The Unconditional Hospitality of Composition: Chris Campanioni Interviewed by Wayne Koestenbaum

A conversation that could be a poem, a diary entry, or a game of tennis about how writing reinvents itself.

Cover of And and B and Also Nothing by Chris Campanioni

On Instagram, the fast-moving writer Chris Campanioni goes by the name “chrispup.” The “pup,” I think, signals his readiness, as a writer, to leap and run and frisk and never regret. In poetry and fiction, in critical essays and new-media hybrid pieces, in sentences alternately lavish and trim, he breaks the sound barrier. Like José Lezama Lima, Campanioni finds no syntactic or figurative posture too baroque to try on for size. Migratory poetics is among his current subjects; his protean energies—his willingness to go everywhere with a thought, and to spin an association out to its most eerie and electrified edge—elevate him to a rare rank of writer. Campanioni is the traveler who, like Hervé Guibert, rides language without ever stopping to worry that language might not cooperate. 

His new book, A and B and Almost Nothing (Otis Books | Seismicity Editions), began its life (I’m tickled to say) in a seminar he took with me on Henry James and Gertrude Stein. In it he unfurls a brilliant manifesto-aria on what it means to attend, to concentrate, to listen, to resist, and to reckon. Imaginatively jamming together James’s The Americans and Stein’s The Making of Americans, Campanioni reshuffles nationality, borders, and genealogy. The son of Cuban and Polish parents, he shows us who was left off the page; his bricoleur scissors work magic with available materials because he knows afterward how to be free with the glue. He writes, “when I am whirling rapidly and dizzy with possibility or pleasure, a friend might tell me to cut it out.” Fascinated by Stein’s “continuous present,” Campanioni keeps textuality, that glittering subterfuge, whirling: I hope he never cuts it out. 

 —Wayne Koestenbaum


Wayne Koestenbaum While writing your book, were you thinking of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)? B, the other voice on the line. A, the originator. A and B, interlocked voices, codependents, alter egos, echoes.

Chris Campanioni I hadn’t thought about that text in a while, but Warhol’s work remains instructive for my project of name-dropping and the play of representation. I’m interested in the moments when “B and I” become merged, or reversed, reversible; when “proper” names become emptied of meaning. The undecidability or indeterminacy of the doubled, troubled, “I” signals my attempt to form a lineage with James and Stein; “J and S” become entangled with my own dad and mom, “J and S.” The immigrant perspective confounds cultural nativity. In the book, this tension begins to confuse or fuse with the national literary canon: Stein is truly the mother of us all, and the James I am concerned with isn’t a James but a Juan. These coincidences manufacture more coincidences, self-reproducing—that’s kind of how slippages work, right? Fabric loosens until the clothing unravels all by itself—so The American’s “Christopher” is stripped down, in my version, to become “cc” (my authorial initials or signature) with the reminder that “no one calls me ‘Christopher’ except S, whose name, in Polish, is spelled with a Z.” These moments of clarification only constitute another slippage.

Naming is also important to your project, in your latest essay collection, Figure It Out, and elsewhere. And yet I’m equally struck by the moments where you negotiate the decision to name, to alight upon, to recognize, to remember, to commemorate or designate—whether person or room—with the erotic charge of anonymity, indirection or indiscretion. 

WK I like to name, and name-drop; proper nouns are my carbs, a glad addiction. Your writing has a beautiful sheen of non-specificity; you disclose and cite, but also enjoy veils. If Stein, Henry James, and you were to compare styles of veiling, how would you describe your veil mode to theirs?

CC I want to play voyeur and exhibitionist—maybe to be the voyeur of my own exhibition—which necessitates so many veils, so much unraveling, a word that has always confused me but also captivated me. Am I being unwound, undone, or does the un- reverse the ravel operation, return or rewind me to myself, differently? I’m excited by iterations and a style of writing that I think of as a reprise. What I hope to hear or sound out is a mise en abyme without any hierarchically different levels: no subordination, only similarities—the text as a procession of resemblances. 

My veil works by disclosing a lack: no distinctions between myth and memory, fiction and experience, waking life and dreams. When I read the text back, I want the text to harvest a latent haze, from which everything is familiar and nothing is recognizable. You’ve  taught me so much about my work, about a mode of writing that insists upon transparency while problematizing the texture of the confession. I think about what that makes possible for the text, what it invites as a readerly behavior, to reorient the ways in which we have been taught to read “poetry,” “autobiography,” “fiction,” or any other genre.

You, too, want to imagine an alternative ecology of literature but also language. In Figure It Out the “subjects”—punctuation, the sentence, translation, cum-bucket consciousness—aren’t really subjects but predicates. The order of the English sentence has been recast, allowing you permission to claim nearness to other things while displacing an original investment, a sleight of hand that relies on an attention to tempo but also to petrifaction, to placement. Rather than excluding “all culinary delights,” as Adorno has recommended, you relish the body, what it gives and gives off. I want to connect this generosity to your pedagogy, your ability to make everyone feel like contributors to a project that values, as you write, the “important” alongside the “extraneous.”

On the first day of your seminar on notebooks, you told us, as addendum to instructions for our weekly assignments: “you can always write about something else.” In your James and Stein seminar, your guidance to my classmates was “cultivate affinities.” In any project of catalog and collection, the path of resignification is sacred; your work not only cultivates affinities but commemorates and eulogizes. Transference, compassion, and empathy organize your writing’s dynamic wish: the task to imagine the daily experiences of people—and objects—we could not possibly know, and to attend to the lives of people and spaces that have since been lost. We each have taken seriously the irregular accounting as a poetics that is both processual and theoretical, an engine that can alter the temperature of texts without warning. What can you realize in the notebook that you can’t attain in other modes of composition? Tell me about the gift of transcription.

Chris Campanioni

Photo of Chris Campanioni courtesy of the author.

WKYou’re the transcriber: I see you, in memory, in the classroom, the James and Stein seminar. There you are, still, writing everything down, never (it seems) with a sense of duty, or fealty to the prior, but simply with a generous appetite for the language happening in the room around you, all of it able (through your alchemies of composition and recomposition) to become yours, as you assemble the collage of your book and your days.   

In graduate school, my beloved teacher Elaine Showalter said, after she read my dissertation prospectus: “How did you become so French?” Overnight, in my critical style, I’d become French. Blame Barthes. Chris, how did you become so French?

CC In translation. Perhaps, like James and Stein, I had to create my own American language by being elsewhere, making an itinerary. Last night I answered a knock at my hotel room, or I returned to bed and met Kazim there, naked, sprawled out, holding a carton of ice cream and inviting me to partake, and I recall hesitating, because I like to space out my indulgences, and I’d already enjoyed ice cream earlier in the day. The exiled Cuban writers to whom I am beholden enjoyed these excesses as a matter of form, which was driven by flavor—I am remembering Reinaldo Arenas’s observations of the periodic salons organized by José Lezama Lima, a zone where creative production was coincident with eating, fucking; or maybe the moment of poetry was this convergence, the understanding that writing comes through the mouth as much as the act of notation—and whenever I read Sarduy or Cabrera Infante, even in the “original,” I feel like they were translating, too, ventriloquizing a Spanish new wave that was infected with French, a changeover more cinematic than grammatical. I heard to love cinema is to know what to do with the images that are really missing. At some point last night, I woke up.

WKLima and Sarduy, their intricate excesses, wind me up; and being wound up is what I always want. You, too, I suspect. Hyperstimulation. Hyperaesthesia, I like to call it. “Nostrils open to everything,” as Jules Laforgue once described Baudelaire’s receptivity. Tell me a story about your hyperaesthesia.  

Part of this vocation—yours, mine, the creed of wide-open nostrils—is a willed susceptibility to synchronicity, coincidence, chance. CC. Those initials, yours, appear everywhere in A and B and Also Nothing, though “C” is of course the letter missing—the nothing—from your title. Claire de Cintré. CC: carbon copy. “Erotics of the twitch,” you say. The twitch of the CC, the copy machine, the model’s gesture caught by a camera.  

Seriously, though: in the James and Stein seminar, we talked about the distinction Walter Benjamin made between concentration and distraction. (C/D.) Here, in your book, I hear myself echoed, or cc’d: “What does sustained concentration do in a time of political resistance?” What’s your book’s answer to this question? (Of course, I understand that good questions, like yours, have no answers, and good books, like yours, resist summary. We’re playing at summation, but we needn’t actually ensure that the vocables add up to anything.)  

I guess I’m posing two questions—offering you two ripe nouns: (a) hyperaesthesia, (b) concentration. 

CC Thank you. I like options, even if I don’t like to have to choose. In April, just before my birthday, my sense of flavor evaporated. Nonplussed, I began diving my face into my armpits, my crotch, cartons of milk and cheese. Gliding my forefingers into the fold of flesh between asshole and scrotum. Scientists call it “olfactory training.” I was retraining my brain how to register trace. In another book, which I’ve yet to write, I call these poetics an aesthetics of potholes. A rim job poetics, tongue in cheek. I’m gleefully repeating something I’ve written elsewhere, the way I repeated in writing what you’d asked us as a class, about concentration and resistance. I cc’d you on your own communication. Things change when they land in a book (echoes of Shklovsky now), the question, I think, is why. It’s coincidental that A and B and Also Nothing was published during the pandemic and the organized marches for justice as an anti-racist and decolonizing movement; my “rough” translation of James and Stein does nothing if not question value, virtues. This, too, is your project across Figure It Out. These last several months have activated greater responsibility—to ourselves and our communities—an awareness, an alertness: to respond to the structures we’ve upheld or inherited, with the duration and sustained attention required to really listen.

To listen is always, I think, a political action, and a political action that subverts politics because it decentralizes the self, detours the program for ownership and control; listening can only turn in, can only internalize; to listen is a pathway for creating relationships of difference. For you, memory—the memory of sound, of song—is one artery for resistance. A sentence of yours that I continue to remember, repeat: “The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to pay attention.” So long as the “X,” like the “it” of your latest collection’s title, is [a] variable, readers need only attend to the act of giving, of figuring—regarding, considering—instead of administering an argument, or, as you say, the “absolute statement” we’ve often been trained to turn out. When you write about Hervé Guibert’s fragmentary self-articulations, you write about “botched execution” as a method; to botch is also to put together in a makeshift way. Botches linger, they intensify, become inflamed. I return often to your “Beauty Parlor at Hotel Dada” because it’s the only kind of writing—discontinuous, accumulating, contrapuntal, momentary but also momentous—I ever want to produce. When I work in this associative, catalogical form, the text seems to dictate words to me, as if I were the secretary tasked with noting the coincidental residue—to express the wish while at the same time producing the wish. 

WK Olfactory Training. That’s a good title. For an essay. For a seminar. For a program in self-improvement. For a support group. I know generally what my body smells like, but I’m often afraid that it—my body—will surprise me (in an unpleasant way) with a new variety of odor, perhaps an unwelcome subset of an aroma I have already accepted into the fold. Thinking of the dance between musk and citrus, I note that you and I like to move—in this conversation, and in our own bodies of work—between a more philosophical, ruminative mode and a grounded, anecdotal, autobiographical, grained mode: hence, your paragraph’s oscillation between “my armpits” and “the program for ownership and control.” Armpits = musk. Program = citrus. I sense—maybe I’m wrong—that you’re comfortable leaping into rumination’s ether, while I nervously slide back into autobiography as if in retreat from thinking’s calisthenics.  

We’re doing a good job of making a conversation function as a diary, or an interview function as a poem. In A and B and Also Nothing, which behaves like prose, and finds poetry through brevity, aphorism, cut, and other procedures of juxtaposition and omission, you manage to include at least one gorgeous passage of lineated poetry: “what a curiosity to look up / a word* and find your name beside it / to look up and find / nothing except / the scene of writing.” The luxury of these line breaks! Tell me what formal moves, what tricks, what grammars, what stylistic secrets, gave you most pleasure. And, because I can’t resist piggybacking the questions, tell me about the pleasures of the preliminary: “Everything I do is preliminary,” you write, and thus make the preliminary an outfit (or a form of desire) I’m desperate to try on.

CC “Armpits” and “program” are inseparable. I need the armpit to talk about the program, unless it’s the other way around. And yet, I think we also share that nervous reversion to autobiography, because it’s the inflated, cooler moments of A and B and Also Nothing that make me want to rewrite the book, to fill it with nothing but warm musk and bottom-play—insecurities spurred by the arrogance or ignorance of writing about James and Stein after a week of reading their work. But insecurities bear fruit. Near the very end of the book, there’s a passage—ruminative or anecdotal?—in which I repeat some sage advice you gave to me, about attaining high points, and yet I do think we need the incidental, the quotidian, the earthy and everyday, and the boredom, to conjure the profound. A text should be like a good seminar, where ideas are improvised and begin to disperse at random, where learning happens through interruption and repetition, where similarities and resemblances are gleaned through shared geometry and second-hand retrieval. I leave class having learned that a lot of my own thoughts are not my own. 

There’s something intergenerational and deeply euphoric about discovering that what you have felt and thought, what you’ve written, has also been expressed by others. I get off on thinking in line breaks—so sad, to write a whole book with hardly any lineation—but there are ways, as you point out, to pose prose as poetry. I get off on disruptions and in acknowledging the unconditional hospitality of composition. I get off on transmediation, self-adaptation. I fantasize about our exchange taking the form of extracts, between each of our notebooks. On January 16, 2018, I wrote, “I want a book that keeps waiting. & in waiting, accumulates desire. I guess I am saying a book should be an airport.” Reciting an excerpt of this interview to my partner, Lilly, diffused the gift of her phrase, “it’s like you two are playing tennis.” We can enjoy this back-and-forth sport as a leitmotif. I’ve been playing too much tennis and too often, and so my metatarsal is now bruised, tender—unavoidable or inevitable pounding. I get off on intensity; I have a tendency to overdo it, in life as in art. I want excitability; I get off on trying to extend my attraction of the scene of writing to the reader, to make it theirs. 

I don’t want a room of my own; I want a hotel, a caravan. I get off on inversions, reversibility, chiasmus—a word I never knew how to pronounce until you spoke it to me. I want to harness my accidents; I am moved by the glitches that get passed on, mondegreens, defects as defection, exophoric froth. The preliminary should be taken seriously, for its liminal properties, its surrender to trial and especially, to error. An aspiration to be undone. I’m more interested in the other texts—a baker’s dozen—hinted, referenced, alluded to or eluded (elided) across A and B and Also Nothing, than the text proper. I get off on impropriety. In the past, when we were doing this in the flesh, you suggested I have good manners.

WKI stick by that assessment: you have impeccable manners. Your syntax, though pleasingly skeletal (subject-verb-object), loves to gorge on adjacent materials and bodies, and by gorging on the nearby, you also hospitably permit the nearby more latitude, more ampleness, more clauses and modifiers, than it could have arrived at before your permission slip came in the mail. One virtue of A and B and Also Nothing is that it authorizes everyone who reads it to write a book of their own: like Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, or James’s A Small Boy and Others, you give the “everybody” and the “other” a lot of elbow room. Though gloriously unfettered, you’re no space hog; you poach on the nearby in order to issue it a carte blanche to spread itself out and open, in emulation of your outgoingness. You write, “The exhibit I never saw, the exhibit I’ll have to imagine … Doesn’t everyone have the right to remember what never existed?” Chris, do me one final favor. In this interview, before we say good night: what exhibit is on your mind right now, and is it an exhibit that everyone has the right to visit?  

CC I think often of Dadaglobe Reconstructed (June 12–September 18, 2016), and maybe it has less to do with the objects housed in MoMA’s second floor than the time in my life when I was also in that room. What interests me most at the museum are the other people. I had just entered the PhD program; classes were about to begin. We had just met or were about to meet. I know nothing about things but I knew even less then. Unfinished, partially reconstructed, filled with archival material and original copies—the primary objects were too large, too expensive to ship across the Atlantic for its intended publication in 1921—Dadaglobe bestowed an appreciation for the cut, the detail, the portable, the close-up, the crowdsourced, the productive problem of all translation. “The breakdown of the translator,” as you write, “is the task.” So we can all be on our way.  

A and B and Also Nothing is available for purchase here.

Wayne Koestenbaum—poet, critic, artist, performer—has published twenty books, most recently Figure It Out (Soft Skull, 2020) and Camp Marmalade (Nightboat, 2018). This year, he received an Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His first collection of short fiction, The Cheerful Scapegoat, will be published in April 2021 by Semiotext(e).

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