Thomas H. McDill Award judge

The judge for our Thomas H. McDill Award (any subject, any form, up to 70 lines long) is Adam Day. He directs The Baltic Writing Residency in Sweden, Scotland, and the Blackacre Nature Preserve, as well as the Stormé DeLarverie residency for underrepresented writers in Louisville, KY, and Boone, NC.

He shares the following poem from Left-Handed Wolf, which will be published by Louisiana State University Press in 2020:


Sex in public,
eyeing the mountains

behind the mountains,
like boy Scouts

rubbing sticks
together in the dark.

Here is what he has to say about his favorite poet:

The answer to this question is ever changing, but at this moment, Fred Moten is especially compelling to me. Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, a surprise only insofar as its publisher, Letter Machine Editions, is fairly tiny, and insofar as NBA finalists are more often than not more widely known and perhaps as often authors of predictable to underwhelming verse. Many poets I know had either never heard of Moten (who is also a critical theorist), or had heard of him but were not familiar with his surprising and linguistically and intellectually exciting poems. The Feel Trio is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding books of poetry I’ve read in years. I believe that Moten should have won the award.

Influenced by one of Cecil Taylor’s phenomenal avant-garde jazz trios, The Feel Trio has its own free form style, utilizing stream of consciousness and collage, working in various registers, voices, dialects, and dictions, the three sequences that compose the book resonating with, and at times against, one another. The spontaneous is only possible in any meaningful way because of the skill that produces it. One doesn’t plan out his next sentence when talking; it simply occurs, but only because of the skill he possesses to craft it, and that skill will dictate its shape and complexity. Moten writes, “Performers feel each other differently, / as material things that never happen //… in thrownness, begins the world where we are fallen, / falling down together in an accident we dream.” So the poems of The Feel Trio suggest that the line between reason and intuition, between intellect and the heart, between the philosophical and the demotic—a distinction embedded in the very bedrock of Western thought, and inextricably linked to colonialism and racism—is specious: “… sugar and spice / is some country-ass shit in the middle of this shit. I know I’m not / supposed to say it like that, but what about the rock fights and / random blades when language lays out? there’s no language for the / too sweet object of everybody’s third thoughts any muhfuckin way.”

The Feel Trio is in keeping with the intellectual focus and concerns of Moten’s earlier collection, Hughson’s Tavern, named for a tavern in eighteenth-century New York City where slaves, indentured servants, poor whites, free blacks, and soldiers gathered to trade stolen goods. A foundation point of insurrection, the tavern unified lower class citizens, regardless of race. Both books are deeply concerned with the body and the individual’s freedom (of movement) within the administered world in certain historical epochs, and equally concerned with the possibility, or lack thereof, of amelioration of the human condition. Indeed, the lyrical dexterity, the performativity of the language, the lack of titles or capitalization, the gestural, primal nature of the poetry enact a kind of freedom. And the power of the enactment registers in the discomfort such liberty of form and language might engender in the reader; the reader cannot always find her place among the imagistic, narrative, and intellectual folds of Moten’s verse, yet she cannot help but identify, perhaps deeply, with much that’s found here. The Feel Trio is not a passively enjoyed reading experience, nor is it ever willfully or needlessly dense. Rather, it gratifies a curiosity fed by confoundedness and discoveries, both practical and intuitive, as it creates a cycle of nuanced engagement and stimulation. This kind of experience is too rare in our poetry.

Progressive politics and Pan-African or black culture fuel much of The Feel Trio, and it is resistive in its depth of historical concerns. When Moten draws in Carl Dix; Dennis Morris; John Akomfrah; “Burningham;” Ronnie Boykins; Brixton, England; Juan Williams; Marvis Frazier; and Gary, Indiania, he does so without nostalgia, but in an act of cultural-historical revivification, and without rehearsing the stories and histories everyone has already rehearsed. Moten does not let his readers forget these figures and places that were crucial to the evolution of black life and liveliness, and that were seminal in his own artistic, political and intellectual formation.

Moten writes both within and beyond race, implying that he is both more than his racial identity yet inextricably connected to, and in love with, the treasures and tribulations of black life. Indeed, the speaker of this poem recognizes the richness of nuance born of the complexity and difficulty of life as a person of color in America, whatever the historical moment—particularly in our current American moment, where

Embedded here are inter- and intra-communal relations, where dependence and resentment are hard to separate, where social assistance and injustice exist side by side, and where self-mastery vies with mastery by others. The very character of The Feel Trio is to indicate that dichotomies separate the inseparable, that art, life, history, and humans are far more complex than the categories used to make sense of them, so that, old hat as it may sound, the personal and the political are not only viscerally connected, but indivisible. And Moten gets you digging: you want to know his references rather than feel alienated or annoyed by them. And though the poems may frustrate our search for knowledge, nothing of the enjoyment of reading them is lost for it.

Poetry is too often judged in certain circles primarily on whether it is understandable and manageable rather than on its resistance to understanding and management. As a young poet I was to told of Ashbery’s work, “You have to learn to read Ashbery; Ashbery teaches you to read Ashbery.” And my experience would come to bear that out. The Feel Trio is much the same way: it teaches you how to read it. The training itself is part of the experience. Very often the world makes only some or little sense, so we should not expect poetry to easily make sense, either in its language or its content: “unfurled in tongues that won’t belong in / anybody’s mouth, mass swerving from the law of tongues.” If the goal of the poem of catharsis or revelation is to grant us, well, catharsis or revelation, it usually only tells us what we already know. It’s far more likely that the poem we don’t entirely understand, the poem that puzzles, might in fact lead us to a genuine realization, a deeper awareness of the worlds we inhabit.

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