Talking Paper Interview Series: Chris Campanioni

"People sometimes say: You don't really look like an author & I tell them: You're probably reading the wrong books." Photo by Sonny Tong

"People sometimes say: You don't really look like an author & I tell them: You're probably reading the wrong books." Photo by Sonny Tong

Chris Campanioni is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and model who edits PANK magazine and other publications. Raised in Bergen County, New Jersey, Campanioni worked as a reporter for the Bergen Record newspaper, as well as The Star-Ledger and San Francisco Chronicle. He later moved into fashion modeling and screen acting, with parts on daytime soap operas One Life To Live and All My Children. He then began teaching literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, and Interdisciplinary Studies at John Jay. 

Campanioni has performed his poetry at Nomadic Press events in Brooklyn, including Suave Vintage Glamour at RISK Gallery and Summer Writes with Nomadic Press & Gamba Magazine at the Hollows. His poem "Billboards" was awarded the 2013 Academy of American Poets Prize, and his debut novel Going Down was selected as Best First Book at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards. His 2015 follow-up, Tourist Trap (or: how I paid my way through grad school) was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, while 2016 saw the release of Death of Art. I recently interviewed Campanioni who discussed his diverse writing career, art in the digital age, and what teaching has taught him about literature and poetry.   

On early influences

"I try to endeavor to recreate the constant interactions and interruptions that we have every day in 2016, whether it’s technology or otherwise."

The first poem I remember reading and absolutely loving, and maybe even falling in love with poetry, was Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach" in high school. I probably was the only male in my creative writing club in River Dell High School, which is a small school in a small town in northeast New Jersey, deep in the suburbs where my parents moved when I was quite young. "Dover Beach"just the themes of that poem being universal human transcendence and experiencing something that is different but also the same, bred a kind of empathy in me which I think is pertinent and useful in all poetry going forward to today, which is one of the reasons why I enjoy writing and reading poetry so much today.

My first attempt at a poem, which my mom still has, I wrote after my abuela died when I was in the second grade. Basically the gist of it was about her and I playing Old Maid. Her English wasn’t that great, but we would play Old Maid together, and that was the way we bonded. So that was my lasting memory of her. When she died when I was in the second grade, that was my way of understanding perhaps what had happened. So that was my early attempt at poetry. Then my love for it came later in high school. That’s really when I started to develop a style that I’m still trying to work with today.

Image courtesy of the artist

For the most part, I wrote in English. My first chapbook is called Once in a Lifetime, which Berkeley Press published, and also a subset of Berkeley Press, Floricanto, which is a Spanish language press. In that manuscript I did a lot with playing with language, especially with dialogue. That was also something that I played with a lot in my first novel, Going Down, especially because that was autobiographical. I wanted to reflect the home environment, growing up bilingual, growing up multicultural, and there was a lot of dialogue in Spanish and also a lot of interruptions in Spanish. So an advertisement, a text message, a headline, a billboard. I try to play with a lot in my work, whether it’s poetry or prose. I try to endeavor to recreate the constant interactions and interruptions that we have every day in 2016, whether it’s technology or otherwise.

On autobiographical elements

Image courtesy of the artist

"I can only ever end up writing through the lens of my experience, which I think is useful for any writer."

Death of Art is the first book I’m actually calling non-fiction. I can only ever end up writing through the lens of my experience, which I think is useful for any writer. They do say, of course, “Write what you know.” So I’ve always done that, because I haven’t thought to do anything else. I think that especially as a genre, it seems very popular today, whether we’re calling it non-fiction or poetry. Maggie Nelson has a bunch of books out that could blur the lines between non-fiction and poetry. I feel like the new memoir is sort of the new hip genre that everyone (especially 20-somethings, 30-somethings) is writing. Prior to Death of Art, my first novel was very autobiographical. Even the protagonist’s name was Chris. I think growing up, some of my really influential authors who also blurred form with prose and poetry (but also, it was ambiguous who was the narrative, who was the speaker), I would say William S. Burroughs. In all of his work, there was always this sense that he was really writing about his own experiences, even as they might have been dissociative, fractured, and fragmented. But that they were in some way something that he experienced, whether in childhood, adult, drug adult phase, whatever. I feel like I took a lot from him in many ways, but especially the autobiographical interest.

On Going Down

Campanioni at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, where Going Down won Best First Book

Campanioni at the 2014 International Latino Book Awards, where Going Down won Best First Book

I started writing it when I was 21 and living abroad in London. I had this idea to write three books, and each book would be situated in one sector of what I call "the culture industry." Going Down was really about fashion and the media. I had quite a background in reporting and copy editing at the San Francisco Chronicle and The Star-Ledger in Newark. So I had the background in newspapers, and then the background in fashion when I started modeling and acting, and I really wanted to write about that experience and about re-presentation, and fabrication, and all the layers of that. Actually, I wrote a book before Going Down was published. The three books basically have been published out of order, which is great. But the second book that came out just last year is called Tourist Trap, and that deals with tourism and terrorism. I was trying to make the point about tourism being akin to cultural terrorism, so that book was about that. Then the third book, which will be published sometime before or after AWP this year by King Shot Press in Portland, is sort of the middle book of the three. So side characters that are introduced in Going Down and Tourist Trapit follows them and sort of builds this universe, and hopefully weaves it together. It’s sort of pleasantly surprising, and I feel it was meant to be that these three books that I wrote out of order are now being published in a different order altogether. That is what I was really concerned with in my fiction, and I feel like I’m still exploring those things and those themes in my non-fiction. It’s just that there seems to be now more of an emphasis on a non-linear plot structure, and just more hybrid forms. Death of Artthere’s a loose story there. There’s a story that begins and a story that ends with me attempting to cut out my face from every editorial that I’ve been in. But in between there, you go on detours. It’s kind of a circuitous path, and there’s a lot of poetry mixed in with that prose.

On his newspaper career

"I think one of the reasons why I worked as a journalist at the beginning of my career was because I thought it was a viable way to make money writing, and of course the print newspaper industry (once I became really full-time ingrained in it) was starting to die off already."

My first newspaper job was for The Record, which is a small paper in Bergen County where my parents moved when I was quite young. Even when I was just in high school writing for that newspaper, I felt like I was really respected among complete strangers in my town that would see my byline. I think that was the first moment that I felt a sense of recognition, at least with my creativity and my writing. So it was great, because everyone in Bergen County reads The Record, and then I found that everyone else in the whole state of New Jersey read The Star-Ledger when I started working for them a few years later. It gave me a sense of validation. I think one of the reasons why I worked as a journalist at the beginning of my career was because I thought it was a viable way to make money writing, and of course the print newspaper industry (once I became really full-time ingrained in it) was starting to die off already. So I felt like I came to that party a little late. But at one point, it must have been a party, if only for old rich white men.

San Francisco is a great writer’s town in which I wrote quite a lot of non-journalistic stuff when I was there. I actually got that job because I was still at Lehigh, where I did my undergraduate. In my junior year, I applied for a position with what at the time they called the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund. The position was for a copy editor, but I actually had no interest in being an editor. I was just a writer, and that’s all I’d ever done. My mom actually urged me to apply, as moms sometimes do, and I ended up getting it. I felt the coolest thing was, even if I hated being an editor, at least I would live in the heart of San Francisco for four months and really discover myself, and that’s what happened. Then I ended up actually enjoying being a part of the editing process, and it made me a stronger writer.

Even in my career as a teacher, and before that as a student, I think the reason why I’ve been so dedicated and rigorous in organizing my time well is due to my training as an editor, because of those deadlines. I don’t know if I would be as prolific as I am now, in terms of really producing so much work, and really working every day. Even though I’m not one of those writers that is like, “Okay, I’m going to write 20 minutes as soon as I wake up.” I know that works for people. Melissa Hunter Gurney does that, and it’s great. Some people write before bed. But I just try to write a lot throughout the day. Even though I don’t hold myself to it, I end up doing it because I think of that intuitive implicit demand to produce, and to keep producing and not to be stagnant. Even if what I end up writing doesn’t work on its own, it goes into my note sectionwhich is what I usually write from originally, and then I transcribe it to a word document later. It’s sort of this graveyard of great lines that end up becoming a poem, or a scene for a story, or both. I owe a lot to not just journalism, but also my training as an editor.

"There’s definitely a distinct tempo, a breakneck speed, a euphoria to my work, and I think I owe that also to the environment in which that work is formed."

I seem to now be using my notebook when I’m on assignment, because I feel like people will think I’m rude and think I’m on Instagram if I whip my phone out. I was just in Italy to test drive the new Ferrari, and while I was at the press conference I didn’t want to take the notes on my phone. So I usually use the note section on the iPhone for my creative work when I’m on the subway, because I do a lot of my writing on the subway, actually. I do a lot of commuting, and I find that the subway helps me because I think it recreates what I’ve been told is a tempo of my work, whether it’s poetry or prose. There’s definitely a distinct tempo, a breakneck speed, a euphoria to my work, and I think I owe that also to the environment in which that work is formed. I feel like somehow the momentum of literal transport is finding its way into the writing, because I’m doing it on the commute. But I do use my notebook. I have been busting it out here and there for more official events in which I’m probably not writing a poem (or I might be secretly writing a poem, but I’m on assignment), because it looks more official. It’s interesting, I still have a collection of my old reporter notepads. I wonder what they use at the newspaper now. I wonder if they even have reporter notepads that they give you, because I imagine mostly everything is digital.

On The Death of Art

Image courtesy of the artist

"A lot of people think about just the negative aspects of what technology has done to everything, including art. But what about the benefits of digitalizing everything, including classic works of art? What does that do?"

At the heart of not just the title, but the concerns of the book itself, is this idea of art. Not actually thinking of it as dead. It’s reevaluating how we experience art today. One of the things that I think about is digital versus something tactilesomething that you can hold in your hands. One of the things that I pose to my students at Baruch College and Pace Universityis it more pleasurable to experience something like the Sistine Chapel on Google Images in the privacy of your home, or in the bathroom of a Starbucks, than actually experiencing the Sistine Chapel in person surrounded by people and cameras, and really sort of taken out of the moment? A lot of people think about just the negative aspects of what technology has done to everything, including art. But what about the benefits of digitalizing everything, including classic works of art? What does that do? I’m interested mostly in just posing the question and having people confront that. In regard to the title, I think it’s a great question to see how to experience a book in the 21st century, in 2016, that’s so concerned with post-Internet culture, and yet experiencing it in a very tactile, physical way. I hope it’s an interesting paradox that hopefully every reader comes to terms with early on in reading something like this. Because I think what I’m so interested in is the digitization of everything in life. Not just the bad, but the goodand not even just the binary of good and bad, but how it’s been reevaluated. How can we experience it in multiple ways?

On teaching at Baruch and Pace

"I feel like the classroom is a testing ground for me in which I can pose a lot of questions and really see a huge amount of diverse reactions, which otherwise I wouldn’t get through a survey or social media because it’s in many ways one-dimensional."

I started teaching four years ago now at the of College of Staten Island. At that time, I'd never been at the head of a classroom before besides to give a presentation, so I was so nervous. My first class that I taught at CSI was Intro to Fiction. But I quickly became fascinated by it, and especially my students. Now I teach at Baruch and I teach at Pace. I used to teach at John Jay’s Interdisciplinary Program. So I’ve had a lot of different experiences with a lot of different student bodies and campuses. I think Baruch in particular, for whatever reason, they trusted me a lot. They gave me pretty much the keys to the car, in the sense that they allowed me to create my own syllabus. What I did with that syllabus was really come up with the material, and my students supplied the rest in terms of teaching me things about the material that wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise. That really went into Death of Art, and is going into the follow-up, which is called The Internet is For Real. I feel like the classroom is a testing ground for me in which I can pose a lot of questions and really see a huge amount of diverse reactions, which otherwise I wouldn’t get through a survey or social media because it’s in many ways one-dimensional. But face-to-face, you’re sitting with someone in a room for an hour and a half. I usually almost always run my classes seminar style because I came from grad school, and that’s the only way I knew how. So I’ve never really lectured, or I've tried to stay away from that. It’s really just the discussion that I’m facilitating. So for me, it’s good fun. Sometimes my throat's sore by the end of the day teaching so many classes at different colleges. So BaruchI’m really indebted to them for entrusting me with that responsibility with my syllabus. At Pace, same thing in a different sort of context. They’ve allowed me to teach a literature class called American Voices. This will be now my second semester teaching it, and I've really made an emphasis of including so many women, especially Latin-American authors, so many African-American authors in which I feel otherwise I don’t know what that class looked like before I came to it. But now I’m teaching all the sections of the university, and I feel like students are really able to read things other than just the mostly white males that they were reading.

Annie Christain reads Tall as You Are Tall Between Them at a C&R Press live event

This semester I’m teaching Annie Christain’s Tall as You Are Tall Between Them, which is kind of hybrid, but it’s mostly poetry. What she does is actually perfect for a class called American Voices, because she inhabits throughout this really slim collection like 50-60 voices. It’s really, actually phenomenal. So I’m teaching her this semester. I’m teaching the poetry of Morgan Parker, Rae Armantrout, Claudia Rankine. Last semester, I taught a great anthology called Cuba in Splinters, which I was really happy about. I’m half-Cuban. My dad’s from Santiago and he left when he was 16, a year after the revolution. So I’ve always tried to represent Cuban literature as best I could. But this particular anthology, which I really recommend, Cuba in Splinters, is great because I think so many people are now dealing with the repercussions of what went on in Cuba, and these are actually writers representing this anthology that didn’t leave. They weren’t exiled. They stayed on the island, and this is sort of like a really different take on Cuban literature. Not that I don’t like exiled writers. We also read Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig. Last semester we also read Julio Cortazar, and Blow-up was made into a movie in the ‘60s. But I feel like a lot of my students have never read anything remotely like this, and it was challenging for them. I hold my students to high standards, as I do my friends, and sometimes that gets problematic. But at the end of the day, I think you have to challenge people, whether they’re your friends,  your students, or  anyone that you respect, and it’s been fun. That’s been my experience with Pace, and since that first semester, now I teach every section of American Voices. It’s nice because Baruch, even though it’s my own syllabus and it’s centered (the actual course is called Identity, Image, and Intimacy in the Age of Celebrity and Internet)it’s a composition class. So there’s some things that I have to fulfill that are orders from above that have to do with composition. The Pace class is literature-based, so it’s nice that I get to teach a lot of just straight-up literature.

On Pank Magazine

"I think it’s great when I get an acceptance letter as an author, but it’s actually much better to send acceptance letters."

I feel like my whole life is made of things that I didn’t necessarily pursue, but that just sort of happened to me. I think it’s because I put myself in that position, so I have to give myself some credit. So last November, I got a text message from John Gosslee, who I knew in his role as managing editor and founder of Fjords Review. They had published one of my long-form poems that actually ended up winning the Academy of American Poets prize in 2013, called "Billboards," which was my first attempt at translating Going Down into a poem. It was a poem about the fashion industry, and it was called "Billboards" because it was written across the page. It resembled a billboard. [Gosslee's] magazine published my poem. We kept in touch. We sent each other poems here and there. It’s always great to build a community, even if it’s a digital community, of people that you can trust with your work, and whose opinion you respect. We had that relationship.

Campanioni and John Gosslee at 2016 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Los Angelese

But in November of last year, he texted me and I thought he was joking, actually. I probably sent him a reply like, “LOL yeah, that sounds great.” But he texted me saying like, “How would you like to be the new poetry editor of PANK magazine?” and I thought, “Wow! What an amazing magazine, but this guy is off his rocker." So I texted him back, and he said that unfortunately the magazine was folding, but he was planning to swoop in and purchase it and reanimate it. Keep everything that made PANK great, but just get new editors on board. So he ended up getting Ashley M. Jones, who’s another poet, and me. I didn’t actually end up being poetry editor. I think it’s really in the aesthetic and in service of PANK that we don’t really make distinctions. I don’t really make distinctions in my work either. PANK doesn’t just by its very nature. So we don’t have section editors. We’re just three editors. It’s John, Ashley, and I. It was a big undertaking, just because of the history of PANK, the passion that went behind it, and the passionate following that it accrued. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’m also an editor of Tupelo Quarterly and At Large Magazine, two very different magazines, and PANK of course is very different as well. But there is no greater feeling than accepting a piece for publication, and really knowing that when you send that acceptance letter, a very specific person behind that computer or smartphone, or wherever they’re receiving the correspondence, is receiving it. Just to know that you’re championing important work. I think it’s great when I get an acceptance letter as an author, but it’s actually much better to send acceptance letters.

On reading live

"I think when you find the right group of people and the right community to form your art around and to learn from, not only is it rare but also very fortunate, and I think I’ve been fortunate to have that."

In terms of booking readings, I’ve been very fortunate because it’s all about making the right connections. Not going to events and just networking, which I’ve never felt comfortable doing. For better or for worse, I’m a horrible networker. But it’s about actually going to events that you’re not reading at, and actually making really humanistic, important conversations that hopefully have nothing to do with your work, and just making friendships and forming hopefully lasting relationships with people in which weeks later, months later, they’ll call on you to do a reading. I’ve been very fortunate with that approach to amass a really great community. Raquel Penzo does her La Pluma y La Tinta readings. It’s interesting, because I name all these people; Melissa, you, Dallas, Raquel, and we’re all sort of in the same group, too, because it’s all very passionate, mostly Brooklyn-based writers, editors, readers, and we all look after each other. I just edited Melissa’s manuscript, and it’s amazing, and I think we might have a publisher for it. But it’s just selfless, and in a world which can be so selfish. Not just the art world, but the literary world, unfortunately. That’s actually what Death of Art is about, too, at the end. Especially the last story, it’s about the New York City literary scene. I’ve been to a lot of bad readings in which it's just who have you read, who do you know, where have you been published, and it’s just an ass-kissing game. It’s a contest, and it shouldn’t be that way, of course. I think when you find the right group of people and the right community to form your art around and to learn from, not only is it rare but also very fortunate, and I think I’ve been fortunate to have that.

"I try to give some context about the piece that I’m reading before or after, just so I can form more of a connection with the audience in terms of where was I at literally, but also emotionally, when I wrote this piece that you’re about to hear."

I feel like I’m a pretty good performer. I think one of the things that’s great in a reading, that you can’t get just from reading the book, is the context. So I usually tell horrible jokes at the beginning, some of which are more successful than others. But more than that, I try to give some context about the piece that I’m reading before or after, just so I can form more of a connection with the audience in terms of where was I at literally, but also emotionally, when I wrote this piece that you’re about to hear. I try not to really read from the page. Even if I have a page in front of me, I try to make as much eye contact as I can, and in some venues that’s hard. Great venueKGB Bar. I remember when I first read there. You can’t see anything in that place. It’s pitch black, and then you have a spotlight above you, so you can’t see anything. Although it gets packed, because it’s a great venue, so you’re bound to have great listeners and a great audience. You can’t really interact with them at that moment, and I love eye contact. I need to look at people when I’m performing, so it’s difficult sometimes.

But the reason why I like especially events at Lucky Luna more so than other events, even other events that GAMBA does at other venues, is because it’s less like there’s a stage. So it’s less like there’s that distinction between performer and audience, but more about being in the middle of everything. I think Lucky Luna for whatever reasonmaybe it’s just the way it’s laid out, or the way that the crowd's formed around youit feels more organic and I really enjoy that.

On using other languages

My mom says I was really good at Spanish when I was a child. I mentioned my parents moved to New Jersey in a very suburban neighborhood. But I grew up actually in Greenpoint, literally a block away from Lucky Luna, on Diamond Street. So when they moved to New Jersey, I think I might have been the only Spanish speaker (or at least the only descendant of Spanish speakers) in my whole high school. It was that White and Asian. I didn’t use Spanish anymore, and actually I didn’t use it in college. So I'm most comfortable speaking it with my family, but also writing. That’s why I think a lot of the writing finds its way into my published work. But also just the aspect of things that are untranslatable is interesting to me on many levels. Not just things that you can’t translate from Spanish, but just things in general. I think that’s why I’m so interested in that intermingling or interruptions, that sort of collision between very different languages.

French is a beautiful language. For instance, just in a specific case of my poem called "Opening Shot," it makes a reference to a group which I both admire and also had been inspired by, which were the Situationists in 1960s France. One of their famous phrases basically means the prolonged struggle. It was something that was very specifically attributed to that group, and that they would write as graffiti. So it had a very specific French context. 

On screen acting

I started off on All My Children in 2007. By 2009, I think it was at the time the longest running soap, and was leaving New York City to go to L.A., which was a huge deal. When they moved to L.A., they actually were off the air by 2011. So that was really surprising. I wasn’t prepared to make the move to L.A. because, although I actually had a character and I had lines, it wasn’t my passion. I knew even at the time that acting was affording me a great experience to write aboutI still write about it—but I was never interested in being an actor. It was a great opportunity, but I wasn’t ready to move to L.A. Fortunately, when All My Children was moving to L.A., I met with the casting director of another ABC soap called One Life to Live, and I immediately got on their show. I think I was on there from 2009 to 2011. Daytime TV, which used to be a dozen shows on all the channelsCBS, NBC, ABCI never watched it before I was on it. I don’t watch it now that I’m not on it. I only watched the shows I was on. Most of them have made way for talk shows and for food shows, which shows you where our culture is currently situated. We are all foodies now and we all love to talk. That’s why social media is so popular, I think. We all have an opinion, and we all want to have a forum for it. So a show called The Talk kind of exemplifies our culture.

"I felt at the time that I was a much better writer than the writers they had on the show. So I thought, 'Look, if you just give me the script, I could write the show, and I could write my character a lot better than you’re writing my character and give me some real good lines.'"

The word "arc" in Going Down is kind of a joke. It’s a third-person narrative, but it's closed third-person, and it’s talking about the character. I’m sort of making fun of the lack of character development anywhere on the show, but especially my character in real life. Because it’s a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel, I talk about the failure of the character to have any sort of arc. My name on All My Children was Stewart, and I was the bartender. I was hoping that I would become like a drug dealer on the side, and sort of start making some trouble, because plot needs complications and conflict. But I never got that chance. Then, on One Life to Live, I played a whole mélange of characters. I played Jake the porn actor. It wasn’t porn "star" but just porn "actor." I remember photographing the script that has my name on it. It was very interesting. I played Juan the Buenos Dias café bellboy, and then I played some sort of cabana boy. I don’t know if I had a name with that guy. But they all were like three to four episode arcs. There wasn’t much character development. I guess every actor who gets the script a week in advance, they always hope that the writers are writing them something good because you kind of live and die by the writer. But I was sort of in an interesting situation there because I felt at the time that I was a much better writer than the writers they had on the show. So I thought, “Look, if you just give me the script, I could write the show, and I could write my character a lot better than you’re writing my character and give me some real good lines.” The lines I had were actually always really bad. It was interesting because I actually was able to use a lot of that found footage when Going Down first came out in 2013. Before it came out September 1st, I called it the Month of Going Down, and every day I would release a video. It started to get really tedious, actually. I didn’t realize how difficult it was to release a video every day. But every video would be a chapter or scene from the book, and into a mini-movie, because I had the luxury of having a lot of that found footage. So I would use a lot of these clips from One Life to Live and All My Children. It occurred to me even more so years later, when I using it for a literary purpose, that the lines they gave were just so bad. My editor was watching the footage, and she’s like, “You are such a different person on TV,” and I was like, “Yeah, but that’s the person they wrote for me. I didn’t have control of that.” Acting interests me more so in the philosophy or the idea of it, because of course so much of my work does still deal with performance. But acting itself, it never interested me in that way as a vocation.

On the meaning of an image

In Death of Art, a concern that I try to raise is the re-appropriation of things. Because I had the luxury of having a lot of found footage, I also have a lot of images of me. So if I have no control over how a photographer frames me or where that photo ends up, at least I can control after the fact re-contextualizing it. Close friends of mine will tell me, “Oh, people don’t even read the captions on Instagram,” but some of them do. Whether it’s a screenshot that becomes re-contextualized or re-evaluated, or that you’re taking ownership of your own image, which I have a unique experience with, or at least a unique vantage point from which to speak from. I’ve always tried to do that anyway, and so much of Death of Artit became explicit because the main plot point is me trying to remove myself from my images. In reality, I never actually did that, or I never really tried to. But in social media, on the Internet, in my writing, I try to re-contextualize a snapshot, whether it’s in written form and I write about it or it’s an actual snapshot. I quote from my own work, or ask a question from my own work, or try to bring something intellectual into that discussion, or at least interrupt that discussion. It was very open-ended. If it was an image from a fashion editorial or something, remove that blasé caption and do something with it.

I think a work that actually maybe influenced me a lot, occurring to me now, is The Fashion System. I read it in grad school. Roland Barthes, a very famous literary philosopher who wrote a lot of good stuff. I don’t even think The Fashion System is his most famous work. But for me, it was important to read at a certain time, because it gave me a critical lens in which to view my own life. I think other people did that, too. Karl Marx’s fetish of the commodity. He was writing about a very specific moment in time, and I think when I was writing Going Down, at that time I was reading it in grad school and I was like, “Oh, this stuff that he’s writing about, I’m actually the commodity.” So I was able to write about self-commodification in a way that I didn’t know existed because I didn’t have a critical or theoretical precursor. So I think grad school really helped me become the writer I am today. Because before, I was just experiencing these things, but I didn’t know how to write about them.

On future projects

"I am excited about creating totally fictional worlds, and at the same time playing with a genre that I haven’t really done too much work with, which would be historical fiction."

I’m hankering to get back into the fiction game. It’s not because I’m sick of writing about myself. I just want to experience again the thrill of creating something totally fictional like Tourist Trap. It’s about terrorism and a kid, recent college graduate, answers help wanted ad for a tourist, and becomes unwittingly (at first) a terrorist. That’s of course made up. I’ve never done that. I’ve never blown up buildings for money and videotaped it. But I like the thrill of that discovery. Because even though there is discovery in any sort of writing, and there should be, I know mostly what I’m writing about when I’m writing non-fiction. At least I have the experience to ground me. But I really am looking forward to getting back into fiction. So I think my next big project is actually something that I put on the back burner because of the success of the non-fiction and the poetry, which is called Letters From Santiago. How I started doing research for it years ago was to talk to my dad, who previously would not talk about Cuba, which is very typical of exiled Cubans who left at a certain time and a certain generation. To talk to my dad, to talk to his sister, to talk to my uncle about their very different experiences. I interviewed them separately, so as not to influence their experiences. They also all lived in a different part of Cuba, and they left at different times, so they all had different experiences naturally. I tried to sort of reconstruct that, and some of it would take an epistolary form. Some of it would just take the form of a sort of fragmented narrative, and there might be some poetry in there. But it would be fictional. So that is the major work that I think I have coming ahead. In the meantime, I would say I am 75% done with the follow-up to Death of Art, which C&R Press is really excited about. A lot of the pieces have already been published individually in magazines and journals. But I am excited about creating totally fictional worlds, and at the same time playing with a genre that I haven’t really done too much work with, which would be historical fiction. Because the idea is that Letters From Santiago would take place during the outset and then immediately after the Cuban revolution.