CAConrad has been working with the ancient technologies of poetry and ritual since 1975. They are the author of Amanda Paradise (Wave Books, 2021). Other titles include The Book of Frank, While Standing in Line for Death, and Ecodeviance. They received a Creative Capital grant, a Pew Fellowship, a Lambda Literary Award, and a Believer Magazine Book Award. They teach at Columbia University in New York City and Sandberg Art Institute in Amsterdam. Visit their website http://bit.ly/88SomaticPoetryRituals
Originally published on May 21, 2021
Salome Kokoladze: In one of your first rituals, you observed autumn trees, their falling leaves and how everything prepares to sleep for winter. You mention that you “wanted to be awake for the winter for the first time in years.” Knowing that this ritual, like many others, led you to find the language for your poems, could you talk about the relationship between wakefulness and poetry?
CAConrad: Thank you for this question. That (Soma)tic ritual you refer to is part of what I did to overcome a severe depression after the rape and murder of my boyfriend Earth.
My goal as a poet is to reach and maintain wakefulness. When I began reading and writing poetry in 1975, it did not take me long to understand that it made me see the world in ways that were not happening with teachers or anyone else in my life. Each new book of poems was a new key to interpret the road ahead further. I come from factory workers, and I knew that to forge a life as a writer, I needed to leave, and after high school, I moved to the city.
It was not until 2005 that I finally understood that I had learned a technique from my family that I needed to be overcome for a better life and writing. When you are an extension of a machine for most of your waking hours at work, you certainly do not want to be present for it. While doing their tedious, repetitive jobs in the factory, they shut the present off, sending their minds to the past or future. After work, they do not know how to retrieve the present; this is a tool they devised to survive their jobs, but I absorbed it into my life. (Soma)tic poetry rituals were the answer to my problem because I cannot think of anything except precisely what I am doing. To answer you directly, they need one another, poetry and wakefulness.
SK: It seems counterintuitive, but could wakefulness relate to the experience of dreaming since the latter is also such a crucial material for constructing the poetic language?
CA: Dreaming in so many ways is part of (Soma)tic rituals I have used, so I have to say yes. Currently, I am doing a ritual that involves dreaming with crows. During the pandemic lockdown, I am in Seattle, awaiting my vaccination shot with everyone. Seattle has an enormous crow population; they are marvelous and own this city in so many ways. I have nine whole peanuts that I carry around with me during the day, whispering to them, singing to them. In the evening, when the last group of crows come to my windowsill for food, I break the peanuts in half, giving nine halves to them, and I eat the other nine halves. We then dream together, and the spaces they make in my sleep are beautiful, wide-open like nothing can stop us. I wake feeling like flying over the buildings with them. It has been a terrific experience.
SK: Artist and writer, David Wojnarowicz claimed that in the USA people cannot deal with death unless they own it. To own death must mean to control the narratives of death as well as forms of remembering the dead. If you could imagine a world (maybe this world existed in the past, or exists currently in another culture), where death does not feed the national ego, what would that world look like?
CA: Oh, well, I believe absolutely nothing would be the same. Nothing! It is death that drives us to every one of the ambitions we believe in about ourselves and our lives. To be competitive is another way to distract from the fact that we will die. During Covid-19, the US is acting as one could expect from a nation so childish about the subject of death. Have you ever seen the word “death” in a sympathy card? Because I have not, not once, and I look for death all the time in that very place, it should exist.
As a young person in the 1980s and 90s, I lost so many loved ones to AIDS, something I wrote about in an essay published last year. It is different because I had to go through it at so many funerals, sometimes more than once a week. When you come out the other side of that many shed tears, you are going to be seeing death as the great commons, reached with or without our compliance. The bigger problem is that this issue you speak of is why we cannot grasp that our tax dollars are murdering millions of people in our wars. Talking about OWNING DEATH, because if anyone is the bringing of destruction, it is the United States. We have invested countless hours of creativity in laboratories devising faster and more efficient weapons for killing human beings.
SK: There is nothing little about little lights in the sky you write in “Every Feel Unfurl”. Even though to realize the enormity of the stars might make us feel vulnerable as well as little/unimportant, reading the line above felt like a relief, somehow it felt joyful. To know the size of things, their enormity as well as their minuteness, how does it contribute to the way they are felt and defined?
CA: Thank you for sharing how this poem affected you; I appreciate that. Seeing the small in the large, or even in proximity to the large, helps us understand how that largeness is us. And maybe, in the end, there is no separation. Those little lights in the sky come from the same exploded source as our planet and stars, and of course, our very bodies as well. We have an extraordinary, beautiful world, and I hope we can keep our home.