A writer finds lust for life in the wake of death.
The hole-in-the-wall gay bar was a hive for artists like poets Gil Ott and Lamont Steptoe. Conrad says he met philosophers, sculptors, novelists and musicians there; it was an alcohol-soaked baptism into Philly’s underground arts.
He threw himself into the local poetry scene. Philadelphia fixture Ketan Ben Caesar handed Conrad the reins to the North Star Bar Poetry Series, which he ran through the late ’80s into the early ’90s.
Getting published was a totally different animal back then. Before the Internet, you had to be in a scene to know about the “right” publications, and you had to know the publications to get into the scene. Being restless and out and about all the time, “I started to meet poets from all over the world. It was before the Internet so you had to rely on friends showing you zines like Zipperfucked, or Blank Gun Silencer, or South 666 Bitch. But you would send work and correspond. It was great.”
Throughout the ’90s, Conrad was co-publisher and co-editor of Insight To Riot Press along with Jim Cory and Janet Mason. “We had a lot of fun, and covers were stupendous because we were fortunate enough to have John Ignarri doing the art and design work for them,” says Conrad.
“There was a lot of drama back in the ’80s that just seemed so incredibly stupid. There was a lot of wonderful poets, but it’s a much better scene now. I think this is the best time that I’ve ever seen for poetry in Philadelphia,” he says, acknowledging the New Philadelphia Poets, the Chapter & Verse series run by Ryan Eckes at Chapterhouse Cafe in South Philly and, of course, sometimes collaborator Frank Sherlock.
“There is no other poet I can begin to imagine writing The City Real & Imagined with other than Frank Sherlock, who is one of the best living poets,” says Conrad.
Last month’s party to celebrate the publication of The City Real & Imagined at the Institute of Contemporary Art in West Philly had a huge turnout for a poetry event, which typically draws smaller crowds of familiar faces. But it seems more people are paying attention to poetry coming out of Philadelphia in general lately, and Conrad’s steady dedication is also finally paying off.
To wit, Seattle-based publisher Wave Books—which published Philly poet Dorothea Lasky’s Awe in 2007—is about to print an expanded edition Conrad’s dark opus The Book of Frank (Chax Press, 2009) that will include new poems and an introduction by acclaimed “rock star of modern poetry” Eileen Myles. Myles has written: “I’ve grown to love CA Conrad—the man, the work, and all he attempts and represents—because he always argues (from the inside of his poems) for a poetry of radical inclusivity while keeping a very queer shoulder to the wheel.”
“Meeting Eileen Myles in the early ’90s was the big thrill, and continues to be,” says Conrad. “She’s without a doubt the most generous elder poet I’ve ever met, hands down, and she changed my life, and continues to change my life.”
With four books published in the last four years, the radical’s work is bleeding into in the mainstream poetry world. He recently traveled to the West Coast to give readings and even has a poem getting published in The Nation soon.
“It’s taken a long time,” he says. “I’m 44 years old. Most people just give up before then.”
The whole reason he began writing in the first place was because, like so many writers, Conrad was ostracized, made to feel like a freak. As a kid, he spent most of his spare time sitting alone in a car at the mouth of the turnpike selling cut flowers for his mother, who couldn’t get a job because of her shoplifting record.
“It’s a terrible thing to do to a kid,” he says. “You’re all alone on the highway, nothing’s around, and you’re forced to be isolated.”
He’s talked about sleeping in front of his sister’s closet door with a rifle while she huddled inside as his drunk stepfather slurred, “C’mere, show me your pretty little pussy.”
To beat back the loneliness and steer his fate out of those country woods that he calls “fascist,” 8-year-old Conrad began keeping a journal. By the time he was a teenager, he was doing drugs with the Amish boys while they were on rumspringa.
Had he not run away to become a poet, Conrad muses that he would have likely wound up building coffins in the local casket factory like the rest of his family, assuming he survived being queer. But while acknowledging that the city saved him, Conrad shakes his head when recalling an earlier time when it wasn’t much friendlier to gays than his rural hometown was—especially in the 1980s.
“When I was a teenager, I had this drag-queen friend. He hung himself and we found him,” says Conrad. “The police were so horrible back then. They saw Eddie hanging in his wedding dress and they shouted, ‘We’ve got a fruit on a loop up here!’”
He’s seen a lot of sadness and death up close: suicides, murders, gay-bashing and the first wave of AIDS. “It was really hard when I moved here because everybody was dying in the neighborhoods,” says Conrad. Still, his poetry relies on him choosing to see the world fresh, to celebrate the good while calling bullshit on the rest.
Conrad’s first big break came with Deviant Propulsion (Soft Skull Press, 2006), an in-your-face collection of blunt prose. Soft Skull describes the book as: “CA Conrad’s poems vibrate with the flamboyant desire that manifests itself in queer culture, where the right to act on basic desires can become a battleground, and everyday acts of love and devotion must be enacted as a political form of defiance.”
His next two books were published last year. Advanced Elvis Course (Soft Skull Press, 2009) is a series of vignettes, dialogue blurbs, quotes and homemade magic squares that explore Conrad’s fascination with Elvis Presley as America’s thorny-crowned cultural king. Then came The Book of Frank , a collection of skinny, jagged semi-autobiographical stanzas that chronicle the surreal and tragic life of a kid named Frank.
Wild is true punk royalty in this town, and his services to Philly music were formally recognized in the 1980s when Wild was anointed “Mayor of South Street” in a formal presentation at the storied rock club J.C. Dobbs.
Wherever Roselius is, that’s where the party’s at.
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