Extreme Present: A Conversation with CAConrad
This interview was conducted by our colleagues over at SFMOMA Interpretive Media and portions of it will appear in their new podcast, Raw Material, hosted by Ross Simonini. The full conversation was too good to leave on the cutting room floor; an edited version follows.
Ross Simonini: When you’re raising and lowering the volume of your voice throughout your reading, is that something that you rehearse?
CAConrad: I trained my voice so that I would know how to read, because people are busy. When they come out to hear you read, it’s kind of an insult to just read monotone like a lot of people do. I want to actually read the poems, the way they are supposed to be, the way I felt when I was writing them. That’s how that poem felt.
We’re close to seventy five percent water and water absorbs sounds like nothing else. I want everybody to have the full impact of what I am trying to convey. So if I’m feeling it at a certain range and I’ve trained my voice to find my range in order to be able to do it properly, I want them to absorb my poetry. Properly.
Simonini: I see. Are you emphasizing something — ideas or phrases or words — in the piece by doing that?
CAConrad: Well, in particular in the piece we’re talking about, absolutely. I mean, a part of “I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead” is about the fact that we are living in a nation who is at multiple wars right now and nobody’s hearing it. Nobody knows about it. I’ve been working on a poem every morning for nine years, where I stopped cutting my hair on the third anniversary of the invasion of Baghdad. I look at the latest body counts in Baghdad. I look at the latest body counts in Iraq, Afghanistan. I’ve now included Syria, Yemen, Pakistan. For a while it was also Libya. Tens of thousands of people die so quickly. Three children are dying of war-related injuries every single day in Afghanistan. This is not a fucking joke. It’s serious and it’s just getting worse and worse and worse.
And now we have gays in the military. They’re allowed to put rainbow stickers on machine guns and kill Arabs with impunity. I just find the whole thing absolutely grotesque. As a gay man, I was incredible opposed to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. That poem and that piece that I just read is an homage to my thirtieth anniversary of inventing the gender neutral name CAConrad. I invented that when I was eighteen, and I felt very differently thirty years ago about being a queer person. There was a lot of pride that I no longer feel whatsoever. It’s just despicable to be living in this time period. It’s the most grotesque time to be alive. To see gay people just launching headfirst into war as though it’s okay because we’re acceptable now and this country has created a politically correct militia. I can’t believe what we’re in the middle of. And I can’t believe the sleeping that is going on around me. So yes, when I read that poem, the way I read it is as an alarm clock, as poems should be alarm clocks.
I’m from a rural factory town in Pennsylvania. All my family worked in a coffin factory when I was a child and I wanted nothing to do with this coffin factory. I wanted nothing to do with any of the factories that came after President Clinton’s NAFTA just wiped out the working classes. I moved to Philadelphia and I felt pretty good about the decisions I had made, to surround myself with artists and to be a writer. That was in the mid ’80s. I’m 48 now.
Things were very different back then, in all respects. Everything changed so quickly. It’s like 100 years have passed, with the amount of change that has gone on. In 2005 I went back out to where I grew up for a family reunion. My family are very creative people but they cannot access that creativity whatsoever. The factory has extended itself outside of the factory walls into their lives and just destroyed them. My aunt Darlene saw millions of miles of dental floss in the dental floss factory over the years. She retired a year ago and she died six months ago. They don’t know how to retire. They become extensions of these machines and they can no longer be creative.
In 2005 when I went back out there [I was] listening to their stories once again, all the politics of the factory and the abusive foremen and just these terrible stories that are just endless, these stories where the working classes are always treated like children, basically. They want to destroy and infantilize the working classes, to keep them in their place. My family is very bitter and angry and I wanted nothing to do with this but when I was taking the train home I realized that I had turned my poetry into a factory. I had turned it into a factory unbeknownst to me. It was devastating. The way I was writing poems was a factory, the way I was tabulating folders to get them ready for magazines, etcetera, was a factory. And I wanted nothing to do with this factory. So I stopped writing.
It was a crisis. An absolute crisis. I willed myself not to write and I didn’t write for the better part of a month. I woke up one morning and made a list of the problems with the factory. And there were sub-lists. Very long lists. But towards the top of the main list was the phrase “inability to be present.” And that was the thing that I knew that I could go after. So what I did was I wrote seven poems a day for seven days, eating a different color of food each day. And that’s in the first book. That was how it began. Those were the somatic rituals. Red food, orange, yellow, green, purple, white. And that was in 2005.
But then in 2006 I started working with the war hair piece. It became very depressing because I knew that when I would leave my home I would meet nobody who was thinking about these wars, talking about these wars. Not feeling complicit about the tax dollars killing children, killing people, just the drones. I was at Machine Project in Los Angeles recently and did a whole somatic ritual around drones. Why the word drone is being used and how it has infiltrated our lives and what it does to us each time we say drone, with the vowel and the consonant right in the middle, what they do to our bodies.
They’re flying killer robots. They’re not drones. We need to call them what they are instead of accepting the vocabulary that the Pentagon expects us to mouth off to one another all the time. Drone. It’s a very calming word, drone. The word Om is used in meditation. It is said to be a philosophical sound that centers us and calms us. They know exactly what they’re doing. It’s very Orwellian, this whole drone thing. Once it saturated the vocabulary of the United States, it was obvious that we were in for a ride and we’re in it. We’ve completely accepted the drones. Everybody knows what drones are and my family is perfectly fine with drones because I come from a military family, and drones mean that we don’t have to send any more of our family over to be butchered and killed and sent back needing therapy for the rest of their lives, physical and mental. It’s just horrendous what’s happening to the soldiers when they are brought back. So drones are the answer, to some people. I think that they’re the most despicable thing that we’ve invented to date, frankly.
I decided to shift dramatically what I was doing with the somatic rituals. They were very personal and quiet for the most part at the beginning but in the middle of doing the “War Hair” piece I needed to get the hell out of my apartment and start interacting with the public. I do all these pieces now where I’m interacting with the public. There are two new ones I’m doing soon, one called “Angry Bubbles” where I start blowing bubbles, you know children’s bubbles, made with glycerin and colors, on the street corner and start yelling that the bubbles cause cancer and AIDS and Ebola and just go on and on. It’s a whole ritual and exercise in talking about contagion and the hysteria around contagion.
In another, I’m melding my family’s absurd notions of conspiracy theories with their born again Christian ideologies. It’s going to be called “Incest Wings.” There’s a part of Philadelphia that’s very famous, where you’ll see people who have bullhorns and they have their religious things and they’re just talking. There are all kinds of amazing things that go on out there and there are always people talking back to them. So I’m going to have a little box and a bullhorn and I’m going to just start talking about that incest is a good thing because incest ignites that recessive gene to grow wings again and it’s this angelic force and the angelic choir wants to come back so we all need to sleep with our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters. I’ve been to Pentecostal church as a child and I’m very familiar with the way the pastors speak, which I think infiltrates the way I read my poems. I’m not equating poet with priest. I am simply using the method of getting the point across.
Ross Simonini: And obviously you don’t believe this conspiracy.
Ross Simonini: So are you just trying to satirize the idea of conspiracy?
CAConrad: I can tell you, Ross, the only thing I ever care about is writing a poem. So for me, it’s the poem. People always ask, well, do these rituals ever fail? I do the ritual but I’m writing notes for the poem consistently throughout the ritual. In the end, I have this body of notes, handwritten. I want the body involved through the process, with my hand. Then I type it up, which is another form of the body being involved, the typing experience. And then I print it out and then I carry it around and find the poems in this giant pile of garbage that I have spewed out of myself. Here’s a tiny little poem that just fits in the middle of one page but it comes from thirteen and half pages of eight and a half by eleven single-spaced printed out paper.
Simonini: In the case of this poem, can you describe the situation that led to it, the ritual?
CAConrad: That was a piece that I wrote in Canada in the Canadian Rockies at a marvelous place called the Banff Art Center. I was there for a month, out in the woods in my little studio. And one evening I was out wandering around in the snow and one of the park rangers was howling and then the wolves started returning howls and it freaked me out a little bit because these are the largest wolves in the world. They are 150 pounds apiece and they started returning his calls but I remained standing out there looking at the stars on top of this mountain. I was obsessed with the fact that there was a giant lake above us on the neighboring mountain, filled with giant fish. So basically, I was imagining before going to sleep and when drifting off to sleep, that there are fish swimming above my head — because it’s true. I also wanted to think about the fish as this layer of dimension, an underwater dimension that is actually over my head. But it’s also between me and the stars, so it’s a filter. So I was using the fish and the water as a filter. I was out there looking at the stars and then I made this makeshift patch over my one eye because the poet Robert Creeley had one eye and I wanted to look at stars the way he did. So that’s where the experience, part of the experience for the notes for that come from. Thus the title.
Simonini: I understand the somatic rituals to be performances that are public in a way. Do you feel that there is any other connection between all of them?
CAConrad: The poems are the biggest connection for me. I am now completely accustomed to public performance to write. I never invite anybody except strangers, you know. I don’t like people showing up. There are these filmmakers making a documentary about me right now, Delinquent Films. They’re marvelous, hardworking people and they wanted me to reenact some of the somatic rituals and I just… I can’t do that. It just feels phony to me. I don’t like phony things. I let them come to watch me do a brand new one.
Because I’m doing these somatic rituals every day of my life, I’m living inside of an extreme present that I’ve created in order to write. It has completely saturated my entire life at this point. My decisions that I make more and more have become about the present.
I’m actually at the point where I’m writing this piece right now that I’m calling “Surrendering Hope,” because I do believe it’s the great disease of the United States, hope, and it’s what’s keeping us in this channel, in this deeply dug groove that we’re all in, hoping for this. Hope is all about the future. You don’t hope for the present. What’s the point in hoping for the past, it’s gone. Hope is about not being present. Hope is about living in the future. Hoping for the future. The future generation, blah blah blah. But we don’t care enough about the future generations to stop polluting the planet or end these wars so it’s just a bunch of crap. So I believe that this idea of hope is just an excuse to continue living the way we live.
I’m really focused on no longer wanting any interest in the political system, I think it’s broken, it’s awful, it’s disgusting. It’s destroying lives, it’s destroying the planet. I mean, the World Wildlife Fund just had its planet index published several weeks ago and their conclusion is that in the last three decades 52% of all vertebrate animals — reptiles, mammals, birds, anything with a backbone — is gone. Extinct. So I think back to when I was a child, there were more than twice as many different kinds of animals on earth than there are now. And that to me is devastating.
Like I was saying earlier, we’re 75% water and that water absorbs sound, whether we think we can hear it or not, it doesn’t matter. So every time an animal becomes extinct that vibration, that sound, is gone. I think it’s urgent and crucial right now that artists and creative people work together to fill those gaps, these missing gaps of vibration, to not allow the machines and the beeping and the bombs to take their place, which is exactly what’s happening. And I think that we need this manifolding into this whole structure of creativity more than ever right now.
The example that I like to give as to why creativity is so essential to survival, is the great poet Robert Desnos. He was captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. He was on a flatbed truck with other prisoners, on his way to a gas chamber. I don’t know at what point on this trip that he realized that they were all about to be executed with Zyklon B but I do know from the story, from the other survivors from this trip, believe it or not, that Robert Desnos speaks loud enough so that the stupid German guards can hear him and he grabs this woman’s hand and he starts reading her palm. And he says “you will have a very long life, and you will have grandchildren and you will be happy.” And he just started reading everybody’s palms. And it confused the guards. The guards didn’t know what to do. They were confused and they sent all of them back. Some of these people survived. Desnos himself survived. Because of his creativity he was able to, in a moment’s notice, change the fate of everybody around him. He did not see any difference between activism and writing poetry. Nor do I.
Simonini: I noticed that while we’ve been talking you’ve been clutching at a crystal around your neck.
CAConrad: This is an amethyst that is from Mexico that the poet Rachel Blau-DuPlessis gave to me. But I cleaned it up to clean the energy out and then made it my own. I programmed it to do things with me throughout the day. Crystals can be programmed. Crystal technology, better known as piezoelectricity, is the evidence that we have scientifically about how crystals are used in computers, and clocks. We use computers all the time in industry and science — why not push that technology further and use it for our lives? You can do that. There are several pieces in my new book where I use crystals.
Simonini: How did you get involved working with crystals in your poems?
CAConrad: The thing is, my mother was always doing drugs. The drug culture came with a lot of new age crystals and so I was exposed to that on and off by her hippie friends. Just like endless hours of them deconstructing Led Zeppelin in the other room, and nonsense like that, you know what I mean? And looking for the subtext of whatever, “Kashmir,” whatever that song was they would listen to endlessly. I cannot listen to Led Zeppelin to this day because of these people. The crystals were always part of it and I hated my mother’s friends so much as a kid because they were just these drug addicted losers who just never did anything and they would just forget to feed us.
In 1987 I met Jay Pinsky, who was this extraordinary poet in Philadelphia, mainly haiku. He was a macrobiotic guru and I had a coke dealer boyfriend who then wound up going to prison. So all the magical parties that I went to every night and all the magic drugs and money vanished and Jay heard me give a reading and he was like “Those are really great poems but you are in bad shape. You look like you probably won’t make it to thirty if you keep going the way.” I can’t believe that he seduced me into doing this but from ’88 to ’98 I was completely macrobiotic. ’87 was a transitional period, but on my birthday, January 1, 1988, I became fully macrobiotic. And with that I was also going to pagan gatherings and learning about crystals and I just fell in love with these things.
At first I was going to these pagan gatherings for very practical things. There were all these people who would talk about levitating and astral projection and I just called them the Lord of the Rings people. They irritated me a little bit to be honest with you. I’m a Capricorn, so I’m very practical. I was there for learning ancient alphabets, learning healing herbs, things that were very tangible. But then I found out that I was wrong. I found out that I was very wrong, that astral projection is real. I went to a lecture by Timothy Leary at this pagan gathering called Starwood in Sherwood, New York, Southwestern New York State. And I was very taken with Timothy Leary’s talk. I didn’t expect to be. I thought it would be like my mother’s stupid hippie friends talking about drugs. But actually, it was a very thoughtful, thought-provoking, amazing, beautiful talk. And he talked about astral projection in this way that was very matter of fact. And my friend Marcia, who was a high priestess of the coven, she said to me, “I’m going to visit you three times next month, to prove to you that astral projection is real. And you’re going to write down those dates, and at the end of the month I’m going to tell you what those dates were.” The first visit was on the fourteenth of the month. She lives halfway across the country from where I was living. And, sure enough, she was standing right next to my bed.
So then I was a believer, but then I wanted to astral project. I read, I don’t know, like two and a half books or whatever, and went to a workshop and I just couldn’t do it. But then I started really investing my life in the crystal dream therapy that I was developing. Saturating myself with crystal-infused water. Fiji water has a lot of crystal in it. The silica content on the label was higher than Evian. The best one on the planet that I know of is Trinity water, which is from Paradise, Idaho which is now unavailable to us. These billionaires have bought it up and there’s razor wire around the property. They’re stockpiling the water. Cause blue is the new gold, after all. It was all about remembering my dreams, using the crystal in the water, drinking half a glass of water before going to bed, keeping the other half in a glass by my bed. The dreams that I was having were then being communicated to the water remaining in the glass. That remaining water was now a battery, so when I would wake up and drink that remaining water, all the missing parts of the dreams would download or full dreams would download. I was excited about this. It was working. My friend Frank Sherlock, who is a great poet in Philadelphia, he never could remember his dreams and now he remembers his dreams all the time. I started spontaneously astral projecting and it was due to the high crystal content of the water that I was just filling myself with every day.
At the time when these astral projections began I had been commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House to take part in this giant writing project called Politics, Poetry, and Proximity. We were supposed to write about our neighborhoods. Well, I was writing about my neighborhood on the astral plane, because I would leave my apartment and wander around my neighborhood and then I would wake up and write about it. And it’s real. And I was very excited about that. I used crystals in the new book to talk to trees. When I conduct workshops I have the participants in the workshops go out and talk to trees or grass or squirrels. I don’t like micromanaging anything. I like to just say, “Let’s have this experience, and it’s your experience and then we can regroup.” They’re always excited when they go out but when they come back they are a little shaken because trees hate us. Almost universally. Unless they’re the really large ones, like in the Muir Woods above San Francisco. Those trees don’t give a shit. Those trees are three thousand years old and they’re like “Yeah, that’s fine. You can be here with me.” But a lot of the trees, especially trees in cities, they really do not like us, at all. And especially because you’re sitting there writing on paper, you know. You’ve taken their bodies and ground them up. The hubris of our species is that we don’t believe a tree has any thoughts until we cut them down and grind them up and put our own thoughts on them with pencils and pens. But the fact is, trees are sentient beings.
I was working with crystals in Wyoming where I was asking them to help me translate the poems out of the notes from these constellations of the stars that I was creating to write the poems. So you can do them and you can use the crystals, you can work with the crystals almost any way you want. It’s kind of extraordinary once you have a relationship with a crystal. I have crystals in my life right now that I want with me for the rest of my life. The one I’m wearing I want to have with me all the time. But you know, occasionally a crystal jumps out of your pocket and you just have to accept it, that it needs to move on.
In my pocket at all times I have a series of crystals. I have this giant labradorite that the poet, the writer, Bhanu Kapil gave to me. It’s the adventure stone and I also have a little piece of cytrine to draw the adventure in and it’s heavy. And it’s beautiful, the phenomena in it is just extraordinary, especially in sunlight. If you want a journey, labradorite is the thing. If you’re needing to accept that you want autonomy and to accept that you want to be creative, labradorite is something you should put in your pocket. I’m right-handed so it’s in my left pocket because my left side is my receptive side. My right side is my dominant side, where I send energy out. So I’m absorbing this adventure all the time. You know, Bronnie Ware, she was a nurse who worked with the dying in hospice. She started interviewing the dying and she asked them the same question consistently, which was “what are regrets that you have?” The number one regret of the dying is “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
That is the most amazing piece of information that she gathered for us. That the number one regret of the dying is that they wished they had lived the lives they wanted to live. And we really are going to die, as much as we don’t want to think about it. And that’s it. At the end of all of this is death. Whether there’s something beyond it or not is another story. But, how you choose to live in this life is really, it’s a great thing to wake up to. Waking up to the fact that you can, or figure out how you can, and crystals are a way of really helping keeping us focused in that way. Like in this pocket here I have this stone called danburite. The poet Andrea Rexilius, who’s this marvelous poet, she took me to this gem store in Denver and I couldn’t believe that I saw danburite. I’d been looking for danburite for years. I’d been reading about it. Danburite is the stone that calls upon all the light that’s around you and gathers it. So it keeps you and it has this pyramid on top, in this little pyramid shape. And the crystal just draws all the light in and it holds on to it. So when you have it on you, it’s drawing all the available light to feed you. I brought it with me today for this interview so that I could stay focused with you, Ross. I hope I’ve been focused.