the two need each other, Moten eventually answered, their marriage would be a promiscuous one. They need to roam free. Yet this does not mean that they don’t feel each other, only that it is difficult to ensure that the “moans, creaks and pops” don’t get left out.
One student in attendance asked about Moten’s experiences as an artist and a person of color. Moten immediately apologized for his oblique answer, but he clearly had a different tack in mind: “I totally understand what you mean when you say what you say, but I don’t want to say it that way. I wouldn’t call myself a creative. I want to be a part of something creative.”
It is difficult for non-normative people to exist in these spaces, Moten continued, because of this paradoxical ideology of individualism, which poses the fulfillment of individual freedoms as the foundation for all of those freedoms. “I am interested in what we do together,” he said in sum. He brought up an anecdote about a student who came to office hours, relating, “He said, ‘do Black people really have to save the world?’ Yes, yes we do. Mostly because we can; it has nothing to do with fairness.”
Moten ended with a wily optimism, saying, “The oppressor is not that deep and not that interesting. We have to pay a whole lot more attention to what we do.” This is an invitation, to talk more, to listen more, to take study beyond the classroom and to live with it, as one does with a friend, among friends.