A writer finds lust for life in the wake of death.
(People sometimes assume The Book of Frank is about Frank Sherlock because they are so close, but it is not at all. “I always say I wouldn’t wish that on him,” says Conrad. “It’s kind of an evil book, such terrible things happen to him.”)
For example, Frank is the only child in his house that’s not a fetus in a jar. (“You are too big for a jar my child/ you will betray me the rest of your life,” clucks his mother.)
Clearly, Conrad’s work isn’t for the faint of heart. His words run unapologetically dark, examining broken desires of people reduced to husks by abuse; the ongoing tragedies of poverty and war; of being queer out loud in a world where there are still plenty of people who will hate you for it. Conrad says he certainly receives his fair share of hate mail. “It’s always funny because I get hate mail especially from straight people who are cruel and think they’ll hurt me … they just have no idea how much ridicule I’ve already survived,” he says with a shrug, graying hair loose and wild, pale blue eyes shining. “I’m like, you’re going to have to come up with something better than that.”
The most recent wave was after the publication of Advanced Elvis Course . “Soft Skull didn’t mention any of the queer content [in the press release], and it’s a pretty queer book,” explains Conrad. He spent months fending off an Internet mob of angry homophobic Elvis superfans. “People saw [the poems] and went insane,” remembers Conrad. “I’m a disgusting pig, I should kill myself … how dare you talk about Elvis this way.”
Tired of responding to each angry email, Conrad eventually thought of a response that would infuriate the mob even more: he wrote out his interpretation of the lyrics to “Jailhouse Rock” (“I mean there’s no female pronouns, it’s all male prisoners”) and posted them on a Web page. He started just sending the link in response. “It’s just my way of saying I don’t really care what you think,” he says, with a wave of his hand.
When he’d get into a weird spot promoting the book on Southern radio stations, where the audience probably had no idea about the queer content either, Conrad would diffuse the situation by reading poems in a thundering Southern Baptist preacher voice. “They love that,” he says.
“I like to talk about how Elvis is for everybody,” says Conrad. He dedicated the book to the “White Trash Coven of New Brunswick” and the “Magic Elvis Club of Kenya,” who he says blasts the songs of the dead king during tribal healing ceremonies.
Conrad remains a student at heart, always seeking to learn something new.
When exploring the city or recording his dreams each morning aren’t enough to boil his creative juices, Conrad develops exercises he calls (soma)tics, elaborate writing prompts designed to throw what we think we know of the world off-kilter. Conrad says they’re conceptual art projects.
“My impetus is to create. The thing is everybody’s so busy. Whenever I do workshops I always have someone who says, ‘Gosh my life is so busy,’ raising kids or whatever, and they’re like, ‘I needed this kind of thing’ because they’re in a routine … The worst thing that routine does is drive the creative magic out of us to some degree. And [(soma)tics] is sort of reclaiming it,” he says.
“It’s not like it’s gone forever, so the idea is to do something completely bizarre and different in the world that you know, and to really look at the world in a way that’s completely different.”
At one point, Conrad focused on one color for an entire week, strictly eating foods and wearing clothes of that color. Some exercises are wackier than others, but they’re all steeped in symbolism and are thoughtfully planned out.
As he develops the exercises—he’s been creating them for years—he posts them on his blog so friends and readers can try them out.
Of course, people think he’s crazy. Like the time he was stopped while checking out the trees planted in the Cherry Hill Mall parking lot. He was just plain intrigued, so he grabbed a magnifying glass and his ever-present notebook, took the bus and started examining the tree bark.
“I saw all these little bugs climbing around,” he says. “The maintenance guy comes roaring up in a truck and he’s like, ‘What are you doing out here? I was told to come see what you’re doing.’ So I told him. ‘That’s nuts,’ he said. ‘Get out of here!’
“I wasn’t bothering anybody. Twenty minutes later a security guard came up and said, ‘He thinks you’re smoking crack out here.’ I explained what I was doing. She said, ‘Well that’s weird,’ then she said: ‘We’re watching you.’”
Conrad says he doesn’t really care who’s watching, he just wants to keep looking for lessons. “Everything is an opportunity to create,” he says.
“I take notes on the experience and constantly edit to find the poem in it. You learn things you’re not expecting to learn,” he says. What can you possibly learn in the mall parking lot?
“Some people prefer trees dead, as baseball bats or violins. How an orchestra is an orchestra of the singing dead because it’s made of trees,” he says, thoughtfully before adding: “But it’s also a beautiful thing that there’s music coming out this dead tree.”
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.
Savage Love: Sondheim is solace