“When public toilet seat is warm from previous ass, do you become comforted or leap off in fear?” Experimental poet CAConrad posed this question to an audience of creative writing students and faculty members at the Humanities Lecture Hall last Thursday night. It was one of the poet’s many non-sequiturs that choked the 300-seat hall with guilty laughter.
CAConrad, like many other esteemed writers before them, kicked off the first night of the Living Writers Series, a weekly reading series geared toward bringing an assortment of authors, poets, filmmakers and performance artists to the creative writing community and greater general public. Each week a different guest visits to share their work, often bridging the gaps between diverse mediums such as short fiction, poetry, video art and even music.
The published poet shared pieces from their most recent anthology, “Ecodeviance: (Soma)tics for the Future Wilderness,” released last year. The book acts as an autopsy of their poetry — their writing processes are periodically deconstructed through what they call “(soma)tic exercises,” or “rituals,” that they engage in while taking notes. The raw notes are either preserved for their final piece, or used to create it.
CAConrad is interested in the relationship between physical engagement in the ritual, and the interior self. When the physical is engaged, the interior is stimulated. When these two entities are in conversation, one is truly present in this space created. CAConrad shared this philosophy that guides their eccentric writing processes — one of the many fresh perspectives brought to the series every week.
“I write during the rituals — it enhances my presence,” CAConrad said. “I web with the inner self that’s been wanting to talk. That’s where all the magic is happening.”
Literature professors Micah Perks and Karen Yamashita founded the Living Writers Series in 1997, beginning as a smaller class exclusive to introductory-level creative writing students.
“We would put all this energy into bringing these authors who we thought were fabulous, and then 10 students would come — it was frustrating,” Perks said about the beginning stages of the series. “So we changed it — so the class was linked to everyone”.
Perks and Yamashita began to develop the program when the former organizers left, and expanded the workshop into a “series’” opened up to students and faculty of all levels of writing experience.
“I really feel like it’s evolved … it’s a moment of community for the program,” Perks said.
Because the series is not funded by the university, the professors and creative writing interns spend a lot of time writing grants. The Porter Hitchcock Poetry Fund is the primary source of aid but local organization Poets & Writers chips in as well. Despite financial constraint, the Living Writers Series has thrived from the nurturing generosity of these organizations and the sheer passion of the guest poets to share their work.
“They come for very little amounts of money,” Perks said. “An important writer, say Claudia Rankine, would get $20,000 in some places. Our entire budget for every writer is $20,000.”
Despite the inability of the Living Writers Series to exceed its budget, authors like Rankine come in the name of poetry. Rankine holds the honors of a New York Times Bestseller and NAACP Image Award, and is scheduled to present her works at Living Writers on Dec. 3.
Ronaldo Wilson, also a literature professor at UCSC, joined Perks and Yamashita, taking part in the organizing duties — contacting the poets, and making proper accommodations for their visit. Each quarter, one of them choose a theme for the series, selecting poets appropriate for each genre — Creative Work and Critical Play was the theme chosen by Ronaldo Wilson for the current series, and Yamashita will be doing Speculative Writers of Color in the winter.
Perks, who will curate the series in the spring, hopes that students are inspired by the array of possibilities, and the different direction that could be taken as a writer writing a memoir, becoming an editor or challenging conventional ways of producing poetry like CAConrad does.
“I want different writers — poets, fiction writers, women, men and different ethnicities at different points in their career,” Perks said.
Shayne Taylor, one of the two hosts for Living Writers this year, once enjoyed the series as a student in the audience. Now a fourth-year at UCSC, he stands behind a podium presenting the visiting writers, making sure the evening runs smoothly. He is also one of the hosts at the Kresge Writers House — where students can workshop and perform their poetry in an informal setting.
“This is a really awesome opportunity that not a lot of undergraduate students get, to meet big-name people,” Taylor said. “[Jamaican poet and playwright] Claudia Rankine is coming, and CAConrad’s very well-established.”
Whether or not students are seeking a future career or exploring the field, Perks urged all writers in Santa Cruz to attend the series and see what’s in store.
“Santa Cruz is this small little town on the central coast — many writers live in urban areas — so it’s a great way to feel connected to the greater world,” Perks said.
Courtney Patterson, a fourth-year transfer and creative writing student, said the most important thing she learned from CAConrad was to be present. She also appreciated the author’s unfiltered language and confident demeanor.
“I especially loved how unabashedly ‘themself’ they were,” she said. “Their presentation and everything spoken felt incredibly genuine.”
Scribbled on the board in chalk, CAConrad’s message to the attendees of Living Writers on Thursday read, “‘I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself instead of the life others expected of me’ -#1 regret of the dying.”
CAConrad’s purple blouse and sparkly nail polish were just a few things that showcased their true self — they urged the audience to combat societal confines and embrace their identity without constraint.