A Conversation with Gillian Conoley
Interviewed by Sara Mumolo
Gillian Conoley:: The Plot Genie:: Omnidawn
Gillian Conoley’s newest volume discussed herein, The Plot Genie, was published by Omnidawn in fall 2009. Previous volumes include Profane Halo (Verse/Wave Books, 2005); Lovers in the Used World (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2001); Beckon (Carnegie Mellon, 1996); Tall Stranger (Carnegie Mellon, 1991), a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award; and Some Gangster Pain (Carnegie Mellon, 1987), winner of the Great Lakes Colleges New Writer Award. Conoley is Professor and Poet-in-Residence at Sonoma State University, where she is the founder and editor of Volt. This interview was conducted over a number of email exchanges between Omnidawn assistant editor Sara Mumolo and Conoley, discussing such topics as narrative demands upon character and our culture’s investment in media of enchantment.
SARA MUMOLO: Your newest book, The Plot Genie, adopts its title from a plot-generating system devised in the 1930s by silent screenwriter Wycliffe A. Hill. His system provided a writer with plot elements and characters. Can you talk about your employment of characters in relation to intimate moments for the I in this manuscript?
For example, I’m thinking of moments such as “[Culte Du Moi]’s” “I got the best job in the world by just being myself and then I fell forward arms lifted into a pause of music arrested in the idea with my eyes closed I am usually happy to do anything for art, but…” in tandem with epistolary moments between the characters E and R.
GILLIAN CONOLEY: Maybe we could begin by talking about the characters who have names and the characters who have pronouns. First, I should say that I don’t employ any characters from Hill’s Plot Genie. My characters are of my own invention.
Hill’s Plot Genie was essentially a list of plot elements and characters in different genres: Comedy, Action/Adventure, etc. It came with a cardboard wheel a writer was to spin to derive a plot. When I first came in contact with the Hill volumes, I tried it out, spinned as instructed, interacted with the apparatus, and was given characters and situations to work with. But I didn’t find the experience that intriguing. Ultimately that wasn’t what interested me—the chance operation.
Instead, I was very enchanted by the volumes themselves, by the books as books, because they were old and rare books, many with red pencil inscriptions made by other writers, and they held such potentiality. They had a kind of aura. I carried them around with me. I loved their arcanity and their sense of the occult and of magic. I was intrigued by a source many writers before me had used, who knows how many, who knows who would admit it. Apparently pulp writers and serious writers alike used Hill’s system, but few were wont to reveal that, as the system was often met with derision and used in secret.
What I eventually came to write about was a world of characters I imagined as being trapped within the system, waiting to be dialed up and thrown into narrative. I was intrigued by their constant sense of possibility and by their imprisonment.
To answer your question of who this “I” is that surfaces out of my characters–– E, R, Handsome Dead Man, Comedy Boy, Redhead, etc.— These are some of the named characters, but there are others who are unnamed. There is a whole throng of the unnamed—they speak as a “we” in the poem “[How We Wish]”—and sometimes, as you point out, there will be a singular unnamed character who will rise up and speak as an “I,” as in the poem “[Culte Du Moi].” In the beginning of the poem “[E and R],” the “I” there is either E or R, as they are taking turns speaking to one another, making a vow to one another, though the poem begins to slip out of that and move into other directions, and just who is who also clouds. And the “I” we started with sort of transmogrifies into other “I’s” before returning to the “I” we started with. E and R are lovers, but they can never find one another in the same plot, so they write love letters back and forth. These letters are delivered by Comedy Boy. But perhaps I have told too much.
SM: In your answer, you note that you are “intrigued by their constant sense of possibility” despite the characters’ “imprisonment” in the system, which limits the characters’ ability to even come into being.
In a way, the construction of the plot genie as a device is a kind of ‘language’ that the characters are ‘given’ and thus imprisoned within, yet these characters are still struggling to emerge and evolve. You’ve created a form that suggests both a self ‘constructed by’ its circumstance, yet that can also find enormous freedoms, even in the struggle against that limitation. How do you see these issues and their relation to the text? I’m interested in the ways that certain characters seem more and less ‘culturally determined’ (or ‘plot genie device’-determined).
GC: I like your idea that my interpretation of the plot genie device is a kind of language handed to the characters. The idea that language is world. Then Wittgenstein’s idea that the limits of language equal the limits of the world. My characters are definitely fighting against their limits, but they also seem to be alive to the moments they find themselves in. They often become fully awake when they are given their limit, or their role. Redhead, for example, when she gets to be a young girl on a bicycle is free and joyous during that moment, as is Tyger when he rears up on his hind legs and jumps across rooftops. When E and R meet on the sly, they are defying the limits of the plot genie.
Here is my favorite Wittgenstein quote: “A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than to push.”
That sentence seems to embody the notion that limits have their limits, and that great freedom can be found not in spite of, but because limits exist.
SM: One of the interesting discussions in literary theory reflects on the role or position of the lyric speaker, and how that speaker’s agency or lack of agency, presence or absence, is demonstrated in both implicit and explicit ways.
I see this being worked out, argued, or queried in the construction of The Plot Genie, and the evolution of its characters. I’m curious if the construction of multiple speakers who are thrust into action by an anonymous structure, like the plot genie’s wheel, is a play on questions of speaker autonomy?
GC: Yes, I think that vast terrain of multiplicity of the lyric speaker, especially concerning authority, presence/absence, etc., has at this point just become sort of abstracted in my mind, or was already there in the first place. It’s just how I experience the world; it makes sense to me. I don’t experience my own identity or perceptive abilities as something pinned down—it’s diffuse, multiple, porous. It was a kind of relief to accept this and find out that there were “others” who experienced the world the same way.
The characters in The Plot Genie are involved in a struggle to come into being despite their fate as characters who will forever get called up to be in an assortment of plots or situations—they would like to have their own “agency” as you say, their own lives. While they seem to enjoy the shape-shifting, they also have strong, unfulfilled desires. More than anything, they seem to want to come into being without the plot genie’s intrusion. E and R would very much like to get together, for example, and Handsome Dead Man would like it if Miss Jane Sloan (an author), would at least recognize his presence. Towards the end of the book, when Handsome Dead Man finds himself in a plot in which he is in prison, he wants to run off with Redhead. The unnamed characters seem particularly sad and murky, sort of trudging around at the bottom of the heap, also wishing that E and R could land in the same plot, that something would work out for someone, somewhere, that there could be some sense of escape or release.
SM: Speaking of escape, how did you negotiate narrative’s power of enchantment in tandem with the unnamed and named characters of The Plot Genie. I’m thinking of Comedy Boy speaking Hamlet’s lines. Can these characters appease the demands of the narrative?
GC: In terms of characters, there is some shape-shifting. Questions of what is real and what is not real. Actors or people. When Comedy Boy first appears, he’s standing in a doorway, “self-advertising,” as in a brothel. Then he spouts Hamlet’s lines, “I am thy father, doomed to walk the earth…” so right away that question of is he an actor, speaking another’s lines, or is he real, comes up. The book has a very democratic cast of characters—Betty and Veronica, Hamlet, Lucretious, Artaud, etc. all make sudden appearances and then fall away—they all float in on a level playing field. I still very much believe in democracy.
SM: I am interested in how this belief appears in what one writes. I do not mean writing political poems, but this belief as a part of the being of a poet. Democracy is based on the concept that public opinion should matter in determining society’s course. Yet, what counts as opinion and how this opinion is delivered to us is uncertain, and still this is what determines a ‘powerful’ narrative for the public. Can you talk about unfixed or indirect delivery and how its implications surface in The Plot Genie? I’m thinking of the need for a message box in “[It would be good if we had a message box]” and or the delivery of E and R’s letters.
GC: I love thinking about this because I think it’s true—how one makes a poem or attends to a poem—these manifestations of mind do speak a politics, a world view—and much more powerfully than if one picks up an overtly political subject matter. Oppen is a great example. William Carlos Williams is too, or Elliot, for that matter. And Beckett, I think one could argue that one of the things Beckett is writing about is Ireland without ever using the word “Ireland.”
Public opinion, as you point out, is of course subjective and amorphous in nature and is shaped and told back to a people by its leaders/handlers of its leaders. Always has been. This is why poets are important. Democracy is a dream; it’s always something to be attained. I don’t think democracy itself is fixed. It’s a practice. Then there is the question of who is in charge, which is a legislative, theological, and theocratic question. Since somewhere in the middle of the 18th century, the slow absence of God dawning into Modernity. In our country, capitalism and democracy make for strange bedfellows, and we are even further cast adrift.
In my book, you’d think the plot genie would be in charge, but she’s this amorphous sort of nonentity. She is “in control” but invisible and without direction. Meanwhile the characters are getting called up and sent into an event, not knowing when or how or why, or for what meaning, to what end. Even their orders are, as you say “unfixed” and of “indirect delivery.” They have no direct line to their leader, to the one who holds power over them. Comedy Boy is a kind of confused Hermes.
SM: How do narrative demands on the characters relate to the demands of our current world upon a people invested in a culture of enchantment whose culprits are media such as Internet, film, and television?
GC: I guess the book is an allegory in that regard. I’m interested in what some people call “the post-real”—this I take to be the blur between what we experience outside of cyberspace, film, television, the screen—and within those worlds as well. Most people must contend with having some sort of identity in both worlds, like it or not. Events can arrive and evolve from either source—the ether world or the air world. I’m not interested in bemoaning a lost pre-Internet world. I’m interested in trying to be alive to the moment, not resist it.
SM: There are interesting polarities or oppositions in the text. One worth noting is the juxtaposition of the high culture of classic literature and the pop culture of movies and movie stars’ dramas. Did you bring these into interrelation in this text with the intention of pressuring our usual stereotypes and expectations about them?
Pieces of dialog from films appear in the book, from, for example, The Postman Always Rings Twice and the silent film The Saga of Gosta Berling, along with poem titles like “[Hitchcock] and [Cassavettes]. Can you also speak to film’s enchantment in your own life and aesthetic trajectory?
GC: I don’t think I was so much interested in challenging our usual stereotypes and expectations about high and low culture (but I can see how that happens) as much as I was interested in how the book began to drift back and forth or pierce the thin membrane between imagined worlds and “real” worlds—in particular, going back and forth between a projected or cinematic or ether/cyber world and what we could maybe call the “air” world. This just seems to be our experience of being alive at the moment.
I grew up in rural Central Texas. The only art around was film. Whoever was in charge of the daily “Dialing for Dollars” afternoon movie show had a thing for British mysteries, full of fog, and American film noir and gangster movies. Film was my first experience of art. As a writer, I envy film’s ability to immediately draw us in to a world that looks so much like the one we walk in.
SM: Another interesting polarity is the fact that one could see The Plot Genie’s wheel as both subverting the concept of the author as a channel through which inspiration comes, AND as an embodied construction of that, a way for that inspiration to come in. You are at once subverting many of the conceits of narrative, and yet also creating a complex, developing narrative arc that your primary characters participate in. Can you talk about how you see these opposing ideas operating within and upon the text?
GC: It pleases me so that you read the book this way—that the plot genie wheel, while subverting intentions or concept of author also opens a channel for inspiration or invention. My first attraction to Hill’s system was that it seemed to be a channel to creation. A channel that had been used often before. One that had fallen into my hands. If, in my book, I’ve managed to transfer some of that sense of creation to others, that makes me very happy.
Just in terms of sheer shape and form, I very much felt the presence of a wheel as I was writing the book, a kind of churning machine. We’re hardwired to create narratives about what happens to us during the day so we can sleep at night. And then when we sleep, we create more narratives. It doesn’t seem to be something we can stop, it’s eternal. So there was something mechanistic, but there was also something very procreative and alive. And there was so much struggle going on in the book between characters as to who was in charge—it wasn’t the plot genie, it wasn’t Miss Jane Sloan (an author), and it certainly wasn’t the characters themselves. The people with the least agency and the most distress seemed to be the unnamed. One really short poem came that reads: “Dear Master,/ I am the master.” One thing I did notice is that everyone involved seemed to be aware that they were close to the act of creation, to the possibility of coming into full being, and this was what drove them and kept them from utter despair. Near the end of the book, when Handsome Dead Man is in prison and Redhead appears to visit him with a packed suitcase, and the phone rings, indicating that it might be the start of a new plot, that they might be called up—Handsome Dead Man says, “Then take me with you.” He wants to go. Even though he’s not in control of his fate, he wants to get close to that source again, he wants to live.
SM: When reading The Plot Genie, Profane Halo and Lovers in the Used World, I am attracted to the application of the line as a discreet unit. Can you talk about ‘the line’ in this new collection and maybe any thoughts on how the line for you has evolved over these collections?
GC: It’s hard for me to think about the line without also thinking about the page. At a certain point Olson, John Cage, Mallarme–– their discoveries and enactments concerning the page as a field or a score or a room became important to me, and I started to view the page as a less than neutral force, and that changed how I thought about the line. When the page became more active for me, a kind of buoyancy occurred with my line—it was like it had to stay afloat or adrift. It had much more room to move around, and it did. I do remember experiencing a sort of impatience with the standard flush-left poem, which didn’t seem to recognize its relation to the rest of the page. But recently I’ve gone back to that a little.
SM: Considering your thoughts on the buoyancy of the line, I wonder if it is possible to mention how the lyric coordinates with poems concerning pictorial and spatial dimensions in your work, such as sections of The Plot Genie that are in columns, E and R’s letters sharing the same page, or the title poem in which one section casts the resemblance of the cardboard wheel? You mentioned the aura and magic of the Hill volumes, which makes me inquire about the inclusion of palimpsest-style pages or cut-ups of Emma and other volumes, whose pages have been whited-out to procure certain words. Another example could be the photocopy of Plot Scientific’s’ page 111 that is embedded among the poems.
GC: This goes back to the page again, and then to the book as book. I think we’re living in an intriguing time for the page, since technology has brought us to a moment when much material (poetry or otherwise) is being read from and written on a glossy, celluloid-like substance that has properties of appearing to have depth and dimension. The page is lit and projected before us. Like film it has great properties of seduction, and arrives and is delivered in a much more frontal gesture than the lateral, tactile properties of the paper page. And even if we turn away from the computer to a hard copy, or a book we hold in our hands, the page is still altered by its original source, the mother from which it came. When we think about the page as a non-neutral force, Olson’s great essay of course comes to mind, with his notion of the page as an open field, where words sprout up like vegetables, a plane for breath. And then we have the great precursors, Mallarme and Appollonaire. I think of Appollonaire as using the page more as a canvas, while it was Mallarme who took the great exhilarating risk of throwing the page into a 3-dimensional space with his unprecedented work A Throw of the Dice, which traversed gutters, enacted void, and created pages that had much more in common with actual rooms than the flat, lateral plane of the page or canvas.
I wanted The Plot Genie to have a sense of dimensionality, of layer, of things coming in and floating away, like pages from other books, changes in typography, spatial shifts. In terms of narrative, I wanted the sense of movement and arc that one experiences in story, or architecture, form, angle, trajectory, shape.
SM: What prompted you to select the pieces of literature (the original texts of the cut-ups) that you incorporated into the text? Did you have a literary period in mind when you selected them? Since the issues of limitations and its possibilities are central to the text, can you speak about your decision to use language from other sources, and how this decision and process engages these issues?
GC: I spent a lot of time writing this book, watching it unfold. One of the few things I seem to hold as a constant as a writer is the belief that we must practice patience with the material and attend rather than orchestrate, that we have to get out of the way of the writing and our own intention. This is a hard practice, but without it there is no sense or thrill of discovery for either the writer or the reader. Since I’d already adopted the plot genie, or it had adopted me, this seemed especially important. In the first draft of the book all the characters had arrived, and it was a pretty minimal, stripped-bare world, sort of Beckett-like. Then things became more verdant. The book started to take on a sense of its own play.
Early on, I did a Rimbaud erasure which I lost and didn’t find again until the book was in production. I love that that happened—the lost page that came back when it was too late. Meanwhile, since I couldn’t find the one I’d made, I made others. Why Rimbaud? Probably because he is so verdant, because he was working so much with limits of self and world, because he freed himself so much in his work, and therefore freed all writers who were to follow.
Next came Twain, because I still own an old copy of Tom Sawyer that was in the house I grew up in, and because I thought Twain might be a good American down-home foil to Rimbaud’s Frenchness and sophistication. And then Jane Austen’s Emma, because perhaps then Emma could be in The Plot Genie, too, as a character, since the word “Emma” appears on the top of each page of the novel, at least in the copy I own. By this time, other writers were starting to show up as characters in the text: Keats, Leopardi, Artaud, Kruchenykh, and characters from other texts, Frankenstein, Paul Bunyan, etc., and then Brad and Angelina and directors like Hitchcock, Cassavettes, Sam Fuller. No literary period in mind. I just tried to let what wanted to happen happen.
SM: The cut-up of original source-texts is itself an interestingly constructed device. Did you see the act of the omission of language in these cut-ups as reflecting in any similar ways upon the hidden-ness of the characters that lie behind the plot genie’s operations? Were you attempting to reveal new characteristics latent in these original texts, new characters trapped inside them? Which ones were the most exciting to you in how the emergence occurred?
GC: The palimpsest nature of painting over another’s work, the covering, does draw one’s attention most to what is hidden, and what arises from that hiddenness. The characters in The Plot Genie all have a quality of hiding to them—they are hiding from the genie so that they can spend more time trying to come into their own, to escape from her, or as in the case of E and R, so that they find each other outside of one of her plots. So yes, I would say there is a connection there. When I was making the erasures, I remember trying to have the erasures be both a kind of homage to the writer and the book, and also I was interested to see what might surface with a contemporary mind working over an older page, written in another era—so all these things, what might stay true to the original, what might emerge, those were things I was thinking of, and also a kind of release from the original text. I also played, I worked intuitively. This sort of activity links to what we were talking about earlier concerning authority and multiplicity and/or autonomy of speaker. It’s complicated. But I do believe that erasures have a sort of responsibility to stay true to the original text as they move away from it.
SM: I wonder if you might riff on what you let into the poems. Or, how do you negotiate what you have room for and how these items of the world may enter?
GC: I like the idea of letting anything into a poem. I don’t think about what I have room for. The world is complicated, and anything can happen in it.
Gillian Conoley:: The Plot Genie:: Omnidawn