A selection of poems by celebrated poet Gillian Conoley that spans her arresting body of work

Forthcoming from Nightboat Books in October 2019. Gillian Conoley’s selected poems assemble a shockingly varied body of work, comprising narrative, lyric, and fragmented forms. Her coruscating vibrant poems are informed by visual art and film, political engagement and playful linguistic constructions.

A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems forms a completely new trajectory through decades of poetic work, including three collections previously out of print. In a career that began by chronicling the idiosyncrasies of Texas girlhood, Conoley’s work spirals outward toward an inquiry into spirit and matter, the relation between the individual and the state. Throughout, one can trace Conoley’s obsessions and concerns: democracy, metaphysics, motherhood, gender and race, futurity and history. Conoley’s new work posits an inquiry into the coming shifts of human consciousness and perception as she imagines the next world––flush with artificial intelligence, an ever-arriving, shape-shifting technology––and the possible communities we may yet forge between human life and a compromised planet.

“Conoley’s poems have a singular energy like an organ solo or a shotgun resorting to storytelling. She adds tool handles to our histories; a set list for our waking souls. And an instrument of self-reflection that a landscape might ponder itself with. On her page, our natures get away with nothing. All cradled by a ruthlessly loving dance of language; in her poems we meet our twins.” ––Tongo Eisen-Martin

“Nimble, inquisitive and intelligently elegant, the poems in this much anticipated volume reorient phenomena to make meaning with it: personal, inviting, knowing, and necessary. The range of Gillian Conoley’s attention is a marvel.”––Hoa Nguyen

Praise for Gillian Conoley

“Here we find the peculiarly American matter-of-factness of the small town exotic coming face-to-face with intellectual high-brow energy. Carson McCullers meets Gertrude Stein. Perhaps Jane Bowles is an appropriate comparison.”––The Antioch Review

“Masterfully composed 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



“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.” SONJA JAMES, THE JOURNAL

“Conoley’s 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.” PUBLISHERS WEEKLY




The Plot Genie—in its momentum, imagistic vitality, and cinematic and often improvisational arc—resembles the movement of a film more than of a poetry collection. Rich in scene, spanning and recombining a wellspring of story—both visual and literary, old and new—into a simultaneous present, these poems also examine our culture’s endless hunger for and production of narrative. At its core, this collection looks at the ways in which we are recreated, inspired, aroused, and persuaded by the power of the stories that we listen to, tell each other, and find ourselves within, searching for human enchantment and meaning.

The inspiration for this book is a plot-generating device created in the 1930s by an ex silent screenwriter, Wycliffe A. Hill. The original “Plot Genie”—used widely by Hollywood writers until the late 1950’s—relied on a numerical game of chance, including a cardboard spinning wheel used to divine character traits and plot points. A murky underworld constantly created and recreated, peopled by hapless figures waiting to be “dialed up” and sent along multiple and fragmentary narratives, Gillian Conoley’s THE PLOT GENIE includes characters of her own invention, contemporary film actors stripped of their veneer by the rapid, shape-shifting powers of the plot genie, and characters from other, older texts, such as Frankenstein. All are ruled by the insatiable plot genie, who herself becomes a character, a force neither fully in charge nor culpable, much like our leaders or guides today.

“Formally so interesting, Conoley has constructed a fractured narrative that is a metatextual commentary on the creation of character and narrative itself. “We lay sleeping…/ not knowing/ which is more fictional—the hand in the book,/ or the book in the hand.” She intersperses photographs and photocopies of erasure poems, as well as multiple pronouns and perspectives: us, we, multiple I’s. The reader is truly swept up into this imaginary place where the Handsome Dead Man lies in a bed and E and M converse with each other, asking: “What are we waiting for? More importantly, what are we walking on?” The book functions as one long poem, a fluid and flowing journey through the imagination of creation. A joy to read, we are taken up, wrapped up; as she writes, we return to “The page/ returning to its/ hunger.”—KRISTINA ERNY AND WENDY BURK, UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA POETRY CENTER



Gillian Conoley takes her title, PROFANE HALO, from Italian philosopher and critic Giorgio Agamben’s notion of a post-rapturous world whose figures and creatures roam the earth, having completed their theological task, striving to find new community, new meaning. Post-allegorical, post-apocalyptic, post-Christian, these poems continue Conoley’s exploration into the impossible questions of grace and redemption, self and other, death in life, language and being, democracy and song.

“Exuberant and challenging, the quick cuts and vibrant, freestanding images in Conoley’s fifth volume let her see America from many sides and in all sorts of scales, from the ground level of coastal suburbs to the grand cycles of political history. “Dear Sunset that was sun of now/ Near Greatness, dear tongue my Queen dear rock solid,” the title poem asks, “how could we know that we are forerunners?” There follows a series of verbally brilliant, sometimes strikingly fragmentary poems, some perhaps inspired by photographs; Conoley lights up American spaces and persons past and present, embedding quotes from poetic luminaries (Dickinson, Zukofsky) and showing a slant toward the Pacific coast, where ‘California floats its prisons in the sea.’
Publishers Weekly

“All the pleasures and dangers of the work achieve a brilliant suspension, like particles of dust in air . . . a time-stopping grace in quantum improvisations of form.”—Eric Lorberer, Rain Taxi

A visceral, primal, unsettled mode for discourse and discovery. Her tongue is that of a cave dweller, a world navigator, pioneer, forbear with no linguistic precedent who had to devise her own means of explaining new territories and revelations . . . mincing lexicon with eroticon, ferrying us to Hell and other lands, exciting an inner music.” ––Slope

“I am excited by the triumph of this writing.”–– Barbara Guest




“We never know where Conoley’s poems are taking us; indeed, we get the sense that the writer herself never knows where words will take her next. This improvisational quality if part of the work’s edginess, but also its delight; the people in this poet’s world participate like awed extras in a movie being shot without a script. Does she succeed? Spectacularly.”The Gettysburg Review



“Gillian Conoley’s poems at once saturate and aerate the imagination with extraordinarily lush tropics of language. Her sensibility moves along the erotic path of the physical world with an eye trained to catch every uncertainty, while celebrating the body’s powerful claims. Beckon’s shifts are filmic, breaking with and unsettling the border and connections we live by.”— Kathleen Fraser

“Gillian Conoley’s fourth book builds a latticework for reality to climb on. Even the fact that it’s made of words barely keeps Beckon from achieving the kind of silence the title poem describes: “And truth is music’s mute half, a sentence broken into.” Now that the sturdy quatrains and sonnets of an earlier age have made room for structures that are more open, the white space of poems contributes to their arrangement of reality as importantly as the lines themselves . . . Beckon is a book that breaks apart in front of us slowly an deliberately, like bread we are being invited to eat. Motion is relative, and the poem happens in the open space between words and reader. . . We see through ourselves in Beckon, a book named for a gesture that is made of motion contained in space.”--  Pamela Alexander, The Boston Book Review



In Tall Stranger, Gillian Conoley continues the beautiful positioning of America as a kinesis of dialects–– dialects rich and impoverished, fluent and halting by turns–– begun in her first book, Some Gangster Pain. Conoley seeks within the more directly expressive, declarative shapes of contemporary music and hymns for her points of verbal departure. . . She finds in music a way to temporalize language and meaning, a way to make her poems happen in time. Her central theme is the accomplishment of identity in escape from repression, and this theme’s prime mover is the music of a language enabling to that identity. Throughout Tall Stranger, strong identities take shape in time to Conoley’s transformations of our common songs. These identities manifest themselves and act through new versions of common speech, fulfilling the Emersonian imperative to make an America and an American polity of every self.”—Donald Revell, The Denver Quarterly

Her feel for the American “Waste Land” is deft, with a sharp eye for the glittering up-to-date object or word; these poems merge humor, surrealism, and mercy. . . Legends burn in ordinary lives, in movies or a bedroom or a car lot. The flow in these poems is, without obvious gesture, democratic and anti-racist. In “The Birth of a Nation,” (whose title refers to D.W. Griffith’s infamous film) Einstein’s theories so relativize American experience that the universe curves to nothing. . .

She off-handedly captures the spirit of this nation­­––she need not say it directly––of riches and homelessness, hungry children, increasing racism, and a griefless laying waste of a quarter of a million Iraqis: “Like any red-blooded American I lose the urge/to murder someone who oppresses me at every moment./ I think my pain is on another plaza.”An awakening conversation about self and other, plural selves, death in life, democracy, and song lives in the “ashcan rant” of some “modern music.” —Alan Gilbert, The Boston Review




“Even above the powerfully inventive language and clear, compressed style is a poetic vision that seems utterly original and utterly transforming. These are poems born of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, with their oddball grace, their undeniable redemption. Combined with Gillian Conoley’s dark humor are an eye for detail and a sensibility that are mysteriously compelling. Her characters discover the power of the transforming image, and in so doing create an inner life that is rich, surprising, transcendent. It is this odd hopefulness, this recourse to imagination which transforms the landscape of ordinary life and longing into something rare, mysterious, and dangerous that are Conoley’s special talent.”— The American Book Review.

“It is hard to give a sense, without quoting, of what these powerfully compressed poems are like. The words they are made of are our durable everyday ones, but so compacted, so impatient of syntax, that haloes of strangeness and mystery are generated around the short sentences, which are sometimes abrupt as gunfire. Emotions are coded in terms of what we experience physically: of rustling nylon and lipsticked cigarettes, of suicide kings and one-eyed jacks, of strawberry roan and appalousa, of the prickly wind of Texas––never such things for their own sake, but as keys to the secret meanings of a passionate existence.”— John Frederick Nims