SSU English professor a finalist for renowned award for her latest book of poetry

July 23, 2020
Gillian Conoley

Gillian Conoley, a professor in the English Department, is starting her 26th year of teaching at Sonoma State.

Finalist for the 89th California Book Awards in the poetry category.
Gillian Conoley
Finalist for the 89th California Book Awards in the poetry category.

Nate Galvan |

Since they premiered in 1931, the California Book Awards have sought to foster and highlight the best literature in the state, recognizing many of California's most iconic authors, including Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck, famed Los Angeles writer Joan Didion, and Adrienne Rich, one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. 

Now in its 89th year, the California Book Awards jury has named Sonoma State University English professor Gillian Conoley as a finalist for a medal in poetry for her book “A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems,” a collection of her work that spans from 1984 to the present.

“A selected poems collection is sort of like a ‘greatest hits’ in the career of a poet,” said Conoley. “The poems are engaged with several themes that have run through my work from the beginning: the dream and failure of American democracy, issues of race and gender, the relations between matter and spirit, and consciousness and perception.”

Conoley said she did something a little different with this collection, as she wanted it to have its own arc and trajectory and be read as its own book rather than as a compilation of poems, especially since some came from books that are no longer in print. As far as the title, it comes from one of the poems in the book. “It seemed apt for the collection and our time,” Conoley said. 

Conoley is no stranger to literary recognition. In 2017, she was awarded the Shelley Memorial Award for lifetime achievement from the Poetry Society of America. Conoley is the author of seven collections of poetry, and in 2014 her book “Peace” was named as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. However, Conoley said her love for writing began when she was growing up in a small rural farming community in Central Texas.

“I once heard another writer say ‘it really isn't a question of when you began writing, but when you stopped,’” said Conoley. “I started writing as a child, and I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books in the middle of nowhere. There wasn't much else to do but read and to invent.”

Now starting her 26th year of teaching at Sonoma State, Conoley said that the university gives her the same sense of community she was used to growing up in Taylor, Texas.

“I love teaching here. The students are inquisitive and bright, and along with my colleagues, many of whom are dear friends, I feel such a lovely sense of community,” she said. “Living in the Bay Area, and working at a university that has such a strong commitment to this kind of close relationship with students and colleagues, has been a gift.”

The California Book Awards jury gives out 11 medals each year in the categories of Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, First Work of Fiction, Californiana, Young Adult Literature, Juvenile Literature and Notable Contribution to Publishing. For more information on the awards, visit the Commonwealth Club. The date of the awards ceremony is yet to be confirmed, but the full list of this year’s winners can be found on the Awards website.

Conoley said she is currently working on her next book, tentatively titled “In the Next Next World.”

“It is set in the future, imagining what our next world will be,” she said. “The pandemic and the historic racial movement are coming into the poems. It's a time of great change and promise, especially systemically. White people have a lot of work to do. It's an amazing time to be alive, and to try to stay alive.”

“A Little More Red Sun on the Human: New and Selected Poems,” can be purchased at Nightboat Books, and for more information on Conoley and her work, visit

Media Contact

Nathanael Galvan