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We Are the Voices: Nathaniel Mackey and Fred Moten

On March 11, 2021, Mills College’s “We Are the Voices” organization — a public humanities project connecting Mills students with artists in Oakland and beyond — hosted a reading by two poets and academics, Nathaniel Mackey and Fred Moten. This reading was the fourth event in WATV’s “Social Listening” lineup, a series of virtual readings by artists local to the Bay Area. 

Mackey is the writer of six books of poetry, a Reynolds Price Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Duke University, and an editor of the “Hambone” literary magazine; he has won awards including the National Book Award for poetry and the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Poetry Prize from the Library of Congress. Moten is a professor in the Performance Studies department at Tisch School of the Arts and the author or co-author of several books of poetry and theory. WATV’s blurb for the reading describes both poets’ work as “profound explorations of the collocations of Black music and experimental poetics and of the ‘freedom drive’ of Black life and the ‘fugitive impulses’ in Black performance.”

Mills Professor of English and Associate Provost Sheila Lloyd kicked off the event by thanking the Mills faculty, graduate students and other contributors who made the reading possible, and by giving a land acknowledgement. Lloyd then handed it off to poet Alli Warren

Warren began by expressing her appreciation for both poets, noting that she had been a student of Mackey during her time at UC Santa Cruz in the early 2000s; she then moved into an introduction of Moten. She told the audience that she had been reading Moten’s work for years prior to this event, but that being offered the chance to introduce him had inspired her to reread the many books of his that she owned in hopes of finding ways to describe it. Warren characterized Moten’s poetry as “lively, playful, fierce, sensuous, mournful, nimble, hilarious, studious, collaborative, improvisational, and galvanizing, or in Fred’s own words […] bright like a motherfucker.”  She also said his work had affected her so deeply that her “life is marked by a ‘before Fred Moten’s poetry’ and a decidedly better ‘after.’”

Moten opened by giving his thanks to the event organizers and expressing his excitement to be reading with Mackey. He told the audience that he would be reading “new stuff” and “loose pieces.” Several of the pieces he read were partly or entirely a homage to people in Moten’s life. The first poem he read, “Afro-Alienation Lying Down,” was written for his friend and scholar Daphne Brooks; Moten informed the audience that Brooks had recently published a book of theory and criticism called “Liner Notes for the Revolution,” which he praised. He also noted that his poem “Surface Science” was “kind of dedicated to the people whose names [he mentions]” in the poem, and that his poem “Surfacing” was “written in a certain kind of collaboration with the great artist and musician Kevin Beasley.” 

Once Moten’s reading finished, Mackey read two pieces that he had written within the last year, both based on an epic poem by medieval Persian writer Farid ud-Din Attar. The original poem, referred to variously as “Canticle of the Birds” and “Conference of the Birds,” chronicles a journey undertaken by all the birds of the world to search for a ruler over them all. The laborious, multi-stage journey symbolically represents the soul’s journey towards the divine. 

Lloyd concluded the event with some final words of thanks to those who attended. She also informed attendees about two upcoming Mills events: first, a conversation about “Black and femme trans cultural production and world-making” between media theorist McKenzie Wark, writer Shola von Reinhold and visiting Mills professor Susan Stryker, which is planned for April 8; and a conversation on “disability, activism, capitalism, arts and the academy” between disability theorists Jina Kim, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Sami Schalk, scheduled for May 6.