gillian conoley

Gillian Conoley received the 2017 Shelley Memorial Award for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America. She was also awarded the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Fund for Poetry Award. Her most recent collection: A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems is just out with Nightboat Books. She is the author of seven previous books, including PEACE, an Academy of American Poets Standout Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Conoley’s translations of three books by Henri Michaux, Thousand Times Broken, appeared in 2014 with City Lights. Conoley is Poet-in-Residence and Professor of English at Sonoma State University where she edits Volt.

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Mothership: It’s wonderful to host you here, and to linger in the pages of your lovely, lively new collection, just out from Nightboat Books: A Little More Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems.  
“And fitting the title, everywhere in this book, we see you asking what it means to be human, the humble humus of this “Earth kicking me up in the form of human” (“Native”); “a human is someone/who has wandered in from the desert,” reminding us what we are made of “I have long term storage in double helixes” (“The Patient” from A Little More Red Sun on the Human); “I love my tiny part Neanderthal DNA” (“Thank You for the Afterlight”). [*”The Patient” reprinted with permission by Nightboat Books.]

I am struck again and again throughout the book not only by your rigorous play in language and your use of language to peel back the layers of our world, but by the spiritual depth of the work. (If by “spiritual” we mean something more like the space between stars.) And while in the poetry community today there is a lot of good work happening in those first two modes, there is a dearth of the latter done well. I feel this way about dazzling linguistic and narrative intelligence of novelist Kathryn Davis and would apply those same phrases to describe your work.

Your poems enact savvy philosophies, embodying insights from social construction, narrative theory, and Wittgensteinian limits of language. While some poems that set out to explore these ideas tend to be heady, dry, your poems are alive–exploring these ideas through things cut loose into space, and through the flesh of language. And their aliveness come also through the powers of your musical ear and choreographic eye. Your poetry animates the ideas, moving us into a zone of making and unmaking. And this making and unmaking is particularly poignant in these times of cannibal capitalism that we see in the “nearly extinct bees” (“borderlands”) and the rise of robots “David Hanson of Hanson Robotics in Plano, Texas…36 motors to reproduce facial expressions and voice” (“Preparing one’s consciousness for the avatar”)–more on this later in the conversation…

Can you tell us more about the selected collection? How it came about?

Conoley: The best advice from poets and editors was to not give in to the temptation to value a certain sense of the line, or to value a certain mode over another. I was reminded that the most interesting collections of selected poems were ones in which all the different ways of working were exposed and honored.

Going backwards has its own pleasures no matter the difficulty. I think it humbles one as an artist? One has to accept one’s early poet self and become reacquainted. I began to see her as a sort of alter, and that helped move the process along.

I enjoy the arc or trajectory of all books deeply, so early on I knew I didn’t want to do a traditional selected. Given that a narrator in the early work was so present, and that I could hear a distinct particular vernacular in her voice, I began to think of the book as a kind of novel. Instead of using book titles as section titles, I made up new title sections. The book runs sequentially, but the poems were all freed from their original books, and play against one another, or recombine, differently.

It’s a fallen world from the beginning, and postmodernism comes in at a certain place about a third of the way through and blows everything apart. The book begins in a kind of frontier Texas wasteland, and ends with cosmic new poems imagining the next world. I had not read my early work in years, if at all, so it pleased me to see some of the themes and motifs that still preoccupy me:  fallen democracy, metaphysics, gender and race, human consciousness and perception, the relations between spirit and matter, the individual and the state, were there from the beginning.

MS: These themes are ever more pressing, and we’ll explore some of them later in the conversation. To respond to your remark about this new book’s process of unmaking to make: Wonderful how you untethered your work, cut the books loose to make this new book. Feels so fitting of your poems, as they are spaces in which the things of the world float. Am working on a course on linked fiction, lyric essays, long poems, so am thinking of work that connects and holds an arc yet has more space in between. Can you say more about the narrative impulse in your work, and how it has changed over the years?

Conoley: I think it’s interesting how writers don’t really get to choose which aspects of writing become foregrounded or crucial to the work: what’s there is either there in one’s own neurology or experience or not.  A disrupted meandering narrative was one of my first experiences of form, as was the cinematic. Growing up in a small Texas town with no “high culture” and few outlets for entertainment/intellectual pursuit means one grows up surrounded by people who have been left to their own resources. Small town Texans were fabulous storytellers. Some stories were full of bravado and gravitas, then punctuated with very long, meaningful silences so drawn out one thought they would never end, practically an entire meal could be eaten during one of these silences–– but timing was crucial to the story and its relation to audience: the duration, the wait.

Delay is an ancient aspect of narrative. In my town there were generations of lore, and a tendency for many to never leave, so the lore was deep, allegorical, multi-layered, faulty. Other stories were whispered and hidden, cut off. The land figured strongly, and people loomed large as the architecture didn’t. The land carried a certain pull. Digression in story was also central––the curve in the road from which no one returned. I love the famous quote by the first novelist of the English language, Laurence Sterne: “Digression is the sunshine of narrative.”

Later, when modern and postmodern thought posited that narrative was suspect in that it created a false, perhaps dangerous mode used for ill purposes, for killing and commodification and rhetorical manipulation, I thought, well, yes, of course. No one ever expected story to tell the truth or contain a shred of it. But the art of the story’s telling, that was a skill. Kandinsky said something like an object was a narrative, and so he mistrusted it. Forms and modalities: truth and meaning can pass through them or flutter near, give us a glimpse, but I don’t think truth can be contained.

At any rate literary and social narrative theory gave me more permission to explore silences, fragments, digressions. Narrative as a construct can open itself up into a very wide space, and one can let much slack loose in the rope. Opening oneself up to the way story is handled in many cultures and nations, becoming an international reader and itinerant traveller enriches one’s sense of narrative’s flexibility and also its problems and dangers. One of the reasons I love narrative is precisely because it is dangerous.

I do mistrust a tidy narrative in poetry, in any representation of it in any sphere, and that goes way back for me as a person and a writer.

MS: Love this “curve in the road”! And to turn towards space and openness, your work enacts a nimble balance of betweenness, not turning away from matter, but turning towards it, sinking into the space within it, dropping below solid seeming surfaces into the molecules “the “dots and cells/as under a microscope,” as we see in “After” or reminding us that we are “made of two long polymers of nucleotides” (in “The Patient”).  Some of this betweenness happens through a collagist’s attention. Can you say a bit about how you’ve worked in this way–whether cut-ups or the gathering of lines over days/weeks(?)

Conoley: No matter how awful it is, I love the world and being alive: details, objects, snippets of conversation, what is here before us. An attentiveness to the real. An attempt to let things be as they are. I do not work with cut-ups. But “a collagist’s attention” sounds right. Metaphor by its nature is a sort of collage? One thing is another? And another?  Parataxis, the placing of one thing next to another, an ancient practice. I write in a large black unlined sketch book. Sometimes entire stanzas, sometimes single words or phrases. A lot of it goes unused. I have learned to be patient. I like to leave the poem open for a long time to see what might enter it. I try to attend to the poem, not write it. Over time I became suspicious of overly polished work as it’s not how I experience the world. Of course, at a certain point I can see what’s going on in a poem and go from there. But mostly I kind of inch toward sense, or a kind of sense. I’m interested in letting the poem break down and seeing what happens when it does.

MS: And in these lines gathered, can you say more about the threads of metaphysics in your work?

Conoley: Being and nonbeing, space and time, spirit and matter, what is perceived, what goes unseen, phenomena, the visible and the invisible. There is this quotidian life we partake in, but there are also other lives, other worlds, many. Metaphysics as spirituality. What is known, and not known.

MS: What other threads tend to appear in your work?

Conoley: A fallen Christianity, perhaps most evident in Profane Halo. Georgio Agamben: The Coming Community. My father had faith. I’ve been a practicing yogi for about 15 years. I have trouble with organized religion; I just can’t accept the dogma, and the way all world religions reject other religions. I don’t believe there is one way anywhere.

MS: You speak of fallenness earlier in our conversation. As for a fallen world, we are seeing more and more of this each day. Children caged in Texas. Kurdish comrades betrayed. California on fire. But can you say more about your sense of “fallen Christianity”–as worldview?  Would you share a bit about Agamben–his thoughts and influence on your work?

Conoley: An epigram from Agamben’s The Coming Community appears in A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems:

“. . . both necessity and contingency, those two crosses of Western thought, have disappeared from the post iudicium world . . . after the judgment, animals, plants, things, all the elements and creatures of the world . . . would then enjoy an incorruptible fallenness–– above them floats something like a profane halo.”

So many ideas from Agamben appeal to me: his thought is ultimately optimistic in that it imagines a community that is to come (that we could have one!) and a humanity that has moved beyond traditional notions of good and evil. Agamben destabilizes boundaries between humans and machines, between countries, genders, races. He asks how a community may be formed that re-imagines belonging. A sense of fallen Christianity or other religions is present, and yet the notion of a spirituality and a love of humanity is not discarded: “a profane halo.” His work is transdisciplinary and his thinking is wide. His sources are eclectic enough that in reading him, one senses a great widening of the universe and the cosmos.

MS: And is this to do with our fallen democracy? (Democracy, too often misperceived as a given, a noun.) You say, “I say ‘citizen of the world’// up to a blown sky–” (borderlands).
How do you see the role of language, of poem-making in this collective process of citizenship?

Conoley: Democracy is a dream and a process. Benjamin Franklin said we have a republic, if we can keep it––so in our history there is doubt from the outset. The question is still: if we can make a democracy? As citizens we all have a lot of work to do; white people, any populace or institutions, any ways of being in the position of dominance or in the position considered “normative,” and the whole notion of “normative,” begone. Artists are nimble forerunners. In a new more collective citizenship, I imagine language, ever-changing, will be a reactive and porous substance containing, as it naturally does, quite useful properties for change. A whole new poetry and a whole new language is being, will be, made. Along with new ways of perceiving. These are exciting though difficult times. I as an individual have no idea just how all this will go, but it’s going, it’s alive and procreant and vital to see tokenism shaken and in the process of being taken down. I have some line about “in my oppressor language/in my suppressor tongue” in one of the new poems. I’m not saying I know how to do this or how white people should write about whiteness or privilege or that I am doing it “right.” But a new sense of what citizenship can be, a recognition and reckoning of white privilege and a remaking of what American language is, democracy, all is up for remaking. It’s an honor for all of us to be alive at this moment, and to work, to attend, to participate and be present. 

MS: In thinking of participatory politics, which is world-making: Your lines directly speak to us, implicate the reader, asking us to answer to our lives.

For instance, from “Sound of Freeways Directing the Cosmos Back to its Start”:

“Try not to stare/at the white tiles in the urinal/and think what are you/doing here”

And later: “Let me entertain you/We are here to entertain”

And everywhere in your work, we see here how you draw a reader in, challenge us with earnest questions, ask us to ask ourselves what it is we are doing here.

You take the lid off the given, asking us to ask ourselves where we are at in our consciousness (are we one of the ones waking or still asleep?):

“Or if you are waking in the audience what small clearings will you make”

Am always interested in process, especially for these deep-reaching lines–do these questions come to you while washing dishes, walking, in the bath, or mostly at a desk…?

Conoley: I think after living as an artist for a long time the divisions between “life” and “art” just naturally break down and that’s a very pleasant sensation. I like to feel close to my process as a writer: it’s my preferred state, though sometimes one can’t always manage it. Some part of the brain is always writing even when we are most distracted. We find out what we are thinking when we find time to write it down. People figure out what works for them. I have a job, a marriage, a daughter, a household, a tiny million things as do we all. Isolating writing to a particular time and place in such a transient, over-saturated, demanding world­­–– it’s a great luxury when you can do it—and it’s wondrous to give time to oneself as often as possible, but carrying around a notebook helps a lot, and also can create a sense of being in the world rather than being in a rarefied position of the writer, which used to be reserved for only the leisure class. Be gone work that “smells of the lamp.”

MS: In that same poem, you ask: “Do you still have that project, I don’t even have half a project, but if you had a project/We could blow them toward one another” Here in the second line, the moment where a breeze enters the seeming solidity of our busy project-filled minds, this fresh air you bring to point out the space between.

In addition to your tuned ear and eye, the depth of your poems feels due to your understanding of space. And in this space and made place that is the page you ask us questions of what it means to be human, asking us what we are becoming, reminding us of our backdrop of white dwarfs and molecules, often shifting into cosmic time while we stand in a kitchen or behind the wheel of a car.

And, here in this asking, you point us back to space–space to breathe to be to see. Your work filled with it, floats up out of it, vibrates with it.  Can you share some thoughts on what space is for you, how it works in making your poems? What poetic influences led you to such spacecraft?

Conoley: That’s a delicious question! I grew up with a lot of space. A long horizon: as far as the eye could see. In the outer world, and in the home I grew up in: geographical, physical, emotional, psychic space. I was happy for that. Given space, I trust space. I love Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, whose central theme is that the house (which I also read as topography) we grew up in forms a sort of architecture in the brain of how we experience experience.

When I first started to read and write poetry, I used the left justified margin, I broke lines in the fashion of the moment, I made images, I heard voices I transcribed, I got from the beginning to the end. The first poets I read––and it was a chance stumbling upon, not a selecting of––were the Surrealists (of several nations), Wallace Stevens, Bob Kaufman, Dickinson, Lucille Clifton. Upon finding poetry, immediately, I wanted it. I wanted to enter what poetry did to my synapses. Other writing was logical and rational and instructive, or as in the case of novels, the writing presented a steady, alternate world where one could live a while. I loved that writing, too. But poetry was mind-blowing.

MS: Your poems do this kind of marvelous mixing, telescoping between our cosmic backdrop and our fast-moving, rather flat-surfaced material lives, reminding us of where we are, pointing out the spaces between that bring us back to the vaster spaces, such as here in the title of this poem “Sound of Freeways Directing the Cosmos Back to its Start.”

We see one of the themes of your work in this poem, a coming to consciousness, a seeking of meaning, a gentle pointing out of our busyness, our tenuousness, how fast time passes, in our mediated lives, in our car culture, you ask what are we becoming between “the amniotic first few/moments of the film arrive the windshields” and “the man turning into a boy.”

Here we see cinema, in your work. And it may sometimes be a mode–cinema as part of the collagist swivels and quick cuts, a nimbleness of the mind and senses in motion. But your use of cinema also seems to hint at reality as a “made place,” and cinema as mirror. What parts would you say cinema plays in your work?

Conoley: Reality as a “made place” is certainly present as is an attentiveness to the visible world. There’s the current thought in psychology/brain neurology of just how much we make our own reality, but the symmetrical patterns in a leaf, we did not make that. In viewing a fallen world one must also imagine a world that is unfallen, or several worlds? Multiverse theory makes a great deal of sense to me. Cinema as a mirror makes me think of the seductive surface of film, the selection of what is shown, the kind of projection that occurs as we watch. The images upon images that are thrust upon us in the devices we carry in our palms. The images we enter. James Agee, in his great book Let Us All Praise Famous Men, said something like “If I could do it, I’d put no words here at all. I’d put photographs.” Maybe I’d put films. But it would be hard to give up language.

MS: This last remark brings home a beloved book I’ve been itching to bring to this interview, theatre director Peter Brook’s marvelous The Empty Space, which just feels like cosmic kin to your work. He speaks of a transcendent theatre, made of a fusion of the high and the commonplace, and of how we live in an age of images in which language struggles to live. (“Is it even that we must go through a period of image-saturation for the need for language to reemerge?” p. 48)

He also speaks of the Elizabethan stage, free of scenery, as “neutral open platform” open to moving the spectator through a “succession of illusions, covering, if he chose, the whole world” and “stage [as] perfect philosopher’s machine”–sounds like your poem-page to me! (And you thank dancers in your book’s notes, and so I wonder if this resonates with you…?)

Conoley: I would say yes to a Brook connection to how I view and work within the page. Most especially what he called “holy theatre” a place in which the invisible is made visible. With Brook, all that escapes our perceptive abilities become more available, and whatever occurs on stage much more expansive: the activities of the universe are given a concrete shape and form, so a more metaphysical realm is entered for the spectator. I love the idea of the page as a kind of theatre, a three-dimensional space. At some point I gave up the notion of the page as a neutral force and started to work with it as a much more active one. A composition (John Cage) a room (Stephane Mallarme) a field (Charles Olson), a visual improvisational notation on which perception could arrive and act (Larry Eigner).

Where I would differ with Brook’s is his idea thatwe must go through a period of image-saturation for the need for language to reemerge.” I think we could have both image-saturation and a choral sense of language simultaneously, one richness with another, a dual saturation.

Michel Foucault’s ideas of space come into play here, and the ineffable, something inexpressible that the word can’t covey, so empty space, or “white space” as we call it in poetry, becomes a part of the page.  Foucault reminds us we are in the age of the simultaneous. What is close and far away, juxtaposition, what is solid and scattered: he uses the word “net” that links all together and creates its own kind of coherence. The anti-authoritarianism of Foucault’s thought, and the notion that this kind of simultaneous activity is, as Foucault claims, “the world putting itself to the test,” appeals to me as it gives the poem the chance for more world to enter it, and for there to be less of a sense of authorial control so that the poem can be more of the world and in the world.

MS: Brook’s interest in transcendence also brings to mind Henri Michaux, with whom you shared a mind for a time, as translators do, in your translation of his work, A Thousand Times Broken. Indeed, Brook’s concerns above fit the introduction to Michaux’s work you speak of an “unending page in which words and image fly.” (The Poetry Foundation has an interview Andrew Joron and you did on the Michaux book.) Your description of Michaux’s work, sounds akin to some of your work’s concerns: “He warns that twentieth-century life is dangerous: one must be perpetually on guard for it is too easy to lose oneself, a frightening feeling he often describes. There is an ever-present conflict between one’s inner and outer lives.” And your remarks that Michaux is “acutely observant and vigilant” always asking himself “What is seeing? What is reading?” fits your own work bringing the things of the world to the page where we can see them again, and later “read” them, if we mean see them, study them closely, in the blur of our days.

How has Michaux opened up your work/moved in directions you were already going?

Conoley: You spoke of “a betweeness” evident in my work earlier. Michaux was a poet of equivocation: he was both a rationalist and visionary mystic, as interested in the irrational as he was in the rational. Translation is a great experience in that it’s the closest act of reading possible: one enters the work in a quite literal way, especially if one has the opportunity to translate work that has not been brought into English before, which was the case with all three books I translated: Four Hundred Men on the Cross, Peace in the Breaking, and Watchtowers on Targets.

Translation also allows you to get out of your own consciousness, to write from another, and that alone is a great gift. As far as how translating Michaux had any direct effect on my own writing, I did notice that after translating Peace in the Breaking, a long poem with a wide range of movement and sound, from quiet tones to peaking arias and crescendos, I wrote a long poem that was quiet different in form and content from Peace in the Breaking, but I could see that I had learned something about composing, and that it was roughly the same length, the longest poem I’ve written. I noticed this in retrospect. Sort of like learning to play a particular piece on the piano, absorbing that, forgetting it, and then composing another on your own.

MS: And speaking of this “close reading” of the world: Your poems help us to see what is real here, help us see past the “sky blue remote bot drones” (“borderlands”), help us us “to escape         the box stores” (“Experiments in Patience III), remind us what we make “we the undersigned understand the green of the meadow (“late democracy”), remind us of what we are first “I am Citizen of the wind    I am bird-infested” and are now “Data and regret” (in the brilliantly titled “Tincture of Pine”).

Your poems are everywhere conscious of becoming, of what we are becoming, questioning what humans are. For instance, in your arrangement of the poems, you slyly point to how we are “speaking machines” (Experiments in Patience III”) a poem followed by the poem “Peace” that observes: “you know/people,//once you tell them something/they start talking.”

You lament “my stupid stupid/stupid leaders” (Humans Done Standing along Abundant Endless Cross Streets”). And reflect for us how we get to this, pointing out our paradoxical keenness and numbness“…forgetting the euphoria/of human potential/is human potential,” you remind us that “a human is someone to hone,” (“The Patient”), that “Most brains are not quite done/or have regions/disturbed or blank” (“Preparing one’s consciousness for the avatar”).

You warn how humans are “a warm harm” with “a desire to vanish” (“The Patient”), in a book that in places reflects on the mad(!) dash to perfect AI, whilst the miracle of our own neural networks, our transcendent inner technology goes unused.  “When I check out, the robot thanks me for doing its work/I say we’re still alive in a polite tone” (“borderlands”).

You mention that this new selected works ends with “cosmic new poems imagining the next world,” and end the book with “Apologia” which opens “And I was human guilty,” a poem made of Draino down the toilet and Roundup among the dandelions, a poem made of a litany of chemical compounds we are, made of admissions of “pumped gas” of “walking back into work I was a parasite,” poem of wildfires and cancers that surrenders “I would just let the sun eat me” and ends in glory and earth still here. You speak of humans as goers “a human is a go” and celebrate us as “a sea-faring species who loved the rill of no gravity”–what projects/poems beckon you next? 

Conoley: I’m working on a new book titled The Next Next World. The poems are set in the future, and concern how humans may form community with an ever-arriving technology, a future that is already here. Robots, avatars, AI are all present, though what’s foregrounded is the human, what new perceptions and modes of consciousness may appear, what relations. The cosmos, the universe, the anthropocene, what some call post-humanism. Having said that, though–– I don’t want to reign the work in. I don’t want the book to be a project, but rather a kind of sphere in which these concerns float in and out of present time. I’m interested in what poems might look and sound like, in what comes given enough space and time. Several new poems appear in the new and selected.  Gender, race, borders, democracy, spirit and matter will figure in as they are life-long concerns. I don’t want to be too sure of what the book is doing so the poems can make their own discoveries. Formal changes in the way the poems are made: I want to remain open to that. Nimble on my feet. I’ll probably do a lot of research and then forget it.

MS: What insights came from seeing your poems all across the years in one place?

Conoley: Gratitude. Gratitude that I had found something to do with my time, and that I still have time. That working hadn’t killed me. And gratitude that someone had wanted to put so many of my poems in one place.

MS: And, with this long view in mind, how would you describe what poem-making has been like for you, as a mode of thinking/living? To return to earlier in our conversation, am thinking of philosophy in the old sense, an active, a lived love of wisdom, when philosophy included practices.

Conoley: Poets, I’d say all artists, if they are true to their art, don’t live unexamined lives. Who are we as humans, what is the nature of reality, these ancient philosophical, unanswerable questions haunt art. Making art gives meaning to life. I don’t think art can really “hold” meaning, but rather that meaning passes through it. Art literally does give someone something to do, especially when so much of life is meaningless. The act in and of itself is noble. I don’t think artists are more sentient than people who are not artists. I’m not really sure what to make of “talent” or “genius” or “gifted” or other accolades that are thrown into vocabularies that describe artists. One enters a trance, a dream, a state of consciousness unlike any other. One enters unknowing, a spiritual place, as you describe above: “the space between stars.” The artist is someone who keeps going back there, over and over again. It’s a practice. Anyone can do it. They just have to do it often enough.