Afternoons with Fred Moten: Note #1

H ow do you take notes in a class where the only way to note is to take flight? Last semester, I sat in on an undergraduate poetry class taught by Fred Moten.

Fred Moten‘s lectures are unusual. Picture this. There is Moten dishing out what by all accounts are profound words of wisdom about poetry. As is expected, I am captivated. But the moment I  try to catch a phrase or hold on to a thought of his by setting my pen to my notebook I find that my thought begins to drift away. I sense these phrases caught in my pen taking me places neither they nor I could have anticipated. My sense is that Moten is one of those teachers who can captivate without capture. They are wise but not tyrannical in the way that wisdom can be. Their thoughts are beautiful because they let you wander as long as you are wandering in thought in search of other beautiful places. That is how these notes came about. To put it simply, these notes or trips or whatever you like to call it are the result of the impossibility of taking notes in Moten‘s class.

Note #1.

Because a poem is never really finished, it is always a fragment. It is a remainder but of nothing, a trace but of no one.  A poem is a fragment not like a ruin or the left over of something that once was. Neither is it an unfinished portion of a whole that will eventually be completed. A poem is a crumb that fell from nothing, a scrap that just is. Perhaps that is why the best way to consume a poem is by tasting it, savoring it, and then nibbling it piecemeal. If a poem is never finished, it is probably because we love to eat it in the tiny bite sizes in which it comes to us.  But if a poem is always unfinished, does that not mean that it can be written to infinity? Does that not mean that a poem is necessarily overwritten?

The force that makes poetry possible is centrifugal. Poetry is borne out of things falling apart and scattering all over and leaving everywhere untidy and, perhaps, dangerous. That is why the place to find poetry is in goodbyes, in centers that cannot hold, in disavowal, in shame, in homelessness, in forgetting, in disposable things, in love after it is lost, in life when it is of no use. But then there are those who say that if poetry happens in the leaving-behind, it is also a carrying-with. They claim that poetry is a strange kind of exile that transforms whatever it has lost or left behind.

The poem itself is centrifugal in the sense that it seeks to flee any kind of center. Yes a poem desires. Yes a poem dreams.  It seeks to scatter away from the reader who hears with his eyes and the poet who writes with his ears. One more thing to keep in mind. There are no turning points in poetry. Only false ones. A poem is a vortex that turns itself against itself, inside out and falls out at the bottom. There are no miraculous moments of discovery. If there are, they are false ones. A poem tells you nothing that you do not already know or feel or fear. And if you leave a poem confused not even this confusion is  a discovery. Poetry profanes. It is a rite, a litany, a chant, a cant, but rites invented entirely in the moment or over the years in the din of a raging war or in a castle or in a mud hut. A poem is a radical habitation. A  habitation in the outside. Where dwelling has nothing to do with an interior space.

Photo Credit: Ash Sivils

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

8 Responses to “Afternoons with Fred Moten: Note #1” Subscribe

  1. Ali Altaf Mian 2011/06/03 at 08:11 #

    I savored reading this inspirational piece. I find it beautiful how you’ve poetically made ambiguous “the author” of the note through your noting the impossibility of note-taking.

  2. Ainehi 2011/06/03 at 15:47 #

    Thanks Ali for noting the ambiguity of authorship. That’s one thing I was def going for.

  3. Herbman 2011/06/04 at 04:49 #

    Reading this brought to mind the transience within imagination, which actually form the fragments upon which ideas become whole. God bless Moten for not passing tyrannical wisdom; for what is true or untrue can only be defined according to the context. In a similar light, what constitute wisdom in one particular context, could be a catalyst for foolishness in another. We can see this kind of relationship even within natural elements. For example, hydrogen is extremely flammable, and oxygen supports combustion, these two elements combine to form water, a substance that extinguishes fire. In order words, nothing is necessarily fixed, and wisdom or truth should never be tyrannical.

    Moten’s teaching style i believe, is one that promotes creativity, and It helps students attain flexibility of thought which is necessary in a class creative writing class.

    May God bless, Moten for been a great teacher, the gods for being wise, the Herbman for reasoning this comment, and Ainehi for reasoning at this level.

  4. Ose 2011/06/04 at 12:57 #

    Ainehi, this is another lovely piece! Unlike Herbman I don’t have grand words to say but I must say you weave your thoughts so beautifully, yet there is a simplicity about your choice of words.

  5. admin 2011/06/04 at 15:13 #

    @ Herbman,

    Why do I think I know you and why do I think that the inspiration for this comment came from Choco puffs?

    @ Ose,

    Thank you o!

  6. Michael 2011/06/08 at 08:09 #

    Does that not mean it can be written to infinity?

    If this is the product of classes and notes then by all means take notes as often as possible 🙂

  7. Krismas 2011/09/20 at 00:22 #

    Isn’t this, wot oyinbo people, call, ‘clifhanger’?

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  1. AFTERNOON WITH MOTEN: Note #2 | Brittle Paper - 2011/09/19

    […] Afternoons with Fred Moten is a limited Brittle Paper series. Catch up on the story behind these unusual class notes @ Afternoons with Fred Moten Note # 1 […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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