On Presence, Defiance and Honesty: daniel ward Interviews CAConrad

By and | 1 May 2020

dw: In ‘The Right to Manifest Manifesto’ you remind us of the inescapability of collaboration. You speak to an eternal process of receiving and reimagining, and you invite us to pay attention to this cyclical process. This is something you explore in your (Soma)tic rituals, as exercises in extreme presence. You speak of a poetry that is regenerative and renewable as well as accessible and vital. And so, without fear of being reductive or superficial, but more in hope of being playful, I want to follow up quite directly and literally. What are you reading at the moment and what is it doing for you?

CA: Before we hid from the Coronavirus, I was at the library reading about the Chisholm Trail. One hundred fifty years ago, this was the trail cowboys would drive their cattle over, running from Texas to Kansas, stretching more than a thousand miles. Later this year, I want to visit the trail as part of a new (Soma)tic poetry ritual focused on animal husbandry. Animals held in captivity for food, fur, companionship, and scientific experiments have been on my mind while working on my current ritual, ‘Resurrect Extinct Vibration’, which is about disappearing wild creatures. The ‘Resurrect’ ritual has nine ingredients, the main one being where I lie on the ground in all fifty states of the US and flood my body with the field recordings of animals extinct in my lifetime.

dw: These rituals seem to engage similar themes that are consistent throughout a lot of your work: a deep listening of the natural world. You speak in the ‘Manifesto’ about a hope to return to a sense of ‘wildness’; to challenge the efficiency machine of the industrial world. In Anne Boyer’s essay ‘No’ she speaks of a similar kind of refusal. She states: ‘Poetry is sometimes a no. Its relative silence is the negative’s underhanded form of singing. Its flights into wide-ranged interior are, in the world of fervid external motion, sometimes a method of standing still’. By inviting us to participate in considered acts of listening and engaging you are also asking us to object to and interrogate the dominant paradigm. Boyer extends her argument by suggesting ‘The no of a poet is…more usually a no to all dismal aggregations and landscapes outside of the poem. It’s a no to chemical banalities and wars, a no to employment and legalisms’. What are your thoughts on poetry as an act of refusal, in particular your own (Soma)tic rituals?

CA: Well, I could point to more overt instances, like the rituals in my latest book made during protests against anti-LGBTQ laws in the state of North Carolina. But I would rather talk about how they always refuse the acceptable stance. For ‘Resurrect Extinct Vibration’, I lie on the ground and flood my body with extinct animal sounds all across a nation more responsible than most for their disappearance. I lay perfectly still while the throats of animals who no longer exist sing to me from the recent past, telling me, in their ignorance of their impending destruction, that the day of the recording was a full, entire day of singing and living: this is a ritual of the haunted No. There is nothing to stand against or for here. They were alive in my lifetime but are gone and are not coming back, ever, yet it subsequently invites taking a handle on the present, and that is where I take ‘Yes’ by the helm.

dw: Yes, and this process of grieving in situ feels particularly resonant at this moment. I’m writing to you from a country recently terrorised by widespread bushfires, which at this point in time has killed over a billion animals and driven many species to inevitable extinction. Grief is a recurring theme in a lot of your work, and something you have written about extensively. In times of pain and grief such as this, what might poetry be able to do for us?

CA: A reporter recently said, ‘Australia’s fires will be remembered for generations’. That sentence is not exact, but close. The sentence annoyed me immediately because the fires are still happening. To talk about a devastating future for news-reporting effect is just more capital-driven language, and of course, it was capitalism that drove the planet directly toward this horrific state. The images of koala bears with burnt feet and edges of their ears, how about how devastating it is right now?

My latest (Soma)tic ritual involves animals that have become extinct in my lifetime. It is a strange experience, mostly because I react positively, both physically and emotionally. Are my cells remembering the vibratory patterns of the recently disappeared and responding as if having a conversation with an old friend? Flooding my body with their sounds rejuvenates my spirit, which disturbs me, and frankly, it was very unexpected the first time I experienced it. I am also looking at wild species in decline, which presently holds the possible outcomes for us all. In the grocery store, there are cans of tuna, and I have seen these things all my life, but tuna is in decline; in fact, the last genuinely wild herds being hunted are in the oceans. All other mass-produced food-source animals are incarcerated for their flesh. I refuse to discuss the endangered wild creatures unless I simultaneously talk about factory farms and fast food, somehow putting a happy sales pitch through a weird and creepy clown mascot. Meat is so normalised but imagine standing in the grocery store with a can of tuna in your hand thinking about where it came from and the things the animal saw and felt. We put mayonnaise in tuna to make tuna salad. Mayonnaise is made with eggs. Chickens and deep-sea tuna incorporated together for pleasure, one creature living among its school in the vast ocean, the other most likely living in a wire cage forced to produce, produce, produce, never seeing sunlight.

While working on the ‘Resurrect Extinct Vibration’ (Soma)tic ritual, I had some very confronting conversations with myself about meat. I have been vegan since 1988, but I was a hunter in my youth. I know what it is like to not question killing animals for food. I remember ripping the hide off a rabbit and proudly showing my grandfather, who taught me how to do it. The next ritual is making itself clear when I make myself stand in front of massive slabs of flesh displayed in grocery store refrigerators. And those cans of tuna fitting in our hands come from bodies which are two-thousand pounds and thirteen feet long. Are there enough cans of tuna to arrange on the floor of the grocery store aisle to mirror the weight and length of one tuna? I want to do this, but I’m not sure a grocery store will allow me. I did a ritual in my book While Standing in Line for Death, where I read tarot cards to meat in grocery stores and was thrown out each time. It disturbs people to look at meat in any other way except to be something delicious to eat, and I ask is it because they need meat to be removed from its former life to eat it?

My wish is to arrange cans of tuna, then have DNA tests performed on each can to see how many of those cans are from the same fish. Mourning the present state of affairs feels productive for figuring out solutions to stave off this haemorrhaging wound we continue to deepen. There are so many fast-food chains in the US serving flesh from factory farms that the cycle from the misery of captivity to slaughter is so large it is difficult to discern the suffering; or maybe it is easier to pretend it is not happening? And being queer, I am very interested in how some of these giant fast-food chains support anti-LGBTQ legislation and practices. Cracker Barrel is one such chain who very proudly and openly fired queer employees, until activists made them change their policy in the 90s, but we must not forget they did this. Chick-fil-A is another vast fast-food chain, and they have very publicly donated money to anti-LGBTQ organisations. Both companies serve food from factory farms, and I want to make the case that these angst and tyrannical practices are related.

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