dw: What’s interesting about this is the way these choices are informed by convenience. A convenience that is deep and stubborn and violent in the unconscious. When we reflect on the devastation it really is overwhelming to see how much violence can exist in the everyday action of feeding oneself or buying new clothes. What is scariest to me about this is how detached this kind of violence feels, and I wonder how much this distance has to do with the fact that most people living today have not lived without war. Like you say, it is related. These rituals invoke a sense of urgency to interrogate alternatives. Which is what I find particularly important about your work; the way it challenges the reader to challenge themselves. You offer us process as a way of constructing meaning, rather than simply meaning itself. Which I believe to be an action in complete contestation to violence and convenience aka capitalism etc. Process; no goal, no performance indicator, no checkpoint, no cheque, no credit, no coins, no rules. Has your writing always had this focus? How did it develop to what we see in your most recent (Soma)tic rituals?
CA: I come from factory workers, and I ran off to Philadelphia as a teenager to be a poet. It took me a long time to understand what was causing this doubt I had about how I was writing and living. When my family is at work, they are extensions of machines most of those days, and they developed a coping mechanism where they shut off the present and focus on the past and future. I can hear it when we talk, depressed about the past, anxious about the future. It is something I mimicked as a child, I guess, but once I figured out that I had lost the present, these rituals came to mind. (Soma)tic poetry rituals anchor me in the present, meaning I cannot think of anything else except where I am when I am writing inside one. Capitalism drives me in the direction again to be able to find my body, my voice, my poems.
The first rituals I did, I ate a single colour of food for a day. The red poem was the first one, and I wore a red wig around town all day while eating red food. At the end of that first day, I realised that I had invested myself in the present in a way that was new to me, but I also realised that I would have never written that poem for any reason at any other time in my life. The orchestration of the world around me for a more in-depth, more meaningful conversation with what is around me that is something I will never trade for any reason. These rituals have given me the most beautiful relationship with my life, as well as my poems.
dw: It’s certainly a pressure we can utilise to will us into the present/action. I’m interested in talking about fear because it came to mind as you spoke of your parents. Is there anything you fear in your own work at the moment? Or something that isn’t working the way you would like?
CA: I worked so hard to overcome my fear of death as a kid during AIDS. If you read the new essay, I talk about the period between 1984 and 1990 where I did not know if I was HIV positive, but assumed I was. Finding out I was HIV negative was so startling – how can I possibly explain what it felt like to see that I actually had a future when I was certain there was none? This is to say the Coronavirus is terrifying, but with this illness everyone is concerned. What made things so awful when I was a kid was helping friends and lovers who were sick, then going back to where I grew up for a family gathering and no one asked about my friends. No one cared, and if they did care it was to make sure I did not use their toilet or towels. The Coronavirus does not scare me as much because it is not a lonely experience.
dw: I like to ask poetry how it can help me. Particularly by noticing how the tensions of the future or past manifest into discomfort and anxiety within the present/body. And I feel your (Soma)tic rituals have been useful in exploring this, in the celebration of and focus on process. What can you tell us about your new book, as it is quite explicit as an instructional/educational document on this?
CA: My forthcoming book JUPITER ALIGNMENT: (Soma)tic Poetry Rituals, is the first book of mine without poems, it is purely instructional. Ninety-five percent of poets, artists of all kind seem to quit, and not because they want to, they just get lost in this disgusting capitalist world of jobs and mortgages and – you know, life as it is for some. One of the greatest gifts of being outed as queer as a teenager was being forced outside the structures of acceptable society, meaning I no longer had to participate in the world as it was expected of me. Once you are branded as something too different to be trusted in the homes of neighbours, you are free. That freedom allowed me to explore my creative talents fully. Every human being is talented, but very few of us trust that information, and keep at it, forging the tools we use over time until the art we do is an essential part of our lives.
But this new book has a variety of (Soma)tic poetry rituals for everyone to try. There is also an extensive section on workshops, and the various ways I have taught them. My favourite is that we build a series of stations throughout a building or area, and each station has a different ritual. After we have a dozen different ritual stations, we spend an hour moving among them at our pace writing. One of my favourite rituals is called ‘Toe-Clench Barometer’.
Here it is: Take account of how many times you are not saying or doing what you want to say or do in a day. How many times are you polite when you want to curse or scream? How much compromise does your day comprise? Let us assess this, and please be honest; this is for you. What is your body like when you are not who you are? How does it feel? Are your hands doing something, in particular, each time? Your feet? Your groin, your stomach, how does your body react when you are not the real you? Take notes. For the next nine days, you will pay attention to the signs of dishonesty in your voice and your body, and whenever you are not who you truly want to be at any moment in the day. Each time you are being polite to your boss, or the babysitter, or don’t say fuck because there’s a child in the room, each time you are not you, clench your toes! Clench them! Every time clench them! At the end of the day, are your toes tired of this? Are they feeling better, maybe? Soak your feet in hot saltwater and write, write, write as quickly as you can, each night for nine nights after a day of toe clenching dishonesty soak them in warm saltwater and write with the pace only a furious you would know how to do! Open your eyes wider than they’re used to being open and write without blinking if you can. At the end of nine days, take a long time staring at your feet, your toes, look at them. Stick them in your face if you can, right up to your face. Take a magnifying glass and look at your feet. For nine days, your toes have been taking the brunt of your dishonest actions. How does that look? Take notes. How does that feel? Take many notes. Stick your toes in your mouth if you can. How does that taste?