This interview with David Campos is part of a Latino Stories series with Latinx authors. David Campos, a CantoMundo Fellow, is the author of American Quasar (Red Hen Press 2021) and Furious Dusk (University of Notre Dame 2015) which won the 2014 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. His short screenplay “NAMES” was chosen to be the first production of the Theatre department at UC Riverside. He was a member of the spoken word troupe The Parking Lot Prophets, and he co-founded the literary radio show Pákatelas on KFCF 88.1FM Fresno.
Salvatierra: You were a member of the spoken word troupe The Parking Lot Prophets. How have the elements rooted in spoken word poetry shaped your ideas about poetry and revision?
Campos: I was drawn to spoken word poetry first when I took Introduction to Poetry at Fresno City College. In that class, we read Andres Montoya’s book the iceworker sings and other poems. It was the first collection I read, and it was the book that inspired me to imagine myself as a poet. But I knew then I had a long road to travel between an introductory class and the level of craft and attention needed to publish a book. The familiarity of spoken word, the competitive nature of it, reminded me a lot of what I excelled at as a high school student, Forensics (Competitive Speech and Debate).
There I gravitated to the dramatic interpretation and the original prose and poetry sections of the competition. So, when I found out there was a space in the poetry world that was both competitive and performative, I dove right in.
It was all due to a classmate that invited me out to the longest-running open mic poetry jam in the city, The Inner Ear. It took place inside this old warehouse converted into a small brewery on the outskirts of downtown. The seating was an eclectic mix of furniture from old businesses and yard sales. It is near the 99-freeway surrounded by industry. A Producers plant is across the street. Every now and then you would get the whiff of spoiled milk. When I took the stage for the first time, I shook as I read. But I paid close attention to the lines that hit and the lines that fell flat.
Driving home from that place was where a lot of revision happened in my head. Even during conversations with other poets who said they liked a certain poem but never mentioned the other. I understood what that silence meant and revised that way. I created relationships with other poets through our conversations on each other’s poems and performances. After some time, I grew confidence in my revisions and performances and began entering slams. Those relationships budded into The Parking Lot Prophets.
For over a year, we met in a borrowed dance studio and practiced and wrote and revised. One thing became utterly clear to me: our poems and performances were for the audience. No matter how much we liked our own work, if it didn’t click with the audience, it needed to change. In other words, everything we wrote and revised was for somebody else. By the time I left the spoken word scene (when I left for graduate school), I had this ingrained in my mind. Everything I wrote was for somebody else. For points in a competition. For laughter. For groans. For applause.
In my revisions of my own work and the work of others, then, I was brutal to that end. In graduate school, I was nicknamed “the machete” by my cohort for the way I would hack and slash their poems. I had lost nuance and grace in the process of seeking the approval of the audience. While some of those aspects of revision are necessary, like understanding your audience and diction, it shouldn’t be the only way I approached poetry and revision. It took a long time to unlearn.
Salvatierra: In both of your books, Furious Dusk and American Quasar, the figure of the father is at the center of many of your poems: is there a literary equivalent to that, a kind of literary progenitor, and how do you negotiate life and literary influences in your work?
Campos: Even though I didn’t know much about what I was reading or how to read the craft inside of it, I was a voracious reader of poetry before I left to graduate school. In Fresno, those major influences came from two different sources recommended by my professors – Philip Levine and Juan Felipe Herrera. The latter I would go on to study from at UC Riverside. I would look up who their students were and read them. Tim Z. Hernandez and Larry Levis were my first purchases beyond those mainstays. Skin Tax had poems about his father that resonated deeply with me. The cadences and language were familiar. It sucked me in. Larry Levis too. They had two different approaches to craft but both stuck with me. The distance imaged between father and son in their work was like looking into a mirror. My politics and worldview kept growing and changing and so too how I looked at my heroes. And what better hero to start with than your first.
When I brought that attention to my work, I referred to theirs a lot. Then less so. Even stopped altogether. I recognized too much of their own influences in my work. By the time I reached writing American Quasar, I had made a promise to myself that I would only read nonfiction while writing this book. Still, in each of the books I read, the theme of masculinity and fathers kept creeping in. It was funny to me–the more I kept trying to get away from reading and writing about fathers, the more I found myself reading directly and indirectly about it.
As a father myself, it’s now something I think even more deeply about. Recently, a friend joked that my next book would be about being a father. I laughed. But when I looked at my current work, he wasn’t wrong.
Salvatierra: In American Quasar, the imagery of the cosmos reveals the human condition as a kind of universe imploding in on us. How do you situate this book within the Fresno poetry tradition?
Campos: It’s hard to say because there isn’t a clear definition of what is the Fresno poetry tradition. I mean there are Fresno poets that live in Clovis (that’s me! though I lived in Fresno a very long time); there are Fresno poets that lived in Fresno briefly; there are Fresno poets that don’t live here but once called this place home; there are Fresno poets that don’t want to be called Fresno poets. To even try to situate this book within that framework of identities and craft that has influenced those writers is a research project worthy of being a dissertation.
The best I could do is say that it continues a formalist tradition rooted in concrete imagery and narrative with some sparks of experimentation.
Salvatierra: American Quasar has two sections: American House Fire and Quasars. Can you talk about how you conceived the architectural structure of the book, the nature of each section, and how they complement each other?
Campos: One of the first drafts had five sections. Then a later one only had one. I tried three. But each iteration of revision demanded some different organization. By the time it was final in terms of the prints and poems, I looked at how the work we had created could best serve the ideas we had. Thematically, it was split into two: a reflection on the political self and one that was personal. It was like two black holes circling each other. In needing to make sense of it, I was really into the idea that the political identity fashions the limits of the personal identity. In other words, I was exploring the following question: how can I love myself in a county that doesn’t love me? The first section explored how the idea of a nation can fashion an identity and its self-worth. More importantly, how to break free from it. The second then tackles self-worth after years of that level of deconstruction.
how can I love myself in a country that doesn’t love me?David Campos
There were many more prints that didn’t make the final cut. Once those themes showed themselves and the order began to take shape, images that no longer tied to poems that were cut or revised had to be removed. We also didn’t want poem, print, poem, print, poem, print as that could be too expected. We wanted to have the reader experience work and then art when it was needed.
Salvatierra: American Quasar is a visual-textual collaboration between you and Maceo Montoya. What did the process of working with a visual artist reveal that hadn’t been apparent or that’s different from working through a poem on your own?
Campos: He created all of them in a matter of months. I created the first draft at the same time. But it took years of revision on my end for the poems to find themselves. And each time, the poems and the images worked together. This is how I understood how strong an idea can be from its creation. It’s something that I understood in graduate school too when I began learning to do deep dives into revisions. Whatever inspired the work never really goes away. And if you’re constantly revising and searching toward that inspiration, the work will find itself revealing that inspiration not only to the writer but to the reader. This is how I knew there was something to this collaboration. The print and poetry found each other. Even though the poems may have been messy and fraught with different ideas at first, that creative spark and shared vision between Maceo and I survived in my poems long enough to save themselves.
David Campos is the son of Mexican immigrants. He was born in Ventura, California, and was raised in Ventura and Fresno. His poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse among others. He lives with his wife in Fresno, California, where he teaches English at Fresno City College.