Gillian Conoley


April 2014



The treacherous, beautiful, many-tentacled arms of Time flow through Peace, haunted as it is by personal and political history – by figures of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Thoreau – by current senators and dead musicians, speech and painting, extraordinary and ordinary lives. In short Sapphic paratactic lyrics or long narrative-driven poems, Peace is written as though at the threshold of a continual co-presence and comingling of peace and war which looks exactly like today. Available, immediate, Peace moves just beyond outrage and anger to bring the reader to revelations and shifts of consciousness, to possible visions and sightings in the shattered yards of the global dream, where shadows pass and fly.

GILLIAN CONOLEY NAMED WINNER of the of 2017 SHELLEY MEMORIAL AWARD by Poetry Society of America for a lifetime of achievement

Finalist, Los Angeles Times Book Award

One of the Academy of American Poets’ Standout Books of 2014

Gillian Conoley’s Peace encompasses the wholeness of a world vision, where the experimental converges with the lyrical narrative—past, present, and future—to unveil those hidden moments surrounding us, as well as the accentuated ones. Peace relies on responsibility in language, through grace and terse energy, and it shows how opposites form a luminous composite of arresting imagery always moving through a tangible truth.

Yusef Komunyakaa, author of The Chameleon Couch

Peace is a struggle composed of inner and outer lives, personal and political history, and words that soothe and disrupt, elucidate or temporarily obscure, but don’t urge to action. Peace comes from confronting all the pieces and faces, the bad stories and ceaseless, difficult present. So Gillian Conoley tells us in her masterfully composed collection Peace. One knows these love-filled forms of familial falling apart, the tragedy and warmth of growing up in the sticks, clarity achieved in the hot spaces and so rhythmic sounds Americans have put to their times. “Like gold into scar/ a twister in the skull.”

Alice Notley, author of Culture of One

Peace keeps poetry’s deepest possibilities alive, turning its potential as cure of the ground to care of the ground and everything the ground encompasses right now. “Now” is not separate from “then,” Gillian Conoley knows—from neither historical nor personal past. Time, being many-armed and interconnecting (poetry knows) necessitates an ethical stance—attentive, interrogative, visionary, humane. Conoley grapples with Nietzsche’s dictum, “try to live as though it were morning,” confronting its potential hazards (of, say, forgetting a culture’s earlier mournings) and its inherent challenge: how to live as though it were morning in what feels like a time of the Earth’s twilight. I think of James Agee’s fraught, intelligent apology, “[i]f I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.” Conoley presses up against such a sensibility—as poetry too infrequently does—and through it, by way of both the eye’s accuracy and the actual’s generosity. So she can find herself saying, “[t]he way you could talk about it would be not to talk, not to say one thing that might come to mind.” And she can say, “[w]hat do I know but I can tell you. And if one can love another then one could do that just fine, without telling it is something we do, something we come into the world to do.” And throughout, such brilliant, impossible sightings as “(sweet secret green of the yellow),” “[w]hole cluster of faces, none seen all at once,” and “best shadow / a dog’s bark, earthly.” Like Thoreau, Conoley has “a particularly Blakean protein” lodged deep in her psyche, and that’s one of the many, many things that is right with her.

Lisa Fishman, author of Flower Cart

About the Author

Gillian Conoley was born in Austin Texas, where, on its rural outskirts, her father and mother owned and operated a radio station. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Peace, The Plot Genie, Profane Halo, Lovers in the Used World, and Tall Stranger, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her work has received the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from The American Poetry Review, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Fund for Poetry Award. Her poems have been anthologized widely, most recently in W.W. Norton’s Postmodern American Poetry, Norton’s American Hybrid, and Best American Poetry. A poet, editor, and translator, Conoley has taught as a visiting writer at University of Denver, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Tulane University, and Vermont College. Her translations of three books by Henri Michaux will appear in City Lights Pocket Poets series this year. Editor and founder of Volt magazine, she is Professor and Poet-in-Residence at Sonoma State University and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A brief interview with Gillian Conoley
(conducted by Rusty Morrison)

The word PEACE has so many connotations, and suggests so many interpretations. it risks so much. Can you speak about how the title came to the work, and why? In answering this you might also answer: how did this book begin? which were the first poems you wrote? when did the project begin to cohere for you?

I think the impetus for this book came from thinking about all the years I have been looking into the faces of people (my students) who have grown up under a very sped up sense of non-stop war. This turned into thinking about the history of American military involvement in a generational way. How the sensation of “peace” was experienced in gaps for prior generations, though not for anyone born since the early 1980s. And who can remember it? So what is “peace”? Was it ever?

I have the sensation of having grown up in a more gentle, innocent time––delusional, I know––but only somewhat––there is a difference between having grown up in post-WWII American afterglow, growing taller in the absorption of our country’s impression of itself as a place of greatness and democracy. I was a child who loved my schoolteachers, especially when they spoke of democracy so passionately and beatifically. Unlike my students, I had a decade of “peace”—of non military activity roughly occurring between the end of The Korean War and 1965, when our combat troups were sent to Vietnam. I had “duck and cover,” I had a fuzzy, ontological fear of “them bad bad Russians,” as Ginsberg says, and I was sent home in my little penny loafers in first grade during the Cuban Missle Crisis, but all was distant and cold.

My parents’ generation had an even longer reprieve from US war in their youth––the 21-year gap between WWI and WWII. These sorts of gaps between wars——with no blood on our hands, none of our children sent to kill–– unimaginable now. Not to belabor the obvious, but since 1983, we’ve gone pretty much straight through, with Grenada, Panama, Persian Gulf, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan, Iraq. The only corollary of this kind of relentless military action occurs at the beginning of American history, from King Phillip’s War in 1675 all the way to 1814, the colonist wars, and massacres of our native people.

“Peace” is a word the book struggles with, pushes up against, interrogates and makes an inquiry of. This noun.

How does it reside, off to the side, as a reprieve from its opposite? If this is what we have––endless war––if this is what is likely to continue uninterrupted for who knows how many generations (should there be more), what is peace? And is it possible for peace and war to exist con-currently?

The poems in this book generated from this line of thinking, and the title didn’t come until the book was almost done. I’m aware of the complexities and risk of the title, of how the word “peace” has gone through gyrational, etymological evolution from, say, Aristophane’s 421 BC play Peace, the Athenian Old Comedy written just prior to the end of the Peloponnesian War, to the sort of hip lexicon of the 60s and 70s, the greeting, the goodbye, the command. Aristophane’s play celebrates a return to an idyllic, bucolic life at the end of war, but at the play’s end there is a sense of bitterness, caution, and warning, especially given that Aristophanes, “the father of comedy,” had considerable powers of ridicule. In his Peace, not all ends well. Tradesmen who had benefited from the war are left bankrupt and destitute.

I was initially concerned that some might read the title as a call to action, or as a promise of peace, somehow. The book contains neither, but is really more of an extended meditation/inquiry of the notion.

I tend to write in a very processural way, and write several poems at once, and make a big mess of things, and slowly the poems inch their way toward sense. Some come all at once, though that’s rare. I think the short lyric initial poem “Peace,” the one that is different from the others in that sequence, the one that starts “It fell/of noon” may have come early, as did “an  oh    a sky   a fabric    an undertow”. A few of the poems, the Martin Luther King one, for example, is several years old, and didn’t fit into whatever mss. I was writing at the time, but found its home here.

You write with such compassion and insight in assessing the iconic force of many historical figures in this text–some are household names, some may be less well known to your readers. Can you talk about the impetus for bringing some of these people’s lives into your work, and also the challenges of writing about famous figures, as well as lesser known figures?

Once I began to realize what I was writing about I started to read about the lineage of nonviolence that runs through Thoreau to Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King. Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa (nonviolence) dates back to the Upanishads, 8th or 7th century BCE, which bars violence against all creatures (sarva-buhta). I began to think about these historical figures who wrote about peace and how to get it, and how they may still operate in or haunt our lives. In the poem “Trying to Write a Poem About Gandhi,” there is a moment when a few figures appear in the top of a tree, as though watching us:

a history sweeps and fells the picture field. In uppermost

loamy branches of the giant oak

sit Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin, Emerson and Carlyle.

Shining down their texts.

Unorthodox social moralists of the 19th century

still trying to freeze hell.

The Gandhi poem was difficult to write in that first, one has to get past the whole notion of “who are you to write about Gandhi?” I couldn’t get past that. For most of a summer I read Gandhi’s books, especially The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and the many books about Gandhi’s ideas, thoughts, practices. Nothing was coming to me in terms of a poem, and I had pretty much given up the notion of writing the poem until I started to try to reconcile the great deeds and comfort he brought to so many with the more unsavory aspects of Gandhi’s life that came to the foreground late, and on the international scene, after his death— his practice of brahmacharya (celibacy) that was a quite unorthodox interpretation of brahmacharya, and disturbing to many who were close to him in India. When he was shot, the young girls involved, who adored him, and who were also related to him, were immediately whisked away from any media attention. This flaw in someone who had done so much good somehow made it easier for me to write that poem. The flaw made him human. I decided I still couldn’t write a poem about Gandhi, but I could write a poem called “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi.”

As far as the less known figures in the book, my work tends to be populated. This may have something to do with having grown up in a small farming community, where people loom large.

You have deft control of the short phrase–images, ideas, attitudes shift from short line to short line, yet the poem as a whole continues to cohere. To offer both tonal and contextual shifts with such wit and wisdom is not easy! Can you speak about any particular lines or parts of poems that were especially challenging for you? How did you manage them?

In the longer sequence poems, “Begins” and “Peace” I found a formal construct that seemed to me to work well with the question or notion of whether or not peace and war could co-exist on an experiential plane, if we are to have any peace at all. So the short lines began to press against one another line to line, oppositionally, in a paratactical way. I love that parataxis is Greek for “placing side by side,” because I called this short lyric form I started to work in “Sapphic paratactic”–– that was my private name for it. I didn’t want it to fly off into the netherworld, I wanted ground and cohesion despite the push and pull, as that seemed part of the practice and inquiry, to find ground. There were a few that gave me difficulty and struggle, so I shifted and sifted and waited and showed them to a few poet friends who made suggestions. Ultimately you have to wait and attend, and if you’re lucky, the materials will work things out. I think of a lot of art is about waiting. It’s a hard practice. I like what Rauschenberg says about his photography: “You wait until life is in the frame, then you have permission to click.”

Would you tell me a bit about yourself? Anything about you that is not in the bio printed in the book, and that might give insight into your more personal relationship to this text?

Probably that my father was a war hero. He won a Silver Star for bravery and three Purple Hearts while fighting in Guam during WWII. He never talked about the war, except when he was asked to visit my first grade classroom, and brought the Samurai sword he brought back with him as a war trophy (which was legal then, to bring home objects from the battlefield)––a Japanese sword that was in a blood-stained leather case covered with tiny sea pearls. There was also a pistol case containing vials of medicine and poison for committing hari-kari should the Japanese soldier be taken as prisoner of war. This sword and pistol case were not displayed in the house, but they weren’t exactly hidden, either––just tucked away in a small back room, a kind of storage room no one ever went. As a child I was fascinated by these objects and spent quite a bit of time going back to them. They were talismanic.

My father had a large diagonal scar that ran the length of his back, and on either side were scars from two bullet holes. These bullets were never removed from his body since the doctors said it was too dangerous to do so. He was a gentle man, a Christian, though not fundamentalist or pious, as he was also a bit of a hell-raiser. When Viet Nam happened, he spoke among us, as family, in fierce opposition to it. He would come home after coffee with his friends, who were younger and didn’t “know war” and be furious at their support of Viet Nam. Once, I was around 10, I passed by him sitting in an armchair watching a war movie on television, his body limp with grief, his head hung to the side, his face red and twisted, he was sobbing uncontrollably. It was the only time I ever saw my father cry. It was terrifying.

Here’s something strange, especially for a town so small. One of my best friends, growing up, who lived a few blocks away––her father was one of the three soldiers in the plane that bombed Hiroshima. This information was never revealed until his death in the 1990s. It was in his obituary. He worked at the aluminum factory one town over. Her house was always dark, depressive, foreboding. Her father was handsome, kind, quiet, melancholic and haunted. But his daughter was joyous, clever and funny.

Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? who are you reading currently?

That would take pages. We don’t have room for that here. But so as not to dodge the question, the writers who remain essential to me are Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, Blake, Poe, James Agee, Beckett, Stein, Willa Cather, Larry Eigner, Carson McCullers, John Cage, Lorene Neidecker, Jean Genet, Barbara Guest. While writing this book, I was reading Maurice Merleau-Ponty, because I wanted to be engaged in seeing and its impossibility. I love paintings and films. I like to read anything about perception and consciousness, and I also like to read about planetary evolution. I read my contemporaries, and the very young contemporaries I also seek out. It’s important to be alive to right now.

You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?

It’s a Lee Miller photograph called “Portrait of Space,” and it was taken in Egypt in the 1930s. Lee Miller, the great surrealist photographer, who along with her lover Man Ray, discovered the photographic technique solarisation. She was also the first female war correspondent.

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Multi-award-winning poet Conoley (The Plot Genie) gives us objects (pears, violins, aircrafts, sky), people (presidents, poets, mothers, sons, Gandhi), and landscapes (Marksville, LA; a blueness sucking in the sun), as events spread unevenly across the page. The poet’s spare language builds into scenes that stir understanding; they are careful so as not to disappoint: “if time began we would do it again/ the lungs two oars in the middle of the ocean.”

Conoley’s acute historical awareness leads to a disconnection of self: “[O]bsolete/ hands reaching but not reached/ and pushing glass away// more room now.” Yet her deep, human concerns highlight an ethics and perspective that is both constantly articulated and continually questioned, reviewed, and revised: “What are we to the man/ who attacked the gunman/ as he started to reload, a constituency?” This articulation takes intelligence and humor—“I didn’t want my eyes to be/ my reality negator”—and what’s more is that Conoley’s politicized language never buries the personal, nor her personality: “[A]t my father’s funeral, a blind field/ the flag taken from over the casket/ folded into a triangle, handed to us/ throughout ‘the reception’/ a boy eyes a pizza slice/ on a white paper plate.”

Her formal adventurousness works with a more lyric sensibility to chronicle major events in a life—the speaker’s illness, a mother’s death—and in the country—the Occupy movement, the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords—in the refracted manner of our time. The poems are peppered with the vernacular of the digital world and eschew explicit narrative. Conoley’s work has a vision larger than the personal, and there’s the promise that mindfulness might counter the feeling of collapse in any given moment.

Conoley’s sensibility is sly and sensuous, but also nettlesome and more than a little iconoclastic (one of her previous collections is called Profane Halo). She reminds herself in the present book to “try to be like Marx / who said at the end of his life, I am not a Marxist.” Her writing combines a distinct regional flavor (she grew up in Texas) with a longstanding commitment to experimentation and to putting the grain of her voice at risk.

The stirring metaphor of shelter and rebuke will be familiar to many, and it bespeaks the sureness with which Conoley has her finger on the pulse of her readership. We understand implicitly that peace itself is bought at the cost of suffering elsewhere, and that even moments of private reflection, however placid-seeming, mask troublesome currents of memory and the ruptures of history.

In her masterful book Peace, Gillian Conoley explores the fact that Americans have not experienced a prolonged period of peace for generations. And the fleeting periods of peace in the 20th century that our collective consciousness harkens back to were situated between two world wars, the Cold war, a Vietnam war, two Gulf wars, Bosnia-Herzegovina and so on into the 21st century. Violence and war are simply fluid parts of the American narrative. This reality can—perhaps should—cause despair, but Conoley instead takes a refreshing rhetorical turn and asks, what exactly is peace? Has our idea of it ever existed?

Well-known for the ease with which she boosts a poem into high gear without losing the grace she so properly establishes, Conoley mesmerizes readers into a magical place. Many poets do this, but few with such pleasing results.

I had never thought of Conoley as an experimental writer before (though she has always been an edgy one), but in her new book, she innovates in a fantastic way. Like Brenda Hillman, Conoley uses pretty much every poetry tool at her disposal–she experiments with typography, she plays with titles, she scatters words across the page, she builds columns of words, she does wacky things with spacings, and she writes (without irony or arch) about peace.

Drawing on a range of registers—the geographic and technologic, emotional and workaday—Conoley explores several categories of peace, broadly construed: the peace of armistice, of reflection, of liberation, of death. In her sparse, inventive lyric mode, Conoley weaves personal and political threads into an incantatory not-quite-narrative whose power lies in the gravid spaces between juxtaposed images and thoughts. It is in the emergent rhythms of “each euphoriant ephemery” that Peace finds its logic—and, perhaps, its peace.

Gillian Conoley’s poetry collection, Peace, takes readers on a personal and political exploration of love and loss, violence and death, memory and forgiveness, and war and peace. Like current politics in America (only much more thought-out and illuminating) noisy words are everywhere in this collection: scattered across the page, strewn about in organized chaos, arranged in unpunctuated (or non-traditionally punctuated) columns, and making you think differently about the way words are used.

[Peace] is contingent upon a very austere subjectivism, but not without a very oblique, if not unintentional sense of humor. The subjectivism threads through the trajectory of the book in a very meaningful way, and yet the manner in which the subject relates herself to the situations she narrates seems as if through an opaque lens. And the opacity that prevails in its surrealistic bent could make the reader feel like he or she is sleepwalking through a very interesting and memorable dream. It is this which binds the momentum of the book and allows ample room for the reader to imagine, and to perhaps free-associate the given text with numerous other stories, most especially if he or she is of a writerly audience.

White space percolates this lyric, while the current lull in American military actions forms the occasion of this book, Gillian Conoley’s seventh poetry collection. With poems titled “late democracy,” “[Peace] contrary to history,” and “Trying to Write a Poem about Gandhi,” the work pulls one way and then pushes back another, testing the inner ground for breath.

[Peace] is “topical” in the sense of a salve—it works on and across surfaces, which include one’s human days, as well as the multi-dimensional scape of the page—and as consequential as quickly changing weather. Throughout Peace, Conoley allows a good deal to “remain potential,” which helps the eye look steadily at what is here, at what might be.

As a whole, Gillian Conoley’s Peace is a compassionate and coherent plea for contemporary humanity to accept the principles of love and non-violence which guided Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Embracing an unsparing postmodern sensibility, she wages her argument for “peace” in poems that are innovative and effective. These poems ably demonstrate that the moral responsibility of the avant-garde is not only to heighten and rework our aesthetic perceptions but also to act as defender of what is most noble about the human race. Reading these poems is a life-altering experience.

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      It fell

            of noon


as in

          a poem the

sudden action of a single word

          you know


               once you tell them something

                  they start talking

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