Ten Walks/Two Talks: Interview with Jon and Andy

Posted by @ 10:48 am on June 28th, 2010

Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch met in their late teens, when they were both crashing in a crowded house in Boston. As Jon tells it, “I stretched on a bedroom floor, shortly after the room’s official resident had left for work. It was 7 a.m. Andy entered the bedroom from the living room (where he must’ve been trying to sleep), hoping to gain a few more hours’ rest, but the bedroom had already been occupied by another scavenger. Standing above me, Andy looked down. He seemed a bit shocked. It was ‘love at first sight’ in the sense of immediate and unshakable friendship.”

Now the fast friends have put out a book together – one that is much beloved here at HTMLGIANT (see?) — called Ten Walks/Two Talks, from Ugly Duckling Presse. It’s a great read that highlights a walking view of NYC, and more than that, a look at thoughts, and more than that, a voyeuristic look at how the brainy half lives in friendship. I’ve interviewed the guys below, and I’ll send a copy of this great book to the commenter who has taken the longest walk (deadline is noon, Friday, 7/2). My record is 28 miles.

Which came first for you, this form or the idea to collaborate? I mean, did you guys decide you wanted to collab on something and come up with this, or what?

Andy Fitch: By our late twenties, both Jon and I felt we had done enough single, solitary work for years to come. We loved each other, and enjoyed talking to each other. A two-for-the-price-of-one aesthetic had long appealed to us, though the idea for this particular book came later.

Jon: Ten Walks/Two Talks combines excerpts from two manuscripts: Andy’s Sixty Morning Walks, and our collaborative Conversations over Stolen Food. After reading Sixty Morning Walks, I told Andy I’d wanted to transcribe dialogues between me and people I met at Union Square Whole Foods while eating stolen food. Something about that space evokes the ancient Greek agora (or marketplace), so it seemed the perfect venue for a project at least loosely connected with Socratic dialogue—plus, Socrates was known to sample delicacies at congregations to which he hadn’t been invited. I thought the project would be called Conversations over Stolen Food, but before long I’d gotten busy with other things and more or less forgot about it. Roughly a year later Andy asked me to record conversations with him. It was exhilarating. We did thirty dialogues in just over a month, all across New York City, though “Union Square W.F.” is our most common meeting-place since it’s hard to pass up a discounted organic meal. These talks became Conversations over Stolen Food. Other people occasionally appear; for the most part the dialogues unfold between us.

The Walks manage to convey a lot about steps taken, what the weather/smells/view was like at each step, what people were doing, what they were wearing. I assume there was note taking? How important was accuracy? What are some of your favorite parts of NYC?

Andy: When I wrote Sixty Morning Walks, I didn’t know how to take notes and notice new things simultaneously. I had to choose between observing and describing. So I walked without recording what I saw, then came home and wrote down a minimum of forty remembered details. After eating a bowl of cereal, I assembled these details and whatever else came back into a continuous narrative. Accuracy seemed essential to establish propulsive flow (disjointed descriptions and/or sentence fragments quickly bore me). During subsequent editing stages, however, as I tightened the sixty-walk manuscript, freshness and surprise became more important than accuracy. A “Haitian man” became a “handsome man,” for example, if a revised walk seemed to get predictable. It didn’t matter whether the guy had been good-looking.

As for favorite parts of NYC: the trajectories of particular walks please me more than specific places or scenes. The trip from my old Metropolitan Avenue apartment across the Williamsburg Bridge (or from Prospect Park Southwest, across the Brooklyn) to my girlfriend’s apartment in Tribeca stands out, as does the walk from Kristin’s building to the Graduate Center in Midtown, or Siggy’s Bistro in Brooklyn Heights. The animating forces for Sixty Morning Walks are a compulsive embrace of the familiar, and a detached appreciation of New York street life’s inexhaustible diversity—what Heraclitus and James Schuyler call “unchanging change.” Walking has become my favorite form of serial repetition. Any place is fine, so long as it begins and ends at “home.”

It’s amazing that the Walks manage to be so interesting, too, in their unadorned observation and in their personal concern (personal to the walker, and to the observed). It’s good writing, transparent observation, I should say, not “unadorned.” There isn’t a lot of editorializing in the mix of concentration and low affect—like, “Shimmering lawns surrounded St. Luke in the Fields, restored my faith in the variety of birds. I got lost remembering songs by The Smiths.” And later, “Across from Baluchi’s somebody told her boyfriend All this shit happened before your ass.” My question is, How much were you thinking about audience and the writing-to-come while taking these walks?

Andy: “Low affect” sounds appropriate. Thanks. From what I can tell, the Walks almost always have an editorializing edge about to sharpen and maybe become mean. But this tension serves to maintain a brisk pace, rather than to provide any pointed conclusion. For example, do the lines that you selected affirm or deny the ability of New York’s “shimmering lawns” to deserve the bucolic title “St. Luke in the Fields?” Do The Smiths get reverentially referenced, or does a sensibility of conspicuous cultural consumption (presumably my own) get mocked? Does the emphatic scoring of the Baluchi’s line suggest my clinical precision, or my admiring identification with this tough-talking girlfriend? Hopefully, each reader navigates these implied emotional vectors differently. I’ve tried to include too many details for any fixed, unambiguous point of view to emerge. My only concern with audience was to offer each reader a different experience of the project, a different path through it, just as everybody experiences a different walk through the city.

The Talks are richly detailed even though they’re fast paced. They move quickly between ancient thought and dodging traffic. They were recorded, I gather from mention of moving a microphone. And there is a fair bit of talking over each other rendered as closely as possible by cut words in the text. But are the talks sweetened at all? Is there anything in there to make you look cooler?

Jon: The poet David Antin says that while it’s common for people to complain about writer’s block, it’s rare to suffer from talker’s block. When writing, I tend to belabor transitions, fearing I’m misunderstood, or not making sense, or somehow being inappropriate—as if I shouldn’t, for example, move quickly between Chinese poetry and a lewd gesture I once made to a reckless driver who almost killed me in the Upper West Side. But when I’m talking, I’ll know I’m understood and making sense because the conversation continues. The person with whom I’m talking will nod or perhaps build on what I’ve said. Anxieties that besiege solitary writers dissolve in these circumstances. Suddenly everything gets put into play: scraps of learning, fleeting perceptions, distant or not-so-distant experiences, daily habits, etc. This play—or what some folks condemningly call “digression”—intensifies, becomes all the more playful, when we talk with a friend. I know of few greater pleasures. Andy and I bought a cheap dictaphone to capture the texture and flow of our dialogues. Listening to the tapes, we were surprised by how often our voices overlapped, though, again, this animation is normal whenever friends speak. We didn’t really add material. Yet we did compress certain parts for the sake of keeping readers engaged.

Andy: I’ll admit: when we edited the thirty-part Conversations over Stolen Food, sometimes I increased the specificity of my opera references, entirely to look cooler.

Related question: Jon, we spoke about how I thought you were gay based on, I think, the discussion of José which gets interrupted and left unfinished. Also, the book has two authors but neither are identified in the Walks. I assume this who’s who ambiguity is intentional. So this book seems much less concerned with accuracy and “truth” as it relates to circumstance. Andy says at one point that since he started caring about language, he wants to transport his environment to a more lucid state (or something?), and you characterize your interest Asian poetry as something that focuses you on the moment, keeps you from dwelling too much on the summer in winter. I’m not sure I’m getting this exactly right, but the core of my question, anyway, is: in the constant flux (hustle/bustle) of NYC nothing stays one thing very long, just as in conversation things can change very quickly. How does that relate to the idea of FACT in this book?

Jon: That’s a great question, Adam, and if I’m not mistaken, Andy’s previous remark on “unchanging change” seems relevant here. Andy has mentioned his detachment during the morning walks. This openness, this refusal to be pre-occupied—literally to avoid a pre-assigned, pre-designated place—permits Andy to drift among the innumerable scenarios of a New York City sidewalk. At bottom, as I understand them, the Walks are concerned with the unchanging change of this placeless place of an attentive walker. I recall Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” in which Thoreau says the walker must be prepared to leave behind his or her family and friends, his or her entire identity, when stepping outside. The “who’s who ambiguity” you’ve noted in Ten Walks/Two Talks has to do with this sentiment. Clearly what Thoreau says about walkers applies to the talker as well. For what marks a real conversation (no less than a real walk) is the momentary abandonment, or questioning, of predetermined values and destinations. This goes back to the play I described earlier. Ten Walks/Two Talks puts my and Andy’s basic identities into play—who we are as collaborators, as friends, as sexual beings.

The book is cataloged as Poetry/Nonfiction. How was this decision made? What are your thoughts on genre, cross-genre?

Jon: The day before Ten Walks/Two Talks was printed, Andy and I exchanged emails with Anna Moschovakis, our editor at Ugly Duckling Presse and founder of its Dossier Series. Anna asked me and Andy how we wanted to categorize this book (she needed to know what to put on the back cover). It’s funny: the three of us had been discussing the project for months, but only at the last moment did this question of genre arise. That’s one reason UDP is so wonderful. Since the Dossier Series features cross-genre work, we decided on “Poetry/Nonfiction.” But are the Walks poetry, and the Talks nonfiction? Or vice versa? Or do both forms partake of both categories? For me at least, “Poetry/Nonfiction” indicates the irrelevance of genre. Andy and I have, for example, published dialogues as poetry, drama, nonfiction, fiction, ethnography, literary criticism, even feminist criticism. Conversation doesn’t have its own genre. It might belong to all genres.

Andy: I teach creative nonfiction in an MFA program, but I mostly assign philosophy, poetry and films to my students, and Dalkey Archive soon will publish my critical study of the artist/poet Joe Brainard. In each of these media, there is a perverse, low-affect aesthetic that I love, because it manages to combine a generalized, dog-like happiness with an adult awareness of death. Within literature, this aesthetic often verges on creative nonfiction since it considers mundane existence the most intriguing/overlooked of possibilities, and on poetry, since it achieves its effects through charm, elision and implication rather than faithful attention to the fact. It makes use of whatever lies ready at hand, yet remains, first of all, exciting.

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