An Interview with CAConrad, by Leticia Ybarra
Image description: Scene from Delinquent Films' 'The Book of Conrad'. The photograph shows a close-up of the poet sitting on a bench with an iron fence behind. In one hand, with their nails painted black and purple, they is holding a cigar. They also wears large sunglasses and a fur hat.
The body has a very important role in your (Soma)tic poetry rituals. How is this embodied experience intertwined with what you refer to as an “extreme present”? And what about the moment you committed yourself to approach poetry as an anti-assembly line?
I come from factory workers, people who work long, exhausting days. The factories disturbed me as a child because everyone seemed unhappy, and I wanted another kind of life as a writer. Very early, I observed how my family became extensions of machinery at their jobs for most of their waking hours, and the toll that took on their physical, spiritual and emotional lives.
As a teenager in the 1980s, I ran away to the city of Philadelphia to be a poet. For years I was writing, just as I had wanted to do, but there was something wrong, something I did not fully understand until 2005. At first, I thought that because I had begun my young adult life in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, I had become easily distracted and unable to focus my attention. So much of our time had been devoted to helping friends with basic things like delivering food and helping with doctor appointments. Then, of course, many visits to different hospitals, and then there were the funerals. I went to so many funerals I often conflate them in my mind. “Maybe it is PTSD that robs me of my days”, I told myself, but yet I had been working very hard in therapy on memories of trauma lodged in my mind and body.
My problem, it turned out, was learned and absorbed as a child by the factory workers who raised me. To cope with being extensions of machinery all day at work, they developed a technique of turning off the present, keeping their minds in the past or the future. The problem with such a mechanism is that they cannot easily switch it off after going home. When raised by people who have lost the present, it may take a long time to recognize what has happened, and then when we do we will need more time to discover a way of recovering the present, and for me, that is where (Soma)tic poetry rituals come in. When I listen to my family, they tell me of things that depress them about the past, or of what makes them fearful of the future. These rituals, as it turns out, do not just help me remain in the present to write poems but also give me new, mindful days to investigate the world around me, wherever I find myself.
The first rituals I did, I ate a single color of food for a day. The red poem was the first one, and I wore a red wig around town all day while eating red food. At the end of that first day, I realized that I had invested myself in the present in a new way, but I also realized that I would have never written that poem for any reason at any other time in my life. The orchestration of the world around me for a more in-depth, more meaningful conversation with what is around me is something I will never trade for any reason. These rituals have given me the most beautiful relationship with my life, as well as my poems.
In an interview with Eileen Myles, you said that “my work is not about wallowing in posttraumatic stress disorder, it’s about posttraumatic stress growth”. Could you please tell us more about this, about poetry as a healing force vs. trauma´s repetition?
Poetry helped me survive when I was a kid watching my friends die of AIDS, and poetry is still with me all these years later. I did a (Soma)tic Poetry Ritual seven years ago to cure my depression after my boyfriend Earth was brutally tortured, raped, and murdered in Tennessee. The ritual made its impact on me by using a small crystal he gave me the last time I saw him, which he had kept in his pocket for over a year and a half, turning it into a library of his breath, his dreams, and movements. Twenty-seven poems resulted from the ritual, and I am grateful that poetry afforded me this opportunity to heal what seemed a permanent and debilitating wound. The strength of poetry and the magical framework of ritual gave me back to the present and active breath!
Together with Elizabeth Kirwin (your cosmic twin!) you are having these coronavirus healing rituals, SISTERHOOD OF THE ROSE, where you combine macrobiotics, herbology and other healing modalities that you learned when many friends were very sick and dying of AIDS in the 80s and 90s. How will you describe the healthcare and care work that you have been doing all these years and what kind of difficulties have you faced because of the lack of interest/involvement of the neoliberal medical institutions?
Elizabeth and I are 2nd Plague Sisters now! Each day in healing ritual I hold a large chunk of amethyst given to me years ago by a transgender friend named Peppy who died of AIDS. Her crystal holds the memory of struggling with the AIDS virus, and that struggle is why I hold it in my lap, meditating on the new virus. We are focused on breath and the sun. The Coronavirus is named from the sun's crown, corona. My friend Elizabeth draws the Celtic and Norse symbols for the sun in the air, then I draw Reiki healing symbols around the sun to hold it in midair.
There are so many moments these last weeks where I see correlations between this crisis and the early years of AIDS. Those who see money in every opportunity, for instance. AZT was a failed cancer drug that was used, and I tried so hard to keep my friends off of it. Everyone I knew who took it died, and Michio Kushi warned us at one of his macrobiotic lectures that the drug was killing people, but too much money was being made to halt production. Today reporters showed us how in Las Vegas homeless people are being made to sleep in specially marked sections of parking lots while there are thousands of empty hotels and casinos!
You recently published SIN BUG on Poetry Foundation, an essay that deals with the decades of grief that you and your LGBTQ community suffered in Philadephia because of AIDS. What do you think has changed and what is still present in the political and social response from one pandemic to another? "What do you think these continuities and/or changes reveal?
In the 1980s, it was easier for President Reagan and his staff to makes jokes about AIDS at press conferences, that way they would not have to respond. Reagan knew the heterosexual violence of the nation would help him in punishing LGBTQ people, and his soul never appeared troubled by this decision, even as hundreds of thousands of innocent people died. President Trump is using the violent racism in the United States to bolster his white supremacist base, accusing China of manufacturing and spreading the virus, even attacking an Asian-American reporter. It is horrifying on so many levels to have a leader as stupid, mean, and reckless as Trump!
You feel fortunate to have had grandmothers who still spoke of talismans and protections drawn into magic squares with ink you spit on. It seems that magic and the occult have been present in your life since your childhood, witches and healers introduced you to herbal formulas that became useful to help dying friends during the AIDS crisis, to name a few examples among many many others. This influence in your life is also very present in your poetry. Can you tell us a little bit about your first encounter with the work of poets such as Ariana Reines or Hoa Nguyen? You also host Occult poetry radio, where you interview poets asking them about their occult practices and beliefs, as well as other paranormal activities they have experienced. What do you think are the more relevant claimings and political approaches of contemporary occult poets that you relate to? I´m thinking for instance about your recent participation in the book 'Spells: 21st-Century Occult Poetry', published by Ignota Books.
Oh yes, I am very excited about this! I am fortunate to have incredible, brilliant friends who are poets, so I interviewed them about poetry and the occult. Some of the most amazing things people have ever said to me are in these radio interviews. Hoa Nguyen was the first episode, and you have to listen to her tell the story of weaving a lifelong commitment to both poetry and the occult. Her relationship with the tarot is very special, and when she talks about looking for the Tower card while on a trip to Vietnam, you won't believe how and where it appears!
Part of me wants to go through each episode and tell you what I like, but that would ruin it! Ariana Reines is also a friend, and I look forward to interviewing her for the show one day to discuss the magical way she wrote her latest book! So far there are five episodes: https://opr88.blogspot.com/
Ignota's Spells, is an anthology the world did not know it needed! I am honored to be in this groundbreaking collection edited by Sarah Shin and Rebecca Tamas! It gives me so much joy to tell you that Ignota is publishing a book of mine later this year called Jupiter Alignment: (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals. This book is instructional, and there are tips and examples of the ritual building we have been doing in workshop since 2005 with the (Soma)tic methods. One of my goals is to get everyone to see how much better our lives are when we live with creative focus throughout the day.
By the strength of our imaginations we expand the possibilities of our ideas and decisions. Having a creative practice can lead to a life that is unafraid of looking for what needs to be changed, and then changing it. When Albert Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge," he was asking us to understand how bringing new ideas we create for the world is more crucial than finding ways to sustain life under the decay of old templates.
You were going to travel to Madrid to participate in Gelatina festival and you were very excited about visiting the places where Federico García Lorca used to walk! Your poem “On the Tenth Anniversary of the Disappearance of America’s Anti-war Movement while the Wars Rage On”, ends like this: “Salvador Dali publicly praising / Franco’s iron fist even after Franco / executed Dali’s former lover / the great poet of the people / Federico Garcia Lorca”. This act of pointing out a treachery reminds me of the moment when you recently encountered a former friend and her daughter. This is long, but I think it is worth it to recall this story in your own words: “In 1988 I had confided in her that I was convinced I was HIV positive and terrified. Not only did she never speak to me again, she told all of our other mutual straight friends who also stopped talking to me. There she was on the street, overacting her surprise at seeing me. Yeah, I'm still alive, I said, then turned to her daughter: your mother deserted me in 1988 because she thought I had AIDS. It turned out I was HIV negative, but if I had been HIV positive, I would have needed my real friends more than ever. If you love your friends, love them like family, and never do what your mother did to me.”
Thank you, and I look forward to visiting Madrid, home of the great poet Lorca! As for Dali, it is important that everyone take a close look at his vicious, unforgivable political affiliations. Dali is the great Faustian Bargain, giving Franco the highest praise in exchange for cultural capital. All my life I have been told to separate the artist from their politics. No! An artist who would champion the fascism of Franco and Trump cannot remove their faith in violent, murderous domination from their art.
More than a decade ago, The Philadelphia Museum of Art had a Dali retrospective, and I stood on the steps of the museum SCREAMING Lorca's poems! When asked what I was doing, I explained, and some would ask, "Who is Lorca?" And I would tell them to go away and look at paintings of melting clocks and leave me alone; I was busy, I had poems to read! Imagine your favorite artist alive today, praising Trump and going on television to talk on film about what a terrific job he is doing with the new fascism! There are videos online right now of Dali and Franco having tea! When people tell me they love Dali, I automatically ask them what they think about Trump. Dali did not deserve the love of Lorca or any poet!
Sometimes anger is motivating, mainly when someone has acted out of sheer selfishness and greed as Dali. And yes, this former friend, she took so much from us; she was one of those people who always needed a shoulder to cry on, and we were there for her. When our friends started dying, she vanished, like most heterosexuals, I knew back then. All these years later, she wants to act like we were such good pals when in reality, she thought I was going to die with many of our other mutual friends. I survived, and there is no way I am allowing my friends' memory to go unheard. Love is a responsibility I will never take lightly.
Thank you so much for this opportunity!