Fred Moten in the Bay Area Nov 2-3, 2013

F   R   E   D      M   O   T   E   N


As noted previously on this blog, Small Press Traffic's Reading Series this Fall has been curated by SPT Board Members. I curated November 3rd's event, a poetry reading and talk by literary and cultural critic, and poet, Fred Moten, and hosted two reading groups for which we read sections of Moten and Stefano Harney's The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions); one of the reading groups happened in Oakland at the Bay Area Public School and one at the Artists' Television Access in San Francisco. Many thanks to the wonderful participants who made the discussions rich and engaged.

Small Press Traffic collaborated with Steve Dickison at The Poetry Center, and also with the Bay Area Public School to bring Fred to the Bay Area.

On Saturday, November 2nd, Fred spent a couple of hours talking with folks at the Public School. I understand the conversation at this event entailed an exploration of Moten and Harney's work around the university and the undercommons and the work of the Bay Area Public School. Fred said he was interested in learning about what the Public School is up to. Someone estimated that there were about 50 people at this event. After this talk, Fred went with his friend Linda Norton to go see Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave which had just opened in the Bay Area.

On Sunday morning Fred apparently got up and started writing about 12 Years A Slave; he opened his talk with his very recent response to McQueen's film via a tweet that Tavia Nyong'o at NYU had made in response to the film. While the promise of this tweet got me to finally sign up on twitter, the quote itself is a mystery. I can't find it. I think Nyong'o said that this film would change the conversation and he might have made a claim about "black planetary consciousness." Much has been made by many critics of the fact that McQueen is British; many asserting that this film could not be made by Americans. I believe Moten suggested that Nyong'o also made such a claim.

Moten took on Nyong'o and outlined what he sees as 5 unspoken formulations implicit in Nyong'o's response. All of these, I believe, had at their center, shame as a modality. In brief, I can tell you that Moten hated this film. He sees it as portraying the black American worker as incapable of representing herself. The slaves in this film, those born into slavery, are depicted as too degraded to know they are degraded. He said the film works to make Solomon Northup a bourgeois subject like you. Moten also suggested that in the film, if you see degradation, you can't enact or embody it. It must be seen in an other and disavowed.The film constructs Northup's complete degradation in the moment he participates in black music, abandoning his violin and joining in the singing of Roll Jordan Roll. This discussion had implications for the field of Black Studies. But I cannot trust my notes, composed while I tried to focus on the flight of Fred's journey, and serve as my own secretary simultaneously. This link is complex and we'll have to refer to Fred's current and forthcoming work to begin to take it apart.

I hope to read Fred's thinking on 12 Years a Slave somewhere soon.

Bridging his talk on McQueen's film by way of the undercommons, which Moten argues, is not ashamed, Fred then read some poems from his forthcoming The Feel Trio, after Cecil Taylor. He read a bunch of the lyrics that comprise "Black Chapel,"  and then a series of other work, including some from B Jenkins (Duke University Press, 2010)

Here's one Fred read that's been published elsewhere on the Gramsci Monument website for Thomas Hirschhorn's project at Forest Houses, The Bronx in New York:

The Gramsci Monument

if the projects become a project from outside

then the projects been a project forever. held in
the projects we’re the project they stole. we steal
the project back and try to give it back to them.
come on, come get some of this project. we protect
the project with our hands. the architect is in mining
and we dispossess him. we protect the project by handing.
let’s bust the project up. let’s love the project. can the
projects be loved? we love the projects. let’s move
the projects. we project the projects. I’m just
projecting. the project’s mine to give away. I’m not
in mining when I dispossess me. I’m just
a projection. projecting is just us, that’s who we are,
that’s who we be. we always be projecting. that’s all
we have. we project the outside that’s inside us.
we the outside that violates our block. we violate the auction
block experiment. we pirates of ourselves and others. we are
the friend of all. we are the cargo. are you my treasure?
you’re all I need. are you my wish? come be my sunship. I dream the sails
of the project from the eastern shore. plywood sails the city
island past the enclave mirror so the bricks can fly.
at the fugitive bar the food be tasting good. kitchenette’s
my cabin. flesh is burning in the hold. I love the way
you smell. your cry enjoys me. let me taste the way you think.
let’s do this one more time. the project repeats me. I am repleat
with the project. your difference folds me in cadillac arms.
my oracle with sweets, be my confection engine. tell me
how to choose. tell me how to choose the project I have chosen.
are you the projects I choose? you are the project I choose.
FM, 8.14.13

All in all, it was an awesome evening. Here's the intro I delivered, followed by a tribute to Fred by Steve Dickison.

Fred Moten Introduction
for the Small Press Traffic/Poetry Center Nov 3rd , 2013 Event

Robin Tremblay-McGaw

I’m a late-comer to the work of Fred Moten. I discovered his work three or four years ago in the company of poets who teach in the Language and Thinking Program at Bard College. David Buuck, Erica kaufman, Simone White, Emily Abendroth, Tonya Foster, and others. We read and taught some of the poems from Fred’s 2010 book B Jenkins. We read Barbara lee [the poetics of political form], [statement in opposition] and [the unacknowledged legislator].

In August of 2012 Fred gave one of the rostrum lectures at Bard. His talk was called “The Touring Machine: Flesh Thought Inside Out.” You can google it and watch it online at vimeo. As he began his talk, the technicians in the auditorium had some trouble with the sound system. When he returned to the podium, Fred remarked on the productivity of interruptions and invited students to break in and ask questions or make comments. And they did.

I have been moved and my thinking about poetry and black radicalism  enriched and made more complex in reading Fred’s book In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. This is a powerful book; the reader can’t help but be thrilled as Moten contests Marx’s assertion that the commodity can’t speak. He reminds us that Marx was living during the practice of slavery, during, as Moten writes, “the historical reality of commodities who spoke—of laborers who were commodities before, as it were, the abstraction of labor power from their bodies” (6).

In the Break is also a difficult book, one that requires labor, and struggle to keep up with its brilliant asymptotic flight. And when Fred was speaking to new undergraduates at Bard that summer in August, I think we were all going to be challenged to keep up with him. And then students interrupted him and the talk took a social turn, became a conversation, a being with one another.

Somehow Fred pulled off this high wire act keeping the discourse complex but meeting the audience where they were. I left that talk in awe of Fred Moten and gave the first person I saw—who happened to be Eirik Steinhoff—a big hug. I don’t go to church, but I felt like I had been in one. Maybe what I and others experienced in that auditorium was in Moten and Stefano Harney’s words: “a touch, a feel you want more of, which releases you” (Undercommons 99). Call it the church of the break, the John Coltrane, the B Jenkins, the Fred Moten church.

In [the unacknowledged legislator] from Moten’s 2010 book B Jenkins, he writes:

According to Shelley, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Let’s say the world is a zone from and within which life is constantly escaping. Poets sing the form of that endless running, that ongoing running on, always busting out of the sentence or cutting being-sentenced; but those broken songs, even in their incessant breaking away, cannot but bear the heavy burden of being-held. At stake, here, is a complex of weighted departure, of flight in seizure, of an emergent statelessness submerged beneath the state of emergency. There’s always a trace on the ones who want to go. Nevertheless, unacknowledged legislators sing diversion out of turn. They instigate small passages. Their envois strive to more than correspond (86).

I read this passage as a description of Fred Moten’s own poetics. The language is seductive and beautiful but it also marks not the historical only, though it does that, but also the ongoing sentencing, breaking, and seizures of many who are poor or black or women or queer or illegal, all of us living in this broken world.

Inviting us to study and plan with one another, Moten points to the embarkation we can make in the here and now, a fugitive run across the territories of self, sound, property, spectacle, politics. On the way we might do some stuff together in common. “Poetry,” Moten writes,  “investigates new ways for people to get together and do stuff in the open, in secret” (86).

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait. Let’s welcome Fred Moten.


"Tribute to Fred" by Steve Dickison

“The commons is a ruin, an abbey, with a concert in the middle.” (“code & tone”)

“the phonograph is also a photograph of movement and what it bears” (“b jenkins”)


it’s in the way the running of the Birdhouse got passed on to you from Tip, of Tip’s Tavern, “because all of our families was together. Hamid’s mother, my mother, my aunt, my aunt by marriage, all of us was right in there together” and you renaming it into perpetuity the Velvet Lounge, torn into place against agenda house of the music

“you gotta get to a point where your worst playing can be good” (Fred Anderson)

“most of us can’t afford the diaspora”  (“roebuck pearl”)


 how you and Diedre Murray rolled together, the littler flowering sounds over on top of and all up in the weave of the bigger tones, of the booms, two monsters met up pizzicato at the corner with the ghost of Ronnie Boykins, with the ghost of Wilbur Little, until the bows getting dragged over at the rainbow chorus enter names in the registry at church, pulling down the air out of the air into the room (Fred Hopkins)


                                                where they exercised

            “the hopes and promise


                                                                        of paradise”  (“hughson’s tavern”)


at the juncture where Como, Mississippi Fred “I Do Not Play No Rock ’n ’ Roll” McDowell (Capitol, 1969)

 meets Kingsland, Arkansas Fred “all the house is curved, all the sisters work at sonic, everybody talk like this” Moten (Pressed Wafer, 2000)

in a firehouse

“like someone sanded the box of your voice

like a brass button” (“Cubie and Mt. Tabor,” Arkansas)


Fred “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future” Douglass feels his way around the drumkit, tightening the heads on the floor-tom, loosening a snare, patting the skin with his palm and leans


one ear in close, there being drummers like to tune the pots to fourths & fifths, Elvin say “to construct unlimited tone combinations, using the dynamic intensity of stroke and whatnot,” or à la Ed Blackwell’s ear, à la Denis Charles’s, who type out little


tunes, e.g., can render “Thelonious” the melody, these alongside those who’d say with Max “I tune them to sound as alive as possible. If all of them sound the same, it’s alright with me, as long as they have life and resonance,” who with Klook “Before


the war it was only called that music they’re playing up at Minton’s” hear Art Blakey

say “I don’t tune them. The Africans don’t tune their drums, and they beat the shit out of them. They sound good, the human being doesn’t care how technical you are.”

(Art Taylor, Notes and Tones)


 “having identified the shit, the shit you can’t say shit about, that’s all

I can say about that” (“arthur jafa and greg tate” in b jenkins)


“the history of the music is also the history of

 rum and coca cola. I’m so glad I ran into you.” (“bebop” in hughson’s tavern)

“and the music make every crushed little room a holy place”

(“footbridge (attention span” ibid.)


1 comment:

David Need said...

I like the sense here that you are stretching to make sense of/follow Fred and that maybe you haven't quite done that yet... the movement in Fred's language between wanting to make an argument, the demands that theory makes (or seems to make) and some fine musical sensibility... perhaps Nietzschian in the sense of the way it makes such a mess of rhetoric even as its staged in such terms... as if the key was in the mess (exageration)...