With painted fingernails and a large crystal hanging around his neck, he made a strong impression. A native of rural Pennsylvania, CA currently lives in Philadelphia. His new chapbook translucent salamander is available free online from Troll Thread Press. I first encountered CA Conrad and his poetry at a reading at Wesleyan University in 2012. Over the past few months, we corresponded over email while he travelled around America.
The Independent: On the back of The Book of Frank, you describe yourself as “the son of white trash asphyxiation whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift.” Why did you include these details?
CAConrad: These are windows into the book. The book also starts off with a quote from my grandmother saying, “Well of course they’re staring, we’re very interesting.” All of this is to dispel shame. I just did a reading for Megan Kaminski at University of Kansas where a woman in the audience asked, “How are you comfortable talking about the things you do?” I very much appreciated that she asked “how” instead of “why.” I told her that I was a target of ridicule where I grew up, first because of my mother who was a known miscreant. Then later I was Outed as a faggot, only adding to my misery and to the endless entertainment of these very bored, very stupid, illiterate people. All this is to say when you become completely adjusted to being unacceptable in society few things will embarrass you. The gift of not caring what anyone thinks is possibly one of the only true gifts to own.
Indy: What do the initials CA stand for? And why do write your name without punctuation or spaces?
CAC: My mother knew that I was going to be born a Capricorn, the last Earth sign of the zodiac, the sign of the mountain/sea goat. Craig is Scottish for “brave climber” and she wanted to help me up the mountain. To be more precise it is to help my patience with climbing up the mountain. If I had been a girl my name would have been Tara, the Earth Goddess. Which is funny because most of my life I’ve felt Tara Incognita, haha!! But I feel bad for anyone born in the last couple of decades with the invention of ultrasound machines revealing the unborn child’s sex. No one has two names now, and parents don’t even need to THINK about names until the ultrasound procedure. I’m glad I got to have a female name waiting for me on the other end with my male name. Even though I rejected both names for the genderless CA, I feel very fortunate about having that.
I shut the cavity up with CAConrad, made it neither male nor female, which is who I am. I mean I’m not a fool, I know that I hold certain privileges being addressed at times as a biological man. Yet many people don’t know if I’m male or female so they don’t really know what to do with me. I’m gender-queer is the best way to talk about who I am I guess.
CAConrad is without the stopping points of periods. I don’t like nor want the punctuation inside of me. I want to be WITHOUT the stoppages. I admire the fluvial qualities of things, and I despise punctuation. So C is for Craig, and A is for Allen. My original last name was McNeil, my biological father was Dennis McNeil, a tortured, violent man last known to be fed thorazine and kept in a quiet apartment outside Chicago. Before the internet the local libraries would always have a collection of phone books from all over the United States. Every year I would check the newest book for him, just to see if he was still alive. It’s harder now to know about this man I have no real, living connection to.
Indy: I’ve heard you give tarot card readings. Do you think there is a connection between divination and poetry?
CAC: Poetry is a form of divination. Poetry is a way of seeing the world anew, which is what divination is supposed to be used for. To see the present in a flash, PRESENT TIME!!
The (Soma)tic poetry I create is an extreme present. I like an extreme present. I like making a structure I can climb inside to write poems where there is NOTHING ELSE on my mind but exactly what it is I’m doing AT THAT VERY MOMENT to make a poem. Recently I created a (Soma)tic where you are to return to where you grew up and immerse yourself in the surroundings, really GET BACK THERE. But you’re forbidden to write a single line of memoir. It’s about resistance, but resistance of the past. It’s about NOW, it’s about exactly NOW.
Indy: If you were marooned on an island without human contact and the only way to write was to draw words in the sand that were washed away each night, would you still write poetry?
CAC: What about blood and shit and tears as ink? What about carving the poems into the body with a seashell? But all of the desert islands will disappear soon with the rising oceans, because these islands are tips of deep ocean mountain ranges. I think about the people who might very well be marooned right now. High tide just gets higher and higher these days!!
The desire we all have to give someone a BOOK so that they HAVE the poems we have been working on is a beautiful thing. That desire is beautiful. HERE I AM. Please take this, THIS IS ME. And I hope you are finding yourself in there and making them your home for a bit.
Indy: The next question pertains to your (Soma)tic poetics, which you explain in this course description for Naropa University:
INTEGRAL CRYSTAL APPLICATION FOR DISPELLING INFORMATION FATIGUE: A New (Soma)tic Poetry Primer for the Ritual of the Everywhere Poem
This mechanistic world, as it becomes more and more efficient, resulting in ever increasing brutality, has required us to find our bodies to find our planet in order to find our poetry. (Soma)tic poetry rituals aim our attention at two basic principles: (1) Everything around us has a creative viability with the potential to spur new modes of thought and imaginative output. (2) The most vital ingredient to bringing sustainable, humane changes to our world is creativity.
What do you mean by “find[ing] our bodies,” and why must we do this before we “find” our poetry? And how does this bring “sustainable, humane changes to our world”?
CAC: In 2005 I went to a Conrad family reunion and I hated it. All my family talks about is working at their factory jobs. Who works more overtime hours is the one who receives the most respect. It’s brutal, and it’s also one of the many reasons I left rural Pennsylvania. But I remember taking my train back to Philadelphia thinking about the dental floss factory, the cardboard box factory, the ketchup packet factory, and at some point IT HIT ME!! I was treating my poems the very same way, like an assembly line. My poetry had fallen into the assembly line model I grew up with and I was JUST figuring this out.
It made me insane for a couple of weeks. I remember thinking, “I’m going to quit writing poems, I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but I just can’t stand the idea of a factory job no matter how that factory job occurs.” Then the idea of (Soma)-tics came to me. It changed everything immediately, these bizarre structures that are really only bizarre because we all agree what is the acceptable way to live. What is the acceptable way to write poems. The acceptable was unacceptable to me and I wanted a very different experience with the creation of poems.
You ask what I mean when I say we must find our bodies in order to find our poetry, and the answer is in the opening words (This mechanistic world…).
The mechanistic world is the factory, and more, and worse. The factory, the military, the stock market, everything around us becoming more and more organized, efficient, and appropriate and acceptable and such a tremendous waste of potential. In the end, the brutality of the factory and the military comes from the extreme efficiency of an ever more efficient world. Step out of the collective breath. Step out, just step out. (Soma)tics are about divorcing from the drive to colonize the human mind with these beliefs of what we MUST DO in order to be rich, to be free, to be loved. It’s an exhausting time to be alive in many ways and (Soma)tics flow with something closer to a planetary time. This is from being PRESENT inside the structure of writing. You also ask how this can bring sustainable, humane changes to our world. “The most vital ingredient to bringing sustainable, humane changes to our world is creativity.” Creativity is essential, I firmly believe this as a fact. The half dozen times I visited Occupy Wall Street 75 to 80 percent of everyone I met down there was an art student, writing student, creative student of some kind. People who went to art and writing school and THIS amazing leaderless community formed as a result. It was beautiful, it was so beautiful down there that I remain haunted by the times I visited.