2017 Shelley Memorial Award
Selected by Kazim Ali and Katie Peterson
Though she began her professional life as a journalist, Conoley has had a storied career as a poet, a translator and teacher as well as editor of the highly influential journal Volt. Over the span of seven books of poetry and a collection of translations by Henri Michaux, Conoley has assembled a shockingly varied body of work comprising narrative, lyric, and fragmented forms. Her work draws from multiple sources, at once innovative, experimental and classical. Her coruscating vibrant poems are informed by visual art and film, political engagement and playful linguistic constructions. Often times one will find highly formal even archaic diction jostling alongside demotic modes in the same poem, or even the same line. And yet, a typical Conoley poem isn't solely concerned with formal experimentation, or lyric complexity for its own sake, but for the sake of a palpable intimacy with the reader, an immediacy that stuns and stirs. In the work, sound deepens our acquaintance with landscape, and enriches our encounter with human life.
Her poetry feels absolutely contemporary in its vernacular, and believes in the possibilities of lyric to be not so much a mode of "communication" as an encounter area in which philosophy, music and musing all unfold. These lyrics are polyvocal; they almost want to be sung and they are so engaged with the smallest details of the quotidian world. They have intellectual rigor and brilliant structures and—if you've been lucky enough to hear Conoley recite them—they are all soaked in that rural Texas drawl that several decades in northern California have been unable to smooth out.
Conoley's poems, as deeply and profoundly thought-provoking as they are, are nonetheless love poems. As in opera, they present a world in which everything is steeped in language and perception, and nothing exists as a surface only, though the surfaces, in their beauty, continue to allure. Many years ago the Poetry Society of America held a symposium entitled "What's American About American Poetry?" in which many leading writers, including Ann Lauterbach, Michael Palmer, Sonia Sanchez, Kimiko Hahn and others, attempted to answer that question. On the closing day the panelists could only conclude that absolute hybridity of approaches, the ever-shifting shape of the beast itself, was what made American poetry "American." In this, Gillian Conoley is a uniquely American writer, one whose work presents infinite possibilities for engagement and infinite pleasure in such practice.