A writer finds lust for life in the wake of death.
“Sauntering, in the best sense, is when you’re walking the ground like it’s holy, and that’s how I wanted to view Philadelphia, and I do,” says local poet CA Conrad. “It’s not perfect. I’ve seen so many people kill themselves … die of murders.”
Twenty-four years ago, Conrad fled what he calls the “white-trash asphyxiation” of rural central Pennsylvania into the gritty bosom of Philadelphia to live out his calling. The gay poet says that after years of enduring homophobic taunting in his hometown he came to the city because, “I loved poetry and I didn’t know where else to go.”
Conrad’s an intense guy. For the last quarter century, he’s been relentlessly mining corners of every experience to find the words he wrestles into elegantly bizarre knots of award-winning poetry.
Now, along with friend and frequent collaborator poet Frank Sherlock, Conrad has delivered a dark and sometimes bizarre love letter to Philadelphia. The City Real & Imagined , released last month by Factory School, is in some ways a fractured epistolary ode to Philadelphia, a city that Conrad loves deeply and, all these years later, still sees as his salvation.
Relying on an artistic relationship that’s been strong since they decided to exchange poems through the mail in 1995, Conrad and Sherlock were inspired to discover Philadelphia new again. For each day, 12 in all, that they worked on the manuscript, they’d meet at LOVE Park, touch Robert Indiana’s Love statue, then amble in a new direction, reading graffiti, listening to street sounds and the people who live there, exploring corners and bodegas and bars. “It’s not some Pollyanna thing,” says Conrad.
In the book, he quotes a drag queen on the corner of 13th & Spruce (“$100!? Do you know how many dicks I’ve got to suck to make $100!?), talks to a homeless man sleeping on the Ben Franklin Parkway and chronicles the “painfully ordinary” people drinking pints at the Black Sheep bar.
But there's also:
I'm trying to locate
LOVE with no
even an instant
winter has a
ready for us
An unapologetically queer poet activist with trademark dark nail polish, long witch-y hair and gentle blue eyes, 44-year-old Conrad radiates Buddha-like reverence and lust for life. He remembers getting mad at friends who committed suicide. “Our time is so short already,” he says.
Conrad says he only sleeps four hours a night, because he feels like it’s a waste of time; he might miss something new. He was recently asked who his audience is in an interview about The City Real & Imagined, he answered: “Everyone who desires to stay as awake as possible for as long as possible.”
Conrad, who has been surrounded by death his whole life, has made a living out of staying wide awake.
When Conrad first arrived in Philly, his boyfriend introduced him to a long-shuttered place called The Bacchanal, near Juniper and South streets.
“I spent all my time at the Bacchanal,” he says. “It was a magical place … It changed my life.”
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