CA Conrad in Conversation with Megan Heise

Megan Heise: I’m curious about what you see as the borders or boundaries, however porous they may be, between your rituals and poems. I recently read Yoko Ono’s Acorn and was struck by how poetic her performances were, and vice versa. Just reading her instructions on the page seemed an act of performance and poetry, in a way that is similar to my reaction when I read your rituals—they are so poetic that I want to categorize them as poetry in and of themselves. I’m wondering how you conceptualize these borders for your own work. Are the rituals themselves poems—a performative enactment of poetry, perhaps—or a distinct and different sort of creature for you?

CA Conrad: What is exciting to me is the experience of creating, and that comes both inside the ritual when I gather the raw material, and later in the editing. It is porous; I like that you use that word for the space between ritual and poem. Making poetry is more exciting to me than having books with finished poems because the living for me is each day when I am making them.

MH: I’ve been reading A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon and loving it, especially the pairing of the rituals with the resulting poems, which really embodies what you’re talking about with regards to the priority of making poetry versus having a book of poetry. One thing I saw was that one of the rituals, White Helium, was dedicated to Sharon Mesmer—I studied under her at The New School before coming to Naropa. How did you two meet, and why did you dedicate that particular ritual to her?

CAC: Oh, well I can only imagine Sharon is an amazing professor. I never know when I first meet a poet because when I meet one, especially a dedicated one like Sharon, it feels like we have known one another for hundreds of years. She’s a fucking genius!

MH: We’re gearing up for the Summer Writing Program (SWP) here at Naropa, and I’d love to learn more about your involvement in SWP. When were you first invited and what was that experience like? Do you have any memorable stories from SWPs past? I’m also curious if you have any favorites among the other visiting faculty that you’d recommend students take a class with? What’s been your favorite experience at SWP?

CAC: It has turned into one of the great loves of my life, that place. There is a murmur in the soil; it just comes up through you so that no matter what troubles you before arriving, it vanishes. Maybe you need to be open to it for that to happen, so in that case, I ask everyone to be open to it. Anne Waldman has kept a Holy space for us to write poems. I’m sorry, I mean to write; I forget that some people come there to write novels and music. I’m one of those kinds of poets who just LIVES in poetry, but no disrespect intended to other writers.

It is an incredible HONOR to be a small part of this GIANT idea of the importance of creative practice and the utmost importance of that practice in this ailing world. Creative people coming together staving off the bleeding of a planet hemorrhaging from the pollution of mind body spirit, we need A THOUSAND MORE NAROPAS but have only this one and we must love it with our poems for a future of creative survivors on our planet, third in line from the Sun.

My absolute favorite thing is building rituals for writing poems because rituals really do reconnect us to one another and the natural cycles of our lives and help mend our alienation from our very beautiful planet. Naropa is one of those places where the ritual and the poems are almost too easy because of the fertile vibrations of the real and impressive love sewn into the structure of the buildings and the land under them. I am always in touch with my ancestral pagan roots, where women were the leaders and keepers of spiritual growth and maintenance. Anne Waldman is a high priestess of poetry. If I were a student, I would beat everyone to the front of the line for that class. I was recently in Gloucester, Massachusetts doing a (Soma)tic poetry ritual titled MAXIMUS IOVIS DIVINATION where I used Olson’s Maximus and Waldman’s Iovis as forms of divination to center myself and enter the day to write. Olson and Waldman as priest and priestess, lord and lady.

Margaret Randall is teaching again and she is a great hero of poetry. You will have to work hard to find someone who has sacrificed more politically to be a poet, stripped of her U.S. citizenship during the Reagan administration, the director of the INS stating that her work went far beyond mere decency, trying to lock her out of her own home. She is a testament to the human spirit. It’s no joke. Who needs a movie about heroes who fight the system when we have powerful fearless warrior poets like Randall and Waldman around?

MH: I just returned from a visit to the Bay Area, where Hard Feels recently performed. I missed the show, but was reminded of their song, “I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead,” which takes its name and lyrics from your poem of the same name. What was it like having someone approach you to use your work in theirs? How was the experience? How do you feel about cross-genre collaboration and/or inspiration?

CAC: It was an honor! I love Hard Feels and cannot wait to spend time with them. One member of the band is Emji Spero, a poet I have been an admirer of for many years. Emji’s book almost any shit will do should be read by every single person who is serious about poetry, art, activism, and the newer ways to be together to survive. They are a great old soul.

MH: Speaking of cross-genre work, I’m interested in learning about your experience making the film Book of Conrad. I haven’t had the opportunity to watch it yet, but the trailer was very powerful. What was that experience like for you? Can you describe what it was like when you saw the film for the first time?

CAC: Watching the film horrified me. I had to remember this beautiful man I loved being bound and gagged and tortured and raped and covered in gasoline and burned to death. And seeing how his brothers are coping made me sad. But the filmmakers are the best, they are serious artists, but I won’t deny that it was difficult. My family is incredibly racist, homophobic, patriotic, and they scare the hell out of me. My father says things in the film that just make me sad because he, like all of his siblings and friends, will never move out of the dark spaces they create for themselves. They are prisoners to their illiterate, mean, stupid fantasies of the world. They would vote for their militant, hateful version of Jesus if he existed, but instead they have covered their lawns and doors with Donald Trump signs. If Trump becomes our next president, I can tell you firsthand, knowing too well the people where I come from, that we will have a terrible fight on our hands, but we must do everything we can to prevent the holy wars they are salivating over.

Belinda Schmid and David Welch are the filmmakers and I am grateful to them for believing that my boyfriend Earth was murdered. The police wrote his death as a suicide, just imagine that. Suicide? Really? Bound and gagged and raped and it just makes my skin crawl every time I think of that piece of paper in the filing cabinet at the police station blatantly lying about his death. I was on the phone with him just a few days before this hateful crime. Still takes my breath away. Deep breath. The beautiful film footage along with Missy Mazzoli’s extraordinary soundtrack give us space throughout the film to take a deep breath, another thing to be grateful for.

MH: The documentary and song are two examples of artists inspired by your work. Who are the people, artists or otherwise, who are inspiring you in your work right now?

CAC: As always, my friends and many people I meet. I am in Norway at the moment where I did a reading with Gunnar Waerness, the poet who translated my book The Book of Frank. Gunnar is such a terrific giant soul to be near and talk with.

MH: I came across your Jupiter 88 Allen Ginsberg vlog, and am certainly interested as a new Naropan invested in finding my place in our lineage. I often find contemplation at odds with activism, but at other times I find that the two can complement each other astoundingly well. Perhaps that’s what this blog is celebrating in Allen: his ability to fuse art and mindfulness with activism.

CAC: His activism and art were one because they always are, much the way Mayakovsky wrote that “poetry is at its very root tendentious.” Ginsberg and Waldman put their bodies in harm’s way more than once for their beliefs. One of the most important things is to activate our creative cores and to encourage this in one another, because no matter what we choose to do in this world, having an active creative mind will increase the range of our abilities to see what must be done. True invention is from the creative mind. Survival is as well. Ginsberg and Waldman have both taught us this beautifully.

MH: I’m interested in talking more about the intersection of art and activism, and especially poetics and activism. I read your censored Library of Congress interview, and would love to hear more about some of the thoughts you shared there. I like the comparison you draw with Plato, where he writes about exiling poets for causing or promoting “needless” sadness; these are the historical figures we are taught to revere, yet they consistently want to quiet the truth-speakers and seekers. It seems that poetry (or writing, or any form of art) holds the potential to be an important force for change, and you say in the interview that it will be “creative people who will solve the problems facing the survival of our species,” and that deviants are the ones who propel a culture forward. At the same time, you also speak about the insufficiency of poetry as activism, about not being able to “undo [y/our] complicity” in the horrors enacted by our government. I wonder how you reconcile these ideas, the thought that poetry is necessary but at the same time inherently insufficient? You talk in that interview about using “deviant queerness” to “confront the madness.” Are acts of deviance key to counteracting the madness that you mention?

CAC: Well, let us get one thing clear first, and that is that my poems and your poems will never be able to bring a dead child back to life. I never once said that poetry is insufficient, I said that my nation is a killing machine and I am complicit. Do you pay taxes? If the answer is yes, then you too are complicit. It is important to be honest about these things. We are killing people in many nations simultaneously. We are on the verge of worldwide chaos and bloodshed.

Keep in mind, please, the historical lineage of the LGBTQ movement. Think especially of those very brave trans people of color who fought the police at Stonewall. The revolution started with them. Trans people are the most marginalized people in our nation and in the LGBTQ community. But I cannot turn to the LGBTQ community any longer as a source of inspiration and have not been able to do so since December 20, 2010, when president Obama repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was our job to hold the position that Marsha P. Johnson gave us at Stonewall when she threw that first brick. Marsha was opposed to the war in Vietnam, she was in favor of equal pay for women, she was a true warrior, but now LGBTQ people in the U.S. are putting rainbow stickers on machine guns and killing people of color in the Middle East for nation, corporation, and god.

When I met Marsha P. Johnson in 1990, she was standing in Tompkins Square Park during Pride Week, holding a sign that read: STONEWALL WAS A RIOT NOT A TRADEMARK. Before she died, she was seeing how the revolution she started was calcifying into a barnacle on the fat ass of that giant machine of capitalism. I will always remember that day, meeting her. It is important to remember her sign because that is evidence that everything we do, no matter how hard we work, no matter how honest and eager, no matter how much blood and sweat, no matter what we want, the work we do will in fact be transformed by others. But we must do it ANYWAY! Imagine if she had just gone home that day in 1969. She was a warrior, an experimental performance artist, she was the real thing, a deviant who was propelling the culture forward whether it was ready or not. We would be decades behind where we are today if she had not thrown herself into the moment. So even though it is sad to remember her disappointed sign about the direction her revolution was headed, we must make the effort to go forward always, always, always—it is so important.

MH: I love when you said in the Book of Conrad trailer that you’re not interested in compromise. I see this clearly in your poetics and poetry, as well as in the echoes of another thing you said in the Library of Congress interview, a call to “take up some space and stop living through the acceptance of others.” You provide a great example of someone living a life of poetry and poetics outside of academia. I’m wondering what further advice you would give to those of us, in MFA programs or otherwise, who want to make careers out of our craft, and are not interested in compromising or building our lives around a constant need for approval. Yet in such a tough market for writers and artists, where compromise often feels necessary in order to get a job, fellowship, residency, etc., what can you recommend in the way of navigating these challenges? How does one survive off of poetry when it is deviant?

CAC: Thank you so much for taking the time to ask me these very thoughtful questions. I am going to repeat myself a bit, but nothing on this planet is more important than the creative impulse in the human being at this moment, because so much is falling apart at once and we need to be sharp and clear and ready to help whenever we can. Occupy Wall Street was filled with creative writing students and art students, brilliant, amazing, and courageous young people who inspired me. My advice is to help one another stay creative. This world really is designed to destroy our creative cores, trust me on that, and trust me when I say that if we do not work to keep ourselves sharp, then we will cease to create. Most people I meet who are graduates of MFA writing programs stop. In fact, most poets–whether MFAs or not–stop. Ninety-five percent stop and I mean that number.

The trials of paying for rent, groceries, and childcare wipes out people who love writing poems, but it does not have to be that way. My first book did not come out until I was 40. I first read Emily Dickinson as a nine-year-old working for my mother in the 1970s, selling bouquets of cut flowers along the highway. That was a long wait to get published. I didn’t mind because poetry was what I cared about, not publishing. Not that I don’t like being published by Wave Books, I like it very much, but what I like the most is creating, because creating poems is where I get to see the world up close every single day of my life. It is the present that counts. Period. Forget the future. Forget hope because hope is about future things, hope is not about the present, it never is, and that is why hope is a fantasy and we have enough fantasy going on. What is important is that no matter what we choose to do to make money and survive, if we have our poems and really have them, truly keep them sharpened and never falter in that quest to be creative people, then everything we do can have beauty. This may sound silly, but just try living in this system, working, working, working, and not writing poems AT ALL and see how you feel, see how you see the world. If poetry has been a lens for you then PLEASE keep it polished, keep it going. This is more important than anything else we have discussed.