Music, Modelling, and the First-Generation American Experience With Chris Campanioni
I'm really curious about your background as a child of Polish and Cuban parents, which is just such a unique perspective to bring into writing. My own parents are Russian immigrants, and their stories and experiences have been a central part of my writing. How did your parents come to America? Were they immigrants or the children of immigrants?
So my dad left via Cubana de Aviació, a small propeller jet that looked like it might not make the very short journey to Miami, as he tells me today. He & his sister, mother, & father left from Havana, a few months after Fidel Castro came to power, when the new dictatorship was still allowing people to leave. Castro called his exiled countrymen "gusanos—worms. It's a striking image. My mom actually came to New York City by boat. She had grown up on a farm in Warsaw and her family left for a better future. They both found themselves—& each other—in Manhattan, which is completely remarkable to consider and at the same time strangely typical. Everyone seems to come together here & maybe that's why I still haven't really left
& I love that the stories of your parents have become central to your own story. I think that's fundamental to not only representing who you are as a writer & a human, but also parallels so nicely with the goal of any form of art: to connect generations & preserve lived histories, especially undocumented histories. In that way, every story, poem, essay becomes an origin story. And we are collecting & creating a sort of shared, collective, unconscious history—a link with the past & the future.
That's an incredibly interesting story. Like many immigrants—including my parents—it sounds like your mother and father both came here seeking a different, better future than the one they thought they would have in their home countries. Did they bring their home cultures into the house, and if so how did those cultures interact?
Yeah, & cooking was a big part of our shared cultures! My earliest family memories all involved celebrations & holidays involving food. But even on weeknights, I remember forming a conga line around the kitchen table with my brother—& when he arrived home, my dad—& dancing & singing as my mom prepared carne con papa or picadillo or boliche. She learned to cook Cuban food from a recipe book that was passed down which looks about two hundred years old—she still has it—& I literally was raised on rice & beans. I was born two months & two days premature & I credit Cuban food for catching me up. In my writing, especially in my early work, I tried as best I could to represent that joy & euphoria involving cooking & eating, but also the uninterrupted stream of Spanish & Polish that would flow in our household. We didn't make many distinctions in my family & that has found its way into my writing (I never off-set other languages in text, for instance) but also my general outlook on life.
We'd usually split holidays—Nochebuena was totally Cuban & Easter was very Polish—but we'd always come together in weird & beautiful ways when everyone was in the same room. I wish I could have had a relationship with my father's family that remained in Cuba, but I didn't have the opportunity to meet many of them in person until just a few years ago. I'd like to meet cousins & see where my parents grew up, in Warsaw & Santiago de Cuba, but sometimes I think that I feel it so much in my work & my writing because I haven't been. I think that's symptomatic of all first-generation citizens. We can only imagine a place of origin we've never been to. That kind of desperation & yearning permeates the work, in productive & provocative ways.
I can relate to that feeling so much—the longing for a place I've never been, but, through its stories and culture, indirectly grew up around. I think identity becomes a central theme for writers with immigrant parents because there's an undeniable feeling of 'otherness,' and some of the most interesting work out there comes from that sense of alienation. It's confusing—yes, I call myself American, but I grew up unlike any of my friends, eating different food and consuming different media and going to different places, and as a result I fail to connect to many of their 'American' experiences.
That said, my experience is also informed by the fact that I've lived my life in Alabama. As you said, New York is a place where everyone seems to come together. What was your experience growing up in Manhattan, a place where so many people of diverse backgrounds come to live?
So even Manhattan has made me a perennial outsider, & I've thrived off that thin separation since I was a child, really. Although I was born in the city, my parents moved to suburban New Jersey when I was still very young. I was raised among diners & shopping malls, & there was not a whole lot of diversity outside of my household. But in an almost contradictory way, I've often felt most comfortable as an interloper. I remember, while at Fordham years later, workshopping what would eventually become my debut novel. Almost everyone in the class wanted me to change the identity of the mixed race protagonist, & also have him move to New York City from somewhere in Middle America. Farm boy goes to the big city, literally a very whitewashed Hollywood story. But to me—especially to me—it was far more interesting & provoking to grow up right outside the city, & to always be looking at it across the Hudson, wanting something so close & yet out of our reach. I think that kind of striving not only brought me back here, but also continues to help me in negotiating very different roles & industries. I mean, even my first real "taste" of New York City's literary scene was sort of acidic. I was struck by how pretentious & prosthetic everyone was or seemed to be—how much of a name-dropping culture it is. I have never gotten an MFA & before I began publishing poetry & fiction, anyone who knew me knew me as a model or from seeing me act in soap operas. So yes, I felt different immediately, but I've always felt different. It took me awhile to learn that there was power in difference, & especially power in the unrecognizable or uncategorizable: what I like to call hybrid forms (bodies & bodies of text). The other thing I learned was that I was just meeting the wrong people in the scene, & New York City—Brooklyn, especially—has become such an amazing hothouse for creativity across so many mediums. The city has also provided me with a real sense of community that is hard to come by within such a solitary endeavor like writing.
One of the best things about teaching college students is seeing the faces of so many other first-generation Americans in my classroom. At Baruch College, I teach a specific cohort called SEEK, & almost everyone is either first-gen American &/or a first-generation college student. When I look at how woke & how talented & how raw today's college & high school students are, I know we are heading in the right direction, despite the fact of our current administration & our current cultural & social norms.
I'm glad you didn't give that story up in your first novel! It's an incredibly interesting setting to grow up in. We've been talking about this feeling of being different in terms of culture and upbringing, but I feel like your experience being both an actor/model and a writer is another source of that 'otherness' and idiosyncrasy. The reality of being an actor/model seems, in my imagination, so different from the reality of being a writer. Do you keep these worlds separate, or do they inform each other in any way? And have you felt any sort of exclusion in the literary community because of your other career?
Well, a lot of my recent writing confronts & explores a culture of performance. In my teaching, too, I'm interested in forming dialogues with students around the concept of social scripts we consciously or unconsciously perform. So my role & experience as actor/model definitely helped position all my other work, & in a truly holistic sense, writing about the experiences helped me to better understand them. To that end, I hadn't ever thought to write about my modeling career until another student—in a poetry workshop—pointed out how penetrating one of my poems, "Billboards," was, compared to everything else I had been writing. Up until that point, I had no idea how to own my various identities & I tended to compartmentalize them when I was in specific environments. Will showed me that I could synthesize who I was through my writing—all the very different things I was doing which made me me—& I haven't really looked back since.
When I began teaching & placing work for publication, I felt like I had to work harder because of the way I was perceived as an image or ad or just a face that many people felt they knew, or one that they knew didn't belong. This of course is just my sensitive perspective. I've never felt ostracized publicly within the community; other poets & editors have sometimes said some weird stuff, but that happens all the time, anyway. I think the role of a poet or author lends itself to its own set of misconceptions or assumptions too, right? & I've often heard a phrase the Internet has surely made more common: You're so different in person! But I don't know what I've been giving off on the Internet, then. On the contrary, I've always felt that the best way to convey who I am is through my writing—maybe one of the reasons why I don't really write so much fiction anymore—but also through community events, readings, panels, teaching, & of course, interviews!
That's something I see engaged so often in your work: communication as it relates to feelings of self, those very "social scripts" you were talking about. You write often about the intersections of interaction and technology, interaction and art, interaction and personality. What role has your unique identity, both in terms of your upbringing and your professions, played in your experiences with communication and your exploration of it in your work?
You know, I was just visiting my parents in New Jersey & wandering around the mall during the day & I remembered or realized why I love the city, any city: because of its culture of visibility & the ability to watch. Malls have that too; as I was roving through concourses & up & down escalators, everything & everyone—from actual products & salespeople to shoppers—is on display. To look & be looked at no longer has to be rooted in a promenade or an urban environment; we have that opportunity at every moment with our technology. & so my interest or emphasis with interaction as you say so well seems to be an extension of the relationship I have always had with my own identity. Culturally & professionally & creatively, I'm always resisted the either/or binary & embraced "and." I continually endeavor to be as inclusive as possible; I'd like to reflect that insistence on becoming everything all the time, that almost-impossible moment of being truly placeless, in the most utopic sense. A feeling like arriving both before & after history. There's a flattening there that turns the past into something that is just as dynamic as the future. It changes our conceptions about intersectionality in general. I think one of the reasons why I've embraced pop so much in my creative & intellectual work is because I've also wanted to upend people's—especially academic & critical—expectations & conceptions about what's possible with different forms of art. & I don't like at all to think about it in terms of high art & low art. I'd like to embrace everything & confront difference as a form of beauty, not as something that would create distinctions or tear us apart.
A lot of your work has just the effect you describe: bringing the realm of pop—especially music—into what some people think to be an intellectual field. I see that both in your work and modern poetry in general, and I'm glad, because I think that makes the work a lot more realistic. It's like local color.
It seems like music is especially important to you in your work, mentions of anything from The Cure to David Bowie popping up commonly. I mean, you have a book called "Once In A Lifetime." I think music is a brilliant way of being inclusive and bringing people together, but I'm curious, what role does music play in your life? What musicians have had the most influence on you, and why?
What you say about modern poetry becoming more & more inclusive & re-orienting itself to embody & empower more people & structures is so important, & so true. It's a great development for poetry & one of the reasons why, I think, poetry has becoming increasingly more political & relevant in recent years.
Music has always played an important role in my life, even though I never learned to play an instrument. My dad made me fall in love at such an early age, & one of my most lasting memories is of him & I parked outside my abuela's driveway in Westchester, Miami, with the windows up in the evening, just sitting in silence to listen to the radio. I'm very indebted to music for my writing process; I almost always write to music, & the tempo, the feeling, the dislocation of the music breathes life into the work. I often—as you indicate—locate that process & that appreciation on the page itself, letting the lyrics bleed across the page & "interrupt" the narrative or whatever came before & what might come after—several things merging & emerging into one. Talking Heads, Joy Division, New Order, Depeche Mode, Madonna, The Cure ... these are the names that jump out at me immediately, & which I so often write from, & write into texts. Today I listen to a lot of music that sounds like it was made in the Eighties: Com Truise, Chromatics, Crystal Castles, Cut Copy (also a lot of repeating C's?), HEALTH, Selebrities, Class Actress, Trust, Pictureplane, Prince Innocence, Purity Ring, Neon Indian ... not sure if any of these are ringing a bell, but I totally recommend airing these out the next time you sit down at your laptop or notebook.
I think of music like I think of a blank page in a notebook or the one on screen. Something to fill me & to be filled, & there's a utopic sensibility of re-imagining our current reality.
I absolutely love those artists! Your work has a very musical cadence to me, so I can see how much of an influence music has had.
I'm really interested in that moment with your father, and the way you say he raised you to love music. We've been talking about the ways art can bring people together despite differences, but it can especially be a uniting thing for families. What music did your father introduce you to?
The Supremes, Otis Redding, The Temptations, The Drifters, Barry Mann, a lot of Doo-Wop. My dad left Cuba when he was fourteen with five US dollars in his suitcase—the most money one was permitted—& he was excited to be in the United States solely because of the music. There was one radio station in Cuba that played rock & roll & he listened to it every day; he gradually picked up English in that way.
But I love how you pointed out the tempo of the writing itself; words are so beautiful because of the sounds that live inside of them & the sounds they make with other words, in some sequence. I think that musicality has always driven my work, for better or worse, & I have my relationship with my dad to thank for that. Growing up—I know this sounds strange—we used to make up nonsense words & songs; songs that didn’t mean anything except that they sounded beautiful because of the cadence or the rhyme. We still do that …
There’s a privileging of sound over logic that I embraced at an early age. There was always noise in our home, but a good noise. That bit you mentioned earlier, about having a different experience from your best friends, it applies here. Every house I visited as a child was always so quiet.
What a fascinating experience. My father has told me of how he used to go over to friends' houses and listen to Beatles albums, which were illegal in the USSR at the time and were extremely expensive and risky to buy. I guess it's somewhat the music of America that made it seem like such an exciting place for many immigrants.
I can relate to the sound over logic experience, and I think that's a really important sense to have as a writer, particularly a poet. You mentioned earlier that many of your students at Baruch are first-gen Americans, and there's a lot of first-gen Americans in the literary community. Do you think there's any correlation there—first-gen Americans, for whom language and sound is so important, going on to become writers?
Wow, what a fascinating relationship to study! I really have no idea about the correlation between first-gen Americans & the production of literature or other forms of art. I do think it's interesting to note, though, that I feel as though my persistent, passionate exploration of my parents' homelands in my life & my work is something that sometimes skips a generation. In my discussions with other first-gen Americans, it seems like it's also the case for them. My parents, as immigrants, worked so hard to assimilate into United States culture in the public & professional sphere while retaining their own cultural traditions in the home, whereas I—& countless other sons & daughters of immigrants—routinely emphasize & celebrate our rich heritage in a very visible way. I think it might also be a reflection of where my dad, at least, came from—hardly anyone in his generation who left right after the revolution speaks about Cuba at all—but it could also be a reflection of the time period when our parents migrated. I obviously can't speak for every other first-gen American, & I wonder if assimilation is still a guiding principle for immigrants who came to the US, say, ten years ago.
I think the way many children of immigrants are celebrating and exploring their cultures is wonderful. In some ways I think writing has pushed me to explore my parents' culture even more, because the writing community is so celebratory of new voices, so eager to hear fresh and unique perspectives. It's encouraged me (and I think many others) to dive into my unique experiences. It's a wonderful atmosphere to be a part of, and it's one the world certainly needs.
Before we wrap up, since the Ellis Review publishes many new and unique voices like we were talking about, do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Well, it's just like you said. Persistently remind yourself that your individual experience & your specific voice matters—& stay true to that. The feeling of being different is universal because difference makes us universally human. & the more personal you get, the better the work will be. At the outset, I was writing only fiction & only in the third-person—the distant sense of somebody who can’t claim authority or authorship, the voice of somebody who is so used to being silenced. It took me awhile, as we talked about earlier, to use the personal narrative as a form of empowerment. If I could give one last piece of advice: don't fear writing about today out of the notion that your work will lose its timelessness. Timeless seemed to me like another way to say without time, removed of all urgency & social exigence, interned & interred. We need our work to testify to our experience today, if only so that it might produce social ramifications tomorrow.