The antidotal approach

NoteThis interview between Zach Savich and Andy Fitch centers around Fitch’s Sixty Morning Talks, published in 2014 by Ugly Duckling Presse, a volume of sixty transcribed interviews with poets who released books in 2012.

Zach Savich: Reading Sixty Morning Talks from start to finish, I became very aware of the date of each interview. I started to think of the book not only as a collection of exchanges but as a chronicle of several months in 2012, a kind of memoir or travelogue, in the sense that Dante’s Commedia would be a travelogue even if you removed everything except the dialogue. In one nine-day period in June, for example, you conducted eleven interviews, with poets including Daniel Tiffany, Vanessa Place, Forrest Gander, John Kinsella, Dorothea Lasky — and these are substantial conversations; they suggest both significant preparation and your talent at following talk where it leads. How did you prepare for this project? Did you begin it with central lines of inquiry in mind? I’m wondering because the book offers hints of narrative, or cumulative investigation (“I’ve interviewed [Rob Halpern, Dana Ward, and Thom Donovan],” you tell Brandon Brown, “and you come up in each of their books”), but these continuities don’t result from repetitive questioning or by focusing only on poets with narrow affinities, and they aren’t emphasized by an introduction or other critical framing. Perhaps some of these connections were particularly unexpected?

Andy Fitch: Thanks, Zach. I have much admiration for your work both as a poet and as a reader of the contemporary. As we start this conversation, I only regret that you did not appear in the Sixty Talks book. To begin with your broadest question, regarding whether I had central lines of inquiry in mind: I would say not really (unless the deliberate lack of such central inquiry counts as its own agenda, with its own politics).

This particular project served as my antidote to doctoral work, though I don’t mean to disparage my graduate program. After finishing oral exams, then a dissertation, I just assumed I never would read again. It didn’t seem to happen anymore. And the need to streamline my dissertation’s argument, to make it focused and timely, always felt fraudulent. I couldn’t understand any longer what critics do, or how they could speak convincingly of wider trends within contemporary poetics, or within a grouping of poets, or often even within a single book. To be honest, unless criticism gets written in lucid and compact prose, I zone out almost instantly, due to reductive formulations that have little to do with my reading experience.

So critical writing seemed to have moved off limits for me, like reading.

But before too long, that neglect or fear of critical writing had built up its own allure. I wanted to go back and try this form that felt so hard. I read Craig Dworkin’s article “Seja Marjinal,” which calls for an “ever more local, focused, specialized, and ad hoc” mode of criticism, and I always look up to Craig. So I decided on the sixty talks approach (in an instant, alas, while eating breakfast — somewhat copying Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has assembled many similar interview collections with artists). Miraculously, Anna Moschovakis at Ugly Duckling accepted the project before I had written it, saving me from the need to persuade potential interviewees that such a whacky book would appear in print one day. I started asking around somewhat randomly (but grounded in my own social circles, my own artistic biases, sure) about who had new books coming soon. I asked some favorite publishers to point me to authors. I had a sabbatical approaching, so time to read for once, though I had to haul a bunch of manuscripts to Buenos Aires. I found the world’s greatest transcriber, Maia Spotts, without whom this project’s completion would have remained impossible. Then just before the interviews started, my wife and I spontaneously bought our first house. So I think I had to interview somebody a couple hours after the closing. Then a few days later we left to teach a study-abroad course in Japan. For many of the early interviews, I would eat breakfast with my students, then head back to my room in our boarding house, as if to shower or something, then sneak in an interview via Skype (I didn’t want the students to complain I had neglected them). Then when the talk had finished, instead of decompressing, I would walk straight down to our den and lecture on Japanese history, about which I had read my first textbook the week before. It was total inner chaos, which allowed me to keep functioning and talking to whomever came next, but also left me quite dependent on the interviewees to pull us along. So endless thanks to them. Then by that nine-day stretch you mentioned, things had settled down a bit. My wife and I had made it to Australia, for a real vacation, and so for example I would have visited Wilson’s Promontory outside Melbourne during the day, learning about how wombats live, then would talk to Forrest and John later that night (it was always “morning” somewhere).

Anyway, I hope you can tell that I appreciate your reading the book straight through, and your comparisons to travelogues and memoirs-by-conversation. This lengthy response of mine has sought to demonstrate that, through the trappings of vague autobiographical narrative, I hoped to short-circuit the need for any dominant argument about contemporary poetics to emerge, but without the overall momentum dragging. I wanted to create focused intellectual space where poets I respect could speak at length for themselves, but wanted to maintain some sort of “plot” progress, since interview collections certainly can drag if they get too diffuse or too repetitive. So the book came about between those constrictions. I also had this dream about what Vasari had done, without my ever having looked at him.

And you make another good point: no introduction to the interviews — again, that inevitably would have excluded or seemed insensitive to certain contributors’ accomplishments. I harbor adolescent desires for all cultural gatekeepers (most have bad or superficial tastes, in poetry as much as elsewhere) to disappear, and don’t wish to become one myself. I still get excited when the Smiths sing “Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ, Hang the DJ.” So, instead of an introduction, an erasure-based afterword by the poet Amaranth Borsuk. This afterword rearranges forms of interrogation, offering no fixed answers. Amaranth comes first in the interviews, and so I liked having her bookend the collection. Amaranth and I now have a collaborative book just out, so one project bleeds into the next, into a new idiom. As for Rob, Dana, Thom, Brandon: it excited me to see all of these smart poets rethinking New Narrative work. Typically, I’m out of it. I only discovered this development through reading. Throughout Sixty Morning Talks, I tried to turn ignorance, laziness, and/or denseness into virtues. Everything felt fresh.

Savich: This “antidotal” approach helps complex ideas feel accessible — I can imagine teaching Sixty Morning Talks as an introduction to contemporary poetics, for students who don’t already care about poetics — and it can lead to delightful exchanges, perhaps reflecting the ways in which you absorbed, and also turned yourself loose from, your doctoral training; one shouts “Hang the DJ” from caring excessively about music, after all. This, as you suggest, feels fresh, far from reductive — “I’m just formulating the Boyesque on the spot,” you say to Nick Twemlow. I could list many such moments, which show inspired thinking about what, elsewhere, might be treated as dry concepts, diligently rehearsed (“You can find rocket fuel in lettuce, also,” Hoa Nguyen reminds us). 

And yet, were I to teach this book to undergraduates, I suspect they would note the frequent references to philosophers, critics, theorists, and other artists, the ways in which current talk about poetry can be highly referential, framing poetry as a creative parallel to critical scholarship. As soon as I say that, I remember rangier instances (Brandon Shimoda reporting a recent dream, for instance). Perhaps, then, an undercurrent in the book is contemporary poetry’s relationship to critical ideas. Several poets in the collection, such as Brian Kim Stefans, note their interest in taking on concepts from the academy for divergent ends, while others, such as Vanessa Place, present poetic action as a critical incursion. How did these interviews change your thinking about poetry’s enchantment with and anxiety about and reorientation of critical sources and discourse? Or would you encourage my hypothetical undergraduates to conclude something else from these interviews, to focus on another aspect of how these poets talk about poetry? 

Fitch: Brian in his interview presents a good model for, as you say, poaching from academic domains (here early Anglo-Saxon poetries) in pursuit of unsuspected pleasures. More generally, part of what most interested me about interviewees’ engagement with critical precedents was that their smart resulting hybrid projects appeared to have such little purchase in contemporary critical debates. Scholars seem much more concerned about tending to timely conversations within their professional fields, rather than acknowledging the interloping endeavors of poets. So, to start with, your students should know that anything poets touch becomes permanently tainted as poetry/poetics, and that poets should feel encouraged to absorb any idiom or disciplinary approach they come across, with little fear of losing their poetic side. I found Lisa Robertson’s book Nilling totally amazing, for example, profound and poised line-by-line, continually exhausting and refreshing, and if I ever get named college president, I personally will hand a copy to each freshman, cancel the first week of classes, clear space for an impromptu reading period. But I sense that my more strictly scholarly friends would take a glance and say: “I hear she’s great, but who thinks about Hannah Arendt today?” (or they will say that five years from now). 

And for many other poets whose critically minded books I read for Sixty Morning Talks, I could anticipate something similar. Yet rather than disparage contemporary criticism here, which isn’t my intention, I should just answer your thoughtful question by saying that creative/critical binaries deny, among many other possibilities, the attractive third-way potential for poets to write of/from poetic criticism in an untimely fashion — one of my favorite genres. And I know I’ve now reinforced reductive binaries by using categorically terms such as “poet” and “critic,” but that’s the best I can offer after a long afternoon hike in the sun.

Vanessa’s Boycott book remains subtle and surprising and insightful throughout. I love Boycott and assigned it in class last year. Personally, though, I again think of it and of Vanessa’s work and public presence in general as virtuosic poetic performance, rather than as a reshaping of critical discourse. Yes, conceptualist poetry has received much critical attention in recent years (as it should — since it has produced many of the most compelling books), but I think conceptualist panache perhaps disarmed many critics, who soon will return to more driving political preoccupations.

If I haven’t yet really encouraged your hypothetical undergrads to feel one way or the other, then could I assign them, for next class, to read all of Roland Barthes and Avital Ronnel and In the American Grain and My Emily Dickinson and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, The Grand Piano and “Poetry and Grammar”?   

Savich: OK, assigned. Along with many of the untimely interlopers mentioned throughout the book. Lisa Robertson, for example, mentions that one piece in Nilling opens with “a citation [she] found in Louis Mumford, from the Greek rhetorician Eubulus.” So maybe I’m wrong to emphasize poetry’s relationship to criticism — its ability to produce a third-way text — rather than, more basically, to the process of reading; Robertson’s interview didn’t cause me to research Eubulus, but to think about coincidence, conversation, the conversion of ideas across time. Dan Beachy-Quick, speaking of his essay collection Wonderful Investigations, makes a related suggestion, saying that he hopes the book provides “the experience of needing knowledge, or moving toward knowledge, a knowledge that these essays realize they can’t really offer.” Your interviews offer a similar experience, if only because readers are unlikely to have read every title under discussion. If we extend your role as curricular director for one moment, are there featured books that it might be particularly interesting for one to read after reading the interview? 

Fitch: Sorry to offer such a meek response here, especially given my enthusiasm for all sixty interviewees, but I have thoroughly repressed any sense of which books I prefer, or feel ought to be foregrounded, so I’ll have to struggle to offer some selections. Could I suggest some broader trends I found intriguing, and perhaps point to a representative interviewee or two? Younger poets responding to New Narrative we’ve already covered. Poets probing the future of the book, such as Amaranth Borsuk and Tan Lin, might fit well here. Publisher-poets rethinking publication strategies come to mind, Shanna Compton and Matvei Yankelevich among them. Poets pursuing relational practices of production (and their critique), like Thom Donovan and Bhanu Kapil, could offer interest context. Mónica de la Torre provides smart parallels to any number of contemporary art forms, as does Catherine Taylor to nonfiction. I’m just truncating my celebratory list, leaving out some of my favorite poets and people, so that this doesn’t drag on.

Savich: The book (as I flip back through it) invites such a list to keep shifting, which fits the critical vision sketched above, its principled fluidity. There’s a related, perhaps more formally derived, fluidity that results from the book’s conversational mode; the interviews remain directed, yet they are closer to oral histories than to the kind of interviews that simply trigger talking points or promote an author. You mentioned Obrist, whose work I’ve only heard of. What did you learn from his volumes? Were there other models that helped guide your technique as an interviewer? David Antin comes up several times in the book, so I’m tempted to connect this collection to a poetics of “talk” more broadly.

Fitch: Others before me have praised Obrist’s stamina as an interviewer. He engages artists from any number of cultural and historical contexts, involved in a wide variety of aesthetic and critical practices (a much more diverse array than you find in poetry), yet always seems to offer at least one question indicating that he could have gone so much further in depth if he could expect the reader to follow him. He demonstrates a great intimacy even amid his admirably heterogeneous and expansive scope. I don’t think anybody really understands if this comes from copious preparation, or persistent art-world gossip, or uncanny impromptu readings of his interviewees’ affective presence, but it helps to possess that sort of mystique as an interviewer, so that you don’t have to make yourself felt in some more obvious or obnoxious manner.

Aside from Obrist, and more specific to poetry, I long have listened to and admired and assigned segments from Charles Bernstein’s and Leonard Schwartz’s respective radio programs. Charles characteristically plays the wisecracker while landing one disarming insight after another, keeping it fresh and engaging regardless of whether he talks to an old friend or a figure with ostensibly opposite intellectual and/or aesthetic values. Leonard takes serious risks as a questioner, really putting himself out there, so that you never can predict whether even the syntax, let alone an answerable question, will arrive — and then it does, with great eloquence. Leonard raises the stakes and thereby ensures that a constructive, highly distinctive form of poetic/philosophical inquiry takes place, one that only could come through conversation.

And I could list a ton of terrific interviewers who have remapped, reimagined, reinvented what interviews can be (here Stephanie Anderson, Rosebud Ben-Oni, J’Lyn Chapman, H. L. Hix, Cindy King, Krystal Languell, Jonathan Stalling, Tony Trigilio, and Jeffrey Williams, for instance, come to mind). I have considered it an honor to work with these individuals, and with The Conversant’s many unnamed yet equally exceptional contributors. But I was poorly informed when I started Sixty Morning Talks. I thought of Charles and Leonard, how they had achieved a productive, fluid rapport with their interviewees. I thought that, if I needed (and I did need) to differentiate my own form of investigation from theirs, and if they had to concern themselves constantly with keeping the audio conversation crisp, lively, good-natured, then I should, by contrast, pile on the convoluted questions, apologize profusely for my vagueness but keep pushing forwards, give respondents time to reflect and experimentally formulate, and then clean it all up later. So that might provide a David Antin connection — to his lovely concept of vernacular thinking.     

Savich: And perhaps to The Volta overall, which I, at least, tend to read as though I’m constructing a conversation between an interview at The Conversant, poems and poetics statements elsewhere on the site, and so forth. In a related way, my experience of new poetry is increasingly embedded in — and probably inseparable from — conversations and chatter on social media, its vernacular. You have other books both published and forthcoming that seem to have varied relationships to conversation — as metaphor, principle, practice. It’s common to think of artistic enterprise that way, as exchange and response. What feels most fruitful or promising to you now, two years after you conducted the interviews in Sixty Morning Talks, about projects designed around overt conversational models, especially those that might deviate from the conventions of an interview like this one?

Fitch: Alas, I again only can speak personally, since I probably miss billions of compelling poetic developments every day. I have bad vision that makes social media pretty difficult, and can’t read even Conversant or Volta pieces unless I print them (though I experience joyous appreciation and admiration each month when I see a new Volta main page posted by Joshua Marie Wilkinson or Afton Wilky). But in terms of conversational or dialogic models that now appeal to me, I feel increasingly drawn to the negotiations involved in cross-gender collaboration. I consider myself quite fortunate to be working on projects with Amaranth Borsuk and with Danielle Pafunda — two of my favorite poets. Also, since starting The Conversant, I’ve become just as interested in curating conversations as in conducting them, and in thinking through how to track, clarify, stimulate broader forms of innovation and inquiry by creating space for authors I admire. At Essay Press, which my publishing comrade Cristiana Baik and I now edit, we soon will launch a series of three-talk chapbooks examining what creative nonfiction (my official field, according at least to professional job descriptions) stands to learn from the vibrant small-press poetic culture cultivated in the last forty years. We’ll have poet-publishers interview each other, people who curate reading series doing the same, oral histories of localized artistic communities. But I still like old-fashioned, straightforward interviews too, if that’s what this is (really it just seems like you asking smart, generous questions). I have a bad back along with the bad eyes, and during my daily stretches I always listen to Charlie Rose and the Political Gabfest and such. I dislike participating in chit-chat, but never get bored reading or hearing other people’s discussions. Needless to say, Andy Warhol remains my artistic and intellectual hero. Or like Roland Barthes, I confess — profess — lifelong devotion to the informal, unprofessional, semi-domestic mother tongue. Or all of these dialogic projects just provide desperate compensation for the one essential conversation I’ll never have, with my dog, asking her what else she wants.