What about an Internet Poetics?: A conversation with Chris Campanioni & William Lessard

Note: This interview is an attempt to capture the informal exchange Chris Campanioni and I have been having the past several years. Chris is a writer and editor whose work has long interested me because he has made the digital an integral part of what he does. Rather than designating the poetic space a realm untouched by the junk-text of social media, spam email, memes and other algorithmic ephemera, Chris embraces such material, as both Warholian gesture and way of exploring what the poetic means in our age when received notions of humanity are intermingling with artificial intelligence. Being someone who is baffled by the absence of deeper engagement with technology in contemporary writing, I am glad to know I am not the only one feeding Shakespeare to chatbots and writing essays about the death of my mother from Wikipedia entries. With the publication of the Internet is for real (C&R Press), his sixth book, in May, along with an upcoming multimedia performance at the New York Academy of Art, I thought it was time for him to go on the record about his praxis. The following discussion touches on Bachelard, the newsfeed as contemporary form and how his research on narrational “belonging” among fellow first-generation Americans is informed by online performativity.  — William Lessard

William Lessard: Bachelard believed that when philosophers turn to poets for lessons how to individualize the world, they conclude “the world is not so much a noun as an adjective.” There is a similar transference in your work, applied to our contemporary reality where “self” is as much an online persona as the Bachelardien cogito reacting to phenomenological space. It’s a shift your latest collection underscores in its title, with a tone that is both defiant and bemused.

Chris Campanioni: Yes, and Bachelard is applying a model of phenomenology to lived experience. That’s his break with Enlightenment thinkers—this thinking through and thinking past the concept of origins, at least as it relates to architecture. With this latest book, I wasn’t thinking about Bachelard, at least not consciously—I don’t list his important Poetics of Space, for instance, among my archival “playlist” at the very end of the text—but I think your comparison of the mediated self begs further unpacking, because the performative body and the disavowal of the original, or the origin story, have a lot in common. This is where my call toward a “Post Internet poetics” intersects with my cultural background and academic research on the migratory drift. What would it mean to call into question the concept of the origin, in an autobiography of all texts? To unmake one’s narratorial “belonging” and so to disavow our “location settings”? To be productively displaced, to come from everywhere, to be going everywhere?—as Martí knew well. But it also means to call into question the whole notion or nature of ownership, in a world today that is richly available to be crowdsourced, screenshotted, and re-appropriated; in a world that remains “transnational,” which is not to say post-national, if only because we enjoy the right of money and objects to circulate globally, while depriving that same freedom to human beings, particularly those without national membership. These paradoxes are meant to elicit a response that is both defiant andbemusing. The Internet is for real, if only because we tend not to think of its materiality, its realness. And what does that aporia circumvent or elide? This is why the book is a book of theory so much as it is a collection of things that resemble poems. This is why I’m interested in how to perform the questions, how to enact the theoretical models in the text itself, without separation between text and discursive context. Writing a book of poems can seem pedestrian today, so this creative act—as an organized composition—interests me less and less. Not because poetry isn’t generous and challenging and emotionally resonant—it is all of these and more—but because I’d like to have, and to hold, both: the emotional resonance of the poem and the theoretical rigor of intellectual inquiry. I think Bachelard finds himself coming in here again—his insistence on engendered experience, his emphasis on the dwelling becomes especially revealing in 2019 when what we are looking for is not necessarily a place to remain but in fact the endeavor toward unlimited exits—the freedom, and pleasure, of cutting out. Dwell, from the Old English dwellan: to go astray, hinder; from the Old High German twellen, meaning to tarry. And so what is a poetics of 2019 if not an essayistic poetics; a poetics of errancy and errantry, a poetics of delay and anticipation, of scrolling or drifting; a poetics of edging which—of course—is a poetics of excess. Case in point: this response, which only wants to keep going. Your word choice—this individuation—is important, too. If companies buy and sell to us—before they buy and sell us—under the auspices of individuation, it is only natural that poets would look toward new ways to individualize, in turn, the world we have been sold, if not also bought into.

WL: Algorithmic capitalism drives the process you describe. If one hunts for a new artistic form, one could say the newsfeed is the sonnet of our day. Do you think it is possible to have this kind of writing without resorting to the hyper-individuated? True 21st-century digital poetics is one that is different for each person—just as you and I can both “have” Twitter yet experience it as two separate consciousnesses. It’s Warholian serialism updated for the age of distributed software: there are not only innumerable Marilyns, there might not even be a Marilyn. I can’t say I mind. I prefer displacement to the recursion that, at present, passes for innovative work.

CC: What does pass for innovation in the literary world today? I think this is where a return to troubling the notion of the origin/original takes on another shape. And this is also where my career in fashion has benefited my writing, or at least this book, because early on I understood intimately that the digitalization of all things didn’t necessarily mean reproduction in the Classical—or at least Benjaminian sense—but in fact the eternal return of the new. I’ll give you an example. Sometime between 2004 and 2009—what I like to call “the Zero Years”—Photoshop became not only an accessory to art teams but a necessity. The demand was so high for Photoshop specialists that the delimited role became rather lucrative. What photographers, art directors, brand managers, and all the rest—even us, the viewers—didn’t really understand was that they were pumping in all this money to get a flawless, definitive image that would be displayed indefinitely for every user. These definitive indefinite images show up infinitely, or at least every time we click on an image, place it on our viewfinder that “reads” things differently depending on the modifications of the machine, its battery life, the size of the screen, one’s Wi-Fi connection, our own user preferences—this is why there are in fact several dozen Marilyns, as you said; this is why there is an unwittingly rich diversity of images in a world that is no longer a simulacrum—a copy of a copy of a copy—but in fact wholly “original”—a series of slightly different images, which means a series of originalswithout copies. And the testament to this repetition with difference is inscribed in code, the metadata we carry with us and graft onto the pictures we produce and pass on.

This is also why Photoshop expertise is no longer such a sought-after skill, on LinkedIn, or otherwise. At some point, these same art directors understood that digitizing photos meant iteration, not exact duplication—so what was the point of paying so much money for a flawless photo with so much potential for deviation? The upshot has also been a culture gradually less obsessed with airbrushing. Instead of faking the real we now prefer realizing the fake—a total embrace of the glitch. Who watched the final season of Game of Thrones and didn’t revel in the aftershock of a Starbucks cup sitting idly on Winterfell’s buffet table? That’s true art, or at least innovation.

WL: What about literary authorship? In my own work, I improvise from junk-text and third-party sources, sometimes leaving the material in the final version or sometimes removing it, like the scaffold from a building. Your work gestures toward the stable self, the recognizable poetic “I,” but you seem to be admitting that our current post-internet moment makes such authorship impossible.

CC: Look, I start the Internet is for real with the premise or promise—“Note to self: self is over”—not surprisingly, attributed to you—“B, or W”—and I think the “I” that I continue to invoke, or provoke throughout the text is the productively unstable, liminal, anonymous “I”—no longer singular or even serial but performative and perpetually (.com)posing. So I don’t know how successful that almost aggressive per-mutation becomes in an autobiography that is some 550 pages, but for me it’s less a redaction of self—less 2016’s Death of Art—and more of an unfurling; an opening up of the “I,” a re-discovery of self as the porous and permeable text it always was, something which is meant to be read, misread, re-written, and probably most dramatically, written over, to the point of illegibility, as evidenced by the book’s cover. To me, this is where the dance between excess and erasure becomes really informative to my practice, or at least to my attempt to move beyond traditional methods of writing and reading. The most instructive thing another reader has told me in the last month of the Internet’s publication is that they read the whole thing “out of order,” which of course could be read at least two ways. I’m interested in that kind of digression but also that instance of—and moreover, that allowance for—malfunction in the text. Your method described here allows for this transparency of process-production. Showing the raw materials, not just the scene of writing, while also making a point about the subversive potential of any book that is ready-made and half-finished—somewhere in that transitional space of your scaffold is the kind of poetics we both strive for, and to be able to unveil it, hang it on a wall or send it to the printers, this reacts to the ever-growing mystification of the objet d’art—veiled and technically precise and thereby boring—a work in which no one gets a look inside, not even its author. As a counter-example, we could talk for awhile about the phenomenon of the “boring poetry book”—something so cohesive and controlled and again, technically precise, that its author forgets what makes poetry important or at least interesting: its ability to question, challenge, or even undermine one’s own thinking, to say nothing of the emotional context. Isn’t it true that many of us are operating under the assumption that we know we have a “collection” to send out only once we recognize an accumulation of resemblances?—meaning a general and recurring topic or theme to present to an audience of readers? It is the deviations and hiccups and the moments where the text veers where I learn about the text, where the text teaches me—it’s like information’s tendency toward entropy, that same degradation is what allows a machine, like the body, to learn. Without your “junk-text” there’s no feedback. Do you think this tightly-wrapped packaging of poetry collections is a result of the habitual popularity of MFA programs, or a more general market trend where poetry today is experiencing an unprecedented commercialization?

WL: We are all trained toward the outdated (the novel, sonnets, etc.). The problem is that writers don’t view themselves as contemporary artists, creating objects that both reflect and look beyond the moment they inhabit. The academic system has taught them to regard themselves as low-grade professionals, tied to career milestones in order to validate worth. It’s an awful situation which degrades people, degrades the work. Personally, I would love to see writers see themselves as creators of fluid objects. Boris Groys, in his latest book In the Flow, challenges artists to situate their practice within our indeterminate 21st-century media space. The bad news is that humanity as we know it no longer exists. That’s also the good news. It means that as creative intelligences we should be seeing what creative mischief we can make across all channels—not stopping at the printed page. A true contemporary poetics extends Bachelard into the virtual spaces we inhabit. The “self” has become an augmented app, distributed across devices. It’s happening right now as I type these words and respond to the words suggested by my algorithmic “I.”

CC: Again, we are back to Bachelard, for whom housework could be made into a creative activity, for whom polishing a piece of old furniture is an excuse for practicing phenomenology. What is a Post Internet poetics but an attempt to make something out of the raw material of mechanical gestures, which are our own?

If the house, as Bachelard writes, is “hospitable to fragmentary dialectics,” then we should pursue these, despite or maybe exactly because, they challenge the architecture and scaffolding of the poem, the geometry of perception or the perception of “the unity of the archetype.” I admire your work, not merely for its ability to undermine and re-orient, but for the generosity it solicits; its invitation to deploy, and thereby reclaim, the everyday objects around us, to put them to use, a move toward the cut-and-paste and the cut-and-dry, a move toward defamiliarizing our most intimate spaces. I agree with this call for creating mischief across, as you say, all channels. The moment we think of ourselves as writers locked into a comparative literature instead of extending our practice across a landscape of comparative media is the moment we’ve become complacent and passé as artists, as thinkers. Isn’t it true that the written word has always been decades behind visual art in terms of innovation? I think Brion Gysin said that and still, he was looking for a way to converge the plastic arts with verbal accidents. And of course this reminds us that a “Post Internet poetics” is new in name only, and that so much of what we’ve been discussing today and enacting through the last several years is indebted to so many other thinkers—Mina Loy, Lyn Hejinian, Christian Bök, Franny Choi, Leslie Scalapino, Ming-Qian Ma, Augusto and Haroldo de Campos—only a few of whom we’ve signposted here. And this debt and obligation or accountability is important, because it presents new opportunities, too, new avenues for production, as you suggested. It means not sacrificing moments of great rhythmic beauty for the multi-layered environments they touch; it means converging them through accumulation and proximity: headlines, junk mail, billboards, sex bots, pop-ups, errors, messages on the air or in the air, IRL or virtual, high and low, observations and annotations with no distinction between which is which, because there is none. In these poetics, everything one hears or sees becomes re-constituted in the body of the work; we become recorders, tasked with playing the Internet back, rematerializing the virtual so that it can be faced with its own reflection: a language of inevitable vibrations and convulsions.



William Lessard has writing that has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, American Poetry Review, Best American Experimental Writing, Plume, BOOTH, Hyperallergic. His visual work has been featured at MoMA PS1 and is part of the Special Collection at Poets House. 

Chris Campanioni is the son of immigrants from Cuba and Poland, and the author of six books, including the Internet is for real (C&R Press, 2019), which re-enacts the language of the Internet as literary installations. Recent writing has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, M/C: Media & Culture, RHINO, Ambit, Poetry International, and DIAGRAM, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. He teaches Latinx literature, creative writing, and a class on Internet and intimacy at Pace University and Baruch College. His selected poetry was awarded an Academy of American Poets College Prize in 2013, his novel Going Down was named 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.