Interview

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

Human. Animal. Gay. Straight. Poetry.

CA Conrad interviewed by Eileen Myles

CA: The quote from my grandmother at the front of The Book of Frank is very important to me, though: “Well of course they’re staring, we’re very interesting.”

She said this to me when people were staring and whispering, probably saying, “There’s that whore Carla’s bastard son,” or whatever. I told my grandmother it was bothering me how mean people were acting, and she [gave me] this sentence, which has remained a source of strength I can always find when I need it. But I don’t want the biography part to be taken seriously when people read the book. I want them to have their own experience.

EM: I think they always do.

CA: The facts are I became macrobiotic and was getting physically healthy, but still just an absolute emotional mess. And then I met somebody who turned me on to this thing called RC counseling, reevaluation co-counseling. It was one-on-one, and you got to switch roles, therapist and patient. . . .

EM: That seems like a grid for all the switching in the book. It’s a nonliterary . . .

CA: Well, maybe. Even when I was macrobiotic I was still wanting to do drugs at first. But it wasn't until I was completely clean for a couple years that The Book of Frank started to come out of me. Drugs were more of a block to my creative powers than anything.

EM: You wanted to talk about these things in some way?

CA: I wanted to talk about them, and I didn’t want to be a confessional poet.

EM: Because it had been done? Because that wasn’t aesthetically . . . ?

CA: No, and I’m going to be very clear about this. I was not being influenced by the Language poets when they were against the personal “I,” because I actually think that they use the personal “I,” especially when they say they don’t anyway.

EM: They’re all influenced by New York School poets, but it’s like which New York School poets? Everyone was in Bernadette Mayer’s workshop. But it’s like the unmentionable, like a lineage suppression. I never had sex with that person!

CA: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it.

EM: You know? But, go ahead.

CA: I think a lot of it was embarrassment, too. The Book of Frank came from me wanting to write about my past in some way but not be open about it. I just really wanted to create a fictitious character.

EM: You know, when you talk about creating a character, where I go is animation. I mean, that’s what I feel in this book, that each of these poems seems like moments in movies.

CA: Movies were queer; there’s a queer way to find yourself in the movies. Frank is a movie theater himself at one point. I want poetry to be the world film can’t access but thinks it can. Film wants to dictate images, where poems give the reader’s mind the space to create their own world, their own film.

“I think it’s sort of generational that women are being outraged at your use of their blood. Your poem is a war. He’s not being a pig.”

EM: Did you see the movie Teeth, by any chance?

CA: No.

EM: It’s really funny. Roy Lichtenstein’s son made it, but it’s a sexy, funny teen horror movie about vagina dentata. You put a vagina on the first page of your book:

when Frank was born
Father inspected the small package
the nurse handed him

“but where’s my daughter’s cunt?
my daughter has no cunt!”

It really determines whether people will keep reading or not. I mean, for some people a cunt on page one is inconceivable. You’re in this morass. And you do it well. It’s a good poem. What’s really funny and wonderful about how you violate the mild terms of readership is that you take the thing as we know it, and then show it in all these completely excessive ways—and then you go even further. You go one step further so that it becomes something else. So, if I’m a man and this is my fear, the giant pussy, I’ll step back and make it instead the absence in my son, or else “Frank saw a giant eat a park bench with her vagina. . . .” Somehow the absurdity of the fear of the word or the power of the thing becomes something that males and females can both stand outside of, enjoyably even. That seems massively queer to me. Wizardry, kind of. Both staring at the horror and restoring magical powers to the female.

CA: Well, can I tell you, one vagina poem that upsets people, women, the most is the one about Frank eating his wife’s bloody tampons.

EM: Yes. And why are women upset?

CA: Well, they think that I’m being a misogynist.

EM: I don’t buy that, but why does he want to eat it?

CA: They felt I was being like Andrew Dice Clay. A male pig, you know? The background of that poem is that I had been visiting friends in Cornwall, where I discovered that our American neo-pagan concept of Christians taking women’s power was way off, meaning that the Druids and other male-dominated pagan groups did it first. The power of women terrifies men, especially when men want the control. But the Christians did put a serious nail into it, and we, of course, still live with this. I mean, look at Joan of Arc. She refused to say the Lord’s Prayer, practiced the ancient shaman rite of transvestism, and she was having psychic visions. She terrified the state. But my point was Frank’s eating her . . .

EM: Blood.

CA: . . . her blood.

EM: He wants it.

CA: He wants it.

EM: Right.

CA: And she’s doing everything she can to keep him from getting it.

EM: Right.

CA: And he’s still going to get it.

EM: Because why? Because why? Because it’s hers?

CA: Because it’s hers. It’s her power. It’s her . . .

EM: I think it’s sort of generational that women are being outraged at your use of their blood. Your poem is a war. He’s not being a pig. It’s something else entirely. The women horrified don’t know Germaine Greer: “If you’ve never tasted your own menstrual blood”—that was the key phrase. If you haven’t tasted that, well, then you’ve got a long way to go, baby.

CA: Oh.

EM: Advertising took it up as a congratulations, not a challenge:

“You’ve come a long way, Baby!”

CA: Virginia Slims.

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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