Article and Photo by Pablo Capra
One night Robert Campbell tossed and turned on top of the uncomfortable bulge of his wallet, which he had forgotten to take out of his pants pocket before going to bed. Half-asleep, he finally pulled his wallet out of his pocket and threw it onto the floor. But after searching everywhere for it the next day, it was nowhere to be found.
“I must have thrown it into a dream,” says Campbell, a surrealist. “Maybe one day I’ll find it again in a dream.”
Campbell stays on and off with friends in Lower Topanga, and has been a part of their artists’ community since the mid ’80s when he began collaborating on rock videos with some of the residents.
“Topanga reminded me of the rural areas and small country towns I was raised in. It became my oasis in the big city, offering ample space for my mind to wander. And the conglomeration of talented people who lived there made for a more creative headspace than I experienced in the so-called real world,” Campbell says.
Campbell is the latest poet from the popular collection “Idlers of the Bamboo Grove: Poetry from Lower Topanga Canyon” to have his own book published by Brass Tacks Press.
His book’s title poem, “Life as a Poet Presents: Anesthesia Lake,” begins by describing his ethnicity, which is one-eighth Native-American:
He was a black man
had Scotland in his name
and a Cherokee pow wow
burned brightly in his veins.
Campbell was born in Marshall, Texas in 1951 and began drawing and painting at an early age. He also had a talent for football, and regretted being unable to pursue a career in it because of his short skinny build. In college he won an art scholarship, but dropped out his junior year and never received a degree.
He came to Los Angeles in 1975, where he showed in art galleries, painted faux finishes and trompe l’oeil on many prominent walls throughout the city, and worked as a scenic painter in the theater and movie business. Some of his credits include Baghdad Cafe, Echo Park, Cold Feet, and rock videos for Kenny Loggins, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos, and Nirvana.
Campbell calls his artistic style “Real Fantasy,” emphasizing the fantastic in his own take on the school of Fantastic Realism—although he is capable of painting perfect realism.
“The pyramids can’t compare to the freeway,” he says, expressing his unusual perception of how the world today is more fantastic than ever before.
The title of the poem that his book is named after, “Anesthesia Lake,” refers to an allegorical place in the fantasy world that Campbell has created in his art and poetry. Some other allegorical bodies of water in his fantasy world are Tranquillity Lake, Mercy River, and Whiskey River.
He first dabbled in poetry in the late ‘70s while trying to come up with rock songs to play on his guitar, but was discouraged from becoming a musician by his own shyness and soft voice.
In 2000 his eyesight began to fade. Unable to draw and paint like he used to, he started writing poetry again to keep his creative flow going.
Today, he is a prolific poet who writes everything in large letters with a permanent marker. However, he still draws cartoons by putting his face very close to the page. He also still refers to many of his poems as “rock songs,” and occasionally plays one on guitar, or collaborates with a musician friend to make songs out of others.
Alongside the other Idlers poets, he has done readings of his poetry at Rose Alley Theater, Village Books, Howell Green Fine Art Gallery, Lobal Orning, and Beyond Baroque.
One interesting distinction between his poetry and his art is that he has no real education or influences in poetry. He basically taught himself to write poetry by listening to the lyrics of his favorite music, especially Motown ballads and the psychedelic ponderings of Pink Floyd. Therefore, his poems sound fresh and unaffected by the history of literature. In addition, the scarcity of his influences makes for a voice that is unpretentious, personal, and totally natural.
But just like his art, his poetry is surreal and full of pop culture references. Revolving around specific symbols and myths of his own creation, his poems often read like nursery rhymes for adults:
from “The Halfwit Lament”
he wonders where his memory went
held in suspense of the next moment
the gods took it out to play frisbee
Snap! Crackle! Pop!
Campbell is the main character in his books’ many introspective poems. However, his poems also feature an elusive mystery woman who reappears in moments of longing, and who seems to be a cross between an old flame and a fabled enchantress:
from “Anesthesia Lake”
She was from Palenque,
or up along the green hills of
she came to America
one summer in June
when the trees were heavy with fruit
and the jasmine was in bloom
she came with the art of enchantment
she had learned since age two
the things she’d learned in dreams
from the Pyramid of the Moon.
Although his poems tend to be long, they are usually written at high speeds. Sometimes he claims to hear them as songs in his head when he wakes up in the morning, and finishes writing them down before lunch. A few of the longest poems in his book were written in less than an hour.
Once when a friend told Campbell that it was impossible to find rhymes for the words “purple” and “orange,” Campbell effortlessly answered him a few minutes later with a poem that begins:
from “Purple and Orange”
The eternally fertile totally verbal turtle
affectionately aware that another liquor store binge would turn him orange a la mode
hopped in the back of a blue-back Cadillac
that hurried on down the road
and on leaving he’s receiving
impressions from Mars
as his head begins to float
evanescing with the stars.
Of the Rodeo Grounds in Lower Topanga, and the regrettable relocation of many of its residents by State Parks, he writes:
from “Rodeo Grounds Last Spark of Eden”
though some believe it has dried up
I’m convinced it has just left for a season
to collect more angel and fairy stuff
Rodeo Grounds, the last spark of Eden
“Robert is a visitor to this earth,” joked former Lower Topanga resident Gustav Alsina, pointing out Campbell’s spacey nature while expressing admiration for his art. The two worked together as scenic painters.
Lower Topanga resident and art director Bernt Capra confirmed this, saying, “Whenever I hired Robert, I had to baby-sit him to make sure his beat-up VW van was running and everything else was in order, or he wouldn’t show up to the set. But once he got there, his artistic abilities were unmatched. He could do anything in the visual arts—from painting and sculpting, to designing and building sets.”
Always standing with one foot in the fantasy world that he paints and writes about so beautifully, Campbell never seems to lack inspiration. However, he often wonders about the “loose screws” that put one in touch with that other world, and the way they make one appear in this one:
from “A Lewd and Ludicrous Woman of the Dawn”
You’re all over town
those crazy things that you do
you really get around
you’re so full of loose screws
that sure makes you seem dumb
but you’re a jewel
Sometimes Campbell absentmindedly leaves loose pages uncovered after a morning of writing outside in Lower Topanga, and the wind scatters them across the lawn. At least one of the poems in his book was only found again days later, in the bushes.
Campbell currently lives in, and oversees, a movie sound stage called Glaxa in downtown Los Angeles, which he painted inside and out. He sleeps in a converted make-up room under a big mural of Louis Armstrong, his bathroom has a mural of Adam and Eve, and the walls of the sound stage are covered in trompe l’oeil architecture.
Inside the sound stage, prefabricated sets of a cafe, a bar, a concert stage, and a restaurant wait to be rented out to film crews. When not in use, the empty dimly-lighted sets serve as a backdrop for Campbell’s own surreal visions.
In addition to painting and writing poetry, Campbell has done several comic strips, and two graphic novels drawn in meticulous ball point pen.
“Floating,” the title of one of these graphic novels, is due out some time this year by Brass Tacks Press. Drawn shortly before his eyesight deteriorated, “Floating” is a surreal comedy about the problems caused when a new recreational drug actually makes people’s heads float off of their bodies.
Campbell’s book, “Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake,” collects his contributions to the first five volumes of the Life as a Poet poetry series, which he helped found in 2002.
“Campbell’s poetry draws its images from the public consciousness without sounding clichéd. In spite of its surreal structure, it beckons for a simpler time,” said Life as a Poet cofounder Richard McDowell.
Campbell dedicates the poetry in his own book to “the awareness of the deadbeat syndrome that weaves its subversive threads throughout society in general.”
"Life as a Poet presents: Anesthesia Lake" by Robert Campbell is for sale at Lobal Orning in Topanga Canyon, and at Village Books in the Pacific Palisades.
To order it online, go to the Brass Tacks Press website at www.lifeasapoet.com.
"Dedicated to all the dead unknown poets," the "Life as a Poet" series puts together group shows of different poets who are given the space to express themselves in ten poems each.