CA Conrad: On the Film ‘The Book of Conrad’ and His Life in Poetry
Author: Christopher Soto
September 10, 2015
“Poetry saved my life and I do not care how grand that sounds, it is true.”
The poet CA Conrad is the (self-described) son of white trash asphyxiation. A poet with an unapologetic voice and jolting imagination, he is the author of seven books; the latest is titled ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (Wave Books, 2014).
In this interview CA Conrad discusses The Book of Conrad, which is a forthcoming film about his life and poetry.
When the filmmakers approached you, what did they propose?
The filmmakers said they had seen me perform in New York and bought my books and wanted to make a documentary about my life as a poet. Initially, it did not seem real to me as though I had dreamed the whole thing up.
Did you know that the film was going to delve so deeply into your boyfriend, Earth’s, murder?
No, in fact Earth’s murder was not part of the film at all at first but I am nothing but grateful that it now is. We spoke about his murder, but since the police in Tennessee continue to insist that his death was a suicide it was impossible for me to ever imagine the filmmakers seeing his death as anything else. When the police define a crime scene it is extremely difficult to argue for a better investigation.
Earth was bound, gagged, tortured, covered in gasoline and burned alive. One of the paramedics said on film that his pants were around his ankles. This was left out of the initial report because it clearly indicates sexual assault. The police were very busy ruling his death a suicide and if you are trying to cover up a homicide it would probably be important to leave out the rape. For some reason, maybe to protect my already overwhelmed mind, I never imagined that his killers had raped him. But now we know that they did, only adding to the horror playing out in our minds of what he had endured. The new sheriff is a kind man, but his predecessor called me Faggot like it was my name, telling me to shut my mouth and stay in Philadelphia, “Do you hear me Faggot?” Yes and I still hear your big stupid, bigoted mouth! Either the police knew who killed him and they were protecting the killers, or did not want to deal with a Hate Crime in their jurisdiction, or just hated faggots and thought that he deserved to die, and I am not sure which of these fits but I need to keep reminding myself that this is a battle among the living.
Earth was murdered in 1998 just before the Spring Equinox. On the phone a few days before his death he was happy and wanted phone sex, which I managed to do at work in the basement among cardboard boxes and packing peanuts. After his death I dreamed about that last phone call over and over and each time I hung up the dream phone smiling, thinking I am going to see him in person soon. I loved this man and could taste him and smell him in dreams, and these dreams were always the hardest to wake from. At least with the nightmares I could wake in a panic of sweat to calm myself down, but waking from one of these happy phone sex dreams only made me want to go back to sleep, and I usually did.
You said that the film helped you heal in many ways, can you share this with us?
It changed my life the day the filmmakers sat me down in their Brooklyn home and told me that they had been investigating Earth’s murder and that they believed me and not the police. On the train ride home I surrendered to a sudden, uncontrollable flood of tears. It was beautiful, and it was a reset button for me. We are good at keeping it together to survive and cope, but if you are lucky enough to have a tragedy in your life rectified, pointed toward a little justice, take it, just take it and be grateful! Take it on behalf of the millions who go to their graves with no retribution for their suffering whatsoever! Poetry has the power here! It is a film about poetry that is going to make the police do the right thing in this case! Poetry is going to give my love some peace.
Felix Bernstein interviewed me for The New Museum and he asked me what philosophy has to do with my work. I told him I believe poetry is strong enough. The power of poetry has not failed me like it has failed some poets in recent decades who hoist philosophy to buttress the poem. It is misogynistic to say poetry is too feminine, too weak, needs a man’s ideas to move forward. Love philosophy–go ahead, I am not the least bit anti-intellectual I simply do not need philosophy to make poetry appear more masculine. Sigmund Freud said, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” Not philosopher, but poet. And you can have whatever feelings you want about Freud but no one can disagree that he changed how we view the landscape of human emotion and the origins of feeling. “Everywhere I go” is bold. It is direct and from a man who was as careful with his words as a poet.
It is because of poetry that the documentary is being made. And it is because of poetry that I am healing. And I mean that literally. I write poems through (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals. The rituals create an “extreme present” to write inside. While doing a ritual the actions burden the physical to manifest language in the form of notes that get coaxed, sucked and jolted onto the paper to later be sculpted into poems. I created three separate rituals to heal my sorrow of Earth’s murder. It took me three tries, but I knew (Soma)tic poetry rituals could heal me. I loved Earth but wanted to live again. Recently I was teaching (Soma)tic poetry rituals at a university and several of the students asked me if poets need to be miserable to write. I said if misery was a motivating factor there is no way I would be caught writing poems for 36 years. We can have poetry exactly the way we want it, and it can do far more then we allow ourselves to believe it has the power to do. Poetry saved my life and I do not care how grand that sounds, it is true.
The first of the three rituals was a time machine titled “DOUBLE-Shelter” that I enacted while staying at my friend Joshua Beckman’s apartment in Seattle. The ritual was very intricate, but the main maneuver involved stretching my body on the floor to listen to Philip Glass’s song “Music In Contrary Motion.” Glass was the perfect vehicle for time travel, to meditate back to the trauma. My dream that night after the ritual was of Earth in a beautiful garden, but he could not see me. The flowers started to talk, not with mouths, but their centers mashed up and down as they told me he could not see me because he was busy repairing. Life on the planet had been very hard on him they explained, especially at the end. The resulting poem was quotes I gave to the flowers, “crying in private helps no one.” And, “touch a gill of light down there.” And, “never use ‘permanent’ in a sentence containing a noun.” And, “if dancing is prohibited LEAVE at once.” This ritual was a small window of relief, but I was convinced the depression could be driven further from me. Poetry as exorcism, I knew it was possible.
The second ritual was titled, “I Loved Earth Years Ago.” In this one I visited the locations of some of our rogue gardens we had planted together in Philadelphia’s vacant lots and along riverbanks. We used to throw flower, squash, watermelon, string bean and marijuana seeds among weeds and make love, ejaculating on the wild gardens. I found an enormous morning glory vine on a fence that I am convinced was from our wild gardening. It was so nice seeing those flowers with their deep violet hue. In another part of this ritual I meditated on the origins of every ingredient I put into my mouth for a week. For instance when chewing delicious raspberries I would stare at a photo of a raspberry shrub. Sometimes fields had webcams and I could watch a sudden gust of wind rub its hand along the tops of wheat and corn. I would chew while looking at the magic of our world, all the sunlight, rain, wind, all the insect, bird and coyote songs that enter the plants as they grow, later to be chewed by us, chewing all of this alchemy we call food.
I felt much better after this ritual but the third one was the one that changed my life. It is titled “Mount Monadnock Transmissions.” The last time I saw Earth alive he gave me a small clear quartz crystal that he had been carrying around for a year. After his death I put it away, it hurt too much to see it. Once in awhile I would find it by accident and the rest of my day would be consumed with thoughts of Earth. The MacDowell Artist Colony accepted my application for a residency and I brought the crystal with me. In my little studio in the woods I put the crystal under my hair wrap, pressed against my third eye. I was also eating a smaller, round clear quartz crystal each day that I would later fish out of the toilet, sterilize and eat again.
For a decade and a half I had an angry movie in my head. The sheriff who called me faggot and threatened to arrest me was always in the movie. This movie tortured me, playing on a loop, especially my invented courtroom drama where Earth’s murderers were finally captured and I could see the backs of their heads and I sat in the room trying hard to not scream while the judge passed sentence on them. After meditating with Earth’s crystal for over a week the movie disappeared. It went away and has never returned. Poetry led me to this and I am grateful, and relieved. The serial poem from the ritual is titled “Sharking Of The Birdcage.” It feels lucky to have finally gotten to a place of solace. Under the power of Earth’s crystal came the lines, “nothing now but a / medieval barking gargoyle / whoever gave you the tambourine shall / be sheriff of my tender zoo / I am not here / I am in the future / where I have always been / please hurry back and forth to / kiss me my ghost”.
I’m thinking about the place of autobiography within your work & an interview you did with Eileen about The Book of Frank (among other things). What are your thoughts about autobiography in the current works you’re producing?
We are in our work no matter what we write and any sudden, jagged turns in the road can deeply transform our poems or frighten the poet into abandoning the creative life for something more stable. Not everyone can muster the courage of Robert Desnos writing his poems as a prisoner in Auschwitz. In the 1990s it was impossible to see just how much AIDS was going to change the world we live in. For one thing many of the most radical, political artists died, leaving me behind feeling suddenly outnumbered by the gay republicans. When my boyfriend Tommy was sick and many of our fearless, colorful friends were already dead I said to him, “You can’t leave me here with these people! They’re going to convince everyone to get married and join the country club!” Well sure enough, here we are, just as I had predicted, and it is awful! Boring is one thing because people do not seem to be able to help it if they are boring, but the war mongering must never be accepted! Did you see the HRC, the so-called Human Rights Campaign 2015 list of best places for LGBT people to work? Weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Boeing. And Monsanto, I mean really, Monsanto is on the list! Our military exclusively kills people of color in Arab nations at the moment. Monsanto is responsible for hundreds of thousands of Indian farmer suicides according to one of my activist heroes Dr. Vandana Shiva. Wells Fargo is also on the gold star HRC top career list for LGBT people, a bank accused of charging more than three times the interest rate for African Americans than what they charged white people. Marsha P. Johnson fought the police at Stonewall for this. Marsha P. Johnson who I met in 1990 in Tompkins Square Park during Gay Pride holding a sign that read STONEWALL WAS A RIOT NOT A TRADEMARK! I was in awe of her. I said, “I think you are the coolest person I have ever met.” She said, “That’s probably true!”
I think of December 22, 2010 when president Obama signed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the end of radical Queers and the rise of Gay White Supremacy. I surrender to the fact that I am on the losing side. The battle for TRUE civil rights is moot now that faggots in America can put rainbow stickers on machine guns and kill Arab people with impunity like everyone else. It is horrifying, but these decisions have been made without our input or consent and we must accept them and regroup and be more creative and learn how to transform this murderous, selfish, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, greedy, tyrannical empire called America. We have much to do! For starters we can work harder at accepting the feminine within. Misogyny is worse than ever in the LGBT community to my disappointment. One editor of a gay newspaper wrote an article stating that gay men need to stop referring to one another as She and Her in the bars because it is demeaning to men. DEMEANING TO MEN!? I wrote, “THIS is reason number 108 why your newspaper is detrimental to the future health of our community. To be called a woman should be an honor, not an insult. What do you think women reading your stupid, bigoted article will think? How dare you try to drag us into the dominant heterosexual paradigm stink hole with you!” He did not write back, but he never does.
Aside from the film, you are also working on another project (From Whitman to Walmart). Would you like to tell the readers about that?
It was hard being a young queer kid who had loved Walt Whitman, had felt saved by his homoerotic poetry in “Calamus” only to read his prose and discover a ruthless, genocidal racist. One of the most common critiques I have received since my essay on Whitman came out for The Poetry Foundation is that I simply do not understand the nineteenth century American mindset, that most people at the time were racist. I responded by saying, OKAY, let us go with your logic and jump ahead a mere fifty years to early twentieth century Germany where Adolf Hitler was voted into office by anti-Semitic citizens. There were still freed slaves alive in America when Hitler invaded Poland to build his death camps. So if the criteria for excusing genocide are based on majority rule and an arbitrary statute of limitations who is going to excuse the Holocaust? And it is so outrageous to be acting like we are a kinder, gentler America in 2015 when we are killing people of color in Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the extraordinary number of African American men beaten and killed on our own streets by cops.
When Michelle Tea asked me to perform with you, Maggie Nelson and Jackie Wang a few months ago in San Francisco you opened your portion of the reading by talking about grandparents. How grandparents can be badass revolutionaries and then you said if Audre Lorde were still alive she would be 81. She who said, “The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.” That was without a doubt one of the most beautiful beginnings to a poetry reading I have ever had the pleasure to witness, thank you, and I trust Audre Lorde’s poems over Walt Whitman’s any day!
I am driving across America to do PACE, which stands for Poet Activist Community Extension, something I cofounded years ago with friends in Philadelphia. It is an amazing project where I interview poetry communities about the conditions of their lives then we go out onto the streets to read our poems. While on the road I am doing a nationwide (Soma)tic poetry ritual. Originally it was two rituals, “From Whitman To Walmart” and “Resurrect Extinct Vibration,” but they have merged into one ritual now. I sleep in Walmart parking lots wherever I go, Walmart being the epitome of Whitman’s love of Manifest Destiny. When I wake I go into the giant store and walk in a spiral formation while listening to recordings of extinct animals.
There is more to the ritual than this, but it has become depressing and I mix things up by doing other rituals at the same time. I just completed a poem where I was petting and licking bees. I had to have sex near the hive and I did and it was marvelous and I have no idea what took me so long to have sex with bees. This piece is dedicated to Fred Moten. There is another new (Soma)tic ritual I am getting ready to do, actually a series of them called “The Power Sissy Interventions.” When I am asked if I have a pronoun choice I always say, “YES, I am a Power Sissy, and don’t you forget it!” But I am going to blow bubbles in public and say that the bubbles are queer-inducing, that the bubbles will make you queer. And I will constantly be asking for parents with infants and small children to step forward for my bubbles to make their children queer. Another of the Power Sissy Interventions will involve me handing out tickets to straight people for displaying overt heterosexual behavior. Another of the intervention ritual poems will involve me wearing a pink tutu on the street saying, “I am the Sacred Ballerina, I am dancing within, morning, noon and night,” and I must say only this line to anyone who asks me a question.
When will the film be released & where can we watch it, & any closing thoughts?
The film has just been completed, so the trailer is what is available at the moment, but stay tuned is all I can say. I am grateful, nervous and excited, not just about the film but also the selected poems of John Wieners being published. I had the great honor of co-editing this brilliant book of queer poems with Joshua Beckman and Robbie Dewhurst. I loved working with these friends of mine, working hard to show the world the true genius of a fairy godmother poet out of Black Mountain and Boston and America and The World. The book is titled Supplication: New and Selected Poems. I cannot wait for you to read it, and everyone reading this interview to read it.
Author photo courtesy of CA Conrad