Chris Campanioni likes sweating, making mixtapes, and the Eighties, at least according to his Facebook profile. He has worked as a journalist,...read more model, and actor, and he teaches literature and creative writing at Baruch College and Pace University, and interdisciplinary studies at John Jay. Through every medium, he writes about media representation and the cult of celebrity, how we construct our selves and our identities, and the ways in which we communicate and correspond. There is no such thing as memoir; everything is memoir, so he keeps saying. Skin, sensation, and memory have produced two novels (GOING DOWN, TOURIST TRAP) and two poetry books (IN CONVERSATION, ONCE IN A LIFETIME),
and Best Debut Novel (2014 International Latino Book Awards) and Academy of American Poets Prize (2013) distinctions. Find him in space at www.chriscampanioni.com or in person, somewhere between Brooklyn Bridge Park and Barclays Center.
Stakes sink in or they rise. Either way, we’re left breathless.
Everything escalates, as evidenced by the opening scene: Dylan McKay hunches over his typewriter to craft a letter which begins, or ends, with Dylan’s own voice-over: “To the Federal Bureau of Investigation, if you’re reading this letter, it means I am dead …”
Quick cut to Ray Pruit wearing his signature flannel and leaning in at a bar, looking anguished.
The episode is called “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” because of the impending Tournament of Roses Royal Court tryouts, in which Kelly, Donna, and Clare are candidates. It’s also meant metaphorically, since everything does come up roses, even for me, who didn’t do anything with the “large scale art/fashion installation” except arrange all my headless torsos across my bathroom mirror.
It turns out though, self-effacement is not the new thing. The new thing is accelerationism. To destroy capitalism we need to consume like crazy. Hyperbolic narcissism, nihilism as therapy. Giving in to sin, “Strangelove” style. Spend, spend, spend. Don’t go gently into that good night. Make it big and loud and be voracious. Show yourself and Show yourself off.
So in the vein of being big and veiny, I get an invitation from another poet to “film you smashing money with a sledgehammer.”
You don’t have to be naked, he wrote, as the elliptical text bubbles appeared below his previous message on my phone. But def shirtless.
I get my instructions from street signs, billboards, newspaper headlines and magazine captions, overheard conversations at diners and shoe-shine pedestals, life-in-transit. The feeling of passing.
Is a line from Tourist Trap, which was written in 2005 but not published until 2015.
My friend the poet runs an exciting literary magazine from his home in Virginia, and like many Virginians, or at least the ones who run literary magazines, he wants to “get in on” the New York City literary scene. He’d often travel here and attend readings and privately, afterward, we’d compare tallies: How many times was John Ashbery mentioned during the course of an introduction, or a conversation? Which amounted to the same thing.
The New York City literary scene seems like every other congregation I’ve passed through; there’s a great concern about whom you know, specifically Ashbery. Or maybe it’s just how I felt because I didn’t know anyone, not really. Everyone I met was a new friend and I wanted to help them get to where they were going, where they are going right now, which is what my girlfriend always tells me, because she has so much faith in the world it almost kills me.
“Everyone you meet is a guide,” she reminds me, almost every morning. And I nod and smile, because I know where we’ve just been together.
In New York City, it seems like everyone is always trying to get somewhere else, and I am just trying to stay alive. In a circle of other poets outside the Bowery Poetry Club tonight, I am the only one who has never met Ashbery. I’ve actually never even read Ashbery, which probably says more about me than anything I’ve already written in this book.
Anyway, he was not asking. My friend the poet, I mean. The one who demands my body be used to pulverize dollar bills, captured on video to live again in the luminescence of a well-lit gallery in Chelsea, or at least YouTube. The project would be just one component in an assemblage of new/mixed media for the soft opening he’d planned for his first major exhibit at a gallery, probably in Chelsea, six months from now, more or less.
“What would Tenderheart say?”
Steve Sanders asks Brandon Walsh, as the former types away at his keyboard, this one attached to an actual desktop, a blue screen populated with white letters. Except he’s not really asking.
“Love makes me cry,” Steve returns, smirks, relaxes his forehead.
Tenderheart is Steve’s alter-ego. He’s been using it to “troll the CU love lines,” eventually finding the “love of his life” in the form of “Cuddles” by telling her (and countless others): “I’m a sensitive, gentle, caring, person. For me, honesty is everything.” Brandon is either amazed at his friend’s level of recklessness or he legitimately wants to know how Steve came up with his nickname on this very early social network.
“Actually, it’s a Care Bear,” Steve says, smirking again. “Sneaky huh? Hits them right in the G Spot.”
My friend (the poet) is texting me more information about his soft opening, in spite of or probably because I haven’t responded to his giddy directive. I debate all my possible responses and finally settle on
Meanwhile, Steve Sanders ditches Clare Arnold at the ball, only to meet up with Clare at The Peach Pit. Clare is to Cuddles as Steve is to Tenderheart. Analogies and coincidences abound as the stars align once more via identity-swapping and nascent cyber-sex, gender performances, role reversals, and revelations via miscalculations. 90210’s version of postmodern upheaval in the gated community of Beverly Hills.
Dylan rides a motorcycle with Toni on his back for half the episode, semi-rhetorical questions of “Think we can lose him?” exchanged as boy and girl try to escape girl’s bodyguard, trailing in a black stretch limo and sadly lagging. They eventually park on a cliff where Toni confesses that, “It’s my first time … on a bike” and then proceeds to pop wheelies that make Dylan’s head spin. Bodyguard arrives in time to see the two lovers kissing into a commercial break.
I am shooting C-IN2’s Fall 2015 line when Greg, the owner and CEO, gets a call on his cell phone, heralded by the theme from Halloween. Makes me think it’s always something bad, he’d told me once. Makes things better when it’s actually someone you want to hear from on the other end.
It turns out it’s just Man Kool.
This is a client in China that is buying more and more product. They—the Man Kool reps, the Chinese consumers—can’t get enough. The Chinese must be Accelerationists, too, I think.
“They’re calling again,” Greg calls over his shoulder, as he walks into his office, giving the stylist a look. I’m not sure what kind.
“Who’s calling?” the assistant stylist, Jorge, asks, looking up from my whiskers, trying to smooth them out. He rolls away on his adjustable seat, positioned so that his eyes are always on level with my crotch.
“Man Kool,” Greg mouths, mime-like, putting his hand over the phone.
Man Kool, which, Greg tells me later, “must be a Mandarin mistranslation of ‘Cool Guy.’” And here I thought they were also selling cigarettes, I think.
It turns out Man Kool is also, not unlike my friend the poet, demanding my body, except they desire “lifestyle editorial” shots for their website, to run next month alongside C-IN2’s new fall line, in China at least.
More time shooting means more money. And also: more time inside my head to think about words for a story called “Soft Opening,” I think, as my memory of 90210 interrupts my thoughts, these words, and replaces them with Dylan’s. Dylan, shirtless, answering the doorbell at one in the morning (an approximation we are meant to make as the audience) and looking more bored than usual.
In his quest to avenge his father’s death by killing Tony Marchette, Dylan ends up falling in love with Tony’s daughter, also named Toni. Everything comes up roses.
This time, Toni is the one chasing Dylan, except I think Dylan wants to be caught. There’s no bodyguard and no stretch limo, only Toni, looking like an apparition of the night as she tells Dylan, “I can’t kiss you over the phone” which prefigures, for me at least, Soulja Boy’s eventual answer in the 2008 hit, “Kiss Me Thru The Phone” (featuring Sammie). Like I said, 90210: so ahead of its time.
Dylan looks less bored by this point as Toni gets what she came for: a long kiss goodnight. She walks away without a word, just like that, dispersing into the ether like the spirit she resembles, maybe the spirit of Jack McKay.
Shown prominently in most of the Care Bears movies and TV episodes made in the Eighties, the Caring Meter is typically in the dead center of Care-a-lot inside the Care Bears’ main meeting hall. This meter shows how much caring there is both in Care-a-lot and on Earth. In the 1980s movies/cartoons, it is shown as an un-numbered clock-like meter. In The Care Bears’ Big Wish Movie, the meter is shown with a raincloud (less caring) side and a rainbow (more caring) side. Ideally, the Caring Meter should be all the way towards the rainbow side. Whenever the Bears see the meter drop towards the raincloud side, they try to prevent it from getting worse by going on “caring missions” to try to get more people to care or for the Bears themselves to do caring deeds. If the meter drops near zero, Care-a-lot will suffer disasters, such as thunderstorms, buildings and rainbows crumbling (earlier movies) or the bright colors of Care-a-lot gradually turning into black and white (later movies). If the meter were to reach all the way to zero (there is no caring anywhere), then Care-a-lot would be gone forever.
If the Care Bears aren’t an ideal analog for understanding our own culture’s growing lack of empathy, I don’t know what is. Increased access to one another has led us to become less tolerant, less sympathetic, and less understanding. Face-to-face meetings have given way to my face on your touch screen, letters and postcards have been replaced by e-mail and direct messages. But there was no way of following anyone on Twitter in 1982, which is when the Care Bears came onto the scene, in the form of a toy line for Parker Brothers. The Care Bears, I think out loud, were so ahead of their time.
“What are you talking about?” my friend, the poet, asks, looking at me sideways, as if I myself am a Care Bear, Love-A-Lot or maybe even the ringleader, Tenderheart.
“Uhh …” I gurgle, sitting in a booth across from my friend at the Bowery Poetry Club before another reading. “Lines for a poem.”
Whenever this happens, people looking at me sideways, I mean, I usually respond with, “Lines for a poem.”
Lately, I’ve been writing poems in text messages, or writing text messages in poems.
Schoolboy/backpack/all black track/suit no tie/or strings attached
Was sent to my girlfriend, an artist but not a poet, to describe my outfit, because she’d asked what I was “planning to wear tonight,” which was: black jeans and a blank tank top. There was a big, grinning wolf on my tank top, a blur of white against black mesh, fangs out, crowned across my chest, but I didn’t include that in the poem, or the text message.
You’re weird, she texts back. I love you.
Three emojis. Which is unusual, I think, because Lauren is not usually so warm through text.
I only think/out of line/breaks half/the time
I send back, and I want to picture her smile on the other end.
Her real smile, I mean, not an emoji.
I’m still standing in a circle of other poets, all of whom I’ve just met except for one, the one I knew before introducing me to everyone else, everyone else standing and smoking, me just standing with my hands in my pocket and my backpack over my back.
Adam mentions that I model and I inwardly cringe. Also: probably outwardly cringe. I don’t know for sure but I wish I could see my face. (I end up wishing for this a lot.)
“You’re, like, the literary Milli Vanilli,” one of my new friends says, stepping aside to blow smoke toward the corner of Bowery and First. “Except you play both parts.”
I can’t tell if she’s meant this a compliment. If I’m the literary Milli Vanilli, I think, then doesn’t that mean the joke’s on you?
Adam steps in to the circle and mentions my novel, which was so generic it won an award back in 2013, and he even holds it up for the rest of us, along with a poetry collection I’d gifted him earlier in the evening, as in, like, five minutes before any of this.
Someone starts talking about the significance of a title like “Going Down” and Robert Bly, and the cult of masculinity, and Antonioni comes up, too, and then another poet chimes in with Ashbery—
#ashberrycount now at 3
I text my friend, who’s still inside, in the booth, and probably still cocking his head, too.
“Don’t be afraid to live this way,” I say, unannounced and referring to nothing and no one. “Let’s defend the things we say.”
“How do you suggest?” Adam asks, and everyone else turns to face me.
“By listening to New Order,” I say, laughing, just a little. “For starters.”
It’s silent for a time, which could be one minute or ten seconds.
“By the end of the second act,” I explain, pointing to the novel Adam is still holding, “the narrator speaks only in song lyrics. But no one cares,” I say. “Or no one notices.”
“Which reading do you prefer?” Adam asks.
“Either,” I say. “Both. It’s only ever about giving up, right? Trying again.
“Language as a game we play.”
I look back at my phone but it tells me nothing I don’t already know. There is nothing new here, I think, hoping I’d received something between interjections of New Order and my novel. It feels like nothing has happened.
We all went inside to enjoy ourselves and our poetry. The night was a success, I thought, walking toward Broadway and Lafayette, hours later, thinking about lines for a poem, or maybe a book.
It was dark and the streets were silent but it was only a little after eleven o’clock. I could go to Gravesend, or I could go back to Boerum Hill, or I could head uptown and get on the bus to New Jersey, get off in Oradell, a place that always seems so close and so far from the city, intimate and absent at the same time. Or maybe I’d ride the F all the way down to Stillwell, sit alone on the Coney Island boardwalk and watch the waves come in, hearing them slip toward shore before they disappeared.
I had all this time been looking for a way through, too, an opening, some form of connection, whether that meant staying alive or whether that meant keeping my art alive, something to outlive and outlast me but something that could also enliven me. Make me feel the way I wanted to feel about the world. Language is a game I want to play, except I want to play this game with everyone. It’s the death of art, except we’re only at the beginning.
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