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Launch Party for The City Real and Imagined at the ICA this Wednesday


Most of us, everyday, have some experience of the city – real or imagined. Whether it stems from our encounters at home or work, images shown on TV news, memories of the past, or dreams of the future, we interact with our city in ways that are public and private, singular and communal. In The City Real & Imagined (Factory School, 2010), CAConrad and Frank Sherlock recreate and illuminate those relationships in an absorbing and masterful book-length poem. 

This Wednesday, February 3rd at 8 p.m., the pair will celebrate the publication of their work with a launch party at the Institute for Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania (118 S. 36th St.). The event will feature Conrad and Sherlock reading from the new book as well as a slide show by renowned photographer and Philly native Zoe Strauss, who provided the cover photo. Copies of The City Real & Imagined, along with Strauss’ photography collection America (AMMO Books, 2008), will be available for sale at the event. 

Sherlock and ConradDetails aside, Wednesday’s event promises to be more than a book launch. It will be a multimedia, multi-sensory introduction (or reintroduction) to the Philadelphia that often goes unnoticed. Conrad, Sherlock, and Strauss represent three of our city’s, and perhaps the country’s, most unflinching artists and celebrators of modern urban grit. Each in his/her own way embraces Philadelphia – and all of its open, oozing sores. 

Strauss’ photographs, which have been exhibited around the world including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, have the power to break your heart and upset your stomach all at once. Her lens zooms toward those that many of us may never encounter up close, things that make us feel itchy and uncomfortable in our own skin. Prostitutes, drug users, gang members, small dingy dwellings, the abandoned parts of town. Strauss views them all with honesty, acceptance, even affection. 

“She has an unflinching eye for the beauti-fugly, and the magic possibilities of the absurdity of everyday life,” says Sherlock. 

The poetry of CAConrad and Frank Sherlock is likewise confrontational and tender. The City Real & Imagined is a collection of “documented wanderings.” The book’s 12 sections represent 12 different walks that the men took together over a period of several years, exploring various parts of the city and sharing their personal Philadelphias with each other. In the course of their explorations each poet contemplates and confronts the city he sees, the city has seen, and the city he wants to see. 

“This collaboration was a way of continuing the adventure the city used to have every night,” Conrad explains. “We started writing it around the time the big money was moving to town and wiping out all the little urgencies of creative funk for boring, clean, expensive restaurants and condominiums.” 

The book is a challenging journey – at once intimate and capacious – that would make Whitman proud. The writing is at times mystical, ethereal, almost slippery, as in the lines that Sherlock writes in the poem’s 3rd section: “There is a language I know/ I can speak if I/ forget to/ think it through”. Other times, the words are startling, uncomfortable, jagged. Conrad, in particular, is prone toward direct, incisive criticism. In one of the poem’s most elegant insights, he writes: 

I’m convinced the

distance some people

travel away from

themselves can be

measured by the

size of their



Conrad is also not afraid to be (at least potentially) offensive, as with the lines:  

if Jesus Christ attempts

a 2nd Coming

to continue his

dictation of SIN

over our flesh I will

purchase the lumber

MYSELF for his

glorious 2nd


This is poetry that is truly risky and exhilarating! But beyond any individual lines, I was most deeply affected by the book as a whole. The City Real & Imagined is not just about Philadelphia; it actually creates a little bit of the city right there in its pages. The juxtapositions of the poets’ dramatically different styles, voices, and points of view make this poem feel like the city. Conrad’s poems are physically compact and tense, while Sherlock’s work tends to be more spacious – sprawling and jumping across the page. And while the two men are writing about common experiences, this was not a “pass-the-paper” collaboration, as Conrad explains; their interpretations of the experiences are very different at times. 

Book coverFor instance, in section 6 when the poets take a walk across the Ben Franklin Bridge, both find themselves contemplating mortality. But Conrad is absorbed by his social conscience, considering for instance how the poor have been oppressed and abused by the rich. Meanwhile Sherlock experiences the imposing mortality of the bridge on a much more personal level, considering individual fragility rather than that of the masses. There is no more value in one perspective versus the other. Rather, the presence of both perspectives is what a city, a community, is all about. And that is what this book delivers: Space for dreaming, contemplating, multiplicity. 

“I always see poetry as collaborative, polyvocal, and social,” Sherlock says. “Well, that's the kind of poetry I like anyway – when the ‘I’ is never just ‘I.’” 

By sharing their experiences as one poem, Conrad and Sherlock also allow readers an even deeper view into the city, their city. The writing in this book is powerful and downright stunning at times, but it can also be difficult to pin down. As Sherlock says, “We can get strange.” That strangeness makes the poetry fresh and interesting, but sometimes a reader might find herself scratching her head. By putting their work together, Conrad and Sherlock offer readers a better foothold. Something one poet writes may be better illuminated in the details of the other, and their images often make more sense with repetition and expansion. This is very much what the city gives us: ways to make meaning through our connections to others and to the world around us. Ultimately, The City Real & Imagined is successful not just because the language is precise, energetic, and unafraid, but because the poets somehow manage to artistically recreate critical social dynamics within their poem. 

Considering what Conrad and Sherlock have accomplished on the page, I have little doubt their live performance this week will be anything less than eye-opening and evocative. Their poetry combined with Strauss’ gritty images is sure to be invigorating… and probably a little uncomfortable at times. A truly Philadelphia experience. 

Check it out:

The City Real & Imagined Book Launch

Wednesday, February 3, 8 p.m.

Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA)

118 S. 36th Street, University City