'Poetry is in the world'
Gillian Conoley and Christy Davids in conversation
Note: Gillian Conoley’s A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems, with Nightboat Books, won the thirty-ninth annual Northern California Book Award in 2020. She received the 2017 Shelley Memorial Award for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America and was also awarded the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Fund for Poetry Award. She is the author of seven previous books, including Peace (Omnidawn, 2014), 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 a poet-in-residence and professor of English at Sonoma State University, where she edits Volt.
This interview was conducted in the fits and starts that defined the creative process for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gillian Conoley and I corresponded over the course of many long months between June 2020 and April 2021, a timeline that fostered a uniquely expanded approach to the interview process and established a connective thread during a time of inviolable physical distance. This conversation considers the evolution of Conoley’s work, literary (anti)authoritarianism, craft, and the role of having a practice (in these seeming end-times and otherwise). — Christy Davids
Christy Davids: A Little More Red Sun on the Human (Nightboat Books, 2019) is a collection of selected work from across the seven books you’ve published to date and includes a wonderful tease of new work in the aptly future-titled section “Next.” You’re careful to explain in the author’s note that you “set out to make a new work, one with its own arc and trajectory.” One of the ways you refigure your poems is by rewriting the titles of the texts you’ve culled from: instead of Peace it’s Do You Believe, instead of Profane Halo it’s Fatherless Afternoon. Each new title offers a thoughtfully altered lens for (re)reading your poems afresh. I’m interested in the way you circumnavigate the authoritarian approach that many retrospective works tout — specifically that releasing a new and selected signifies having crossed a threshold of career achievement that can have the side effect of fixing one’s work in place — a kind of casting by canonizing. Can you talk a bit about the process of assembling this book, your desire to “make it new,” and what about creating A Little More Red Sun on the Human was illuminating or surprising to you?
Gillian Conoley: That’s exactly right, the antiauthoritarian approach I wanted to take in ordering the book. I wanted to let the poems breathe again in a new context, which meant freeing the poems from their original books — which felt great — but also creating an arc through which the whole other book could arrive. The process: I just sat with the poems a long time, which is often my process in general, to “attend” to the poem as long as one can with the hope that it will reveal itself. A few things surprised me: that the motifs of a failed democracy, a fallen world, issues of race and gender were there from the very first poem. The early work’s strongly voiced protagonist spoke in a dialect I was raised speaking, so it was interesting to hear her again. What you say about “casting by canonizing” is dead-on. I’m pretty staunchly anticanonical.
Davids: I was similarly struck by the recurring motifs you mention and how deeply seeded they are in the work. One such theme that connects many together is the consistent discussion of lyricism and the lyric “I.” You carefully activate what often seems unsayable in “Birdman” when you write, “As lyric, lyric cries the verb, speaking of the thing” (152). Your “I” is always relational — upending the gendered narcissism associated with poetry that engages the first person — and the significance of this relationality as explicitly political emerges over the course of the book. In “Native” you wonder, “as in who am I to write this” (132); in “an oh a sky a fabric an undertow,” you mark the first person by writing, “I am entering the poem now not just to notice the pronoun I / but how casually the no longer a president has used it” (209). The “I” and its poetic history are conjured in “Plath and Sexton” through a collective “we” that’s also intrinsically about the “I”: “we were thinking a lot about the feminine / we were putting our feminine in a suitcase” (252). How would you characterize your poetics in regard to lyricism and the particular ways you wield the first person? I’m wondering, too, about this thread of relationality: the speaker, the self, the poem, the politic. To what does the “I” give you access — to what (or whom) does it speak?
Conoley: That’s a very rich complicated question. I think what underlies my use of the “I” in lyric stems from a desire to foreground “world” over self and a distrust over a highly foregrounded “I” that stems from a distrust of authoritarianism in general. Also at play is a belief that poets are not more sentient than other humans, so a rejection of the “I” one finds in Romanticism, for example. What a self even is, how one experiences selfhood (singular, plural, multivalent), all comes into play once an “I” appears in poetry: all that creates “self” — gender, race, class, culture, experience, etc. My own sense of self has always felt multiple, dissociative even, blurred, and since it’s been my experience from day one, I am comfortable there. Surely the multiplicitiousness has something to do with navigating the world as a female, the shatter of the gaze.
The lyric and its relation to “I” — there is a sense of a singer or a song from early work to recent — so how to parse that singer with a self, I have no idea. I love all sorts of different poetries. I enjoy reading poetry with strongly forged personas as much as poetry that foregrounds other aspects of the lyric.
I don’t think I can answer this question without bringing up the importance of history and how it acts on the lyric. Poetry is in the world. It is not in a little room with an academic lamp. Identity poetics is an exciting movement politically and aesthetically: voice, selfhood, identity are getting a high degree of mashup, interrogation, and examination in work by Black and brown writers, Indigenous [writers], [writers] of color, and in LGBTQ work. These are “I’s” or “they’s” that have heretofore been underrepresented. Sometimes the “I” or “they” is more singularly represented/forged and sometimes not, and often an entire new language and/or syntax must be created for the whoever-is-speaking to speak. The “I” is going through a long-overdue, ever-evolving, and freeing remake that will never be over, as long as there is a poem and a writer, a song and a voice to sing it. “Postidentity” as in “we’re all just human” is not an idea I can believe in: I see it as problematic as the term “postracial.” We all have either inherited privilege or inherited struggle. No getting rid of identity and all its beauties, horrors, complications, discoveries, as long as there are humans. AI poems: I wonder if those could even be called “post-identity,” as it seems avatars/robots are appearing as gendered, or carrying a multiple sense of gender — a lot of human interference. Language writing — while it did much to illustrate the way language can operate as commodity and while it sought to get rid of “the speaker” (what Creeley was exploring when he wrote: “As soon as / I speak, I speaks. It”) — I don’t think it was successful at getting rid of identity even when there was no pronouned speaker in the poem. Human identity was always lurking around in there, Wittgenstein-ing language as a human construct or the human construct a result of language.
Davids: The ever-evolving reinvention and reclamation of the “I” in poetry that you’re speaking to reminds me of poets’ relationships to other writers, to the history of poetry — often a dangerous yardstick against which we measure experimentalism or creativity (and unfortunately, sometimes, “progress” or whether or not a piece of writing is “good”). Just as authoritarianism is a theme throughout your work, it has been a theme throughout this interview as well. In the first poem of the book, “Inventing Texas,” you write, “Someone invented the wheel. / This begat a misunderstanding / of circles” — it’s an understatement to say that these lines are liberatory to any writer reading them (3). So, I’m thinking here about form, and history, and choice. To paraphrase Jen Bervin, every blank page carries with it the history of all writing, and to paraphrase Juliana Spahr, for a new generation of writers Beyoncé is the harkening touchstone that Catullus once was for others. So much of writing is relational. So much of the pleasure of A Little More Red Sun on the Human is seeing your relationship with form morph over time; the way you take up and utilize space is a palpable arc of this book and of your career. What is your approach to the page? What is your philosophy regarding form, and how did you arrive there?
Conoley: I have a reaction to truisms in general, and in this case, truisms about writing. “Every blank page carries with it the history of all writing” — that seems problematic to me because we don’t know nor do we have the history of all writing. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: his is a “tradition” from which so many were systematically excluded and/or the writing is just not extant. A kind of elitism re what is considered “literature” is so present in Eliot, but maybe what Bervin is pointing toward is the nonneutrality of the blank page once it occurs or is found in book as object? The impossibility of “blank page” of all writing that did not remain is more intriguing to me. I’m not understanding Beyoncé as interchangeable with Catullus at all. Catallus is more transgressive.
When a writer very consciously writes oneself into tradition, it’s ultimately the tradition that is pointed to, upheld. One sees this in, for lack of better terms, both innovative writing and “traditional” writing. If we look at the epidemiology of “tradition,” we go to the late Middle English: from Old French tradicion, or from Latin traditio(n-), from tradere “deliver, betray,” from trans- “across” + dare “give.” Interesting that we get “betray” and “dare” and “give.” So maybe tradition is something one writes within and against simultaneously.
I wonder if one has to view one’s materials in such a locked-in fashion. I get very excited when I watch dance in which new gestures find expression and disappointed when I see in the very next sequence of movements the gestures of conventional ballet, which seems to still have such a stranglehold on contemporary dance. Martha Graham broke away from ballet so fervently, and now we see her innovations absorbed. Twyla Tharp, Margaret Jenkins, Lucinda Childs: tradition is inevitable in that way; all becomes absorption? taisha paggett, a choreographer who works with breath — pushing what dance ultimately is —
But to get to the page, it was so freeing to me to break away from the tyranny of the left-hand margin, to let the holes of void, silence, mass, and duration have reign within a line, to play with space as a painter or sculptor or dancer might — to experience space as its own entity. I studied the poetic tradition of page as field (Olson) or score (Cage). The biggest revelation to me was Mallarmé’s great Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. I love how he wrote that poem just as he was “poised” in French literature to step in a tradition where Verlaine left off. But no, he refused and instead wrote and composed something entirely new: a radical poem full of three-dimensional rooms one can walk through. Using typography, traversing the gutter, the poem is quite literally brushing up against the book as form, spilling out of the book as book. Readers of that poem get to take on a new dimensionality, too.
Davids: In this respect, it’s interesting to ruminate on the way you consider poets’ ability to make or open spaces (on the page and otherwise) and poetry’s ability to transcend or rupture the limits, boundaries, and boxes that so often regulate our existence.
Google mapped, severe lack of frontier in the world
(“an oh a sky a fabric an undertow” 210).
And if there is no place
to park the car
why did you get in it
My stupid stupid
I abandon them here
(“Humans Done Standing Along Endless Cross Streets” 287).
Frustrated ennui and looming inevitability burn bright in the final section of the book, “Next,” which is comprised of new poems. There is both deixis and exit as you examine the human condition, which is made of cycles: complicity and rebellion. This, then, points toward the matter of seeking, questing: What do your poems long for? How do they navigate the quotidian trauma of entrenchment and capture waves of agency all at once? Are poems, then, like “the ecstasies of clover sprouting over manholes” (204)?
Conoley: There are a lot of holes and portals and openings, a friend of mine pointed out to me early on. I suppose they are continual openings. The poems in “Next,” which are part of a new manuscript, acknowledge end-times but are equally, if not more, interested in what’s to follow. “The ecstasies of clover sprouting over manholes” I had to look up! That’s in The Plot Genie, my sixth book — not recent work. This book has its own narrative “entrenched” (to use your word!) world in which characters are called up from a cardboard narrative-creating device used by novelists, crime writers, screenwriters in the ̓30s and ̓40s, so the image has a sort of stage-set artificiality while also participating in the natural world. The clover is a lush beauty over a hole leading into an underworld, but no, I don’t think poems are like that or have that function.
“What do your poems long for” is such a good, impossible question. Not what do you yearn for your poems to be, but what do the poems themselves long for? I think poems might long for us to leave them alone as they find their own way though mystery, truth, and the unknowable, breakthroughs into perception and human consciousness. It’s very exciting when poems do that. Or any art form. For an artist to try to stay attuned and attentive to what the work might be doing on its own, without interference, that’s the lifelong process and practice.
Davids: Did culling for and assembling A Little More Red Sun on the Human reveal to you “what the work might be doing on its own” — if so, how would you describe that? And (perhaps relatedly) what about your practice has remained consistent or shifted since your early work to writing what’s “Next”? These questions have some curious layers, given that we’ve conducted this interview slowly over the course of the global pandemic — your dynamic new and selected was published near the end of what we often now refer to as the “before times” — and through this strange more-than-a-year-and-a-half, we’re all attempting to maintain or refigure our practices in some form.
Conoley: Yes, I was just scrolling through our work here and noticed we began the interview June 11, 2020, and here we are, many of us with at least one, two, three vaccines in our arms, perhaps at the very start of another extension of time in what we call end-times, or perhaps this is just a longer extension of same — with its sudden sinkholes and dissociating durations. Negative capability is not just a concept anymore, but an actuality? Even if I like to think that artists aren’t any more sentient than others — we do hope to receive signals? To keep our tuning forks sharp and raised?
To answer your question, what has remained is the sense of a singer, but her ground or field broke and broke again. A faith in language as music and material no matter its wily properties? That it is equally linked to knowing and unknowing? A faith in love. Surely no one will come out of this unchanged. So much death, to be alive with so much death, fear, deep ruptures in the psyche, all transformational. Many eons before ours have endured plague, human capacity for hatred for the other. Not easy on the human, but good for the art?
Amid exhaustion, how to maintain? Our practices will refigure as we do. I’m not worried about our practices. Artists are stubborn if nothing else. If to watch “what the work might be doing on its own” is an act of dissociation in some ways — to stand aside and try to look at what one makes — give it reign, where it might lead us, none of which is easy. It seems we’re all more familiar with dissociation as a particular state of being, comfortable or not.
I’m just glad to have a practice. And a community. We just have to keep working.