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 Allison Noelle Conner
The poems in Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection concern themselves with the domestic and/or quotidian. There are scenes of cooking, dreaming, note-taking, remembering, season-changing, crying, tree-cutting, and bird watching. At times it feels as if you are reading fragments from a diary, one seemingly focused on expressing the everyday through language. However, the “everydayness” of the content is countered constantly by Nguyen’s use of gaps, silences, evasion, and reassemblage.
Her work brings to mind two quotes from “Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box”, an essay by Trinh T. Minh-ha from her book Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. In the first, Minh-ha describes an alternative type of writer, one who does not express themselves in sentences but rather “thinks sentences: she is a sentence-thinker…[one] who radically questions the world through the questioning of a how-to-write.”(17) In the second, Minh-ha stresses the importance of writing as becoming: “To write is to become. Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become, intransitively. Not when writing adopts established keynotes or policy, but when it traces for itself lines of evasion…A sentence-thinker, yes, but one who so very often does not know how a sentence will end, I say. And as there is no need to rush, just leave it open, so that it may later on find, or not find, its closure. Words, fragments, and lines that I love for no sound reason; blanks, lapses, and silences that settle in like gaps of fresh air as soon as the inked space smells stuffy.”(18)
What shapes do Tells of the Crackling trace? The image of the slash( / ) recurs throughout the book. It is found on the cover, on the title page, in the bottom right corner of the pages facing right, and on the penultimate page. The sign recalls a blade, a slice, carving, the aftermaths of some cutting motion.
She is her but I don’t rem
the ashes I obsess She said
Remember cracks, is swallowed by action rather than expressing an action. You feel the pulse of the speaker’s empathetic thinking: the words do not merely relay, they enact the disjointedness of failing to remember that which you apparently know. For Nguyen, language is not static or unchanging or inherent. It can easily be fragmented to reveal hidden meanings, alternative possibilities, and unknown sentiments. It can exist as a song that resists the rational, the ordered, the logical, the dominant. It can become “punctuated shredded parts” coursing together to form the unimaginable, the absent, what on the surface seems to be impossible. In “Locust Tree Notes (East Toronto)”, the speaker mentions how this specific species is “[u]sed to reclaim damaged land”:
They reestablish “disturbed sites”
with nitrogen roots
(my notes say soul)
Nguyen seems to be searching for ways in which poetry, language, and gestures can(and, conversely, fail to) restore and/or regenerate comprised geographies; whether those be ancestral, psychological, emotional, spiritual, linguistic, material, political, or metaphorical. Throughout Nguyen presents us with moments where disturbed sites rupture and erupt into the domestic present. What if the sharp, short noises previously discarded as nonsense or ruined rose to sing an untraceable tune? How should one capture the texture of its tellings?
In “To Seek”, the speaker announces her frustration with the utilitarian function of expression:
I want the root of the words
not the fucking use
made purposed and stupid
Many any foot feet be
May my root feet be
The shifting wordplay illustrates the unstableness of language and meaning. On the surface, “the root of the word” can refer to the word stripped of its prefixes and suffixes. But root also connotes lineage, history, and pasts; or that which disturbed sites wish to remember and reclaim. “Stars” approaches this subject of parental inheritance and reconnection. But rather than explicitly state “This is a poem about familial legacy, about a speaker reckoning with their ancestors”, Nguyen stitches words together to create a multiplicity of meaning. The stream of consciousness tone reiterates this feeling of linguistic spontaneity, interrogation, and ambiguity.
Stars your parents join
join your parents of the stars
under an oxygen tent
The blank between “Stars” and “your” could be a breath, a hesitation, something missing, contemplation, preparation, a space for creation. As the poem proceeds the language starts to turn in on itself. The speaker views memory as something “to sever”, “to sit in”, to “serve you”, “a rock fortress”:
more father than father in years
After cold spring
I mean spring o uncle
What have you here bring spring
The exact uses of the words are less important than the knot of associations the words bring forth. The father is far, farther, as distant as traveling light. The realization turns spring to psring, a reordering that illustrates the speaker’s difficulty in thinking clearly about traumatic pasts. Nonetheless, roots in the form of “bright spring” continue to sprout despite the cutting, the erasure, the destroying. Tells of the Crackling wonders: What language will or can grow from the disrupted? Nguyen offers no definitive answers. As readers we are given openings, channels, and points of departures. Perhaps what matters most is our willingness to return, as the last lines of “After The Song” suggest:
tremble and I sign
my name It’s my
hand on the page
climb back up again
a chorus of screams
Sing Sing the chorus again
Buy it from Ugly Duckling Press: $9.00.
Allison Noelle Conner is writer based in Los Angeles. She is an assistant fiction editor for The Offing. Currently, she is at work on her first book, a prose project exploring institutionalization, possessions, and black women geographies.
by Nicky Tiso
If the confessional is at some level about dramatizing oneself, being able to produce a version of oneself that is manipulative in its very slight untruth, then it is either about producing an entirely unreliable personage . . . or about collapsing a self and a fantasy of self. – Trisha Low on Steven Zultanski’s Bribery and Brandon Brown’s Top 40
In Ben Fama’s Fantasy, there’s a difference between speaker and author subverting the confessional’s purported self-expressive function, which is what’s so great and what’s so terrible about its glamorous aesthetic that never really lets you in, but lets you know what it’s wearing (spoiler alert: Uniqlo). Fantasy puts the “mod” in commodity fetish. The poems are short, terse reflections on the simulacra of virtual life, from the perspective of a meaningless bourgeois retro haute leftist nihilist first-person young adult that comes so familiar to us millenials more comfortable texting than communicating face-to-face:
I think I’m in love with the world of billboards and magazines
It is so intrepidly based in fantasy
Like things online
And literature, all the immaterial world
I mean the actual world we live in all the time
Like mp3’s and visual art
That replaced painting
Midway between Low’s theorized confessional extremes, Fantasy dramatizes the collapse of the self into the fantasy of the self within a hyper-real sociality where entertainment and politics, reality and the Internet, are indistinguishable. These are the fantasies borne of the cultural logic of late capital, not outside it: fantasies of popularity, wealth, youth, sex, and glamour. Rather than interiorize or express, the lines read like they could be repasted Google searches that reveal lifestyle habits, implying a psychology without making it knowable, and instead of a narrative its more of a text installation.
Satanic physical allure
Tropical contact high
Diane Keaton young
Diane Keaton hot
The metaphorical emptiness of the language and lack of imagery make it as materialistic as the consumerist desires it conveys. You might say, why pay money for this book when you can just get this literature online for free in the comments section of your local Facebook feed? But one could just as easily say, why pay admission to look at Koons’ Hoover art object when you could just as easily go to a vacuum store? The book acts as cold reflection of technologically-mediated human alienation (“I know you about 3% / We’ve hung out / Then you moved to Los Angeles”), but it’s also lyrical and nonchalant about it. The diction is so anti-romanticist that the one simile I found in the book referencing birds stood out like the one fuck allowed in the scriptwriting of Breaking Bad.
I also want to ask the book the same thing the speaker in one poem asks a woman of her profile picture of Justin Bieber: Is it ironic? The pomposity of the tone is entirely contrived and desperately obsessed with its presentation within a privileged shell that wants not your sympathy, as most narrators do, but your envy – like a French rap song, cocaine and Perrier replace any sensitive discourse in what becomes an egotistical fantasy (“Aren’t you even curious / To see my hotel room / After I swim?”) that is simultaneously liquidated into a “thoroughly franchised landscape” of corporations, advertisements, and brands. As such, it inherits the New York School’s gossipy style while carrying it to its aporia, where the “numb, vulgar emotions” of the poet cannot be separated from the marketplace.
I share Georges Perec’s militant leftist stance regarding “literature’s real potential not to reflect the world as it is but ‘to make the radical transformation of our world appear obvious and necessary.’” In contrast, Fantasy intentionally falls short of this imperative, more worried about attention and ‘likes’ and instant gratifications (“I’m gonna go shopping all afternoon / Then I’m gonna need to have sex with someone”), so that we the audience are faced with reconciling this affective or political incapability and alienation ourselves.
If such an aesthetic “fails to disrupt the boundaries between the worlds of fashion, art, poetry and performance, and engage new media,” as one reviewer critiqued, it falls short intentionally. This is either clever or lazy, or both. Because in the wake of so much white conceptual carelessness from Kenneth Goldsmith and Vanessa Place, and on the heels of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo’s postcolonial critique of white poetics, I find Felix Bernstein asks an important question in his article at Lemonhound: Is this bunch of self-consciously complicit yet still leftist bohemians [who are] somehow also a resurrectionary Marxist faction important to the avant-garde canon?
Well, are they? I find the book’s desire to be disembodied via the internet troubling in an era of so much embodied pain from PoC that don’t have access to these fantasies of the white imagination, and for whom rhetorically asking with a wink at the end of your poems, “Do you have access to that?” isn’t helpful. I want the book to do more than wallow in this contradictory space of the commodified art-object or the depersonalized person, which would ultimately require a kind of solidarity or political affiliation or engagement that this book is too busy being bored to undertake. Yes, that’s the point, but my point is, I don’t need the book to make that point anymore than I need Vanessa Place to quote Mammy for me to know racism is bad.
Ugly Duckling Presse (2015): Print $14, PDF free
 Perec, Georges. “For a Realist Literature.” Trans. Rob Halpern. Chicago Review 53.2-3 (2007) : 28-39.
Nicky Tiso teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota in June 2015. His first poetry manuscript was a 2014 finalist for 1913 Press’ Prize for First Books, judged by Claudia Rankine. His writing can be found in TYPO, N+1, The Volta Blog, HTML Giant, Tripwire, and other places.