Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby
Feet first, mouth second, thoughts third.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
I met Andy Fitch at a 2009 MLA panel on public art. Having arrived late, I missed the introduction Andy and his collaborator Jon Cotner gave to their presentation about “Conversations Over Stolen Food,” a pranksterish project they had undertaken in New York a year earlier. As they read an exchange from the piece, it gradually dawned on me that Andy was reading Jon’s half of the conversation, and Jon was reading Andy’s. What made this ephemeral interaction a form of public art? Bewildered and intrigued, I continued to follow their work, including Ten Walks/Two Talks, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, a book that introduced me to Andy’s practice of walking composition, which provides the heart of his new book, Sixty Morning Walks, a diaristic text whose flâneur-like narrator—a roving eye or “I”—stitches together the city’s landscape by threading his way through it. Andy’s writing practice, which is often audio-based, fascinates me with its simultaneous insistence on embodiment (we are always aware of the language as emanating from a body) and rejection of bodily fixity (one has the sense this speaker would prefer not to locate himself at all, as evinced by his willingness to exchange language, and by extension bodies, with his collaborators).
In October Andy and I met in Fort Collins, Colorado to read from our forthcoming collaboration, As We Know (Boulder: Subito 2014). A book that attempts to intervene into the history of male editors redacting and reshaping the work of women writers, it uses erasure to not only reverse that gender dynamic but also explore the potential for co-authored identity. As We Know uses a summer audio diary Andy kept as its textual source, presenting his redacted transcript with “my erasures” tunneling a path through his language and toward my own narrative. Trying on Andy’s poetics has expanded my sense of what it means to walk and talk, to be a writer situated with respect to race and gender, and to acknowledge the limitations of that perspective. The best way to understand the how and why of his writing seemed to be through making, inhabiting the embodied experience of composition. So, we set out for a morning walk of our own along the Poudre River amid scattered showers.
Amaranth Borsuk I thought maybe a good place to start would be to talk a little bit about the process by which the book was written. Is there anything you can tell me about Sixty Morning Walks?
Andy Fitch Well, on a February 15th, in I believe 2009, I had scheduled myself to start a new writing project. I had nothing planned, though I had planned to have something planned. I panicked that morning and did what I do when I panic, which is take a walk. And then while out it became clear that I would write Sixty Morning Walks. On that first walk, I decided sixty-minute walks suit me, so I took one of those, came home, and decided to write sixty sentences to describe what I saw—vaguely based on John Cage’s sixty-second structures for “Indeterminacy.” I basically did that for sixty consecutive mornings. I would try simply to observe and not to think while walking, come home, and immediately write down details. Every single day the tension increased. I thought I might blow it.
AB (laughter) On the subject of walking, how is this pace for you now?
AF How about for you? I’m perfectly happy with this pace, but I tend to be Osaka-like in my walking. Osaka residents consider themselves the fastest walkers in Japan. Is this too much?
AB No, it’s fine for me. I just want to make sure you’re not too winded since I’m asking you fairly involved questions and don’t want to jumble your thoughts. But it sounds like, for you, the process of walking is in fact the stimulator for both thoughts and mouth.
AF I’d say feet come first, mouth second, thoughts third. Writing definitely involves my mouth muscles in ways I try to keep hidden from family and guests. I also need to flap my wrists a lot, but always in private. For today, I’ll be winded regardless. I semi-accidentally smoked a cigarette last night.
AB Maybe you can also tell me a little bit about the significance of the number sixty. You’ve said it’s partly related to Cage’s “Indeterminacy,” but the number sixty threads through several recent projects of yours, including the e-book companion to this book, Sixty Morning Wlaks1, and then a book of interviews you published this year, Sixty Morning Talks.
AF Right, I have the melodramatic-sounding goal of completing sixty sixty-part projects as my life’s work. But why sixty? Probably because of a childhood fixation with sixty seconds and sixty minutes. It seemed so convenient that time worked out this way. Sixty became the elemental number for tracking time—one’s progression through time. If I can develop sixty different idioms, sixty different forms of inquiry, hopefully my lifetime will feel full.
AB In the interest of fullness, let’s enjoy this waterfall that’s cascading over here.
AF Oh amazing. It’s curling in all these different directions.
AB Most writers don’t conceive of an entire body of work that’s going to last the duration of their life before they begin. They tend to proceed book by book, project by project, and at the end of their life, they can reflect on that work and see it’s all amounted to something. But you decided at the outset, and you’ve laid out enough track ahead of you that you can keep walking and walking.
AF Right. I can’t start thinking until I’ve stocked, let’s say, bulk goods in the cabinet—granola and almonds for my yogurt. I need first to set up life for life to happen. If I had to explain Karmic theory, it would have less to do with reincarnation, more with the state of your kitchen when you wake up. So for me, before I could do much work it seemed essential to have it planned out in some vague sense. I find it tremendously comforting to consider at least this biggest organizational problem taken care of. Playing around with the smaller bits then becomes easy, fun.
AB We’re going to pass under this overpass so it’s going to get a little bit noisy.
AF It actually stayed quite calm. I like cars passing overhead.
AB There’s a kind of gentle rumble as each goes over. And an embankment of interesting, sort of choppy, blocky rocks down here.
AF I wish thunder crossed overhead like cars.
AB You could sense the direction in which it was going. Boy, now we get a little covered bridge and a railroad trestle. This is so idyllic.
AF If you’re under 7’1’’.
AB (laughter) Right. Which I am.
AF I am, too. Way.
AB Let’s return to the book and this “life work” project. It begins with an epigraph from Roland Barthes: “It must all be considered as if spoken by a character in a novel,” which is interesting given that these are also records of your own perambulations. Putting this quotation at the beginning of the book immediately raises this question of who this narrator is. It immediately suggests that, while this may sound like it’s meant to be identified with the author, in fact this is a kind of constructed identity. So maybe could you tell me something about your choice of this epigraph, and how you expect us to refer to the book’s speaker—should I say “Andy”?—as we’re talking about the book. What should I call him?
AF Well, if you called him “Roland” I’d be especially grateful. But I should have said, in conjunction with Lyn Hejinian’s My Life, that the basic artistic model here comes from ukiyo-e, nineteenth-century woodblock printmaking in Japan—specifically expansive series or thematic cycles of prints, which for me resemble a book or the type of full-spectrum narrative I always wanted to read. So you have the most obvious series, Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Edo is present-day Tokyo) organizing Sixty Morning Walks in terms of images appearing at the front of chapters. I love … I’m sorry, I’m just going to tie my shoe.
AB There’s a line in the book where the speaker is talking, and two men stoop over to tie their shoes, and he says, “I didn’t like overtaking them like that.”
AF Right, okay, so you felt that—
AB So I just had to stop there. There was no way I was going to overtake you while you were tying your shoelace.
AF Yeah, I think that line has to do with vague, male, unconscious homoeroticism. And alongside Hiroshige, you have Hokusai’s projects like Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji or Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. I loved that these series seem proto-photographic, representational in intent, yet with some sense of continuity or collective sensibility never articulated, implicitly framing the space in which audience or viewer enters into engagement with the overall, cumulative work. In my own life at the time, I remember holding very reductive conceptions of how Language writing responded to the over-accessibility of familiar lyric forms. I appreciated Language arguments but wanted to find new ways to experiment through repetition, through indexical description, through something like straightforward (though saturated, inassimilable, overwhelming) presentations of everyday fact. Now I recognize, of course, that poets like Ron Silliman and Lyn Hejinian did much of this in terrific ways a long time ago. But back then, the question of how to create book-length duration entirely based on momentary observations and provisional utterances preoccupied me. I hoped that the consolidated consciousness of this project could come together the way a coherent image-repertoire of the city came together when I flipped through ukiyo-e prints. I love, just in my mind, to imagine the novel of One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. I don’t actually read many novels, but often dream of developing a different relationship to a different type of novel. And so for me, that utopian dream of the novel, that desire for what Roland Barthes calls “the novelesque without the novel,” made Barthes seem the ideal entry point for Sixty Morning Walks.
AB If you were to write that novel, would you need to go and do those walks that those views represent?
AF I hope to do that next year, in Japan. But I kind of feel like to write that utopian novel, you never write that novel. You leave it to the reader to write that novel. I mean, I think of Marjorie Perloff’s line, “Saturation produces difference,” if I’m getting it right, and I sense how this happens on a walk through New York City. Everybody has a distinctive, separate, perhaps irreconcilable walk from those around them. And yet a collective walk down the street happens. New York now, for me, stands as a shining collectivist dreamscape. Again, one might say the same thing about time.
AB Sorry, I’m crowding you. Oh, on the right, sorry!
AF Oh wow, hello. (sound of a trotting horse) We do have to interrupt to say a twelve-year-old girl on a horse chased by a squat, muscular dog almost hit us.
AB A dog in some sort of utility vest.
AF It’s Thursday morning, 10:30 AM, in Fort Collins, Colorado.
AB You were saying …
AF This same collectivist dreamscape, of course, shapes the ongoing existence of any book. Looking at floating-world ukiyo-e prints, or reading a book, or walking through New York provide my favorite models for how temporality operates, both on an individual and on a species level.
AB Given the way the book’s speaker is constantly in motion through this cityscape, observing it and imagining the inner lives of those around him, I wondered whether Woolf might be a reference point for you. Sixty Morning Walks isn’t quite free indirect discourse, because you’re not actually entering the consciousness of the other people that you walk by, but you are projecting the speaker’s emotion into those people.
AF Absolutely, I love Virginia Woolf. And I did try to foreground these projections, never fully in a fictive form, never fully allowing you to enter other perspectives, but giving a kaleidoscopic sense of a personhood continually making these types of projections, understanding the world through both observational and imaginative engagements with it. I tried to develop a syntax that tracks such experiences without resorting to some clichéd stream-of-consciousness mode.
AB Well, it’s stream-of-consciousness in that there isn’t a direct narrative taking us from one line to the next, but rather a narrative built on observations moment to moment. But we’re supposed to imagine, a la Barthes, that it is “spoken by a character in a novel,” so that’s the challenge. Your reader immediately wants to create a feeling of narrative despite the fact that the book doesn’t give us a narrative.
AF Right, and you don’t even have to imagine that ersatz narrative if you don’t want to. The Barthesian voice, again, offers just one among the city’s endless voices. Do you know Two or Three Things I Know About Her, the Godard movie, with that voice whispering in the background? I think of Roland Barthes as always whispering in my background.
As I spun out Kristin’s door my cheeks dampened. At 8:20 sidewalks looked like crisco. Someone dragged three big boxes of salt behind him, enough for decades of storms. A driver honked accidentally then stared to her left. A bus for the elderly got packed in by plows. Gulls dropped from gray sky like flurries, sounding human, dangling feet. Others kept their feet tucked (which I’ve always found so elegant).2
AB The entries have a quality of exquisitely remembered detail punctuated by these esoteric, introspective moments where things in the outside world make the speaker feel a certain way, giving the reader a sort of a shivery surprise. This immediately raises the question of who a diary is even written for.
AF Does it seem a cop-out to say that perhaps a diary doesn’t get written for somebody, but from somebody? That a diary offers a limit case for how much any one person could ever know about another? That a diary can’t help but reach beyond itself, so that it doesn’t really offer anything except a prompt to the diary of the reader?
AB Along those lines, let’s go back to the projective moments and the way in which the speaker, maneuvering through the city and documenting the sights, sounds, and smells that populate the landscape, is looking. I found myself, early on in the book, feeling like your project was partly about the male gaze.
AB Because there’s so much sexualization of the landscape, even birds somehow can become kind of titillating to the speaker.
AF This speaker finds birds sexy.
AB They get sexy, yeah. And, essentially, everything gets sexy, like that moment we were just talking about in which the speaker’s encounter with two men tying their shoelaces becomes homoerotic. So at first I was thinking, Oh, this is about the male gaze and the objectification of others. But the more I read, the more it seemed like it was partly about the authorial gaze, and about this desire for connection with others. There’s this line, “I spun off in vicarious ecstasy.” It almost seems like the walks are searching for “vicarious ecstasy” in the world at large. What’s your relationship to what that gaze is doing?
AF For me, this gets to the most complicated part of the project, the place where I most fear people hating the book because I’ve blown it just when I wanted to get abstract. I hope readers will recognize that I deliberately shaped this particular speaker, that I’ve decided at times to emphasize awkward or problematic or potentially unlikeable elements of this speaker, that I in fact would have found it much easier (on a paranoid social level) to present a sanitized, de-maled “I,” but that, instead, this “I’s” less desirable qualities hopefully allow for a convoluted form of vulnerability to break through. But just to try to answer your question: I don’t know how you wake up, but for me consciousness wakes up before my body, and in walking early (during a phase Walter Benjamin defines as pre-breakfast) I wanted to find my body. Maybe that has to do with how the masculine projection works. The walks depict a reaching out until some sort of physical and psychical contact occurs with the world, at which point I can feel a bit calmer. Or it’s like when my dog gets excited, and you have to wait a minute for her to settle. Morning walks for me offer a blurry, semi-delirious, semi-intentional rush to get to the point where I can settle. In New York, that happened through random engagements (that don’t even count as engagements) with passersby. For me, that’s what morning is in New York, at least when you don’t have the luck to stay home.
AB I guess another touch point for that would be the 2001 film Amélie, in which the heroine, feeling deliciously in harmony with the city, is overwhelmed with a lofty desire to do good, to help humankind, so she takes her blind neighbor, who just wants to cross the street, by the arm and rapidly narrates everything she sees, making every image become incredibly sensuous: from the smell of fresh melon, to laughter crinkling someone’s eyes, to the price of cheese. Perhaps there’s something about the act of description for both of these speakers that is, by its nature, erotic because it makes tangible this kind of, I don’t know, vibrationhappening in the world around you.
AF Yeah I’m always walking my blind neighbor, certainly. For me this suggests a lack of future, a willingness to dwell within a horizon—the way that in New York you can see land closing in not too far ahead and that’s fine because what you have before you is inherently erotic. It suggests for once stopping all worry about what will come and just staying happy with what’s around us. So eros, but not fully in a sexual sense, more like mammals sleeping in a cave.
AB Sure. And maybe that feeling is also connected to a kind of urban sublime. There’s a line in the book, “why do construction sites always make me feel—
AF —small, lonely, and connected to the world.”
AB Right. To me that’s a total sublime moment, as in the Romantic sublime.
AF Oh, I haven’t thought about the sublime.
AB So, my recollection of the way the Romantic poets internalized Longinus’ On the Sublime,is that the confrontation with nature’s majesty—you know, giant mountains, vast fields of flowers, thunderstorms—makes you feel your utter insignificance. And, by extension, you feel deeply connected to the world, because you are aware of the brevity of your time in it. In the case of New York, you don’t have that confrontation with nature, though the Hudson and Central Park offer glimpses of it. Instead your speaker is dwarfed by the massiveness of construction sites and cranes.
AF Sure. That makes perfect sense. Or the massiveness of what’s always at hand, if you stop expecting something more massive to come your way. Just the name “Longinus” seems great, for example. And I feel like there’s always much more than enough available to us. So again, this explains why the planned sixty-book project gives me relief. I can give up searching for something beyond what’s immediately around, and then I can realize the supreme plentitude of any given moment.
AB And I think it’s interesting that the sublime is in this book that’s so much about quotidian life in New York.
AF Back then, I thought this happened specifically because New York was so terrific. Though, not living there now, I consider space and time in general pretty great.
AB Right, and a desire for connection with others during the small amount of space and time we have.
AF Right, and “the others” can be sidewalk, too. They don’t have to possess a personality.
AB In the same way for the Romantics, it could be Tintern Abbey.
AF And just to clarify: unrealistic elements do appear in the book. You might need to immerse yourself in New York topography to notice or care, but then you recognize that the “I” from Sixty Morning Walks sees from certain bridges sites that you can’t really see. Again I wanted to evoke this elastic, trans-bodily personhood roving around the city and then gradually stumbling into one particular physical being.
AB That sort of brings me to my next question, which is, to what extent is the landscape constituted by the individual within it?
AF Well this may get too personal for your question, but I have such limited visual range that I’ve always thought of landscape as a subjective experience, as something created by one’s movement through it. And I like to think of New York streets, let’s say, as stage platforms. So every block can give you a flickering sense of presence, a fleeting glimpse—but again, you’re just one audience member at a packed, ever-mobile performance.
AB You know, now it’s making me think back on the Barthes quote. I mean, I don’t know the context from which it comes, but it sounds almost like another way of thinking about the early-twentieth-century sense that people had, writers especially, that we’re suddenly living in a movie. That once movies existed, we began to imagine the narratives of our lives as a film someone else was watching. And that Barthes quote might ask us instead to think of our lives as a book someone else is reading.
AF Yeah, that’s great. And for me life is a picture book someone’s flipping through, with me flipping through a picture book inside that, and I’m always hoping sometime to come across a picture of myself. I guess that’s narcissistic, huh?
AB Or Escher-esque.
AF Of course. By the way, I enjoy holding this microphone.
AB Oh, good! I’m glad you don’t mind. It’s making it easier for me to consult my notes. Also the weather’s turned kind of nice. The droplets have stopped.
AF When I get a drop now it seems to have come from below.
AB So we’ve said that there isn’t really a narrative in the book, but there is a landscape, and the narrator keeps returning to certain places in the landscape, like Central Park, and where else?
AF The walks begin from two locales: my wife’s (then girlfriend’s) apartment in TriBeCa, and my own apartment in early 2000s gentrifying Harlem. That type of dual consciousness, with obvious class and race contrasts mixed in, appealed to me when writing about New York. The book oscillates largely between those two places as my life did back then.
AB What we notice most are seasons changing, the kinds of birds you see, you begin—see, I’ve already turned it into you, I’ve already turned the speaker into you.
AF It’ll turn back. Don’t worry.
AB So the speaker, then, identifies tulips blooming and can name them all and is really in touch with the seasonal change.
AF That speaker must have been reading a lot of James Schuyler.
AB And then the other, the non-natural backdrop, is Christo’s gates going up early on in the piece, which somehow seems significant.
AF Again foregrounding the theatricality of physical space in New York.
AB Certainly, it feels theatrical, and that’s one of those eroticized moments where the speaker first gets to see them and describes them as similar to “standing under women’s thighs.”
AF That line comes back to haunt me.
AB (laughter) As one would imagine many of the lines in the book do. This is a speaker who says things that might not be considered socially appropriate fairly often.
AF I sense he sometimes feels bad about it later.
AB (laughter) Is shame part of this book?
AF Definitely. I could start with the shame of not knowing how to talk about something like race at that particular historical moment. On each walk, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood, I easily could trace the contours of cultural space by noting shifts in class, race, ethnicity, gender. For example: would women on the street be rushing to work, pushing strollers, with their own kids or someone else’s? And a more polite idiom, in which the speaker didn’t directly describe such changes in terms of race or class, for fear of offensively categorizing people, but instead used euphemisms and environmental noise to imply such changes, seemed hopelessly corny, and probably too safe or self-valorizing. I had been a militantly minded African American History major, who had read extensively in feminist theory, not long before, and would have hoped not to embody some sort of roving pornographic eye exposing others even as any introspective investigations remained off limits. But gradually, as I edited the book, I realized that this insistent observing “I” could become self-interrogating, become confessional, could become a bit human by foregrounding that very spectacle of compulsive impersonal observation. So shame and exhibitionism remain entwined throughout. If we could call the book experimental in any way, it probably comes from that part. Most generally, I just wanted to think through what a language would be … what sort of observational language could track all of these differences from block to block, or neighborhood to neighborhood, without falling into reductive characterizations, constrictive stereotypes. I probably could succeed better at that now.
AB Well, I think the way the speaker identifies everyone around him (and I feel like I do need to say him even though it isn’t a gendered narrator), whether Haitian, South Asian, or “blonde,” seems very much related to a kind of tallying up, counting to make sure that everyone is here, everyone is present, people exist.
AF At the time this approach seemed connected to an enthusiastic embrace of everybody. Afterward it became more clear that some readers (with white, straight males among them, of course) might just find one white, straight jerk’s consciousness.
AB (laughter) Well, my sense over the course of the whole book is that while in the beginning it does seem a bit jerky, in that this person is always identifying otherness, eventually it becomes clear that the book is both documenting New York after 9/11 and repopulating the landscape. This was written at a moment when the destroyed World Trade Center site was becoming a kind of tourist destination. There’s also a constant police presence in the book.
AF Big machine guns.
AB Right, and for someone who wasn’t living in New York at the time but who had strong connections to the city, that gave me a rich sense of what day-to-day life was like, and the way individual consciousness was affected by that traumatic loss.
AF I definitely hoped to time-stamp the city this book describes. And so this book’s ways of differentiating one neighborhood from another already can seem obsolete or inappropriate. Hopefully that again suggests that the project’s ultimate projected figure is its own descriptive “I.”
AB And in some ways this descriptive “I” is trying to assert its own presence with respect to other people, just as a way of saying, I exist, I continue, I am alive.
AF And, at least in the background, realizing that, yes, critiques of the roving male eye abound, but today, out on the streets, that’s what I have to work with.
AB And in some ways it begins to feel necessary. And I think the exuberance that you see the perspective coming from absolutely comes through as, in some cases, a thwarted desire for connection with other people. It’s partly about noticing that we’re in space with other people constantly and missing one another.
AF Yes and sensing, for me at least, that observational and descriptive powers would fail immediately upon any real connection.
AB Meaning when there is a connection, it happens on a deeper, sub-vocal level?
AF Certainly sub-visual. Basically an anti-spatial level. This book explores (you’ve already gotten at this) knowing that one’s body exists through its almost contacting others. And for that reason, knowing one’s “body” is not only physically defined.
AB Does the book, when you read it, come back to you in flashes of lived memory?
AF It absolutely has replaced my memory. All I remember of New York, aside from a couple fun nights out with my wife, are what happens in Sixty Morning Walks and a few spinoff projects. This seems a more durable, sturdier form of memory, and I’m happy to take it with me.
AB I noticed that in spite of the fact that each diary entry has no narrative, they always end with closure on a banal sentence. I’ll just turn to one at random. Okay, so this is page 127, the last two sentences: “The next person had arrived. The guard said, ‘Keep moving.’”
AF Yeah, I guess if my life could end on the closure of a banal sentence that would suffice, and in fact this happens most moments. Sixty Morning Walks pretty much just offers, you know, beginnings and endings, as does any walk. Those are all I remember from most walks.
1. The title of this book is indeed Sixty Morning Wlaks, due to a transcriptive error (the book contains garbled transcriptions of sixty more walks, each described in a sprawling sixty-paragraph entry).
2. Andy Fitch, Sixty Morning Walks (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), p. 29.
Amaranth Borsuk is a poet, scholar, and book artist interested in text’s materiality across media. Her most recent book is As We Know (Subito, 2014), a collaboration with Andy Fitch. She is the author of Handiwork (Slope Editions, 2012), and, with Brad Bouse, Between Page and Screen (Siglio Press, 2012). Abra, a collaboration with Kate Durbin forthcoming from 1913 Press, recently received an NEA-sponsored Expanded Artists’ Books grant from the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago and will be issued in 2014 as an artist’s book and iPad app created by Ian Hatcher. Amaranth teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at The University of Washington, Bothell.
Andy Fitch’s most recent books are Sixty Morning Talks and (with Amaranth Borsuk) As We Know. Ugly Duckling will soon release his Sixty Morning Walks and Sixty Morning Wlaks. With Cristiana Baik, he is currently assembling the Letter Machine Book of Interviews. He has a collaborative book forthcoming from 1913 Press. He edits Essay Press and teaches in the University of Wyoming’s MFA program.
Chinua Achebe says that the English language, when altered, can be used to bear the burden of his African experience. I extrapolate from that and try to put it into painting.
Njideka Akunyili Crosby