Small-press publishers have the lucky opportunity to talk candidly with authors about the downturns and updrafts of the creative process which brought them to the moment of completion that we call a book. As Omnidawn’s co-publisher and senior poetry editor, I’ve had that great good fortune. It finally occurred to me that the readers and reviewers of these books might enjoy hearing some of this talk, too. Of course, a book of poetry needs no introduction or liner notes. But I’m always interested in any stories about how and where authors’ intentions and the actual creative work tangle together. So I started asking each of our authors a few questions in writing, and then enclosing these “interviews” with our advance/review copies. When the book is published, I post the interview on the book’s web page. The Conversant’s editors have asked if they might select some of those interviews to publish. It is my pleasure to say yes! –Rusty Morrison
This interview focuses on Conoley’s book Peace.
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?
Gillian Conoley: 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”? Did it ever exist?
I have the sensation of having grown up in a more gentle, innocent time (delusional, I know, but only somewhat). There is a difference in having grown up in America’s post-WWII 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 cessation of the Korean War and 1965, when our combat troops 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 Missile Crisis, but all that was distant and cold.
My parents’ generation had an even longer reprieve from U.S. 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) seem unimaginable now. Not to belabor the obvious, but since 1983, we’ve gone pretty much straight through, with Grenada, Panama, the 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, with the colonist wars, and the 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 concurrently?
The poems in this book were 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, Aristophanes’ 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. Aristophanes’ 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 benefitted 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 on the notion.
I tend to write in a very processual 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, are several years old, and didn’t fit into whatever manuscript I was writing at the time, but found their home here.
RM: 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?
GC: 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 bar 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.
RM: 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?
GC: 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, oppositional, 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 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.”
RM: 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?
GC: 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 where 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 Vietnam 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 Vietnam. Once, when 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.
RM: Who are the authors with whom you feel a kinship? Who are you reading currently?
GC: 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. 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.
RM: You chose the image that is used in the cover design for this book. Can you talk about your reasons for your choice?
GC: 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, along with her lover Man Ray, discovered the photographic technique of solarization. She was also the first female war correspondent.
Gillian Conoley’s new book is Peace. She is author of seven collections of poetry. Conoley’s translations of Henri Michaux, Thousand Times Broken: Three Books by Henri Michaux, will appear with City Lights in September 2014. Editor of Volt, she teaches at Sonoma State University.