May 20, 2016
An interview with CAConrad, the Library of Congress’s least favorite poet
by Ian Dreiblatt
CAConrad has seen trouble before.
A self-described “son of white trash asphyxiation,” the celebrated Philadelphian has lived, as the old curse has it, in interesting times. And he’s never been shy about making a scene for what he believes in, or suffered silently the true horrors he’s faced.
He’s also one of America’s most recognized poets, the author of more than seven books, and the recipient of Lannan, MacDowell, and Pew fellowships, among other honors. He’s the subject of a recent documentary film, The Book of Conrad, and the winner of the 2015 Believer Book Prize for his collection ECODEVIANCE: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness (also a Lambda Literary Award finalist and a Boston Globe Best Poetry Book of 2014). The poet Eileen Myles has written that he “always argues (from the inside of his poems) for a poetry of radical inclusivity while keeping a very queer shoulder to the wheel. His kind of queerness strikes me as nonpolarizing, not intentionally but because of the fullness of his exposition, a kind of gigantism that seems to me to be most deeply informed by love, and a tenderness for the ravages and tumult of existence.”
And now, CAConrad is making news again, this time with an interview he was asked to give for the Library of Congress as part of a new series they’re running online. “As with everything,” Conrad writes, “I took my time to answer each question exactly how I meant to answer it then submitted the results.” Here’s what happened next, in the poet’s words:
Time went by without hearing from anyone at the Library of Congress and I finally sent an email asking about the estimated date of publication. Instead of hearing from [LoC interviewer] Jasmine [Platt] someone else started writing to me asking if we could speak on the phone. I said that I preferred to be in contact through email. Then more time went by. When I wrote again the reply I received included a formal outline of what is too political and incendiary for publication, punctuated with, “Unfortunately we will not be able to include you in our Interview Series.”
Conrad was incensed, but it didn’t take him long to find a taker for the interview. Poet and editor Shanna Compton, of the stalwart Bloof Books, swiftly agreed to publish the interview as the first in a series of “Process Pamphlets.” It’s available for free download as a pdf, or for purchase in print (the full $3 goes to benefit Lambda Legal).
We spoke with Conrad about the interview by email:
Given your outspokenness about pacifism, queer issues, veganism, and so forth, did the Library of Congress express any expectations about the content of your interview in advance?
Nothing other than that they wanted to interview me for their new poet-interview series, and I said yes. If they had told me all of their restrictions prior to the interview it would have never taken place. I am incapable of agreeing to such limitations. I am NOT a family-friendly faggot. I survived a fucking plague called AIDS in the 80’s and 90’s and buried a beloved boyfriend and MANY MANY friends! So of course with the recent death of Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton’s EXTREME LIE about Nancy’s tenderness toward dying gay men and people of color I had plenty to say. I somehow managed to survive and I owe it to everyone who did not survive to TELL THE TRUTH! So it is true that when Nancy died just as when her evil fucking husband died my living friends and I toasted to our dead friends and sang DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD.
Early in the interview, you say, “I know I will not meet a single person no matter where I am in the United States who is interested in discussing our wars. It is as though they are not happening.” It seems prescient—a little eery, even—that the interview in which you said this was later suppressed by a government body. What specifically do you think the Library of Congress was trying to prevent from happening? What surfaces did your interview threaten to rupture?
The list of politically charged items not permissible is ridiculous. The only way to be political under such restraints is to talk platitudes with utterly no impact in the real world, meaning the world we actually live in and not the one we want to imagine. The Library of Congress claimed that my interview jeopardized the neutrality of the library. But they should not be interviewing poets then because THAT IS OUR JOB! Have you ever met a neutral poet?
But let us please be honest for a second as citizens of the USA. We are literally openly bombing six different nations on a regular basis. That has not been seen in the so-called western world since Germany’s invasions of Europe and Africa. Is this denial a coping mechanism that has settled into the national psyche? I think so, especially since Hillary Clinton supporters are for some reason incapable of seeing just how responsible she is for this genocide and carnage. First she voted for the illegal invasion of Iraq. Then as secretary of state she implemented BRAND NEW bombing campaigns in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and Pakistan. It terrifies me to talk with people who are not interested in seeing how supporting Clinton is supporting a multi-trillion-dollar killing machine the likes of which this planet has never witnessed.
How did the arrangement with Bloof come about?
Facebook is a beautiful thing. I angrily posted about the censorship MOMENTS after I received the email telling me that my interview was being scrapped. Shanna Compton of Bloof Books saw this and wrote with her idea to publish.
I said YES to her immediately because Shanna is one of the great poets, editors and publishers of our time. She was the main editor of my first book at Soft Skull Press. The irony (BEAUTIFUL IRONY) is that Jasmine Platt’s questions for me in the interview ask directly and sometimes indirectly about material from that book. For instance her question about the piece where I am asking rich people to spare some of their extra money for artists who are changing the world, Shanna actually made a broadside of that piece to celebrate it appearing in that first book. Full circle. I love Shanna. She is such a gifted poet, her poems are so terrific, and that gives her all the tools that we can always trust when she makes suggestions about our own writing. I trust her completely. And the books she is publishing under Bloof everyone will want to own if we are serious about reading some of the most brilliant living poets.
Has this whole folderol had any lasting impact on how you’ll anticipate future poetic interactions with public institutions?
It is possible it will have an impact on the institutions inviting me. But I am the same. There is nothing in that censored interview that I have not been saying in print and out loud at microphones for many years. If you have been careful to always be honest from the beginning then there is not much need to improve the public stance. What I DO HOPE it does is change the trust we collectively have in these institutions. I mean to say: FUCK the Library of Congress!
Can you talk a little about the interview’s dedication?
It is dedicated to Chelsea Manning and Amy Goodman. These are two heroes of mine, real warriors dedicated in their own ways to making information clear and accessible. Chelsea Manning in particular continues to pay the price for her actions. Her bravery as a bad soldier it seems also helped her come out as trans. Bradley Manning was brave and Chelsea Manning is even braver. Let us keep in mind Caitlyn Jenner is a republican, is someone supporting the most evil tide breaking on our shores. Yes, Jenner is brave for coming out, but that is it. Jenner is so despicable to me for her politics and I want the world to understand that just because a person is trans or gay or lesbian does not mean that they are uniformly interested in ending racism and other forms of genocide. It is time to openly expose the political differences among LGBT people because this world cannot afford anymore Caitlyn Jenner trans people posing as activists.
Here is something I am trying to wrap my head around without alienating many people at once. Most humans are heterosexual, obviously, but the level of denial around LGBT people having legitimate feelings and loves and torments like any heterosexual person gets lost. And it gets lost because a lot of straight people want to be supportive — and I appreciate that — but at the same time they allow the general cultural erasure to continue. There is something going on though in our culture and I blame monotheism for turning us into big fat zeros many centuries ago. We still do not count.
If I had been a straight man whose beloved wife had been brutally tortured, raped, and covered in gasoline to be burned alive I think that the story of my suffering over my boyfriend Earth’s death would have been taken seriously. For one thing the police would have actually investigated this crime, instead of calling me Faggot and telling me to shut my fucking mouth if I knew what was good for me.
Granted I only barely mention Earth’s murder in the interview, but the stakes for this kind of shutdown are high. I have been seeing it play out all over again. For instance, the political street actions I have been part of in North Carolina have been breaking my heart seeing the pain in the faces of these young queer people at rallies. The street protestors are almost exclusively queer. But then again the antiwar movement has come to a near standstill, so what do I expect at this point? How are we going to make bridges when a quarter of America’s population are born-again Christians who believe queers are WRONG in the eyes of their Lord? It feels insurmountable. But the least we queers can ask is for our straight allies to get a little louder with us please. We need to combine our efforts more than ever for everyone’s sake. Like the great poet Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.