REVIEW: Sixty Morning Talks by Andy Fitch

60TalksGIANT

by Alexis Almeida

While reading through Sixty Morning Talks, I couldn’t help but think about the false, yet often cited opposition between improvisation and preparedness. One analogy is with music – the assumption that improvising musicians are not using years of experience, knowledge, and technique as they play – but here, the music is shaped by the tenor of multiple voices. It is the blend of Andy Fitch’s ease and meticulousness, his carefully considered questions and his mind as it adapts to different intervals of conversation that makes this distinction delightfully flimsy, nearly impossible to uphold.

Each conversation in the book – as the title suggests, there are sixty, each preceded by the date it was recorded – maintains its own sense of elasticity, its own curious motion while also remaining focused, sharp, and productive-feeling. In its structure, the book makes every effort to skirt pretense: there are no introductions, no preambles, just talking. This was, in fact, very intentional on Fitch’s part – in an interview with Jill Magi, he said of the project: “Any sane interview collection of this scope, for instance, would include a contextualizing introduction, defining the present moment and outlining major themes and such. I deliberately left all of that out, suggesting that the book offers 60 discrete encounters, rather than any comprehensive argument.” While the book does maintain a kind of structural neutrality in this way, for me it does seem to argue, or at least advocate for a kind of casual rigor, a conversational, everyday sensitivity to language and its effects. How can conversation supplement, or even transfigure the work? Can talking embody its own ethics, become its own artform or performance? These are questions this book made me ask again and again.

Though Sixty Morning Talks consciously avoids predominant themes, one issue that kept showing up was poetry’s commitment to place, how an interaction with place might be assembled or reflected in language. Dan Beachy-Quick, in paraphrasing Wittgenstein, puts it really well: “Here, I’m very, very influenced by Wittgenstein – his sense that the only thing one has with which to imagine the world is the world…[and] any honest and ambitious use of imagination requires a return back to the world.” In the case of Andy Fitch’s talk with Beachy-Quick, which centers mostly around his book Wonderful Investigations (Milkweed Editions), the initial focus is on the genre of Ecopoetics, something that Beachy-Quick feels “sympathy” towards rather than fully committed to. Instead, he discusses his interest in seeing poetry as an initiation rite, an invocation for the reader and her surrounds:

DBQ: I had been reading much initiation rights, early mythology, heroic cycles. I’d wondered how poetry might offer itself as an initiatory experience – not only to the poet, but to the reader, amid a kind of liminal space where assumed writer / reader relations get undermined…This suggested to me a way of attending to the world on the world’s terms, and undermining subjectivity in any normal sense.

AF: I like then how this first sentenece serves as invocational gesture. You establish the space in which the book will operate.

DBQ: The first sentence also establishes that I don’t think poetry abides kindly to pre-formed self-definitions.

What this exchange suggests to me is a radical rethinking of authorship – the poem as authored not only by a single subject, but also by its environment, its historical moment, its reader. This comes up again in Hoa Nguyen’s talk, whose book, As Long as Trees Last, often addresses local conditions with what Andy Fitch “global implications” – specifically how the drought in Texas (where she was living at the time) might speak to broader evological disasters, might summon issues of political oppression. When asked why she is so invested in the local, Hoa says: “I hope that poetry in general can expand one’s attention or imagination about place and relation to place. I’m not sure I’m so much instructing.” Later she says: “…as I write, it’s very much an application of available sources. It feels almost architectural.” The reach (or relevance) of the poet’s intention, the ways place becomes distilled and constructed within a poem, the political dimensions of work, however overt or sutbtly engaged with– these are topics on the mind of many writers talking in this book.

The issue of community is also something that keeps surfacing – whether or not it is an addressable entity in the world, or can be defined by repeated or recognizable patterns across the page. In the same interview with Jill Magi, Fitch is clear about the book’s position – “I have gone out of my way to avoid any totalizing claims that Sixty Morning Talks stands for some broader poetics community” – but it is precisely this agenda-less stance that gives the book its power, extending the life of projects by allowing their authors to talk about them on their own terms. When asked about his connection to New Narrative poets, Rob Halpern, author of Music for Porn, tells a really compelling story about his beginnings in Dodie Bellamy’s workshop, getting to know Kevin Killian, writing to Kathy Acker. As this conversation continues, it becomes clear that for him, at least in part, community was defined by interactions and shared aesthetic aims, whereas for Jen Hofer, author of Laws, community becomes a kind of ethics, something that can even precede the chance encounters within a writing scene or group: “I feel a responsibility (sometimes excitement, sometimes dread, but always a responsibility), to respond directly or indirectly, abstractly or concretely (usually some combination) to the world, and to create writing that will enter this world.” Andy Fitch hits on an important aspect of Hofer’s aesthetics when he comments: “So addresses to another become an additional form of self and/or social documentation.” Here we see the crucial reflexivity of the social and the self, and as Hofer later mentions, “That title Laws serves as a reminder to myself and perhaps readers that we never live separate from the workings of the state.” This is echoed again in Fitch’s talk with Forrest Gander and John Kinsella (authors of Redstart), who trace a kind of necessary and ‘communal’ ethics in their practice of collaboration:

AF: Again, along the lines of John’s thornbill transcriptions, does this book implicitly argue that the natural resides in group behabior as much as solitary epiphany? Does dialogue create its own ecosystem?

FG: John writes about this beautifully in “The Movements of the Yellow-Rumped Thornbills.”…No place exists free from event, from activity that impinges upon groups of people, upon everyone, all species.

JK: “Communal event” hits the nail on the head, Forrest. Even operating as so-called individuals, we actually have communal effect…We are not alone and can’t be alone…I’ve increasingly felt, as time passes, that collaboration might be the only dynamic way of writing….I’ve more and more lost interest in writing solo because ultimately I don’t function alone.

During my initial read of this book, or while flipping through it as a point of reference, there were many times I would remind myself of how hard it is to talk about your own work, how at some point this becomes difficult for any writer. And yet these talks move so fluidly, and move without feeling in any way rehearsed or predictable, that it becomes incredibly easy to feel engrossed and involved in the exchange. I attribute this to both the participants’ insightfulness, and to Fitch’s ability to adapt his questions, to ask both general and extremely acute ones depending on conversation’s needs. While talking to Julie Carr about her book Surface Tension, he begins with a large question about the term itself – whch is borrowed from physics and applied to Victorian-era poetry – and follows it through a range of associations,including textual density, rapture, affect (and its ties to the Gurlesque), Dante Rossetti and Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Morris and his visual surface tensions, and John Cage’s aesthetics of furniture, which was Fitch’s addition to this list. Lisa Robertson’s talk begins with a meditation on her process – “the occasional nature” of her prose projects – and explores them in depth before our attention is turned toward her dog: “She’s sitting here. She’s talking to herself. She’s been sitting watching me for our entire conversation.” I was particularly moved by Ronaldo Wilson’s narrative about his father’s dementia, the way it has inspired him creatively: “I also wanted to track my love, and my curiosity about his sense of freedom…That’s kind of how I want to live, despite loss, or because of it, with that sort of freedom that forms another undercurrent for this book. In a sense I try to theorize what freedom means, what it means to attain this mobility, which sometimes can feel dangerous.” And then there’s one of my favorite moments in the book, when Andy Fitch makes Eric Baus happy as he says:

AF: To me you seem a stealth advocate for extremity.

EB: Thanks. I want that extremity to register. Some people have responded negatively to how I’ve discussed my writing before because they thought I’d written this crazy first book, then pulled back and become conservative. For my second book, Tuned Doves, I’m like, this stuff’s still crazy. I’m not making quiet poems.

For me, this moment carries a lot of the joy of reading Sixty Morning Talks – the moments when someone feels particularly “got” or understood, the distance it can carry a conversation, the way that feeling becomes a kind of rich desire stretching far beyond the page.

Alexis Almeida teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado, where she is at work on an MFA in poetry. Her recent poems, translations, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in La Vague, Ampersand Review, TYPO, Heavy Feather Review, Aufgabe, Asymptote, and elsewhere. She is a member of the theater group GASP, and lives in Denver.

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