by Robin Gow, Editor-at-Large
I shook hands with CA Conrad across a counter as they poured sapphire blue glitter onto a newspaper. They had paused to do their nails before just before beginning the “Office Hours Craft Class” I was attending at the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division.
The Bureau of General Services—Queer Division or BGSQD, is a bookstore brimming with LGBTQ+ texts on every wall and shelf. In most bookstores, but this one especially, I feel like in a room with all the people behind the books. I let my eyes drift to the cover David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives, which was nestled between a I Must Be Living Twice by Eileen Myles and a collection of Keith Haring’s photography.
I’m not especially good at making small talk, in fact, I worry so much about introducing myself that I keep note cards in my journal full of sample introductions: Tell person the last book you read, tell person you write poetry, tell person you’ve recently become obsessed with writing sonnets.
So, no. I didn’t really talk to Conrad much as I awaited the workshop. I stood close enough to listen to what they were saying while pretending to intently peruse book covers, resisting the urge to scroll on my cell phone. Other people attending the workshop started to arrive, and I reflected on how being in the presence of other queer poets can feel validating in itself. We set up folding chairs in an amoeba-like circle, exchanging names and pronouns as we went.
to know glitter on a queer is not to dazzle but to
unsettle the foundation of this murderous culture
defiant weeds smashing up through cement
From CA Conrad’s “Glitter In My Wounds”
Having read Conrad’s book, ECODEVIANCE, last year I imagined the workshop would be informed by the kind of consciousness and curiousness about earth and nature that reverberates throughout their poetry and essays. In the book’s namesake poem, “Ecodeviance” they write, “Feed me to the/ tyranny of the/ chrysalis” which I think encapsulates the ways in which they give their physical body to the natural world—in their writing and in their life.
Beyond that, I was honestly looking for an escape from my patterns for at least a Saturday morning. I’m in my first year of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Adelphi University. The program has exploded what I think is possible for myself as a writer. I came in with a pretty narrow focus on writing trippy/magical/queer free-verse poetry and now I have a project to write a YA verse novel and a collection of non-fiction essays. These are all kind of tied together with my main focuses (right now) which seem to be queerness, the body, religion, and family. In my own poetry writing, I’ve been digging into writing about saints.
I think Catholic saints are creepy, fabulous, and sexual. They can also be used as a lens to interrogate how we understand our relationships with our bodies. So many saints stories are full of violence towards the body and tapping into that iconography has been a way for me to explore medical transition and questions of what we will do to our bodies to make them our own.
Just this Thursday, in Jacqueline Jones LaMon’s advanced poetry workshop, she posed our cohort the question “What is the poet’s role in contemporary society?” I turned the question over and over in my head on the train that morning, watching buildings blur into each other out the window. I had considered saying that poets are “listeners” but it didn’t seem quite right. The response seemed like it was lacking some sort of core sentiment that I feel about what “the poet” is. I’m not even sure Conrad is concerned with what the poet is, though I do think that they are deeply concerned with how the poet is.
For most of the two-hour workshop, Conrad explained their own roots and the ways they come to write poetry, focusing on their use of rituals.
At eight years old, Conrad sold buckets of flowers outside the Quakertown entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a place I had passed by probably eighteen times in the past month, back and forth from doctor’s appointments about having chest-surgery in January. My first job (lugging baskets of Winesap and Jonagolds at Renningers farmers market) was probably ten minutes away from Conrad’s. I was also selling produce out of a little wooden stand. I did similar things they did, rehearsing stories in my head when selling was slow, bringing books to read, and surveying the rolling farmland that stretches out on all sides.
I grew up in Kutztown, PA right next to Boyertown where Conrad did. They described feeling an outsider and memories surfaced in me of hiding in the library during lunch in high school. Conrad told about their father who spent so long working in a factory that Conrad felt that factory in themself. My father still works in a factory up the street from the house where I grow up. The parallels felt cosmic. I imagine us meeting up at the market and walking between produce stands and antiques laid out on blankets. I would get them the apricot scone at Adam’s Pantry or hot cider from Stout’s Orchard’s stand.
There is no place and no time where the poems are not possible.
In an effort to break down this “factory” of everyday life, Conrad turns to rituals as a way of building poetry into all aspects of the day. In their manifesto “Somatic Poetry Rituals” Conrad writes, “There is no place and no time where the poems are not possible.” These rituals allow us space to think about poetry in the present, to live poetry. Performing these rituals is like living the poem. The idea of having daily practices to pull you back to the poetry excited me because so often I feel like so much is working to pull me away from poetry.
Even before learning about this type of ritual, I have performed poetry rituals in my own way. Over break I was recovering from surgery and living with my friend from undergrad and their family. It was wonderful but everyone had work and life going on so during the day I’d feel lonely. I made it my goal to take a short walk each day, just in one direction. I found a small pond on the second day and I wrote poems to the pond every day after that.
At the end of the talk, Conrad had us work together to make up a ritual of three practices to implement in the coming weeks:
- answering back to the sounds we hear in day to day life (like yelling back at the car horn).
- smelling and tasting your morning breath
- staring close at your own face in the mirror and using a pen to draw your face while not looking down at it
Conrad’s poetry and writing shatters typical free verse form and structure to push us to hear and see language differently. Beyond craft, Conrad’s dedication to social justice, from ACT-UP NY to their current work drawing attention to the volume of species going extinct, is something I aspire to make part of my life as a poet. One of the last poems they read was titled “Glitter In My Wounds” and it fully captured their radical power of queer resilience and resistance.
first and most important
dream our missing friends forward
burn their reflections into empty chairs
we are less bound by time than the clockmaker fears
this morning all I want is to follow where the stone angels point
birdsong lashing me to tears
heterosexuals need to see our suffering
the violent deaths of our friends and lovers
I’ve decided I think’s that’s what this poet’s role is: to be glitter. Radical glitter. Unignorable. Unapologetic and powerful. Blue and Purple and Pink. The kind of glitter you find on your clothes weeks later and wonder where it came from. Glitter working towards a present with more love in it, more glint and shimmer. Glitter all over the wounds so that no one can ignore them.
After the reading I got up the courage to approach them and we talked briefly about Kutztown. I got their book While Standing In Line for Death and before we parted they offered their pinky and we linked pinkies for a moment as a goodbye. I looked at the glinting sapphire of the fresh glitter on their nails and thought about how I need to paint my own again soon.
More info: (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals: The Basics in 3 Parts
Image: SFMOMA’s Open Space