Greenfield poet wins $100k prize

  • With every class they teach, CAConrad shares, “I had several hundred peers of artists as a teenager and in my early 20s. By the time we were in our mid and late 20s, about half of everyone had stopped doing their art, and now that I am in my late 50s, I am virtually alone.” Contributed/Alice Wynne

  • On what they will do with the prize money, CAConrad said, “I have never had a home of my own; I have never had the money to have such a thing. I want a tiny house, a one-level house, with a maximum of 360 square feet. I have traveled to all 50 states multiple times, and I can tell you that western Massachusetts is my favorite part of the country, hands down, so I want to build it here.” Contributed/Augusto Cascales

  • As a teacher, CAConrad says, “My goal is to get as many people to embrace their creative powers.” Contributed

Staff Writer
Published: 10/14/2022 3:43:09 PM

For Greenfield resident CAConrad, being recognized as a recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize was a reality beyond what they could dream. 

“It is mind-blowing,” said CAConrad. “I could say this is a dream come true, but it’s beyond my dreams. I come from poor, hardworking people who did not raise me to believe I could accomplish such a thing as the Ruth Lilly Prize.”

Each year, the $100,000 prize honors a living American poet whose lifetime accomplishments warrant recognition, according to the Poetry Foundation. CAConrad was among 11 poets to be recognized this year. 

CAConrad plans to perform in Greenfield for the first time at 10 Forward on Nov. 11, in an event hosted by Jayson Keery. In addition to performances by several other individuals, the interactive evening will offer guests a chance to respond to writing prompts. The event is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m., with performances expected to start at 8 p.m.

Below is a question and answer with CAConrad, portions of which have been edited for brevity and clarity. 


Q: How long have you been writing poetry, and how did you get into it?
 

My mother had no concept of child labor laws and put me to work selling bouquets of cut flowers along the highway in rural Pennsylvania. This time was the 1970s, long before there were cell phones and other electronic devices to occupy our imaginations, so I became a reader. Every Thursday after school, I would go to the library and gather a stack of books for the weekend to fill my long hours of isolation on the road. Easter Sunday weekend of 1975, the librarian pointed to a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry on display where I checked out books and asked if I had heard of her. I threw the book on my pile and took off. I waited until Sunday to open the book, but once I did, it was the gates of heaven opening for me, and I was hooked and have been a poet ever since.


Q: What most influences your writing?
 

I grew up in a working-class part of rural Pennsylvania. When my family works in the factories, they become extensions of the machines. They shut the present off to cope with their jobs, sending their minds into the past and future all day. When they go home, they cannot flip the switch back to the present, and when I speak with them, I hear that they are depressed about the past or anxious about the future, with no sense of the present. In 2005, I realized that I had learned their coping mechanism of avoiding the present as a child, and I created (Soma)tic poetry rituals for a new relationship with time. The goal is to anchor me in the present through the rituals, creating what I consider an extreme present. For the first ritual, I ate a single color of food for a day for seven days and would also wear the color, starting with red. At the end of the first day with the red poem, I realized two important things:

1) I remained present for the duration of the ritual.

2) I would have never written the red poem for any other reason.

The orchestration of the ritual created the space for the language to appear. It was exhilarating, and I filled my days with rituals to write my poems. I love working with (Soma)tic poetry rituals.


Q: What is it about poetry as a writing style that appeals to you?
 

Nothing against novels and other prose writing, but I’m not interested in reading material that is a fully connected story. Poetry is different. We poets give the reader corresponding ideas, and it’s up to them to build the bridge connecting those ideas. Poetry requires a lot of creative input, showing the reader that they are just as innovative as the writer they are reading.


Q: Are there any topics or issues you enjoy writing about most?
 

Greenfield is my first home in over a decade. I have been living on the road, traveling, teaching and always moving, and I loved it, but now I am thrilled to be here. My latest book, “AMANDA PARADISE: Resurrect Extinct Vibration (Wave Books),” was written while traveling across the United States. While on the road, I would lie on the ground, flood my body with field recordings of recently extinct animals, and then write. I was sleeping in my car in Walmart parking lots because part of the ritual as well was waking to walk into those massive stores, listening to the extinct animals on my earphones while walking a spiral formation through all of the thousands of items for sale. That ritual and the poems I wrote for the book led me to this new (Soma)tic poetry ritual I am loosely calling Listen to the Golden Boomerang Return. With the new ritual, I am spending lots of time with animals who have found a way to thrive in the human-dominated world, like squirrels, sparrows and coyotes. I spent most of the COVID lockdown in Seattle, where I made friends with crows I was feeding on my window ledge. One crow started to allow me to pet its beak and would bring me gifts of seeds, plastic and a gold sticker.


Q: Outside of poetry, how do you spend your time? Do you enjoy other writing styles or art forms?
 

That’s the thing, a deep investment in poetry lets you deeply appreciate everything around you better, and as a result, I love walking around Greenfield and talking with people. But no, I don’t enjoy any other kind of writing. I do write prose, but it’s not something I look forward to doing.


Q: How long have you taught? How do you feel about teaching a little closer to home this year, at University of Massachusetts Amherst?

I still teach at Columbia’s writing program in New York City and at the Sandberg Art Institute in Amsterdam and have for over a dozen years now. I love teaching because I focus on (Soma)tic rituals for poetry or art, as the rituals work well across all disciplines. The rituals will significantly help students in the future when life takes over and they start to fall away from doing their art. It is a fact I share with every class I teach that I had several hundred peers of artists as a teenager and in my early 20s. By the time we were in our mid and late 20s, about half of everyone had stopped doing their art, and now that I am in my late 50s, I am virtually alone.

Life takes over, but my rituals help everyone understand how to jump back in, no matter what is going on, no matter how much they feel they cannot do their art. My goal is to get as many people to embrace their creative powers.


Q: What is the number one piece of advice you give to young writers or aspiring poets?


When I was a very young poet, my poems were verbose – very wordy – because I wanted to ensure the reader understood exactly how I saw things. I am happy that I learned early as a poet that that is impossible. Every human being is unique with their own set of experiences that make their lives, so a thousand different people reading one of my poems get translated into a thousand different variations. It liberated me once I realized this. I could ignore my audience, not in a rude way, but because I trust them completely to get what they get on their terms.


Q: Do you know what you will do with the award money?
 

I have never had a home of my own; I have never had the money to have such a thing. I want a tiny house, a one-level house, with a maximum of 360 square feet. I have traveled to all 50 states multiple times, and I can tell you that western Massachusetts is my favorite part of the country, hands down, so I want to build it here. The tiny house would be a writer’s retreat for other poets when I travel, which would be about half the year. I have a floor plan that I have been secretly imagining for years, but now that I have won this money, it is possible to make it come true. I am not exactly sure how yet, but I intend to make it happen somewhere near beautiful Greenfield.


Q: Anything else I may have missed that you’d like to share with the community about yourself?
 

People say talking about the weather is boring, but this morning, I had a fascinating conversation with a woman who loves rain clouds. She was excited about a cloud she saw out her window while eating breakfast. I hope to meet you on the sidewalk and have a conversation about anything.


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