My friend, the poet Carol Guerrero-Murphy, and I go waaay back to the late 1980s when we were both completing our doctorate degrees in Literature and Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Denver.
Jobs, daughters (and son), and books later, we’ve found ourselves following similar paths again: retirement, partial teaching employment, writing, and books.
Chained Dog Dreams (Finishing Line Press) is Carol’s second poetry book. Her first book, Table Walking at Nighthawk– this early winter, I even got the privilege of climbing over the family gate with Carol and walking up a snowy lane to her ancestral cabin in Nighthawk- was a finalist for the WILLA Prize in Poetry. Laura Pritchett calls this collection of poems, “quietly moving, deeply felt look at our vulnerable world, our vulnerable souls.”
I find Carol to be a visceral and spiritual poet who sets the ordinary world on sudden fire: “I come alone to the milky way of death to find its galaxy lurking like a dime in a scarf drawer, or leaping, a cricket, out of a pot of lavender . . .” Chained Dog Dreams is a beautiful collection of poetry that traverses the long, and well-lived, life through childhood and childbirth, sickness and health, and the abundance of the natural world, thick with its newts and horses, catkins and diatoms.
I asked Carol to share how her book came together shortly after she retired from Adams State, where Carol was a professor of literature and writing for over 20 years. Carol still teaches for Adams State Prison College Program.
KW: I think so many poets starting out find the process of putting together a book of poems daunting, especially if it is a first book of poetry. The poet Edward Hirsch once said that the first book of poetry is like a collection of “your top fifty hits.” Chained Dog Dreams is your second book. I know that when you retired from Adams State and finally had time to pull this collection together that you had a lot of poems to work with. What was your process?
CGM: Finding myself with a vast backlog of poems that hadn’t been in a book, I looked back at several organizing attempts I had made in the past year or two, and realized the poems fell into two distinct piles, life poems (this book) and death poems (the ones in my unpublished ms.). I was in the fortunate situation of getting to sort and cull. Surviving poems eventually created a fictional autobiographical arc, although they were not written in the order they are found in the book and turned out to be as much surreal and dream-driven as factual.
I start the process of building the book by placing pages on counters all around a room, and I walk around moving individual poems. Once I have what might be the sequence, I put them into a folio and sit and read with fresh eyes, pretending it’s a real book by someone else, using my ear and my inner ear, and rearranging at a smaller level, looking for both continuities and interesting resonances and juxtapositions. This takes weeks. Months. Meanwhile I am also brainstorming titles, sub-titles, and mulling over what I think is some sort of thread (in this case, the autobiography). At this time I also share the manuscript with trusted readers and listen well to their comments. I beg them to tell me what to leave out.
KW: This collection is so rich in what it covers, so many allusions to history, religious literature, and, at the same time, so immersed in the natural and the familial world. Every time you start building up to some beautiful evocation of the natural world, I find myself happily settling in for the ride. In your wonderful section, Horse Says, “This Horse, Too,” a beautiful poem honoring James Wright’s A Blessing, describes the revelry of a wild horse half-tamed in a pasture: He grew up wild, his past silenced into gazing at sunset, / into studying ibis and cranes’ silhouettes/ migrating above gates and fences.” What have been the influences on your poetry?
CGM: The biggest influences on my poetry are a lifetime of reading, writing, studying poetry, and slogging through all of those domestic, familial experiences that bubble up in my book(s). Central have been intimate relationships with rural places and animals as well as humans. I do like to “listen” to everything. I am curious about everything. I continue to be in close contact with my child self, so with magic, an animated place with talking animals, beloved plants and trees, dream states. And love. I work hard to continue to love and hope. I am so fortunate to have always been read to, then to have been a child who retreated into books, and then to have made my education and professional life mostly about literature, which is to say, about everything, including craft.
KW: Finding a publisher for a book is a daunting process, too. I’ve heard about writers and their agents sending their books out to 30 and 40 presses and getting the “no.” Or spending hundreds, even thousands, on book contests and finally deciding to go the self-publication route. How did you find your press? And how did the publication process go with Finishing Line Press?
CGM: I found my publisher by deciding not to spend money that I don’t have on contests, and submitting the manuscript primarily during open reading periods. When I found that Finishing Line Press has an open reading period, I considered the books they have published by reading lots of the authors and looking at the production values, too. I researched what others say about working with this publisher.
Although there were long silences from the publisher, when it has mattered (cover design, copy editing, publishing schedule) the people at Finishing Line Press have been responsive and always fair and clear. Someday I would like to have an editor who advises me about how to order my poems, what to omit perhaps, and urges a cover design, not to mention markets the book, but all of that wishful thinking aside, this has gone well.
The size of the press run at FLP is determined by how many pre-orders of the book are purchased, so I had to figure out how to do advance marketing. It was embarrassing, truly unnerving, but once the finished book was sent to the people who had pre-ordered it, I began having the sweet experience of hearing from each reader, person by person, telling me that the book had arrived and what they were reading. Several mentioned that they were traveling and taking the book with them. Others have wanted to discuss particular poems. Because I did the painful work of writing everyone I know, these connections have developed and I feel the book found a community before it was printed. Emails and notes are still trickling in.
While FLP shares models and recommendations for publicizing and marketing a book, they do not do any of it. By the way, I find that publicizing the book is the opposite of writing poetry and the experience blasts creative work right out of my brain. It’s a job, not anywhere near my favorite.
CGM: For this book, I am hurrying to submit it to published book award contests and trying to find reviewers. I’ve mailed out some comp copies. I am enjoying readings in bookstores, cafes, and living rooms. I am already doing my final editing on my death book and will start sending it around this month–meanwhile not forgetting Chained Dog Dreams continues to deserve tlc.
KW: Thanks, Carol! For the rest of us, put Carol’s book, Chained Dog Dreams, from Finishing Line Press on your list for New Year treats. You can follow CarolGMPoetry blog, where she meditates on Poetry, Science in Art, Art in Science, and, of course, Books.