In 1685, a young Japanese poet recorded his thoughts in the first of many travel journals, The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton. This now famous haiku master, Matsuo Bashō, believed that one attains spiritual serenity by embracing the world of nature. Now, more than three centuries later, two Gotham flaneurs have updated Bashō’s meandering form, exchanging 17th-century Japan for 21st-century Manhattan. The result is Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s new book Ten Walks/Two Talks, a series of 60-minute, 60-sentence walks around Manhattan, interspersed with a pair of dialogues. No ordinary tour guide, the book is an associative journey where scents, noises, people, and buildings are meticulously described through the eyes of intensely attentive explorers. New York City–based Cotner, who is finishing his Ph.D. for SUNY Buffalo’s Poetics Program, and Fitch, assistant professor at the University of Wyoming’s MFA program, have honed their dialogic improvisations at festivals across the United States, and their poetic approach makes for an intriguing look at the urban landscape.
The 10 urban strolls are derived from Fitch’s larger project Sixty Morning Walks. From Canal Street’s art-deco post office to the puddles of Park Avenue, the author revels in quirky details. “Skyscrapers along the New Jersey coast all looked the same color as my personal checks,” one typical passage reads. “One storefront rivaled Milton’s description of Chaos. Placards put Jesus in blindfold next to a blind, grinning Mao.”
The two accompanying dialogues are picked from the authors’ just-completed collaborative project Conversations over Stolen Food, for which they recorded 45-minute conversations over the course of a month in the city. One of these strolls takes place during a late-night ramble in Central Park, where the writers ponder the meaning of “this New York lavender sky,” traces of Donald Trump, and Manhattan’s American Elms.
Though the book’s observations can sometimes seem precious, Ten Walks/Two Talks, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, is also appealingly good-natured. When the writers notice, for instance, that “two blonds seemed thrilled to be tall and heading to work and more generally everyone looked buoyant,” their exuberance is something of an art in itself—and an eye-opener for anesthetized New Yorkers.