"I like the self checkout at Tops," said Chris Perri. "If you ever want to know how screwed we are as a race of people, go to the Tops self-checkout line in the afternoon and see these people having all kinds of difficulty. You just can't imagine it. I saw a guy talk to a self-checkout machine."
It's this sort of affable anecdote that has made Perri such a popular English professor at Geneseo. His relative youth certainly helps (he's also an alumnus, having graduated in 1999), but it's the breezy way he talks to you that really captures the attention.
Perri teaches both English 201 and INTD 105 here, making him the consummate teacher of writers. When I asked for advice that he'd give the budding and hopeful writer-aspirant, however, he quickly responded with a question of his own: "Have you considered a career in nursing?"
Writing, he tells me, "is a tough path to commit yourself to; there will be a lot of resistance in terms of what you'll encounter and the personal pursuit can make you your own worst enemy at times." He said that being a writer is a lot like being a gambler: "You have to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."
On a cold, windy Tuesday afternoon I sat down with Perri in his office in Welles and he immediately looked uncomfortable. When I assured him I wasn't out to prod State secrets out of him, he relaxed and we got into the meat of the interview, specifically the pointed and hard-hitting question: "If you could live anywhere on Earth where would it be and why?"
He looked at me for a moment as though I was an idiot. "That's got to be the dumbest f---ing question I've ever heard. Don't misquote me, Davis." Then he smiled, said he'd like to live on the Oregon Coast and moved on to matters of more import.
Specifically, I wanted to know why a man with such a love for words is teaching at his alma mater instead of dashing off works of simple genius for the New Yorker or Scribners.
The reason, he said, might very well be fellow English professor Rachel Hall.
When he first got to college, Perri wanted to be either a professional baseball player or a comedian (his favorite funnyman is Conan O'Brien, and he was disappointed to see Leno take the "Tonight Show" back. "Leno ruined my childhood," he quipped.) It was the experience of Hall's creative writing class, however, that inspired Perri to put aside his comedic dreams (though obviously not very far) and pursue a Master of Fine Arts in order to teach college writing.
Of course, every good writer has a preferred genre in which to work. Rappers don't play the cello (usually) and sculptors (excepting Leonardo) aren't necessarily proficient with a paintbrush. What then does Perri pursue? Mostly short fiction.
"To be a short story writer is one of the most disadvantageous areas to be in," he said. "You have to be connected and talented. Non-fiction is the hot ticket, very marketable. Then novels. Poetry is third, short stories fourth." Nonetheless, Perri has published several of his stories in magazines and even made money-selling stories between high school's end and the start of college.
One final question that all college students want to know: If you see this man in a bar, what do you buy him? When asked, he's immediate to respond, "Here's a weird thing: I don't like IPAs, but I like Extra Special Bitters." Get the man a beer.