“Ten Walks / Two Talks updates the meandering and meditative form of Bashō’s travel diaries.
Mapping 21st century New York, Cotner and Fitch tap their predecessor’s collaborative tendencies in order to construct a descriptive / dialogic fugue. The book combines a series of sixty-minute, sixty-sentence walks around Manhattan and a pair of dialogues about walking—one of which takes place during a late-night “philosophical” ramble through Central Park.”
1. Getting the book
Getting books in here in Patagonia is sort of magical. The roads are muddy and the special delivery mailman rides an old bike. He always comes in the morning when it’s cold. You have to sign something. Then you go back in where it’s warm. You sit back down by your coffee and computer and rip open the package noting the New York address.
2. Opening the package
I looked at the Hiroshige prints on the cover and felt stoked. The book was small (85 pages) and I love books that can be shoved in a coat pocket. The table of contents read, “Early Spring, Early Winter, Late Spring, Late Winter.” The epigraph was by Bashō. The Ugly Duckling Press materials explained that this was part of the Dossier Series: “publications that don’t share a single genre or form. . . but rather an investigative impulse.”
3. Reading the first chapter
The opening paragraph read:
Still spinning out Kristin’s door I decided to change plans. The air stirred gently, made me think of flags. At 9:26 I saw the clean backs of waitresses in a Gee Whiz Diner window.
I kept going:
Pigeons spread up sidewalk on Grand, tearing at cinnamon-raisin bagels. I plowed through then felt bad approaching their patron–a compact lady with bags. One mom strained to tie garbage bags without gloves. One squat guy hauled heavy cement-mix bags to a pick-up. Each time he spun back to the vestibule he faced a chic tall mannequins in short denim skirts. He seemed to appreciate this.
4. Finishing first chapter and analyzing
I finished the first chapter, and saw that the next chapter was in a different form. I was tired and went to bed. But I felt really excited and like I would learn things studying the style of this first chapter. Later I figured out some of the structures used:
- Each sentence introduces a new “element” of the narrator’s walk, whether a character, place, thought, action, or event. There are occasional instances of a follow-up sentence (or two) continuing to describe the same element (as in squat man loading concrete above) but 90% of the sentences introduce something new.
- The elements are introduced in an order that seems part chronology of the walks, part reconstructing the walks from memory.
- There are almost no “smooth” transitions (like a camera panning across a scene, then zooming into something, then zooming out) but elements are grabbed from all different distances–super close up, super far away–and placed one right after the other.
- This “disorder” would make the writing hard to read were it not for the short length and repetitive rhythm / structure of the sentences–which in some ways gives it a feel of “taking steps.”
- This “disorder” also seems to replicate the feeling of being in an urban area where there are constant stimuli.
- All elements–from the letters on a kid’s hat to the smell inside an elevator– seem to have the same level of “importance” to the narrator.
- This creates a sense of zen, a mix of alertness and detachment (although not in a dispassionate or uncaring way). You’re just “walking through New York.”
- Although everything seems equally “important,” the characters described are almost always engaged in some form of action (even a dog lying on the ground is described as “breathing,”) making them seem vital, and making you wonder more about them – who they are, what their stories are – in ways that are sometimes poignant.
- Except for mentioning certain errands or decisions made spontaneously (such as changing directions) the narrator never explains anything–why he’s taking the walks, what the purpose is.
- This, combined with the neutral levels of “importance,” makes the walks feel very immediate and “alive” – as if there’s no barrier or layers between the reader and the scenes / characters. As with the best haiku, everything else disappears, and “you’re there.”
5. Reading the next chapters
The next day I got sick and was in the bed but was glad I had this book to read. I read through the next three chapters during the day / night as I was going in and out of sleep / fever. The third chapter was another week’s walks written in the same style as above. The other two chapters were transcripts of conversations (including ambient noise) between the authors recorded as they were walking around Central Park, and later, Union Square, W.F. (a natural grocery store).
In some ways the transcripts reminded me of Braided Creek by Jim Harrison and Ted Koosier (a book of hundreds of short poems sent to each other that describe different walks the two poets are taking / things they’re observing.)
But instead of having a conversation through poems, Cotner and Fitch are just kind of vibing, relaxing, having conversations in New York – it’s very transparent (including stutters, grammar mistakes–and one talking over the other) and immediate:
A: You’d you’d mentioned paths to the subway station. Lately I never stop moving walking up or down Manhattan. So long as you stay aware of what the the upcoming light says you can run and make it (although this gets hared [Cough] Holland Tunnel). But I’ll wonder if you find New York walks continuous as they should be say, on the hills of Santa Fe–or has there been jostling, pausing, restarting?
J: No I’ve shared your smooth continuous experience, and I haven’t read much Lyn Hejinian, but she makes the same remark in My Life.
A: About New York specifically?
J: Yes about New, about how this great metropolis provides the sensation of crossing through sheer wildern. . .
J: And I’ve noticed . . .
A: That sounds slightly different.
J: even if my path gets blocked by cars or a Don’t Walk sign I can cut to side-streets since I’ll have no destination.
A: I’ll save side-streets as long as I can, so when I need one I’m ready to turn.
J: Sure I love in this city the constant dialogue between drivers and pedestriians. It also. . .
A: And, Let’s say, deliverymen. . .
(Six more lines of dialogue here, then):
J: Yes you feel this great sense of cooperation.
6. Final thoughts
- I feel like there isn’t enough experimentation in nonfiction and travel writing forms (at least what’s being published), and was very stoked and inspired reading Ten Walks / Two Talks. (I’ve already read it through again).
- That said, the book itself didn’t feel experimental necessarily but just written in a style that was different than most other books but very natural to these two authors.
- There are several works (such as Basho’s travel diaries, Braided Creek, also a short story by Talese (I think) that describes minute by minute “happenings” in New York, that have stylistic elements similar to this book. It’s writing that, if you had to categorize it, you’d put (as is on the back of this book) “Poetry / Nonfiction.”
Please visit Ugly Duckling Presse for more information and to buy this book.
Do other countries (like Japan? France? England?) have a greater (percentage-wise) readership of books that could be classified as “Poetry/Nonfiction”?
What other publishers besides Ugly Duckling are publishing “Poetry/Nonfiction”?