Queer Phenomenology: ‘While Standing in Line for Death’ by CA Conrad

Clara Hancock

Edited by Ketaki Zodgekar

Illustration by Яachel Lee

‘We are time machines of water and flesh patterned for destruction, if we do not release the trauma.’ (CAConrad, 2017) 

CAConrad is a gender non-conforming poet and activist. I first came across their work in the 2018 Beatrice Gibson film I HOPE I’M LOUD WHEN I’M DEAD, which emphasises the necessity of poetry during the current American political crisis. Since discovering Conrad and their ‘(soma)tic’ bodily rituals, my own writing practice has been significantly altered, as I developed a deeper awareness of poetic embodiment. While Standing in Line for Death (Conrad, 2017) consists of 18 (soma)tic rituals, alongside poems that result from them. (Soma)tic poetics is a union of ‘soma’, a spiritual term derived from Sanskrit, meaning ‘to press and be newly born’ and ‘somatic’, the Greek term for the body. Conrad’s (soma)tic poetry investigates the space between body and spirit, and exposes the ways in which corporeality is integral to creativity, grief, expression and survival. ​The writing that emerges from these rituals repeatedly reminds us of the ways in which emotion is both bodily, cognitive, and a meeting point between the world and ourselves (Herd, 2017).

The book begins with a ritual. ‘Mount Monadnock Transmissions’ is the third ritual Conrad undertakes in order to try to overcome the depression they have experienced since the murder of their boyfriend Earth. They place a crystal Earth gave them before they died in their headband and swallow another crystal. The particular crystal they use, a quartz, is symbolic, as it is known to hold and retain knowledge. The remaining knowledge and memory of Earth passes through Conrad’s body. Through this act they create the poem:

                     ‘your murderers were the last
          to touch you in this world
            torpid song on repeat
               pulled down the
                      rocky slope 
                      I hold the shirt you left behind
                      the bottom was 
                      visible before the descent
                      hours days months later 
                      your shirt is gone 
                      no I am wearing it
                      covered in cuts
                      layers of dust on my skin 
                      still confident in gravity 
                      still sliding down when
                           up now feels 
                             too far
                              away’ (Conrad 2017)

In each ritual, we see how the process of writing is woven into the form the poem takes. Poetry is often a labour of embodiment, consciousness and internal reckoning, and it cannot exist without the labour of ritual that it requires. Conrad recounts this labour to the reader by detailing the structured bodily rituals they follow to construct a poem. They defy poetic convention by using organic and playful syntax which reflects their fluid approach to the body throughout each ritual. This emphasis on the conditions of the body is essential to queerness, which is an identity that is often understood through embodied knowledge and experience. Conrad intuitively takes what they do in the ritual and translates it immediately into writing. Through this, the poem is embedded within the conditions of Conrad’s body.

Reading Conrad’s rituals brought me back to the concept of queer phenomenology, introduced by Sara Ahmed. Phenomenology is an examination of the importance of the body as a site of affect, feeling and sensory perception. This is the apparatus in which humans take in and understand the world, through their embodied consciousness. In ​Queer Phenomenology (​2006) Ahmed outlines how, as the body is not a neutral apparatus, queerness significantly impacts the ways in which embodied consciousness is understood. Perception of the world is influenced by forces of authority that continually alter the way in which embodiment occurs. Ahmed poses the question: how do we undo this? How do we develop a phenomenological situation in which people are aware of these forces and not as conditioned by them? Ahmed writes:

‘Phenomenology can offer a resource for queer studies in so far as it emphasises the importance of lived experience, the intentionality of consciousness, the significance of nearness, and the role of repeated and habitual actions in shaping bodies and worlds.’ (Ahmed, 2006)

The phenomenological process emphasises the ways in which both humans and the world alter and affect one another. Objects and spaces are typically made for certain bodies. Queer bodies are often excluded, and therefore have to carve out their own spaces. This is integral to how queer people perceive the world, and how they create. Conrad’s repeated bodily rituals reflect Ahmed’s argument that habitual action is integral to the formation of queer lives.

In my own experiences of institutional learning, phenomenology and poetry have always been presented in a way that feels exalted and impenetrable. The phenomenology I was taught presupposed the default body as white, cis, western and male, and failed to recognise the creative potential of the lived experiences of other bodies. It is essential that universities embrace alternative ways to approach writing and poetry, in order to break down the institutional structures that so often prevent individuals, especially from marginalised and underrepresented groups, from approaching poetry. Conrad emphasises ritual as a necessity in navigating the constant confinement of our bodies, and exploring the poems our bodies can contain. ​ They also problematise western academic institutions’ preoccupation with the separation of mind and body. To Conrad, the mind is the body, and our bodies give us the language with which to write. Like a crystal, our bodies store knowledge, experience and language, which are in turn expressed back into the world through poetry.

I believe that Conrad’s poetry would add value and meaning to any poetry curriculum, teaching students about ritual and healing as experienced by the queer body. The overall message of Conrad’s work is that poetry can heal us. Poetry can listen to what our body is telling us and turn it into something of beauty. It can help us understand what we must do to keep our bodies alive. We all hurt, without ever really understanding where the pain comes from, our dreams create their own stories and the fluidity of queer identity laps like tides of renewal. For all of these essential processes, Conrad shows us actions and rituals to listen to the body, and turn it into words. 

Works cited:

Ahmed, Sara. ​Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others.​ Duke University Press, 2006. 

CAConrad, ​While Standing in Line for Death. W​ave Books, 2017. 

Herd, Colin. ​present tense: caconrad’s while standing in line for death. ​3:AM Magazine, 2017. ​http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/present-tense-caconrads-standing-line-death/ 

Clara Hancock is a writer and artist. Through their work, they seek to interrogate the role of bodies within the social production of architectural and geographic space, shaped by phenomenology and queer theories of the body.  They graduated from Visual Culture at NCAD Dublin in 2018 and currently live in Glasgow.

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