LMB:You talk about the body as a representation of the world around us – it is. Everything we are is everything there is. But the body may not be the only way we exist. If our hair is the war, as you explained in your WAR HAIR, and the war is our body, does writing keep us from falling apart? Does our writing become extraphysical?
CA: Thank you so much for this opportunity to be interviewed. I’m punchy. Last night I woke to smoke and fire engines. The building next to mine was on fire, the building I SHARE A WALL WITH, and I had to crawl down three flights of steps because the smoke was thick. It’s SO NICE to be alive and writing to you!! But I want to say to your question that while I was standing on the street watching firemen chop a hole into my neighbor’s roof and pour hundreds of gallons of water into their living room, that I was creating a (Soma)tic poetry exercise. I have already created one for writing poems after being mugged. That one’s in my new book A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON (Wave Books). Last night I started this new (Soma)tic for surviving fire. Part of it involves meditating on your STUFF, your THINGS that survived. I’m FULL of adrenaline, which is now a secretion for the poems. To be honest, it wasn’t clear right away if the fire was in my building, and the smoke was so thick that I had to press my nose into the hallway carpet to inhale deeply and get my ass moving! What a relief when I made it outside! But then after making it outside comes the part of being alive where you FEEL literally FEEL so awake, watching your home be rescued, hopefully you’re watching it be rescued. And the smoke in your hair and clothes, what is this awful smell from? Plastics, wood, vinyl, what, what, WHAT?
I agree that the body is not the only way we exist, which is why I separate – or EXPOSE – the word SOMA living inside SOMATIC. (Soma)tic. Soma is the spirit, and adding a tic makes it somatic, or, a body surrounding a spirit. Hmm, but does writing keep us from falling apart? I want my blood, my vomit, my piss and semen IN my poems. Poetry permitted me my physicality; it piloted me away from believing all the pricks in my fucking high school that wanted me to kill myself because they didn’t like faggots. But one day we WILL fall apart, our cells will be destroyed by disease, or guns, or strangulation, and we will be unhappy. I know I will be unhappy. I’m NOT one of those people who struts around claiming to have made peace with Death. I will be at war with Death for as long as I can stand it, and I have (Soma)tics prepared for writing poems under the influence of chemotherapy and other horrific ways we survive. I love living. I LOVE LIVING. I am one of Poetry’s brides. My white gown sweeps the ground now as I pace back and forth while typing these answers to you.
LMB: I have a ghost in my house. You live with a ghost too. All of my friends look down my long corridor and find heaviness there. No one believes it is harmful or negative, and some of them can’t even explain why they feel the way they do. I had a fervent solipsist walk in and say “I feel something right there.” I decided to write a set of poems to the ghost, who, as it turned out, was found to be a female child who could not pass on. You’ve said poetry is a religion. If poetry is a religion, can we speak to these spirits, can we be guided by them in our writing?
CA: I’d love to read your ghost poems!! I’ve had several ghosts in my life. I’m someone who didn’t believe in them until I finally saw one. When I lived with my friend Elizabeth Kirwin we had a ghost show herself in 1994. What an incredible experience!! It’s the sort of thing that happens and you’re so glad that someone else was there because you feel like you’re losing your mind. But this ghost was a definite “intelligent haunting,” as opposed to what occultists and mediums refer to as a “residual haunting.” In other words, she was not stuck in replaying an event, she was aware and desiring contact. Elizabeth and I talk about this online at PARANORMAL POETICS.
But the ghost I live with now was my neighbor Owen who killed himself in 1999, a very sad young man. He was only 21, he’s such a sad ghost to have around. He whispered in my ear in 2006 to use my hair MY WAR HAIR to remind me that we are at war. Americans, we who are the plural of war, our disgusting American plurality of war, and I want to never forget it. Owen’s ghost is responsible for me writing this poem about war every morning since spring of 2006. I hate the poem, I hate Owen’s ghost, I hate my fucking hair SO MUCH! I wish that I had never listened to him, and I wish that he had not been such an idiot and killed himself.
In the 1980s my neighbor and friend Jim McCormick lived below me. In 1988 he found out that he was HIV positive and killed himself. It was so terrible, and I could smell him through the floor, much like the smell of Owen’s dead body years later when I moved across town. But the maintenance man Willie opened Jim’s apartment door, and we saw him. Poor Jim, he didn’t do it right and had to take drastic measures, most likely leading to an excruciating death. I miss him, he was such a good man. He was one of those old-school queers, very effeminate, gentle, witty, collected lots of antiques. Jim had a print of a painting that I fell in love with. While we were waiting for the police to come I covered my mouth and nose from the stench and stared for a long time at that painting because I thought I might never see it again, and I couldn’t figure out who painted it. Jim’s ghost PUSHED me last week after all these years when I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with my friend Michelle Taransky. I had no intention of seeing the special exhibit “Visions of Arcadia,” but I felt DRIVEN to see it at the very last minute. I didn’t like most of the show because they FUCKING LIED saying it was work by Matisse, Cezanne, and Gauguin. 95 percent of the paintings were other artists. But THEN, THEN, OH MY GOD, THEN at the end of the exhibit, THERE WAS THE PAINTING, the very one Jim had hanging in his apartment!! Only this time it was not a print, but the actual painting from Spain. It’s called THE DREAM, painted in 1912 by Franz Marc, so it’s 100 years old THIS YEAR!! I’m so excited to have it back in my life, and now I have a beautiful card of it that I carry around with me.
Maybe you and I could collaborate on a (Soma)tic poetry exercise about how ghosts have made us brave? My friend Jim whom I just mentioned was also a huge fan of the artist Thomas Eakins. In the 1970s Jim had a brass plaque made and hung at Eakins’s Philadelphia studio at the corner of Juniper and Chestnut streets. In 1986 when I first met Jim he walked me over to the plaque, something that he was very proud of. A few years ago Blick Art Supply renovated part of the building and moved in. But the plaque suddenly vanished!! My friend Frank Sherlock (do you know his poetry? He’s such a fucking genius poet!!) and I would show the plaque to anyone we were with when walking by the location. And it appears in our collaborative book of poems THE CITY REAL & IMAGINED (Factory School Books). BUT IT VANISHED, the plaque. Maybe construction workers took it and sold it? I don’t know, but it was gone. And when I went into the store to talk to the manager I was told that they didn’t know anything about it. That was it. A shrug. I mean, YOUR art supply store for ARTISTS is right in the fucking bottom floor of the building where one of America’s greatest artists had his studio, and you don’t care.
Jim’s ghost was on my side!! I started writing about this situation online and the local newspapers picked up on it started quoting me. An outrage started to churn in Philadelphia about this, and my phone started ringing off the hook. THEN the threatening emails started to arrive from Blick headquarters. And I kept saying, “PUT THE PLAQUE BACK AND ALL WILL BE WELL!!” But they’re a corporation and think that they don’t need to give a shit what one fat-assed faggot in Philadelphia thinks. FINALLY they threatened me with a lawsuit, and I said GREAT!! PHILADELPHIA WILL LOVE THIS!! AND NO ONE WILL BUY YOUR FUCKING PAINT BRUSHES AND EASELS AND TURPENTINE!
Then I received a very nice email and phone call from the granddaughter of the owner of the company. She apologized for all of the flack I was getting. It turns out that she had scouted out that very location in Philadelphia and THAT PLAQUE my old friend Jim McCormick had made and hung decades ago was THE REASON she wanted to put one of their stores there. She even had a photograph of the plaque. She had a team of designers make another plaque, one that looked exactly like the one Jim had hung, and now it’s back on the corner of Juniper and Chestnut in Philadelphia, where it belongs. Jim’s ghost was with me the whole time. The threatening legal letters only infuriated me instead of frightening me like they were designed to do. I feel like Jim KNEW this reasonable, intelligent, caring person was there at the company, and that if I just HUNG IN THERE and kept FIGHTING that she would eventually hear about it. I miss Jim. It irritates me that we die. Every single day it annoys me.
LMB: As you write in Preternatural Conversations, when I read your work I feel an “I.V. drip of/sphinx’s blood.” Sometimes when I first read the book I felt lost, like I’ve dreamt, woken up, tried to recapture the image, failed, tried again — and when I did, it’s right there, shimmering. Poetry should hit you in the face with shimmer. What do you think about the poetry being written from today’s new poets?
CA: “Preternatural Conversations” is a newer piece written soon after the manuscript was finalized for Wave. But yes, it’s in jubilat, I’m very excited, the amazing poet and editor Emily Pettit published it, and I enjoyed making the little film for it. I’m so happy with this piece, mostly because it’s about using psychic tools to communicate with people and dogs. But another reason it makes me happy is because I FINALLY figured out a way to tell Ed Dorn off without being mean. I was finally able to make light of his grotesque bigotry against faggots, and say “I want to dress special for this.” HAHA!! When I FINALLY got it out of me in this way I was thrilled. Making fun of someone’s bigoted, small-minded views of the world can take some of the power back. And when I taught at Naropa this summer I read the poem. It was one of those marvelous opportunities with hundreds of people listening and a fantastic stage and I had LOTS AND LOTS of red and purple glitter COVERING me that night. Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman started Naropa as we know, and Ginsberg was one of Dorn’s prime targets for his homophobic rages. So JUST BEFORE reading the Dorn piece I said “This poem is for our fairy godfather Allen Ginsberg who helped build this queer stage!” This made my year, doing that!!
What do I think about today’s poets? Anyone who says they would rather go back to another time for poetry is an idiot!! NOW is the time for poetry!! NOW!! There are so many brilliant poets writing RIGHT NOW!! I mean they are OUT THERE at this VERY MINUTE writing poems that are going to blow my mind and break my heart!! When I was a teenager writing poems I had no idea that my favorite poets were going to actually be my friends. This is something I’ve had to get used to, being a great admirer of poems written by friends. Shimmering, yes, as you say. But also an awakening, because I feel startled so often by the poetry of my friends!
LMB: So you were at the Radar Writer’s Retreat in Mexico. Once in Mexico I threw copal, tobacco and chocolate into a fire for the Abuelo of the mountains in Tepoztlan. We made wishes, and I admit that mine came true, which was both painful and necessary. For me, there is something about Mexico that has influenced nearly all of my writing. Location, politics and culture clearly affects your work, in that you are deeply impacted by the world itself, and its goings-on, but how did Mexico treat you? Do the countries you go to speak to you?
CA: Oh I loved Mexico!! And I love the RADAR Lab!! I’m grateful to Michelle Tea and Ali Liebegott for their incredible dedication, making this possible!! It was one of the best weeks of my life getting to make poems in the middle of this paradise, and it truly is a paradise along this jungle ocean shoreline!! Here is the outline of what I did down there, the (Soma)tic Poetry Exercise:
For 9 consecutive nights I prepared my crystal-infused water dream therapy. Each morning I would implement the final stage of the dream therapy, then I would listen to a different PRINCE album in its entirety: DIRTY MIND, CONTROVERSY, PURPLE RAIN, etc. Lying still with eyes closed, allowing the dream to braid and dissolve inside the musical landscapes of my beautiful, androgynous muse. As soon as the album finished I would write for fifteen minutes, which was not so much a dream-journal as it was a dream-lost-inside-PRINCE-journal.
After breakfast I went down to the beach. Each morning from 9 am to noon I would sit in the same place, one foot closer to the tide each morning. On the last day I sat directly in the tidal break with sturdy paper and a pen whose ink embeds into paper, a pen invented to prevent check fraud. PRINCE may wash my dreams away, but the ocean would not take my poems.
For a few minutes I would close my eyes and listen to the tide. Then I would suddenly open my umbrella and stare at one of its polka dots, each one a different color of the spectrum. After staring at one polka dot for five minutes I would suddenly look out at the beach, coral reef and ocean. The polka dot’s color would show itself in the hue of a broken shell, or be found in the bow of a distant ship. One morning my eyes landed on the white of the umbrella, which is all the space surrounding the polka dots. I decided to go with it. When I tore the umbrella aside I noticed FOR THE FIRST TIME tiny white crabs who made their homes at the wettest part the sand, continuously washed by the tide. The study of the crabs consumed my morning. One day I looked up from writing to see a hundred yellow butterflies fluttering in a line down the beach above the surf a few feet from my face. The parade of beauty kept me in awe: giant sea turtles, iguanas, and magnificent sea birds. One day I placed my large Lemurian crystal in the sand under the surf. RADAR Lab’s amazing chef Christina Frank sat with me to witness the little silver fish surround the crystal. They LOVED IT! They would ride the surf to the crystal, surround it and KISS IT, ride the tide out, then ride it back in and KISS IT AGAIN!
From 3 pm to 6 pm I would sit in the bathtub to write. My favorite childhood liquid was FRESCA! I thought it went out of business, but it just moved to Mexico! I drank FRESCA all day long at the residency, and used it for the bathtub meditation, drinking mouthfuls, letting the grapefruit bubbles roil in my mouth while turning the shower on. I would touch the falling water with the tips of my fingers then I would swallow the FRESCA and turn the water off. I would meditate on arguments from the archive of my unforgiving brain. Arguments I had, and arguments by others. Once I heard my mother and sister shouting in another room. My mother yelled, “I SHOULD HAVE ABORTED YOU!” My sister yelled back, “GRANDMOM SHOULD HAVE ABORTED YOU AND WE WOULD ALL BE FREE FROM THIS GODDAMNED MESS!” My mother BURST into tears, my sister left the room with a smile. She saw me and said, “I TOLD HER!” I returned her smile and hugged her, saying, “YES you did, my dear!” The MOMENT we embraced THE RELIEF of our grandmom’s imaginary abortion WASHED OVER US BOTH! We laughed from so much pain and nonsense for a rolling tide. The brain holds all of our disasters in little, decrepit files marked and mismarked and repeating their vomitus sick, and sometimes a little too quiet from too much damage. These notes became nine poems, my homage to my mother who was not aborted, and to her children, who were also not aborted.
LMB: I find it interesting that you say our mothers (and the others we sentimentalize) are usually drawn up as sacred texts. One of the reasons I’m drawn to your work is because I can relate to having a fucked-up childhood, whether we view it now as fucked up or simply different. A euphemism or no. You escaped a lot of what you experienced by reading. So you learn to grow and move through history through your work, instead of being haunted inside of your work. That’s brave. How hard is that to pull off?
CA: It’s not possible for me to take for granted that I come from poor, mostly illiterate, country people, and yet have somehow found this endurable, rich existence of poetry. And I don’t say I BELIEVE poetry can save our lives, I say I KNOW it can!! And I don’t mean it redirects emotions, or conciliates in the sense of pacification, no, I mean poetry can actualize an entirely, wholly new pattern of awareness. My boyfriend Earth (aka Mark) was murdered in Tennessee about a decade ago. In my new book A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON there is a (Soma)tic exercise I created for us to investigate trauma. I used the music of Philip Glass, which is PERFECT as a trance vehicle, in fact his music makes it almost easy to enter a trance state. But I used these (Soma)tic techniques I’ve developed for the “DOUBLE-SHELTER” piece in the new book, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I am changed.
The word “escape” isn’t right for me. I escape nothing because poetry for me is about plunging into everything despite how much it might wind up jeopardizing my happiness. Poetry is worth my fear being resolved. Thank you for this interview.