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Author Q&A: CAConrad

CAConrad’s childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift. He is the author of eight books of poetry and essays, the latest ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (Wave Books) is the winner of the 2015 Believer Magazine Book Award. He is a 2015 Headlands Art Fellow, and has also received fellowships from Lannan Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Banff, Ucross, RADAR, and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage; he conducts workshops on (Soma)tic Poetry and Ecopoetics. Visit him online at CAConrad.blogspot.com

TBL Author Q&A Series: CAConrad

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

My mother was a miscreant and technically she still is since my sister had her arrested last Christmas. But when I was a kid, this kept her from being able to get a job. She was also very busy getting high with her friends and deconstructing Led Zepplin songs, so she put me to work selling flowers at the Pennsylvania Turnpike exit in Quakertown. I did this job from ages 8 to 16 and it was the 1970s so there were no electronic gadgets to distract me, making me turn to books to fill the long hours on my folding chair planted in the dirt with cornfields and highway all around me.

Where I grew up not a single house of relatives or friends had bookshelves so I spent a lot of time in the library. I discovered Emily Dickinson at 9 or 10 and was hooked, and I started writing poetry around the same time some 40 years ago. I love Dickinson as much today. Criminal activity led me to poetry is the best answer I can give you. I read an article about child labor laws when I was 16 and nearly got kicked to the streets when I quoted it to my mother as my reason for refusing to work for her ever again.

You’ve published several books and chapbooks — what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

My first book did not come out until I turned 40, so for 30 years I was writing and reading poetry and going to readings and publishing magazines and zines and editing a chapbook press. It’s more about community than publishing. The strength of poetry comes through the community we build together. Publishing seems much easier today. I don’t know what to say except the first of my 8 books finally got accepted when I sent the manuscript to Soft Skull Press. I was thrilled. 

It was where community became toxic of course. Don’t get me wrong I have some VERY supportive and amazing friends but as it turns out, I also had a few friends who were actually anything but friends. Getting a book published and then winning some awards and fellowships is where trouble began. I have a (Soma)tic poetry ritual for dealing with these haters titled, YOU DON’T HAVE WHAT IT TAKES TO BE MY NEMESIS. 95% of poets stop writing by the time they are in their early 30s, and some sooner. My job is to show everyone how to always write, which leads us back to community, but minus the toxic part of it.

As I mentioned, I appreciate so much your emphasis on process and the generation of/engagement with creativity—with writing as ritual. Can you discuss those themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? Can you speak to your (Soma)tics and some of ways your writing has evolved throughout your career?

It started because I watched the factories DESTROY my family. Nothing will crush the human spirit quicker than a factory job. I escaped as a teenager to Philadelphia where I was on the verge of becoming a street hustler until my boyfriend Angel came along. He was a coke dealer so my part-time job and Angel’s magic money gave me time to be in the library and bookstores learning to write. (Soma)tics came years later though when I realized that the factory that I had thought was left far behind me had crept into my entire process. I was on a train ride home to Philadelphia after a family reunion when the realization hit me. When I opened the door to my apartment I could SEE the factory on my desk. This was a crisis and I stopped writing for nearly a month until I came to the idea of (Soma)tic rituals that create a space of extreme presence. It has been a window into complete spiritual release for me, I love it, and I live it, and do so every single day.

At first the rituals were quiet and meditative, almost private activities. But when I started the War Hair (Soma)tic ritual on the 3rd anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2006 I soon became depressed. That is when I started to do rituals involving the public, like performance art, but it cheered me up I guess. The War Hair ritual is the longest ritual I have ever done and I don’t even like the poem that is almost 4,000 pages long at this point. I hate it. These rituals though, they can lift the veil for a closer look at the world for a closer look at people in the world.

A recent ritual I call QUEER BUBBLES where I blew bubbles on a busy street corner in Asheville. Parents and children would appear, as I knew they would. There are so many people having children right now that it was a given that it would happen. And they came. And the children loved the bubbles because children see how marvelous they are. But as the kids smiled and tried to catch the bubbles I would explain to their parents that these are Queer Bubbles to turn their children into healthy, happy, revolutionary queers. Not gay and lesbian, but queer, queer set aside as those of us devoted to putting an end to homophobia, sexism, racism, and classism. Some parents thought it was cool, but most parents panicked and pulled their kids away saying sorry to me. There is no sorry acceptable. But what was important was getting to see what really lives JUST BENEATH the veil of a so-called liberal American city.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde, Alice Notley, and Emily Dickinson. Dickinson was the first to blow my mind, to show me the magic of poems. She and Whitman were important to me growing up in the illiterate rural American extreme narrow-mindedness. When I discovered how narrow-minded Whitman was, how racist, insanely racist he was in his prose I couldn’t find the magic in his poems again. His hatred of African Americans and Native Americans makes me distrust every single poem where he celebrates the human body dancing on the planet. Dickinson on the other hand, she is a real poet. I love and admire her today as much as I did all those decades ago when I first found her book on the public library shelf. She powers me up!

Audre Lorde is a poet who showed me the utmost importance of having courage and to stand tall as a poet. Lorde gives dignity to poets like few others ever have. There is this marvelous quote where she says, “The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.” THIS QUOTE inspired the name of my first chapbook press Insight To Riot. It seemed clever all those years ago to play with insight for incite. Coming from poverty, it was Alice Notley who gave me strength as a poet without money to stand tall. In her poem “C’81” from her brilliant collection Mysteries of Small Houses she goes into a beautiful trance of poverty, of surviving, and says, “Poetry’s so common hardly anyone can find it.” I bank my life against this line.

No other poet has changed me and saved me like Eileen Myles has though. When I was a kid living a rather dangerous life in Philadelphia I found her poems at the right moment to get my shit together. As a teen my friends and I would do an enormous amount of drugs and have sex together and fall asleep together. What I liked about that time in the mid-80’s was that Queer Nation gave us true space to be together. These crazy party days where faggots and dykes shared space. We had orgies and I think sometimes there was bisexual activity but what I care about is that we shared the space to have sex together and that is rare.

Anyway, I woke between lovers in a room piled with bodies after too much ingestion of chemicals. I was depressed. I was on the verge of becoming a full time hustler in Philadelphia. Many of my prostitute friends at the time made it seem sexy. But I remember waking in someone’s older sister’s apartment (the sister was away) and we had partied all night long and were asleep and naked all over this room and it was the afternoon the next day. I saw a stack of magazines and books near me where I had slept on the floor. This blue book spine poked out at me. I could tell by the thinness of the spine that it was probably poetry and that thinness of possible poetry always excited me immediately. It was Myles’s book Sappho’s Boat. I read it in one sitting with awe. I remember getting up, finding my clothes and leaving the building, sitting in one of my many favorite hidden places in Philadelphia to write poems for the rest of the day.

Not long after that I went to NYC to find her. I went to the Poetry Project and they were incredibly rude there, not like the fantastic people working at the Project today. They refused to help me find her and talked to me like I was an idiot. I walked out of St. Mark’s Church, saw a pay phone and as if guided by a spirit (which I probably was) I picked up the phone and called Information. You could do that for free back then, but the operator gave me her number. Then I called the number and she picked up the phone. She invited me to have coffee with her and she was only a few blocks away. She is a friend and I’m grateful and happy to call her a friend. And she is one of those poets whose poems get better and better, weirder and more powerful the older she gets. Genius bona fide!

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, or for discovering a new mode of generating creativity?

Going back to the Notley quote, “Poetry’s so common hardly anyone can find it.” Once this is actualized in the poet’s understanding of the world there will never be another time when we question our endless possibilities. My (Soma)tic ritual practice is always at work to lift the veil. The more I do it the more I realize just how easy it is. Nothing has to be a certain way. Everything can be where it is, as it is. Poetry lifts off all surfaces with a deliberate ripping sound, and is beautiful.

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? Your last three books were published by Wave, but I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with publishing houses.

Waves Books makes me happy. They take care of my poems like no one else ever has done. I’m grateful for this. There is no answer besides this.

Actually that’s not fair because Soft Skull was also very good to me. I love and miss that press when it was actually Soft Skull and in Brooklyn. My first editor at Soft Skull was Shanna Compton and she is a dream to work with. She has a fantastic press called Bloof Books. My second editor at Soft Skull was Anne Horowitz and I love her just as much, such great editors, both kind and thoughtful. These people work their asses off to make beautiful books and we are all so lucky.

At Wave Books my editor is Joshua Beckman and he is a dream to work with. He is also a friend. I recently had the great pleasure of coediting with Joshua and Robert Dewhurst the selected poems of John Wieners titled Supplication. Wow, what a great experience that was!

What can you tell us about your experiences with divination (tarot, etc.)? How does it influence your literary presence?

In my book Advanced Elvis Course (Soft Skull) there are multiple forms of divination I created to write the book. I used Priscilla Presley’s memoir, Elvis and Me, as a divinatory tool by asking the book a question, then opening and closing it nine times. The book always answered and quite directly. I put some of my favorites from that Q&A with the memoir in my book. I also created a Magic Elvis Square for the book and it is published alongside the ancient Sator Formula, also known as The Magic Square. The vibrational pattern of the words in the Sator Formula box is used as a mirror to destroy your enemies and keep you safe. I worked with Freya Aswynn on building the Elvis Square, asking her to help me configure the lettering to give our enemies clarity and peace rather than destroy them. At first she told me that she prefers destroying enemies, but then looked over what I was doing and made some major and important corrections. But that is also in the book.

Tarot has been in my life for many years now. I received the deck I still use on my 18th birthday, making it 32 years and the only THING in my life for as long. The Dakini Oracle is the deck and was created by Penny Slinger in the 1970s and is one of those extraordinary decks that is more a study of the present and arranged as a study in comparative religions.

When I was 19, one of Philadelphia’s glorious New Age drag queens named Peppy taught me to read the deck through the zodiac which compounds the information, making each reading more concise and revealing the importance of what is happening in the present rather than in the future. It DOES show future events, but the present cards are a snapshot of how the planets are currently laid out for a given questioner, meaning that any advice given in those cards set in present time is more important for how the future cards can manifest.

I’ve also used tarot as a (Soma)tic poetry ritual. Thinking in terms of body tissue, muscle, sinew, etc., as a capable and reliable source for memory storage is where I went with the cards. For instance after having extensive massage therapy or chiropractic or other forms of body healing, a release of memory often occurs. So I read the cards to meat in a grocery store by doing three-card pulls of mind, body, and spirit. Very dark readings, at least the ones I was able to do before being thrown out.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

Meeting and talking with other poets. But also the Pew Fellowship was important. It opened many doors for me and I have been grateful for all of the opportunities it has given me.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

Yes, please write this quote down, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself not the life others expected of me.” This is from nurse Bronnie Ware’s research of asking many dying patients for many years if they had any regrets. This is the number one regret of the dying. Therefore this is the goal for the living. It is vital that everyone sharpens their creative tools and encourages others to trust their creative skills. It is creative people who help the world survive. Live in this world how you want; it is your life for as long as it lasts. Die with NO REGRETS! Everyone should write this quote down and show it to themselves and others as often as possible.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I feel like my best poems are still inside me. I cannot think of a more beautiful lens through which to view a life than poetry. Poetry shows me how to love.

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