interview with poet fred moten

Fred Moten photo by LaMont Hamilton
Fred Moten. Photo by LaMont Hamilton.

about the poet

Fred Moten is author of In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Hughson’s Tavern, B. Jenkins, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (with Stefano Harney), The Feel Trio, The Little Edges and The Service Porch. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at the University of California, Riverside.

editor’s note

In the spring of 2015, south commissioned a poem from Fred Moten for our first issue, focused on the word “deep.” Months later, I engaged Professor Moten in a conversation about his contribution, “the deep tree,” and below is a transcript of that conversation. The journal is committed to featuring a poet or visual artist at least once a year in the pages of the journal in concert with a special themed issue. Each commissioned contribution will be accompanied by an online interview.—Sharon P. Holland


spH: First off, we love the poem, thank you so much for it.

FM: Well, you’re welcome.

spH: I want to ask you, why the deep tree? Where was your head space around writing the poem? How do you feel about deepness, about the connection to the south—all of those things?

FM: It’s kind of semi-obvious—I mean when you suggested it—when you told me about the theme being “deep,” I guess maybe…I mean the obvious connection is roots, right?

spH: Right, Right.

FM: And there’s a…somehow I was thinking deep tree, deep roots, and at the same time, Rhizome. Roots and rootlessness…just that spread, that diasporic spread. And also just…it’s sort of like a North Carolina thing. There’s two people in particular I was thinking of, and it turned out that there was a connection. I was trying to be hemispheric minded. The two people I was thinking of are Alvaro Reyes—in the Geography Department at UNC Chapel Hill; he was a student in the Program in Literature at Duke, and all of this amazing work he’s doing writing about the Zapatistas, but also all that beautiful work he’s been doing forever with El Kilombo Intergaláctico, a social center in Durham that he and other Duke students and members of the Latino and black working communities in Durham helped to found a decade or so ago. The other thing that’s been really just been infusing my brain for the last year and a half since I first heard of him is a friend out here in California who teaches at San Jose State University. His name is Manolo Callahan. Manolo has also been involved with the Zapatistas for a long time. He, along with other students, teachers and community members in San Jose, have created an extension of a multi-campus, hemispheric, informal university, called La Universidad de la Tierra. And so Manolo has helped to found one with other people he has been working with in San Jose and it basically meets in the back of a Mexican restaurant, in San Jose, as a regular gathering, an ateneo.

spH:  I love it!

FM: But Manolo and his colleague Gustavo Esteva have come up with this term, and a corresponding social and intellectual practice. The term that they use is “convivial research” and it’s a way of grounding research, you know, or rooting research, you can say, in a deep way, in the community, in a way that’s not about studying people, and it’s not even…about helping people either. It’s just about, you know, we are a part of this community and we engage in certain forms of research along with the other members of the community. It’s all predicated on the notion that there is this deep knowledge that already exists, you know, in working-class and immigrant or migrant communities. And the example that Manolo used for this multi-layered, situated, performed kind of knowledge was like a barbeque. Right? Now that’s right up your alley?

spH: [laughs] Yep!

FM: A barbeque consists of all of these different forms of knowledge that people mobilize. And there’s the old folks who can kind of handle the kids and keep them from going crazy and being impatient for food or whatever. And there’s the folks who know how to marinate and season the meat. And there’s the grill folks, the folks who know how to get people there, who can hook up people with rides. And it’s just all of this deep knowledge that goes into the ongoing reproduction and regeneration of a social…of sociality.

spH: Yeah…it’s like…black life looks like struggle always to those who don’t know it intimately, right? They’re like oh man, you know, it doesn’t look like joy. Or they can’t see the joy in historically oppressed communities. That’s what I love about the poem, there’s this joy.

FM: It’s just the relationship between struggle and joy, you know. Which Alice Walker’s been writing about for 45 years. It’s that same thing. I mean, that sense that…well, the other phrase that Manolo uses is “renewing our habits of assembly.” And that phrase has just been ringing in my ears ever since I heard him say it. You know? And just realizing that that’s what we do, that’s who we are. The other phrase that is in my head…I read this book called Architecture After Revolution. It’s by these three architects who are based in Bethlehem in the West Bank. One of the authors is Sandi Hilal, she’s a Palestinian woman, her partner is this Italian guy named Alessandro Petti and the other person they work with is Eyal Weizman, who is this Israeli/British critic, theorist, and architect. They focus on this phrase in Arabic, called “Al-Masha.” It’s basically a collective form of land holding—what’s cool about it—it’s a form of collective cultivation of the land that isn’t predicated upon the notion of individual proprietorship, which means that the capacity to expropriate that common land is really hamstrung. It’s easier for the state to expropriate land from a single landowner than it is for them to expropriate land that isn’t owned by a single person or by a single state or state-like entity, but that is in fact collectively cultivated and non-government owned. What they say in the book is that the thing about Al-Masha is that the only way to protect it is by continually practicing it.

spH: Right. Right. It’s like NAFTA…you know, one of the things that subtended that entire debacle was the release of the community land.

FM: Yep. Yep.

spH: That’s why NAFTA was a death knell for folks in collective community. Then when we got a lot of migration north, and folks are like: “What’s up with that?” And like, you know…we set that flowing.

FM: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. And been setting it flowing for a hundred years.

spH: I know.

FM: And what’s cool is it made me realize…I remember there is this book, this old Vintage book, it’s like two volumes. Remember when Vintage and all of those publishers in the early 1970s would publish all of this crazy great anti-imperialist stuff?

spH: I know. Which they would never do now.

FM: And there’s one called To Serve the Devil. Have you ever seen this?

spH: [laughs] No!

FM: Yeah! It’s called To Serve the Devil. And it would have these amazing excerpts and quotations from…just American imperialist crap going back a hundred years. One of these quotes was Theodore Roosevelt talking about…Basically, Theodore Roosevelt’s whole discourse on the so-called “vanishing Indian.” And what Roosevelt says is that the vanishing, okay, of the Native population will be most efficiently carried out by way of what he calls, “the imposition of severalty,” which the Dawes Act attempted to establish. Right? And what he’s basically saying is the one way genocide is carried out and administered is by imposing upon them individual land ownership.

spH: Exactly. I love that, “severalty.”

FM: Yeah, right? Yeah.

spH: It’s just like…it’s so, it’s so concerted. You know, you know. We all look at colonial structures as if it’s like happenstance. And the very nature of the terminology, the root…this is like the deep tree…the root is to sever, to break, to cause to die. You know, and then when we take that, as we say, when we take that shit personally, people look at us like, “Why do you think everyone’s trying to kill you?”

FM: Cause everyone’s trying to kill us.

spH: I know, I know.

FM: That’s why we think so.

spH: That’s why we think so.

FM: It’s like and then…as soon as we….You know what it’s like, too. It’s like I remember when I used to read Peanuts, you know, and Charlie Brown, and they had this great cartoon when Linus is playing with like a blanket or doing his blanket thing and Lucy’s like, pissed, so she just takes the blanket from him and says, “here,” and gives him a rubber band. So in the next panel he starts playing with the rubber band and having fun with that. She comes back and says, “I’ma take that too!” Right!

spH: [laughs]

FM: And it’s like the projects…okay. They’ve been doing these longitudinal studies about…‘cause George Bush comes along, remember with the so called “ownership society?”

spH: Ohhh god.

FM: So they either start privatizing the projects or they just demolish them and send people out, you know, in the suburbs somewhere…remember all those stories about how vulnerable Cabrini Green was? Well it turns out, the life expectancy of the people who live in the projects is shortened, right, when the projects are destroyed, because they created all these forms of social care for one another. It doesn’t mean the projects weren’t utterly messed up, weren’t zones of forced deprivation; it just means that even in those zones people were involved collectively in the making of a living that then itself becomes a new object for expropriation and liquidation.

spH: Forms of community. You know somebody on the third floor you know has been there for twenty-something years who takes care of the kids. So you can go downstairs. And you’ve got somebody who always has a little spare change on the corner you can borrow a 20 or 30 from so if you have to do what I call a “day errand,” which requires buses and cabs because there’s always someplace you got to file something that’s not in the city proper, that’s not on the bus system, it’s some little suburban office that takes care of…and it’s open from 10-11:30 on Fridays.

FM: [laughs]

spH: You know exactly what I’m talking about.

FM: I know just what you’re talking about.

spH: And so…

FM: If you’ve got a job application out and you don’t have a phone, so you put your next door neighbor’s phone number on the application. And when you impose severalty on the people who live in the projects, right? And put them in single family Section 8 housing out in the suburbs somewhere, right? Then, all of a sudden all that social support is gone.

spH: Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s that line in Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract. And he says, you know, the one achievement of the system of white supremacy is that it will be thoroughly invisible to itself. That’s what keeps it going. It’s like worse than the shell game—it’s like playing a shell game, but there’s no shells, there’s no card table and there’s no subway.

FM: Yeah. Somehow the poem is supposed to…I think the poem at this point…is just a way for me to try to investigate the miracle of how we survived. That’s all it is.

spH: I thought about that. I feel like in this post-Ferguson era, which is not really post-Ferguson, but a continuation. So I say post-Ferguson, only to cite not a new disruption, but the acknowledgement of something that’s been ongoing. I feel like there’s a gentleness that’s come of our treatment of one another. You know, I’m not saying it wasn’t there before, but its marked. I see young folks on campus or in the street and if it’s late at night, I’ll stop and I’ll say, “Hey, how are you doing, are you okay? You need a ride?” And they’ll say, “I’m okay ma’am.” And they’ll point to their friend, and start laughing, or whatever, saying, “He’s not okay, but I’m okay!” And I’m like, “Alright, alright.” But there’s a tenderness. I think, maybe the thing that causes comfort is that even well-minded people who wanted to look away know too now.

FM: Yeah. Yeah.

spH: And there’s something of a relief that comes with that—there’s other stuff. But there’s something of a relief. They’re just like, “I got it, loud and clear.” I’m not sure if anybody is doing anything, but there’s a lot of people who thought they got it, that really got it now.

FM: Well, it’s funny you know.  I think we got…we know that this is going on, we know that it’s been going on. But now how do we figure out how to tell ourselves what we know about or how to show ourselves how to do the tenderness that you describe.

spH: I know.

FM: Because, that’s what we don’t have, you know—the knowledge of what we have. I mean…

spH: It’s true.

FM: You know that’s one thing…because that’s the condition of possibility of fighting the shit.

spH: Cornel West was right about one thing…it’s in the love. I may not like how he parses that term over and against black nihilism, but in terms of the affective turn for blackness right now. It’s about, like, why won’t you just let us mess up, why won’t you actually…what’s that line in Loraine Hansberry’s play: you think a time to love somebody is when they are doing everything you want them to do? That was deep when I heard it as an undergrad and it still resonates with me today.

FM: Yeah. Yeah.

spH: I feel like that’s what’s come back to me. I mean, it’s always been on my mind. And I haven’t been able to get close enough to it. But I feel like right now, we’re in that deep.

FM: Yeah. The two sides of the deep, you know. The shit is deep.

spH: But how do we get there, how do we get that…is it through poetry, do you believe?

FM: Like I said, I think for me, that’s what that poem is about, off what Manolo says. We have to renew our habits of assembly. We have to really practice getting together in that double sense of the word “practice”—you know, it’s a praxis, it’s a thing that we engage in constantly. But we also have to keep trying to get better at it. We have to renew it; we have to regenerate it. So, yeah, that’s it. It’s renewal of our habits of assembly; I don’t know, I feel like that should be pretty much our only object of study.

spH: Well, that’s your last line, right? “We’re off!” Right, ‘cause in the middle of all this talking about it, we just grab hand and like, go!

FM: And we’re off too in that sense that, like you say, we ain’t right, we ain’t straight. We weird, we different. You know. We changed, we go off. And…so it’s that double sense that we’re off. Folks used to say, “oh, that boy off…you know.

spH: Or “you a little bit touched,” that one.

FM: Yeah. We off man, and we off man, and we got to go off. Ain’t no other way.