Carol Guess Talks ‘Music and Mystery’

Over a decade ago, I enrolled in a women’s literature course at a community college. That class, and more notably the woman who taught it, changed the direction of my life. A young feminist lesbian, Carol Guess became the motivating force I had lacked.

Compassionate and inspiring, she introduced me to a world where women could be women and queer and proud to be both. Knowing Carol and reading her first novel emboldened me to begin writing and I registered at a university to study Women’s Studies and Creative Writing.

Over the years I have delighted in witnessing her continually trump her own work and watching the publications to her credit mount, always eager to receive her latest work and decipher its many riches and wonders. Carol and her work remain to be an important and supportive influence on my own work and it is a great honor to have had this opportunity to speak with her in-depth about her processes as a writer.

MBC: Being a successful writer of multiple genres, I imagine you enjoy a great deal of freedom and flexibility in choosing what shape an idea will take. What does that process look like for you?

CG: My goal is to let each manuscript shift and change without determining genre in advance. This means my revision process is messy and time-consuming; the bulk of my work, in fact.

'Tinderbox Lawn' by Carol Guess

Take Tinderbox Lawn, for example. I spent three years on that book; initially it was two different manuscripts. First it was a novel, then it morphed into poetic fragments with line breaks. Lately my process involves focusing on the sentence to the exclusion of other units of meaning.

I cut out sentences I like, sentences where sound and meaning coalesce, then determine which other sentences they belong to, and what theme or narrative they convey. Occasionally I’m lucky, and write a complete manuscript start-to-finish.

My forthcoming book, Doll Studies: Forensics, just felt like a gift. I wrote it in four months, and the poems came to me whole and complete. Revising it took months, but it was mostly about ordering the manuscript and refining word choice, not cutting everything into pieces. That kind of coherence is rare for me, so I try not to wait around for it to happen!

MBC: Tell me about your writing process as a poet. When you begin writing poems, do you have an idea in mind for a series or does a theme begin to emerge organically as you write them? What motivates your choice between prose poetry and traditional line verse?

CG: My poems always start as sound. I hear a line or phrase, and follow it as far as I can. Sometimes that’s a complete poem, but more often it’s a sentence that I hang onto and mull over for months. Whether or not I use line breaks isn’t a conscious decision; it happens or it doesn’t.

I’m interested in compression, and in moving the reader very quickly through each piece. I like to leave things mysterious, unfinished, and this lends itself more to prose poetry than lyric poetry or short stories.

The books I’ve been using as models for a while now are Allison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon; Joseph Massey’s Areas of Fog; Richard Siken’s Crush; and (in manuscript; the book isn’t out yet) Shane McCrae’s Mule.

I prefer to write poems that feel linked and lend themselves to working together in book format. Both Love Is A Map I Must Not Set On Fire and Doll Studies: Forensics were written around central themes and characters, almost like novels. But sometimes that doesn’t happen; I get a few poems on a topic, and move on.

This is something I struggle with, because I’ve found that publishers are more interested in linked collections. Usually I try not to think too much about publication; I try to keep the writing process very separate and pure. But that’s one pressure I really feel: the pressure to create a narrative arc with each poetry manuscript.

MBC: Your poetry is an interesting partnership of narrative and surrealist imagery, particularly in your most recent collections. Alternating between life and the fantastic creates incredible linguistic beauty and emotional space in your poetry.

It also produces a great deal of complexity. Are you sometimes concerned with leaving your reader behind or befuddled? What devices do you use to try to avoid this?

CG: I do worry about being understood; I want my readers to stay with me. But I also feel strongly that poetry (more than fiction or nonfiction) is about sound. If I want to make a point, I write an essay. If I want to tell a story, I write fiction.

Poetry is about music and mystery, and to say too much is a greater sin than to leave things enigmatic. To some degree, I’ve felt pressure from lesbian readers to convey things literally, in predictable modes.

I think there’s an unfortunate tendency in contemporary lesbian literature to privilege story over sound, and to equate clarity with political honesty. I think readers are smarter than that, and can enjoy experimental work if they allow themselves to be challenged. Poetry is akin to music, an emotion sketched out using words to suggest something elusive, yet powerful.

In moving toward an experimental aesthetic, both writer and reader need to have faith that the values they believe in will come across in the engagement between written text and reader response.

MBC: For fans of your first two novels, Homeschooling is a long-awaited return for you to the long form. What similarities can be anticipated between Homeschooling and your earlier novels? What would you say are the most startling differences? Switch and Seeing Dell both rested on central themes of sexuality and sexual identity. Are these themes readers can anticipate seeing in Homeschooling?

CG: Homeschooling is the most musical and experimental of my novels. Like Seeing Dell and Switch, it tells a story from multiple perspectives, and focuses on themes of sexuality and sexual identity. But it also explores Christian Fundamentalism, mental illness, and post-9/11 American paranoia.

I began the novel with the aim of examining the friendship between a bohemian artist and a Christian Fundamentalist housewife; I really wanted to try to understand how their connection would evolve. It was great to return to novel writing. Teaching is so all-consuming that I’ve focused mostly on shorter forms. But I hope to write another novel in a few more years.

It’s the most challenging form, for me, and also the most inclusive.

MBC: Finally, the work of lesbian writers is often ignored by larger publishing houses and is sometimes marginalized by the literary world. What advice would you offer other queer writers on this subject?

CG: The advice I’d give to other queer writers is the same advice I’d give to any writer, really. There’s a long list! First of all, work hard and be disciplined about writing. Treat it as an art form, not a hobby.

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and learn to deal with criticism and rejection in a professional way. Don’t focus too much on publishing, and try not to let editors and publishers influence your goals.

It helps to have an honest reader willing to exchange manuscripts, but ultimately, it’s a solitary and very personal process. You need to enjoy being alone; maybe you need to prefer it.

For me, writing has always been a way to justify the amount of solitude I crave.


Carol Guess is the author of three novels, Seeing Dell, Switch, and Homeschooling; a memoir, Gaslight; and three poetry collections, Femme’s Dictionary, Love Is A Map I Must Not Set On Fire, and Tinderbox Lawn. A new prose poetry collection, Doll Studies: Forensics, is forthcoming in 2012 from Black Lawrence Press. She lives with her partner on the Washington coast, where she is Associate Professor of English at Western Washington University.