To Complicate the Performative and Enliven the Literary
Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch Reflect on Collaboration
Laura Wetherington: Could you talk about how your conversation art is conceived, composed, and produced? Do you use storyboards or other planning methods? Is there a kind of editing that comes in mid-conversation, or do you edit in any way after the fact?
Andy Fitch: Every line in our 300-page Conversations over Stolen Food comes from unscripted recorded conversation. At the same time, each sentence has been compressed, truncated, expanded, smoothed over, roughened up and/or reassigned from one speaker to another. The manuscript aspires toward total spontaneity and total revision. Hopefully it never resolves these tensions.
LW: Would you describe the project? How did it come about?
Jon Cotner: Many years ago I told Andy I'd wanted to record dialogues between me and people I met at Union Square Whole Foods while eating stolen food. I'd imagined the project would be called Conversations over Stolen Food, but I soon left town. Roughly a year later Andy called with a plan to record 30 of our own dialogues, all across New York City, though "Union Square W.F." would be the most common meeting place. These talks became Conversations over Stolen Food.
LW: What are the sweet spots of collaboration, and how do you tend to hit them? Would you describe what the groove feels like?
JC: I would describe this groove in terms of intoxication or buoyancy—a transcendence of individual limits into something greater. You'll sense an enlargement of capacities, and trust that whatever you do will be understood by the other. It's tremendous freedom.
Andy Fitch, left, and Jon Cotner. Photo used with permission.
LW: Can you talk about the role improvisation plays in your work?
JC: Improvisation allows us to put everything into play: intellectual insights, passing observations, personal anecdotes, humorous remarks. Suddenly it all becomes relevant. Improvisers such as Socrates, Montaigne, and Wittgenstein tend to zigzag instead of moving "neatly" from one point to the next. Again, this is a matter of freedom. Constrictive genres get left behind.
LW: How is the experience different in writing collaboration vs. audio collaboration (or collaborating within a field vs. across fields)?
AF: Here it might be helpful to distinguish between "live" and "studio" collaboration. Audio productions often pick up an improvisational aura, yet can be as carefully conceived, choreographed, arranged as any written text. Drafting can become as important to audio collaboration as talking is to (some) written collaborations. To us, it seemed most challenging to conflate the audio and the written—to complicate the performative and enliven the literary.
LW: Would you say that the idea of collaboration plays a part in your ethics or values? If so, in what ways?
JC: At bottom, collaboration is dialogue. Collaborators are bound by openness, listening, and love. These qualities have obvious ethical importance. Without them we resemble our nation's dysfunctional Congress.
LW: Do you have advice for young poets or writers who've never embarked on collaborations before?
AF: Collaboration has any number of potential advantages. In an ideal situation, you switch roles throughout a project. You learn, as Brecht would say, from working in other people's brains, while they work in your brains. You embrace ever-shifting responsibilities and discover some of your own strengths and weaknesses. When a piece gets accepted for publication, both you and a partner get to take credit. When one gets rejected, it's not "your" problem. Warning: collaboration also can allow you to accomplish nothing, without feeling bad about it, safe amid the company of friends. Try not only to embark on a collaboration, but actually to arrive somewhere.
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. Their new collaboration is called Conversations over Stolen Food. Cotner and Fitch have performed their dialogic improvisations across the United States and internationally. Cotner has recently 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 MFA Program.
Ten Walks/Two Talks by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010).