CAConrad’s childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift. The author of 9 books of poetry and essays, the latest is titled While Standing In Line For Death and is forthcoming from Wave Books (September 2017). He is a Pew Fellow and has also received fellowships from Lannan Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Headlands Center for the Arts, Banff, RADAR, Flying Ojbect and Ucross. For his books, essays, and details on the documentary The Book of Conrad (Delinquent Films 2016), please visit http://CAConrad.blogspot.com
This brief interview was conducted through email while the poet was conducting a poetry workshop in Vilnius, Lithuania.
What is (Soma)tic poetry and what is its role in 21st century poetics?
The strength of poetry is where we can also find the sacred, helps us smell our lovers, even after they have died. I can tell you what (Soma)tic poetry did and does for me, but please don’t ask me to bore myself or others with conversations about legacy projects and how to sell my archives to an Ivy League library, that just sucks the spirit out of the whole body of the poem. There are plenty of nervous old men poets out there trying to keep their imprint on us intact for centuries to come. To me poetry needs to have a place inside the bodies of readers, not in a time capsule. Poetry needs to be important to each reader on their own terms, not because we have been instructed by its critics to understand it as such. The 27th century will need poetry as much as the 21st.
Where I come from no one reads poetry because no one reads books. They are factory workers, mostly, or like my father they get too old for the assembly line and become janitors at my old high school. When I am depressed thinking about the people I come from it is because their anger and racism and homophobia and inability to care to change was what I needed to be a poet for, on behalf of their ignorance and denial that they too are creative and capable of inhaling the tremendous love of this world. They hate me as much as they hate any faggot, and have told me so one at a time, but in the end I am a poet not to spite them but to believe in this world in a way they would never be able to show me.
These people I come from were the crisis that led me to (Soma)tics. I’m lucky my mother and I were outsiders. Being an outsider saved me more than once. We were living in a car escaping her factory worker parents until she married a factory worker 884 miles away who gave me his last name. My mother hated the situation as much as I did and she found herself in trouble with the law more than once, pushing us further and further from the fragile margins of the acceptable world. It was hard, but it was good, and I’m lucky because there is nothing like a mother who demands that you fight for the place you most want in the world. I ran away to Philadelphia as a teenager in the mid 1980s to be a poet.
What I needed to learn the hard way is that you cannot leave the factory behind you to become a poet, it comes with you wherever you go. It takes a lot more work than relocating to climb out of generations of such blind, slogging obedience. After dedicating myself to poetry, writing every single day for decades, I realized on the train ride home from a family reunion in 2005 that I had turned my writing into a factory. I could see it on my desk, the way I was writing, the way I was tabulating folders of poems for magazine submissions, etc. It was too fucking efficient. As the child of factory workers I am here to tell you efficiency breeds brutality, crushing your spirit, keeping your dreams as dreams for long nights of alcohol and television. This is where my crisis began, this understanding that I had allowed the factory to seep into the most sacred part of my life, and it was more than enough to break me in half.
This terrifying realization came at a time when I was already very vulnerable. It was seven years after my boyfriend Earth had been raped and murdered. It takes seven years for our bodies to replace all of our cells until we are entirely new bodies. Before his death I was in top physical condition, vegan, athletic, I had been a go-go dancer at times for rich gay men to pay the rent. Earth and I had helped one another survive the deaths of many friends who died of AIDS, in fact my boyfriend Tommy died of AIDS and Earth was there for me. He was truly a rock, a beautiful, caring man who showed me the best parts of myself that even poetry could not show me. His death destroyed me. I stopped exercising, but I refused to turn to alcohol and drugs, and I refused to eat meat, but I did start eating vegetarian junk food until I became fat and sick all the time.
I was just barely keeping it together when I realized the factory was in my life after all those years of thinking it was not. I stopped writing for the better part of a month, willing myself to not write. I did take notes in case I decided it was okay for me to start writing again, but I desperately needed to find a way to separate myself from the destructive elements of the factory. One morning I started making a list of all the problems with the factory. It was a long list and it gripped my throat rereading it. At one point toward the top I had written, “The inability to be present.” That was the sentence that showed me the way out.
It is the repetitive horror of the factory that keeps its workers focused on hope, which is a fiction about the future. Hope is fantasy, and it’s hard to live without it but there is a line we can cross very easily by relying too heavily on it and it becomes poison. This poison paralyzes us from finding a way to live the way we want until hoping and hoping we can one day live the lives we want is all that is left. (Soma)tic poetry rituals create an extreme present, keeping us in the deep awareness of everything around us, a present tense we didn’t know we longed for until we find it. For the first rituals I ate a single color of food a day for seven days and wore the colors through wigs, semen, nail polish and other things. With the first one, the red poem, I realized it was real, that it worked. The magic of language is always counting on us to make the effort to reach it, and once we get there the real possibilities, the infinite possible directions are finally clear.
Soon after finding my way into this new experience of writing I became convinced that these rituals could do more than produce poems inside an extreme present. I wanted them to cure me finally of my chronic depression since Earth’s murder. By the way it wasn’t just his murder that depressed me, it was the cops insisting he had raped and killed himself that made it much worse, writing in their reports that he was a suicide. He was murdered in Tennessee and the sheriff eventually started to call me Faggot instead of my name after his patience wore thin. He then called the Philadelphia police who came to my apartment, six of them, though it could have been seven. They cuffed me, smashed my face sideways against the wall in my hallway, half of them screaming at me while the other half laughed, feeding one another in their frenzy. It’s hard to explain just how deeply these things pull you down in the world and make you question whether being alive is worth it any longer.
It took me three tries to find the right ritual with the right set of ingredients. The first two I did resulted in poems I liked enough to publish, but I felt no better, in fact I would say at times the failure of them made things worse. After the failure of the second ritual I reevaluated the ingredients and realized I had not been delving deep enough, not going dark enough. The third ritual worked. It was one of the most difficult things I ever put myself through, but only at first, because once I was working inside the ritual it was the easiest release of toxins I have ever experienced. Today I can write to you, Jonathan, and say that (Soma)tic poetry rituals not only gave me a series of 27 poems I am glad to have written, but that the ritual and the writing gave me back my life. As soon as the ritual released the trauma from my body I started to return to eating healthier, and the nightmares are gone, and the violent film in my head is gone. I still miss him, I always will, but with reverence for the life he was prevented from having. The documentary The Book of Conrad (Delinquent Films, 2016) covers some of these details about Earth and I am forever grateful to the filmmakers Belinda Schmid and David Cranstoun Welch for believing me instead of the police.
How could (Soma)tic poetry and its rituals be useful for a poet in the Age of Trump?
When I conduct (Soma)tic poetry workshops, especially in the university setting there is often one or two young people who admit to feeling like they are wasting their time learning poetry or art while the world falls apart. One of my most important goals is to address THAT whenever it comes up, to make clear just HOW ESSENTIAL being creative is to the future health and happiness of our species and other creatures and plants. Yes, our ecosystems are failing under our human comforts and excessive lust for power, control and money for Things, lots of Things. No piece of video footage disturbed me more of president Trump than the one from a few months ago after he won and went into an exclusive restaurant in New York City where the billionaires and millionaires eat. Did you see it? They gave him a standing ovation, applauding and cheering as he went from table to table, promising to lower their taxes as though they could be lowered any further at this point. His biggest fans are not the ignorant, angry working class factory workers but these most brutal, evil of US-America’s wealthiest families who thrive on weapons sales and poisoning the water, air and land. You know, the kind of people bankrolling the Dakota pipeline on Native American land, not even allowing unarmed, peaceful native people to have a say in their water being polluted.
Whenever I talk about the necessity of creativity I mention that I went to Occupy Wall Street a handful of times and 75% of everyone I met was an art student, a creative writing student, and THAT is where the creativity can and will also go. How breathtaking it was to witness this truly horizontal political system where everyone made the decisions together. One of my heroes is the biologist Lynn Margulis who proved in her research that evolution’s largest leaps forward were by interspecies cooperation, which flies in the face of the Neo-Darwinists who want to convince us it is instead all one big war out there to survive. She proved that it is collaboration that makes the world work the best. Her research is so inspiring on a cellular level. Margulis shows us how we need to be within our own species to survive, building coalitions between documented workers and undocumented workers, queers, Black Lives Matter, anti-war activists, feminists, environmentalists, all of us coming together until we are unbreakable in our care and love for this world.
Every single human being is creative. When I was a child I was fascinated by a shelf in my grandmother’s home with little pieces of artwork by all 9 of her daughters and sons, little, tiny pictures, a clay sculpture, a beautiful miniature menagerie. Everything on that shelf was made before the age of five and I asked my grandmother, “But Nana, where is the art they are making now?” She was so annoyed and said, “They are busy working they haven’t got time for art!” Art is there, in all of us, no matter whom you are no matter if you turned out to be someone you did not want to be. It is essential, right now, at this very moment, to embrace your creativity, if you used to paint, if you used to write poems then write again or paint again, just do it, do it now, right now! When we are creative we are able to make better decisions, we are able to see more deeply the world around us and can therefore see what needs to be done to make life better, not just for ourselves but for everyone, ever person and every other living thing. The trappings of money and power are of course in the art world and with writers, but that can happen while the rest of us are dedicating ourselves to our skills, sharpening them every single day of our lives. What I have discovered in doing and teaching (Soma)tic rituals for over a decade now is that when people find themselves stuck, unable to write, paint, dance, these rituals build a bridge back to that vital part of themselves. And if you say you do not have the time I say bullshit! Toni Morrison was a single mother with a full time job when she wrote Beloved, so she set that bar high! We can be creative in an infinite number of ways no matter what is going on, and we can change the outcome of our lives in that dedication to keeping the creative core alive within.