10 Questions for Chris Campanioni
- By Edward Clifford
Whenever my mom and dad were at the dinner table (the place of memorial and celebration, the place of conversation), I'd ask them about their days. I wanted to imagine their lives without me, their movements and rhythms when I was not there. What I was getting at, though I didn't know it then, was a desire to know what came before me, how I got here.
—from "Magic Marker," Volume 64, Issue 1 (Spring 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I’m often drawn to the task of accounting for “firsts,” which is a lot like asking how we might imbue the everyday with the charge of memory, the significance and ceremony of reproduction. I like to take inventory, imagining them assembled for some occasion, like Duchamp’s Miniatures, each sequence operating like an anti-aging moisturizer, the oldest firsts together with the most recent firsts, the momentous and the minor together without hierarchy, without the impulse to chronologize.
The first poem I ever wrote was for my abuela, after she died, and I did not call it a poem nor did I know, at the time, that there could be such a formal distinction between “poetry” and what we call anything else. I mean to say that poetry, when I was ten years old, which is how old I was when she died and I wrote that message to her, was not a literary construction but a sensibility, and so I often try to remind myself of that many years later, to keep reminding myself that poetry is not prose because of its formal properties, or because of its content and ambiguity, but because it allows musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
My habits of compounded sentences and intensive enjambment—desires to multiply and displace meaning—have been shaped by my Cuban forebearers, writers like Severo Sarduy and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, whose work taught me that the point of a sentence was maybe to get lost in it (permission to get carried away), and also that there are many ways to pose prose as poetry, tactics that have little to do with lineation. These formal characteristics speak, I think, to a kind of excess born of displacement, the need to relocate through velocity and a kind of textual volume, to find a mode of home in sites of unsettlement that for a lot of diasporic family serve as a heritage, a nativity. I know that on a thematic level I became fascinated with what we think of today as “transmedia storytelling”—a devotion to the many ways in which a text is mediated and re-told across different formats and platforms, reversing the terms of source or “origin” and troubling the place of an “original”—when I first read Manuel Puig in my first year as a graduate student, especially Puig’s deliriously piecemeal and porous Kiss of the Spider-Woman. That slippage, between narrative and composition, of who speaks and who listens, primary text and annotation, carries such an erotic charge born out of a consensual opacity, a consensual transparency: the desire to invite readers into the fold of the text as it is being re/constructed, before crystallization. I’m attracted to that threshold when the words could drop at any moment, when everything on the tip could vanish or become something else.
What other professions have you worked in?
Today I work as a lecturer in the English department at Baruch College, teaching classes in transmedia aesthetics, creative writing, and composition. I also help edit Tupelo Quarterly, and I helped edit PANK Magazine before that. For many years, I’ve worked as a model, and for a brief spell, a daytime television actor. I make the designation because I have no training, nor any talent for acting; I have only a great capacity for curiosity and the openness to explore the holes invited by it. My first job was as an instructor, helping children learn how to play tennis in the suburban town where my parents moved after leaving the city. But my first full-time job was as a reporter at a newspaper, and later, as an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and, afterward, the Star-Ledger in Newark. Among the roles I played on television was a bartender, but I’ve also worked as a bartender without the privilege of a script or the several takes I might get on a given day to prepare a convincing cocktail.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I think a possible answer appears within the piece’s text: the desire to reimagine not just my own possible past, but the trajectory of each of my parents’ exiles; to relocate their first meeting in East Berlin and not New York City, where I was eventually born years after they both arrived in the United States. I empower my students—so many of whom are also first-gen citizens—to undertake that same task; to retrieve their own origin stories and imagine alternate futures. “Magic Marker” is about the materials migrants and their children use to sketch out a mode of artistic production rooted in drift and displacement but also collective accounting and exchange.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
I feel like I’m (still) writing in Berlin, even before I ever had the opportunity to travel there. An imagined Berlin, extracted from movies about Berlin that likewise weren’t even filmed there. I’ve written about this elsewhere, this uncanny feeling of returning to a place you have never been, but that’s how it felt when I finally arrived and I think that is maybe how it feels for most people of a certain age or generation—symptomatic of a body-mind well-fed on moving images but also maybe just a repercussion of general abundance and duration: impossible at a particular point in one’s life to unravel what you’ve lived from what you’ve dreamed—in which spaces and the persons they contain are both familiar and unrecognizable.
I’m almost always writing in transit, the lag between event and encounter which is sometimes measureless, sometimes fraught with interferences and delays and the permission for detours. I teach a class called “Composing on the Move” and I often ask my students to consider how the scene of composition so often leaks out into the text in ways that are meaningful to the narrative proper, but which also shape the text on the level of sentence and structure, given the manifold materials available to us in which to mediate experience and memory into language. Your notes app will fashion the text very differently than transcribing a voice memo or using a sketch pad. I often encourage my students to stage intervals in their texts, exit points, points of departure and reprise, knowing that no repetition is ever really the same.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I listen to a lot of music as I write, as a I ride the F train, as I walk into class, as I run through Prospect Park or drive through the Bronx and into the Hudson Valley . . . I feel like my life is inextricable from the soundtrack that colors it, draping mood and vibe and an aesthetic temperature over almost every experience. I mainly prefer the music of the decade I was born into: Talking Heads, New Order, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Roxy Music, Erasure, The Human League, Yaz, but also music that could pass as being produced in the eighties, an amorphous genre that I think might be variously referred to today as “chill wave” or “cold wave” or “dark wave”—what coheres, I guess, is an emphasis on swell and surface.
I really like thinking about these moments—being in transit and listening to music—as preparations: the various ingredients we bring together to provide for some eventual nourishment. And I think maybe that’s a consideration a lot of people who don’t spend their lives making things may not realize, that in order to write, for instance, one doesn’t just sit down and spit out words, although I’m sure some of us work that way too, but that we also need to engage in some preparatory activity or a series of ceremonial acts that recalibrate the settings necessary for our inward-facing practices.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Oh, what an intimate question! I think it depends on the genre. I enjoy sharing new and early versions of work with one of my longtime mentors, Wayne Koestenbaum, along with close friends, not all of whom identify as representatives in the realms of literature and publishing, which I find useful, since I don’t think I’m writing for legibility or legible audiences so much as trying to orient my work to and for my communities which remain somewhat illegible. As someone who desires to write across genres within a single text, I also rely upon the grace of friends whose practices are grounded in particular modes. Davon Loeb, an essayist who also writes about the experiences of growing up mixed and the kind of challenges we’ve endured and attendant negotiations we have had to produce as a result is someone with whom I often find myself in draft dialogue. The poet Jason Zuzga, who is so attuned to representing the experience of simultaneity across diverse ecologies and weather patterns and frequencies, and accounting for all the complexities of living in a body so known and unknown to us is someone who, especially as a first reader, provided me with the clarity and confidence to continue working through an internet epistolary poetics that ultimately became a book. Miciah Hussey, an art critic with whom I share a devotion to ideas about anonymous erotics is quick to call me out when I am sacrificing the body for the registers of theory.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I think Terrance Hayes once told us that poets really desire to make music; that the poet aspires to be a musician. Maybe I’m remembering this wrong. Either way, for me it’s always been about setting language in motion through the moving image. Cinema informs my practice in ways I’m not aware of during the act of composing, which is to say cinema seems engrained in the fabric of my poetics, the structure of my sentences and their syntactical arrangement but also the narrative’s attention to its ensemble, intermittent makeup. I often tell my students to imagine themselves as anything but a writer—to provide them with the opportunity and empowerment to draw from other arts to alter the landscape of the page, the formulation of written language therein—but there are some things maybe you just can’t do with an alphabetical text that you can in fact film into existence. Had I but world enough and time … if I could go back—if I could get “trained” in any other art form—it’d be filmmaking; I’d love to be able to write poems and essays and novels as actual moving images, and a reference I often recall whenever I think about this, if it’s even something Jean-Luc Godard said or something I’ve only attributed to him, is that he began making movies because he wanted to turn novels and essays into film, to film essays and movies instead of writing them, and what that does is not just alter the medium of film, but the limits of composition.
What are you working on currently?
Maybe part of being an artist is about finding joy in work. And delinking “work” from its associations with “productivity.” Regardless, I feel like I’m always working. Right now—open on another window on this screen—I’m looking at proofs of a second edition of my 2020 notebook on American identity called A and B and Also Nothing, which Unbound Edition is publishing this spring with photographs and a coda I’d composed—of all places—in Berlin. I’m meanwhile honing—trying to hone—two connected manuscripts about media infrastructures, voyeurism, and networked intimacy: a poetry collection titled Windows 85 and a sort of novella organized in prose poems and lyrical essays called Rolling Windows. Hoping to ready them for publication without destroying the gleaming of consciousness I’d encountered when I began the soft drift that would become each text, which is always a precarious exercise, the work of distilling essence without diluting it. The manuscript from which “Magic Marker” comes is called The Great Forgetters, a memoir in essays whose story begins in correspondence—I was writing to Walter Benjamin as I traversed the different points of his seven-year exile—and ultimately encompasses the different legacies of war, displacement, and asylum brought by the Cold War.
What are you reading right now?
If I am writing, I am reading. I recently finished Jay Gao’s debut collection, Imperium, and was revisiting Thresholes by Lara Mimosa Montes and Borderland Apocrypha by Anthony Cody because I’m teaching all three together this semester. Here in Seattle for AWP, I’m in the midst of swapping between Hillary Plum’s Hole Studies and Krystal Languell’s prize-winning poetry collection, Systems Thinking With Flowers, each published by Fonograf Editions. On my “to-read” shelf is Cody’s new collection, The Rendering, A.V. Marraccini’s We the Parasites, and Will Harris’s Brother Poem. I picked up a second-hand copy of Throng by Jose Perez Beduya at Open Books this morning and it felt like finding hidden treasure.
CHRIS CAMPANIONI’s essays, poetry, and fiction have been translated into Spanish and Portuguese, appearing in Best American Essays (HarperCollins), BOMB, Social Text, Fence, Denver Quarterly, and several other journals and anthologies. His research connecting media studies with studies of migration has been awarded a Mellon Foundation fellowship and the Calder Prize, and his writing has received the International Latino Book Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Academy of American Poets College Prize.