Every e-mail from Philadelphia poet and provocateur CA Conrad ends with this note: "I AM SO HAPPY!!!!!!!! My real life has exceeded my dreams."
Conrad, 46, has plenty of reasons to be overjoyed. His oversized book, A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon, was just released during April's Poetry Month through the prestigious Wave Books imprint, in time for a reading tour through the South. The new work is a follow-up to the highly acclaimed, startling The Book of Frank, the Whitman-esque The City Real & Imagined: Philadelphia Poems, cowritten with Conrad's pal Frank Sherlock, and Advanced Elvis Course, the Soft Skull press effort that put Conrad on the national map with its gay Presley riffs and taunting, effortless humor.
"I've been writing for many years, and by my mid-30s remember telling myself that I may never be published," Conrad says while packing for a trip to Buffalo to read from A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon. "When my first book was published at 40, it felt fantastic. I was grateful that I never gave up on my writing, like so many others tend to do before this age." To go with that gratitude, Conrad won a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 2011, an award that often yanks artists out of poverty and sets them on a path where they can investigate all their options for creative work. "The sort they had only before dreamed of doing," Conrad says with a smile; he's a cherubic gentleman with glowing skin, a mischievous glint in his eyes, long gray hair, and all manner of gems hanging around his neck on ropes, chains, and necklaces.
"Twenty years ago I didn't believe that I would ever win a Pew, have things published, or be going to artist retreats. Now, after the book has come out that I've been working on diligently since 2005, on top of it all, I've been invited to teach workshops at Naropa, the much-fabled school in Colorado started by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman back in the 1970s. It's an extraordinary honor."
All that glee doesn't mean Conrad's poetry is chipper, sappy, or romantic. His books are filled with alluringly odd and dark images that could rival William S. Burroughs. Conrad, an out-and-proud gay activist, fills his poems with his own brand of spirituality and loving gay sexuality, along with occasional horrific realities.
The Book of Frank's lead character is the lone child in the house that's not a fetus in a jar. In Advanced Elvis Course, a possibly gay vegan Presley cavorts, a notion that sickened and disgusted the King's fans. "I've been invited onto dozens of radio shows across America because of the book, especially when his birthday rolls around," Conrad says with a laugh. "My queer, vegetarian book about Elvis has made homophobic, meat-eating Elvis fans very angry, but I just send them my deconstruction of 'Jailhouse Rock.' That song is a gay prison fantasy gone wild, gone rocking — listen to it closely and notice all the sexy innuendos and lack of female pronouns or women's names." His Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon is lined with delightfully mad "(Soma)tic" exercises meant to challenge both himself and his readers to be more creative . An example of a (Soma)tic exercise? "I ate a single color of food for a day for seven days, and would wear or invest my day with the color in other ways, like when I ate only red foods, I wore a red wig all day long." Conrad even found an occasion for poetry in being mugged, after he was robbed at knifepoint in Fishtown. "I was angry and shocked, but at the same time started thinking how to make that into a poem," he says.
(Other Conrad exercises can be found at his website www.caconrad.blogspot.com, as well as his spoken-word Phillysound site.)
A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon includes playful ribald poems such as "The Sun God's Daughter Has a Lovely Copper Penis." Beyond that, there are poems against war and U.S. intervention in Iraq, and others that relive personal tragedies: the death of Conrad's boyfriend Tommy of AIDS and the murder of another of Conrad's boyfriends, Earth (Mark), who was hogtied and set on fire "by evil homophobes."
Poverty of any sort, too, is a large part of his poetry as he seeks to promote respect for the 99 percent — the working class — that he comes from. A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon emphasizes confronting poverty, fear of poverty, and the gross misuse of resources by the very wealthy who, in Conrad's view, profit from war and make their living on the backs of the poor.
On his website, Conrad calls himself "the son of white trash asphyxiation," with a childhood that included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift. It could have been worse. He once mentioned that he could have been doomed to a life making coffins, as his friends and family did at a casket factory. "My mother has a picture of me as a little boy dressed as a vampire in a coffin, arms folded across my chest … sitting in the coffin, fangs and claws and fake blood. Bela Lugosi. I loved that man — my first crush. " He left upstate Pennsylvania for Philly more than 25 years ago, in the 1980s began reading at local poetry stops such as South Street's Bacchanal (now torn down), made friends with bookstore owner Molly Russakoff, and by the '90s was handed the reins of Ketan Ben Caesar's long-running poetry series at the North Star Bar. He loved and loves Philly's poetic history and considers his occasional collaborator Sherlock and fellow locals Gil Ott, Ryan Eckes, Michelle Taransky, and Debrah Morkun among the best poets ever.
"It's a long, rich history, and impossible to cover in a flash, but I am so lucky to be alive at this very moment in this amazing city with all of these brilliant poets," he says. "Philadelphia taught me how to write, live, and love."