The Spy caught up with author and poet Chris Campanioni and asked him a few questions about inspiration, art and life. He will be reading and book signing at The Bookplate at 6 p.m. on Friday, September 26.
1. Was there a transformative book or author that inspired your interest in wanting to become a writer?
Without a doubt, William S. Burroughs. I read his The Wild Boys and it opened up a whole new world for me. I understood for the first time that I might be able to create something as utopic—utopic in the sense that I achieved a certain freedom in realizing the possibilities that exist on a blank page. To create whole worlds–to write yourself into that world and inhabit those pages too– became a way to transcend the reality of my situation, and everyday life.
2. Your writing is sometimes described as being informed or influenced by Situationist International among other aesthetic movements. What is Situationist International and how does it play into your narrative construction? And, perhaps more importantly, do you find descriptive labels helpful or counter to your creative sensibilities?
I think any label is an opportunity or invitation to re-evaluate and in turn, create. When we talk about labels we also talk about form and expectation. Throughout In Conversation, one of my endeavors was to allow readers to see that words are not meant to be static on the page, which means that they, too, have the agency to create. One of the ways I try to achieve this is by writing poems that are not simply read vertically but which also bleed into each other across the page, or poems that are palimpsests, in which images and events are etched above and faded below one another. There are poems written as footnotes and poems that resemble the billboard that the poem is describing. Perhaps the best example is a poem titled “Play This Back” in which a poem—mimicking a tape recording—is rewound at exactly the halfway point and played back, but in reverse, which creates a new version, a new poem. The writing is already there, the reader needs only re-envision or re-learn the standard narrative trajectory that has perhaps been taught to them since childhood. That kind of playfulness and reinvention found across my work is certainly influenced by the Situationist International.
The Situationists were a group of artistic and political agitators active throughout the Sixties. They understood life as being the greatest work of art and in doing so, they began creating situations, a way to reimagine the conventions and markers of society, whether by re-appropriating cultural signposts like the street questionnaire and billboards/advertisements, or by staging demonstrations and public interruptions.
3. Congratulations on your book, Going Down. Now that it is out in the world, has your relationship to the book changed? Has it been a fulfilling experience?
I think any time you write anything—even before it’s out in the world of letters—the relationship to the work will change, often several times. I wrote Going Down with a few sociological endeavors in mind, one of which was to shed light on the concept of livelihood and identity in American culture. Although it’s written from the perspective of a young adult—a term that is already antiquated in 2014—I’ve been struck by the countless readers, several years older and younger than me, who have approached the novel and found specific moments that they identify with, so much so that a student of mine recently admitted that she had to put the book down and pause because “it was just too real for her.”
Of course, the concept of reality/simulacra is also a main concern of mine, which I think is best explained by the influence the Situationists have had on me. In Going Down, there is a movie being filmed from the first page, the first line really. In a world of self-curation/self-documentation—a world in which the camera (or smart phone, if you’d like)—is never off, what’s real and what’s fabricated? Chris Selden wanders into a hall of mirrors where the constant proliferation of image has in effect replaced reality, and the “movie” that is being made throughout the novel is a way for readers to understand that implicit process on the practical, physical level. It’s not a coincidence he—and I—spent a good deal of time in the newsroom, working as a reporter and editor. Media representation and fabrication are the flip side of image-making, at least as it relates to journalism and how we understand the world through its news.
The fact that so many reviewers have hit on these other philosophical or ideological concerns have surprised me too, but I suppose that is also a result of my not knowing how the work would be read once it was published. It’s an examination of the postcapitalist, fragmented sense of self wrapped up in a coming-of-age novel. Marx meets Madonna quite literally on the same page. I often wondered–and still do–on what level would readers decide to read this work? The beautiful thing about a book–any work of art really–is that once it is produced, it takes on a life and an agency of its own. So I think, just as in any relationship, my feelings toward the novel have necessarily progressed and changed too and will continue to do so.
4. There’s a wonderful poem of yours, “I would have told you.” The second stanza opens with ‘Let me start again. I ran that sentence into the ground.” I like this self-conscious moment, stepping out of the poem without falling off the edge of it. When the reader returns to the poem, the narrative is finding another level. Could you comment on that self-reflective moment?
I’m happy you enjoyed it. A lot of my work is concerned with the actual act of creation, which is inherently intimate, vulnerable, and unexpected. With “I would have told you” readers, I think, get a pretty good summation of that kind of self-reflexive, often playful metaphysical communication with the reader. I think in general—and this goes for all literature, not just mine—critics want to talk about things like plot, character, narrative, dialogue … but the only element of the work that interests me is the reader. There’s a line toward the end of In Conversation’s “epi-logs” sequence that makes this explicit: “And I even invite you to look.” I think when these moments of contact are made outside of the text—almost paradoxically—the narrative in the actual poem can find a new level as well, because the context has changed what has come before, what may come after.
I would have told you
in my father’s house there are many
mansions. I remember the passion
of adolescence, bodies
of water, rhythmic slapping
during rain, before/after, over
hill and dale and lake,
panting rush of skin.
Let me start again. I ran
that sentence into the ground so
to speak. Speak loudly,
and never be afraid
to go out on a limb—
my mother’s words, my father’s—
Man’s sins, there are many, many …
a paper flower dropped in a cup of water
succored with yellow petals
glistened with spit