Special night with poets Fred Moten and Nathaniel Mackey

Special night with poets Fred Moten and Nathaniel Mackey

It was early, but Fred Moten had no problem talking poetry.

“I don’t know what the most important thing is, but I know what I like in poetry, and I suppose what I’m trying to do in my own work is to make something that I like, or make something that’s like the other stuff that I like,” Moten said by phone after dropping off his kids at school.

“And I would say that the two things I like the most is when something sounds good, and when something is complex. And by complex I don’t mean anything really deep, just that there’s a lot of stuff going on. I’d rather there be a lot of stuff going on that I don’t understand than two or three things going on that I do understand.”

Moten, a poet and scholar whose 2014 collection “The Feel Trio” was a finalist for the National Book Award, is driving up from Los Angeles, where he’s professor of English at UC Riverside, to read with one of his heroes, National Book Award winner Nathaniel Mackey (“Splay Anthem”). Mackey will be joined by reed player Hafez Modirzadeh, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts jazz fellow and professor of world cultures in music at San Francisco State University.

It promises to be a special event. Despite meeting while Moten was in grad school at UC Berkeley and becoming friends while working together for a few years at Duke University, Moten and Mackey have never before shared a feature, and Mackey, a longtime Bay Area resident, hasn’t read here since moving to North Carolina in 2010.

Moten likens his writing process to a kind of musical improvisation, breaking it into three parts. The first, preparation — which accounts for 49 percent of the total process — consists of “reading and listening — listening to music, but also listening to people talk, listening to my kids, listening to my students — just kind of trying to be open and attuned to sound and language and ideas, so looking at stuff, looking at art, and looking at trees.

“Then there’s the part in the middle, which is really only about 2 percent, and that’s the part where you actually start to write something down on paper, or type something into the computer. It’s like all the preparation leads to a phrase, or a series of phrases, and a lot of times for me what will occur, what will show up is a rough draft — it takes the least amount of time.”

To convey the final stage, he summons Miles Davis’ “So What,” recorded in 1959.

“He kind of stopped using it as part of his repertoire in maybe ’68, but for those nine, almost 10 years I think he probably played ‘So What’ 200 nights a year, and if you think about that process as a process of revision, not even so much with the idea that you are going to get to an end point, or to some kind of perfection, but he was just constantly reworking, constantly revisiting and revisioning, revising that song. That’s what the revision is … and I can think of the revising as improvising.”


Fred Moten and Nathaniel Mackey, with Hafez Modirzadeh: 7 p.m. Saturday, Mar. 5. $10. McRoskey Mattress Co., 1687 Market St.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo courtesy of the author

Notes and additional listings

Steve Wasserman was recently named as successor to Heyday Books founder Malcolm Margolin, who is retiring after 41 years of running the press. Wasserman was raised in Berkeley and for nine years served as editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review; he has also been editorial director of Times Books at Random House and is currently executive editor at large for trade books at Yale University Press.

Jonathan Lethem reads from his new collection “Lucky Alan and Other Stories” and talks withRichard Wolinsky about his life and career (7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 3, First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley, $12).

The Beat Museum celebrates International Women’s Day with “On Fire! Women of a Different Beat” featuring readings by MK Chavez, Daphne Gottlieb, Kim Shuck, Valerie Ibarra and others (7 p.m. Friday, March 4, the Beat Museum, 540 Broadway, S.F., free).

Poets Jan Steckel, Danusha Lameris and Bonnie Kwong explore “The Salt and Sugar of Love” (2 p.m. Saturday, March 5, Liminal, 3037 38th Ave., Oakland, free).

Soho Press presents three of its authors: debut novels by Michelle Adelman (“Piece of Mind”) andRuth Galm (“Into the Valley”), and Matt Bell (“Scrapper”) (7 p.m. Saturday, March 5, Alley Cat Books, 3036 24th St., S.F., free).

Bazaar Writers Salon features Xan Roberti, Essy Stone and Alia Volz (6 p.m. Sunday, March 6, Bazaar Cafe, 5927 California St., S.F., free).