Film

The Ritualized Anger of a Queer Poet

Still from Belinda Schmid and David Welch's 'The Book of Conrad' (all images courtesy the filmmakers)
Still from Belinda Schmid and David Welch’s ‘The Book of Conrad’ (all images courtesy the filmmakers)

Anger tends to live in familiar tones and images. But in The Book of Conrad, a documentary profiling the life and creative practice of poet CAConrad, we see anger anew: as the impulse behind living, behind ritual, even behind prayer.

We watch long shots of Conrad’s body — flowing hair down his back, bright silk jackets, headbands, green frog-eye sunglasses — as it walks the streets of Philadelphia with defiance. We watch Conrad’s body up close, performing a reiki ritual over packages of meat in a supermarket, as he explains that eating meat is a violent and spiritually painful practice. We watch from far away his body on the stage of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, moving as he performs a poem with a core image of American soldiers shooting Middle Eastern babies.

Conrad has become known for his “(Soma)tic” poetry — works that are part map of his process, part writing exercises, part final product, and that emphasize doing and living in a body. In an interview in the film, Conrad calls the (Soma)tics “ritualized structures where being anything but present was next to impossible.”

Following Conrad’s movements through Philadelphia and the United States closely, as well as incorporating interviews with his friends and colleagues, the film has a lovely, formless, contemporary quality — one scene flows into the next, and moments are linked more by ambient music than any strict chronology, giving the impression of a profile of who Conrad is rather than a history of his becoming. New Zealand filmmakers Belinda Schmid and David Welch are interested in why anger took root in Conrad’s body and how that anger has shaped his work. To the first point, the film conjures an early life in a town outside Philadelphia, where the queer Conrad’s daily existence in a moment when AIDS was just hitting the news was a heroic exercise in survival. “People called me ‘faggot’ more than they called me my name,” Conrad says in a tenor voice that recalls a bluegrass singer. Conrad’s whole family worked in a coffin factory. After his high school boyfriend committed suicide, Conrad moved to Philadelphia, where he joined movements for gay rights and racial justice. “I told him, ‘Those people want to live like animals,’” says Conrad’s stepfather, referring to black Americans, in one of the most chilling moments of the film. “There are some people that want to live at the bottom of the barrel and get what they can.”

One of the film’s strengths is in painting a little-seen portrait of the radical gay and lesbian scene in 1990s Philadelphia. Conrad worked at longtime LGBTQ bookstore Giovanni’s Room and hung out with internationally renowned street photographer Zoe Strauss, who appears in her wise and easy way to recount the mood — one in which Philadelphia’s version of ACT UP, Queer Action, was gaining momentum, even as gay bashings were frequent in the streets and cops openly displayed homophobia. Conrad recalls a cop referring to his friend, a drag queen who had just hung herself, as “a fruit on a loop.” This climate of increasing urgency and polarity came to a devastating head when performance artist Kathy Change self-immolated on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, an act that many young activists like Conrad regarded with both reverence and sorrow.

Still from Belinda Schmid and David Welch's 'The Book of Conrad'
Still from Belinda Schmid and David Welch’s ‘The Book of Conrad’

Then, in 1998, Conrad’s longtime boyfriend Mark Holmes was murdered. In the film, we watch Conrad read his “(Soma)tic 8” to Eileen Myles’s students in a classroom in New York:

Reflect on a personal violence you want undone. Some terrible THING that removed the beauty you once lived with. My boyfriend Mark (nicknamed Earth) moved to a queer community in Tennessee to work the land. He meditated in a cave each day where homophobic men followed him, bound and gagged him, covered him with gasoline, and set him on fire.

If the film wavers, it is in struggling to incorporate this story line. Earth’s death was officially ruled a homicide but, because of misinformation distributed by officials and members of the commune where Earth lived, the film suggests, was discussed in the Philadelphia queer community as a suicide or accident; his murder remains unsolved. The middle of the film turns towards proving that Earth was indeed murdered, using interviews with his brothers and Tennessee officials to serve the purpose. But this line of thinking seems to miss the point: what matters for the film is the effect this violence had on Conrad. Earth’s murder sealed Conrad’s artistic position forever as one of rage, oppression, and proximity to death.

“For a long time I would go to sleep and dream of stabbing his murderers, shooting his murderers, drowning, choking and bludgeoning his murderers,” continues Conrad’s “(Soma)tic 8.”

The urgency is so palpable in Conrad’s words that they stand in stark contrast to the classroom setting, the polite students. Conrad operates at a higher intensity than the rest of the world, even the poetry world that surrounds him. While other poets like Anne Waldman are shown in the film talking about an “outrider” poetry tradition, Conrad seems to live and practice outside of such theories. We see him buy capes at Graceland and listen to Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” on endless loop from 6am to midnight as research for a poem about how sound affects water.

“People are drawn magnetically to your authenticity,” the performance artist Penny Arcade tells Conrad. “But no one wants to be you.”

Still from Belinda Schmid and David Welch's 'The Book of Conrad'
Still from Belinda Schmid and David Welch’s ‘The Book of Conrad’

“Thriving requires more than just survival,” goes the epigraph to Conrad’s “(Soma)tic 8.” What makes The Book of Conrad truly worth watching is the stuff that doesn’t quite fit in any story line but speaks most to the question of whether its subject has found a way to thrive. It’s the palpable isolation in a scene of Conrad sitting in Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market, while tourists all around him stare at his huge crystal necklace and whisper. It’s a poet friend reporting that the only intimate companionship she knows of Conrad having came and went in the time it took her to park the car. It’s Conrad saying he’s been resisting his family’s penchant for guns all his life but thinks it might be time to get one. It’s the moment when Conrad says, “I don’t know what to do with that kind of anger sometimes, quite frankly. What do you do with that kind of anger?” Tears come to his eyes. There’s silence for a long time. Then he looks at the camera and asks, “Did you have another question?”

Yet there’s much to suggest that Conrad is thriving in the world, if that means never wavering from the practice of making art. Pay attention, pay attention, he seems to be chanting as he walks the streets of Philadelphia. “It’s January 1, 2014,” he says at the close of the film, sitting on a park bench wearing a furry hat. “It’s my birthday. And I’m very excited about being 48 and finally having the opportunity to be present.”

The Book of Conrad screened at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (Thessaloniki, Greece) on March 13 and 14. Conrad will be in conversation with artist Candy Chang at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (118–128 N Broad Street, Philadelphia) on March 24 at 5:30pm.

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