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Callaloo 27.4 (2004) 954-966
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"Words Don't Go There"
An Interview with Fred Moten
Charles Henry Rowell
Fred Moten. Photo by Laura Harris.
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This interview was conducted by telephone on June 23, 2004, between College Station, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, where Fred Moten resides with his family.
ROWELL: You are one of those rare academics; you are a poet as well as a literary and cultural critic. In each of the sites you occupy, you attempt to engage audiences through written and spoken words. But each of these sites, we often contend, requires particular ways of speaking that we assume are different—and, in some instances, are directly opposed to each other. We definitely argue that these two forms of communicating—criticism and poetry—are produced by different sensibilities, and what results are two distinct forms of communication—one critical and the other creative. This has led, of course, to contemporary critics ignoring contemporary literature, especially poetry, and contemporary writers not reading contemporary critical texts. Where do you stand in this divide? Or should I ask the question this way: How do you negotiate the two sites you occupy—that of "high" theorist and that of "experimental" poet?
MOTEN: I don't think I'm that rare, partly because the folks who have been the most influential for me operate precisely within that dual mode and partly because those who have influenced me have influenced many others as well. Amiri Baraka and Nathaniel Mackey have been and remain extremely important to me. They are both deeply embedded in the commitments and protocols of a strain of American poetic experimentalism that goes back to Whitman and Dickinson and that includes seminal figures like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan. Like all of these writers, Baraka and Mackey find it necessary to make contributions to poetics to ground and justify the kind of deconstructive and reconstructive pressure they put on poetic norms. Their poetry and their writing about poetry always reveals how hard and how seriously they think about the nature of poetry in its relation to the world and to history. That kind of thinking must be an intensely theoretical endeavor; it brushes up against and infuses and is infused by the kind of thinking that people usually consider philosophical. So that there are some "high theoretical" tones that mark both the poetry and the poetics of, say, Olson or Duncan and those tones or their variants are evident all the time and everywhere in Baraka and Mackey. Moreover, Baraka's engagement with German philosophers such as Martin Heidegger, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Karl Marx, and Mackey's encounter with [End Page 955] contemporary French theorists like Julia Kristeva and Jacques Derrida are also very evident in their work, giving it a whole other kind of theoretical or critical intensity. And this is all in the service of a deep immersion in the massive theoretical demands and resources of Afro-diasporic art and life. So that the two writers who have the most immediate and lasting influence on me move in the necessity of a breakdown of the oppositions between poet and critic, experimentalist and theorist, from within the complexity of the Afro-diasporic cultural field. And their critical extension of their own multiple lines of origin just lays down tracks for the future investigations of a whole lot of others (as Hortense Spillers, another great poet-critic, might say). So many names come to mind; it's hard to think of all this in terms of rarity, and it's hard to think of the divide between high theory and experimental poetry as an especially difficult one to negotiate.
ROWELL: When one looks at your poems, one discovers a new texture of English, or one finds a struggle toward language, or one is revealed the inadequacy of English to render all you want to say. (It's even difficult for me to fashion the exact phrase or sentence to describe, with certainty, the linguistic field of your poetry. [Laughter.]) "Words don...