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.
by Scott Russell Morris
Craig Dworkin’s forward to Andy Fitch’s Sixty Morning Walks places the book of prose poems—lyric essays? the boundary, always murky, is especially so here—in the tradition of the literary walker, the flâneur who observes and records. This is a fair placement, as all sixty of the sixty-sentenced entries recount details from a walk, and it is clear that the author of these pieces intends the walk to be more than just a walk, also a literary exercise. But the difference between Fitch’s walks and those of other literary ramblers like Thoreau or Woolf is that Fitch remains much closer to the source material. He rarely extends his thoughts on the page from the walk itself, and even when he does let us know that something he saw reminded him of something else, that fact is all we get. No explanation, no musing, just a continuation of the walk. More details, collaged together.
In this way, each piece—and the collection as a whole—reads like a collection of moments, a grouping of loiterers and business men and police officers and dogs and parks and stray grains of rice all together. Perhaps it is just the settings of New York City and the idea of recounting the everyday people there, but in lots of ways Sixty Morning Walks feels closer to Brandon Stanton’s photography project Humans of New York, in that it collects snapshots of—and creates wonder towards—the mundane people and scenes on the streets of New York. By observing people—the doorman at Fitch’s girlfriend’s apartment, the teachers leading field trips, the panhandling potheads, the men in stylish pants—he makes the boring exciting, the familiar both strange and sexy.
As you could imagine, then, Sixty Morning Walks, starts as a slow read, taking its sentence structures and its dedication to cadence and sound from poetry. If you do the pieces justice, it can take you an hour to read just one walk, though it is only a two-page piece. But there are really too many walks for that to be a sustainable way to read the book as a book, which makes for an interesting reading experience because each individual piece is not very exciting as a poem: the details are all there is, the language skillfully pared down, but not much happens narratively or emotionally in any one piece. Reading just one day’s walk would be completely unfulfilling. Yet, as a series of walks, all read together, the book becomes incredibly engrossing, the details more and more interesting even as they stay just as mundane at the first, so that by the end, though the narrative has remained steady and the emotions never risen or fallen, the sixty walks together seem to be some great feat, a slowness to the mood and a quickness to the pace that makes you want to really savor every small, boring detail and examine them closer.
While the pieces’ quick pace and seemingly random assortment of details appear to resist theme or deeper meaning, there are a few motifs that stick out, that make for a particularly interesting mix when paired with the menagerie presented. The first motif that struck me was the continued presence of the police and guards. It seemed that the narrator was constantly being told where he could and could not go or where he did not belong. Only once in the whole book did a police officer smile, though Fitch recounts countless other smiles throughout. In a book about walking, this continual butting up against barriers makes for an uneasiness that is just below the surface, easy to miss. And it is also part of the genius of the piece. It is impossible to know if that continued noticing was intentional, or just the law of large numbers creating an ominous undertone to an otherwise lightly themed book.
The second, and perhaps the obvious theme from a work of this sort, is the act of looking at other people. But Fitch tells us over and over that he is not just looking at other people, he is staring at them, making eye contact. He assumes people think of him as a creep several times, but several times the eye contact leads to a shared smile. Several times he openly tells us that the people he stares at he finds sexy. And even those who don’t seem sexy still get the voyeuristic gaze; so really, everyone seems sexy, which is another relationship I see with the Humans of New York project. Alexander Smith, in his essay “On the Writing of Essays” says that “If a man is worth knowing at all, he is worth knowing well.” A project like this one, that sort that collects people, proves that you don’t even need to know a man, woman, child, or dog well:, sometimes it is enough just to notice them.
Sixty Morning Walks is available from Ugly Duckling Presse.
Scott Russell Morris lives in Lubbock, TX, where he is an English PhD student at Texas Tech University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have appeared in Brevity, Proximity, Blue Lyra Review, and Stone Voices.
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.