HELLO, TYPEWRITER: the ugly cousin

‘How will you survive?’ (appalled parents ask). ‘Why would you choose to be poor? I just don’t agree with it. Don’t you want a normal future?’

– July Westhale

I have always said that coming out as a writer feels a lot like coming out as queer. Though the concerned parties may or may not have your interests in mind when assuming that writing is a choice, and not to discount the trauma of being queer in a society that hosts such terrifying political entities as the Tea Party, the fact of the matter is that the lack of understanding or marginalization that occurs towards both often leads to the creation of artistic communities in which writers can carve spaces for themselves and choose their own family. In said artistic communities, we join together to collectively create a stirring pot of resources, spaces, publications, slams, galleries, and salons. We take inspiration, grit, and recreation from these communities. A good artistic collective will constantly sustain its members through ever-expanding diversity, challenges, opportunities to improve; by embracing manifestations of trauma, and reacting to political absurdities through solidarity, fierceness, and full hearts.

So what happens when we, as active and responsible participants, come to a spot in our careers when we have the creative bandwidth to contribute to the sustainability of our communities? We give back to the pot. We mentor young folks. We create spaces for our older folks to be respected and heard. We show up in plazas and squares and parks to speak out against classist acts that prevent our people from writing—whether that be the cutting of food stamp programs, housing injustices such as foreclosures or dramatic rent hikes or buildings not up to ADA housing codes, or the refusal of society to understand writing as a career worthy of monetary and legislative support.

Recently, while researching the ways in which other countries (including my home country, Chile) support their writers through federal programs, I stumbled upon this article on the Philadelphia Poetry Hotel. I was immediately lit aflame. YES. After spending years mooning over the fact that so many other countries continued to support their artistic ambassadors through government grants, housing allowances, and pensions, I had finally stumbled upon a bit of hope for poor and working class poets! I set about contacting CA Conrad to ask him about the projects, and to gush over email to him about what a fantastic project I thought this was.

LITSEEN: How did the idea of the poetry hotel come to you? What inspired this radical & amazing enterprise?

CA CONRAD: Thank you so much for this opportunity. It comes from poverty. I grew up poor and at age eight started working for my mother selling bouquets of flowers along the turnpike exits in rural Pennsylvania. When I moved to Philadelphia as a teen it was my good fortune to be moving there during the age of Al Zulli. Al was a landlord who loved artists of all kinds. He owned many apartment buildings in downtown Philadelphia, and when he rented to poets, painters, and other artists he gave us the special rent. I paid 210 dollars a month, and it never went up in eight years. It went up after he died. His children divided the properties, and that same dinky apartment I first lived in from 1986 to 1994 was suddenly 900 a month. Now it’s close to 1500 a month, which is just a disgraceful story of unbridled greed taking hold.

The greed ruined a community of artists, replacing us with very rich, very white, very clean cookie cutter ivy league students. The sui generis of my old neighborhood looks like anywhere now, all the spirit flatlined on the operating table. We used to spend HOURS AND HOURS in each other’s apartments looking at the latest sculptures, photographs, poems and novels. We used to all meet at The Bacchanal, a bar in the neighborhood full of artists and drag queens and hookers and all kinds of marvelous trouble. “I’ll see you tonight at The Bacchanal?” We all went there. We all KNEW one another and we were black sheep coming together to share our visions of how beautiful the world can be. ALL THAT has been replaced with incredibly expensive restaurants, wine bars, and little boutique shops that sell endless shelves of stupid, ugly crap you don’t need. And bridal gown shops! When money moves in all the power of true innovative living shrinks away. Money THINKS it wants to live somewhere different and cool, but it really just wants to reestablish its many comforts and mundanities.

I honestly don’t even know where most of those old friends are today. This change happened like a tidal wave hitting us all, scattering us in every direction. I’m sad that the change didn’t happen a few years later when we would have all had e-mail. Most of us didn’t even have telephones in our apartments. I’ve never owned a television. In fact NO ONE I knew back then owned a television. When I walk in my old neighborhood now at night I see the glow of the screens in so many windows. Who are these fucking people moving to the city to watch TELEVISION? Why couldn’t they just STAY where they came from to do that? There’s a grotesque quality of life in the highly normalized facelift.

The Philadelphia Poetry Hotel is a small answer I can offer to this despicable world that has replaced genius with insipid and uninspired thought. It will be a place where brilliant working class poets can live, and write, and read, AND THRIVE! They will pay 200 dollars a month. I know what it means to pay so little in rent, because it was the generosity of Al Zulli that gave me THE CHANCE to become a poet. It’s very hard to be a poet. I would say more than 95 percent of all the poets I knew in the 80’s and 90’s stopped writing. The commitments of an ugly world of money, of making money, of having to make money, this turns the poet out of the body. They give up. Poets who were writing some of the most incredible poems I had ever read just stopped it and forgot it. Darkening hearts as these make me sad.

I blame the money. I know what it’s like to have generosity, and so in turn I want to create that generous space once again for poets. This so they too can spend their time learning to love the world and their own way to the poems. Spending time in the libraries, the bookshops, parks, galleries and riverside benches and bridges. The Philadelphia Poetry Hotel will extend the wildness we are capable of. I see so many young poets coming to Philadelphia now and all they do is work, work, work. They have no choice because the rents are too fucking expensive. And this work destroys them. Stupid, boring work eating away at their souls. To quote my good friend Frank Sherlock, it’s SOUL CRUSHING!!

Nikki Finney once said, “As writers, we all take from the pot. But we must put back into it.” How do you feel that the advent of projects like yours—projects that create accessibility to resources such as housing, pensions, work grants, etc to low income & working class poets—helps to add back to the pot?

I think the answer is in your question. All of these things you mention give back. There needs to be more bent on financial need, however. The Philadelphia Poetry Hotel will in fact be filled with poets who can prove financial need.

In your knowledge, has this idea of the poetry hotel been carried out anywhere else?

I’m glad you asked this. The Philadelphia Poetry Hotel website that you’ve seen has existed since 2003. It’s been around, gotten around, keeps flagging much interest. And someone I have yet to speak to started The Philadelphia Art Hotel. I haven’t been to it yet, but it’s clearly inspired by The Philadelphia Poetry Hotel. I would like to talk to them to see how it’s going, see how they did it. They have a website.

It would have been nice if they had spoken to me, but then again that’s the way it is in the art world, poetry the ugly cousin.  Visual artists, novelists, musicians, I LOVE THEM, but most of them put poetry at the bottom of the list of arts. Ah, but to quote Sigmund Freud, “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.” Yeah, POET, not painter, novelist, etc., POET!!

Why do you believe Philly is the best location for this project? I know that you live there—what strikes you about Philly as a city? What are some of the things you love? How do those enhance your project?

When I was a kid living in my first Al Zulli apartment my boyfriend at the time asked why I lived in that dingy little cave. I said let me take you somewhere. We got on the 42 bus, got off at 3rd street, and walked to a magnificent gazebo with wisteria, roses and lavender growing on it and around it. We sat inside and I said, “Welcome to my living room!” Philadelphia is A THOUSAND ways my home before it’s my apartment you see. All of my writing is out in the city. Hundreds of magnificent parks and public space, REAL public space where you can be there and live, and read and write. And it’s YOUR SPACE because it’s public, and you’re public. I’m a poet, I’m public, and I LOVE it. Benjamin Franklin’s library system is fantastic, and the librarians care deeply for the poetry and other books. Here I am making a case for why The Philadelphia Poetry Hotel should be in Philadelphia when Philadelphia is in the name, HAHAHA!!

Philadelphia is also very close to Boston, New York, Baltimore, DC, Atlantic City. A poet can find that Philadelphia is right in the middle of this terrific east coast vein of exciting poetry communities.

Tell us more about the project—how will it be funded? How do folks get involved? How will you determine eligibility?

Of course, thank you. For more than a decade this has been a dream of mine, and I’ve found some terrific brownstones that would be perfect!! How will it be funded? That’s just something I’m not sure about yet. The PROBLEM with funding is that there are usually strings attached.

I want to have a panel of poets whose aesthetic is similar in that it is innovative and not afraid of anything new going on in poetry today. This is the panel we NEED because this hotel will be a community. All it needs is a healthy start to germinate, and then these like-minded geniuses can get to work!!

There will be a printing press in the basement. I want there to be a poetry library where ONLY poetry is on the shelves. Okay, maybe dictionaries, but that’s IT!! No biographies about poets either, just poetry. Each poet in the hotel will pay 200 dollars a month, and I want their lives to be beautiful. I want them to feel cared for the way I felt. I want them to not sweat about bills.

There will be a statue of Al Zulli somewhere on the hotel property, and a mural of Philadelphia poets past and present. It’s important to honor Al to always remind the world that generous souls should be celebrated to encourage their legacy.

None of the residents will be enrolled in a writing program. I have NOTHING AGAINST writing programs, but I’m not interested in subsidizing these various Philadelphia university writing programs. This is not a dorm. If someone is living at the hotel and wants to join a program, fine with me, but they will have to move. After they graduate they may move back if there’s room.

There will be a poetry Laundromat on the first floor, open to the public. There will be a small stage with a citizen’s open mike at all times. The library and Laundromat could be jobs for some of the residents if they want. My main goal is that the residents only have to pay 200 a month so that they need only a part time job at the most to handle their bills. I also want them to have free Internet access, water, electric, gas, all of this included in their 200 dollars.

Ezra Pound said, “The only thing one can give an artist is leisure in which to work. To give an artist leisure is actually to take part in his (her) creation.” Life is too short to not be spending your time learning to write poems if that’s what you want to do.

Each resident will have the opportunity to invite a visiting poet of their choosing. That visiting poet will be paid to come to The Philadelphia Poetry Hotel to spend a week staying at the hotel, spending time with each of the residents, and present a public reading at the end of the week. We’ll have a large dining room off the library where we make lavish, delicious dinners weekly, and for the visiting poets.

The other thing I want to do is to connect with other arts organizations to have the hotel residents be able to apply to writer and artist retreats around the country and around the world. In fact one of the things I thought of is to have the room for visiting poets be available part of the year as a residency. This would make it easier for us to have a residency exchange with other organizations. I want these poets to have every single opportunity that I can imagine to put together for them. There are so many other things I’m thinking about, but this is good for now.

What about accessibility for poets with dis/abilities?

Yes, of course. I don’t know what else to say. But yes, of course.

If you could give advice to the writing community about anything at all, what would it be?

OH!! Stop asking if your poems are good. KNOW THAT THEY ARE. Don’t take any shit. And most of all don’t stop writing. Poetry is the one art where almost everyone who does it stops doing it. Trust me, I’ve seen so many poets give up. It’s a beautiful world; we’re here to make it even better!!

For more information on how you can help or get involved, email CA Conrad at: CAConrad13@AOL.com.

From his website: “There are thousands of Americans everyday who are looking for a safe place to invest their money. Poets are the best source for removing negative charge from your wealth, and raising the collective conscience of the planet. You can change your life FOREVER by sponsoring a poet today! CAConrad is one such American poet serious about making poetry a lifelong quest, ready and willing to refine your money! If you are interested in sponsoring this poet, call (215)563-3075, or write to CAConrad13@AOL.com. You won’t believe the difference a poet will make!”

The son of white trash asphyxiation, CAConrad’s childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift. He is the author of A BEAUTIFUL MARSUPIAL AFTERNOON: New (Soma)tics (Wave Books, 2012), The Book of Frank (Wave Books, 2010), Advanced Elvis Course (Soft Skull Press, 2009), Deviant Propulsion (Soft Skull Press, 2006), and a collaboration with poet Frank Sherlock titled The City Real & Imagined (Factory School, 2010). He is a 2011 PEW Fellow, a 2012 UCROSS Fellow, and a 2013 BANFF Fellow. He is the editor of the online video poetry journals JUPITER 88 and Paranormal Poetics. Visit him at CAConrad.blogspot.com

 July Westhale is a writer, femme shark, activist, and archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She writes poems, long curly letters, academic articles, art criticism, travel essays, interviews, book reviews, & the occasional terrible short story. She does not normally wear blazers, or drink lattes. She was recently named a 2011 Lambda Literary Fellow in Poetry for LLF’s Emerging LGBT Voices Writing Residency, an Artist in Residence at Dairy Hollow Writers Colony, a runner up in the Femme Bot & Arsenic Chapbook competition & an indentured servant at Copper Canyon Press. University of Wisconsin at Madison’s lit journal Women in REDzine just named her one of their “top 10 inspiring political poets of 2011.”