Interview With Craig Conley
Work that Tarotist/lexicographer Craig Conley is currently doing recently crossed my path. I am impressed – as I always am with Craig – and wanted to share this work with you – even though it is not exactly “public property” yet! Craig was very gracious, and did agree to share his thoughts. Enjoy!
BC: I love the unique outlook of your latest work! How did you come up with the idea for the “Punctuated Tarot”?
CC: It all started with a semicolon hieroglyphically flashing in my mind as a reversed Hanged Man, the period symbolizing the head and the comma symbolizing the crooked leg. I immediately worked up a graphic representation of the vision, and my first question was, “Is there an entire Major Arcana of punctuation?” The prospect brought much excitement, as for years I’ve studied the smallest units of our language. I’ve published my surprising findings in such books as One-Letter Words: A Dictionary (HarperCollins, 2005), Ampersand (a history and pictography of our most common coordinating conjunction), Annotated Ellipses, and my popular web series entitled “A Semicolon’s Dream Journal.”
BC: How do you associate the semicolon and the Hanged Man?
CC: I was immediately struck that the reversed Hanged Man is typically associated with an inability to let go. The semicolon of course holds together two closely-related sentences. There’s tremendous tension in that act of fusing two units that can stand alone. The semicolon could be seen as a unifier and a peacemaker, but more and more writers consider the mark to be an unnecessary middleman. The fact that the semicolon is on the verge of becoming extinct in our language makes its Hanged Man appearance all the more poignant.
BC: I love the diversity of punctuation marks that you are working with here! How did they make the grade? In other words, how on earth did the “prime” symbol of mathematics make it in, while the ever popular comma did not?
CC: Esoteric symbols seemed a natural fit for the Tarot. But old standards are there, too. For example, the ampersand simply demanded a place on The Emperor card, as folklore traces the sign’s name to mean “Emperor’s hand.” And since the word “asterisk” means “little star,” it demanded its rightful place in the Tarot heavens. Some of my esoteric choices may well challenge the common definition of “punctuation,” but all are punctuation in the crucial sense of being emblems of disambiguation. And that’s key to the purpose of this project. Tarot cards are like rebus puzzles in that the spread of their pictures forms coded sentences. Punctuation helps to bring clarity to the meaning of sentences. Just as traditional Tarot imagery distills the archetypes of our quest for wholeness, the standard marks and signs of punctuation elucidate meaning as our story unfolds.
BC: Not to be obtuse, but how do punctuation marks offer keys to unlocking cryptic Tarot messages? Have you been visioning with Uncle Al, perhaps?
CC: The Latin root of “punctuation” means to “point out” and to “bring to a point.” Punctuation marks help us to pinpoint the precise structure of the sentences that constitute our life story. Punctuation helps to organize and emphasize the themes at play. It assists us to comprehend the relationships that exist between nouns (the people, places, and things in our lives) and verbs (actions and occurrences). Punctuation offers cues on how to understand the course of our experiences.
BC: Aside from keeping our words flowing, exactly what does punctuation do for us?
CC: Ultimately, it’s about breathing. Punctuation is emphatic about pauses, whether brief or prolonged. Pauses invite us to linger on meaning, to reflect, to reevaluate. A pause gifts us with time to think twice. A pause offers a place to stand and to withstand.
BC: Why did you choose a question mark to represent The High Priestess? The first thing that pops into my head is that “there is no uncertainty with this lady”!
CC: My choice there was informed by my Mystery School background—a question mark representing uncertainty in the sense of mystique. It is a riddle as opposed to a quandary. The haziness of the veil doesn’t imply unclarity.
BC: How did the Fool come to be represented by a paragraph mark (pilcrow)?
CC: That was an irresistible choice, as the pilcrow denotes a new train of thought. Quite interestingly, the traditional Chinese paragraph sign is a thin circle—the same symbol as the character for “zero.” And so there’s actually an historical precedent for linking The Fool, the numeral zero, and the paragraph sign.
BC: What are your favorite cards of the Punctuated Tarot?
CC: I’m beguiled by The Hermit’s lantern, which is comprised of square brackets. Rather poetically, the square brackets form a nest for missing material. They have another use: it sometimes happens in writing that a parenthetical phrase occurs within another parenthetical phrase, and in such cases square brackets appear within the outer parentheses. Therefore, in a Tarot spread, square brackets can symbolize “deeper nesting.” Most commonly, square brackets enclose words added by someone besides the original author. And so they offer a sheltered realm for adding your own two cents when someone else is dictating.
Another favorite is the space symbol on The Chariot. The space symbol is a blank area. Figuratively, it signifies the dimensions within which things move. One might say that the chariot is inseparable from the road it traverses.
I’m also especially fond of Temperance’s tilde, which literally indicates a change in pronunciation and figuratively signifies a pronounced change. And Death’s ellipsis foreshadows an intentional omission or a trailing off.
BC: What guided your artistic choices?
CC: Much of the Punctuated Tarot artwork recalls the Tarot of Marseilles. But I wanted the imagery to be eclectic, in keeping with the diversity of punctuation symbols. The Death card, for instance, features Mors, the Roman personification of death. The Lovers card is based upon Psyche and Cupid on Mount Olympus. The Sun depicts a sundial from a formal garden in Bedfordhsire, England. Other cards, such as The Moon, The Star, The Fool, and The High Priestess are wholly original art.
BC: Are you going to do the Minor Arcana? If so, what approach are you going to take?
CC: The Minor Arcana is proving to be a challenge, but the double dagger symbol was an obvious choice for the Two of Swords. It indicates a transition state in Chemistry. I’d certainly love to develop a full Tarot deck of punctuation marks. It’s a work in progress.
BC: How do you recommend using the “Punctuated Tarot”? I can see it being used as a comparative deck, and as a primary reading deck for specific issues, insight or personal growth.
CC: Yes, I see the deck being used for specific issues, especially when one finds one’s life story to be seemingly stalled in a punctuated pause. Is the pause a marker between chapters, or a footnoted digression, or some sort of connecting line to a new idea? Is it the calm before the storm or a gentle trailing off? During those uncomfortable delays and silences, the iconic language of punctuation can give us a sense of the durations and the connections.
BC: You have a site that you are developing to present the Punctuated Tarot (www.mysteryarts.com/punctuated/tarot/). What are your plans here?
CC: The page offers a growing introduction to the project, brief explanations of each card, and an online three-card reading. I’m open to visitor suggestions on how the page can grow.
I want to thank Craig for taking the time to discuss his latest project. In playing around with it myself, I have found that new layers if information open up as my perspective on the cards open up. I hope that each of you finds something in Craig’s work that opens things up for you too!
An eccentric lexicographer and scholar, Craig Conley is author of the Tarot of Portmeirion, Magic Words: A Dictionary (Weiser Books) and One-Letter Words: A Dictionary (HarperCollins). His website is OneLetterWords.com.
Note: Craig has a wonderful post on Tarotist Catherine Chapman’s site – http://www.tarotelements.com/contributors/ritual-as-punctuation/ Enjoy!
© June 2010 Bonnie Cehovet