Poet Ali Liebegott took an epic road trip across America. Destination: the Emily Dickinson house. She interviewed female writers — mainly poets — along the way. In previous installments of the series, she introduced the trip, spoke with Maggie Nelson, Amy Gerstler, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum and others. Here is her interview with CAConrad:
I interviewed CAConrad in a condo in Akumal, Mexico while he was attending the RADAR Lab as a writer in 2012. His books include A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics, The Book of Frank, The City Real & Imagined (with Frank Sherlock), Advanced Elvis Course, (Soma)tic Midge, Deviant Propulsion as well as many chapbooks. In addition, he’s the editor of Jupiter 88, a video journal of contemporary poetry.
I. A LOADED GUN
ALI LIEBEGOTT: Do you remember the first time you ever heard or read an Emily Dickinson poem?
CA CONRAD: Yes, I do. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in this terrible little town. There are these two filmmakers named Belinda and David Schmidt who are making a documentary about me and my poetry. We recently went back to where I grew up. And it hasn’t really changed. They thought I was probably making some of the stuff up or embellishing but they found out that I was not. The Ku Klux Klan kind of runs the town. They’re on the school board; they’re on the zoning board. They’re big. They’re not the clan you think of and they interviewed my father about it and they were kind of freaked out by the interview because he was very open about the Klan being everywhere and he had to shut his windows, he was afraid people could hear. It’s a paranoid old town. For some reason I just wanted to tell you that part. So the thing is that the library is really deficient. There’s a deficit of anything smart. But they had Emily Dickinson in the library because everyone in America does and I remember the first time I read an Emily Dickinson poem on my own picking up the book off the shelf of poetry and being in love with it.
AL: How old were you?
CA: Maybe nine or ten. At this point in my life my mother had been arrested a bunch of times and couldn’t get work. So she put me to work at age eight, selling cut flowers along the highway. There was all this isolation, so I started reading. I went to the library because I needed books and I remember finding this book of Emily Dickinson’s poems and falling in love with it. A few years later, she came up in class for the first time and I was disappointed immediately with the teacher’s conversation around her. I felt like the teacher was shitting on my beautiful personal ideal of Emily.
AL: How so?
CA: I remember thinking right away that there was something bold about this, and I found out years later that I was right. The teacher was wrong. The teacher made Emily Dickinson into this frail, scared, wilting lily. But the true story really is: centuries of poetry came up to her doorstep and she didn’t like any of it. She said, I have to make something new. That’s courageous. You don’t do that if you’re some frail, frightened being. I think she was a real badass, actually. I think that we’re in love with that story because she didn’t participate in the world the right way. But how could she?
She was a woman in Amherst at a time when women didn’t have a voice. Period. And any man who touched her poems changed them immediately. That’s the thing. She was an outsider because she was a woman to poetry. I feel the same way with being queer. For her time period she was a very serious kind of outsider and it would just make sense that a kind of outsider on her level would create something that was a lasting force because it would be new. When you’re an outsider you don’t have to adhere to all those fucking rules, right?
AL: Do you have a favorite poem by her?
CA: I hope this isn’t disappointing but I love the one: My life has stood a loaded gun. I just think that’s insane that she wrote that. Nobody was writing anything like that. Emily Dickinson has zero counterparts in my opinion. She’s completely on her own. She changed everything for us. And the thing is I found out the older I got that story that we were made to accept about Emily Dickinson—living this particular way that made her look kind of spooky in her house in Amherst. It was a prevalent story but I also think it was wrong. I also think she was a dyke.