Occult Poetics & (Soma)tic Rituals
CAConrad. Image by jess saldaña
CAConrad is the author of 9 books of poetry and essays, including the poetry collections A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon and ECODEVIANCE. Their latest, While Standing in Line for Death, won the 2018 Lambda Book Award. Conrad teaches at Columbia University in New York City and Sandberg Art Institute in Amsterdam. They have received a 2019 Creative Capital grant and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, as well as The Believer Magazine Book Award and The Gil Ott Book Award. Recently, they ran a series of one-on-one sessions at the Camden Arts Centre, inviting members of the public to build their own (Soma)tic poetry rituals.
Daniel John Pilkington is a poet and researcher from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently working on his first collection of poems while conducting a research project into the relationship between magic and the occult in contemporary poetry.
Daniel John Pilkington:
Is poetry magic? If so, how?
Poetry and ritual are two ancient technologies that I can say firsthand can change our lives with their abilities to conduct discoveries and, yes, to also heal. Is poetry magic? I want to start by asking is language magic? What effects do words have on us? In my latest book While Standing in Line for Death, there is a (Soma)tic poetry ritual about military drone warfare titled, "Flying Killer Robots: The Renaming Project," and there were several ingredients to the ritual, but for me the most important was investigating what hearing the word "drone" does to us. I made a list of 18 words with various sonic implications, words like quaking, spaghetti, perfume, bandit. I made myself comfortable, then chanted each word for 9 minutes. It was not until I chanted "drone" that I could feel my body relax in a very different way, and the more I chanted the word, the deeper my voice reached to resonate its vibration throughout my body.
In The Bhagavad Gita, it is written about "om" that, "There is harmony, peace, and bliss in this simple but deeply philosophical sound." The word "drone" shares a similar tonal frequency with "om," and after chanting myself into a state of semi-bliss, I went to a busy street corner to ask strangers to chant "drone" with me. Some did, and were amazed, and agreed with me that we need to call them by their right name: Flying Killer Robots. Calling them by the name the United States military wants us to use only lulls us into believing they are a viable, safe alternative in warfare, when in fact these flying killer robots have already slaughtered thousands of innocent civilians in the Middle East. Poets are not alone in understanding the magic and power of language.
It was extraordinary, chanting the name of this awful killing machine and feeling the sound of its name lead me into quiet, relaxing meditation. Is poetry magic? Yes, because our bodies are magic, are mucus, muscle, and bone pouring into streets each day with highly regulated internal temperatures and electrical circuitry connecting our innumerable cells to be able to bend an elbow, breathe, or fall into the aroma of flowers.
To undergo the trance of "drone" was not enough, though, and I downloaded from the internet a military mission of drones locating and destroying their designated human prey. For this portion of the ritual, I drew a target on my left palm with an outer red ring, inner ring, and a red bullseye. While listening to the mission, whenever a drone hit its mark, I would scream as loud as I could into the bullseye on my left hand while writing notes for the poem. Chanting "drone" brought me peace, as it does whenever we hear it said in my nation newly rife with their activity, but listening to their coercive powers of annihilation rattled me deeply, darkening the writing of the poem.
It feels safe to say at this point in the evolution of our species where technological advances are so rapid, we can barely keep up, that skepticism about whether something is possible or not just needs time and hard work to show us how the unknown can potentially be made real. In my (Soma)tic poetry rituals, I attempt to monitor the progression of technological advancements and my own physiological, mental, and maybe, more importantly, my spiritual reactions to this so-called progress. We cannot talk about magic without talking about how current technologies we are already starting to take for granted would be considered magic if we could somehow suddenly thrust it into the hands of people a hundred years ago.
As a human body standing in the middle of this utter vortex of innovation, I want to know who we are in it, rather than get lost together inside of it. How can we be there for one another, so we do not fall asleep inside this growth of metal and plastic, which is already very much guiding our daily lives? I remember the day I received my first digital wristwatch because it was a birthday present from my biological father, Dennis McNeil. After that, I do not remember when the next digital devices came to me, and now, of course, we are surrounded by them. From that day forward, after turning 9, it is hard for me to recollect how it became what it is today.
Magic is discovering how things bend, then bending them for results, and this is separate from other Occult Poetics conversations we could have about spirit visitations, or how ghosts help us write poems as Jack Spicer and Edgar Cayce knew. Poetry is a way for us to look closely at the world. The (Soma)tic ritual is, in part, a study about how each added ingredient or adjustment of an ingredient in the ritual will change the way the language comes out of us for our poems. Soon enough, we encounter our bodies as these magical tools, every one of our cells and its chemical conversation lit into a much larger conversation with the world around us. Poetry is the study of everything, which is another form of love. Anyone who thinks love should not be part of the conversation should probably stop reading this interview right now. As the poet Alexandra Grilikhes said, "The poem is restorative, rather than fragmenting." (Soma)tic poetry rituals strive to create a space I call the "extreme present," and wanting to be present and making that possible is an act of devotion for the life and time we have on the planet.
What makes the "extreme present" extreme? Is it an experience of the sublime?
I come from factory workers, people who work long, exhausting days. The factories disturbed me as a child because everyone seemed unhappy, and I wanted another kind of life as a writer. Very early, I observed how my family became extensions of machinery at their jobs for most of their waking hours, and the toll that took on their physical and emotional lives. To cope, they developed a technique of turning off the present at work, keeping their minds in the past, or thinking about the future. The problem with such a mechanism though is that they cannot easily switch it off after going home. When you are raised by people who have lost the present it may take a long time to recognise what has happened, and then when you do you will need more time to discover a way of recovering the present, and for me, that is where (Soma)tic poetry rituals come in.
These rituals are so odd and focused that they create an extreme present, meaning that I cannot possibly think about anything except what I am doing. To anchor myself in the present, my body is essential to persist in feeling the time I am living while writing. Each ritual is a choice to become and remain present. Is it an experience of the sublime? Yes, but to varying degrees, and it is best to say I think it depends upon the ritual. The one I did to cure my depression after my boyfriend Earth's rape and murder, those poems, and what the ritual did to me, and the way those particular poems came out of me changed my life, and I do mean changed my life by giving it back to me. It was the most overwhelming ritual to date, and it is called "Mount Monadnock Transmissions."
Would you consider your rituals an act of devotion?
Yes, they are all acts of devotion, for instance, the ritual that cured my depression. I used a crystal my boyfriend gave me the last time I saw him alive, a tool that helped me heal my internal fragmentations. The poet Eileen Myles says, "I pick up a book and / another book and memory / and separation seem to / be all anyone writes / about." Rituals can reconnect us to one another and the natural cycles of life and help put an end to our alienation from the planet. I completely believe in the strength of poetry, and I have experienced how the rituals for creating poems have the power to change us in ways we have yet to explore fully.
I have been thinking a lot about hypogea in ancient Greece. Hypogeum was circular burial chambers, and pregnant women would visit the remains of their dead ancestors to invite them to inhabit the bodies of their unborn babies. I hope I was a pregnant woman who performed this ritual in a past life. It sounds terrifying at first, seeing the bones of the dead, but it is exciting thinking of such an experience coursing through my electrical circuitry and nervous system, my blood pumping into the heart of my unborn child and ancestor simultaneously.
Why is magic thought an anomaly when it is part of everything around us right now? I believe no one is so jaded that they cannot sit with a magnifying glass and look carefully at a flower stalk, especially that exciting location where the part of the plant below ground suddenly meets life above ground. That thin place right where these two completely different environments meet, it is blurry that place, but for me, it is where magic is best understood. Much like waking slowly from a dream, our eyes partially opened, and that blurriness in front of us is where we can take the point of transitioning from one state of awareness to another and pivot the experience beyond transition to one of transformation. We only need our will to seize the moment! The transmutation of molecules is never far from the transfiguration of the soul; they seem to synchronise their dance.
I have had long conversations with people who insist that sadness and suffering is the best doorway to poetry. I disagree, I believe grief is a focus, and when we are scattered in our daily thinking, sudden tragedy makes grieving an all-consuming focal point. I think of Rumi in his pain after losing his beloved Shams Tabrizi, grabbing that pole in the yard and walking around it, walking around and around it, making a funnel for his poems to pour out of him. There is no doubt that misery can provide poetry, but once we realize it is the focus inside the misery that captures our voice, then we can begin to construct (Soma)tic rituals which can handle any subject, sadness being only one of the many possible topics. When I am creating personalized (Soma)tic rituals in public with people, I want them to tell me about the most tedious thing they have to do in their lives. I mean I want the thing that might upset them to even talk about it, but yet that is where a ritual already exists, and an intense rhythm and breath already exists. If I can convince everyone to write in their lives exactly as they already are, and to build a writing ritual around the thing that hampers growth the most, then it is all the proof we need that we can go on and make rituals to write poems from every single thing imaginable every single day until we die.
If you are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish and can believe in talking to burning bushes and turning water into wine, then there is nothing I am doing that is so strange. Part of the work I am doing is spreading the word that everyone is creative and that magic is, in many ways, another branch of the creative arts.
Do your (Soma)tic rituals create or reveal a sense of the sacred? Rituals are sometimes said to turn everyday objects into symbols or essences – would you agree? Is this true, for you, with regard to your (Soma)tic rituals? Are you, perhaps, reading ‘the moment’ or ‘the space’ in the same way that you would read the tarot during an instance of divination?
Poetry is one of the ways we get to see every step we take as holy. By holy, I do not mean the entrenched religious definition of moral excellence, but our infinite range of wakeful alertness. Magic and poetry are sharper lenses of wakefulness. I have known a fair number of brilliant poets over the years who were wide open channels for their poems, and it frightened them, and they turned to alcohol. How do we ever trust ourselves as the vessels for poetry we were meant to be? Lucky for me in an odd way that I simultaneously, desperately needed to find a way out of my depression that was slowly destroying my life. When we learn how to use the (Soma)tic ritual for another way to heal our lives and keep us alive, there is no need for alcohol or any other substance to make poems. I drink alcohol with friends once in a while, meaning that this is not a judgment; I only want to make it very clear that we do not need these substances to write. I prefer a clear focus for the poems.
To answer you more directly, I believe (Soma)tic rituals head in the other direction of turning objects into symbols or essences. The somatic of the (Soma)tic ritual, or the physicality of it, always helps the soma of the (Soma)tic, or divine nature of it, come through much clearer. Being present within the ritual keeps the goal of poetry set. Divination is where the soma of the (Soma)tic ritual comes even more evident in the most direct imaginable way, for instance, literally using the object for divination. Bibliomancy, botanomancy, divination through the stitch in sewing, these are things I grew up with in rural Pennsylvania as a child. Although my mother and I were outsiders, from Irish and Danish ancestors who had settled in Iowa and Kansas, she married into the Conrad family, and her new husband adopted me. The Conrad family are from an old Pennsylvania Dutch bloodline with their kinds of magical practices that I grew up witnessing, from water divining to hex signs. The method of constructing magic squares with set intentions, also known as the Sator Formula, was what fascinated me the most, maybe because I was a budding poet and the box contained a magic spell composed of letters:
My new grandmother Louise Conrad showed me how to make the Sator Formula. You write it by hand onto paper, then draw a box around it to enclose the power of the formula, then fold it three times and put it in your pocket. She explained that it had many magical functions, protection being one of its main jobs. She also told me that this formula is a mirror which takes your enemy's intentions and sends it back to them with three times the force. She basically taught me psychic warfare at age 9, and it served me well, especially by the time I was Outed in high school and everyone suddenly became my enemy.
You ask if (Soma)tic rituals take on the role of "reading" the world as one would with more deliberate divinatory practices, and I say yes. The many magical arts my grandmother introduced me to as a child have given me the tools I need to see the possibilities of this world. Planting vegetable seeds with her was investigating magic. She would have me hold a handful of seeds while standing in the freshly plowed garden. She asked me to close my eyes with her, then imagine placing the seeds in the ground, then imagine watering them, checking on them each day, watching them sprout and grow into healthy, delicious vegetables. She asked me to imagine the warm sunlight and cool rain on the plants. She asked me to imagine picking them and cooking them and eating them. She asked me to imagine how those vegetables become our bodies, our minds, our spirits, our dreams, and waking hours. She was the first to teach me the connection everything has to everything else, which was the foundation for figuring out how to find my way to the present that her children had lost in the factories.
We will all be destroyed sooner or later, death awaits all of us, sometimes violent, horribly painful deaths, but there are many ways to live in the world through poetry that make it clear every single thing is pretty exciting when we take a closer look. In my car, there are always binoculars and a couple of kinds of magnifying glasses. The best way to connect with something is to sit quietly and have a little talk with it while studying it, and by "it" I mean whatever leaf, river silt, or fungus I am hanging out with at the moment. I found a cheap microscope in a thrift store, and when you take the conversation of a riverbed to the microscope, there is a shocking, almost forced solitude that takes a minute to settle into. There is often a feeling that maybe the conversation is moving too fast, or that it went in an uncomfortable direction, but that is usually where the best notes for the poems come from.
In some of the interviews linked to your website, I found you mentioning esoteric creatures like ghosts, spirits, and aliens. Have you ever tried to contact otherworldly entities through your rituals or for the purpose of writing poetry? I am thinking of James Merrill with his Ouija board or H.D. acting as a medium to fallen soldiers. Do you have any thoughts on writing practices of this kind? Do you ever hear voices when you’re taking notes in the extreme present?
There are a lot of dead people in my past, not just people who died of AIDS, but a large number of these beautiful souls did. I was searching for a way to contact them that was universal, and I do not mean through a kind of portal in the sense of organized religion, but something secular we had all shared or visited. There was no location I was certain everyone had visited, no restaurant or park or beach. Then I thought about The Wizard of Ozas the place all of us had visited at some point in our lives. Everyone I ever knew saw this film. I am calling this (Soma)tic ritual The Wizard of Oz Portal.
Do you remember the scene in the film where the wicked witch puts Dorothy into an opium-induced trance in the poppy field? It is an essential part of the story because after Dorothy is pulled out of the trance by the good witch Glenda, she can finally see the solutions for the way out of fear and suffering. But when she is asleep in the poppies, this is when I freeze the frame, then sit across the room with binoculars, studying Dorothy while quietly invoking the name of a dead lover or friend. After doing this recently, I had a dream that I walked past a church and singing poured onto the street. When I walked inside, it was everyone I knew who had died of AIDS. They were fantastic and laughing and happy to see me, and I was so glad to see them. There has never been a dream as good as that one for me. Even my next best dream was only half as overwhelming with beauty, hugging, and talking with these friends. If I could get pregnant, I would want to be in a hypogeum with these friends and lovers and invite them to revisit the physicality of Earth through the life of my baby. Without hesitation, I would do it and write poems with my baby, a true collaboration. I do enjoy visiting The Wizard of Oz Portal. It is a way to be present for an examination of what parts of my life are beautiful because of each of these people and what each of them taught me. My life is what it is because of these people, and all of it, the horror and drama and being sick and me trying to convince everyone to come to macrobiotic cooking class with me.
In my book of (Soma)tic rituals ECODEVIANCE, there is a ritual I did to contact a dead neighbor who had killed himself. In this case, I used a more traditional occult method for contacting the dead called a scrying mirror. There are other rituals, like reading tarot cards to meat in grocery stores. Meat as another way of saying corpse in a refrigerator waiting for someone to claim the body, but in this case to take it home to chop, cook, and eat the corpse. Ghosts have contacted me. For instance, the last ritual in While Standing in Line for Death is all about Black Mountain College poet and publisher Jonathan Williams' spirit inhabiting the body of a man in a bar in Philadelphia to talk to me. Luckily, I had witnesses for that one.
Magic rituals often begin with protection spells. I was wondering if you do anything to protect yourself before performing a (Soma)tic ritual? I ask this because it would seem to me that you place yourself in a position of radical vulnerability, that in creating an extreme present for yourself you must enter a state of complete openness to the world, and this must require an extraordinary degree of trust. Do these rituals ever produce fear/danger and what do you do to deal with this?
The word "occult" has fear around it but is just a study of the blueprints of what makes the world move and function with such grace. Most of the problems with our species come from an unwillingness to open up a system of beliefs to accept and hold change or difference. Audre Lorde said it best when she said, "It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences."
My teenage years of persecution for being queer gave me sharp coping tools. I would never want to relive one second of that time in my life; however, I do openly admit that those bastards did teach me how to stand against cruelty and fear. The other good thing is when you are Outed for being queer in the kind of community where I grew up, that means you are no longer allowed to participate in normalized society. I was forced outside of the acceptable, respectable world and therefore no longer needed to concern myself with fitting in. It was liberating, and I feel very fortunate to have been shown the way out of having to exist in the framework of norms. This is not to say I live without fear, but my fear is reserved for actual physical threats, as opposed to the fear of caring what others might think about me. How much time do people waste worrying about what others think? When you are told you are not good enough, that you do not count as real, then you get to make the world the way you want it to be. I do not wish to change places with anyone as a result!
One other useful thing from my teenage years was watching all of those people I knew and loved turn away from me after I was Outed. I say useful because it was such an incredible study in human behavior to watch firsthand people who knew me as a poet and friend not be able to navigate continuing to know me. It was easier just to cut me out — former friends who would not look at me when passing me in the hallway. When I think back at the sad cowardice around me, I am still shocked by how easily some people will slip into such roles. Courage, as it turns out, is in very short supply, and I am glad I have it, but I honestly do not know why I have it, and so many others lack it. But without a doubt, it was surviving these formative years that gave me everything I have today that affords me the ability to go out in public and do bizarre rituals for my poems and not care what anyone thinks.
After my boyfriend Earth's horrible death, I had to deal with the brutality of the police. He had been gagged, his wrists and ankles tied together behind him. He had been tortured, raped, then covered in gasoline and burned alive. The police covered up the crime by saying that he killed himself, even though the coroner and I both pointed out multiple times that there was no way to kill yourself when you are bound and gagged. It was the police that sent me into my depression, and it was devastating, and it lasted for years until I did the (Soma)tic ritual to cure myself. If anything, there is more danger ahead for those who are not actively seeking a place for their creativity. The ritual helped me find my way out of the nightmare that existed because of ignorance and fear. Homophobia has taken much love and life from my chosen family, but I have learned multiple ways to strengthen my body and heart in such times of crisis. Poetry and ritual have given me so many gifts, like learning how to be fully present, which in itself is a form of protection.
During the ‘extreme present,’ I presume you are, as it were, tapping into the energy flows around you. Would you say that this is akin to Spicer’s idea of poetry as ‘dictation from the outside’? And what do you think of Spicer’s idea of the poet as a kind of radio antenna?
Yes, absolutely! The devotion to the work of the poems, the ritual itself is a form of busy-work for the muse, the ghosts. Yes, and Edgar Cayce had channeled more than once voices of spirits who told artists and poets somewhat dismissively that they are not doing anything alone without the spirit world. As one such channel of Cayce's shows us:
Q: Should the entity study and write poetry?
A: That the natural consequences of harmony, as related to any of the phases of mystic influences -- for poetry is only the mystic influences of the mental forces of a body. That's POETRY, really, in individuals. The mystic influence had upon the mental forces of a mental body. We are through for the present.
And yes, I often feel that radio antenna as Spicer said. We are tuning in, but maybe it is also like a lightning rod which attracts electrical forces, rather than tuning into the signals in the air, meaning that we have agency in this matter. We get to make space for the spirits to whisper our poems to life!
Some poets were, in my opinion, victims of the occult. Hannah Weiner was a New York poet living during the time of what is called The New York School of Poetry. She saw words, literally saw words, often on foreheads. Poet Eileen Myles has a fantastic story about being at a crowded party and seeing Hannah across the room and thought, "I wonder if Hannah sees words on my forehead right now?" Weiner immediately looked in Myles's direction, then walked over to them and said, "I see no words on your head today Eileen." This poet was also psychic, besides having the ability to see words. In her book Clairvoyant Journal, she makes it clear how brutal this ability can be at times. She writes, "MEET [sic] OUT OF THE FREEZER in pink letters about 18 inches off the floor negative red letters it's not HIGH ENOUGH Neither are the negative words about 10 inches off the bedroom floor," telling us the size and colors of these words. She also created what appears to be a coping mechanism of counting to deal with or dissipate the onslaught of words. She writes, "The words in the living room are eye level higher I can't stand it TABLECLOTH 45 degrees the bedroom must be the least BEAUTIFUL honest ROOM enough COUNT 1 2 3 COUNTING says forehead." When I talk with other poets about the work of Hannah Weiner, we are all in awe of her abilities and the resulting poems, but I do not believe she was having a good time. It is evident in her text that she often, "can't stand it" and gave herself tools to be able to stand it.
Another poet who I believe was a victim of the occult was Merle Hoyleman. When working with Black Mountain College poet and publisher Jonathan Williams many years ago, he introduced me to her poems. I visited Jonathan several times at his home in North Carolina because he had wanted to publish The Book of Frank. He passed away before he could publish it, and Wave Books is now the publisher of these poems, but one of my favorite parts about working with Jonathan was asking him about poets he worked with. Jonathan showed me Hoyleman's 1967 book Asp of the Age, which she insisted be published as facsimiles of her handwriting with green ink. It is fantastic, and I highly recommend reading it if you can get your hands on a copy, maybe through a library.
At dinner one night, I asked Jonathan to please say more about Hoyleman. Before she passed away, he had hoped to publish her collection of poems titled Letters To Christopher. He said she was the one poet in his many decades of publishing who in the end was too difficult to work with and he had to abandon the project. She would call at all hours of the night screaming to Jonathan messages sent to her from her spirit guides about the book. He decided to visit her home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He said she looked like someone's favorite grandmother and that they were in her kitchen, laughing and talking about poetry while she baked a pie. Everything was calm, and he was excited that maybe things would finally work out. Then she suddenly put down a knife she was cutting fruit with and announced, "They have returned!" Jonathan asked who "they" were, but she ignored him and walked into the living room, still wearing her kitchen apron. There was one corner of the room that was bare except for a chair and small table with paper and writing tools. She stood in the middle of the room screaming at apparitions that only she could see that she claimed swirled in the upper corner above the table and chair. Jonathan said her screaming was much more terrifying in person. Then she calmed and said, "Okay, I hear you, yes I hear you," and sat at the table for the next few hours to write down exactly what the spirits told her to write. Jonathan said she referred to these spirits as The Scum, and while she had a tumultuous relationship with these spirits, they were where her poems came from, and Jonathan got to see firsthand the way she collaborated with them. He said he loved the poems and wanted to publish them, but she was too difficult, continuing to call many times a day, screaming messages from The Scum.
With the Romantics the figure of the Magician has been related to the Romantic ‘egotistical sublime’ – an encounter and union with nature that elevates the poet to a position of supreme authority, a position where he, and it is typically a ‘he’, can speak for the ‘I AM’. This has often been criticized for its hubris or for its relation to our domination over the natural world. I was wondering what you might say about this? Is there, for you, a conception of the Magician, or the Poet as Magician, that does not threaten such hubris through self-expansion, power over nature, or the presumption of the authority to speak for the universal self?
Ignota Books recently invited me to write about The Magician for their 22 Moons newsletter, delivered on each New and Full Moon. This is what I wrote:
The Magician by Pamela Colman Smith
THE MAGICIAN TAROT CARD: We Must Understand Our Creativity Is An Organ, A Vital One,
for Ian & Eleanor Swordy
The Magician is pointing toward Jupiter with one hand while the other points to Earth for grounding of the transmission. Draw this card to be told you are brilliant, and all you need to do is finally realize you must fully embrace your creative tools and integrate them into your daily life's work, pleasure, and sustenance. The Magician has access to all four Earth elements with the ability to draw down a fifth, and sometimes the sixth element from Jupiter. It is time to awaken every living human's creative organ. There are catastrophic predictions for the near future, and the only way we are going to survive and thrive together is to imagine where to best place our energies today collectively.
You must listen to your intuitive self, which flows through your heart chakra. Listen as in trust what you are hearing, then trust yourself that you can do it. Now is not the time to hesitate, now is the time to leap and know the forces guiding you also have your back. For a (Soma)tic poetry ritual with the Magician in this time of ecological crisis build it progressively for 9 days, each day adding a new ingredient. Start with how we take for granted our waste. Liquid, solid, which are hazardous, which are biodegradable? Start with a daily awareness of all forms of waste we produce and where we think they go, then investigate further to find out where they actually go.
The Magician offers the opportunity to experience seeing limitless potential where we used to imagine a world with very limited prospects regrettably. A new ingredient to the ritual involves meditating on the four elements we possess in and on our bodies. Fire: every human being is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Have you ever been outside on a day when it is 98 degrees? Feel the warmth exit your mouth; the exiting air had just visited the flame that keeps you burning. Earth: flesh, hair, run your tongue along your teeth, the most immediate connection to your skeleton. Air: breathe again; imagine what must be present in the air to keep you healthy and alive. Breathe deeply, exhale slowly until you can no longer exhale any longer, then slowly inhale until you can no longer inhale, then hold it for half a minute. How delicious is the air? Water: tears, saliva, blood, where are your fluids in your body right now? Where are the fluids flowing or stored? Now focus on all four elements of your body at once, eyes closed, quietly listening, feeling the strength and also the fragility of your body and life.
If you draw the Magician card in reverse, the solution is simple, turn around and look. Where have you been guarding against your priorities of life as a living, breathing artist? Who are you defending them from and what kind of criticism do you fear? Bronnie Ware was a nurse who worked with dying patients for many years and kept track of their regrets. The number one regret of the dying is, "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." Always remember this, and let this knowledge help you find your strength. Stand outside barefoot on the naked Earth for twenty minutes. Understand you are a lightning rod, then write, write, write!
You have said that (Soma)tic rituals are capable of healing the participant, but is there also an intention, in some sense, to heal the broader culture?
There is three political action (Soma)tic rituals in While Standing in Line for Death that came from protesting the anti-queer anti-transgender HB2 law in North Carolina. The dominant Christian leadership in the United States is downright medieval, wanting to destroy anyone who is not obeying their terrifying and very narrow reading of the New Testament. I bring these rituals up because they were responding to the broader culture, wanting healing to take place. It is not easy dealing with queerness in a culture that is driven by such extreme fear, responding with violence. In the United States, the practice of Conversion Therapy is where the church tries to convert young homosexual people to heterosexuality. This "therapy" sometimes involves electroshock, meaning we are electrocuting queer kids in American for being queer! It is so awful, and I decided to make the political action rituals as unexpected as possible, trying anything to get a conversation going with taxpayers about how they are paying for the destruction of queer lives in America.
In one such ritual, I sat at a bustling street corner blowing bubbles. Little kids would gather around to chase them and giggle together. When their parents would walk over, I would greet them with a smile and say, "These are queer bubbles, and they are going to make your children queer. And I do not mean just gay or lesbian, but queer, meaning they will grow up to be radical revolutionaries who will help rid of the world of racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, and other forms of stupidity. These are magic queer bubbles!" Assigning the bubbles magical queer properties in North Carolina was taken very seriously by many of the parents who grabbed their children and dragged them away. While they left, I kept talking, asking about kindness and Christianity being a religion of tolerance and love, and, "Won't you love your queer child just as Jesus would love them for who they are?"
The poet Juliana Spahr and I have discussed this possibility of healing the broader culture with ritual, and she does not think it is possible. She might be right, but I until I die I will be working on many kinds of (Soma)tic rituals that could, possibly, just maybe, be able to heal large groups of people. For now, I will settle on getting as many people as possible being creative as a way of a universal tip in the direction of collective healing. In ancient goddess-centered cultures, there was a tremendous amount of art being made, and of all those artifacts, we cannot find a single name of an artist. That has always said to me that they believed we are all artists, contrary to our competitive systems of art in the deeply assimilated monotheistic male power structure of today. When God is male, and He is all-powerful, and He is too good for a lower-case h, this sends an unforgettable message to young minds trying to understand how they fit in the world as male and female, and even more confusing for those of us who are neither male or female.
In The White Goddess Robert Graves argues that "true poetry" requires a magical trance conducive to the grand themes of death and rebirth, while arguing that the automatic writing processes of the surrealists, or the drug-induced reveries of other modern poets, do not produce true poetry and are closer to the trickery of false prophets. Do you have any thoughts on this? Can "true poetry" be recognized only by some transcendental trace?
There is a lot of poetry I love, like or dislike for various reasons, but in the end, it is none of my business how the poet makes it. After all, when a poem has been published, the magic is next undertaken by the readers. We must not forget the readers, for they are just as creative as the writers. I firmly believe that reading is a form of rewriting or translation. Each of us has our own unique experiences of life that we bring to the act of reading, and that makes our absorption and reflection on the writing continuously new. Our writing will never be read the way we think it should be read, and when we understand this fact, it can be one of the most liberating pieces of knowledge. When I was a younger poet, I realized this, and I am glad I did because my poems were so verbose from overwriting to make sure everyone knew exactly what I meant.
The idea of "true poetry" does not interest me, and I do not have much fight in me for a topic that I do not care about. For many years old men poets like Robert Graves have been yelling about who we should read and how we should write and what should be considered great and what should be ignored and what should be seen as dangerous. But to attempt to answer your question more reasonably, Robert Graves is ignoring the power of the reader. What difference does it make whether a poet used methods Graves approves of or not if the reader is transformed? If the reader is moved, is changed, that is the very process of the occult workings for advancement of life and understanding. In the end, Graves was too narrow in his thinking to grasp the greater value for everyone.
The power of poetry has not failed me like it has some poets in recent decades who hoist philosophy to buttress the poem. It is misogynistic to say poetry is too feminine, too weak, needs a man's ideas to move forward. Love philosophy, go ahead, I am not the least bit anti-intellectual, I do not need philosophy to make poetry appear more masculine. Sigmund Freud said, "Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me." Not philosopher, but poet. And you can have whatever feelings you want about Freud, but no one can disagree that he changed how we view the landscape of human emotion and the origins of feeling. "Everywhere I go" is bold and is from a man who was as careful with his words as a poet.
Some of my favorite poets of the occult are alive and well today, poets like Hoa Nguyen, Ariana Reines, Will Alexander, Alice Notley, and what I love is that each of these poets has very different ways of accessing and writing through the occult. I trust each of them when they talk about their work with tarot, trance, astrology, and it is all "true poetry" in my opinion. It is also important to point out that Robert Graves had a very Eurocentric view, and there are poets and forms of ancient ritual and divination from every continent where human beings thrive.
Does your poetry intend to enchant? What do you think of the idea of poetry as enchantment?
Going back to the reader, I trust them. When I learned that every reader was going to have their unique perspective on my poems, I could then ignore the reader. Not ignoring the reader because I am dismissing them, no, quite the opposite, ignoring them because I trust them completely and have faith that my work will speak to what it needs to speak to in them.
Find out more about CAConrad's work and watch the documentary The Book of Conrad here.
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