Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 Levis Prize from Four Way Books. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, as well as a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, his work has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, PEN America, and Ploughshares, among other places. He is currently the 2016-2017 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College and a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Chicago.
Here, he talks about God-light by a battlefield, snacking local, and one last beer.
On his all-time favorite meal:
During the last week of his spring-quarter poetry workshop, W. S. DiPiero took the class out for dinner and drinks in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, what would prove to be one of the best meals, and most enjoyable evenings, I’ve ever experienced. It was one of those long, rambling nights—digressive, we would call it if it were a poem—that unfolded slowly and seemed to be constantly opening onto some new adventure or discovery, the Dazed and Confused of meals; as I’ve thought about the night since, this leisurely, meandering quality has come to seem the emanation, the willed projection, of Simone himself, an old-school descendent of Italian ancestors who seemed, that night, to have transported us all to the sun-gilt coast of the Mediterranean, as indeed San Francisco often seems.
My most distinct memory of that night is drinking margaritas at the Lone Palm on 22nd Street, the kind of bar that still features white tablecloths and candles, and in which, forever in my memory now, Simone is drinking some Don Draper-esque cocktail in a booth near the window. From there, we walked over to Garçon, a French restaurant on Valencia Street that none of us, I don’t think, would ever be able to afford ourselves. In a city filled with inappropriately-compensated tech workers, even getting into restaurants like Garçon is a tenuous proposition, but the staff had a table waiting for us, and had, more importantly, a cooler stocked with an ample selection of exotic beers and liquors.
I can’t remember what I ordered that night, but I remember lingering long after the meal and slamming Fin du Mondes with Kai Carlson-Wee like they were Natty Lights. At $10 a bottle, the beer was extravagant, as the entire night was, the kind of evening that must be normal for some people, but which for me—whose favorite food comes from gas stations—was a glittering one-night-only affair destined to come around as frequently as a comet. When I think about it now, as I do often of those days, I understand the allure of that place—of San Francisco, of California. Why for centuries we’ve crossed the continent to move there. Why, still, we call it the Golden State.
On what the light looks like during his favorite meal of the day:
My kitchen window looks out on Culp’s Hill in Gettysburg, where, in July of 1863, Confederate troops tried unsuccessfully to turn the flank of the Union lines. It was one of several points in that battle during which, had even the slightest of circumstances been different, the South likely would have prevailed and won the war and split the Union and kept the slaves. During dinner, I look out this window as the sun sets on the wooded hills and the rolling pastureland south of town; the sunlight of Gettysburg is not quite that of California, but out here in the country it has a brilliance and clarity one doesn’t find, I don’t think, in more urban environments.
I’ve never seen a landscape look more Technicolor than Culp’s Hill does at sunset, the fields—where men lay wounded and dying for days afterward—the greenest of greens, the sky some Maggie Nelson blue. It’s during these moments that I think sometimes of the military bugle call played at dusk, “Taps,” as we know it. “Day is done, gone the sun” the lyrics go, “From the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is night.” Often, while eating, I watch the sunlight move in a square pane across my table. Often the light is God-light.
On snacking while writing:
I have to write at home, in private, because I’m somewhat obsessive—you know, talking to myself, pacing the room, beating the poem’s rhythm out on the desk. I tend to lose track of time when I’m writing, to become lost in the poem I’m working on, the effect of which is that I in fact will put off eating for far too long. I’ve begun to notice, though, that as my blood sugar drops so too does the quality of the writing.
On his go-to late-night snack:
I go to bed at 8 o’clock, so late-night is a relative term for me. I’ll often eat dinner, read for an hour or two, and that’s it. I live, though, in a major snack-producing region of the country—the Snyder’s of Hanover pretzel plant is twenty minutes away, as is the Utz potato chip factory—so lately I’ve been snacking local. This doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that I’ve been snacking healthy, since mostly I eat Utz potato chips two bags at a time.
On his food quirks:
I am suspicious and scornful of high-end restaurants, in part because I was raised in the Midwest and in part because my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to appreciate that type of restaurant or justify the cost. My favorite restaurants are Applebee’s and Sheetz, where, at the latter, I order the Boneless Chicken Stripz with Boom Boom Sauce and Jalapeño Popperz. My cholesterol, I’ve been notified, is outside of the normal range.
On his final meal request:
The premise behind a last meal, it seems to me, is that life is good, that here, before one’s final annihilation, one is presented a last chance to savor the very embodied, very material pleasures of living on this planet.
I am terrified of death.
I have always, therefore, been morbidly fascinated with and appalled by the practice of the last meal, unable, even, to fathom what it must be like to sit in a cell on the eve of one’s death and eat filet mignon or strawberry ice cream or caviar or any of the other foods supposed to represent most fully the joy of being alive. I already spend far too much time trying to conceive my “last rites,” or imagining all those things—already, at 32—I will never do again. I will never run another marathon or go sledding with my parents or propose or see Titanic in the theater or dance at a frat party or feel, as I once did, the unrivaled exuberance of Christmas morning.
When I think about this question, about my last meal, I think of who I would want to tell that I love them if the world were ending. I would want to eat, then, with my family and my wife, the poet Corey Van Landingham. If the premise of the last meal is that life is good, there seems to me little pleasure better than drinking beer in the sunlight. I would want to be drinking beer in the sunlight.