55–60 minute conversation, or the time it takes to practice playing a musical instrument.
Educators and writers Eve L. Ewing and Fred Moten share much in common: Both use multimodal forms to express their ideas, and both share a passion for Black artistic traditions and pedagogical approaches. The following exchange centers on the generative qualities of making mistakes and teems with anecdotes drawn from the annals of jazz, history, poetry, and beyond. Ewing and Moten also discuss expansive ideas of archiving and documentation and, most importantly, the belief that if we embrace process and forego perfection, our mistakes can open up new and surprising corridors of thought and experience.
Fred Moten: Walter Dyett is this legendary figure in the history of black music, for folks who don’t know.
Eve L. Ewing: In jazz, in particular.
Fred: And a great figure in the history of the music of Chicago, primarily as a teacher. My friend and conspirator, Stefano Harney, and I have been doing these lectures on poetics the last couple months, and a lot of it is focused on New Orleans. I never really could tell the difference between preparing and procrastinating, and now when I sit down at a computer, there’s so much other stuff going on in the computer, that you can procrastinate in a billion different ways. So, in the name of preparation, I’ve been binging the HBO series Treme, in which there’s a character named Antoine Batiste. Basically, he’s got this very deep and interesting relationship to his own trombone teacher, and eventually, post [Hurricane] Katrina, he becomes a very dedicated teacher himself.
And maybe that was also in my head, Eve, as I was looking at your wonderful book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard and anticipating our conversation. It let me go back and think about stuff that some of the members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) said about Dyett. It made me think about the importance of a tradition of pedagogy in the development of the music.
People want to act like the music is just some spontaneous, unpremeditated profusion, like skylarks singing, but there’s this deep pedagogical structure that undergirds these explosions of creativity. And in your book you discuss at length the arts high school on the South Side of Chicago named after Dyett. So, anyway, I just wanted to hear you say more about Dyett and the school that’s named in his honor and the fact that it’s named in his honor.
Eve: Well, I can give a little bit of context. First, I should say, I promise I won’t do this the whole interview because it’s obnoxious, but I am such a tremendous fan of your work, and you are so important as a multimodal thinker. I feel like a lot of my closest friends that are poets haven’t really read a lot of my nonfiction work. Which is fine, I’m not mad at that. But it’s especially humbling and moving to hear that you would have read that book, which is very important to me.
I also appreciate you because I get a lot of questions that you probably also get, that are all variations of “how do you do more than one thing?” I’m very bad at answering that question. I don’t really understand the question, and to the extent that I’m able to understand the question, I always feel that I’m the least capable person to answer it. I’ve also tried to say that it’s actually not very remarkable to do many things and to work in many forms. And you are among the many folks, in the Black intellectual tradition in particular, that are helpful to point to and say, actually, maybe this is really normal and fine.
Anyway, I really appreciate you having looked at Ghosts in the Schoolyard. Walter Henri Dyett was an educator, jazz musician, and Black man in Chicago, who taught a lot of [people] who would become really famous and well-known jazz musicians. And he taught them not in a conservatory, or in the street. He taught them in a public school. He was a public school music teacher. And that’s really remarkable.
I was also a public school teacher, and I found myself writing about Dyett. Because as you’ve mentioned, there’s a high school in Chicago named after him, Walter H. Dyett High School. It’s pretty unusual to have a high school or a school of any kind that’s named after, a recently at that time, relatively recently passed, educator. The school was slated for closure in 2015, and a group of community members staged a thirty-four-day hunger strike to keep the school open.
Part of my M.O. as a writer is that it’s really hard for me to write about anything without trying to understand the history behind it and excavating that, regardless of the form in which I’m writing, and so I wanted to understand who Dyett was as a person. I was blessed enough to be able to go into his papers, which are at the Vivian Harsh archive — another great Chicagoan and Black librarian, Vivian Harsh. The Vivian Harsh Archive is at the Carter G. Woodson Library, which is a public library in Chicago. I got to see Dyett’s papers and read a little bit about his pedagogy.
One of my hang-ups as an educator, as someone who was a public school teacher, and someone who thinks a lot, as you do, Fred, about pedagogy and teaching and study, is that I think that, unfortunately, American society still really undervalues the labor of teachers, which we know, and which we talk about in economic terms, like “teachers should be paid more” and “teachers should have these kinds of material support.” And all that is true, but something that to me is almost just as painful is that people really devalue the intellectual work of teaching. I find that a lot of really great scholars and theorists and thinkers and cultural critics don’t think very much about pedagogy and don’t have a lot of value for it, don’t see it as intellectual work. I felt very grateful to have an opportunity to write about Dyett, not as a shadowy figure in the backdrop of this story, or a guy that a building is named after.
[ID: A black and white photograph of a group of musicians seated in an outdoor area surrounded by a few small trees. Dyett stands in the center, facing out toward the camera, conductor’s baton in motion. Behind the group, a large building under construction rises out of the frame.]
People really devalue the intellectual work of teaching. I find that a lot of really great scholars and theorists and thinkers and cultural critics don’t think very much about pedagogy and don’t have a lot of value for it, don’t see it as intellectual work.
But I read this interview with you, Fred, where you talked about how the AACM required each member to also do a solo concert, and how that had a kind of intentional pedagogical value. And I think that’s a really great example of how something that is an artistic collective political movement is also making these kinds of intentional moves towards pedagogical initiatives.
Thanks for asking me about Dyett. Nobody ever asks me about that. People ask me about the school, but not the person.
Fred: There are so many things in what you said that make me want to go off! Maybe the first one is whenever I hear someone use the term educator,” it rings this bell in my mind, because my mom was an educator, and she was very emphatic about using that term. She was fine with “teacher,” too, but I think for her, the term “educator” had another level of intensity, and also another level of, as you say, intellectual commitment, that comes with being aware of being involved in a common practice of study. Being an educator for her meant being a student, too. I remember having to go with her when I was a little kid, carrying some book that I was reading, while she was in another room doing in-service training; and growing up around and under her and her friends who were also teachers. Her best friend was a woman named Elsie Sellers. They had classrooms right next to each other at Madison Elementary School in Las Vegas. Later, when we would be Christmas shopping or something in the mall, it would take my mom hours to get through the mall because her old students from Madison would be calling out, “Miss Moten, Miss Moten!”
All I really ever wanted to do was be like her, so it didn’t feel at any moment that I had much of an option beyond trying to be an educator, which also meant taking the pedagogical work seriously, and really, even within the framework of so-called “higher education,” trying to subordinate writing to teaching so that I feel like, most of the time, what I’m writing is just preparation for teaching. That’s probably why some of what I write seems fragmentary or difficult, because it is, in a lot of ways, shorthand. It’s unfinished. It’s stuff I’m trying to get through in my head so that I can go to class and so we can work things out together in class. It’s unfinished until I get there, and it’s unfinished, still, when class is done.
In a way, it’s in class where I try to create a situation that has some kind of relation to what a musical ensemble tries to create, in which we foster people’s capacities to think critically, and to improvise, and to think historically. And all those things to me are bound up with one another. They’re not separate from one another. So, I feel like even though I can’t play any instrument, somehow I’m part of some generational trajectory that can be traced back through Mr. Dyett, and a lot of other teachers, too.
Eve: Do you play any instruments badly? I’ve played several instruments badly.
Fred: I took piano when I was little, eight or nine, but I was too much into sports. I couldn’t be bothered to practice. I totally regret it now. I always wanted to play the bass violin, so I got myself one when I turned fifty and I took a few lessons. I have all these tapes and books and stuff. I would love to get to the point where I could play with other people and not mess them up or, at least, mess them up in some generative way. But even if I never do, there’s a way in which I can just play around with it, and it’s very easy to make patterns that sound pleasing to me. For me, it’s almost like kind of a little meditative thing, and you just, you find like, a little three- or four-note figure, and then you try to replicate it, and you just make a little pattern. I imagine it’s something like what people do when they chant.
Eve: If you ever want to do some ensemble work, I probably play the piano about as well as you play the bass. I’m gonna tease you a little bit, but I think that so much of your work is about giving people the courage to be expansive about what it means to be capable, and what it means to learn in collaboration. And I think we still have these kinds of blocks that we have set up. First, you said you can’t play any instrument, but I knew you could. That’s why I asked about it. I said, “Well, can you play badly?” And then you confess that you do, you can. I’ve never held an upright bass. You can, in fact, play it! But we have this idea about the minimum level. Like you said, you want to be good enough to play with other people without messing them up. But maybe there’s something generative in us messing each other up, you know?
Fred: Dyett was a violinist, and my kids both play violin. When we moved to New York, one of the communities that folded us in was a sort of experimental, free jazz community in New York that has grown around and been fostered by the great bass player, William Parker, and his partner, Patricia Nicholson Parker, who’s a dancer. They organize a music festival every year called the Vision Festival, but that’s just a part of the general activities they are involved in through an organization called Arts for Art. These include an ensemble called The Visionary Youth Orchestra, in which both of our kids played. So, both of our kids were in this orchestra and you know, it was unclear how much they could really play, but the great bassoon player, Karen Borca, who was married for many years to the great alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons who was a part of Cecil Taylor’s units, conducted them at the Vision Festival one year and it sounded so good, you know, that the distinction between playing and not playing was suspended. They were making music!
Since then, our youngest son has been folded into this maternal ecology of great Black musical educators including Gwen Laster, a great violinist, composer, and bandleader, and Melanie Dyer, an amazing violist who also composes and leads a wonderful band called We Free Strings. Even during the pandemic, he’s been taking lessons online with Gwen and with the equally amazing pianist and teacher Michelle Rosewoman. I listen to his lessons as if they were concerts. They play together and write together and it’s an extraordinary thing to see how the so-called non-trained, or emerging, musician in conjunction with these absolute masters can make something beautiful.
Once, I was listening to Beethoven — I think I was listening to Glenn Gould, a great Canadian pianist who I’m semi-obsessed with, playing Beethoven – and I thought to myself, this is extraordinarily beautiful music, but the emphasis on certain notions of musical purity, purity of tone, and the particular modalities of virtuosity that need to be sustained in order for this music to be played “properly,” are totally unsustainable. Right? It’s ecologically, politically, economically unsustainable to create the conditions that can produce and maintain that level of virtuosity. That level of virtuosity requires radical inequality. It demands it. And most of the music of the world is not structured by the assumption of the necessity of that level of virtuosity. And in fact, most of the musical world is structured by this other mechanism that you just mentioned, which is this commitment to messing each other up.
Eve: Well, we might call it the ethos of getting in where you fit in.
Fred: Exactly! Okay, so my mom was an educator, and one of her students was a guy named Mike Davis, who basically became like my older brother, because I’m technically an only child. And he used to tell me stories about walking past the clubs on Jackson Street in Las Vegas while he was on his way to school. It would be early in the morning and the musicians would still be playing from the night before. And I just remember him telling me — I put it in a poem somewhere — he said, “Man, that music messed me up.” So, when you said that, it made me think of Mike.
[ID: Two women are seated on a stage facing an auditorium with sheet music spread out on stands in front of them. The woman on the left has lifted the viola under her chin and holds the bow aloft.]
We have this idea about the minimum level. Like you said, you want to be good enough to play with other people without messing them up. But maybe there’s something generative in us messing each other up, you know?
Eve: As I said, I love to play music. I’m not a good musician. I’m not a talented musician. But I love to play music, and I cherish times in my life where I’ve had the opportunity to play music with other people. I like puzzling through something myself, but I really like showing up and trying to muddle through something. I played the cello in elementary school. And then in high school, I took up the clarinet. And the way I picked the clarinet was that, in the first week of class, every day, my teacher would just pick up each instrument, say what it was, and then play it for us. It just assumed no knowledge in the absolute best way, and we got to try out different instruments. Eventually I made second chair, played that badly for three years and didn’t practice enough, but I loved having concerts. And my teacher would always say, “All you have to do is start well and finish well. No one will remember anything in between.”
Then when I became a teacher, I took up the guitar, because I liked the image of being a teacher who can pull out an acoustic guitar. Now in the last couple years, I’ve started learning the piano, and trying to learn piano in your mid-thirties is really interesting. The first time the teacher said, “Okay, now you’re gonna do two different things with your two hands, this hand is gonna do this, this hand is gonna do that.” It’s like they had just told me, “Now we’re gonna walk on the ceiling.” Like, that feels impossible! But of course, it’s the basic function of playing a piano.
One of the things I’ve learned in all my many experiences as a novice and lower-level musician, is your music teacher will always say, “if you mess up, you have to keep going.” Right? Especially if you’re doing a performance or recital, you can’t do the thing — “oh, I messed up, oh, I missed that.” And that’s true of learning a language. You learn that in French class or Spanish class. You can’t pull up the dictionary every time you’re trying to talk to somebody. And that’s true of cooking a meal when you’ve got people coming over in an hour, and you realize that you don’t have this ingredient, or you put in too much of this. And I just really am an advocate for that. I think that forcing ourselves to learn how to muddle through is such a transferable skill for so many things in life. For art and writing and friendship and politics and organizing and trying to clean your house, all those things — if you can learn to kind of muddle through it. It’s served me very well, I think. But you have to really be comfortable with not being so great. And we’re really discouraged from that.
Fred: That reminds me of this story I heard Abbey Lincoln tell at the Jazz Study Group which the great critic and writer and thinker Robert O’Meally has convened for almost thirty years now at Columbia University. He had Abbey Lincoln come to the study group one year, and she said that while she was recording a beautiful album called Straight Ahead, which includes a version of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” Monk happened to be in the studio. And so she played back this version of his song so he could listen and, I guess, approve. She said he just looked at her, and then walked over and whispered in her ear, “Don’t be so perfect.”
This is a slight variation on what you were saying, but it’s all part of that same thing where not only do you have to keep going when you make a mistake, but you have to always be working on the edge of what you can do. You have to court the mistake; you have to seek out that area that is susceptible to the mistake, because that’s how something new can happen. This generativity of the mistake is especially evident, for me, as a reader, in translation. I love mistranslations. My own writing is filled with the resources that emerge from other people’s so-called mistranslations. That famous chapter of Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, which, if it were translated literally, would be “the lived experience of the black,” was first translated as “the fact of blackness” and there are these real Orthodox, heavy duty Fanonians who are really upset about the fact that that was so loosely translated. But that looseness opens up all kinds of space.
The variations, the imperfections, the rough edges, the things that are both lost in translation, but also found in mistranslation, all those things open up space for people to think and to do things with. I saw this great tenor man named James Carter one time at this club in New York called Iridium. I’ll never forget it. He was playing and he did something that he didn’t like, something that showed up for him as a mistake. He’s right in the middle of his solo and he hit a bad note or something, and he went “Awww,” and somehow that “Awww” was part of the solo! It became part of the music. His reaction to his own mistake was musical, and because he had to keep going, he kept going. It’s a beautiful, indispensable lesson to learn, and I find it really upsetting that students I work with, and my own kids, too, are really scared to make mistakes. When something happens like that, they tend to falter. It’s like it’s the end of the world instead of the beginning of the world.
[ID: A photo of a young Eve playing cello with her left hand on the strings. She looks down at the instrument in concentration.]
Eve: In your experience, how do you endeavor to build spaces for collective study that foster a culture that counters that fear? And where people feel like it’s okay to make mistakes?
Fred: Well, I don’t know that I’ve always been or even have often been successful at doing that, but it’s something that I’m much more aware of now. Some of it is just foregrounding process over the product, and really devaluing the end product to the point of erasure. I believe in notebooks and commonplace books, and I know how difficult it is for me to deal with, for instance, copy editors. I respect what they’re doing in their job, and I know they’re trying to make everything better, or really make things perfect. And I’m just like, but I’m done with it now, I’m doing something else now, and it doesn’t matter to me, maybe something good will come out of that mistake. Or I’m like, I’m gonna keep revising it, keep working on it, but I know I’m not going to finish it.
So, I’m trying to help students to do two things: to recognize that things don’t get finished, that there is no perfection, and that the greatest intensity of endless revision comes from the absence rather than the presence of perfection. And these are good things, too. And also, maybe, that there’s a kind of generosity that you can show other people, and if you get used to showing it to other people, it becomes much easier to show it to yourself. I have a great friend and mentor, really, Robin Kelley, great historian —
Eve: A legend.
Fred: — who used to say that we live now in something like an age of critique. What critique means is that you read something to break it down, to tear it apart, to find what’s wrong with it, and he thinks it’s much better to read to find what’s good about something, find something that you like. He really understands that there are certain things that require the most stringent and the most severe kinds of negative criticism. But most of the intellectual work that he does is on and with the stuff and the people that he loves. It’s not a good thing to find yourself too often in a room with students who are trying to find what they don’t like.
Eve: To show you that they know how to do that.
Fred: Yeah, because that’s what we’re supposed to do.
Eve: Because that’s what they’re trained to do.
Fred: That’s the message they got. And of course, it totally freezes them up. Because all they’re trying to do is make sure that nobody can get them. And it not only freezes up students, but it freezes up professors, too. It must be a terrible thing to be like, I hope nobody reads what I write the way I read.
I’m trying to help students to do two things: to recognize that things don’t get finished, that there is no perfection, and that the greatest intensity of endless revision comes from the absence rather than the presence of perfection.
Eve: There are two things I think about in hearing that. One is the notion that I received from reading Peter Elbow several years ago. And I’ll mention one of my mentors who brought that text to me, Steve Seidel, who’s an arts education professor at Harvard. Peter Elbow writes about the doubting game and the believing game, and really getting to what we’re talking about — which is that, in the end, finding holes in something is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, a perfectly legitimate intellectual enterprise, but it is about fifty percent of what we’re capable of doing. If we only do that fifty percent, if we always play the doubting game, if we approach every text or conversation by looking for the holes, we never learn to engage the other half of what we’re doing, which is an equally valid intellectual enterprise. From a political perspective, I might say it’s more important, but I can be conservative here and say it’s at least as important. And that’s, as you said, finding not only what we like, but finding what we believe, finding points of convergence.
But I’m really wrestling with what you’re saying about not finishing, because on the one hand, I think it’s really important to make space for that. And on the other hand, my heart breaks at all the unfinished things. And in particular, hearing you invoke Robin D.G. Kelley, or thinking about your own work, it seems to me such a tragedy to think if some of those things that you’ve both written, that have been so transformative to the world, had not been finished. And also, my heart breaks a little bit, because I have so many people that I love so dearly, that, for a lot of reasons, don’t finish things that I pray every day not live only forever in their head, and that other people will get to see them.
I don’t know if that’s selfish or shortsighted, or if part of the problem is not people not finishing things, if the problem is more that we don’t have adequate modes of documenting and archiving “unfinished work,” process work, especially for people who are not considered, in the mainstream, significant enough. Either you or I can access a lot of Thomas Jefferson’s unfinished thoughts right now, if we want to, because somebody took the time to save them. So maybe the problem isn’t finishing. Maybe the problem is on documenting or not documenting or not archiving.
Fred: I mean, I think there’s stuff that remains hidden and obscure, and it would be better if it were shared. And there’s also stuff that gets lost and it would have been better if it had been preserved. But then I also think there are multiple ways in which things are preserved, even if not necessarily in the standard ways of preservation. I’ve got another brilliant friend and critic, the G.O.A.T., as far as I’m concerned, Brent Edwards. And he thinks so expansively about what actually constitutes an archive.
My mom really loved music. She didn’t leave me any money but she gave me an education and her records and books. One day, not long ago, I was talking with my friends Sandra Ruiz and Hypatia Vourloumis on Zoom. We were talking about and listening to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. In the original album the lyrics are printed in a little booklet, like a small chapbook of poems. And in that booklet he signs his name, which is Steveland. Not Steven, but Steveland. I wanted to show that to my friends and so I went and got my copy, which had belonged to my mom. I have it in a plastic container, which is supposed to help preserve the album cover. Well, I opened up the plastic, and then I opened up the booklet, and it was the most like, hyper-Proustian moment —
Eve: I’m tearing up a little bit just thinking about it.
Fred: — Because my mom’s smell, the smell of my mom and her house was inside the plastic, and it was inside that book. My partner and I had our children late. We were stupid, I don’t know what we were thinking, oh, we’ll have kids, we’ll get around to it. But we didn’t get around to it until after my mom passed. So, I called my son and said, “Julian, you’ve got to come here so you can smell what your grandmother smelled like.”
All that is an archive, too. It doesn’t militate against all of the things that have been lost that you’re describing. But not only do we have to pay better attention to preserving those things, but we also have to pay better attention and honor the ways that we do preserve, the ways that things are passed down. And the thing about the finishing — every book of poems, I keep one book for myself, and they’re all marked up. I don’t know if I will ever have a [book of] collected poems, but I gotta decide, if I do, what I’m going to do about that. Because I keep working on them. At a certain point, you have to release it.
[ID: Fred sits in a wood-paneled room with saws and other tools hung on the wall.]
I think that my most rewarding moments as a teacher are the moments when you really allow yourself to have the courage to try to make the space, because the kids will meet you.
Eve: Right. But that doesn’t mean it’s finished.
Fred: It doesn’t mean it’s finished, but it should be released. I’ve got friends, I’m not gonna mention their names, but I’ve got two brilliant Black feminist critics who, for whatever reason, couldn’t release these extraordinary books. One time I was at a conference. At Vanderbilt, Hortense Spillers used to have — still does — this thing called Issues in Critical Investigation, a big conference every two years. It was really just a way of getting different generations of Black scholars together. I remember listening to her, and I believe it was Mae Henderson, members of that great generation of Black feminist critics that emerged in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And they were talking about the mess they had to go through in grad school to do the work they did. All these women have dissertations that they never turned into books. And the reason was basically that the shit they had to go through in order to get this work done made it impossible for them to think of the work as something they could or should release. They finished the dissertations, but they couldn’t go back to revisit them. The price they paid for finishing the dissertation was the inability to keep working on it. They couldn’t go back to revise because it would bring up all the brutality of what they had to go through. So I think there’s a lot of stuff like that, too. Luckily, you can get Spillers’ dissertation online now.
Eve: I’m gonna carry that with me for a long time. I might tell my students about it, as soon as today, finishing versus releasing. And I think that I would like us to be inventive about the many new ways that that can look, that are assisted by technology. I want to do this book that could exist in multimodal forms. Basically, I want it to be more like a zine that can use technology to have multiple layers of release and revision, release and revision. My idea right now for this book is that I want to release it as a PDF in one edition, and then every time I want to make changes to it, I’d just re-release it, and then annotate the editions, and to have that be more of like a transparent process of change. We’ll see.
Fred: I have a friend named Adam Bush. He was a graduate student in American Studies at USC when I used to teach there. I’m thinking about him now because of thinking about you and Dyett. He wrote a dissertation on jazz pedagogy. There’s a chapter on Dyett; there’s a chapter on another famous pedagogue in New Orleans, whose name I can’t remember, and also one in Los Angeles, who was at Jordan High School in Watts, a man whom folks like Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus studied with.
Mingus generally always called his bands workshops. The Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop. There’s a great album he recorded live at UCLA in the mid-’60s. At one point, where the band is messing something up in some way that wasn’t quite right, he just shuts them down, and they go off stage somewhere for forty-five minutes to practice. This is in a so-called live performance. Then they come back and play it again. The point, I guess, is that what they were producing minute by minute was a progress report. A progress report on extended study. I wonder how many times Miles’s bands played “So What?,” between ‘59 and ‘68? And it would get faster and faster and crazier. It’s as if every night they were saying, “Here’s what we’re working on.”
Eve: Right, right. Where it is, at this moment.
Fred: Here’s what we got right now.
But with the academic thing, you gotta have it finished, where finished means hyper-polished, because people are going to be ripping it apart, finding what’s wrong with it. You’re gonna be evaluated, you got to get tenure, you got to get promoted. It’s just a very different structure, and we pass that structure down to students and to our children, because we say, this is what you have to be prepared for. You are a public school teacher, and you write about it, and I saw what happened to my own kids. They started shutting down a little bit. It didn’t take long. That kind of amazing, seemingly infinite curiosity, which was mixed with some weird level of confidence too? Why is it that the school became the place where that got shut down? Regulated?
Eve: I think that my most rewarding moments as a teacher are the moments when you really allow yourself to have the courage to try to make the space, because the kids will meet you. Those kids might be eleven, or they might be twenty-eight, but they’ll meet you where you are, when you open the space for that. I think everybody’s always waiting for permission.
I remember I taught To Kill a Mockingbird to my eighth grade class. And I really made an open kind of [prompt], like, do whatever you want, show us something about To Kill a Mockingbird, do something. And I had this one student and he made this pop-up model of the town and all the landmarks of the town. And this is a kid who said, like four words all year. And it was like here’s Boo Radley’s house and here’s Scout’s house, and it was made all with lined paper and ballpoint pen. I still have it in my files somewhere. It was such a strange and beautiful artifact. And he’d handwritten the names of all these places on there.
And then I had a student who came in and she said, “I’m going to do this dance about Tom Robinson and his experience,” and this is eighth grade. So she’s like, “Now I’m gonna perform this dance,” and a couple people giggled in the background. And I said, “Now hold on, not one of you had the courage to come in here and say that you were going to do a dance. And this person said that they were going to do something really courageous and different than everybody else.” And she said, “You know, Ms. Ewing, last night, I was talking to such-and-such classmate on the phone, and I told her I was scared to come and do this dance. And she said that’s what you would say. She said, ‘Ms. Ewing is gonna say, at least you were brave to come in.’”
But I think that it’s really hard to teach that way. It’s really easy, especially when you leave the space of that hyper-surveilled space of public school, for scholars of education to opine about how there is this Freireian mode that we should all be in. But when you have real material stakes, it’s really hard to do that. And so I feel like all of us also need to be in solidarity with educators who are making space for that, and also to make that as a demand, that this is the kind of educational space that we want.
Fred: When I said what I said, I mean it to be, and I hope it is in solidarity with educators, because I don’t believe that there is some significant cabal of educators out there who want this to have happened. I think that we’re not only under the duress of surveillance and testing and all of that, but we’re also so much more conscious on an everyday material basis of the fact that our children, that the kids that we’re teaching, are at war.
Fred: Right? That there are necessities that have to be taken into account because the conditions under which they live are battle conditions. To the extent that there is any critique in what I said, it was about the political economic system and philosophical assumptions that produce this war. Freire and Ivan Illich used to take their conversations on the road. They called themselves Pilgrims of the Obvious. Illich would talk about the war against subsistence. We continue to survive that war, whose toll of death and injury is incalculable. This state of war has existed for a long time, and it places tremendous pressure on students and teachers.
[ID: Fred holds up a beverage and looks into the camera as if giving a toast.]
Eve: Do we have time for me to ask one more question? I hear your name all the time from so many people who are only familiar with The Undercommons. And I mean that as a compliment… It’s really meaningful when a text has bubbled up to be so resonant with so many people in unexpected places. I wonder why you think it continues to be so resonant. It’s been almost a decade now since it was released, if not finished. Why do you think it’s a touchstone for so many people?
Fred: Well, some of it, I think, is really practical, material stuff. Some of it has to do with the origins of the book in the sense that Stefano and I have been friends for forty years now. And we talked and hung out for at least twenty years before we ever started writing stuff together. Also, our relationship was very much structured and mediated by our teachers, and two teachers in particular: Bill Corbett, a great poet of Boston, and Martin Kilson, who is a Professor of Government at Harvard, where we met. Also, my mom was an educator, and his dad was an educator, so that all of the stuff that we’ve been talking about made up the atmosphere in which we were raised. That we are determined to write stuff together is a function of our friendship, and my sense of it is that when people read our stuff, they get a feeling of our being friends, and that we were having fun thinking together, even if we were thinking about things that aren’t fun. We were having fun doing it, somehow.
And then the other part, the most really practical part of it is: it turns out that if you want people to read something you write, put it on the Internet for free.
Eve: Make it a free PDF, yeah!
Fred: That made a huge difference, and it was very lucky because he was teaching at that time at University of Singapore, and he had all this research money, so we could basically pay for it. We didn’t have to make money off of it. We wanted there to be hard copies of it that people could get. But a huge part of the press run were boxes and boxes that we could give away. We took a gamble on the idea that we were saying something that people would want to read; that we were saying something that people already knew; that on a really small scale we could be pilgrims of the obvious, too. So, I actually think those notions make a big difference, especially if they’re online from the very beginning.
The thing that bothers me sometimes about The Undercommons is that it’s Stefano’s other work that gets overshadowed. Or, sometimes people say Fred Moten’s Undercommons. I don’t like it when his name is dropped; it’s a slight for him, but it hurts me too. Because it feels like what they’ve done is discounted the one thing that makes it so important to us, which is that we wrote it together, and that it was a function of our being friends.
Eve: It’s really important to hear you say that. I like thinking about it as a document of friendship. When we’ve been talking about things not being finished, I’ve been imagining looking out a window at a stream going by, and the idea of being able to have a snapshot of something ephemeral. Once you open up Songs in the Key of Life, and you get to revisit your mother in this way that you haven’t encountered her in years, that moment is also ephemeral, because now it’s out, right? It’s dissipated into the environment and the ecology around you, your breathing and her air.
It seems to me, similarly, that The Undercommons is a snapshot of a relationship that has continued to grow and will hopefully continue to grow, and then it’s a beautiful thing for us to be able to bear witness to that ephemeral moment, but that if we are not doing that part, then we’re not really encountering the text as it is. That’s a gift, I think, for you to speak on. And I’m grateful for it.
When we’ve been talking about things not being finished, I’ve been imagining looking out a window at a stream going by, and the idea of being able to have a snapshot of something ephemeral.
[ID: Eve poses in front of the Chicago River with a bridge stretching out across the water behind her. She wears tortoise shell glasses and looks out of the frame.]
Fred: It’s cool, once you become open to those kinds of resonances, you start to see all these different chances for them. And it’s funny, because last night I was reading your sestina for Matthew Henson.
Eve: Ah, wow, “Sestina with Matthew Henson’s Fur Suit.”
Fred: Yeah. And I did this thing with George Lewis, another great musician and scholar from Chicago, who wrote that huge and wonderful book on the AACM. George wrote a composition in honor of the great artist Terry Adkins, who made a film about Matthew Henson, and I wrote some lyrics for George’s piece, which were fixated on Matthew Henson. So last night I thought, okay, someday, if we do a reading together, we have to read these Matthew Henson poems, and we have to figure out how to do it together. This would be how we could play music together.
Eve: Yeah, we have to do it with music.
Fred: We have to do it with music. Yeah, I’m just so excited about it. The thing about writing with Steve is that it just gives me an appetite for collaboration. I don’t want to do anything by myself anymore. And also, it makes you realize that you were never doing anything by yourself anyway. But we gotta figure this out. I think we can make beautiful music together.
Eve: Maybe we can get some other musicians in on it. But I am committed to this with you, Fred, we can do this some type of way someday. I haven’t read that poem in a long time. Patricia Smith always says when you get confident enough as a poet, you don’t have to announce the form in the title. But I’m like, “look, people, I wrote the sestina. Y’all are going to know it was a sestina, okay? Y’all appreciate that. Y’all can appreciate that I wrote this poem in form. It was difficult, and you will know that’s what I have done.” In my second book of poems, 1919, there are some poems written in the form that are not in the title. So I’ve grown, but not so much.
Fred: I’ve got a pretty bad sestina. It’s in a box somewhere from about thirty years ago. I don’t even know what happened to it; it sort of fell by the wayside.
Eve: It’s hard!
Fred: Yeah, it’s hard. But now there are two sestinas in my head. There’s yours, and then Pound, you know, with his crazy, evil, amazing sestina called “Sestina: Altaforte.” It’s a battle sestina. You can find him reading it on YouTube. You just have to hear it. He’s singing it, really.
But what I realized is, what it produces, what it lets you have, is confidence about repetition. That’s what it teaches you. It teaches you that repetition is not a bad thing. And again, it’s a thing that you can learn from music. A lot of people don’t learn it in writing. A lot of people feel like they’ve got to constantly be making new, unprecedented phrases all the time. But there’s a groove here, you know, and you gotta find it. And then you can mess it up.
Note: This is a transcript of a conversation that took place via Zoom in July 2022. It has been edited for length and clarity. At the contributors’ request, there are differences between the written and audio versions to honor them as separate formats. The written version is more formal and focused whereas the audio version is more casual and free-wheeling.
[ID: Eve, a light skinned Black woman, leans forward, smiling slightly and looking off camera. Her dark brown hair is braided close to her head and she has on bright red lipstick and a high-collared button-up shirt. She is wearing winged eyeliner and has freckles.]
Eve L. Ewing
She // Her // Hers
Eve L. Ewing is a writer, educator, and scholar. Her research uses interdisciplinary tools — including sociological inquiry, archival sources, and artistic production — to construct a critical imaginary theorizing Black life in the United States at the intersections of history and possibility, with a particular interest in the lives of young people and in schools as places where ideology can be built or challenged.
Ewing is the author of a genre-spanning body of work. She is the author of two award-winning poetry collections, Electric Arches and 1919, and a novel for young readers, Maya and the Robot. She also wrote the non-fiction work Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, which explores the relationship between the closing of public schools and the structural history of race and racism in Chicago’s Bronzeville community. Her essays have been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and other venues. With Nate Marshall, she co-wrote the play No Blue Memories: The Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, produced by Manual Cinema and commissioned by the Poetry Foundation. She has written several projects for Marvel Comics, most notably the Ironheart and Champions series.
[ID: Fred, a black man with a salt-and-pepper beard wears glasses and a collared shirt and gazes into the camera.]
He // Him // His
New York, NY
Fred Moten is concerned with social movement, aesthetic experiment and black study, and has worked on several projects that try to approach these matters. The latest of these are an album called Fred Moten/Brandon López/Gerald Cleaver (Reading Group Records, 2022) and a book called All Incomplete (Minor Compositions, 2021), co-authored with Stefano Harney. In addition to his collaborations with Harney and López and Cleaver, Moten has worked with many other artists, artist collectives, scholars, and study groups, including Arts for Art, Arika, the Center for Convivial Research and Autonomy, Renee Gladman, Renée Green, the Institute for Physical Sociality, the Jazz Study Group, Jennie C. Jones, Le Mardi Gras Listening Collective, The Otolith Group, William Parker, Moved by the Motion, and the Harris-Moten Quartet. Moten lives in New York and teaches performance studies and comparative literature at New York University.