How CAConrad turns ritual into poetry.
Last year, I attended a reading at Over the Eight, the now-defunct Williamsburg bar and performance space. Eileen Myles was headlining. But another poet, CAConrad, a close friend of Myles, captured my attention. He took his place at center stage, a large man draped in billowy clothes and what he calls his “war hair,” which he hasn’t cut since 2006, on the three-year anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Baghdad. He read from a piece entitled “Power Sissy Intervention #1: Queer Bubbles.” It began with what sounded like a short story or anecdote: “I occupied a busy street corner in Asheville, North Carolina,” he said, “to bless children with bubbles that will make them queer.”
He went on to describe the reactions of passersby as he blew bubbles, shouting that they had magical properties to “help rid the world of homophobia, misogyny, racism, and other forms of stupidity.” The audience laughed. Some cheered. Conrad smiled. “Bubbles, of course, do not have such powers,” he acknowledged—but he was serious, serious about the act of standing on a corner blowing bubbles and watching how the world responded.
After relating the anecdote, he told us that he’d taken notes on the experience. These notes became a poem, which he read aloud. The poem was completely unexpected—it was not in any way about bubbles, for one thing—but it was funny, angry, shot through with violence and informed by a reverence for nature. The first lines stuck with me: “I was naked / on a mountaintop / kissing someone / who loved me,” and the last: “there is nothing little about the cicada revving up while / we think our car horns / are so impressive.” The audience was rapt. You could hear the uninitiated whispering: Who is this guy?
CAConrad was born January 1, 1966, at Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka, Kansas, the son of a fourteen-year-old runaway and a Vietnam veteran. He grew up in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, the hometown of his mother’s second husband. Boyertown, with a population of about four thousand, was, during Conrad’s youth, a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan. Most of his adoptive family worked for the Boyertown Burial Casket Company, assembling coffins. Conrad has written that “the factory destroyed my family”; it has since closed, and is now a nursing home, housing many of the people who once labored there.
In 1974, when he was eight, his mother put him to work selling bouquets along Route 309. He toiled all weekend long, carrying buckets of flowers up and down the highway. At age nine, he discovered Emily Dickinson in the public library, then Vladimir Mayakovsky’s How Verses Are Made. (“No one read in that town,” Conrad told me: “no one had bookshelves, just the Bible and TV Guide.”) He began writing poems of his own, there by the side of the road.
That was also the year he got a rifle for his birthday. It came in handy. Conrad’s mother remarried a third time, and her new husband had a habit of coming home drunk and trying to molest his six-year-old stepdaughter. Conrad shut his sister in a closet and camped out in front of it, guarding her with his birthday present.
Conrad sold flowers for eight years until, at sixteen, he took off for Philadelphia. Before leaving rural Pennsylvania he’d been outed by bullies at his high school, which Conrad describes as “a horrible experience.” But he found a community in Philly. He lived in an artist-friendly apartment block for $210 per month, attending parties and readings, and writing poems—Gil Ott was an early mentor. He lived among drag queens and sex workers who kept an eye on him, the “cute, naïve” country boy. The building super, “Hot Johnny,” armed himself and his friends with bats and knives to defend them from local skinheads. At night, painters, poets, musicians, and bikers gathered at the Bacchanal, a bar run by artist Joseph Tiberino. “Philadelphia,” Conrad says, “taught me how to love the world.”
But there was no outrunning the HIV epidemic. Conrad’s boyfriend at the time, Tommy, died of AIDS, along with countless other friends, plus his coworkers at the go-go clubs where Conrad sometimes danced for cash. He estimates that he attended fifty-four funerals in 1991. And the specter of homophobia was never far: In 1998, another boyfriend, Mark, who called himself Earth, was found dead. There was evidence that he had been bound, raped, and set on fire. The police ruled it a suicide.
Rage, vengeance, survivor’s guilt—it’s all there in Conrad’s poems, which took decades to find a publisher. After two promising collections, Deviant Propulsion (2006) and Advanced Elvis Course (2009), which came out in Conrad’s forties, he published his breakout work, The Book of Frank, also in 2009. It had taken eighteen years to write and originally comprised 1,584 poems. (The published version contains 130.) Each Frank poem, he says, came to him all at once.
The Book of Frank reads like a novel written by a John Waters character, the Divine of Mondo Trasho or Pink Flamingos. There are miscarriages kept in formaldehyde, fragrant bibles, and lesbian ventriloquists. One poem reads in full: “ ‘peas take / a deep / breath when / you open / their cans’ / Frank said // ‘Pea Activism / is your courage / and a / concealed / can opener in / supermarket / aisles.’ ” But a current of sincerity animates these poems. Conrad’s love of the natural world and his identification with marginalized characters keep the book from veering into camp. As Myles puts it in the collection’s afterword, “What’s most impressive here is how well-tweaked kitsch yields such quiet profundity.”
In 2005, while working on Frank, Conrad returned to Boyertown for a family reunion. On the train ride home, it occurred to him that he hadn’t escaped the coffin factory at all. “I had an epiphany,” he told an interviewer, “that I had been treating my poetry like a factory, an assembly line, and doing so in many different ways … When I got home and threw the door to my apartment open I could see the factory on my desk.”
What bothered him the most, he realized, was that this factory mentality had led him to remove himself from his writing—he felt he wasn’t present in his words. He began to create rituals, exercises that demanded his absolute attention. Afterward, having situated himself in the “extreme present,” he took extensive notes. These provided the basis for new poems. He called the process “(Soma)tic.”
In practice, the rituals run the tonal gamut. Some are comic, some tragic, some impassioned, some absurd. One ritual begins:
Go to a shopping mall parking lot with trees and other landscaping growing between the parked cars to create this poem. Find a tree you connect with, feel it out, bark, branches, leaves. Sit on its roots to see if it wants you OFF! These trees are SICK WITH converting car exhaust and shopper exhale all fucking day! Sit with your tree friend. Don’t pay attention to the cars coming in and out of the parking lot, you’re here to write poetry, not to worry about what a lunatic you appear to be.
It’s worth noting that Conrad, with his war hair, androgynously soft features, painted nails, bright shirts, and quartz crystal necklaces, might certainly appear to some as a “lunatic”—but his rituals are not about stealth. Conrad’s presence is so striking that it’s almost confrontational. He insists on being seen.
In another ritual, he instructs readers to gather their weekly garbage and dump the trash in a wealthy neighborhood. “Take notes about the neighborhoods you visit with your deposits. Take notes, take MANY notes, then STOP! Write for 30 minutes on autopilot. Always remember to carry your notes with you wherever you go to pull and wrench your poem into existence.”
The poems that result from these exercises are frequently remarkable, full of inventive language and surprising turns. But the rituals are what most distinguish Conrad’s work from other contemporary poets. Whether they entail blowing bubbles, inspecting parking-lot trees, or interviewing Philadelphia businessmen about the consistency of their semen (“Suspension Fluid Magnificence”), they are not just processes—they are part of the poems themselves.
“I love being inside the ritual,” he says. “It’s like speaking in tongues. It’s not just automatic writing … Every nuance, every adjustment to the ritual, alters the language that comes out of me.”
Exercises like these are nothing new in poetry—Conrad cites Bernadette Mayer and Charles Olson as two practitioners of similar methods—but he insists that his rituals are chiefly inspired by his childhood, specifically the Pennsylvania Dutch Country where his grandmother taught him to meditate and where he took an interest in the occult, from local water diviners to the hex signs painted on barns. But as much as his work owes a debt to Boyertown, it is a deliberate rebuke to the bigotry, violence, and oppression he found there.
In his two books of (Soma)tic rituals and poems, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon and ECODEVIANCE—a third collection, While Standing in Line for Death, will be published this September—the rituals and resulting poems appear opposite one another. Because the rituals are written in the second person, at times the books read like the world’s most bizarre and inventive self-help guides, manuals for what you might call acute mindfulness. One ritual starts like this: “Eat a little dark chocolate before getting on the subway. Sit in the middle of the car … Then close your eyes, and as the car rolls on its tracks make a low hum from deep inside you … As soon as the car stops write 9 words as fast as you can before the train moves again … Repeat this humming and writing for 9 stops.” He credits his rituals with lifting him out of depression and grief.
Conrad has lived in Asheville, North Carolina, since 2013; there are “too many ghosts” in Philadelphia. Conrad is on the road a lot these days, teaching his (Soma)tic method and doing his best to live in the extreme present. He documents his travels on Facebook, often in the form of letters to Eileen Myles, which, like everything Conrad writes, find poetry in the cruelty of the human race:
Dear Eileen …
The hundreds of dead deer along the highway in Montana look like the same broken friend over and over at a glance, frozen in different positions and if we photograph each one and project them on a screen they will dance for us the apocalypse we are working so hard to conjure.
“Vacant Land” means no people.
“Nothing but a few prairie dogs” means no people.
“We swerved, hit a cat, but no one was hurt” means no people.