January 17, 2019KR BlogChatsCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsLiterature

“What’s at stake is the production of knowledge”: A Conversation with Chris Campanioni

Chris Campanioni is a first-generation American and the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and today teaches Latinx literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, while serving as a MAGNET Mentor in CUNY’s Pipeline Program. His “Billboards” poem that responded to Latino stereotypes and mutable—and often muted—identity in the fashion world was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, and his hybrid piece “This body’s long (& I’m still loading)” was adapted as an official selection of the Canadian International Film Festival in 2017. A year earlier, he adapted his award-winning course, “Identity, Image, & Intimacy in the Age of the Internet,” for his first TEDx Talk. He runs PANK and PANK Books, edits At Large Magazine and Tupelo Quarterly, and lives in Brooklyn, where he wrote the Internet is for real (C&R Press).

Kristina Marie Darling:  I enjoyed reading your newest hybrid text, the Internet is for real.  Here critical theory collides with popular culture, technology, and personal narrative.  The work retains a wonderful collage-like quality in its language, as well as in its form.  We are offered discrete prose episodes alongside lineated verse, essays, and images. Is there a violence inherent in this collision of dissimilar types of language?  What does the violence of collision make possible within the narrative?

Chris Campanioni:  It’s interesting that you use the word “violence” … I think of the collision as more of a convergence, a way to hold—and hold up—contradictions or contradictory forms and modes, a sort of necessary break from tradition, sure, but also a break from the hierarchical structures contained within tradition. We should remember that genre, too, is its own hierarchy. And I think in forcing a proximity between disparate genres, modes of writing, and subjects, I am also forcing a conversation about the literary-cultural caste system we so often fall prey to; these divides between high and low or literary and pop; languages of accept-ion and exception; what is and is not “acceptable” in certain milieu. I wanted to force that conversation, and in a way, as you suggest here, to let the kaleidoscopic form of this book do the “talking” typically reserved for the content.

KMD:  I was also struck by the way the page becomes a visual field.  We as readers are borne from prose to spare lyric sections, to images and text boxes.  In what ways is the visual nature of the text a response to the book’s subject?  Relatedly, is hybrid writing visual more often than we’d like to admit?

CC: I think it can be visual—like Brazilian Concretism, or much transmediated cinepoetry today—but I don’t want to privilege the visual, because I think so much of what we see—what gets noticed—begins and ends with the eye. Oral and aural works are often undervalued in our image-rich economy, but certainly not when Hugo Ball was calling for Verse ohne Worte—poems without words—and Lautgedichte—sound poems, on the eve of World War I; in these and so many other past endeavors what we are forced to encounter is what is made possible when our senses interact and intervene—how can sound shape the visual, and how do we visualize sound? We need only remind ourselves just how debased the fundamental category of “noise” is to understand our cultural foregrounding of seeing over hearing; but our reduction to vision becomes a reduction of vision. So how do we recalibrate our optics and our awareness, our sensitivity of and in “hybrid” writing? I think it begins with total inclusivity; an insistence of remaining open, a refusal of demarcations; a reminder to pay attention but also to listen. I bring up mid-twentieth-century Brazilian Concrete poetry and a movement like Dada to also trouble this myth of “progress” within the literary arts. So much of what is deemed “experimental” today is, I think, only going off modernism’s rehearsed injunction to “make it new” and yet many of us have forgotten that the politics of form and the form of politically valent works have been employed by many others before us to produce texts that are unimaginable in our contemporary literary landscape. I think that for such hybrid work, it is not necessarily a question of what gets produced but how these works will be read. The question moves from subject to method.

KMD:  Here scholarly writing merges with autobiography and undoubtedly creative impulses.  What’s at stake as you question the traditional forms of scholarly writing?  Why is expanding and revising the forms of critical discourse important to you as a scholar?

CC: I think what’s at stake is the production of knowledge, right? And what forms of life and language we’d like to account for; what forms of life get to count. Academic discourse is often thought of as a web, absorbing all forms of alternative discourse. And yet there is something to be said of the trace left by one’s resistance. I have similar goals in my creative and my critical work, but these intentions are made explicit when turned toward the academy because they begin to challenge its audience, which is, of course, itself. By integrating multiple disciplines and dialects in my scholarly research and writing I am hoping to make good on the fallacy of the academy as a public institution. What I mean is not reducing the transmission of ideas aimed at a human project by limiting its scope to a specialized audience; an audience of specialists. What good is our work for our communities if we write only for ourselves? What good is our work for our communities if we speak for them instead of allowing them to speak to us? In interrogating these questions, I also implicate the traditional single author, thinking about how to open up the space of authorship toward more collaborative, even anonymous work—something I think we probably tried to do, consciously or unconsciously, in our own poetry correspondence last year.

KMD:  In addition to writing about social media, you also teach a class on Identity, Image, and Intimacy in the Age of the Internet.  Do you feel that you approach the class differently because you are a creative practitioner?  Likewise, what has your pedagogy made possible in your creative work?

CC: I really had no formal training as a teacher. I still feel like I have no formal training, but six years later, I continue to teach and grow as an instructor and as a learner, readily surrendering my role to that of the student who learns so much from all the people in our classroom. But I don’t just talk about this, I enact it in my pedagogical approach, allowing my students to co-create our syllabi and decide where they’d like to go next, shifting course to reflect the flow of seminar discussions and redirecting us by imagining where we’d like to go next. If my creative work has served me as an instructor it’s probably due to this desire for surrender—what is the process of writing if not an act toward submission and delivery? Because the class you mention—a course I’ve taught at the College of Staten Island and continue to teach at Baruch College—is so explicitly situated in Internet studies, I am indebted to all of my students, past and present, for their contributions to what became the Internet is for real; I would not have been able to test the theory without the everyday practice, without putting it into play, and I mean that the inquiry, the performance, the discovery, all of it is rooted in pleasure.

KMD:  You are also a skilled and accomplished editor, with posts at PANK Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, and more.  What has editing opened up within your creative practice?

CC: Oh, I think it’s so illuminating—to read what other people out here are writing every day. But at the same time it also reminds me that I can’t situate my work, or even see how it deviates, from whatever anyone else is doing. It reminds me that as writers, as well as editors, we need to have faith in the work but also balance outcomes with intentions, and to assiduously interrogate those intentions: of ourselves, and others. One of the byproducts of an insta-famous poetry culture is the conflation between producing art and the manufacturing of trends. Writing and publication is different than writing for publication. If we are writing with the explicit intention of publication, where is the autoethnographic social-cultural impetus, or the invitation to dwell within one’s own certain uncertainty, where, above all, is the pleasure of producing without the requirement of production—without, even, the requirement of consummation? When I write, I want to only ever begin.

KMD:  What nonliterary texts have been most important for shaping your approach as a scholar and as a creative practitioner?

CC: It’s funny you mention “nonliterary” because I feel as if so much of what I’ve been completely entranced by as a reader, and as a scholar, is typically considered nonliterary. Notebooks, correspondences, diaries, personal texts are all thought to be outside the sphere of both literature and by extension, academia. But maybe that’s what gives them their particular social and political agency, or at least that’s the notion I’ve taken up as a researcher. But autoethnographic, often non-narrative and performative texts have also informed so much of my recent writing, and I count later sections of the Internet is for real among the work that is so indebted to these theoretical investigations of personal accounting. Some of my favorites include Susan Sontag’s notebooks, especially As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, Francis Ponge’s recently-translated Nioque of the Early-Spring, Marcel Duchamp’s miscellany, collected under the title The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Clarice Lispector’s Selected Crônicas, Hélène Cixous’ The Writing Notebooks, and The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, which is actually what instigated my desire to literally retrace the points of his exile.

KMD:  What are you working on?  What can readers look forward to?

CC: Notes! I began collecting notes and narrative while working on the Internet is for real, so I gave them the title ms dos—meaning “the second manuscript”—a way for me to host a parallel discussion about the work while writing the work. The name has stuck, though, and the notes have accumulated and expanded, self-reproducing the way all good consciousness does. I’ve played with the idea of arranging the manuscript in a set or series, and to organize each version by year—ms dos v.18, for last year’s notes, for example. But then I’ll have the thought to arrange each manuscript by place, and I often think, what could be better than accounting for a moment—time—by dislocating space. The idea of allowing a narrative sourced within a single location to stream along the page, as if chronologically, makes me giddy, fills me with pleasure but also curiosity. I think all notebooks, all personal accountings, are interested in duration. I’m interested in opening up that unit of measurement; I’m not sure what I’ll find.