To commemorate the publication of Notes From The Passenger, Nightboat intern Em/Emily Lu Gao spoke with Gillian Conoley on catastrophe, violence, the ineffable, the piano, “finding bookness,” and bardic journey. Read more below!
Em: The motif of a loss of individual control in our current moment is prevalent in your new collection of poems. I found that many of your poems embrace rather than eschew or condemn the lack of control—beauty in shared destabilization. How has your relationship to control, to being a passenger, changed or stayed the same since finishing this book?
Gillian: I like your phrase “beauty in shared destabilization.” Control is an illusion or so we like to think? Yet here we are in a full-on systems’ collapse in a fascist country on a planet we’ve been steadily destroying. We’re all willing or unwilling profiteers of earth’s resources. “Destroyers of the world,” as Oppenheimer said. To which I would add, passionate, misguided lovers of the world.
Why all this domination? Why are humans so violent?
This book is interested in the currents and signals, in new vibrational alignments possible in the upended space/time continuum we seem to be navigating, a new terrain where our past sense of personal agency––before the interconnected weave of plague/white supremacy/economic ruin/catastrophic climate crisis hit––and our sense of “control,” illusory or not, was lost. Not a bad thing to lose.
If the extremities of the last decade or so, give or take, say at least from 2016 on, has made us have less sense of individual control and trust in ourselves, in each other, in our leaders, and less fascination in ourselves as CEO’s of our fate, or if we sometimes feel like lost, previously spotlit protagonists brought to our knees in our own movies, and instead feel more of a sense that we may now be passengers in a world beyond our control: yes, that idea excites me because in it I see possibility.
Em: Due to the title, I found myself eager to learn who I was more alike: passenger or messenger, which are also the first two poems in the collection. You seem to make a spiritual distinction between the two. What did you hope to accomplish/convey with this distinction? Or in fact, are these two characters one in (and? “one and the same”?) the same? For example in saying, “I loved, I voted” (please change “vowed” to “voted): is the “I” one of the passengers/messengers?
Gillian: That’s interesting you sense a spiritual distinction between passenger and messenger. I wonder if that’s because we experience or sense “message” on a spiritual plane: messages from angels, from God, or ancient gods, goddesses, saints. The occult. We look for signs. But who is our god? Work? Harvested data, surveillance cameras, mass weaponry? I think my messenger is a failed messenger, with no message nor ability to deliver a message, and so the messenger is also a passenger, like all the other passengers in the book. The messenger appears as someone who once had agency to deliver the divine but has been stripped of it? And yet also points to the future: “the messenger was of temporary noncitizenship/in an exclusive, genderless, paradisiacal future universe, an orb”––
It’s super interesting to me that you bring up “I loved, I voted,” in this who-is-a- passenger/who-is-a-messenger context because in that poem I notice the line “I climbed long civic stairs no message no passage” so this “I” is seeking both message and passage and finding neither.
Essentially this is a bardic world where the dead meet the living. We could interchange those nouns “the dead” and “the living” with “passenger” and “messenger” or with “mortality” and “immortality” without permanently assigning them to fixed position. (No control!) All is in flux in ascension or descension, or floating in between. This goes for space and time, too. Saint Perpetua, who invented the diary in a Roman prison in 203 CE, seems to me to be both messenger and passenger. Her diary was full of visions: she climbed and descended from ladders that created a sort of third dimensionality to her writing in which she travelled between material and spiritual realms. Historically, we learn much about Roman women of the period from her: first, that women wrote, and second, that she contradicted and disobeyed her father.
Em: Aesthetically, I notice the shape of your poems changes page to page. While some poems are left indented, others scatter like clouds. In “how to have a future memory”, despite the blank space in between them, the pairs of stanza on each page seem as if they could even fit together. How do you structure your poems? Do you have a vision beforehand?
Gillian: I loved tossing off the tyranny of the left-hand margin poem as a default mode once I started experimenting with the page pretty early on. How the spatial sense of the page felt like a material substance as thick as the worded areas, sometimes even more thick. It’s liberating, the new sounds and duration in time one can work with, and yes I love that one can read across the gutter or stay on the same page in “how to have a future memory,” where a pathway gets tapped out and stretches into folio. So many early practitioners of active page/space, Olson, Cage, Albiach: I think Eigner and Mallarme are my favorites. Eigner for the ease with which he accessed and revealed perception and consciousness, Mallarme who turned the poem into a three-dimensional space, a room one could walk through.
Recently I’ve been thinking of spatial page arrangement as a way the page can be more “aerated,” and can literally have more breath–– perhaps I wanted more breath during the wildfires when all we had was ash: I don’t have any preconceived structure. I make a mess and sit with it, play and wait until it sounds right musically which has a lot to do with where the language finds visual placement: there’s a balance or synchrony or asynchrony between the aural and the visual. This is highly pleasurable. I do like an open field in life and on the page. Sometimes, though, the poems want a left-hand margin, they do what they do.
Em: The collection is full of such wonderful syntax and diction choices. “I balance lexicons” is one I found myself thinking about after reading the book (pg. 85). The poem “End Notes” is a spot where you use musical theory—which to me, is another language some of us speak. How do you “balance lexicons”? Do you find this difficult/easy? Why?
Gillian: Oh I’m glad you bring up music as a system. In composing this book I often thought of
sound as a guide, and the instrument I thought of the most was the piano. I have absolutely
no musical skill, but I love how the striking of a single piano note, and holding down the
key, with no other sound around results in a long extension of sound that stretches and
attenuates for quite a while until one can no longer hear it. Perhaps it stretches out into
infinity and the human capacity to hear it going further just fails. Other instruments don’t
carry that kind of duration. Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto called this attribute of the piano a
metaphor for eternity. I think in that particular phrase “I balance the lexicons,” from a series
of poems all titled “the possibility of joy in the face of death,” which is a quote from Bataille,
I wanted to give a sense of teetering (“I balance”) amid the activity of language which is
always doing its own thing as we try to take hold of it when we make with it. I always sense
this push-pull with language. I don’t want to just be drunk with language, as pleasant as that
sounds, but to experience the grounding in it while at the same time letting it roam and be
loose. I’ve found that language can take you into stray but necessary territory. In poetry
language is a medium of resistance to sloganeering. To witness words struggling to say is
humbling. Vallejo warned us that we have too much noise in the world.
Language has its own force, and I try to be respectful of it and its trenchant, lyrical, discordant and accordant capacity in the making of meaning, of how, again and again, it opens itself up to the possibility of meaning.
Em: Sections of your book are partitioned chronologically with roman numerals that create a distinct flow when reading your words. Sometimes the partitions are titled like II and III (“how to have a future memory” and “Saint Perpetua”); I noticed how they play with upper/lower casing; other times with a quote like section V. Can you talk me through your thought process for how you made this decision?
Gillian: That happened late in the composition of the book when it was finding its “bookness.” It was clear that “Saint Perpetua,” a long poem, needed its own section, and so for balance “how to have a future memory” became more spatially adventurous as though it were having a preparatory conversation with “Saint Perpetua.” Also the series of poems “the possibility of joy in the face of death” needed their own section. It took me awhile to figure this out or for the book to figure it out. The section breaks brought in the pacing. I remember being really pleased when I found it. I think the lower casing is for individual poems in series, roman numerals for section breaks.
Em: Germane topics like white supremacy, climate change and plague arise in this book. Given the active dismay humanity is experiencing from these topics, what solutions do you hope your readers consider in a new way?
Gillian: No solutions. I’m too suspicious of overt intentionality. Who needs more propaganda?
And who knows what will happen to us? Poetry is really great at expressing the ineffable,
at being impossible to paraphrase while at the same time giving a sense of what it was like
to be alive at a certain time. We have to stay alive in and to our world. I still love our
world, no matter what we’ve done to it and to one another, and it’s fascinating to watch,
hear, feel new vibrational alignments of whatever is to come. Obviously humans have the
capacity for great terror and pain. We kill. We love. We hate. The sounds, the visuals,
whatever new community where we have the chance to continue, the ongoing-ness, the
reckoning–– it’s painful, beautiful, courageous, fragile. We have so many dead, so many
coming. I see pregnant women and I think, look, they’re still coming.
Gillian Conoley is a poet, editor, and translator. Her ninth collection, Notes From The Passenger, is forthcoming with Nightboat Books in 2023. A Little More Red Sun on The Human: New and Selected Poems, also with Nightboat, won the 39th annual Northern California Book Award in 2020. Conoley received the Shelley Memorial Award 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. Conoley’s translations of three books by Henri Michaux, Thousand Times Broken, is with City Lights. Conoley has taught as a Visiting Poet at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Denver, Vermont College, and Tulane University. A long–time resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, Conoley is currently Professor of English and Poet–in–Residence at Sonoma State University where she edits VOLT. Conoley has collaborated with installation artist Jenny Holzer, composer Jamie Leigh Sampson, and Buhto dancer Judith Kajuwara.