An Interview on The Journey of a new book, Chained Dog Dreams, by Carol Guerrero-Murphy

Book cover of Chained Dog Dreams and author picture

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or two, and realized the poems fell into two distinct piles, life poems (this book) and death poems (the ones in my unpublished ms.).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. 

KW:  What are your next projects? I see that you’ve already had poems published in The Missouri Review and the Roanoke Review.

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.  

Carol and horse
Carol and horse

Convergences of Poetry and Prose: In the Light of Ocean Vuong and Michael Steinberg

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

I was in the Florida Keys, reading the poet Ocean Vuong’s genre-blurring novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, off my Kindle when the first social media posting of Michael Steinberg’s death appeared in my Earthlink. Michael, writer and founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and I had just emailed each other a couple months before because, as all the beautiful tributes to Michael’s generosity attest to, he had kindly agreed to write a blurb for my upcoming book, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, despite his upcoming eye surgery, asking only that I send my manuscript in large script. I did not realize then how serious his eye condition was, nor to what discovery it would, so sadly, so soon, lead.  

But even before I heard about Michael’s death, Vuong’s novel, a soaring and lyrical tour de force about Little Dog and his family of refugees from Vietnam, had me thinking about the convergence of poetry and prose and what Michael had written to me a few years ago when I asked him to be part of an AWP presentation on the lyric essay.

The essay (and/or memoir), Michael wrote, is the story of one’s thinking, the revelation of consciousness. Except for those essayists who reflexively use poetic elements and   language in their work, these are missing from most of the MFA work I’m seeing—even the very good ones.

 Michael’s words articulated for me what I could feel was missing in some of my MFA students’ creative nonfiction work: that craft of poetry that so often leads to the most beautiful and revelatory memoir-writing.

Reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, even the title resplendent with poetry, I realized how much this novel/memoir/poem that Vuong describes as “grounded in truth but realized by the imagination,” could teach my students about the graces of poetry in creative nonfiction.

“Poets have been there,” Vuong says in his recent profile in Poets and Writers, “and thrived with the sentence and the paragraph.”

First, most simply, I would tell my students, there is the utter beauty of imagery to “show the world new,” a maxim taught about poetry even to children: “The crickets ignited across the low shifting grass around the barn.  Turning to him, I felt their serrated legs through the floor beneath us as I said his name, full and long; I said it so quiet the syllables never survived my mouth. I drew closer, toward the wet salted heat of his cheek.” How do we separate now the pulsing of love from the pulsing of cricket?

Second, the juxtaposition of image with image can sometimes fire into being emotion and thought we can only intuit (and, here, too, because I know I could not help myself from saying, what Miller and Paola in Tell it Slant calls “Gathering the Threads of History,” the beautiful weaving of the personal and public self) :

It was the summer of 2003, which meant Bush had already declared war on Iraq, citing weapons of mass destruction that never materialized, when the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” played on every radio station but especially on PWR 98.6, and you could hear the song from nearly every car on the block if you slept with the windows pen, its beats punctuated by the sound of beer bottles bursting on the basketball court across the street, the crackheads lobbying empties up in the sky, just to see how the streetlights make broken things seem touched by magic. . .

Do you see how the singular world of the self can show itself to be a morass of the incongruent, of the fantastical, the undefinable?

And, third, I would show my students what Vuong teaches us most thoroughly, most beautifully, the use of metaphor– vehicle of that “revelation of consciousness” that Michael understood was most essential, so often missing, from the prose of the essay and the memoir.  On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is awash in metaphor, but here are two small examples among so many.

The bullies on a school bus, finally gone, who have slapped Little Dog into speaking English—“That’s a good little bitch,” they say–Little Dog stares at the flashing shoes his mother bought him, kicking them until they “erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.” End of scene. Metaphor in its singular precision.

And, next, the extended metaphor: hardest, best. Vuong weaves monarch butterflies throughout the story of Little Dog’s mother, wounded refugee from Vietnam: the female monarch butterfly flying south, dispersing eggs, which will burst into future generations of butterflies that will only make the return trip the mother began.

“Even history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division,” Vuong writes, the image of the monarchs culminating in their “fleeing not winter but  the napalm clouds of [the mother’s] childhood in Vietnam . . . like debris that kept blowing, for thousands of miles” so that “you can no longer fathom the explosion they came from, only a family of butterflies floating in clean, cool air, their wings finally, after so many conflagrations, fireproof.”

Sometimes, I think, even in Florida, sitting in a fair breeze gone cold, at the cusp of a canal where manatee wallow, you can find an intersection of truth: grace and grief, poetry and prose conjoined.

“I’m not a journalist,” Vuong says. “I’m an artist.”

Michael Steinberg, writer, friend, mentor, truth-teller to so many, affirmed, in so many ways, once more.