About Fred Moten's poem 'Come on, get it!

Online
First broadcast 38 days ago

About Fred Moten's poem 'Come on, get it!

31min
A discussion about the translation of the poem 'Come on, get it' with its author Fred Moten, the artist Wu Tsang and the French translators Mawena Yehouessi and Rosanna Puyol.
The poem 'Come on, get it!' inspired the monumental central piece of the visionary company exhibition, The Show is over, a mixture of images, movements, voices and sounds.

Through this unprecedented conversation, the artist Wu Tsang looks back at the close collaboration with the author and how the text became the very material of her inspiration and collective practice.

Translators Mawena Yehouessi and Rosanna Puyol discuss the challenges of transposing Moten's language into french.
Talk
Online
Thursday 28 Jan 2021
from 07 pm to 07:31 pm

Participants

Fred Moten is an American cultural theorist, poet and academic whose work explores critical theory, black studies, contemporary American literature and performance studies. He is often recognized as one of the most important contemporary American poets.

Over the past 25 years, Moten has addressed these concerns, through poetry and criticism, in a number of books: The Universal Machine (consent not to be a single being), Duke University Press, 2018 ; Stolen Life (consent not to be a single being), Duke University Press, 2018 ; Black and Blur (consent not to be a single being), Duke University Press, 2017 ; The Service Porch, Letter Machine Editions, 2016 ; B Jenkins, Duke University Press, 2009 ; In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

With Stefano Harney, Moten wrote The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Minor Compositions, 2013), which had a major impact in North America and nourished the reflections accompanying social activism such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

Fred Moten is also a long-time collaborator of Wu Tsang: his poem 'Come on, get it' gives rhythm to the artist's monumental video work, The Show is Over, (2020).

In 2020, Moten was named a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellow.

Wu Tsang is a filmmaker and performance artist who combines documentary and narrative techniques with fantastical detours into the imaginary in works that explore hidden histories, marginalized narratives, and the act of performing itself. Tsang re-imagines racialized, gendered representations beyond the visible frame to encompass the multiple and shifting perspectives through which we experience the social realm.
Wu Tsang’s work as an artist emerges from collaboration, particularly as a co-organizer of a weekly nightclub called "Wildness", which was a flashpoint for underground art and community activism in Los Angeles. Taking place at an immigrant gay bar near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, Wildness created a space where the bar’s longtime patrons, queer people of color, mixed with artists and performers. Tsang’s feature film "Wildness" (2012) documents this scene and the perpetual negotiation of race, gender, and socioeconomic class among the patrons, who wrestle with questions of gentrification, authenticity, and ownership as they encounter each other’s realities. The bar itself plays a leading role in the film, serving as an omniscient narrator and embodying the imaginative and performative acts through which cultural fictions are formed and expressed.
The artist became widely known in 2012 thanks to this film, which premiered at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight.

Wu Tsang received a B.F.A. (2004) from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and an M.F.A. (2010) from the University of California at Los Angeles. Other films by Tsang include "We hold where study" (2017), "Girl Talk" (2015), "Damelo Todo (Gimme Everything)" (2010), and "Shape of a Right Statement" (2008). Wu Tsang’s work has been exhibited or screened at Gropius Bau in Berlin, Tate Modern London, Kunsthalle Münster, Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, among many other national and international venues.
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Mawena Yehouessi est une curatrice, et chercheuse en arts et philosophie (doctorante Villa Arson / Université Côte d’Azur).

Fondatrice du collectif Black(s) to the Future, elle vit et travaille entre Nice et Paris (France). D’une formation aussi de gestion de projets culturels et danse contemporaine, elle appartient à cette génération d’inclassables  –  ou de déclassé.e.s  –  dont les pratiques & « métiers » sont une succession de slashs. En particulier intéressée aux alter-futurismes, elle développe en outre une pratique artistique exploratoire, prospective et de collage à travers son avatar M.Y.

Rosanna Puyol est poète, éditrice et collabore avec des artistes pour des projets d’expositions, lectures, programmes de vidéo et performance.

Co-fondatrice de la maison d’édition Brook - avec laquelle elle publie des traductions de textes de Laura Mulvey, Shulamith Firestone, Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, José Esteban Muñoz, Cecilia Pavón, Saidiya Hartman - elle organise, souvent avec des ami*es, des groupes de lecture, ateliers d’écriture et de traduction.

Elle dirige avec Mawena Yehouessi un cours intitulé IRL, sur la traduction et les méthodologies de recherche dissidente, à la Villa Arson à Nice (école des beaux-arts). Ce séminaire a pour but de partager avec les étudiant*es le processus de recherche à l'origine d'une exposition collective que le duo organise à la Villa Arson (l'école est également un centre d'art) en 2022.

About

Bibliography

Baldwin, James. The Devil Finds Work  (1976), Capricci, 2018.

Derrida, Jacques, Dissemination (1969), Translated from french by Barbara Johnson, University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Firestone, Shulamith. Airless Spaces, Semiotext(e), 1988. Translated from the English by Emilie Notéris, Brook, 2020.

Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost: the collected, Henry Holt & Compagny, 1979.

Harney, Stefano. Moten, Fred. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013. Collective translation, Brook (forthcoming), 2021.

Moten, Fred. All That Beauty, Letter Machine Editions, 2019.

Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity, Indiana University Press, 1996. Translated from the English by Guillaume Mélère, Brook, 2020.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York University Press, 2009. Translated from English by Alice Wambergue, Brook, (forthcoming), 2021.

Zukofsky, Louis. A, translated from English by François Dominique and Serge Gavronsky, Nous, 2020.

Zukofsky, Louis. Catullus, 1969.

Transcript

Wu Tsang

Hello. My name is Wu and we’re here…. We’re here today having a conversation with Mawena and Rosanna. This is part of the exhibition at Lafayette Foundation that’s up right now, visionary company, which has a… One of the main pieces in the show is a film called ‘The show is over’ which I worked… Well, I guess the foundation worked with you both on translating the film because actually, we’re also publishing a book which… The film is based on a poem written by my collaborator, Fred Moten. The poem is called ‘Come On, Get It!’ I know you both have a relationship with Fred and have been translating his writing. This conversation is sort of— maybe that’s just a starting point— it’s about translation and collaboration and writing. So maybe would you both like to introduce yourselves?

Rosanna Puyol

Thank you, Wu, for having us. My name is Rosanna. I’m a poet, an editor, and I collaborate with artists for exhibitions, readings and video or performance programs. I co-founded Price, Brook. It’s a small publishing house focusing on translation. With graphic designers, editors, friends, translators, we publish text by, for instance Laura Mulvey, Sulamhith Firestone, and soon “Cruising Utopia” by José Esteban Munoz and also writing by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, so The Undercommons, which is the text we’ve been translating for actually more than a year now with many, many others, many people.

Wu Tsang

Is there a space where it always happens or does it happen in different places? 

Rosanna Puyol

Different places. It happens in artist-run spaces, in public institutions, in studios, in homes, on Skype during confinement. 

Mawena Yehouessi

I would also say that this is something that to me is really specific to you. The very first time we met, it was at an opening but the first thing you said is, “Oh, you can come to my home. We’re reading this book.” I was like, “Okay, who is that weird person just randomly inviting me to share in this piece of work?” It’s so cool just to come. You don’t know anyone but you’re going to eat, read some book and translate. It’s so cool. 

Wu Tsang

That’s so nice because actually, the genesis of this film ‘The show is over’ started very much like that. We have a reading group in Athens where I used to live with some friends and collaborators. We would always just get together and we’d have sleepovers sometimes or just drink wine and read and talk. Actually, Fred had sent me a manuscript of “All That Beauty” before it had come out, so we were just reading that out loud to each other. That was kind of the moment where we were like, “This is the one,” because we were texting and… It just was kind of a night of that social engagement with each other that birthed this. It basically became a yearlong project. 

Wu Tsang

What’s up Fred ?

Fred Moten

How are you doing ?

Wu Tsang

Good! How are you ?

Fred Moten

I am ok. I am ok. Sorry I am late

Mawena Yehouessi

It’s all good. No worries

Wu Tsang

That’s actually a very good question...I’m curious, for you as the translators if that process also comes up when you’re translating. I think for me, when I read it, especially ‘Come on, get it!’ it’s so much about reading it out loud and with people or something.

Fred Moten

Rosana’s been working with that group on The Undercommons, so my sense of it is it’s probably more interesting and fun to translate stuff as part of a group. Then you get to kind of spin out different versions of what it is that you’re trying to do. I feel like it’s a good way to put some sort of oral component back into the process. With writing I don’t read stuff aloud until I think I’m done, but then

Rosanna Puyol

Oh, really?

Mawena Yehouessi

That’s interesting.

Fred Moten

That’s what tells me that I’m not done. I make recordings of everything usually and then I listen to the recording and make changes. Also, even when you’re making changes throughout the… when I’m actually making the recording, if I find myself stumbling over words or something like that then that’s also what lets me know I need to work on it more.

Wu Tsang

It makes sense. So you’re not necessarily talking while you’re writing, but it’s more like a voice that comes later. 

Fred Moten

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I get it to the point where I feel like it might be okay and then that’s the next part of it. 

Mawena Yehouessi

That’s really something we were so much talking about with Rosanna. Basically, the only way we could translate your text is because we were two reading out loud to each other. I feel like because I’m also part of the translation process on The Undercommons and we’re always reading to each other and really sentence by sentence. I’m also trying to translate something else more for my thesis, which is the case of Blackness and I’m also doing it with another friend.

I cannot— and this is maybe weird to say— but at some point I feel like I do not get what you write unless I hear it. It’s also because English is not my mother tongue, but at some point I really need someone else to read out loud your sentences so I can understand the meaning of it. With Rosanna we were doing all of those back and forth, like, “Hm, try again this word. Try again this word. Could you repeat it slower?” It was so funny and it was really kind of almost theatrical in the way we had to speak, and speak, and speak, and speak.

Fred Moten

If, for whatever reason, you decided to read something like that, it turns out it makes it better for anything that you read. 

Mawena Yehouessi

Yeah.

Fred Moten

I remember when I was in school. I’m old enough to have gone to school at a moment when, at least being a literature major, that people still thought that at some point it was important to memorize the text and to be able to recite it. I think that’s true. I also think that if there’s a song you like, that impulse is to remember, memorize the song. Then all of a sudden, even if you don’t know every insight or every nuance into why a songwriter writes this or that thing, there’s the feeling of it that you can get from what they’ve said. Then all of a sudden you’re… Yeah, my sense of it is that if everybody had enough time to slow down and to read things like that, and to read things collectively, everybody would be better.

Wu Tsang

It makes me think of how we were developing the film because it kind of started as performance and then a film. The process of doing that was so much just like taking pieces of the poem that we wanted to work with and Tosh and Josh, who are dancers, kind of finding ways to say the poem with their bodies. It’s over and over and over and over again just finding the words through the movement, which was something that I think is really cool.

Fred Moten

I am not in any way comparing myself to Shakespeare but only in a sense of wanting to be like that; wanting to be involved in a process that I think is more like the process that… Let’s say there was a person called Shakespeare, which who knows? Or maybe it’s five or six people. I don’t know. The point is that the shit that we get that’s under this name, it’s worked out through a process like what you’ve just described, Wu, which is how… They have to say those things in front of people. They have to do it while they’re moving on the stage. 

I don’t know. I remember listening to this poetry reading by Robert Frost and he was talking about Shakespeare. He said, “The greatest thing about Shakespeare was that he wasn’t sacred to himself.” What I think that means is all that stuff was subject to revision and erasure and it was words that… That stuff was meant to be said and meant to be moved with.

Mawena Yehouessi

Being at these two sides of how do you use a material and how do you also create this material? At some point it’s not because you originate the first steps of it that it means that the material is whatever you call it, art or call it the message or call it whatever. You need all of those external agencies. It’s funny because there is the translation process but there’s also Rosanna’s and my own process. I think that at some point we were super lucky to be able to be involved in the process of rewriting of whatever we proposed in the first place. 

I think that actually to me, it’s really specific also to your writing because it feels like inside of the very texture or materiality of your words, you see that first of all, it’s kind of also this recollection of multiple voices of people you see and you say it’s already always out there. You hear people speak and you grasp what you can feel is there, so it’s already based on multiple voices but then Wu comes and she comes also with all of those dancers and other people in addition to you, Wu. It really… I don’t know. There is this correspondence that is almost a necessity of words coming from different people, so it has to be reused or re-manipulated by multiple people in order to make sense.

Fred Moten

The beautiful thing about working with Wu is I kind of feel like what stuff is going to be like when we get to do what we want to do is how Wu does what Wu does. It’s just… there it is. For me, it’s like, man, I always felt like, wow, the reason that I love art is because every once in a while in the art you get a glimpse, a little bit of an inkling, a little bit of a clue about how stuff goes together. You get a little bit of a clue about what it’s going to look like when we get to do what we want to do.  What Wu does is a little less than that and a lot more than that. 

Wu Tsang

I feel like Fred’s writing is so much about inventing language, like using the way words sound to have them mean completely different things. Which I imagine, Fred, for you sometimes just probably happens. Like you hear a word and then another word morphs in your head or something. I don’t know but I’m really curious. That’s a question in itself but maybe first is just sort of like, okay, “Anamphibian” or “Undervisible”. Or I guess maybe under… I’m just sort of like, how the hell do you translate words that are formed through sound and also that mean such complex things in themselves?

Rosanna Puyol

I wonder if often we did not… We did our best for these words but I think sometimes we kind of displaced the invention, like choosing to go either nearby or just displace the play maybe. For instance, there is this word ‘méchance’ that we decided to use, I don’t remember what was the word in English actually.

The proper word was “méchanceté” and we choosed “méchance” and I think at the time Mawena you were thinking of Sony Labou Tansi and his way of inventing words and torturing the language. “méchance” goes with “brillance” and “malchance” which means “bad luck” and with so many things that are more closer to the text than actually the proper word, the proper French, proper grammatically.

Mawena Yehouessi

It was actually,

“I’m so and so, I’m this, 

I’m that, huh; but we all just wick-wick- 

wack, acting like little pullets, lost in the 

pitter patter of our lil’ ol’ blank-ass bullets, 

meddling, middle-brow bullshitters with 

our trifling, tweedle dumb shit twitter 

bitterness, our semi professional nastiness”

It was nastiness.

Rosanna Puyol

I have it here in French

“Je suis tel*le et si, je suis ceci,

je suis cela, hein ; mais nous sommes toustes simplement wick-wick-wack

bidons, à agir comme des p’tites poulettes, perdues dans le

trottinement de nos bonnes vieilles balles à blanc,

indiscret*es, des baratineur*ses de classe moyenne avec

notre insignifiant piaillement de merde et notre gazouillis

amer, notre méchance semi-professionnelle,

notre libéralité nouvelle, pré-noire débile et pouilleuse”

Mawena Yehouessi

Okay, it’s so weird because now you are here and now we have to make a confession, I guess. I think at some point we really decided that we would translate but not just on the fact that we needed to translate the words and kind of replicate something that it will be a good dictionary translation, but we really wanted it to sound like it could impact us. We have this kind of luck that we more or less understand those two languages, and I don’t know, your language is just in between those raps but you also have this etymology. Honestly, it was hard to understand that you were talking about a German etymology within an English word, and then you were talking about music. I had to ask my dad because he was more, “Yeah, but that jazz it’s like that. This is the arc,” and I was like, “Whoa, I don’t get it.”

At the same time, it was so joyful. I think at the end with Rosanna, something we told us, a bit like this kind of sermon, is that we would translate something that for us would be as sound-y or as impactful in French. That was really what was the most important even if we had to lose words, even if we were unable to translate, for instance, “wick-wick-wack,” we kept it because “wick-wick-wack” it works even in French. We don’t need to find something that would be “bizarre bizarre” or whatever. 

Fred Moten

First of all, I think that’s exactly right. That’s perfect. There will be moments if I have to make a choice between it sounding good and it being clear on a semantic level, I’ll choose the sound every time. Every time. They’re exactly right because it’s about how shit goes together, you see? That’s the content. The content is how stuff goes together. 

That particular passage, which I don’t know if you all know, “I’m so-and-so, I’m this, I’m that,” that’s from an old rap song by KRS One called “Philosophy” or “My Philosophy”. I can play it for you if you want. It like, “I’m so and so…” He’s basically talking about all these rappers who… It’s probably from 1986 maybe... “I’m so and so. I’m this, I’m that but you’re all just wick-wick-wack.” 

Wu Tsang

It’s like the scratch. 

Fred Moten

It’s the first record that he did. It’s not under his name. It’s still under the group he had called Boogie Down Productions but it’s the first album that Boogie Down Productions did after his original collaborator, who’s this great DJ named Scott La Rock, was killed. So Boogie Down Productions continued but it was fundamentally altered because his main collaborator was no longer there. That’s where that comes from. Even there’s little funny stuff like “pullet”.

Mawena Yehouessi

Yeah.

Fred Moten

A “pullet” is a kind of vernacular term, a black vernacular term from Arkansas. It’s a young chicken but it is “poulet”. It’s originally a French term that gets brought into English and it’s… My family, my father’s family is from Louisiana. Even Moten, even my name I think is a kind of Americanized French that was misspelled or mispronounced. There’s a cool term and it’s a French term but it’s used in English for certain kinds of words called ‘portmanteau.’ It’s a suitcase. It’s a suitcase word; a word that actually is a word… It’s a container for a whole bunch of other words because it’s two words that are put together maybe because of how they sound. 

One way to think about it is that it’s a pidgin kind of thing where pidgin language is a vehicular language. I remember my teacher, one of my most revered teachers, was a great, great lyric critic and lyric theorist named Barbara Johnson who was a student of Derrida’s and who translated Derrida. She translated “La Dissémination”. When she was teaching a class on deconstruction that I took in college, she made this little diagram that was a way of talking about the notion of the sign, going back to Saussure. She made that distinction between the tenor and the vehicle so that the tenor is the sort of meaning or the semantic content and the vehicle is what carries the semantic content. The little diagram she made was of a guy, an opera singer in a carriage and the tenor, the vehicle was like a little buggy. The word is in some ways, the signifier, it carries content. It bears it and it obviously transforms it in all of these ways. 

No, don’t feel bad. That’s a good thing. You all did it exactly right. That’s what I think the best translation always does is it’s radical and it makes those decisions. My favorite, really probably my favorite translation books are this great American poet named Louis Zukofsky who translated Catullus, the Latin poet. His wife, Celia, knew Latin but Zukofsky didn’t know Latin. At a certain point Zukofsky would just make these decisions that were… sometimes it was just based on the coincidence of a sound from the Latin original to a word in English which has nothing to do with the meaning of that word but which sounds like it.

Mawena Yehouessi

I had a question also, sorry, for you, Wu. The same way you’re asking us how we translated, for instance, “Anamphibian”, but how did you translate “Anamphibian” through your movie? It’s also the same trick even if it’s not a text-to-text or an English-to-French translation. It’s still translation in a way, so how did you do it?

Wu Tsang

I think it’s so hard… I mean, it’s easy and it’s hard to talk about it. It’s like I was saying, we just take parts. First of all, I should show you my notes because every page of the poem has like 300 little… and Asma made a playlist of all the songs we could find. I need to tell her about this KRS-One song because I don’t think it was on there. As a group we’d just… lyrics would filter in so we would just like kind of burrow and then listen to music a lot. Then just take parts that felt important or fun to say and then workshop those in the movement and the dance. Then certain things just became important too visually. I think the mud. I don’t know how the fuck we came up with this specific formulation of blue mud, but it was just a very specific color. The more we got into that mud, the more we were like, “It’s just about being in the mud and finding ways to move in it and drag each other.”

There was also this staircase that we built that was based on a Penrose triangle. Again, another thing where I’m like, I don’t remember why. I’m sure I was talking to Fred about something. It probably had something to do with this idea of a bridge that doesn’t connect. From one angle it looks like it touches, but from every other angle you realize it’s actually going opposite. Oh, I know, I know, I know. Because point of view. I think point of view is an important thing in the poem which is so much about cinema. Baldwin is important because he kind of sets up the whole book and he has this obsession about cinema and talks about making cinema, and also the way he sees things. I think it’s all kind of burrowing into the things that I know Fred’s interested or that we’ve talked about together and then…

Wu Tsang

Yeah. It’s so exciting to me that people can read the poem in French. It’s funny, I’m working in Zurich right now at a theatre that’s like kind of German theatre sort of. That’s the context. It’s interesting how in that tradition, German-speaking theatre, language has this primacy in this crazy way. It’s just so much about meaning and what is spoken. All the times that we’ve performed or presented here, often we’re working with… In the past this last year we were working with ‘Come on, get it!’ primarily. Before that it was “Sudden Rise”. So many people would just be like, “But what does it mean?” It was just like, it doesn’t mean anything but it means everything. To have access to it linguistically is so essential, so that’s why I’m excited about the translation. It’s not meaning-less. It’s just that you have to let go of what value is attached to meaning or something. 

Fred Moten

There is no mother tongue, there is no native tongue. There is instead this continual process of approaching and then at the same time, transforming a language which is not yours because it doesn’t belong to anybody. It really operates outside of the framework of belonging. 

The real problem is how to like that. That’s the problem, right? It’s not that anything works any other way. It all works that way. The question is can you like that? Can you love that rather than refuse it, rather than resist it, rather than try to suppress it or destroy it?

Wu Tsang

Or be against it or something. Yeah.

Fred Moten

Yeah! I am excited about the next things. You all have to be there too!

Wu Tsang

Yeah. Thank you all so much!

Rosanna Puyol

Thank you, take care...