Carol Guess on Being a Poet Masquerading as a Fiction Writer in “Sleep Tight Satellite” [INTERVIEW]

Carol Guess is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, including Doll Studies: Forensics and Tinderbox Lawn. Forthcoming books include a short story collection, Sleep Tight Satellite (Tupelo Press), and a hybrid poetry collection, Infodemic (Black Lawrence Press). A frequent collaborator, she writes across genres and illuminates historically marginalized material. In 2014 she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement by Columbia University. She is Professor of English at Western Washington University, where she teaches Queer Literature and Creative Writing. Below are excerpts from the interview with James Morehead on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: I was sent an advance copy of “Sleep Tight Satellite” by Tupelo Press and since this podcast is anchored on poetry I wasn’t sure what to expect because at a glance the book appears to be prose. But then I started reading, the book opens with “Mock City”, and I was immediately drawn in and hooked, with lines such as:

“The view from your office window is an advertisement shaped like a suitcase, seams leaking smoke spelling Report Unattended Luggage!

and

'"You know it's over when your girlfriend gives you back your gun safe."

I don't laugh and then we're sleeping. Your gun is in the safe, the safe is in the closet, the closet is in the bedroom, the bedroom is in my house.'

The style of writing is immediately set, the narrative pace, the strangeness. What was your approach for deciding how to open this book?

Carol Guess: “I originally tried to turn the first story, ‘Mock City,’ into a novel. For me, as a poet masquerading as a fiction writer, the length and continuity of the novel form are difficult. But I knew that this story set the tone, capturing a feeling of fear—almost paranoia. It’s a justifiable paranoia, given that we’re living in an America always shadowed by gun violence. I wanted that to be the first thing the reader had to grapple with. So it was always going to be the beginning.”

James: “Sleep Tight Satellite” isn’t entirely prose poetry and isn’t a collection of traditional short stories. I’d consider “Epistemology” to be poetry, “Foxes: A Play in One Act” is exactly that – a one act play, “The Lesbians Who Did Everything Right” is closest to the form of a short story.  The back cover classifies the book as hybrid fiction; what was your approach to choosing forms when writing this book?

Carol: “Those are great questions. The term ‘hybrid’ is often used as an umbrella term to describe anything that doesn’t fit squarely into one category. In that sense, yes, it’s hybrid fiction. I’m not writing in lines; they aren’t annotated poems. But you’re exactly right— ‘Epistemology’ is really a poem. Some pieces in this collection were originally part of a failed poetry collection that I dismantled and repurposed. ‘Foxes’ was always intended to be a play, and ‘The Lesbians Who Did Everything Right’ was always conceived as a story. So, ‘hybrid’ can refer to either individual pieces crossing genre lines, or the collection as a whole.”

James: The vignettes you’ve crafted in this book are in many ways connected, themes of the arcs in a relationship, the backdrop of the pandemic quarantine, and isolation. Yet the individual pieces in many cases have been published individually and stand on their own, like a traditional collection of poetry or short stories. When crafting the book how did you approach revisiting and adapting pieces to work in the context of a book? 

Carol: “Well, it’s funny because many of the pieces were conceived as interconnected from the start. I envisioned this community of characters who are definitely not me or my friends, but their lives resemble my chosen family in Seattle. Sometimes, after writing a story, I’d think about a minor character and wonder what their story was, then I’d branch off from there. They sort of wrote themselves in that way. There were some pieces, like ‘Foxes,’ that I added to the collection after it was picked up, because they were their own thing but fit well thematically. And there were also a couple of pieces that were really poems, but I included them because they fit the themes.”

James: “Sleep Tight Satellite” employs sharp, tight comedic elements and forms. “Alternative Teaching Modalities in Hell” is one example where you write:

"MAGIC (MAC):

While performing magic tricks such as pulling rabbits out of hats and sawing adjuncts in half, tenure-track faculty will invite audience participation in the form of pop quizzes. Students giving wrong answers are invited to disappear in a cloud of smoke." 

How did you approach interleaving humor into this collection, alongside pieces including “Places We Wait for the Names of the Dead” which tackle heavier subject matter?

Carol: “Oh, I love that question. It actually means a lot to me that you noticed the humor and are focusing on it. My approach to humor comes from my family, particularly my father, who I was very close to and who passed away about 15 years ago. He was the funniest person I’ve ever met. His humor was rooted in his experiences growing up in a small town in the Deep South, where he encountered a lot of difficult things. He didn’t shy away from talking about them but always framed them in a kind of ironic humor that retained a sense of humanity.

“Humor can be negative; it can diminish the humanity of the subjects you’re looking at. So I always tried to keep compassion at the forefront. I’m writing about really painful, contemporary topics, but humor is the natural way that I see things.”

James: The arc of relationships is a thread connecting many of the pieces in this collection, the excitement and anticipation of a first meeting, the exhilaration of falling in love, the ache of separation, the pain of breaking-up. In “Sunset Pretends its Heart is On Fire” you write:

“This time the words hit Ben with full force. He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He stood rooted to the floor while Aster looked at her fingernails. Right now they were pink, with white at the tips. Ben thought about her hands, how much he loved to hold them, how much he loved looking at the wedding ring on her finger. How his wedding ring felt like part of his body. He never took it off, not even at the gym.”

What role does your lived experience play in crafting fiction, and given the very personal nature of many of the pieces in this collection how do you approach incorporating your lived experiences into the fiction? 

Carol: “Yeah, another great question. I appreciate how you’ve tied that to the passage you pulled out, which does feel like lived experience because I am divorced. As you were reading those words, I thought, ‘Oh yes, I remember that feeling.’ But it’s funny, and you might find this in your own work, the things that people assume are drawn from my lived experience often aren’t. 

“I’ll take a feeling, like the grief around divorce, and transpose it onto characters like Ben and Aster who have nothing to do with me. Then the experience transmutes. There’s always a core of personal experience, but I aim to create characters distinct enough from me and my family, friends, or partner. I try to create characters who are different enough that their reactions even surprise me, allowing me to take the characters in directions I would never personally go.”

James: I think that’s a goal of poets: to find the core of the emotion and wrap words around it. The words may not necessarily have anything directly to do with your own experience, but the emotion does.

Short stories are incredibly challenging to write well. Alice Munro immediately comes to mind as an expert crafter of short stories. What advice do you have for poets who are thinking of stretching themselves and trying more prosaic forms?

Carol: “It really does come down to that. When I first transitioned from poetry to fiction, I felt obligated to produce a lot of words. I thought that’s what a fiction writer did—just churn out lots of words. But where I feel most comfortable is treating every paragraph like it’s a poem. I take the time that each paragraph needs to be a poem in itself. 

“The goal is for the reader to have an experience almost like reading a whole poetry collection, but within the confines of a single short story. I may not always achieve that, but it’s the aim. So, my advice would be to allow yourself to continue working in a compressed, lyrical form and to be comfortable with that.”

James: In my experience poets are wonderful writers of prose because of how poetry demands attention to every word, phrase, and line. How has writing poetry influenced writing prose? 

Carol: “That’s a question I wouldn’t have thought of. I’ve always considered myself a sound-based poet, someone who doesn’t really focus on narrative but plays with language and more experimental forms. But when I look at my poems, they are narrative. So, I think what I’ve learned is that I don’t know myself as well as a poet as I thought I did. Writing fiction has allowed me to see that narrative bent as a really positive thing.”

James: Yeah, writing a short story or a novel definitely requires some sort of beginning, middle, and end arc, or you’re going to frustrate the reader. Unless, of course, it’s just the first of multiple books in a series. In contrast, poetry has a beginning, middle, and opening, and shouldn’t really have an explicit end. So yes, it does require thinking in a different way. Maybe one day I’ll write short stories. I can’t ever imagine trying to tackle a novel, but who knows?

Carol: “I think you will.”

James: When writing poetry, I usually start by just writing images and phrases, worrying about what the poem will become and its format much later. Listening to interviews with authors of short stories and novels, their approach seems to be much different. There needs to be a plan, a map—extreme cases like “Lord of the Rings” are worked out in advance. So, in writing the longer pieces in your book that are in the form of short stories, what role did spontaneity play and what role did having a plan mapped out in advance play?

Carol: “That’s actually a flaw of mine as a fiction writer; I can’t map anything out. If I try to, the story goes awry, or it gets really boring and dutiful. So, I think I’m always writing in that poetic mode you described, moving from image to image and sound to sound. The characters surprise me, and sometimes I get to the end having no idea what was going to happen.”

James: I’ve read interviews with authors who manage to take that same approach even with a novel, which amazes me, although it probably results in a lot of editing.

Carol: “I’ve tried and I just can’t do it.”

James: In parts of the US and around the world, despite advances in LGBTQ+ rights, governments are enacting legislation in an attempt to curtail education in this area. In your experience as a professor teaching Queer Literature at Western Washington University what have you learned about the mindset behind attempts to silence queer voices, and queer voices would you like to put in the spotlight and encourage people to seek out? 

Carol: “Oh, that’s a fantastic question. Well, let’s see, you’ve actually asked multiple questions and they’re all really important. I believe attempts to oppress, dominate, or do violence against others always come from a place of fear. Education is the key to addressing that fear. So, efforts at censorship, like what we’re seeing with DeSantis in Florida trying to change the curriculum, are the most terrifying thing to me. If people aren’t educated about human differences and complexity, that ignorance can lead to fear, which can snowball into violence.

“As for voices that I’d like to spotlight, I’m planning to teach works by Danez Smith, Natalie Diaz, Richard Siken, and Kelly Weber this fall in my class. I usually choose contemporary writers so my students can follow them on social media. Sometimes students even have the opportunity to hear these authors read in public or to write to them.”

James: I think you’ve highlighted an important point about the value of teaching contemporary writers. When I was in tenth grade and first became interested in poetry, it was more about something I could relate to. But now, students can actually connect with these writers in a real way through social media, which wasn’t possible in the past. I find that idea fascinating. One more question before I turn the mic over to you: What have you learned from students taking classes such as “Queer Literature,” particularly those who may have entered the class without much exposure to queer writers?

Carol: “I’ve learned that a lot of my students know more than I do. When I started teaching this topic 25 years ago, there was a sense that I had something to offer that a lot of students—whether they were queer, straight, or in some kind of wonderful gray area—didn’t know. That’s not the case anymore. Students come into the classroom already knowledgeable. When I start giving a little backdrop on LGBTQ history, they’ll raise their hands to correct me or point out something I’m leaving out.

“I’ve learned that I need to listen to them more. The younger generation is much more knowledgeable about queer history than I ever imagined. They’re also actively changing that history, revolutionizing it. The movements toward transgender rights and a broader understanding of gender have emerged full force in the last decade or two. So, I’m constantly learning from my students and trying to create a space where they can share what they know.”

Listen to the full interview on the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast to hear Carol recite selections from Sleep Tight Satellite.

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