Road Trip

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Poet Ali Liebegott took an epic road trip across America. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. She interviewed female writers — mainly poets — along the way. In previous installments of the series, she introduced the tripspoke with Maggie NelsonAmy GerstlerSarah Shun-Lien Bynum and others. Here is her interview with CAConrad:  

I interviewed CAConrad in a condo in Akumal, Mexico while he was attending the RADAR Lab as a writer in 2012. His books include A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics, The Book of Frank, The City Real & Imagined (with Frank Sherlock), Advanced Elvis Course, (Soma)tic Midge, Deviant Propulsion as well as many chapbooks.  In addition, he’s the editor of Jupiter 88, a video journal of contemporary poetry. 

—Ali Liebegott

I. A LOADED GUN

ALI LIEBEGOTT: Do you remember the first time you ever heard or read an Emily Dickinson poem?

CA CONRAD: Yes, I do. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in this terrible little town. There are these two filmmakers named Belinda and David Schmidt who are making a documentary about me and my poetry. We recently went back to where I grew up. And it hasn’t really changed. They thought I was probably making some of the stuff up or embellishing but they found out that I was not. The Ku Klux Klan kind of runs the town. They’re on the school board; they’re on the zoning board. They’re big. They’re not the clan you think of and they interviewed my father about it and they were kind of freaked out by the interview because he was very open about the Klan being everywhere and he had to shut his windows, he was afraid people could hear. It’s a paranoid old town. For some reason I just wanted to tell you that part. So the thing is that the library is really deficient. There’s a deficit of anything smart. But they had Emily Dickinson in the library because everyone in America does and I remember the first time I read an Emily Dickinson poem on my own picking up the book off the shelf of poetry and being in love with it.

AL: How old were you?

CA: Maybe nine or ten. At this point in my life my mother had been arrested a bunch of times and couldn’t get work. So she put me to work at age eight, selling cut flowers along the highway. There was all this isolation, so I started reading. I went to the library because I needed books and I remember finding this book of Emily Dickinson’s poems and falling in love with it. A few years later, she came up in class for the first time and I was disappointed immediately with the teacher’s conversation around her. I felt like the teacher was shitting on my beautiful personal ideal of Emily.

AL: How so?

CA: I remember thinking right away that there was something bold about this, and I found out years later that I was right. The teacher was wrong. The teacher made Emily Dickinson into this frail, scared, wilting lily. But the true story really is: centuries of poetry came up to her doorstep and she didn’t like any of it. She said, I have to make something new. That’s courageous. You don’t do that if you’re some frail, frightened being. I think she was a real badass, actually. I think that we’re in love with that story because she didn’t participate in the world the right way. But how could she?

She was a woman in Amherst at a time when women didn’t have a voice. Period. And any man who touched her poems changed them immediately. That’s the thing. She was an outsider because she was a woman to poetry. I feel the same way with being queer. For her time period she was a very serious kind of outsider and it would just make sense that a kind of outsider on her level would create something that was a lasting force because it would be new. When you’re an outsider you don’t have to adhere to all those fucking rules, right?

AL: Do you have a favorite poem by her?

CA: I hope this isn’t disappointing but I love the one: My life has stood a loaded gun. I just think that’s insane that she wrote that. Nobody was writing anything like that. Emily Dickinson has zero counterparts in my opinion. She’s completely on her own. She changed everything for us. And the thing is I found out the older I got that story that we were made to accept about Emily Dickinson—living this particular way that made her look kind of spooky in her house in Amherst. It was a prevalent story but I also think it was wrong. I also think she was a dyke.

 

AL: You do?

CA: Yeah. She seemed to be smitten with her sister-in-law.

AL: You’ve been to her home, right?

CA: Yeah.

AL: Because I know your poem Emily Dickinson Came to Earth and Then She Left. Have you been more than once?

CA: Yes. I’d been years ago. Actually, can I tell you this?

AL: Tell me anything.

CA: So when I was a teenager I was going to poetry readings for the first time in Philly. I was eighteen and there were all these horribly mean, grumpy men. I always argued with these men. I was trying to make it to the readings just before they started because these men would always pontificate endlessly before the reading to prove to everyone in the room how wise they are or whatever the fuck they were really doing. So this one guy sitting in front of me said, “Oh, what a shame that there’s nobody left alive now who knew Emily Dickinson.” And I said, “That’s not true.” And he said, “What do you mean by that?” And I said, “Well, I’ve been to her house and those trees in her yard, some of which she planted, are very old.” And he said, “Well, I mean people.” And I said, “Well, I do too.” I mean why is it that we think that trees only have thoughts if we cut them down, grind them up and put our own thoughts on them? Emily was an experienced gardener. She touched the earth all the time. You don’t even need to know that. You can see it in her poems. Her grace with the elements. I went back years later and didn’t even go in the house. I went to the trees, the ones in the backyard, and they were definitely alive when she was alive. They’re very old and large. My idea was, the house is wooden but it’s dead wood so I wanted to deal with the living trees. So I took the dirt.

AL: Have you been to the sister-in-law’s house?

CA: No.

AL: That’s pretty amazing. A woman was living in there until the 80s actually so it’s pretty untouched as far as—it’s falling down but there’s like the original wallpaper and all this stuff in there. It’s pretty nuts. The first time I ever went there the docent had a basket of poems and we were allowed to read one of her poems in her bedroom. It was powerful to look out the window that you knew she was looking out. Just to be in that space—I could barely get the air into my lungs. For me going to her house was a literary pilgrimage. Can you talk about the pilgrimages you’ve made in your life?

AL: How much dirt did you take?

CA: I filled a canister. I did this whole thing. I still have some of the dirt. Didn’t I give you one of those flags?

AL: I still have it.

CA: I took enough dirt to make this project involving the poem and an American flag and I blacked out all of the stars except for one for Emily. And then there was a black stripe on the flag for the star to escape. I feel like she’s from another time. Yeah, the dirt. I have plenty of it. I took a lot of dirt.

AL: What time of year was it when you went?

CA: It was fall. I know it was then because we went into the woods near her house and we found an abandoned orchard deep in the woods where other orchards had grown up around it but because it had not been tended to—all of the fruit on the trees were miniature. That’s the thing that people don’t understand. Apples and pears in the grocery store, they’ve been tended to - but if they’re not they become much smaller. There were all these miniature pears and apples and cherries. It was such a magical journey with Susie [Timmons]. First of all, she’s the best person in the world. In fact, Eileen Myles’ novel Inferno has a whole chapter on just Susie.

Talk about pilgrimages, I went in search of Eileen Myles in maybe 1991 after Not Me came out from Semiotext(e). I went to the Poetry Project and the people there were like, “Well, we’re not going to give you her phone number.” Then I just picked up a payphone and dialed information and they gave me her number and she answered immediately and we started talking.

AL: How old were you?

CA: My very early 20s. How old were you when you met her?

AL: It must’ve been the same. We had actually met and I had never heard of her and we walked down the street together. I’d just moved to San Francisco and she told me she was a poet and she was just visiting San Francisco. It was 1992, the year she was running for President and Not Me had come out and she told me she was doing a reading later in the week and to come to the reading and I went to the reading and I remember going home that night and writing in my journal, “I met a poet tonight.” I guess it would’ve been five years later we ended up being on tour with Sister Spit.

CA: Oh that’s beautiful.

AL: But I remember going home and writing in my journal, “I met a poet tonight.” It felt like this sign from the universe to keep moving in the right direction.

CA: That’s nice. Did you tell her that story?

AL: Yeah. A long time ago. Do you have a book that you’re most proud of?

CA: That I’ve written, you mean? I don’t know. I can say this. I know that The Book of Frank, I can’t believe it, but it just seems like everybody seems to like it. No matter where I go. My mind was blown. I read in Portland, Oregon and—I’m not making it up— there must’ve been close to three hundred people. I literally filled the trunk of my rental car with books and I sold all the books in Portland. My mind was blown. And then I emailed the publisher and they said, “Don’t worry, in San Francisco they already have the books.”

AL: That’s a great poet problem to have—to sell all your books.

CA: It is. But I was surprised. The thing is you just do these things and you have no idea what’s going on. I don’t know if it’s the publisher getting the word out but The Book of Frank has—I’m not really answering your question because I’m telling you what other people think, but I think The Book of Frank kind of just gets into people. I wrote it for sixteen years.

II. A PALPABLE ELYSIUM

AL: You’ve talked to me privately a little bit about your process with The Book of Frank; can you tell me a little more? Also, tell me about your awakening in 2005 and how you wanted to let poetry completely change your life.

CA: Well, before 2005 I was writing poems just the way that most people write poems. They come to you. You write them. You read. You discover new writers, and those tools get absorbed in some way. I only ever had one poetry writing workshop and it was when I was eighteen or nineteen, with this poet named William Stafford, and it was just horrible. He was not very generous and he said all the wrong things for me. Or maybe all the right things, because I refused to ever go to another poetry workshop again. All I did was read poetry. I’d rather learn that way anyway. The Book of Frank just sort of started one day and I just kept going with it. And a little chapbook came out in early 1994. One of the chapbooks made its way to Jonathan Williams who was one of the last living poets from Black Mountain College. Jonathan tracked me down. He was so persistent. Speaking of pilgrimages, I don’t think anybody in American History has taken more pilgrimages to poet’s houses than Jonathan. He has this whole book called A Palpable Elysium where he went around and photographed poets in their houses. He was the person who broke through to Mina Loy when she was in self-imposed exile in Michigan or someplace. He convinced her to let him republish Lunar Baedeker & Time-Tables. Anyway, he wanted to publish more of these poems and I was thrilled. I couldn’t believe it because he published so many people that I admired: Mina Loy, Robert Creeley. So I started working with him. And this book just didn’t come out. From 1995 to 2005 it still hadn’t come out. And he was saying, you’re just impatient. He was super, super fucking slow about everything.

AL: Ten years.

CA: Ten years. But then he died. And now Wave Books has published it and I absolutely adore them. I can’t believe they’re real sometimes. Joshua Beckman, Matthew Zapruder. They’re really kind and they’re kind to the work. They really care about it. They published The Book of Frank. I literally wrote the book for sixteen years.

AL: Did it feel done to you?

CA: Oh yeah. It’s funny. As soon as Wave published it the poems stopped. The conversation stopped and I was ready for it to stop. I’m still writing poems. It’s just in 2005 I wanted something different. I had this deep need to have the poetry be my life as opposed to just being in my life. The first series I did was eating a single color food for the day and wearing the color in some way. I think about Emily Dickinson a lot because she really struck out and decided to just create a whole new form. I felt like I really wanted Emily Dickinson’s piece because she really was the first poet I ever read that I connected with. I said, this is poetry. And one of my absolute favorite first poet meeting was Eileen Myles. I’d met poets before her but she changes everything.

AL: How come?

CA: Not just the talent of the poems but her courageous way with the talent. She’s been through so much and she really just doesn’t seem to take any prisoners. Everything is bold. She doesn’t seem to have time for anything unless it is bold and I have a lot of respect for that. She takes a lot of shit, though. Haters abound. She’s probably the best living poet. She has this new book out from Wave that’s just unbelievable.

AL: Snowflake/different streets?

CA: Yeah. I love that. It’s great to hear her read from it. She’s one of the only poets where I like every single book of poetry they’ve written. I came across her book at a really dark part of my life before I met her. Sappho’s Boat—that woke me up. Philadelphia was kind of a cesspool when I moved there in the mid- eighties. It was great because the rent was so cheap, but also, too many drugs and waking up in a pile of people in the middle of the night became very depressing after a while. And that’s when I found Sappho’s Boat. I started reading it and it blew my mind immediately and then Not Me came out and I just thought, Oh my god I have to see this person. I just felt compelled to see her. It said she lived in New York City. How hard was it to get to New York City from Philadelphia? So then I got to meet her and I just read book after book. Skies, School of Fish. They’re all amazing.

AL: When you met, what did you do?

CA: I called and she answered and said, “Who is this?” and I told her, “You don’t know me but I’m a poet from Philadelphia” and she said, “Well, what do you want?” I said, “Well I don’t know. I thought you might like to come to Philadelphia to do a reading.” I forget what she said, something like, “I need eight hundred dollars!” Something crazy like that. I think she thought I would never come up with that. But I did. I went back to Philly and I spoke to the owner of North Star Bar where I was doing a reading series at the time—Charlie—and he said, “Okay.” We packed the place. And then I started confiding. Just different things about writing and who I am and what I’ve been through, and we became friends. She’s a truly kind, generous person on top of all of it. It’s kind of a strange mix. I’m used to men being in her position in the poetry world and they tend to not be nearly as generous or kind. She’s completely her own person. I actually can’t imagine the landscape of American poetry without her work.

AL: For me, my vice is that I love to watch baseball games. I want to know what some of the other things are in the room for you in the day. What do you like? Do you have any pets?

CA: I have no pets. I love animals. I really don’t want anything in my life that’s going to tie me down, if possible. I feel very fortunate to not have to work at the moment. That’s kind of amazing.

III. THE NEWS

AL: So I want to know, do you do crossword puzzles? What happens in your day that isn’t poetry?

CA: I don’t even own a television. I really hate television. And I’m not judging anybody who does like it I’m just saying, I hate it. When I’m housesitting I watch the news. That’s the one thing I do. Because I listen to the news. And I kind of just hate the news when I’m listening to it or seeing it.

AL: The news is so hard.

CA: It’s horrible. It’s hard. The very first thing I do when I wake up, even here, is go through this whole somatic I’ve been writing every day since Spring of 2006: not cutting my hair to remind me that we’re at war. I really feel like I need to stop that soon, because it’s getting harder and harder to do it. I really feel like it’s not going to end. I feel like we’ve been lied to so often by everybody. The gay men that are being hunted down and tortured and murdered every single day in Iraq - that’s genocide. I just can’t believe this president we all put so much stake in can’t say the word genocide. In Europe they have noted that we don’t talk about it and they call it the silent genocide. I’m horrified by it. I’m horrified by everything right now. The Holocaust museum in D.C. did a special exhibit in Philadelphia at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center a year and a half ago about gays in the Holocaust and I went to this opening for one purpose only—to discuss the gay genocide in Iraq.

I’ll be honest with you, while walking there I thought, Gosh this is going to be a real bummer. An opening for such a thing is going to be sad. When I took the elevator up I could hear—before I ever get there—this party noise. The doors open and it’s this huge party. Meanwhile there are these twelve-foot placards all the way around the entire room with these horrifying stories. Like the Nazis just spent every day trying to find some new way to torture people. And this exhibit was specifically about gay men, so it was kind of a big deal. So there’s all these tables of food and wine and liquor and booze. And some evil real estate queen at a piano and his drunk boyfriend singing show tunes. It was really a party.

Anyway, I was angry and I looked across the room for somebody else like me and there was this really angry older dyke across the room with her arms folded and I thought, I have to speak to her. I went over and said, “Can you believe this is a fucking Holocaust party? And she said, “I know. What’s the matter with these people?” She was outraged. I said, “Do you know who are the people here representing the Holocaust museum?” and she pointed them out to me.

She went over with me. Her name was Inga and she’s wild—I love Inga. I guess she’s in her 60s. Second wave feminism type of dyke. She really cares about the world. She knew about the genocide in Iraq and I told her about what I wanted to talk to them about and she wanted to be there with me when I did that. I confronted them. There were four of them. Very nice people. Whatever, I wasn’t being an asshole about it. I introduced myself and said, “I’m happy you have this exhibit. But I also said I think it’s creepy to have a party. How can you eat?” People were eating liverwurst sandwiches. They were twelve feet, these big placards. It’s such a bad idea but nobody seemed to notice but Inga and I.

I got around to saying, “I’ve been to your museum and it’s a great museum, a very important museum. But you hammer home this point that we have this museum so that this never happens again, so how do you feel about the fact that it is happening again?” And I started talking about the gay genocide in Iraq. And while I’m talking about it, one of the men literally took a step forward to take over. He was clearly their boss and he said, “Just so you know, we’re very proud of the fact that at the Holocaust museum we do not take part in bipartisan politics.” And I said, “What are you talking about? I’m talking about gay genocide in Iraq. A country we have invaded and we’re occupying. It’s our fault. Especially if we do nothing about it.”

The publisher of Philadelphia News rescued them. He and I don’t get along. Philadelphia is a very hard place to be right now as a gay person. I met Marsha P. Johnson (who started the Stonewall Riot) twenty years ago. She was talking about our obligation to do something about the direction that the gay community is going in. Of course, the same week the United States invaded Baghdad in 2003, the Human Rights Campaign started their entire campaign to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. That was their focus. Meanwhile, people like Marsha P. Johnson and Harvey Milk, all those people—they were against the war in Vietnam, they were for Labor Rights. They were marching for civil rights. Coretta Scott King even talks about gay people marching with her and her husband in Selma when they had no rights of their own.

The gay community is completely on the wrong side of history in 2012, as far as I can see, and they don’t even know how to talk about it anymore. The repealing of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was such an unbelievable moment. I remember listening to the news that day and hearing a roar of applause as Obama signed the document repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

I don’t understand how it’s okay to join hands with a multi-million dollar military industrial complex at a time when that military has created a situation where it topples a secular government. Now these religious fanatics have taken over and they’re hunting down gay men. Our military made that possible. All those closeted gay men and lesbians in the military helped make life for gay men in Iraq unendurable. I can’t even imagine. There are people who are saying right now that there is no more dangerous place to be if you’re a gay man than Iraq right now. There’s no more dangerous place to be a woman than Afghanistan right now. In 2011 it became known as the most dangerous nation on Earth. I don’t know how women in the U.S. military can justify their actions.

When I’m on a panel, I always make somebody angry talking about this and somebody always says to me, “Well, their lives weren’t that great in the first place.” And I’m like, “Do you really want me to go through this with you? Do you realize what you just said?” You’re basically saying, “Oh well.” Because no, you’re wrong. Their lives were never this bad. You can say what you want but there are a lot of organizations on this planet that spend a lot of time trying to figure out, every March or so is when the work comes out, what is the most dangerous country on Earth for women? Afghanistan is now at the top of that list. Obama’s troop surge caused that. It took him less than a hundred days in his presidency to put three times as many troops in Afghanistan as Bush ever had. And as a result it’s become the most dangerous country on Earth for women and the thing is it’s just this lip process. We will repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I’ll make an announcement saying I’m in favor of gay marriage but I’m not going to really do anything about it. It’s not like he’s making some executive order or putting his foot down. He said, “We’ll leave it up to the states to decide.” Well, the states were already deciding it. That didn’t mean anything.

IV. “You really need to cultivate the courage in some way. It’s essential.”

AL: Do you care about gay marriage?

CA: You know what, I don’t. I am so not interested in one more conversation about gay and lesbian rights in America while gay men are being hunted down and tortured in a country we occupy. Gay men going to the green zone and being turned down for political asylum. That is a total political move. Both Obama and Clinton do not want to be known as the people who gave political asylum to faggots. They don’t. This country hates faggots and they certainly don’t want Iraqi faggots here because of the racism involved on top of the homophobia. I just really feel like it’s a political move to ignore it. It’s just all about ignoring it. It’s like Ronald Reagan all over again, not saying the word AIDS for eight years.

AL: I always feel like our job as poets is to remain awake to things. I feel as I get older my willingness to be awake to things is much less than it used to be. For me poetry is so connected to a kind of spirituality. I’m always hoping that I’m being led by some force to be able to do what I’m doing. I think if I’m in your shoes and I’m trying to live every day and start my day by being the most awake. Where are you getting your energy or strength or guidance?

CA: I’ve been a vegetarian since 1988. I bring that up because I think it does help. I’m forty-six this year and I know that I need to change things. I feel a pressure within at this point to find a way to alter—this poem that I’m writing every morning. It’s already over nine hundred pages and I can’t read it. I start reading and it literally—not a figure of speech—makes me nauseous. And I think it’s making me nauseous because of the spiritual impact I’ve wanted it to have that’s not there. It was a form of hubris, in a way, to think that I could do such a thing, but it all comes from the green poem in the 2005 book. That was the angriest of the seven poems. The color green is the heart chakra, so it’s where love is from, and I feel like my love is so enmeshed with anger. I had a boyfriend die of AIDS. I had a boyfriend who was murdered. That’s all tied into it, but also the green poem was about the wars, and it was about giving respect to the dead. It was this whole section—this block—about fucking for the dead. It just came right out of me. We need to have sex for the dead. Yeah, you enjoy sex, and it’s a beautiful and pleasurable thing, but you’re also doing it for these people that you would really love to help but you don’t have any idea how to.

AL:  What advice do you give writers today, or people of the world?

CA: I don’t have any advice for the people of the world. I’m not very optimistic and I feel like I have to be honest. I have a lot of friends who feel the way I do and then I have these friends who say things can change. There are seven billion children now. The seven billionth child was born in October of last year. There were only a billion people in 1900 and there had never been more than that before then. I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing with all these people. One of my heroes is the scientist Lynn Magulis, who created the word “symbiogenesis.” That means we all work together, and we all need one another. She was interviewed recently and one of the questions was, “What do you think of the human race?” and she was like, “Oh, it’s over.” She doesn’t hesitate. She says, “we’re finished.” She says the fossil record of human beings will be very, very small and it will be the automobile. Whoever will find it will know we were here. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But when it comes to writing? I’ll put it to you this way: At the Bernadette Mayer conference last year I was on a panel, and there was this person up there saying these snarky things like, oh, we all know there’s too much writing in the world. I stopped this person and I said, wait a minute. There’s too much war in the world. There’s never too much writing and what are we even doing here if there’s too much writing? Are we supposed to all just go home and kill ourselves? If you’re a writer and you love writing, what are you doing here at a Bernadette Mayer conference saying there’s too much of it? I don’t really use the word should very often to writers, but I think the biggest should, the very serious should I would aim at writers in a very serious way. You need to be brave. You absolutely have to be courageous. I think it’s easier if you’ve been through a lot. It makes it so much easier for you later on when these haters come along. You really need to cultivate the courage in some way. It’s essential.

AL: Do you battle self-doubt as an artist about your own work?

CA: No.

AL: Because you seem like you’re constantly moving forward.

CA: First of all, I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think writer’s block is a symptom of a writer at a time in their life spending too much time doing this horrible shit like jobs. Just last year there was this amazing list that came out that a nurse compiled where she was interviewing many people on their death beds asking them about regret.

AL: They regretted working too much, right?

CA: One regret was that they worked too hard. The number one regret people have on their deathbeds is that they wished they had lived the lives that they had wanted to live instead of the lives that others made them live. That’s essential. It’s really important. If you really want to be a writer I think you really have to live the life you want to live. Annie Dillard has this amazing quote in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She says, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” I think she’s right. I have known too many people who will say to me, well I really want to get this law degree and then I’ll come back to poetry, and they do not. When I conduct workshops I always have somebody there who says, goddamn I’m working two jobs and I’ve got a kid and I just don’t have time to write but I want to write. And I say, good I’m glad you’re here, because that’s what I care about. And you can do it. Toni Morrison wrote her Nobel Prize winning Beloved while raising two kids on her own and holding down a full time job. You can do it. I’m glad I don’t have to do it.

AL: I work with someone—this is in my novel because it’s such a great line—and this happened at the end of the night, when we were counting all our money from the grocery store. I forget what had happened exactly, but she said, I just can’t wait till all this shit’s through. And I was like, “What shit?” And she said, “The whole fucking thing.” I only know this time to live but it isn’t a time of great hope. It’s really, really not a time of great hope.

See more of the series.

Image: Shary Boyle