Poetry magazine, a publication of the historic Poetry Foundation has commenced its 110-year celebration with an iconic presentation at the Foundation’s annual Pegasus Awards.
The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a staple of the ceremony, typically awards $100,000 to one living U.S. poet. However, in an unprecedented move, the organization set aside over $1 million to honor 11 illustrious recipients during the October 2022 ceremony.
These living legends are: Sandra Cisneros, CAConrad, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Juan Felipe Herrera, Angela Jackson, Haki Madhubuti, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Patti Smith and Arthur Sze.
The Poet’s List is honored to present: The Pegasus Poets; an interview series with this legendary cohort of winners. The first installment of this interview series features CAConrad.
Given its esteemed 110 year history, what does it mean to you to be honored by The Poetry Foundation at this year’s Pegasus Awards?
It is astonishing for a nation [which is] breaking gun sales records—and the shootings and funerals that go with them—to have an organization dedicated to poetry as a very principled way to live. I am incredibly grateful to have received this award.
You were honored for your astounding achievement within the poetry world. At what point in your career did you first realize that your poetic contributions were groundbreaking? Could you ever have envisioned this level of success?
There are many intrusions young poets must navigate, especially from older poets telling them how they “should” be writing. If we can overcome these intrusions, we get the opportunity to have poetry on our terms, which is when the best possible magic happens.
I began writing poetry in 1975, but my first book did not come out until 2006; which was a slow train ride I was on. But, I kept believing in what I was doing [while] ignoring the publishers and editors who would write back telling me not to reinvent the wheel. I never thought of myself as reinventing anything, [instead] building an extension out of the art of the poem.
So many intrusions stand in the way, but if we maintain our focus on the poetry we want, it’s worth it 100%!
How would you describe your fellow Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize awardees?
A former Ruth Lilly winner, Alice Notley said, “Poetry’s so common hardly anyone can find it.” This is a group of poets who have worked hard for years finding the poems. “Forward” is a good word, meaning to move in the direction we are facing. But, “onward” means to move forward in a continuous motion: never stopping, never giving up. We are all moving onward!
The Poetry Foundation has put forth dedicated efforts to increase diversity, as is reflected in its new leadership!
With regards to diversity, what markers signify forward progress within the poetry world or the community-at-large?
There is more room for everybody, finally. To those who believe diversity is taking something away from them, they need to see how sad and twisted that is. Also, there is nothing sadder than believing someone else’s success is your failure; it’s a terrible way to live.
As a trans person who changed my name to the genderless CAConrad four decades ago, I have had arguments with many people who angrily accuse me of identity politics.
First, let me say that our identities do not swim in the filth and conspiracy of politics. The very term “identity politics” is insulting in so many ways. Second, I always say that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and classism are, in themselves, forms of identity politics. In fact, far more so than people wanting to live their authentic lives unhindered.
Since entering the spotlight, in what ways has your personal mission shifted or remained the same?
In a past life, centuries ago, I wanted desperately to write poetry, but too many things stood in my way. I vowed to return to earth to be a poet, and I kept my promise to myself. I am open to the transmission of poetry and will always be a servant to the transmission.
How has your audience changed over time? How does it affect your actual writing or the reception of your work?
As a young poet, I was fortunate to learn that no two readers will ever experience a poem the same way. This realization freed me up to ignore the audience. Not in a rude way, but quite the opposite: to trust them completely. Everyone receives a poem in the way they want, and it makes me happy to know this.
Prior to landing on poetry, what memories do you have of your relationship with literature and writing as a youth?
I grew up with factory workers. Reading or writing literature was never encouraged. Novels felt like an escape, but poetry has always been the opposite of escape: right where I want to be.
What captivates you most when consuming the work of other poets? In other words, what makes a good poet?
Prose is often more concerned with connecting ideas for the reader, but poetry offers corresponding ideas that the reader must put together. We are required to co-create with our favorite poets, which awakens us and widens our lens.
Of your body of work, which piece or collection would you like to serve as an introduction for the generations to come?
Whatever I am working on when I die. I intend to make poems all my life, and I insist on continuously growing to the end.
What words of advice can you pass along to today’s passionate crop of contemporary poets?
Always remember the legendary Sigmund Freud said, “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.” That’s right; he said, “POET!”
Poetry magazine will publish a commemorative folio of work by all 11 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winners in its April 2023 issue. Subscribe to Poetry today to ensure you receive a copy of this incredible issue!
Correction: The opening paragraph has been corrected to reflect that Poetry magazine is celebrating its 110-year anniversary.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the featured artists (ie. poets, authors, writers and experts) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Poet’s List LLC. Any content provided by the artists are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything. Legal