Queering the Air

Poet CAConrad was in Portland last week for the release of his new chapbook, WRITING IN ALL CAPS IS THE BREATHMINT OF THE SOUL, (subtitled Prose Poems or Something) from local Bone Tax Press, on the heels of the very recent publication of another full-length book of poetry, Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness, from Wave Books.

I have been fortunate to attend two CAConrad readings in Portland over the last year, and each time, I’ve found myself standing significantly straighter, breathing more deeply, laughing more freely, and finding myself both refreshed and strengthened in a belief that poetry matters in a wider context than my own pleasure, and that my own pleasure (and unrest) exists and matters in a wider context.

My favorite readings are the ones in which, despite the often formulaic context of the reading itself, poetry is able to carve a space out of the ordinary, everyday world. This poetic space is one that asks of us a different sort of attention, a rare place where often solitary readers press their bodies closer together. The act of listening–and listening together–can also be something that emphasizes and helps us visualize, or otherwise experience, our capacity for collective action. And hearing poetry read, as opposed to reading it on the page, requires both an active attention and a surrender to the words as they are spoken in time. We cannot skip forward or backward and are, in a sense, constrained as listeners more than we are as readers. But what this means perhaps is that we as listeners must let go and let loose of a firm grip on a poem, and allow it, in its spoken, auditory form, to enter into our bodies instead of grappling with it at a distance.

And as a queer person who is not always visible in different communities as queer, I appreciate when poets take it upon themselves to bring queerness into the space as a visible and valued element, thus challenging poetry communities into greater inclusivity. CAConrad does this very much, both through the poems themselves and his between-poems storytelling, explanation and banter.

The space carved out by CAConrad is queer, joyful and loving, as well as often disagreeable and disobedient, angry. I don’t think that these qualities are opposed. Much of CAConrad’s work seems to open up the possibility that we can be all of these at once, and emphasizes the importance of disagreement and disobedience, of being loud.

One of the first poems he read was from The Book of Frank (Wave, 2010). It is a deceptively repetitive and simple exchange between an (apparently talking) pig and the protagonist, Frank:

pig says to Frank
“This fence keeps you in your world”
Frank says to pig
“This fence keeps you in your world”
pig says to Frank
“This fence keeps you in your world”
Frank says to pig
“This fence keeps you in your world”
pig says to Frank
“This fence keeps you in your world”

Without offering a straight-up interpretation of this poem, and talking about just this one poem apart from the book in its entirety, these are some of the thoughts I’ve been having in relation to this poem:

What at the surface appears to be a comical situation of disagreement–the pig and Frank each insisting on their own version of the truth about the fence, the other, and the separateness of their worlds–is actually not. Both statements are true, and neither of them have to be. What is presented as a duality turns out to be just different ways of saying the same thing. And by each speaker using the exact same phrase as the other, with precisely the same emphasis, they reveal their similar positions, each stuck on the side of the fence that happens to be theirs, while in denial of that fact.

They convey a world in which it is impossible to be “on the fence,” to occupy a space somewhere in the middle or to move back and forth. Each remains invested in asserting that s/he (the pig’s gender remains unclear) is above the fence’s power while the other is under its impositions, which simultaneously reveals that each speaker is in a vulnerable position that it uses the fence to protect and veil. It is important to each speaker to feel that one possesses the capacity to move freely and choose where they stand, while the other is stuck on the opposite side. But all of this ignores the fact that “you in your world” also means “me in mine.”

They also ignore the way that speech relies upon a shared world in order to function. The inauthentic disagreement occurs as an endless loop of saying the same thing and no one really hearing what anyone else is saying–something like America’s current two-party system, in which political actors say they’re in disagreement, but you’d never know by the outcome, which retains the status quo. Either that, or their disagreements are fundamentally insignificant. Ultimately, they’re saying the same thing, and often you only know they’re in disagreement because they keep insisting that they are. The stasis of the poem might be playing on the idea that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but the same can often be said for mainstream American politics, in which parties stand on different sides of the fence arguing while nothing ever happens, or, as CAConrad often and deliberately points out, while the terrible continues to happen.

While this poem asks me to be critical of conversations that only appear to be disagreements, it also asks me to be aware of the importance of real and substantial disagreement in making something, anything, happen, that can alter the course we are on. We need disagreement to get loose of the devastatingly harmful political and economic systems that try to force us into isolated and silent compliance in our separate worlds. Disagreement can make clear that the basis for what is at stake, is that we share the world. Agreement, though, can be just a powerful. Say Frank and pig were both to realize their mutual position–the possibilities are endless from there.

And another thing the poem asks me is to develop a different awareness about the fence: to see it not merely as an object that separates, and not deny that it is but a temporary and assailable barrier. Additionally, the fence, while being what demarcates different spaces, can also itself be considered a space to reside. Which, in my mind, is one place queerness comes in, as it disagrees with and refuses this one side of the fence or the other set-up. Several of CAConrad’s poems create and occupy a “third space” with specific regards to gender. In one poem in WRITING IN ALL CAPS IS THE BREATHMINT OF THE SOUL, the poet-speaker likes “the roominess of polytheistic cultures where we can / stretch out and exist as / we really are in gender.” I appreciate this spatial figuring of gender as being something that requires a widening of the spiritual and physical space we inhabit. It sounds like a roominess one can cozy up in, too, if they wanted.

This world needs all the party-crashing, queer, fence-hopping fools; needs someone to say, “From what I can see sitting here on this fence, y’all are both neither of you stuck, AND you’re both wearing no clothes.”

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