Sometimes it feels like poets are magicians. They create texts that are baffling and beautiful, building poems out of phrases and events so obvious that we smack our foreheads wondering why we didn’t think of that. CAConrad, on the other hand, gives his tricks away. Conrad uses (Soma)tic rituals designed to create for the writer an “extreme present” in which to create poems. “Soma” means “body” in Latin, so a radical, physical presence makes sense describing these rituals; but “soma” also refers to an intoxicating drink of immortality in ancient Vedic and Zoroastrian traditions, and the layer of altered mental states adds to Conrad’s definition. Each of these rituals is described in Ecodeviance just before the poems they inspire. Conrad conducts workshops of (Soma)tic rituals and says, in an interview at Monkey Bicycle, that dancers and painters have participated in his workshops, dancing or painting rather than writing.
Unlike a standard writing prompt, (Soma)tic rituals are almost poems themselves in the way that they reshape the world as you read. You can—and should—take a look at samples of some of them here, but to give you an idea, here’s the beginning (and I should stress that this is the beginning) of a ritual called “Preternatural Conversation”:
Every once in a while I think something about a stranger on the sidewalk and they dart a glance at me and I get it—I GET IT—we are one! Allow seven consecutive days for this exercise. DAY ONE, think about a woman you know, think about experiences you have had with her. Think about conversations you have had, think about the things she wears, eats, her way of walking, her laugh. Think about every detail you can imagine. See if she calls you or emails you. Take notes about this attempt at psychic connection.
For Conrad, each of the seven days required for this ritual produced a separate, numbered poem (or section of one poem? It’s hard to tell with Conrad’s work). Here’s the first poem Conrad produced from this ritual (scanned to preserve the integrity of the poem):
(Soma)tic rituals solve the problem of how to be present for the work of creating, how to make something without overthinking it—or because you’ve overthought it and there’s nothing left to do or think except the poem. (Soma)tic rituals make space for the artist to be exposed and create out of that vulnerability. Conrad puts the ritual in the foreground, listing only the title of the twenty-three exercises in the table of contents, not the poems they bred. Further, each exercise is described before the poem is given; in doing so Conrad pulls back the curtain and invites us to create with him. What can I make using this or that ritual? What rituals can I make for myself? The reader is forced to imagine the possibilities of the poem before reading it.
About halfway through Ecodeviance Conrad writes, “an owl drops a mouse in front of me / it doesn’t have to mean something / but it probably does”, which feels like a manifesto of sorts, and a celebration of (Soma)tic rituals. Because each of the poems has come from the Conrad’s sub/unconscious mind there are layers of meaning that are unraveled upon further reading. The almost complete lack of punctuation encourages multiple ways of reading the poems.
In the ritual “Gender Continuum” Conrad writes, “Permission to drop margins is an exceptional space to offer yourself and others.” Though he is referring to the “margins” between genders, the sentiment works equally well when discussing the shape of Conrad’s poems. They’re beautiful on the page, taking varied shapes that resist the left-justified norm, sometimes subtly as in “Act Like Pallbearer With Sofa Cushion” produced as part of a separate ritual than “Gender Continuum”:
With its single line stabbing into white space, “Act Like Pallbearer” is “straight” and “inflexible”. Other poems are curved and fluid, as in “Permission Please to Be a Stone but You Are a Clock We Say” seen here:
Notice the way the first half of the poem is curved like a river, perhaps formed by the “billion / tears an hour the human / race” produces. The poem resolves into a straighter shape, and “seem[s] to / make sense”.
Conrad’s (Soma)tic rituals reinvent the world and his poems surprise the reader who imagines them before reading. Conrad gives us permission to be wild, to drop margins, to make sense and meaning, or not. CAConrad might be the best poetry teacher we have. I’ll claim him as mine. Who are your teachers?
Today I have storefront windows on my mind. The hustle and bustle during business hours is just as interesting to me as the romance of a dark window on a quiet night. Care to write a storefront window into your piece this week? Here are three to get you started.
Richard Estes, Central Savings, 1975. Oil on canvas. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri.
André Kertész, Café, 1927. Photograph.
Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, 1950. Oil on canvas. Cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, April 29, 1950. Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Fall came up in a hurry here in Minnesota. The last few days have brought temps in the 50s and gusts of wind that signal summer is over. Fall is one of those seasons where I want to wrap myself up in a blanket with a hot cup of tea (or maybe a pumpkin porter) and sit down with a good book. Today, in embracing the spirit of fall, we’ve pulled together a short list of upcoming fall book releases that have our tongues a-wagging, itching to carve aside some time to read.
Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt (Two Lines Press, short fiction)
This is a book I am especially excited about, and you will see a full review soon from me. Aidt pulls back the layers to reveal a raw look at daily life of her different characters, and the darkness that lies there, brooding. These are stories of average people, but with an underbelly of desperation at the cusp of crisis: husbands cheating on wives, bizarre experiences, experimental sexuality and more. These moments of crisis are magnified to uncomfortable closeness, as we face truths all to familiar.
Best to Laugh by Lorna Landvik (University of Minnesota Press, fiction)
Minnesota author Landvik strikes again with a book about a young stand-up comedian who leaves the Midwest to make her big break in Hollywood. Landvik pulls from her own experiences (she has done stand-up shows herself), and woos the reader with her well-spun combination of humor and heart. This is sure to be a fun romp of a novel for those looking for something lighter after reading Baboon.
A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Coffee House Press, fiction)
A young woman and her relationship with her brother are at the heart of this debut novel; family, violence, sex, and trauma are all subjects brought into play with the characters. McBride has the literary world a-buzz, having been called a “genius” with “uncompromising”, “shocking” and “incredibly original” style. Girl has already won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction Kerry Group Irish Novel of the year award and the Goldsmiths Prize. This is a must-read.
Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson (Milkweed Editions, poetry)
Bone Map is the first collection from Johnson, and is a tightly wound, visceral force of a collection that has already won the 2013 National Poetry Series. Nature, animals, and the body collide with violence, raw intensity, and insight. It will be an exercise in imagery and physicality for the reader.
What new or forthcoming books have you excited for fall reading — what’s missing from our list? Do you have a favorite fall reading routine?
Head on over to the Open Mic, read read read, and, most importantly, leave your feedback. Like something in particular about a piece? Or is there something about it that doesn’t quite work? Help your fellow writers workshop their works-in-progress by leaving constructive comments.
The feedback frenzy lasts 24 hours only, so make sure to head over NOW!