Snapshot: CA Conrad
SK: Congrats on your most recent book A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics.
CA: THANKS! I’m very excited about my new book. There are seven billion people on Earth so I never take for granted that someone wants to publish my poems. And I’m also very happy that the book is made with 100% recycled paper.
SK: How long have you been doing (Soma)tic exercises?
CA: The first were made in 2005 where I ate a single color of food for a day for seven days, first red, then orange, and through the spectrum. I would also WEAR the color in some way, like a red wig, or for the white poem I spelled “108” on my forehead with my boyfriend’s semen. Technically it was only white for a short time, but it still counts.
SK: How did you first get into this practice?
CA: I had already been writing poems for most of my life, and loved writing poems, but I no longer just wanted poetry in my life. I wanted it to BE my life, to actually EXIST inside the poem as it was being created. The threshold of what it means to be living as a human being on Earth changes with the drive to find new experiences for mining language for poems. I mean so much is possible. I’ve catheterized myself, cut my feet, drank my blood. I have exercises set aside for future use, for instance if I’m diagnosed with cancer, how to write poems on chemotherapy and radiation, or how to write poems instead of a suicide note. These are all born out of loving my life no matter how impossible it has seemed at times. Poetry is what I came to Earth to do is an important detail I wake knowing each morning.
Some of these (Soma)tics are short, even fun to do. Some take weeks. One of them I have been writing every single morning since spring of 2006. On the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq I stopped cutting my hair. I had wanted SOMETHING in my life that reminded me that we are at war, like a tattoo or, or what I didn’t quite know. My neighbor Owen killed himself over a decade ago, and his ghost hangs around. I heard him whisper in my ear, “Use your hair.” It was the most productive thing he had said since he his suicide, and I thanked him right away. I mean, OF COURSE! Hair gets longer and longer and needs more care, like the wars.
Every morning I meditate on the thousands of lives lost in the wars that each inch of my hair represents. This poem is over 900 pages now, and frankly I HATE writing it. It’s starting to upset me in ways I had never imagined because it all feels incredibly hopeless at this point. There are now three children dying of war-related injuries every single day in Afghanistan. This poem helps me KNOW how complicit I am as an American, but I had no idea when I started it what it would mean, this poem. It means being witness to the most oblivious form of imperialism that is possible. Most of the poem is obsessed with no one seemingly fucking caring about the three children our tax dollars kill every single fucking day of our disgusting fucking lives in America! How are we ever going to get out of this madness? When I start to read the poem from the beginning I actually want to vomit. This is not a figure of speech. 900 pages and all I want to do is vomit. What a waste of fucking time this poem has turned out to be. And what fucking hubris on my part to try to write a love poem for the war dead from my triage-free life in America, you know. I’m thinking of forcing myself to read it and then write a (Soma)tic about vomiting.
SK: Did you also use them as a means for writing some of the “Frank” poems?
CA: No, not with those poems. They where written over a period of sixteen years. There’s about a thousand of them altogether, and they exist because I was too poor for health care and therapy.
SK: When did the idea occur to you to do a book of (Soma)tic exercises and how did your manuscript get picked and published by Wave Books?
CA: Wave is amazing. Wave is the new Black Sparrow. There, I said it and mean it. They care in ways that makes me the happiest person I am capable of being. And I’m truly grateful to them.
But Wave had already published The Book of Frank, and Joshua Beckman had been paying attention to these other things I was doing, the (Soma)tics. He asked to look at them as a manuscript, which made me very happy. I feel so fortunate to have them in my corner as a publisher, editor, and designer. Everyone at Wave is fantastic, and there’s no way for me to be happier with the book!
SK: You have taught Somatic exercises at the Poetry Project, Central Park and most recently at Naropa University. Can you give us an example of one of your classes?
CA: Okay, sure. It’s funny, all of this. I mean because last year about this time I had less than a hundred dollars in the bank and was on the verge of being evicted. It was all so close to being an enormous mess, my life. Then I won the Pew Fellowship. It literally saved my life, and now I’m invited to Naropa. One night at Naropa there was a big reading and Eleni Sikelianos was introducing the readers and she said at the microphone that Naropa is the sister college to Black Mountain. YES! That made me so happy to hear her say that because it’s true. Where else does such a school exist for writing? It was one of the most magical weeks of my life, and I am honored to have been invited to teach on the shoulders of such an incredible legacy of experimentation in writing. Thank god for Anne Waldman keeping this summer writing program alive.
The students at Naropa are AMAZING! I brought for each of them a Brazilian Singing Quartz, a small clear quartz crystal that can be programmed to perform specific tasks. We programmed them at first to speak to trees and flowers. We created the Human Water Molecule Poetry Writing Chamber. We also created a Human Hibernaculum. At one workshop I administered reiki while they balanced their crystals on their heads. Each received reiki, and while receiving it they were to talk out loud about how their poems would be different if they were the opposite sex, and then talk about being a third gender and what their poems would be like. For each of these workshops there is voracious note-taking, and then those notes get piled into a giant format, then culled and edited. So many amazing things are possible, and I LOVE doing the collaborative writing that gets done in workshops.
SK: Some poets don’t like to write about politics or “political poems” but you’ve embraced the political poem since your first book, Deviant Propulsions. And by politics I mean it in the broadest sense including identity politics: gender, sexuality, class, etc., I feel this is one of the things that makes your work so honest and true and gives your work such an enormous raw power. Can you talk a little bit about this?
CA: Well thank you, I’m glad you think so. I don’t know what to say except that I write what I want to write. I don’t write because someone says poems SHOULD be about or written through one topic or another. Too many people are allowing their poems to be micromanaged through ideas of others. It’s like fucking high school the way some people worry about these things. Poetry is where we get to have our autonomy and REALLY LIVE in this world! The ONLY SHOULD I ever aim at a poet is to say that a poet SHOULD be brave. If you think courage isn’t essential to writing poems you’re incorrect in your thinking. Be brave. And don’t take any shit!
There are so many poets out there who will loudly proclaim that they DO or DO NOT write political poems. And this is nothing more than a big SHOULD. It’s their way of saying that they will ignore you if you don’t do what they do. Jonathan Williams once said to me when I told him how bossy Cid Corman was being with me about my poems in our air mail correspondence, “Ah yes, Cid Corman, one of those poets who wants you to write just like him, only NOT AS WELL!” EXACTLY! Be brave, it’s so important if you’re ever going to be the poet you’re capable of being. And if you’re AFRAID of something then DO IT! I was terrified of inserting a long tube of plastic into my urethra to then walk around Occupy Philly and write a poem, but I DID IT, and if I hadn’t done it that poem would have never been written.
SK: Recently you and I exchanged emails about a letter* you had hand-delivered to the President thanking him for his support on gay marriage, but also urging him to take action against the genocide of gays in Iraq. Can you discuss this a bit more and also touch on how important it is for all humans, but perhaps especially poets, to be engaged and active crusaders for ethical treatments of humans everywhere.
CA: To be honest I don’t give a shit about gay marriage. I was saying that it was great that Obama said he was okay with it. That was what was important, because when a country’s leader says homophobic things gay bashing goes up. Religious leaders especially cause harm to my community with their homophobic screeds. It’s a form of genocide, and the pope should be held accountable. I HATE the pope!
Obama being positive about lesbian and gay rights is good for everyone because it makes space for everyone to RELAX A LITTLE! But the letter was really about the gay genocide in Iraq. It’s horrifying! And president Obama and secretary of state Clinton have not mentioned it ever. Not once. Their silence perpetuates this extermination program underway in Iraq, and there’s evidence now that the police are also helping to hunt down and torture these men before killing them.
Why is it important that Obama speak up? For one thing he is the president of the United States of America, the very country who invaded and occupied Iraq. We toppled a secular government. While they didn’t have gay pride parades in Baghdad, gay and lesbians were at least tolerated under the old regime. But now, NOW it’s a horror! Both Sunni and Shiite clerics have called for this genocide. It’s out in the open. Posters hanging in Baghdad asking people to turn in gay men if they know of any and the US refuses to grant political asylum. I say refuses. Let the faggots hang, let the faggots get their teeth bashed in.
We’re so fucking concerned with gay marriage over here. Who cares! I for one do NOT CARE about my fucking rights to get married over here when MY COUNTRY has made life unendurable for gay men in Iraq. Can you imagine what it must be like? Can you even imagine what it must be like to be queer in Iraq now? It haunts me. And it DISGUSTS ME that the gay and lesbian community in America doesn’t seem to give a shit about Iraqi queers. I’m outraged. Frankly I’m not just outraged, I’m embarrassed to be gay. And American gays actually celebrating the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I mean what the fuck is this madness we’re living in? Gay men and lesbian American soldiers making life SCARY for gay men and women in Iraq! That’s nuts! Joining hands with a multi-billion dollar military industrial complex! It’s insane! This is absolute madness! This NEED to put a rainbow sticker on a machine gun and go out and kill Arabs is sick and racist and evil, AND I WANT NO PARTS OF IT! Yes, I am truly embarrassed to be gay! The queers who started the gay revolution in the 1960’s were also against the war in Vietnam. They also marched for Civil Rights and labor rights. Now we have the Human Rights Campaign giving awards to Wells Fargo for being the most gay-friendly environment for workers. WELLS FARGO? Does NO ONE remember the hand Wells Fargo had in the destruction of people’s lives in 2008? This whole thing just makes me sick! I’m creeped out by the course we’re on, and there is NO DOUBT in my mind that the gay and lesbian community in the United States took a VERY WRONG turn and is now very much on the WRONG side of history in 2012!
If you’re interested in a book addressing how fucked up the gay community has become in America, please check out WHY ARE FAGGOTS SO AFRAID OF FAGGOTS, an anthology edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore. It’s probably the most important anthology of our time for how fucking wrong everything is becoming around us.
SK: A year or so ago when I was in Philly I heard Christian Tebordo, Nicole Steinberg and a couple of other writers discussing the Pew Fellowship and how much you deserved to be awarded it. Thankfully, the city was listening! Since the arts are always the first to lose funding, can you touch on the importance and significance of being awarded a Pew Fellowship?
CA: That’s very nice that they were saying that. The Pew is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. It’s not a city award though, it’s from the Pew Trust, which is why there is money. City, state and federal grants are diminishing, as we know. And I had lost my stupid job at Barnes & Noble where I had worked full time but was barely able to pay the rent. So many insults in this world, but the Pew wiped them CLEAN! It made me happy and it continues to make me happy. They don’t just give you money with no strings attached, they also support you in many other ways as well. It’s like a dream where you actually get taken care of. It’s amazing. I have one of the best publishers of poetry taking care of my poems, and the Pew foundation. Coming from a family of factory workers making coffins at the coffin factory, that’s saying something.
SK: Recently, your magazine Jupiter 88 was picked up and recommended by Poets & Writers. I love Jupiter 88. It always reminds of when Dottie lived in Philly and was posting those videos of people reading in her bathroom or living room or whatever. There’s something so immediate and loving about it. How did the idea for Jupiter 88 (as opposed to an online or print journal) come about?
CA: I’m glad you like JUPITER 88, thank you! I love the planet Jupiter, and I have always been in love with the number 88. So I put them together. And I LOVE and value poetry and believe that poets deserve to be reading with the planet Jupiter – the largest planet in our solar system – behind them, you know, Jupiter has our backs! And I’m glad you mentioned Dorothea Lasky, one of my favorite living poets, and one of my favorite humans beings. I love her! I read in her bathtub for her video series that was called The Tiny Tour to celebrate her first amazing book AWE. Her new book coming out soon is called THUNDERBIRD. Check it out! From WAVE Books!!
SK: What are you working on right now and what’s next for you?
CA: I’m in Quintana Roo. It’s six in the morning while I’m writing these answers to you, and I’m in love. I’m absolutely in love with this place in Mexico by the ocean. I love the people here, and the coatimundi and sea turtles are incredible. But I’m at the RADAR Lab writing retreat. It’s my first time at a residency, and it’s one of the most incredible experiences. I’m doing a (Soma)tic here where I listen to a Prince album in its entirety each morning, this morning’s being “Around the World in a Day.” Such songs as “Raspberry Beret” and “Paisley Park.” I wanted a muse, someone who could get me started in the morning. It’s Prince. But then I go down to the beach where I have many different structures and ideas I’m working with, including sitting at the same spot, but a foot closer to the water each day. By tomorrow I will be sitting in and writing in the actual tide break. Observing this tidal ecosystem has been a gift. Beautiful white crabs, sea turtles, fish fish fish, and some rather ominous birds called frigate birds.
Later this year I’m going to Ucross in Wyoming. A month long residency where I have an entirely different (Soma)tic mapped out for myself for the wide-open prairie. I’m 46 this year and I had no idea how true it can be that if you just hang in there and keep doing what you want to do, it can pay off. I feel very fortunate to have poetry in my life. Thank you so much for the opportunity to be interviewed!
* Letter to President Obama
Dear President Obama:
Thank you for being the first president in United States history to make clear the inequity lesbian and gay Americans are facing. You’re very brave.
It’s extraordinary that you would risk your career by coming out in favor of lesbian and gay marriage. As a gay man I want to thank you, as a country’s leadership can make all the difference in stemming violence against LGBTQ people.
Because you are so brave president Obama, let me implore you to please talk openly about the gay genocide underway in Iraq since your inauguration. For several years this extermination program against gay men has been sanctioned by both Sunni and Shiite clerics, and has cost thousands of lives.
No political asylum has been granted to a single gay man in Iraq, and all who seek protection have been turned away from the Green Zone. As an American gay man I am not interested in my rights if they destroy the rights of gay men abroad. The lesbians and gay men who serve in the United States military have helped to destabilize the secular government of Iraq, and have indirectly led the way to this most alarming genocide against gay men.
Gay men and women have no allies in Iraq against this rising religious extremism. It would make all the difference if you would talk about the genocide. In the end gay marriage and military service for LGBTQ Americans is pointless if we endanger the rest of the world without any effort to rescue those LGBTQ people left behind in a country we have torn apart.
Your speaking out against this genocide would lead the way to creating petitions for political asylum and safe homes for these persecuted gay men. As an American I am horrified by this genocide resulting from our invasion and occupation of Iraq. And as an American who voted for you, who has had great confidence in you, I ask you to please speak up for these gay men in Iraq who have no voice and no protection.
Your voice will mean everything. Thank you Mr. president.
Interviewed over email by Steven Karl