Interview

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Human. Animal. Gay. Straight. Poetry.

CA Conrad interviewed by Eileen Myles
Eileen Myles interviews CA Conrad. Original Illustration by Paul KillebrewOriginal illustration by Paul Killebrew

CA Conrad came over to my apartment in Manhattan’s East Village one afternoon in April. I’d admired his poems for years, having met him on another afternoon in New York when he sought me out of enthusiasm for my work. Conrad always seeks out his favorite writers. It seemed a very traditional and direct method of establishing lineage. 

The founder of the Jargon Society, Jonathan Williams, died in early 2008. His death provoked a different press, Chax, to publish Conrad’s opus, The Book of Frank, which Conrad had been working on (and reading from) for 15 years.

Conrad’s work has been coming into greater prominence in the past few years due to the publication of Deviant Propulsion, his first full collection, and also his presence on PhillySound, a blog he runs with his friends that is full of new poems, Conrad’s enthusiasms for other poets, political messages and analysis, and poetry exercises. His “(Soma)tic” poetics have a quickening effect on poets at all moments in their “careers.”

I’ve grown to love CA Conrad—the man, the work, and all he attempts and represents—because he always argues (from the inside of his poems) for a poetry of radical inclusivity while keeping a very queer shoulder to the wheel. His kind of queerness strikes me as nonpolarizing, not intentionally but because of the fullness of his exposition, a kind of gigantism that seems to me to be most deeply informed by love, and a tenderness for the ravages and tumult of existence. I made a plan to talk with him on the occasion of The Book of Frank coming into print, and I’m glad I’ve procrastinated finishing this piece so that it didn’t come out in June, where queers belong. Conrad and his creations, I hope you’ll agree, belong everywhere. I’ve never seen him occupy a room—especially one he reads his work in—where he hasn’t affected a sea change in most of its inhabitants by the time he’s done. Sex, increasingly an undesirable subject in the poetry world, is so frequently glowingly present in the structure of this new book. One poem describes getting a ride hitchhiking in a truck covered in semen stains. His poems bring us into that world:

“Looking for these?”
the driver asks
pointing to
eager swimmers
long-since dried on
radio
ashtray
cup holder.

***

Eileen Myles: Sex is problematic. I mean, isn’t it? In the world, and definitely the poetry world. Yet it’s everywhere in the world of your poems. Sex is the desire to survive—not just to multiply, but to be. Yet a queer person is always told to ACT LIKE US—for your own good—so you won’t bring all this grief upon yourself. Be like this, and not that. This kind persuasion goes beyond simply telling us what we should do and look like, but informs us of what we should read and write. It gets under your skin. There’s a threat inside of it. People are all afraid of what they will become . . .

CA Conrad: I feel like I was created. I just wanted to have my life, but once straight people found out I was gay, I became the fag, you know what I mean?

EM: You’re a character that the culture created.

CA: But I’m at this age where I’m like—that was great. Thank you. It got me the hell out of there, and now I don't have to stay here and work in the coffin factory with everyone else in this shit-hole town.

EM: Yeah, well, queer people need to transport themselves to survive, and like anything getting transported, it eventually gets caught, seen. I think we do what we do in our work to subvert that capture. But yours just saves my life, your excess. I think about when somebody asked Bob Creeley how he became a poet, he said, “Well, one night in college I found myself on some other street, and I decided to spend my life there.” You began your life there: CAConrad, “whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift.” Those facts of your existence change the story so radically, you know. What Blake was to the 19th century, you’re being to the 21st. Kind of an outsider shaking his fist at capitalism and the ludicrousness of it by examining its smallest unit, which is an individual, or the family. Does that resonate for you at all?

CA: Well, it’s humbling to hear that from you.

EM: Yeah [breathes a deep sigh of relief].

CA: You know, a big secret to the beginning of The Book of Frank is that it’s kind of autobiographical. But it’s almost irrelevant that it is.

EM: That it’s autobiographical?

CA: OK. Yeah. Well, some people have problems with the characters in the beginning. Which is fine. I’m writing what I’m writing. . . .

EM: What does that mean, that people are having problems with the characters?

CA: People come up to me after readings and ask, “Why are all the women like this?” And I say, “Because that’s my mother.” I mean, my mother is not this sacred text that everybody likes to pull from for their mothers, or whatever. My mother’s my mother. I mean, I lived in a car for half a year with her and it was not fun, you know? I would sell flowers for her on the side of the highway because she had a police record and couldn't find work, and it was a full-time job. Child labor laws meant nothing to her, and I really had to rebel once I got older.

Originally Published: October 21, 2009
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COMMENTS (23)

On October 21, 2009 at 5:09pm Celia White wrote:
Incredibly interesting interview. Thanks, Eileen and CA and Poetry Foundation.

On October 22, 2009 at 10:53am PandemonYum wrote:
It's nice that CAConrad finally defines real rebellion for us in this interview. Authority suppresses, rebellion sets us free.

REAL poetry is never complicit.

On October 22, 2009 at 7:06pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:
I know it's just me, being old-fashioned and all, but I could never find any justification for vulgarity in any context.

Is this intended to tell us something we don't already know about this terrible world?

On October 22, 2009 at 10:34pm CAConrad wrote:
Dear Gary, I agree about vulgarity, you know, like over a million people killed since the invasion of Iraq.

What's more vulgar, words, or bullets? Bullets of course we pay for with our tax dollars, while words are free.

On October 23, 2009 at 9:02am Anne Waldman wrote:
Very refreshing conversation of an
alternative art/humanity view.Appreciate
the candor. Just saw the 15th century red-
skinned dakinis in an exhibit at the Rubin
Himalayan Art Museum (NYC) drinking
from her skullcup of menstrual blood, &
stomping on the corpse of ego. Exposing
how ignorant actions & deeds support the
endless war culture & violence against
people of so-called difference is really to
the point...Also CA's "roots", a powerful
story.

On October 23, 2009 at 12:23pm pam lu wrote:
Fantastic. I wish every little girl hiding in a closet could have had a brother like you.

On October 23, 2009 at 6:19pm Gary B. Fitzgerald wrote:
Mr. Conrad:

Touche!

On October 24, 2009 at 8:46pm James Hoch wrote:
CA Conrad was brilliant turning heads
twenty years ago when he was
searching and searching...It's great to
see him still brilliant, still alive and
mythic all at once...

Thanks,

James

On October 25, 2009 at 6:36pm kirsta wrote:
i think that it is great that he is useing his abilitys t send out a message not only of his life but of the lives of many if you liked his book then you should read "child called it" really interesting but a bit disturbing

On October 28, 2009 at 5:14pm Ammiel Alcalay wrote:
terrific, on both sides - so refreshing to
get a shot of the real every now & then.
thanks to you both...

On October 29, 2009 at 1:07am Valerie A Szarek wrote:
Bravo to you both! Thank you for standing up for truth and edgyness and poetry forever! Disturb the comfortable and comfort us disturbed! Love ya CA

On October 29, 2009 at 10:28pm Dorothea Lasky wrote:
This is more than a little likely the very best interview I have ever read in my life. Thank you to CA Conrad, Eileen Myles, and The Poetry Foundation for creating and making these ideas available to me. This is truly a gift.

On October 31, 2009 at 8:03pm Michele Belluomini wrote:
Reading this incredible interview appropriatley enough on Samhain. Having known and loved CA's poetry for the longest time, very glad to see the recognition coming his way. He's a shaman. Thank you Eileen for the interview and your marvelous ideas and poetry as well.

On November 1, 2009 at 9:40am Cara Benson wrote:
I love this idea of shaking a fist at capitalism by examining its smallest unit. I think this is one of the reasons why autobiographical aspects of work do work. I’m suspicious with you, CA, of the claim to be able to successfully remove the “I” from any project. Great, great!, conversation on so many levels. I thoroughly appreciate the candor and concern. Thank you both!

On November 2, 2009 at 1:28am Lee Ann Brown wrote:
This interview rocks! Such a multiple
portrait - CA is an amazing tarot reader
too in addition to being Frank

On November 2, 2009 at 11:51am hassen wrote:
thanks to both of you for this interview. conrad, you're a real hero & i mean hero of what's seriously and hysterically real. i'm glad to tears that you & The Book of Frank both shine in our world/time.

On November 3, 2009 at 12:32pm Chloe Joan Lopez wrote:
Rargh! Queer Culture lives!

Sex = Truth.

"Now I know how to go on."

On November 4, 2009 at 10:45pm Nick Demske wrote:
When you left I lost a part of me (Together)
It's still so hard to believe
(Come back, come back)
Come back baby, please
(Come back, come back)
'Cause we belong together.

A child called it.

On November 6, 2009 at 3:24pm Don Yorty wrote:
Thanks to all involved for the great interview.

Conrad you are flowing from the source
and (for me) you also brought back memories of Philly in the 70s, Bacchanal and Gil Ott particularly.

On November 11, 2009 at 2:09pm jonas wrote:

Fabulous interview, Cuzzin of mine! So happy you and i got out of Pennsyl-tucky and survived. If we hadn't been queer, we might still be there, working in the casket factory--well, that closed years ago but we'd be working as automatrons somewhere, disconnected, numb, walking dead, smiling fake smiles, worshiping the money god that wears a jesus mask. Yeah. Thank the gods and godesses i am queer. To Gary, who can't justify vulgarity in any context...Vulgar, I believe intially meant the common people and their language and fuck and other words like that are so deliciously direct and anglo-saxon, yes, common so how could you never justify that kind of honesty and truth. Kisses, your cousin, jonas

On November 15, 2009 at 8:07am Naz Pantaloni wrote:
Thank you Eileen Myles for expanding Poetry Foundation's horizons with this interview. CAConrad has been a Philadelphia treasure for nearly 20 years, and I, like countless others in Philadelphia who know, love, respect, and admire him, are delighted and proud to see him becoming a national figure in contemporary American poetry. His is a truly unique yet universal voice that is the product of extraordinary talent, the circumstances of his life, and years of working on his craft.

On November 16, 2009 at 8:46pm Marie wrote:
Your Grandmother's comment has stayed by my side all these years Conrad. I love you.

On August 10, 2010 at 10:45am Jesse Nissim wrote:
Wonderful. Inspiring. Validating. Thank you
for outing the honesty & courage that is
available through poetry (including or
especially through its fictional elements). I
will treasure this interview. Thanks to you
both!

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Biography

Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston in 1971, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. She gave her first reading at CBGB's, and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where she studied with Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley and Bill Zavatsky. She has published more than a dozen volumes of poetry and fiction including Not . . .

Continue reading this biography

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