Saturday Apr 13

Campanioni Poetry Chris Campanioni teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, and interdisciplinary studies at John Jay. His “Billboards” poem responding to Latino stereotypes and mutable--and often muted--identity in the fashion world was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize and his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. He edits PANK, Tupelo Quarterly, and At Large Magazine, and lives in Brooklyn, where he wrote his Death of Art, available now from C&R Press.

Chris Campanioni Interview, with Julie Brooks Barbour

In these poems, there is the human need for intimacy and to be a part of something (tradition in "The World is Flat" and a conversation in "The body is long and I'm still loading"). However, we distance ourselves through technology and by focusing on the things our culture tells us we need. Is this hunger for intimacy one we can remedy? Where do you think we might start?

Great question. It's sort of the premise or hypothesis--If intimacy is gone, then how do we recover it?--I started this new book with, and also the class I teach at Baruch which confronts many of the same issues. I think a lot of our cultural norms can be remedied--or at least re-evaluated--by shifting our attitudes surrounding it. The example I'd used in my TEDx talk involved smoking in public and gradually shifting our attitudes toward the public act until it became sort of stigmatized or taboo. I'm not condoning shame on any level, but I do think we need to continually celebrate--and make that celebration public--face-to-face, physical contact more and more. In the absence or gradual decline of that, I do believe we've become increasingly satisfied--and sometimes even strive for--a digital replacement to our physical needs. And in many ways I feel as though we've re-trained our physical selves (i.e. our bodies) to no longer need the emotional substance we could previously only get through real contact. In some ways, I think that's a good thing; to have more options for fulfillment, to "evolve"--and I use that word with some hesitation of course--into beings capable of feeling things on various planes of experience. But I also am worried about that movement from not needing something to not wanting it. When we no longer want the physical consummation of "the real thing"--what evidence is left of our humanity?

I notice this thought in "A handclap at the base of the temple," where we're watching the Home Shopping Network. The speaker asks if the model is happy "or knows / Enough to ask the question." We think of shopping as happiness, as consuming things. Also, in "This body's long and I'm still loading," a plethora of things are offered to the speaker while on a routine flight. How do these experiences keep us from feeling things on various planes, as you mention (and no pun intended)?

I was just re-reading "A handclap"! And actually, re-reading many of these poems today, I also get the sense that I often play devil's advocate in interrogating questions of desire/consummation. Would we be happier if we had the roof-deck view described toward the end of that poem? Or would we wish to only have--and hold--that wish fulfillment? And maybe, actually, that's what propels us toward our practices of dehumanization or declining empathy. That we would rather only be at the edge of it, always striving for it, endeavoring toward but not ever grasping it, or possessing it. And that's also, I think, inherently human. So maybe it's quite human of us to be so inhuman. Sometimes. In a lot of my work, as you indicated, there's this sense of "overflow" ... a definite sense of excess that is continuing and continual. Excess doesn't stop, it only creates more; more of itself with every reproduction and interruption but also, often, more discord. And I think that level of consuming experience also of course lends itself to us consuming things ... whether they are actual commodities, food and drink, or just sensory experiences, or even people, with or without the connotation of cannibalism. I think we've become so adept at this ... having adapted to it from several years of capitalism but also the planes of experience that technology--like VR and our own mobile portals--afford us. This removes us from the moment, naturally, but it also allows us to perhaps transcend our bodies or our normal--again, I use that word so cautiously--perceptions and sensations. In a way, despite its dark tone, "My body's long & I'm still loading" might be the most optimistic of the bunch, if only because it starts with the premise of being more than we'd thought possible and in terms of various disability, certain technology does create a physical scenario that would otherwise be inaccessible. I guess the question is the dosage; how much sensory experience is too much, and when is it harmful? I think writers are already always pulled out of their everyday lives, somewhat tragically, in order to re-frame what we are right now doing. Meaning we are only ever halfway here. If anything, technology and our increasing appetite for consumption as a culture has made everyone into specters, too. Maybe we all have a lot more in common with writers in 2016 than we ever did before.

I think, too, that's why I'm so interested in museums. The anomalies there. The idea of preservation but also at the same time, annihilation. And I think recording things, curating them, preserving them, conserving them, purporting to "keep them"--when we know deep down we can't really own anything--is layered and littered with these sort of contradictions, but they are contradictions that are also universally and timelessly human, even as our current norms and the technology that intensifies them is making it easier--or more difficult, depending on your perspective--to confront the question of being in and of the moment.

Your discourse on humanity in these poems is what keeps me coming back to them, over and over again. I have so many favorite lines but I'll just include a few: "lest we forget our shared humanity or remember / to celebrate what makes us different" ("shutter/speed") and "allow me the eyes of another, by whose agency / the actual act of love or flesh may come to pass" ("The body's long and I'm still loading"). I'd like to to discuss your mention of our declining humanization and intimacy, especially in regards to your mention of Prufrock and the canon in "shutter/speed." We have a literary figure who has trouble engaging with a crowd, and we have the canon (or "cannon" as you mention, which I like so much) which keeps us from one another with "no windows high walls." We are in need to dialogue with each other in our culture. How might we provide a diverse literature to students as well as readers that will enable us to engage with one another?

I think it starts with celebrating, once again--instead of shaming--what makes us different; this will be the key to revealing to us, and reminding us, why we are all humans, a part of the same family and yet beautifully distinct because of it. So I like that you mention the idea of the "canon"--and the "cannon"--the conflation between the two, the relentless murder or absence of voices in our culture, and especially in our educational institutions, that need to be heard. And part of my role as an educator is in making sure everyone's voice gets heard, even and especially if I don't agree with it. In other words, to create actual discourse, you need a dialogue. It demands a call and response, like the origins of song, right? A pleasure and a discourse and a work of beauty. But I feel that in many ways, we've gone backward here. And I think besides incorporating--and requiring--the reading of long absent voices on our syllabi, we also have a responsibility to listen to others before speaking, to create discord, when necessary, and to produce change. But real change comes from being willing to listen and being willing to admit other perspectives in to commingle and re-animate our own. And right now there's not enough of that going on, whether because of the suppression of certain voices or because of an increasingly frequent self-censorship, in schools and elsewhere.

And in a way, this progression has a lot to do with self-knowledge, right? Self-realization. I go back to your quotation of the line "who knows/Whether they are happy or knows/Enough to ask the question" in "A handclap at the base of the temple" and I think that's so true. Who among us knows our desires, or why we desire the things we do? The goal of any course I teach and by extension, I think, the work I continue to produce, is to merely have the reader ask themselves more about their own life, their own way of living.

I love how these poems ask us to do that. Even in "On Permanent Display," I wonder while reading if I'm really in on something I "barely know a thing about" or if I'm just hungry to be part of something, to have an intimate experience with a group of people. Is what I'm part of something I'm engaged with, or only because I'm hungry to connect?

Yeah! And that's also kind of the point, too, I think. I mean, it also makes explicit this level of complicity, too. Like we are all in on this, we are all contributing to it, we are all complicit and the first step in resolving or re-evaluating it--assuming we are unhappy with it--is simply admitting the fact of our own culpability, our inherent role as voyeurs, our inherent role of performers, etc.

And I love that you use the word "engagement" here because I think that's the real distinction in 2016, and probably, much earlier. We tweet, we repost, we share, we endorse, we like, we Like again, we scroll, we tag, but do we also consistently engage?

And if we don't, is it because we don't have the time, or because we aren't taking the time? Or is it, going back to what we discussed much earlier, not because we've lost the ability to, but because we've lost the desire to connect in an engaging manner?
Like, for example, that right there—that exclamation point after my affirmative “Yeah”—was that enough to convey my enthusiasm, and if it was, was it enough to be received in turn by the person I am right now speaking with, I mean you, so that together, we’d both feel the full—or fuller, optimal, etc.—effects of a great dialogue, what a great dialogue can do to one another, how a great dialogue can make us feel? Etc. What can’t be translated through convenience or technology?

And how much of this also has to do with our need to appear busy and exhausted? The speed at which we do so many things in our culture, the fact that we are constantly multi-tasking, and at times expected to, has to make us hungry to slow down and connect.

Multi-tasking and convenience, again, and of course speed, this constant acceleration toward what? I mean, we go back to measuring the effects but also the pros and cons, weighing experience by weighing what we are able to do, what it is possible to be doing, against doing things and really being there as we do them. But I think the more interesting question is the one you raise now: the appearance of appearing ... busy, productive, interesting, etc. The performance of life in 2016 that is equal parts glamorization and a reluctance to ever stand still--even as we stand still to capture it, re-frame it, and post it for public consumption. I think that's one irony that is lost on a lot of us in continually re-producing our lives, right? That we are all concerned with appearing a certain way, and most of the time that is to say that we are constantly doing something, yet we are all doing this from the relative standstill of debating how to do it, and when. In other words, it's as though we are fully conscious of what we are doing to appear busy, yet we don't acknowledge that everyone else is doing the same thing. And if everyone else is doing the same thing, then we really are exhausted, or at least, it's a performance that can never be exhausted, because there is no real finite outcome. If the goal was to actually be busy, to be producing, to be productive, then the outcome would be the work, or the work of art, itself. It'd culminate in that. But since it's all about the perception of the production--a tongue-twister, I think--there's really no way to resolve this besides keeping up appearances as they used to say, I think, at some point in the past. Although I don’t know who.

And nothing becomes art if everyone is producing the same thing. There's no self-realization, no time to really think about our lives. Performance for performance's sake. And for some reason, the performance is the thing, not the discussion about the performance.

Exactly! Even though the title of my recent book--Death of Art--is meant to be sort of tongue-in-cheek, I think you hit on something that is especially relevant when we consider and define what "art" is today, and where--and how--can it be consumed?

Chris, thank you so much for taking the time to have a discussion about your poems. They are eye-opening and necessary, and I think readers will connect with them. I hope they continue to open up a dialogue that we need to have as a culture.

It's a pleasure to have this discussion with you, especially because that's what I think, as a culture, we need most. I hope to form connections through my writing that will remain relevant years from now, if only because they preserved a moment about our culture at the moment I was writing it. As I am right now writing it.
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