In episode eight of Phoned-In, BOMB Magazine’s poetry reading by phone podcast, CAConrad reads from his books, The Book of Frank and The City Real & Imagined.
Luke Degnan How has living in Philadelphia shaped your poetry?
CAConrad It shaped it completely. You filter everything through your life. I’ve been here since 1986. That’s well over half my life. To be specific: the streets, the sounds. I feel like home here is a hundred things before it’s my actual apartment. I just really feel at home here. I love the libraries and the poets. There’s so many wonderful poets here who spur me into action constantly. I really feel like I learned to investigate the world here. That’s what the (Soma)tics are all about. Ultimately, I want my (Soma)tic poetry and poetics to help us realize at least two things. That everything around us has a creative viability with the potential to spur new thinking and imaginative output and that the most necessary ingredient to bringing the sustainable, humane changes we need and want for our world requires creativity in all lives, every single day. It’s a pretty drastic world. I keep meeting people who say, Well, isn’t it a luxury to write poetry? I think the complete opposite. Art is extremely important right now because we need to be creative. We need to hit our creative core and open it up in order to figure out how to make these changes. We really, definitely need to make changes. We’re on a sinking ship.
LD In your (Soma)tic Writing Exercise, Radiant Elvis MRI, you describe an exercise to prepare oneself for an MRI. You propose examining a certain place, and you wrote, “The space I chose is a street in Philadelphia, a place I know more than any other place on our planet.” Where is this place, and will you describe it?
CAC It’s 22nd and Chestnut Street. It’s an intersection in Philadelphia. I had a very magical experience right near there. There’s a museum right near there called the Mutter Museum. I was in the herb garden, and I was reading this document supposedly by a Rosicrucian, that’s very much like this exercise, only it goes a little further. That exercise was to manipulate people and things in an environment. This was to be able to be in that environment when you’re not anywhere near there. That street corner comes up in dreams sometimes when I’m not in Philly, when I’m out doing a reading or whatever in another city.
What’s on the corner? One of my favorite architects in Philadelphia history, Frank Furness, he designed the Unitarian Church which is there. There’s a pharmacy on the corner. There’s so many minute details. The thing is about this corner is since I started the process of absorbing the contents, it’s sort of become addictive. The idea is that you choose something in your life, a place that you frequent, that each time you approach this place, prepare yourself to stop, look very closely at it, close your eyes, imagine what you saw, and then open your eyes to see what you missed, and each time you’re going to keep incorporating all of these missing pieces until you have the entire contents of the space whether it’s a room or a place outside. You can actually go there, project yourself in that place, which is what the MRI somatic exercise is about. The MRI machine works with the water molecules of our bodies to have them face one direction by way of magnetic charge. It’s at that point that you really start to visit that place when you’re inside the MRI machine. Once you find yourself in that place you begin to float, you start to be in that place in a way that you haven’t been before. Then you come out and take notes, and you write your poem.
LD What advice would you give to a young poet?
CAC My friend Frank Sherlock and I were just up in Boston to speak to students at Bridgewater State College. They’re amazing kids. One of the students asked, How do you know whether a poem is good or bad? I answered her by saying, There are so many people who love the work of poets that I don’t like, but I realized at this stage of my life that it’s none of my business what people like. The important thing is that people utilize their creative centers and get moving in their own way. So there’s that. The other thing that I think it very, very, very, very, important that young poets don’t take advice, solicited or not. I think there needs to be more rebellion going on than there is. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with these younger poets. There are poets right now who are in their late teens and twenties who are just blowing my mind. They’ve got their shit together far more than I ever did when I was their age.
I feel like there’s too much subservience in some way. I’m from Generation X. We were kind of the generation that everybody ignored because we were so small in numbers. We just didn’t care what anybody thought. This generation now, they’re about twice the size of my generation. There’s too much listening going on, and there are a lot people my age and older with big mouths who keep telling people what to do, and I don’t like that. I was always extremely, extremely defiant when I was a younger poet. There were always these older poets who were constantly yammering, yammering, yammering, telling me who I should be reading, how I should be writing, and I don’t know. I mean, I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. Most of them were kind of boring anyway. I think that when you meet somebody who wants to tell younger poets how things should be, it’s because they’ve kind of failed at what they wanted to do. I hate to be mean about it, but they need to shut up and let the younger poets figure it out for themselves. I think a really important thing is to read, find out what you like reading. Have friends your age whose work you admire. I think that’s good, being around a bunch of poets. They should work together to keep the big mouth older poets out of their business. There are way too many older poets right now who want to dictate how things should be.
When I have these (Soma)tic poetry workshops sometimes people are uncomfortable. I did a series of ten of them at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York. I think in the beginning a few people were kind of nervous because I wasn’t gonna have people read their poems. I didn’t want to sit there and be saying who’s good and who’s not. I’m interested in process. I’m interested in going outside and sitting still and choosing three objects around you, drawing a line between them to make a triangle and see what’s inside the triangle, meditating on the world. When you read poems, you’re going to find out what you like. There are a lot of poets being published today whose work I love, and there are a lot of poets whose work I can’t stand. It’s really, in the end, none of my business who likes them and who doesn’t.
CAConrad is the author of The Book of Frank (Wave Books, 2010), and a collaboration with poet Frank Sherlock, The City Real & Imagined (Factory School, 2010). He is also the author of Advanced Elvis Course (Soft Skull Press, 2009), (Soma)tic Midge (Faux Press, 2008), and Deviant Propulsion (Soft Skull Press, 2006). The son of white trash asphyxiation, his childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift. Visit him online at his website or with his friends at their website
Luke Degnan is an audio engineer, a poet, and a musician. He has received countless accolades from highly respected institutions.