Ten Walks/Two Talksby Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010
"Emotion as Description as Conversation"
Review by Olatundji Akpo-Sani
Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch is a collaborative effort, born from the mind, of collaboration, friendship, and attention. Andy Fitch is a poet invested in the idea of movement, less the blind wanderings of the easy commute - more the stark instances, that if we are attenuated, may infiltrate and mold us into who we become. This is a wonderful match for Jon Cotner, a poet enthralled in the movement of dialogue and the transitions of meaning and thoughts through conversation.
Jon: After reading Sixty Morning Walks, I told Andy I’d wanted to transcribe dialogues between me and people I met at Union Square Whole Foods while eating stolen food. Something about that space evokes the ancient Greek agora (or marketplace), so it seemed the perfect venue for a project at least loosely connected with Socratic dialogue…(Robinson, Adam)
These two ideas of movement blend into the sensual city of not only New York, the sky line and impending unorthodoxy of a chaotic bauble entered into with the brisk steps form one’s own domicile, be that a home or a mind, but also into the sensual city of poetry, language, and friendship.
The first time I read this book through I was floored by the descriptions of the environment that surrounds Andy during his ten walks through the city streets, but on subsequent readings the conversations held sway. Together they shine a spot light on what it means to be in intimate relation to something other than one’s self.
What most people take for granted while simply moving from point A to point B is illuminated in these daily poetic romps. While reading of these walks through one of the biggest cities in the world one might expect the city’s inhabitants to shine bright but not here. Here they play a mere side note to the environment the poet passes through.
Kristin came from the elevator, which smelled like coffee. The florists had installed yellow daisies, yellow lilies. At 8:12 I flinched against a frigid gust – couldn’t get my lips wedged under a scarf. People’s eyes expressed abandonment. P. 12
The idea of a linear narrative about where we go and how we get there is disassembled and reassembled – transformed into something we feel in our gut, not just witness with our eyes. The emotive quality of the city takes over, propelled through these snapshot like descriptions. Meaning and emotion are found as the scenes stack upon each other, not in any individual moment. Not that each moment is not important, in fact, each moment’s importance is heightened in this process, and like a movie, these snap shots connect one after another to create something synergistic.
The intimacy built in the first two lines through the reference to, Kristin, Andy’s girlfriend, along with the ideal of flowers in spring is slammed shut with the flinch of the frigid gust. The abandonment expressed in eyes is thus felt as we are stripped from our place of initial comfort. Kristin, as with the other few proper names sprinkled throughout the walks, is no more important than how the elevator smells, what flowers are installed or the feeling of loss seen in the eyes of a passersby. These objects give us time and place. They give us movement, but through the author’s poetic sense the city shifts from place to emotion.
I crossed through scaffolds strung with caged lamps. Icicles and nails poked down near the exit. Silence and light gathered around tabloid salesmen seated on milk crates at 110th and Lenox. Slashed garbage bags spilled their contents. Shredded documents clung to each other. P. 14
Each sentenced detail can be taken as a separate occurrence but when read together we feel the disappointment of a cold early spring (the title of the chapter that begins the book and that this quote is taken from). Caged lamps mix with icicles and nails. “Silence and light gather around tabloid salesman” (p.14) and even the garbage, those things discarded and torn, must cling to each other. We feel the forced imprisonment and the yearning to break free. What is exposed needs compatriots to keep away the lonely cold, which has become dangerous and sharp in our impatience for warmer weather.
These are not passive walks and commentaries. After all, the act of observing is a visceral conversation one has with his or her surroundings. This book reminds one of the importance of that conversation. When we attentively walk through streets or fields isn’t that what we are doing - conversing? When writing Walden; or Life in the Woods Thoreau was conversing with his environment in the hope to understand society and himself better. Basho (an inspiration for this collection) used his time walking to converse with nature - succinctly transforming his observances to profound commentary. We see the same ethos at work in these ten walks.
The people and objects passed tell us something of ourselves in how we perceive them. We are interacting with our surroundings whether we willingly understand and notice the millions of minute disturbances and beauties as Andy does, or we walk blindly forward stumbling over cracks and curbs, seemingly becoming lost in the terrific rush. Ten Walks/Two Talks shows us the beauty of attention.
When we reach the end of the first five walks we are presented with the first Talk, which jars us out of our sensual attention. This juxtaposition works to round out the whole of the book. At first the easy, aimless, and occasionally distracted talk seems so distant from the precise and propulsive flow that is established in the walks. Yet they express the ease of friendship without which the beautifully described walks would remain mere descriptions. Within the dichotomous elements of the drifting talks and the pointed descriptions of walks I begin to feel a balance. Andy walks without destination. The conversations meander on without direction.
A: General… J: In general? A: [muffled] all momentum, barely finished the paper, and decided twenty’s too young for graduate school. J: So I took a walk this afternoon after talking to Amanda – to to relish our conversation and imagine spending… A: Just bef… J: new loverly moments together. As I stepped out I saw a Carribena church service start. To my left stands the Celestial Church of Christ, in the Alare Alua Parish. A: Do you find it hard to read whole church names? P. 72
In the walks rights and lefts are taken arbitrarily, while in the talks topics change on a whim. The friendship inherent in these two talks lays bare the friendship between an inhabitant and his or her surroundings. These two participants are talking with each other more than to each other as only dear friends can. And here in lies the key that ties the two parts of this book together to make the whole. The walks themselves can be seen as pointed conversations and the talks can be seen as walks through easy fields. As with all things familiar direction is lost and what replaces it, while cloistered in the battlements of inside understandings, carries the reader past the need to understand the particular and into a realm where understanding is something that is felt through reading/hearing the breaks in conversations and the heady flow of the streets of New York.
This is a beautiful book, easy to read, but complicated in its scope, which is not an easy task, given that New York city (or any city) is known for its complexity and friendship is a balance of competing desires and attitudes. Yet no part of this book feels weighted. It left this reader feeling light and hopeful that the next time I leave my house or converse with a close friend I too will have the attention and where-with-all to let my mind wander and notice the inherent beauty that encompasses all our interactions.
Robinson, Adam. "Ten Walks/Two Talks: Interview with Jon and Andy HTMLGIANT."Ten Walks/Two Talks: Interview with Jon and Andy | HTMLGIANT. HTMLGIANT, 28 June 2010. Web. 24 Oct. 2012.
Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch are the authors of Ten Walks/Two Talks, which was chosen as a Best Book of 2010 by The Week, The Millions, Time Out Chicago, and Bookslut. They recently completed another collaboration called Conversations over Stolen Food. Cotner and Fitch have performed their dialogic improvisations across the United States and internationally. Cotner has done walk projects for the BMW Guggenheim Lab, Elastic City, and the Poetry Society of America. Fitch has books forthcoming from Dalkey Archive and Ugly Duckling Presse. Cotner teaches in Pratt Institute's Creative Writing Program. Fitch teaches in the University of Wyoming's
Olatundji Akpo-Sani is a poet, writer, publicist, and lover of each and every morsel of life who currently resides in a very small town nestled within very old mountains. His work has appeared in Monkey Puzzle Issue #5, The Rag, Pismire, Fast Forward Vol. 2, and The Barcelona Review - amongst other places. Be assured he wishes you well.