With his bronze snout raised in mid-oink, Filbert the Pig and I scouted the Reading Terminal Market’s many rows of seats for Philadelphia’s paramount poet, CA Conrad. Commerce and consumption swirled around us. Filbert wasn’t much help. I left the pig to his occupation (collecting coins and bills from patrons) and moved slowly down the packed aisle of people, deeper into the seating area. All circulation stopped when I found Conrad positioned at a table waiting to be found. A large lemurian crystal draped around his neck, adorning his simple black tee shirt nicely. We briefly greeted each other and decided to move to a quieter location—the glass bridge connecting the eatery to the Conference Center. I was unfamiliar with the spot, but I found that my new surroundings dissolved as our dialogue filled the room.
“What makes a poet?” I ask, “Is there a series of ingredients? Is it life experience, or something beyond that?”
Defining what a poet is, I discovered, cannot be done: “I don’t know what to say about that except that I do know that I’ve been writing poems for most of my life, but in 2005 I decided that I didn’t want poetry in my life anymore; I just wanted it to BE my life and that’s where the (soma)tics come in,” says Conrad.
(Soma)tic exercises are the lifeblood of Conrad’s newest book, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon (Wave Books). Conrad explains, “We’re living in a time where we need to realize that everybody is creative. I think everybody wants to be creative, but the world is so harsh. These structures are made to be efficient, to make things move, and with that comes brutality.”
For a moment I peer beyond the glass barrier that encapsulates us. Below, traffic rolls and pedestrians skitter to the murmurs of dim dreams. (Soma)tic exercises work to wake the world up! (Soma)tic exercises are unique “rituals” that inspire creativity and, in Conrad’s case, poetry.
Conrad continues saying, “The thing is with the (soma)tic exercises…they’ve been changing my life for years now (since 2005).” Conrad provided me with an example: “The first [exercises] I did were a series of seven poems where I ate a single color of food for a day: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, white. I would wear things like a red wig. I listened to Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ on a continuous loop for 12 hours…that was kind of insane, kind of oppressive.” After each ritual is complete, Conrad crafts a new poem. With sublime certainty Conrad states, “I feel like everything in my life is just a way to poems no matter what it is.”
Philadelphia has been Conrad’s artistic nucleus since “…1986, when it was possible to live right downtown very affordably.” Again the streets beneath us and the buildings ahead become my focal point. I ask Conrad, “What is it about Philadelphia that keeps you going? Maybe, how does Philadelphia work its way into your poetry?” Since 1986 Philadelphia has grown more expensive, which presents a challenge for poets. “[W]hen I moved here you could thrive. You really could. You only needed a part-time job and the rest of the time was yours.” Even though “high rent and expensive car payments and all kinds of things” threaten to ruin one’s “potential to be creative,” Conrad maintains his genius, his poetic virtuosity. Despite the city’s changes, Conrad proclaims, “Philadelphia’s amazing. It’s funny because it’s really a thousand ways my home before my apartment is my home.”
Conrad’s vitality is very much aligned with the city. “Where do you think is the best place to find poetry in the city?” I asked. Overcome, he responded, “Oh, wow there’s lots of places to find poetry…there’s so much poetry going on in Philadelphia you can hardly keep up with it…You can see slam poetry whenever you want…there’s [also] readings.”
Conrad highlighted the “Penn Book Center,” declaring that is has “the best poetry section in the entire city without a doubt. It’s one of the best poetry sections on the East Coast I think—and I don’t mean that big stupid Barnes & Noble that’s on Penn’s campus. The actual Penn Book Center which is right where the White Dog Cafe on the corner of Sansom and 34th.” Ever-knowledgable, Conrad mentioned one of Philadelphia’s independent presses, Fact-Simile, too. “They do incredible things. Besides publishing books and magazines they also publish baseball cards of poets.” Poetry seems to be prolific, yet widely dispersed in Philadelphia. What’s required is a unified, creative hub; Conrad calls this structure the “Philadelphia Poetry Hotel.”
Inspiration for the Philadelphia Poetry Hotel came after Molly Russakoff, owner of Molly’s Books and Records, told the freshly established Conrad where he might find refuge in the city. Conrad inquired, “‘Molly, what do I do? Where do you move here? I don’t know what to do.’” Molly, aware of Conrad’s talents, said, “‘Oh, go to Al Zuli’s office and tell him you’re a poet and you want the special rent.’” Conrad elaborates: “[Zuli] loved artists. He owned so many apartments downtown here and my rent was $210 a month for 8 years. It never went up. He was basically a patron of the arts.” Generous and compassionate, Zuli’s aid allowed artists to flourish within what became known as “the Zuli Nation,” says Conrad. Unfortunately Zuli’s passing handed the ownership over to his children. Costs soared and the community disassembled. Conrad, however, hopes to rebuild Philadelphia’s poetic circles.
Conrad told me, “For years now I’ve had this website called the Philadelphia Poetry Hotel (http://poetryhotel.blogspot.com/). Every end of summer I just update the date for the next year, but the words are the same because there’s really nothing more to say about it except that there’s a dire need for creating this space. So my idea is to acquire some buildings in Philadelphia…I want it to be downtown and I want them to be nice. I don’t want to have some little shit-holes.” While finding funds to birth such a building is difficult, Conrad is hopeful: “[T]here’s always a little bit of talk around it, but this year it’s been huge—people wanting to donate money. I keep saying no to everybody.” I brought up Kickstarter, but the possibility of raising four or five million dollars doesn’t seem feasible. Conrad said, “The thing is I want a windfall as such that I don’t have strings attached. That’s very important to me.” Because of Conrad’s recent successes (i.e. receiving the PEW, RADAR, UCROSS, and BANFF fellowships), it appears anything can happen.
In the upcoming months, Conrad will be working in the midst of a 25,000 acre cattle ranch in Wyoming thanks to the UCross Foundation’s Residency Program. Without light-pollution and dense populations, Conrad will “build mythologies out of new constellations.” “I’m building from the stars,” says Conrad, “…charting all night…I’m very excited about what’s happening.” It’s a surreal opportunity; one that I cannot fathom having.
“Are you surprised to see where poetry has taken you or did you kind of know this was the way it was going to be?” I ask Conrad. Momentarily I recall the efficiency of the Reading Terminal Market’s various restaurants; the PATCO ride to Philadelphia an hour ago and the electric precision of its rails; the rough edges of strangers‘ faces under our private location above. Conrad tells me, “It’s been a complete surprise what is possible with this. I keep seeing other ways to do things.” Even in a world of brutality, Conrad reminded me that through creativity, “Everything is possible.”
(CA Conrad can be found at http://CAConrad.blogspot.com)