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The ASU Piper Center's Queer Poetry Salon Promotes Unity in a Time of Isolation

The Piper Writers House, home of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, isn't holding in-person events right now, but you can still enjoy its programming.
The Piper Writers House, home of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, isn't holding in-person events right now, but you can still enjoy its programming.
Phoenix New Times archives

One approaches poetry as a passion project, one approaches it as their day job, and one approaches it almost like a scientific experiment.

From CAConrad’s (Soma)tic poetry rituals to Raquel Salas Rivera’s generational love for poetry to Cyrée Jarelle Johnson’s morning and weekend routine, these three writers have three different relationships with poetry to share and discuss at ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing's Queer Poetry Salon, an online event that will be held 6 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday, September 19.

M. McDonough, the outreach program coordinator for the Piper, says they hope that the Queer Poetry Salon will be an opportunity for LGBTQ students to find a sense of closeness and community in this time of isolation.

“There is an open mic component, so it’s not just the voices of the poets that are being featured. It’s the voices of the community, and I think that’s an important way for the people tuning in to feel connected to the community in Arizona,” they say.

To register for the free Zoom event, go here.

Meet the Poets

CAConrad

CAConrad comes from a family of Pennsylvania factory workers who spent their days mentally escaping their harsh, bleak existence

“They had developed a technique to survive those kinds of jobs where you’re an extension of a machine,” they say. “Their minds were very active and thinking about the past and the future while they were at work to be able to get through the day. But when they left, they couldn’t seem to switch back to the present.”

So in 2005, Conrad set out to find the present and stay anchored in it. For seven days, Conrad performed a "ritual" in which they only ate one color of food, only wore one color of clothing, and went about their day as such.

"Rituals do in fact anchor me in the present and I’m not thinking about anything else except what I’m doing," Conrad says.

But that was 15 years ago, and Conrad has come to experiment with hundreds, if not thousands more rituals. More recently, they’ve been performing a ritual (funded by the Creative Capital Grant) in which they lie in a park and surround themselves with speakers playing the sounds of animals that have gone extinct during their lifetime.

Conrad’s style of art is experimental, and they think that poetry and art as a whole are headed back that direction.

“I feel like right now, younger poets don’t seem very interested at all in these schools, they’re kind of beyond all that which is kind of great,” Conrad says. “It’s freer now.”

And they think it should stay that way, but that keeping poetry alive and well will require conscious effort and attention on the part of the poet.

To young poets, Conrad says, “Be prepared for the possibility that the art that you’re enjoying now will fade away if you’re not paying attention to it. But even still, if it does slip away from you, you can always get it back."

Raquel Salas Rivera

Raquel Salas Rivera was born into a literary family. His mother and grandfather were poets, so it wasn't a surprise when he began writing poetry at the age of 12.

“I think there was something about that that gave me a little more confidence than most people,” he says. “Because when people tell you that’s a possibility, that you can be a poet and that it’s within your grasp, it makes things easier.”

Salas Rivera says never saw poetry as something to take lightly or play around with.

“I was a really intense kid,” he said. “I never had a ‘This is fun!’ moment about anything I wanted to do. I remember being very serious about it and very intense about it. I started reading a lot of poetry.”

Although Salas Rivera is serious about his poetry, neither his writing process nor his style are structured. He doesn’t block out time or sit down to write; he lets himself write when he feels inspired. Or even when he doesn’t think he feels inspired.

“I might write a poem on a plane or write a poem in the margins of something,” Salas Rivera says. “So after a while, when I go back to a period where I thought I wasn’t producing anything, I’ll realize that I have written a great deal. So, I try not to be too systematic about it.”

He said that poetry enriches his life and he hopes for the same for young LGBTQ poets to take the same joy in it, but says they have to keep an open mind about it.

“Just be able to listen and be open to things that are unfamiliar,” Salas Rivera urges young writers, “and also be willing to define what you want poetry to be on your own. Don't be afraid of forming your own notions of what that is.”

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson

Cyrée Jarelle Johnson also feels that his life is enriched by poetry, but only when he isn’t busy at his main job as a librarian, a job that makes him just as happy as writing poetry does.

“I love being a librarian,” he says. “I think that it’s work that’s compatible with the process of making art and I’m thankful for that because finding a compatible career— if you’re an artist like myself who grew up working-class— is half the battle.”

Johnson is thankful that his job shields him from the income unpredictability that comes with being a full-time professional writer.

“Generally, I wake up in the morning and do some exercises, make my tea, and do about an hour and a half of writing before work, then I’ll write some more after work and write even more on the weekends,” he says. “You could have no job or you could have 12 jobs, but whatever the case, as a writer, you have to make time for your writing.”

And that’s what Johnson believes is most important for young poets and writers to learn: make time for it and put the work in.

“Do your work,” he says. “If poetry is what you want, if you want to write stuff, then you have to write stuff.”

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