Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The abridged version appears on THAT MUSIC MAGAZINE. MANY THANKS TO STEVE BURNS!!

CA Conrad: An Interview (8/20/12)

- Part 1 -

Steve: “What makes a poet? Is there a series of ingredients? Is it life experience, or something beyond that?”

Conrad: “Wow, gee, I don’t know what to say about that except that I do know that I’ve been writing poems for most of my life, but in 2005 I decided that I didn’t want poetry in my life anymore I just wanted it to BE my life and that’s where the (soma)tics come in. So I think that poetry actually can be so much bigger than [pauses] we ever thought it was...that’s what I’m finding out.”

Steve: “So, through the (soma)tic exercises you create these unique experiences that become something through which poetry comes out of...how do you, kind of, put the somatic exercises together?”

Conrad: “They just come to me, things to do. Everything around you has the creative viability to create something new—no matter what it is. We could not leave this room we’re in for years and write so many poems because of the room. The first ones I did were a series of seven poems where I ate a single color of food for a day: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white. I would wear things like a red wig. I listened to Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ on a continuous loop for 12 hours...that was kind of insane, kind of oppressive. So many things. Everything is possible. I feel like everything in my life is just a way to poems no matter what it is.”

- Part 2 -

Steve: “I was reading through the beginning of the manifesto [of A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon] and this really seemed like your thesis, but correct me if I’m wrong: ‘[R]esist the urge to subdue our spirits and lose ourselves in the hypnotic beep of machines, of war, in the banal need for power, and things. With our poems and creative core, we must RETURN THIS WORLD to its seismic levels of wildness.’ There’s another line somewhere [pauses] it says ‘every poet is a human being’ I believe...”

Conrad: “Mhm.”

Steve: “Do you think that every human being has poetic potential?”

Conrad: “Oh yeah. Definitely. We're living in a time where we need to realize that everybody is creative. I think everybody wants to be creative, but the world is so harsh. These structures are made to be efficient, to make things move, and with that comes brutality. Efficiency breeds brutality so we lose our creativity in that—in the world, every day. You have to really want to keep it to keep it.”

Steve: “Is that what the (soma)tic exercises do for you? Kind of maintain that level of creativity?”

Conrad: “Yes. They help me be aware of everything. I mean I'm just missing poems all day long when I walk somewhere. Yeah.”

Steve: “How do you know that a (soma)tic exercise has been successful or has been a failure? Have you had more successes than failures, or failures than successes?”

Conrad: “Oh, I guess that's easy to answer because the goal is always the poems. Mmm [thinking] the exercises, people seem to be really excited and interested in the exercises, but for me the end result is always the poems and a lot of times I don't like them. So then I just either eventually redo the exercise to try and get more different poems out of it...”

Steve: “You mean you redo the exercise or do you change the exercise totally?”

Conrad: “I always change it a little bit but there have been plenty of them where I just hated the poems.”

Steve: “You're going to colleges and you host workshops and classes and things. Are you bringing A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon with you and kind of saying, 'Let's do this exercise?' I guess not all of them are as portable as some, right?”

Conrad: “No, actually I don't. I do very special things with the workshops. I tend to act like we're one body. Those are very different and sometimes we'll use some of the structures that I use on my own. I mean but they're there but I want us to...it's like a collaborative thing.”

Steve: “So, all the (soma)tic exercises in the book are meant to be for individuals rather than...[laughs slightly]”

Conrad: “Maybe, not necessarily and not only just for poetry. There's a dancer who, wherever [the exercise] says 'take notes and write,' she just changes it with the word ‘dance’; there's a painter who's name is Jonas and he paints with them; there's a filmmaker named Courtney Shumway who makes films with them. I never expected it but the (soma)tic exercises have been breaching every single parameter of the arts. Everyone realizes that they can do it and it's exciting.”

- Part 3 -

Steve: “How does sex find its way into your poetry and is sex poetry?”

Conrad: “Well everything is, so yes. And does it find its way in? If it’s your life then it’s gonna be in there. I don’t know what else to say. It’s funny a similar question came up recently where somebody was asking me, I think it was after a workshop I did at Naropa [University], ‘Do you write political poems?’ and I said, “Well, I don’t really feel like I write political poems. I know a lot of people consider them political poems...I’m just writing about the world and if that’s what it sounds like that’s great—I’m not afraid of the terms.”

Steve: “I don’t think you’re afraid of anything.”

Conrad: “Oh, well that’s nice of you.”

Steve: [Laughs] “I don’t think you are.”

Conrad: [Chuckles]

Steve: “I think you see things in ways people are afraid to see them. Maybe for exactly what they are.”

Conrad: “Oh, thanks. That’s a good thing.”

Steve: “What do you want your poetry to accomplish? For yourself, or within the larger scope of poetry.”

Conrad: “The thing is with the (soma)tics, in particular these rituals, these exercises, they’ve been changing everything in my life for years now (since 2005). They’re changing my life in ways I never expected. I’m about to do the biggest one yet, which is in a week I’m going to Wyoming for a whole month and I’m going to be at the UCross residency...”

Steve: “It’s a farm, right?”

Conrad: “Yes, it’s 25,000 acres of cattle ranch and I’ll be right in the middle of it. I’m going to be doing work there every day for a month. This structure that is designed to build mythologies out of new constellations...I’m building from the stars, charting all night...I’m very excited about what’s happening. To answer your question, I think the thing is the poems are a lens for me and everybody has to have their own way of seeing the world. I have been creating so many ideas for (soma)tics that I have a notebook that is just ideas for ones I want to do eventually. For instance, if I ever get cancer, how to write poems on chemotherapy. In the new book—being mugged at knife point [and] what I did after that.”

Steve: “Are you surprised to see where poetry has taken you or did you kind of know this was the way it was going to be?”

Conrad: “No, nothing has been predicted. In the summer of last year I was really broke and on the verge of being evicted and...WOW...I won the PEW [Pew Fellowships in the Arts]...it was really amazing. It’s all very exciting and that’s part of it. Another part of it... it’s been a complete surprise what is possible with this. I keep seeing other ways to do things.”

Steve: “I wanted to ask you about poetry on a larger scale. You've said that now is the time for poetry and I think there was something you said that anyone who wants to go back in time for poetry is a fool...”

Conrad: “Yeah.”

Steve: “...because so much is happening now. Where do you see that the most and are there any poets specifically? Do you think poetry will be in the hands of everybody and kind of 'change the bestseller list' so to speak? Where poetry will be in the popular eye again, or is it already and we're kind of overlooking it?”

Conrad: “That's a good question. I don't know how to predict any of that but my friends are very important to me—incredible writers. I cannot imagine anyone wanting to trade that. I can't imagine anyone wanting to go back in time. Maybe in a few years we're going to wish we could come back to this time.”

Steve: “Right.”

Conrad: “But that's another story. But no. Now's the time. Definitely.”

Steve: “What is it about Philadelphia that keeps you going? Maybe, how does Philadelphia work its way into your poetry?”

Conrad: “Well, this is where it all started for me really. Not entirely, but the biggest start for me was here. I moved here in a time, in 1986, when it was possible to live right down town very affordably. The libraries were amazing. The bookstores, which there were so many at the time were very important and valuable, but I'll tell you not only that the community of artists that were here...but they've dispersed and they're different now. It's all about money now. Money changes everything and never for the better, in my opinion. It's hard. It's harder and harder for people, I think. I see a lot of poets the age that I was when I first moved here...having to work three jobs just to keep...”

Steve: “...their heads above water...”

Conrad: “...yeah, just to be solvent, ya know? Not even to thrive. But when I moved here you could thrive. You really could. You only needed a part-time job and the rest of the time was yours. Autonomy is everything. That really should be the goal. Settling for high rent and expensive car payments and all kinds of thing just ruins somebody's potential to be creative. It's hard.”

Steve: “It is.”

Conrad: “It's very hard [pauses]. Oh, but Philadelphia [laughs]. Philadelphia's amazing. It's funny because it's really a thousand ways my home before my apartment is my home. I do all my writing outside. I'm almost never home. It's like a giant living room.”

[Woman in the hall approaches us and asks Conrad about his stone ornament, which dangles on a chain around his neck]

Woman: “Is that selenite?”

Conrad: “Oh no, it's lemurian.”

Woman: “Okay, my neighbor she does reiki; she always has selenite on her. She works with my dog and she does reiki on my dogs and my cats.”

Conrad: “Oh, nice.”

Woman: “She gives the kitty and dog reiki massages...they're experiencing that right now while I'm walking here.”

Steve/Conrad: [Laughs]

Woman: “But yes, they're spoiled.”

[The woman smiles and continues down the hall]

Steve, to Conrad: “What kind of stone is it?”

Conrad: “It's a lumarian crystal.”

Steve: “Oh, okay.”

Conrad: “Selenite, the one that she was mentioning, is good for getting rid of negative energy. I have some of those at home.”

Steve: “And what is this? What is the specific purpose of that?”

Conrad: “The clear ones can be programmed. It does whatever you want.”

Steve: “Hm.”

Conrad: “When I was in Naropa I gave everyone a piece of Brazlian Singing Quartz and we used it to talk to trees and plants. In fact, I just did it in Philadelphia recently with someone else in a workshop. Everybody was talking to the trees, but you can do it. It's kind of amazing.”

Steve: “Do you think seeing Nature here, seeing a tree there [motioning out the window and down onto the street] will maybe provide a different kind of inspiration than seeing a tree in Wyoming?”

Conrad: “You know, the thing that's going to be different about Wyoming is that my main interest for this (soma)tic is charting the stars. It's not possible here. Wyoming is the least inhabited state in the United States. There are 20,000 more people in Alaska. There's no light pollution. There's no pollution because there's no people. It's just this enormous sky with this vast view of the stars. That's my concern.”

Steve: “How did you get accepted for that? That kind of program? Did you get a letter in the mail and all of the sudden you're like, ‘Oh my gosh I'm going!’”

Conrad: “Yeah. [laughs] You apply and then they accept you or they don't.”

Steve: “Do you submit work?”

Conrad: “You submit work but you also submit an application describing what you intend to do. I think that's the main thing they are looking at. I was recently accepted into BANFF for the Spring of next year, which is in the Canadian Rockies. That's very exciting. The application for that involved the Franklin Institute.”

Steve: “Really?”

Conrad: “Mhm, because every spring for the past few years at the Franklin Institute, on the ledge, a pair of hawks have been nesting and they have a webcam on the hawks and I'm going to use that webcam every morning in BANFF to see the hawks and see what they're doing and then transfer that out into the outdoors. That's another one and it's a month long and it's a big structure that I'm working in. The one that I have that's the longest is probably—without a doubt—my hair. I have it up now...I've been writing a poem every morning since 2006 where I look at the hair and calculate how many war-dead their are in Iraq and Afghanistan for every inch of hair. That poem is about 950 pages now and it's kind of horrible. I'm sick of it. I just hate it. Then there's things like The Book of Frank...the book is about 150 pages but there are over a 1000 of those poems. That was a big long project. I'm not interested in starting big, long projects they just sort of happen.”

- Part 4 -

Steve: “Where do you think is the best place to find poetry in the city? I know you said a lot of the artists have kind of dispersed, but I'm sure there are little factions that you're aware of so maybe talk about those a little bit?”

Conrad: “Oh, in Philadelphia? Oh, wow there's lots of places to find poetry...there's so much poetry going on in Philadelphia you can hardly keep up with it. There's so many different types of poetry. You can certainly see slam poetry whenever you want; that's alive and well. I'm not really into that anymore though...I haven't been for a long time. There's readings. There's the Penn Book Center. Have you ever been to the Penn Book Center?”

Steve: “No, I haven't.”

Conrad: “It's the best poetry section in the entire city without a doubt. It's one of the best poetry sections on the East Coast I think—and I don't mean that big stupid Barnes & Noble that's on Penn's campus. The actual Penn Book Center which is right where the White Dog Cafe on the corner of Sansom and 34th. Anyway, it's incredible and they're devoted to poetry. Every single say they have a new poem in the window (on the Sansom street side); a poem of the day. They print it out and post it there and it's very exciting. Let's see, we have so many presses. We have Fact-Simile Press, that Travis Macdonald and Marie started. They do incredible things. Besides publishing books and magazines they also publish baseball cards of poets. Have you seen these?”

Steve: “No, that's awesome!”

Conrad: “If I can get a signal up here I'll show you over my laptop. I think we should be able to...[refocuses] So much...there's PennSound.”

Steve: “Are you familiar with Apiary?”

Conrad: “Apiary is incredible. Apiary is such an asset to Philadelphia's poetry community. Everybody involved with that is just...my hat's off to them they're so incredible. And I want to start the Poetry Hotel...”

Steve: “I was going to ask you about that next, yeah. Well, how did you come up with the idea and where's it going? Have you taken the first couple steps to get it going?”

Conrad: “Philadelphia Poetry Hotel. This comes out of the idea that when I first moved here, and I lived not that far from here actually, my rent was $210 a month.”

Steve: “Wow.”

Conrad: “What happened was Mol--Do you know Molly Russakoff?”

[I shake my head]

Conrad: “Okay, well she's in the Italian Market. She's got a bookshop call Molly's [Books and Records].”

Steve: “Oh yeah, Molly's! I've been there. That's where I first found Apiary.”

Conrad: “Ah, okay. Molly Russakoff was the first real poet I ever met. She came out to where I grew up to do a reading and it just blew my mind. It was just like, "Wow, I had no idea you could do that." I went up to her and was asking her, "Who should I be reading?" She said Joseph Ceravolo (who for a long time I was pronouncing Seravelo). He's amazing--part of that New York School. Alice Notley. Ted Berrigan. All these people...The libraries order the books for me and that sort of changed everything but then I moved here and I went to Molly and I said, "Molly, what do I do? Where do you move here? I don't know what to do." She said, "Oh, go to Al Zuli's office and tell him you're a poet and you want the special rent." He loved artists. He owned so many apartments downtown here and my rent was $210 a month for 8 years. It never went up. He was basically a patron of the arts. Molly was the first person I ever heard refer to our community and our neighborhood as the Zuli Nation after Al Zuli. When Al died though his children were extremely...selfish and greedy like most people it seems in real estate. The rents just went through the roof. That first apartment when I first moved here in 86' is now almost $1,500 a month. And that's just greed. Greed will get in the way, more than anything, of poets being able to create their work. So that's where the hotel comes in.”

[Conrad takes a brief breathe]

Conrad: “For years now I've had this website called the Philadelphia Poetry Hotel [http://poetryhotel.blogspot.com/]. Every end of summer I just update the date for the next year, but the words are the same because there's really nothing more to say about it except that there's a dire need for creating this space. So my idea is to acquire some buildings in Philadelphia...I want it to be downtown and I want them to be nice. I don't want to have some little shit-holes. There's no reason why working class people can't have an opportunity to live somewhere nice and where they can create art and they only have to pay $200 a [for] a month's rent. Not having to pay more than $200 [for] a month's rent will change your life completely. That's the goal of the hotel. Where's it going? I don't know. It's funny I've been updating the site every year and it there's always a little bit of talk around it, but this year it's been huge—people wanting to donate money. I keep saying no to everybody.”

Steve: “Why?”

Conrad: “Well, why because what I want to do is gonna cost 4 or 5 million dollars.”

Steve: “Did you ever think of starting a Kickstarter?”

Conrad: “A Kickstarter for 4 or 5 million dollars doesn't seem possible [laughs].”

Steve: “I don't know, there's a lot of amazing things that have happened because of Kickstarter.”

Conrad: “The thing is I want a windfall as such that I don't have strings attached. That's very important to me. My goal for this is to have a panel of people who's work I really trust...trust them to look at manuscripts. I want it to be a community and I don't want any poet showing up. I want it to be poets who are sort of on the same wavelength and they're a community...”

Steve: “You want a variety of writers...”

Conrad: “I want...yes.”

Steve: “Do you want them to have some kind of prestige?”

Conrad: “No, I don't care about that. That's irrelevant to me. What's important to me is a desire to write, a desire to grow as a poet, and to want to live in an environment like Philadelphia, which is so rich and amazing for Art of all kinds...but for me it's always been for poetry. But anyway, that's what my Poetry Hotel is.”

- Part 5 -

Steve: “How do you survive as a poet financially and artistically on a day to day basis? Is writing your sole source of income? Are you doing anything else?”

Conrad: “Well, I've got the PEW Fellowship so that's what I'm doing...Writing and going to residencies. I want to do it as long as I can. It's great."