A Conversation with CAConrad
By Laura Liu
CAConrad is the author of nine books of poetry and essays. Their latest, While Standing in Line for Death (Wave Books), received the 2018 Lambda Award.
A recipient of a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, they also received The Believer Magazine Book Award and The Gil Ott Book Award. Their work has been translated into Spanish, Greek, Polish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Danish and German.
They teach regularly at Columbia University in NYC, and Sandberg Art Institute in Amsterdam, and their books, films, essays, rituals and other publications can be found online at http://CAConrad.blogspot.com.
I was fortunate enough to sit down and ask CA some questions. Read on for the result!
Laura Liu, Interviewer: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! To begin, who have you been reading lately who’s made an impact on you? Any new voices you’ve just come across?
CAConrad, Poet: Here are a few incredible poets everyone will love, the kind of poets who are a testament to the strength and power of poetry: LO TERCIARIO / THE TERTIARY (Timeless, Infinite Light Books, 2018), by Raquel Salas Rivera; KITH (Fence Books, 2017), by Divya Victor; YEAH NO (The Song Cave, 2018), by Jane Gregory; JAZZERCIZE IS A LANGUAGE (The Operating System, 2018), by Gabriel Ojeda-Sague; and R E D (Birds, LLC, 2018), by Chase Berggrun.
LL: I want to talk, for a second, about upbringing. Do you think your call to make art—to be an artist—was something that began at birth, or do you think it was a response to your understanding of the world around you? Do you find that the art you create in this day and age has a relationship with where you grew up?
CC: Everyone is creative, and I keep saying in my workshops that we need to be thinking of our creativity as a vital organ. Being in touch with the tools of our imagination makes our lives rich because devotion to our art means we are paying close attention to the details of the world around us in ways we would not do otherwise. There is nothing around us that does not have creative viability.
But to answer your question more directly, I come from a working class family of factory workers where being a poet was not encouraged. What happened to me was my mother put me to work selling bouquets of cut flowers along the highway from ages 8 to 16. I was 8 in 1974, so there were no electronic games or phones of any kind back then to distract me out there along the highway, and this is when I became a reader. Every Thursday, I would go to the library and check out a stack of books for my long weekend of selling flowers. In 1975, I borrowed a collection of Emily Dickinson's poems, and that changed everything for me, changed my life. I have never been the same since, I am happy to say. Not that I would ever want to relive even one day of being out there along the highway with my folding chair, buckets of flowers and stack of books, but I owe everything about the poet I have become to those years of reading.
LL: Lately, there’s been what feels like an endless stream of literary scandals in the small-press world in which poets (usually straight white male poets) have been criticized for appropriation and misrepresentation of marginalized experiences in their writing. Where do you stand on this issue—do you think these writers can productively approach these themes in their writing?
CC: When talking about the subject of appropriation and so-called political correctness and I am told, "it's just words," like I should chill out or loosen up, I realize that some people simply do not appreciate the true power of language. No one is perfect of course, and I am not talking about perfection, I am talking about considering how the worth of lives are shaped around the language used to define our bodies.
When I was a kid in Philadelphia in the 80s, an older married couple told me my poems about gay sex were never going to appeal to a larger audience. I did NOT ask their opinion by the way, but all they heard was sex, they could not hear that my friends were dying of AIDS and that celebrating sex at such a time was a very simple way of keeping the shame of queer bodies at bay. Here is the fucked up part of the story though: the man of that heterosexual couple had a poem about accidentally seeing two men sucking cock at a party and not being able to look away. The poem riled the audience with hoots and applause. I did not hesitate to thank him at the bar after his reading for proving how gay sex has an audience. It was not a nice thanks, it was angry, and he laughed to brush me off.
AIDS shaped my life as a young person in the 1980s and 90s, especially when I first heard Essex Hemphill give a reading in Philadelphia. Everyone should see the Marlon Riggs's 1989 film using Hemphill's poems titled Tongues Untied. Race in the LGBTQ community is something we need to be thinking about and talking about far more often. Not talking about race in the LGBTQ community is precisely why, according to the Los Angeles Blade, 70% of the recent spike in violence in our community is against queer people of color.
LL: Switching gears, do you have a remedy for writer’s block that you swear by? Can you let us in on the secret? (Alternatively, if you don’t usually encounter writer’s block, what do you think leads poets and writers to encounter it?)
CC: My (Soma)tic poetry praxis is an answer. I began making poems through these rituals after realizing in 2005 that my writing had turned into a factory. The people who raised me spend much of their waking hours working in factories being extensions of machines and I have seen firsthand how this affects the human mind, body, and spirit. My family are either depressed about the past or anxious about the future. Being present is difficult for factory workers because being an extension of a machine for much of their waking hours makes it impossible to want to be present. I think they get used to their jobs at the metal punch machine, dental floss or cardboard box work they are doing and they get in a zone and think about their lives, past and future. Being present is difficult working like this because why would you want to be present to the drudgery of the factory? What is even more difficult is shutting that switch inside them off after going home for the day, this inability to be present.
In 2005 when I realized that my writing had been turned into a factory, that in fact the factories I refused to work in had followed me home. The first (Soma)tic poetry rituals I created was to eat a single color of food for a day for seven days, and to wear the color. For instance the first day I ate only red food and wore a red wig which was half straight and half frizzy perm. I found it in a dumpster behind a beauty academy in Philadelphia where I was living at the time. At the end of the first day I could see how it worked, meaning that the ritual kept me in a state of extreme present, where I could not think about anything else except the ritual and where I was at a given time. Also that I would have never written that poem at any other time in my life, that the ritual created the possibility of the language coming out of me as it did for the poem.
While I did not begin doing these rituals because of writer's block, I have come to realize that the rituals are very beneficial to anyone who is experiencing a creative block because the rituals give us new eyes on the world around us. Sometimes a fresh lens is all we need to get back into the art we love to make. We must help one another with this because this world needs everyone being creative right now so that we can figure our way out of these horrific problems facing us.
LL: What has been your greatest challenge as a member of the literary community? What advice do you have to those emerging writers (especially young ones, who may still be in high school) who feel daunted by the prospect of engagement in the literary community/scene?
CC: If you feel unwelcome in a literary community, make your own. Start a zine or reading series with the poets you love. Publishing is the last thing we should think about, with writing and community being at the front of our thoughts. We need our friends, and we realize more than ever how much we need them when we start to get published and win awards. Once success comes into the picture, so do the Haters with their sharpened knives. You have to love poetry enough to be capable of ignoring the hateful, wicked things people will say about us.
In my new book, the 2nd ritual deals with the issue of Haters, and I call it, "You Don't Have What It Takes To Be My Nemesis." It is a kind of exorcism to get these people and their negative thoughts out of our minds and bodies. It is important to be prepared for when you finally get the things you want after years of devotion.
Laura Liu is a senior at Conestoga High School, and has been writing her entire life. As an editor for her school's literary magazine, The Folio, she is always looking for ways to help herself and her peers develop mastery and voice in writing.
Laura is a 2019 Merit Award Winner for Writing (Poetry) from the National YoungArts Foundation, and has won top prizes in competitions such as the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (NFSPS) Student Contest, and the Central League Writing Contest. She was also published in NFSPS' annual poetry anthology, Encore, in 2017.
Header Image: CAConrad. Credit: Andrej Vasilenko.