Sonoma State University English Professor and Poet-in-Residence Gillian Conoley has been awarded the prestigious Shelley Memorial Award for her body of work as an American poet. The award has been given to one poet annually since 1929 by a jury of three poets selected by the Poetry Society of America.
"The list of poets who have won this award are the ones that would show up on a syllabus for an American poetry class in the 20th and 21st century," says Thaine Stearns, dean of the School of Arts and Humanities. "With this award, Gillian becomes part of the canon of American poets in a way that is recognizable."
Past winners include, among many others, e.e. cummings, U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and Sonoma State University alum D.A. Powell. Some winners, like Robert Creeley, Marianne Moore and Gwendolyn Brooks, in particular, have had tremendous influence on Conoley as a poet. "Those were major figures for me as a young writer," she says.
"It was completely unexpected," says Conoley. "To be recognized by your own peers, that's very meaningful for any artist."
Winners are selected with reference to his or her genius and need. The award text, written by poets Kazim Ali and Katie Peterson, praises Conoley's "shockingly varied body of work comprising narrative, lyric and fragmented forms." The citation continues, "In the work, sound deepens our acquaintance with landscape, and enriches our encounter with human life."
Conoley's poetry can be defined as quintessentially American, says the citation. "Many years ago the Poetry Society of American held a symposium entitled, 'What's American About American Poetry?' ... On the closing day, the panelists could only conclude that absolute hybridity of approaches, the ever-shifting shape of the beat 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."
Conoley's most recent collection of poetry, Peace, was published in 2014 to widespread acclaim. It was named one of the Academy of American Poets Standout Books, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award and the Northern California Independent Bookstores Award. In it, Conoley contemplates a world in a constant state of war.
"I was looking out at my students in their 20s, and I was realizing that they had literally never been alive when we as a country weren't at war, and that I had," says Conoley of the collection of poems. "It also made me think about my parents' generation... who had experienced peace between World War I and World War II. I just started thinking, we don't know what that's like anymore, and we're not going to get that back. I started thinking, if that's the case, then how does one experience peace -- what we think of as peace with all its variations and manifestations? What is that when we're in a constant state of war?"
Conoley was honored at a March 29 reception at the National Arts Club in New York City.
About Gillian Conoley
Gillian Conoley is Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at Sonoma State University. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Tall Stranger, a finalist for the National Critics' Circle Award. She is the founder and editor of Volt, the University's award-winning nationally distributed literary magazine. Her poems have been anthologized in over 20 national and international anthologies, including W.W. Norton's Postmodern American Poetry, American Hybrid, and Counterpath's Postmodern Lyricism.
Nationally distributed, beautifully designed, Volt has been publishing innovative writing for over 23 years. While the magazine regularly publishes Pulitzer Prize-winning authors such as Yusef Komunyakaa, Charles Simic, James Tate, and Rae Armantrout, as well as National Book Critics' Circle Award winners such as Robert Hass and MacArthur Genius Award winner Lyn Hejinian, Volt also maintains a strong commitment to publishing the work of new writers. Volt has won three Pushcart Prizes, three Best American Poetry Selections, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Opportunities to work on Volt are made available to SSU students through the English Department's Small Press Editing class, English 368, taught by Professor Conoley. Graduate students may also work with Volt as independent interns.