There’s a reason Philadelphia poet CA Conrad’s latest work rushes down the page like water, collecting in small pools of words glazed in light and reflection: CA Conrad is some body. Which is to say he is acutely aware he is a body, made mostly of water, subject to the push and pull of the moon and sound waves—a wild chemical nest made of strands of DNA, the city’s grey air, pollen, his vegetarian lunch.
By undertaking specific exercises such as eating foods of only one color or listening to one song for four days straight, Conrad tries to drill down into the creative wellspring buried beneath routine. He calls his elaborate writing prompts “(Soma)tic Exercises.”
“There’s the word ‘somatic,’ and that’s Greek and that means the tissue and the body and the cavities and nervous system,” says Conrad. “Then ‘soma,’ which lives inside that word, is the divine. I don’t think it’s a mistake that it lives inside of it.”
In his latest book, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon (Wave Books), the Philadelphia poet shares 27 of his favorite “New (Soma)tics” and, on the next page, the poem borne of the exercise.
We are sitting in a glass bridge that hovers a story above Center City, Philadelphia. The enclosed bridge connects a chain hotel and the convention center. Trolley tracks stretch out ahead and behind us. Travelers walk by, dragging suitcases, heads down, thumbing at phones.
Every so often, the subway rumbles through the tunnels two stories below and the bridge shakes. Conrad, who often sits and writes here, loves when that happens. Today, he sits and chats with a plastic eyeball pinned to his headband in the center of his forehead and a clear, crudely faceted crystal the side of a baseball hanging around his neck.
Rumpus: Wow. So tell us about that crystal.
Conrad: Oh, my newest [poem] has to do with it. You know the new book of poems is somatic exercises? Well, let me first tell you about the crystal. It’s call rainbow quartz. I bought it in New York City at a place called Stick, Stone & Bone. If you hold it up to the light you can see the rainbows deep inside it. Last week I was out on the West Coast during a small book tour, and I spent the night at Mt. Shasta, the foot of the volcano.
I went to this coffee shop and—did you ever see the movie Carrie? The woman who plays her mother? She’s so crazy looking. This woman looked exactly like her. I mean, dressed like a hippie though, but otherwise exactly like her. And she came right up to me, looked at me and said, “That’s a luminaria crystal.” I said, “I’ve been told it’s rainbow quartz.” And she said, “What is this? Kindergarten?” She was really vicious. I said, OK. And then she started talking to me and I swear to you I just could not figure out what she was saying. I couldn’t follow her. She was talking in some spiritual vernacular that I didn’t get at all. I said, “I can’t follow what you’re saying to me.”
She said, “Well look, idiot. You have a luminaria crystal. Why don’t you hold onto it with your left hand.” As soon as I did that, I could hear everything she was saying. What she basically was saying, the gist of it, was that there are three time lines at the volcano at Mt. Shasta and one is the ancient luminarian—you know the luminarian culture?
Rumpus: No. Tell me.
Conrad: You know how you come across a piece of information and then it’s repeated soon afterwards? And it’s something you never heard before.
One of the things that came up the last time I was at [the Edgar Cayce Institute in Virginia Beach] was luminaria. I’d never heard of it before, I never heard it mentioned, I never heard the word in my life. At first I thought it meant luminosity. One of my heroes is Dr. Sylvia Earle, she was the first women oceanographers. She said the most common form of communication on earth is luminosity. Glowing to one another. Because there are so many creatures in the deep sea that we don’t even know about yet.
Rumpus: Did you feel a physical sensation when you held the crystal as the woman was talking to you?
Conrad: Nothing changed except I could understand what she was trying to say. She was mean and bossy but instructive and correct, and here’s the thing, she said, “One of the timelines here is ancient luminaria and that’s where we knew one another.” I said, “Well that’s nice.’ And she said, “No, no it wasn’t. Because you were on the wrong side of history. You were the problem. You were part of the group of people causing on the trouble.” That was the same thing going on in Atlantis but they were different time periods, Atlantis and Luminaria. Both cultures were destroyed much in the way ours is in the process of being destroyed.
Rumpus: What are you thinking of specifically when you say that about our culture?
Conrad: Everyone likes to compare present day American to when Rome fell, but I feel like one of the things they miss with the comparison is fundamental. Rome, the last decade a half before they really fell, had started to neglect the infrastructure: the bridges, the roads, the sewage system. That’s what we’re doing here. Just a couple of decades ago we were spending 12.5 % of our budget on infrastructure. We’re only spending 2% now. That’s something that’s real.
Rumpus: I recall that you’ve been working on somatic exercises for a long time. I’ve
seen you post on your blog inviting people for years.
Conrad: The first official was in 2008 [but] I started making these in 2005. I’ve been doing them pretty consistently all over the place.
Rumpus: What was the first one?
Conrad: The very first one that I created for myself was [eating] the colors and that progressed from there.
Rumpus: Did you use general writing prompts before and then you shifted into somatics?
Conrad: Not like this. No, this is completely different. In 2005, I decided I wanted to have poetry I my life in a way that I never even conceived of before.
The new book is 27 exercises and the resulting poems… the ones that interest me the most for what we’re talking about is on p. 56. It’s called DOUBLE-Shelter. There’s a fun story about this. I knew that I was going to Seattle, this was last spring, to do some workshops and readings. I prepared ahead of time … listening to the refrigerator a certain way, cooking broccoli a certain way. And then when I got to Seattle, I was staying with my friend. I did all the same things in his apartment that I did in my apartment but in reverse order. Then [I listened to] Philip Glass music.
[Instructions from the book: “Listen to Philip Glass, on the floor, very still, in, the, dark, just, you, and, Mr. Glass. I chose “Music In Contrary Motion.” Reflect on a personal violence you want undone. Some terrible THING that removed the beauty you once lived with.”]
I think of his music as a trance vehicle and when you’re in the trance you start to think about trauma you’ve experienced, the body and trauma. For me it was all about a boyfriend of mine who was murdered and burned alive. He was hog-tied and—that’s all in here. The thing about this is my friend Philip and I, he’s an amazing poet, we went to visit the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church. We were walking down the street, and we’re sitting there and [my friend says], tell me about the new poem you were telling me about on the phone. So I hand it to him. And while he’s reading it, Philip Glass sits down at the table right next to us.
Conrad: Philip, my friend, says, you have to go give that to Philip Glass. I was like, I’m supposed to read it tomorrow! He said, “Who cares? Read something else.” But I hand it to him of course. His first reaction was, “Did you know I was going to be here?” He was weirded out. I said, “No, no, no, my friend Philip and I are here for the Poetry Project.”
Rumpus: Crazy coincidence.
Conrad: I don’t believe in coincidence.
Rumpus: Okay, wrong word. Synchronicity?
Conrad: I don’t know. I know what you mean. But I gave it to him and he’s reading it and he kept talking about it while we were eating and then I looked over and he was gone. I had a splitting headache. And all of a sudden I could feel his hand on my shoulders and my headache was just gone.
Then there’s another one in here about another boyfriend that died of AIDS. And one about being mugged. I was mugged at knifepoint. It’s called “Mugged into Poetry.” I was mugged in Fishtown on my way to a poetry reading up there. Have you ever been mugged?
Conrad: It’s just so awful. I’ve been mugged several times since I’ve lived here. This one really unnerved me. I think first because it hasn’t happened in a long time. I was mugged twice in the 80s. This was years later and I was feeling more confident. It was four young men—and when I say young men, I mean teenagers. [He] had this very long filet knife that his father probably had in a tackle box or something. And he seemed particularly jittery. Anyway I gave them everything I had. It’s a long story. The point is I was on the blue line, the el, coming home I said to myself, “Well, I need to walk my talk with this somatic poetry shit.” So that’s what I did, create a whole exercise around being mugged. A ritual that you do every morning for 14 days and then you predict your death, that’s part of it, and then you write.
Rumpus: I’m interested in where trauma to the body and poetry intersect—there’s another spot in your book where you write about breathing and paying attention to where dishonesty occurs in the body.
Conrad: Oh yeah, With your toes. You clench your toes.
Rumpus: Do you see poetry as a healing process?
Conrad: For me it does, yes. I feel like it is useful, and that’s how it’s useful. The somatics is striving to be useful.
Rumpus: It also strikes me the somatics are about jarring you out of the tyranny of routine.
Conrad: That’s a huge part of it, yes. Because you know, everyone’s busy. There are layers of routine throughout the day.
Routine is comfortable because you always know you can do it and the results are what you know they’re going to be. I don’t like it at all. I want to be creative. I don’t want routine to control my life. I moved to Philadelphia in 1986 and I’ve been hanging out here since I was a teenager and I have known so many poets over those years and I’d say 95% of them stopped writing in their 20s. Routine is part of that. You quote-unquote, grow up. You get a grown-up real job, you have kids or whatever, and then you move and you have a car payment, mortgage, everything is this giant wave of influence to not get out your ideas out on how you’re creative. It goes back to my whole thing about the Mummers. The Philadelphia mummers are essential in showing us—they prove that everyone’s creative, everyone has potential. Everybody, everybody, everybody.
Rumpus: Have you received work people have produced inspired by exercises in the book?
Conrad: I put a new one up involving the crystal. I was just on the west coast and the first place I went to was Olympia. And there were these students that had already been doing them and they gave me these beautiful handmade artifacts, hand-sewn cut-outs of drawings and pictures … it was just really lovely.
Rumpus: So you’re traveling more and more, you’re achieving more mainstream poetry success. Has that affected your work?
Conrad: Oh, it’s made it more possible. All of our lives we’re told if you just do what you love and believe in, it will all work out … The thing is, I think it could be true. At least it is for me. My real life has exceeded my dreams. Everybody in my family is working in factories, I feel very fortunate to have gotten out of where I grew up, and I’m the only vegetarian in my family history, and that changed my life.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about that, since your somatics have so much to do with altering or paying attention to diet. Did you become a vegetarian out of poetic concern?
Conrad: Oh, nothing fancy like that, no. It was 1988 and I was living down the street from here, on Juniper Street in an old hotel from the 20s, maybe the 30s, called the Imperial.
Rumpus: Sounds very royal!
Conrad: It’s really not! [laughs] It was kind of great. Outside they had these beautiful carvings from the Canterbury Tales around the door, and all that. But I had this coke dealer boyfriend and every night was a party. Literally, every night was a party. It was like a dream. And then a bunch of horrible things happened and I was very fortunate to have run into a man named Jay, [who] was a sort of macrobiotic guru. And he had this way of really welcoming you into the idea, because it was impossible. He just really made it sound like this was going to be the best thing in the world. And I always hated anybody that said things like that, and then I went back to his house and we ate a bowl of rice. We took an hour and chewed it a lot, that’s all we did, and not talk, and it felt bizarre. I wasn’t used to eating that way. Anyway that led to 10 years, from 1988 to 1998, of very much [immersing] myself in the culture. I went to so many lectures.
The somatics—there’s the word somatic as a whole and that’s Greek and that means the tissue and the body and the cavities and nervous system, then soma that lives inside that word is the divine. I don’t think it’s a mistake that it lives inside of it.
Rumpus: Tell me about your earliest somatic exercises.
Conrad: For the color poem for blue I decided to listen to Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet on repeat from 6am to midnight. It was really a process. But you know what? I didn’t read far enough … on sound and what it can do… We’re 75-80% water. Part of the research I was reading was what sound does to water. So when you’re playing guitar, you’re reshaping the water molecules in your body.
Rumpus: That’s weird, because I was reading your book and I stopped and wrote a song and one of the lines is “My body is water.”
Conrad: Well then you’re totally on it. If I had chosen a song that didn’t have language in it would have been different. When we hear sound that is not language it goes to one part of our brain, but as soon as we hear language—even if its words we don’t know—it goes to another part of the brain that wants to decode. So I was decoding Blue Velvet all day long and that is why it didn’t work. So the next one that I chose was this one without words … I stayed in my home for four and a half days and played it, and that was fine, it wasn’t at all like Blue Velvet.
Rumpus: I think I would go crazy. I can’t listen to songs that have one phrase over and over.
Conrad: So you can’t listen to that song “Roxanne.”
Rumpus: Absolutely not! Now we’re talking Sting. We’ve wandered far from the crystal. Tell me more about the crystal.
Conrad: [There are] electrical currents in crystal that we can use, that we already know. It’s already proven. But the thing about it that they’re also finding out is that they hold information. The crystal can hold more information than any computer we’ve invented. [Recently, I was asked to translate a sonnet from English to English.] What I did was for seven days I took two lines at a time and I’d repeat them over and over again… several times an hour. And then in the evening I put the crystal besides my bed and then programmed it and I’d say, ‘Translate these lines in a dream.’ And then as soon as I’d wake up I’d be very quiet and still for a while and then write down the first two lines that came to mind. So that’s how I translated it.
Rumpus: That’s a lot of work up front. Are you big on editing and revising afterwards?
Conrad: It’s always different.
Rumpus: Some pieces are just fine first time out?
Conrad: Almost never, but sometimes, yeah. Sometimes they just don’t work at all.
Rumpus: Do you write every day?
Conrad: Every day. I write every day and I read poetry every day. That’s all I want to read. I read news, but not novels.
Rumpus: So, back to Mt. Shasta. What happened with that woman?
Conrad: So she approaches me and says, “That’s luminaria crystal and I say, “I don’t know what that means,” and it became this whole thing. She then says to me, keep in mind she’s never met me before she doesn’t know me at all she says, “You are using your first two initials as your name, you need to stop that, you need to start using your first name, because that’s the record you came down to earth with.” … And I said, “But I like using this and I told her why and she was like, “Fine! And she sort of just walked away.”
Rumpus: Why do you prefer CA?
Conrad: It’s general neutral. My mother named me Craig because she knew I’d be a Capricorn. And she had a name picked out if I was a girl. Tara, actually. So Craig is Scottish for brave climber, and the symbol is the mountain goat. Mountain. Capricorn. goat.