Christopher Schmidt talks to Andy Fitch about his book of interviews, Sixty Morning Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014).
Christopher Schmidt: Andy, I have so many questions about your crackerjack book of interviews with poets, Sixty Morning Talks. First I have to admit that it’s intimidating to switch positions with the analyst. (Psychoanalysis is one frame for thinking about the interview; I’m sure we’ll discuss others.)
Sixty Morning Talks straddles many genres—reportage, critical survey, long-form interview project, constraint-based writing—and I wanted to hear where you would situate this handsome volume within your own career of experimental nonfiction interventions. I don’t want to police genre, but I am curious about your book’s own poetic qualities. At first glance, the book’s inquiry seems so transparently nonfictional. Yet procedural constraints bound the project—sixty talks (more or less), on books published in 2012. I wonder about the other, less evident markers of its material production—like the transcribed whooshs and pffts in another tape-recorded project of yours.
Andy Fitch: As always, Chris, you come right to the most incisive questions. I worried nobody would care about or even notice Sixty Morning Talks’ poetic aspirations. But in my wish-fulfilling dreams and obsessional attunements, I can track at least two ways to read this book. In the present context, perhaps it makes sense for most readers to pick poets they like and to see what these figures have to say about some recent publications. I have much admiration for each interviewee, and they certainly deserve more attention than they get (I can’t tell you how surprising and disconcerting I found it that even some of the country’s best-recognized poets seemed deeply appreciative that I actually read their 80-page collection the whole way through). Still I also hope somebody, sometime decides to read Sixty Morning Talks as a maniacal probing of possibilities for prose economy amid dialogic forms. For instance, I happily will send a $10 check to any reader of this present exchange who can find a 500-page book with fewer passive-voice usages (books full of numerical equations don’t count).
And more generally, in terms of material production: for each interview I had to cut its original length by 50-75%, ideally without losing any of an interviewee’s main or subsidiary points. This meant hundreds (at least) of minuscule compressions and reformulations for each talk. Every word or phrase got moved around just to say it all more concisely/propulsively. My world-class transcriber Maia Spotts sent some pretty depressing Word files. A verbatim transcript for a single interview might run to 35 pages, and I had promised Ugly Duckling a 500-page book of 60 interviews. For a six-month period, every third day, starting from a new rough draft felt terrible.
But these perhaps frivolous editing efforts show in creating a compressed, strangely composite voice for whomever wants to find one. If you look closely, all of the interviewees begin to use the same syntactical constructions, yet hopefully still sound like themselves. None of these 60 poets says, “I had really hoped to finish last year.” They all say, “I really had hoped to finish last year.” Indifferent grammatical patterns shape this pointillist process, somewhat recalling the systematized “doughnuts” in a Chuck Close portrait (that other transcript project of mine you mentioned contains more Warholian smears). The interviewees and I become atomized, fused, choral. I’ve always instantaneously forgotten the names of most authors and artists I admire. It all gets blended into shadowy recollections prompting half-original ideas. Sixty Morning Talks tries to offer something similar. I even dreamed of, in true Warholian fashion, just making this an extended series of dialogues between “A” and “B.” But that thought came after I’d completed the first interviews, and I hadn’t warned the interviewees, so it seemed too late.
Publishers and agents and such often remark that interview books drag over time, grow too diffuse or too repetitive, don’t invite thorough reading. I tried to provide a counterexample, and I consider that gesture the book’s poetic quality. And yeah, I think we ended up including 57 interviews. I read somewhere that a title for an Ukiyo-e print series, such as 100 Famous Views of Edo, don’t necessarily mean “precisely 100 views.” It just means “a lot of views.” So the “Sixty” in my title signifies “a lot.”
CS: The absence of the passive voice—now you’ve got me on my toes! I’m thinking of Wayne Koestenbaum’s delirious Hotel Theory and its challenging elision of “a” “an” and “the” in the book’s right-hand column. The much longer Sixty Morning Talks crackles with a similar tightness and sprung rhythm.
You mention Warhol several times in 60MT. In your interview with Lytle Shaw, I was struck by your description of Warhol’s soup can paintings as both a serial production and as a fractured “lot” of individual paintings. This seems to fit with your dual ways of reading 60MT, as a reference compendium and as a virtuoso long-form serial project. Besides the travel narrative and recurring thematic concerns (such as New Narrative), subtle grace notes link the interviews, like the invocations of Kyoto bridging Joel Craig’s and Brandon Shimoda’s neighboring talks.
But I do want to ask a few pressing questions about the interview form itself. At a reading/launch for 60MT at Poetry Project, Mónica de la Torre quoted Kevin Killian disparaging the interview format, suggesting it produces nothing but bluff. Nonetheless I wonder, what does choral talk achieve that the bounded individual writer cannot? What does the interview know?
Reading 60MT, I was struck by how articulate all the interview subjects are about their work. Because of this, the book is an incredible resource for anyone teaching these poets’ writing and contemporary poetry generally. (You also interview a number of critics, I should add.) However, this fluency reminded me of a John Ashbery comment that has always worried me. He claims, “the worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about, at least I would like to think so.” On the one hand, the New York School resistance to explication could be a historical anomaly (think of Eliot’s criticism or Pound’s ABC of Reading). But I wonder if you notice a growing tendency among contemporary poets to adapt a more theoretical discourse to situate their poetry? How perceptive is the poet about her own work? Does explaining the poem profane it? Are you sympathetic to the concern, articulated by Dorothea Lasky (another 60MT subject), that the book-length poetic “project” threatens to supersede lyric’s numinous qualities? Are you saying farewell to the poem with these Sixty Mourning Talks?
AF: Thanks for the Warhol soup-can reference. That makes good sense, though I wouldn’t have noticed its relevance on my own. Anything I said about the soup cans I probably copied from Benjamin Buchloh’s foundational (for me) essay “Andy Warhol’s One-Dimensional Art: 1956-1966.”
As for the rest (and I admire you throwing seven consecutive questions at me): I have much respect and enthusiasm for Kevin’s work, and keep meaning to look up this interview take-down of his. I always assume that such a bold extracted statement first emerges amid lots of qualifying context, though who knows? In either case, I never take such bold statements seriously, but I do believe that anything Mónica (certainly one of the classiest individuals with whom I ever have shared a stage) says deserves a thorough follow-up. What does the interview know—what a terrific question. To combine this with the Ashbery line: perhaps the interview knows nothing, has nothing to say, which allows it to keep talking, and perhaps arrive someplace smart.
I can’t tell if I could characterize all poets as perceptive about their work, yet I did sense that each of these 60 books I read begged to have certain questions asked of it. I got closer to arriving at some of those desired questions than at others. I love talking to Dottie, and shamefully admit not to having read that particular chapbook of hers, so can’t respond competently on it, but in terms of your Cavellian/Schuyleresque “Mourning of the Poem” insinuations: while it would seem rash to wish for the lyric-poem’s death, especially since the lyric poem keeps providing space for vital syntactical and sonic innovations, if I saw it sprawled on the curb, looking gray and lifeless, I’d just keep walking by without thinking twice (I think I’ve borrowed this scene from Schuyler). The interview with Dottie ends with her lovely line “Hats off to death,” and, for me at least, that can include death to lyric poems, or not. The artistic form essential to my own life, based, alas, on random upbringing, remains the pop album. I don’t do (or really understand) singles, and the same goes for many lyric poems. I certainly don’t qualify as the most apt audience for some of these 60 interviewees. Other people should interview each of them. Their stellar work calls for further conversation.
CS: Some of my favorite interviews contain some frisson, an electric moment of disagreement. I think of an interview with Lisa Robertson about conceptual writing, where she gets testy with Lytle Shaw. (They quickly make amends.) Or Lauren Berlant chastising an interviewer for the “nationalist” orientation of the questions.
I love these moments, because they show how power tussles sometimes underlie an interview. I don’t feel this in 60MT—a much friendlier and more amiable book. In fact, I was struck throughout by your willingness to cede authority, to make interpretations that may be wrong, to be generally prostrate to your conversation partners—so that they can shine more brightly. Someone else described 60MT as a monument to your generous self-abnegation as a writer. (I’m paraphrasing.) Do you experience the interview in this way? And are there any side effects—psychic or emotional—of undertaking an interview project of this length?
AF: “Prostrate” seems a strange term here, one I don’t really know the meaning of, but I sense I might come across too macho if I resist it. And the generosity thing never has made much sense to me. I don’t pride myself on the generous or ethical or community-based focus of these engagements. I would rather have them judged on the merits of their intellectual and syntactical dexterity. Personally, I enjoy reading dialogues more than I enjoy most modes of discourse. So I just want to make a good dialogue, and I don’t really care how we get there and what role I end up taking. I have no strong desire in these conversations or in life to make people see my side, or hear me out. Also I secretly value questions as much as answers in a Q-and-A. So if somebody refuses to answer me I don’t mind, because mostly I just wanted to ask the question.
If I do have an agenda as an interviewer, it mostly consists in trying to make sure that the present piece doesn’t fall apart (a constant possibility). I can love a given project as long as I know that it will get completed, will amount to something. I can’t stand permanently incomplete projects. So in terms of psychic/emotional side effects: these used to arise more severely. But I’ve tried to build into the Q-and-A process ways to make use of a collapsed exchange. Undoubtedly I impose upon people’s time when I ask them to take part in a conversation. And undoubtedly some authors, some poets I deeply admire, like to torture you when they get the chance, and to endlessly reschedule an interview for trivial reasons, or rewrite their transcribed answers so that the questions asked no longer fit, or to revise a piece numerous times after you both have agreed you have finished a final draft. So lately, let’s say that I read an author’s book after we agree to discuss it, and then at some point the person flakes. Well, then I might write down my questions and publish those on their own. It seems foolish to get angry with people just for acting like themselves, so I have tried to create alternate possibilities that preclude petty flare-ups of all sorts. Likewise it doesn’t interest me much to have an interviewee react to a statement he/she finds unpleasant. I would much rather absorb, as best as I can, the present parameters of an author’s thinking on a given topic, and then to see if we together can take that thinking one step further—someplace neither of us would arrive on our own. So, in Roland Barthes’s recurrent paraphrase of Bertolt Brecht: thinking in other people’s heads; having other people think in my head. Finally, in terms of emotional side effects: I love the emotions of ending an hour of intensive recorded interviewing, pressing “Stop” and knowing I have tried as hard as I could to engage with an author’s work (on his/her own terms—which we all deserve sometimes), and have said everything I need to say. I only can compare this sensation to cramming for an exam, taking it, then stepping out of the room into the sun and forgetting everything. For most conversations, even with my favorite authors, that remains my favorite part.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Talks, Sixty Morning Walks, Sixty Morning Wlaks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. With Cristiana Baik, he recently has assembled the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has dialogic books forthcoming from 1913 Press and Nightboat Books. He edits Essay Press, teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, and directs the MA program in literature.