Chris Vitiello’s second book matches conversational language with the compositional processes of a working poet dealing with the most pressing—and most quotidian—of human problems. His uncompromixing vision may demand the reader “Put this book down and go be with other people.”
“As I see it, Chris Vitiello is writing some of the most ethical poetry of our time. Not, assuredly, in the sense of moral or justified, and even less in the sense of good; it’s rather the ethics of someone trying to fully comprehend the duplicities of poetry, perception, lyric, and the self even as he practices them. At the same time, and despite the weight of such ruminative concerns, these poems are never turgid or abstruse: their surprises properly surprise, their revealments properly reveal, and their subversions properly confuse. No, the pleasures here are pretty much as old and reliable as the rocks on the beach: a chance to travel along, a little while, with a bright mind rigorously engaged in trying to know itself.” —Brent Cunningham
From Topsail Island, NC
One surface and many not-surfaces
Things contain themselves
Characteristics contain their opposites
Description and explanation undermine each other
Insert Ponge’s Notebook of the Pine Woods here
Writing exists before it exists
I am suspicious // The I is suspicious
A poem could always be latent // The poem is always latent // Poems are latent
Penguins use the bird-flying motion to swim
I will write the last lines tomorrow
When the doctor touched my infected skin
it did not look like a part of me
Copyright © 2008 by Chris Vitiello
“Chris Vitiello’s Irresponsibility places itself in a secret literary tradition—a list of forbears would include Olivier Cadiot’s Art Poetic’, Emmanuel Hocquard’s A Test of Solitude, and the poems of George Oppen—whose initiates discover a thrilling buoyancy via the author’s ruthless pursuit of cognitive and emotional precision. It is the major achievement of Vitiello’s newest collection that we may discover, occasion by occasion, how such precision is a deeply communal act. The great pleasure of the book comes from its outrageous conceit: to write ambitiously while refusing to render the act of writing in any of its normative or nostalgic guises. ‘All you have to do is pay attention,’ Vitiello writes, ‘and it’s not that simple.’ Each page of this absolutely essential book is a testimony to the thrills and difficulties of such unceasing attention.” —Tony Tost
I have a biography. I was born on the day the first lunar astronauts splashed down. I grew up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D. C., and spent a lot of time messing around in a creek between subdivisions and playing with matchbox cars in the dirt with friends. I used to memorize sports statistics, baseball and football box scores, and developed formulae for ranking players at their positions. I liked to sit in the tiny space under a desk in my room because the heating vent was there, and I would tuck a blanket in the desk drawer so the space would become stifling, and I rigged some Christmas lights under there, and I would read Ray Bradbury and those poetry anthologies of the “child’s garden of verse” ilk. I could run really fast. Also I used to watch the Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten over and over again in an alcove in the National Air and Space Museum. I saw a lot of visual art in the museums in our nation’s capital and really imprinted on Louise Nevelson, Joseph Cornell, Alexander Calder, and anything modern that my parents really didn’t like very much, frankly. Like the Rothko room at the Phillips Collection. Or really messy Jean Dubuffet and Robert Rauschenberg things. Eventually I moved more into the Jasper Johns and Marcel Duchamp trajectory. I remember really putting a lot of things together in my head in a John Baldessari retrospective. So I got heavily into irony as production. As much as one can be said to struggle with such a thing, I’ve struggled with default ambivalence ever since.
Along with that Eames film, the two other big things for me were reading the chapter on self-referential sentences in Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas and the Sesame Street book There’s A Monster at the End of This Book. In high school I wrote tons of one-page poems in spiral notebooks. They were all pretty much the same poem. I would sit in a friend’s basement listening to Led Zeppelin and King Crimson and Miles Davis, writing poems and playing air hockey. Not bad.
In college I read a lot of William Carlos Williams and then John Ashbery and then discovered the Language Poets. I went to the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, for an M. F. A. and started Proliferation with Mary Burger and Jay Schwartz. We would play with Kinkos photocopiers through the night, making books and artifacts. Francis Ponge’s “Notebook of the Pine Woods” really impacted me then.
All this writing about myself makes me really uncomfortable. My wife Vicki and I married and moved to Durham, NC, where I still live. We have two daughters—Iris was born in 1999 and Sadie was born in 2006. Everything before this paragraph can now be erased.
I am concerned with, among other things: clarification, light, stars, the sky, clouds, wind, trees, birds, deduction, eyes, leaves, people and their observable behaviors, grasses, the soil, flowers and their growth, description and representation, vegetables, skins and peels, seeds, nuts, cross-sections, dictionary definitions, synonyms and antonyms but especially synonyms, utility, analysis, skepticism, kindness, goodness, quantity, measurement, direct commands, questions, and fact statements.
I wanted to test whether or not there was any point in doing what I had invested so much time and effort into nourishing—the ability to write poetry—after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks in 2001. There’s that Adorno line about poetry after Auschwitz being barbaric. Pretty much everybody wrote their 9/11 poems, but I really stopped writing poems and tried to apply these abilities that I have honed over the years to more practical use. It wasn’t too successful—I worked with a literacy group trying to read with kids, but the organization was dysfunctional. Then I tried to write for a leftist newspaper but that organization was too cliquish to allow me to have any responsibility other than proofreading.
After a while I realized that I felt at my most ideal—how I would have everyone be—while I was writing. I always write from an ideal kind of persona or curiosity, not myself really. So I thought that I could make a piece of writing that would be exemplary of this, which could be useful to others maybe. Once I had that idea of utility it was easy to write this book—the words just came into place on the pages. I want to capture it in a text that I could refer back to so I could be more of that writerly ideal in everyday life. While I am writing, I am a dedicated and successful activist, and I wanted to train myself to bring that over into how I interacted with people, situations, and things during as many of my waking hours as possible.
I am only interested in making work for the during of its making. The resultant text seems a waste by-product. It’s to have found out something I didn’t know, followed a curiosity, articulated something that I had only known or sensed amorphously. I write to have written, not to make a poem. Poems don’t do anything unless someone is reading them, anyway.
My iterative and repetitive approaches to writing result in a necessarily self-referential text. I have to at all places emphasize that a poem is artifice—to and beyond the point of tiresomeness. Iterative writing allows me to write something like a truth statement, and then interrogate and test that statement, and clarify it, eke it forward as far as language will allow the idea to go. Instead of producing a crystalline, perfect text, I leave all the work in there. Not that I value my process so much that everyone needs to see it. I just like to be able to retrace my own thought, frankly, because I don’t memorize things well. I move my lips when I read, for goodness sake.