EM: I suppose the puzzle worth talking about might be how you got from there to here. Not in a cheesy way, but how did the poems happen? You’re somebody for whom doors, I think, are opening now [pats book].
CA: Well, strange as it may sound, the thing I’m most grateful for is being queer. If I had not been queer, I might have stayed out there in rural Pennsylvania. Those years were really painful. I was in high school at the beginning of AIDS, and it was hitting the newspapers, and I was out with my boyfriend, and it was a daily assault, you know.
EM: When did you start writing these poems? How and why?
CA: About 15 years ago.
EM: Uh-huh. I’m being like your lawyer. What was your poetry history to that moment? In terms of what you were writing, what you were reading?
CA: I could trace it back to when I was selling those stupid flowers—all I did was read. I was sitting out there in forced isolation. I started keeping a journal.
EM: You’re killing time, right?
CA: I’m 13, I’m very restless, and I have to be at the mouth of the turnpike exit . . . literally in the middle of nowhere. There’s nowhere to go. I mean, there’s a field behind me with a big, beautiful tree in it, but that’s it.
But one day this buck, this deer with a full set of antlers, ran across the highway, and a tractor trailer hit it, and it went down into this very deep ditch, maybe about 100 yards from where I was. The truck driver checked to see if I was OK, then left. But over the weeks I would go and watch this deer decompose, and that kind of sent my mind into this idea where death and impermanence really settled into me at that time.
There were these rats burrowing under the pelt, and everything kind of sickened and grossed me out in a way. And it sort of got conflated with my home environment, which was very bad. I was already sort of a big basket case because of what was going on with my mother’s new husband and my sister. . . .
EM: Well, like incest?
CA: He never touched her. My sister was six. He would come home drunk, and she would be in a closet. I’d be sitting in front of her closet with a small rifle I’d been given when I was nine.
EM: That’s so great.
CA: I would be waiting and he would be at the door, saying things. . . . “Show me your pussy, show me your pretty pussy. . . .” I didn’t even know what he meant, but I knew it was really bad, and my mother didn’t do anything. My mother smacked me when I tried to tell her what was going on.
EM: I know that one.
CA: All the adults were just absent.
EM: It’s so clear that the kids are alive—know what’s going on, and the adults are kind of these blowy, absent creatures.
CA: Yeah, that’s it. One of the Frank poems is about the father giving the child to the pornographer. Allowing it to happen and being confused, acting confused, you know? My father knew. I told him what we were going through, and he just left us in this situation. . . . So I came to the city, and that changed everything.
EM: What was the city?
CA: 1986 in Philadelphia was a dream for me. You could live on nothing, and then spend all your time in the library, and I had this coke dealer boyfriend who exposed me to this whole other world. We went to a bar called the Bacchanal. My boyfriend was selling drugs there, and I would hang out with all the artists and the Polish philosophers and Gil Ott. He was this amazing poet who had a magazine called Paper Air.
EM: A straight guy?
CA: Straight guy. Uh-huh. He was publishing people like Charles Bernstein and Bob Perelman . . . you know, all these guys. And at the same time I was living in a city where it was very anti-that. He was sort of an island.
EM: I’m grabbing a pen. Keep talking.
CA: I mean, Gil Ott wasn’t a teacher so much as an anti-mentor. He didn’t believe in any of the usual mentorship stuff, which was great.
EM: So, so . . . how do you describe the shape of these poems? What invented a Frank poem?
CA: Well, this is the secret part . . . related to autobiography, because I was in therapy. . . .
EM: This is very Anne Sexton.
CA: I didn’t mean it to be! Though I loved her as a kid. For the record, I dislike the confessional poets, every suicidal one of them. My work is not about wallowing in posttraumatic stress disorder, it’s about posttraumatic stress growth. But it’s interesting how Sexton has been disappearing from the bigger academic world of poetry, and her friends Plath and Lowell and Berryman, they’re all sort of amped up now.
EM: Why do you think that is?
CA: I think it’s class. It’s pedigree. She’s the only one of them without a college degree.
EM: Well, also, she’s messy—and allegorical. With all those witches and fairy tales. Kind of Kathy Acker–like. . . .
CA: What I find ironic is that for Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris, of that whole group, Sexton’s the only one they chose to put in Poems for the Millennium. Which was very exciting to see, because that anthology was kind of all about “who shifted the paradigm” kind of thing. And they chose the The Jesus Papers. Seeing those stand alone in an anthology was kind of remarkable, I think. And that’s why . . . and that’s why I made it third person, the whole Book of Frank. It can be anyone’s story now.