As Awake As Possible: A Walk with Jon Cotner

“Poetry is a way of life,” says poet Jon Cotner as we walk down a path in Fort Greene Park. To Cotner, poetry is also public, inherently social and plays out in the modern day agoras of the city. It is an act of participatory city living, peopled with the characters that make up our streetscapes and public spaces. Cotner’s poetry explores daily life through varied methods: conversations recorded then transcribed into a poetic vernacular, one-line utterances composed then recited to passing pedestrians, walks captured then captioned in photographic slideshows. Last year, with friend and long time collaborator Andy Fitch, Cotner published Ten Walks / Two Talks, a book that narrates a nearly surreal, ethereal New York through the friends’ recorded conversations. This summer, as an installment of Elastic City, Cotner led Spontaneous Society, a collection of walks through the East Village, the Upper East Side, the West Village and Brooklyn that equipped participants with conversational phrases aimed to generate face-to-face dialogue and “good vibes,” replacing anonymity with unexpected amiability. His next walk will tour the halls of PS1 this weekend during the New York Art Book Fair.

Cotner’s methods connect an inheritance of classical poetic forms and oral tradition with the audio- and image-based communication of the contemporary urban milieu. Plato took to the agora as the stage for his dialogues. Today’s agoras are more fluid. Commerce, politics and social activity play out in public and private realms, tangible and intangible spaces. Cotner’s work seeks out the democratic domain of traditional social space while inhabiting and embracing modern day agoras, from shops to sidewalks to the websites where his captioned slideshows are published (most recently down Brooklyn’s beloved Bedford Avenue).

Fleeting conversations are a human infrastructure that, according to Cotner, “build automatic bridges among people amid the city’s ceaseless flow.” His deliberate interventions are intended to give rise to organic and unpredictable results. Earlier this month, I had an opportunity to take my own walk with Cotner, and to reaffirm Urban Omnibus‘ commitment to introducing readers to creative urbanists whose work falls outside traditional urban practice. As with our other artist interviews, Cotner offers a new way of looking at and interacting with the physical and social fabric of New York. Read on to hear his musings on poetry, neighborliness and waking up to the city around us as we stroll through Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park. –C.B.

Jon Cotner
Caitlin Blanchfield (Blanchfield):

In many ways writing is like a city; there is a structure and there are rules, but often the beauty comes from improvisation within this framework.

Jon Cotner (JC):

Should we take this dirt path?


Sure. Do you think your literary sensibility has changed the way you interact with the city or that living in a city has shaped the way that you write?


I would say that New York City presents ceaseless surprises whenever we step outside. Perhaps all places on earth do, but I’m always surprised, always dazzled by what I see in New York. The sheer unpredictability of the sidewalks means that whatever form I develop to convey New York must accommodate spontaneity. So my friend Andy Fitch and I came up with this dialogic form that allows us to drift through streets and various venues here in the city, locations such as the Union Square Whole Foods — which we call “WF,” just to play it safe — MoMA, Central Park, Prospect Park, a Tribeca parking garage and so on.


I’m interested in forms that capture the motion, the momentum of New York.

Of course we didn’t invent the dialogic form. That goes back at least as far as Plato, and I’m sure people before him were composing dialogues. But what that form allows me and Andy to do is to constantly alternate between our own thoughts, our memories and our concrete interactions with the city. In other words, it allows us to reach the state of the walker. Whenever you walk, you might be considering something from your afternoon or thinking about something you’ve read. Then, all of a sudden, something else arises: somebody walks by with a dog, somebody pushes a carriage, you name it, and you are pulled out of yourself and confronted with what might be called the external world.

My fiancée Claire Hamilton and I have developed another form — and when I say “develop” I mean “breathe new life into.” Just as Andy and I attempt to breathe new life into dialogue, Claire and I are attempting to breathe new life into the slideshow. We’ve made a variety of slideshows that, again, feature this oscillation between ourselves and the world.

Let me put it this way: I’m particularly interested in forms that capture the motion, the momentum of New York. I don’t want an excessively ponderous form. The nice thing about dialogue is that it always moves; slideshows move too, from one image and caption to the next.

A chat in Fort Greene Park
A chat in Fort Greene Park

Both Ten Walks / Two Talks and your slideshows are observational in format. They present a picture of the city that allows other people to take what they will and form their own connections. I guess everyone sees the city differently, but do you think poetry has made you observe the city differently than the average New Yorker would? 


I believe poetry, more than a technique or genre, is a way of life. I’m reminded of this Korean proverb: “Knows his way, stops seeing.” The practice of poetry allows me to tune into the city on a daily basis. There’s a Spanish poet I like very much named Antonio Machado. In one of his longer poems, he presents a series of imaginary dialogues between himself and a younger poet seeking guidance. Machado advises the young poet, “Wake up as much as possible.” He suggests we needn’t bother reading every single book from beginning to end. Sure, we should read a careful selection, so that we get some sense of what other people have done. But the secret for poetry is wakefulness in this physical world. Poetry encourages us all to stay as awake as possible.

Poetry heightens our sense of time — the fleetingness of seconds — because poetry descends to the level of the microsecond. Look, for example, at the haiku poets who attune themselves to the tiniest realities. I think the point of what I’m doing is to encourage people to do their own work, to inhabit their own lives and, using Machado’s expression, to wake up as much as possible.


It seems to be the same thing with the Spontaneous Society walks, where participants are encouraged to reach out to passersby with pre-selected phrases and small gestures of friendliness and conversation. And by bringing attention to obvious but unacknowledged routines, these walks are also funny. How did you conceive of the idea and what fueled your desire not only to make these connections, but also to lead groups in the walks?


Spontaneous Society developed incrementally over the years, line by line, across multiple cities. About 20 lines form the project’s core, though I’ll often improvise new ones as I’m walking. The point is to build automatic bridges among people amid the city’s ceaseless flow. These lines are short — “That’s a good-looking dog.” “That’s a nice spot for a picnic.” “It’s a good day to have the feet out.” — and extremely basic. They’re 99% effective in terms of replacing urban anonymity with something bordering on affection.

Poetry encourages us all to stay as awake as possible. It allows me to tune into the city on a daily basis.

We’re in a tough spot right now – environmentally, economically, the list goes on. Politicians can’t speak with one another and, as a consequence, economies are crumbling. Citizens are bitter about this destructiveness. Uncertainty and fear are pervasive. Spontaneous Society comes out of my desire to reach as many beings as possible. I’ve grown tired of art that has limited audiences or limited capacities to affect this world.

One way to address widespread social problems is by addressing each other with kindness in the mundane world. At least this much is up to us. Sadly, the other problems seem out of our hands. Spontaneous Society has the humble social aim of producing laughter and smiles among people who might otherwise walk dogs, push carriages, pull suitcases, or go about general daily business with unconscious gravity. Both the speaker and recipient come away with renewed awareness of their physical circumstances. And, because death is inescapable, it’s important to lose as few moments as possible in this life.

Each line depends largely on timing and tone. That’s another poetic feature of the project.Mechanical recitation is insufficient; one must put his or her desire for dialogue into each utterance. I look at Spontaneous Society as a primer for social communication in this era of antisocial corruption and strife.

A "good-looking dog" in the park

What do you think creates neighborliness in different parts of New York? Where do you encounter neighborliness most and least often and what do you think contributes to this? Do you think there are ways to foster friendly connections in different New York neighborhoods? Your walk down Bedford Avenue with Claire, for example, seems to be an exploration of neighborhoods.


Total neighborliness is, of course, unattainable. It would demand consciousness of each person we pass as an absolutely singular being. We’re in a crowded city, and that means paying attention to some people while ignoring others. Everyone has tastes, habits, patterns of movement that outline their own equivalent of “social circles.” The more neighborly somebody is, the broader their circle of acquaintances and friends becomes. Frequent acquaintance leads to friendship. Affection, or what we’re calling neighborliness, originates via shared experience, and much of this experience is linguistic, either spoken language (“How are you?” “Great to see you!”) or the language of gestures (waving hello or goodbye, nodding).

Neighborhoods with less density, less noise and a rooted residential population tend to have greater neighborliness than those that are packed, loud or filled with tenants who move in one year and leave the next. Clinton Hill comes to mind as an example of a neighborly neighborhood. It is a quiet area with gorgeous architecture and good air. People seem calmer, more open than in other neighborhoods around town. There’s tremendous diversity, too. On a single block I’ll talk with people whose heritages span the globe — Bhutanese, Sudanese, Mexican, Caribbean, among others.

spontaneous society
Jon Cotner leads a spontaneous society walk | via Elastic City

Each neighborhood in New York is so “New York.” When Claire and I were walking down Bedford Avenue, we went into this garage in Bedford-Stuyvesant that was so “New York,” and if you look around here, Fort Greene Park is so “New York” as well. New York exists everywhere but is also more than the sum of its parts. New York City is a giant classroom. Every time you walk around you have an opportunity for learning.

I believe neighborliness occurs at the level of individuals. Those who want to acknowledge people in their immediate vicinity can do so wherever they find themselves. You may not get a response. Depending on the situation, you may even arouse anger. It’s always helpful to keep in mind that we’re incomplete as isolated beings and that, for the most part, we encounter people once-and-one-time-only in this fleeting existence. If we’re going to reach out, even with the simplest greetings, this must happen now or never.

In “Local Worlds: A Bedford Avenue Slideshow,” which we did for the BMW Guggenheim Mobile Lab, as well as in the Art Basel and Armory slideshows we made for Paper Monument, Claire and I put these principles into practice, initiating an array of momentary, mindful encounters, none of which we could have predetermined. The words that come out of others’ mouths are always surprising, even in banal situations.


That’s true, New York is so many things. It’s the brownstones, it’s the things you find at every deli…


Exactly, you don’t have to be wasted in a Union Square night club to experience New York. In fact, I think that would probably get in the way of experiencing New York.


Writing and observation, as well as one-on-one dialogue, are, in many ways, introspective rituals. In the highly social context of the city and given the outgoing nature of your work, how do you balance moments of self-reflection that walking can provide with forging connections?


For me, self-reflection is grounded in the Socratic idea that we can only understand ourselves through dialogue. Which is to say, my self-reflection urges me to risk solitude and to regard myself as a site for improvisatory encounters. Whether it’s Andy in Ten Walks / Two Talks, or Claire in the slideshows, or passersby in Spontaneous Society, I’m always seeking human contact, without which none of this work would happen. So I experience no conflict between introspection and city life. If anything, introspection hurls me beyond its limits, prompting perception, friendship, love.

Jon Cotner is the author, with Andy Fitch, of Ten Walks/Two Talks. It 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. With Claire Hamilton, Cotner has made slideshows for The Believer, Paper Monument, and the BMW Guggenheim Lab. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and teaches in Pratt Institute’s Creative Writing Program.

Caitlin Blanchfield is an assistant editor at Urban Omnibus. She is also a freelance editor for Actar and a freelance writer for Architizer.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


Laurence Frommer September 28, 2011

Is it possible to get on a mailing list for these tours? I am always finding out about them after the fact.

Todd Shalom September 28, 2011

In short, Jon Cotner’s a genius. It’s been wonderful to work with him.

Laurence–here’s the link to the Elastic City mailing list: