Interview

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Human. Animal. Gay. Straight. Poetry.

CA Conrad interviewed by Eileen Myles

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?

“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.”

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.

EM: Yeah.

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

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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