Reviewing Michael Gottleib’s recent Memoir and Essay, a mordant chronicle of East Coast “language writing” through the eyes of one of its less academically celebrated foot-soldiers, my good friend Jordan Davis writes, “this book pretty much demolishes whatever romance might be left for the life of a poet without credential,” particularly in New York. Fortunately, no one told Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch that the dream is over. Their collaborative Ten Walks/Two Talks (Ugly Duckling Presse) bursts with the kind of urban detail best – or at least most readily – appreciated by underemployed aesthetes:
“Honking gesse made the morning lucid and tender. Dandelions hadn’t been there Tuesday. A West African curling dumbbells spoke to his daughter in the prettiest French. A jogger in a coolie hat barely moved forwards. I turned into the North Woods just as three gay Germans (two shaved bald) stepped out. An hour later I’d see them in the East 100s.”
Fitch currently teaches writing in Wyoming, but both authors come off as anything but credentialed at the time the book was composed. (A reference to George W. Bush’s first hundred days pegs one section as occurring circa April 2001). Rather, they’re “rootless homeboys,” in blurber Lynne Tillman’s apt phrase, rich enough in time and attention, if little else, to pursue the larger projects on which their book draws: Sixty Morning Walks, published online here and the pair’s transcribed Conversations Over Stolen Food. The “walks” begin and end at a Harlem-adjacent apartment (a few, from a downtown girlfriend’s), and distill an hour of wandering into sixty sentences of recollected observation. On occasion, a few sentences at a stretch will coalesce into anecdote:
“I passed two mutts really going at it: the owners talking politely as if someplace else. The top dog got pulled when a Parks Enforcement vehicle approached. Two officers stepped out. The bottom-dog’s owner apologized for removing its leash. I’m sorry, she said, I just thought with all this space. I’m sorry, I kept hearing, but I could only see the police truck. I’m sorry I’m sorry.”
More often, attention is atomized at the level of the sentence (“A drop of water fell in my mouth as I passed the store for kid geniuses. A resident’s recycling bin overflowed with green bottles. Hispanic contractors huddled in lobbies: except one woman washed windows in just a teal sweatshirt”), and many passages would be equally credible presented in another order, or traded for sections of other walks. Similarly, the fact that walks are actually Fitch’s “solo” work, while clear enough online, is noted nowhere in the printed version. It’s an act of generosity to allow the reader to imagine that Cotner had, or might as well have had, a hand in these sections, but also a way of downplaying the individual sensibility – a “subjectivity,” as they say in the textbooks – that organizes the writing.
The two jointly composed “talks” that round out the book are, if anything, more diffuse, as Fitch and Cotner tote a cheap Dictaphone through Central Park, and into the Whole Foods at Union Square. (Beyond its opportunities for illicit “discounts,” the choice of the latter location is a sly comment on the difficult-to-romanticize sites available to would-be bohemians in today’s rebuilt, over-franchised Manhattan.) In the park, dead ends and doublings-back amplify the aimlessness of the dialogue, which ranges over immediate phenomena (“Do you like how backs of benches catch a glow from streetlamps?”), roommate stories, and wooly summaries of Aristotle’s and Wittgenstein’s views of language. In an interview, the authors confirm that the tapes were carefully edited and condensed for publication, and claim surprise that anyone has taken them for verbatim transcripts. Even in this form, the results disrupt conventional notions of literary shapeliness, much as the partipant’s favored zones of Fredrick Olmstead’s magnum opus play wilderness against cultivation. (It’s no accident that they amble through “the Ramble.”)
Cotner and Fitch’s project has too many antecedents to list – the book alludes to Thoreau, James Schuyler, and Lyn Hejinian, among others – and focusing on its structure and strategy misses its moment-to-moment humor, the writing’s lightly torqued syntax (“Waves blowing northeast spiraled sometimes”), and the sweet-natured affect conveyed by both of its voices. There are exceptions: one of the book’s funniest riffs is Cotner’s recounting of his vulgar pantomime in response to a reckless SUV driver. Still, its relative sunniness separates Ten Walks/Two Talks from the more critically-minded or politically transformative tradition of flanerie that passes through Baudelaire, Situationism, and the “New Sentence” work of Ron Silliman, in which every glancing “take” also reads as a microcosm of broader social relations.
That isn’t to say that that the authors are oblivious to their privileged position as observers. Cultural difference, whether in the form of Malaysian newspapers or “a sophisticated old black woman” holding up a coffee line, registers frequently, with a census-taker’s frankness, underscoring the membership of the book’s white, male, reasonably well-educated “I” in American culture’s – but not New York’s – unmarked case. Early in their Union Square talk, Cotner suggests that asking about someone’s “heritage” (i.e., ethnicity) amounts to a kind of pick-up line, with a subtext Fitch glosses as “I am aware of you as a body.” If that’s correct, then Fitch and Cotner are indiscriminate flirts, libidinously “aware” of the city, and every body in it.