Interview with Carol Guess, Author of F IN
Interview by Kristina Marie Darling
Tell me about your recent Noctuary Press book, F IN. What are three things you'd like potential readers to know about the collection?
1. I live on the cusp of the Skagit Valley, in western Washington state. From November to March the fields are filled with migrating swans. They're threatened by habitat loss, but also by spent lead shot, which they ingest along with grit from the bottom of ponds.
2. There's a tradition of bars and restaurants called The Silent Wife; their logo is always a headless woman.
3. F IN had a peculiar trajectory; it was originally a novella titled Willful Machine, slated for publication in England. I'd signed the contract and picked out the cover. But while the book was being copy edited, I realized that it wasn't my best work. I'd foolishly set out to write a book with mainstream appeal. It was a murder mystery, complete with dead girl; the twist was that the dead girl's twin sister, Carson, was searching for the man who killed her sister, Claire. Carson was queer, and thought she knew who'd done it, but the book's trajectory was meant to suggest an alternate reading: that Carson never had a twin. She was a ghost or a liar, or maybe what had happened to her was too hard to describe by speaking of herself, so she invented someone else: a sister. I wanted all of these readings to exist simultaneously, but the copy editor was totally annoyed and tried to pin down a conventional narrative. And I just couldn't do it. I'm not interested in plot, in single strands of story moving toward an inevitable ending. Also, I found it impossible to write about a dead girl without sexualizing the circumstances of her death, which included rape. It was like the murder mystery plot just poisoned my consciousness and suddenly I sounded like a sexist creep, writing a book about a dead girl, the kind of book I hate to read and get mad at people for writing. I just had this profound experience of disappointment in myself. So I pulled the book a few weeks before it was supposed to be published. They had paid me a small advance and I paid them back. And one night in frustration I just whited out the whole manuscript on my computer. Turned all the font white and made it disappear. From there I got the idea to bring back a few words at a time. I wanted to salvage something, even just a few words. I thought I might get a poem out of it -- distill the whole manuscript down to a poem, a few lines. I never, ever thought it would become a book. And I'm incredibly grateful to Noctuary Press for taking a chance on this book, these tiny poems, this ghost.
What attracts you to erasure as a literary form? What does erasure make possible within your writing practice?
I'm new to the form; I'd always felt it was the province of visual artists. Some of my friends make erasures using paint and wax and textiles. My first attempts at erasure felt awkward and pretentious. F IN was a text I had to erase; there was an integrity about the process for me. It wasn't easy and it wasn't a way to avoid constructing a narrative. I'd already constructed the narrative, but I knew that it would only be beautiful if I unraveled it.
Do you see erasure as a destructive act? Or is it a form of collaboration, between different writers, voices, and literary texts?
Definitely collaboration! It's not destructive unless it's intended to silence someone or distort the significance of a text.
I'm intrigued by the idea of self-erasure, particularly the ways in which it allows past self and present self to inhabit the same rhetorical space. Would you consider F IN to be a collaboration between parts of the self, or between parts of consciousness?
Absolutely. F IN is a radical revision of Willful Machine, a collaboration between the writer I was when I began the novella and the writer I am today. It's also an expression of anger at myself -- at the moment I started a writing project that was out of integrity with the kind of art I want to create. I slipped; I had a moment where I tried my hand at something trashy; and just before I let it appear in the world I pulled back and erased it. From there I could stand, as at a canvas, and see specks of beauty. Bringing that beauty to the surface was a kind of forgiveness. It also seems to be allowing readers to respond to the text with a lot of freedom; I've loved the creativity of the reviews, and the alternative readings reviewers have brought to the text.
How did you decide what text was erased and what was preserved? Was it an intuitive process, or did you use a procedure, selectively removing certain elements from the original text?
It took me a really long time. I'd read a page of the original text, looking for flashes of beautiful language or unusual combinations of words. I tried to see words individually, and string them together, as an artist works with color.
What are you currently working on? What do readers have to look forward to?
I'm currently collaborating on a new short story collection with Elizabeth Colen, and actively searching for my next poetry project. I'd like to return to writing as a single author on my next book of poetry, but the theme hasn't found me yet.
Who are you reading? What inspires you?
I'm profoundly inspired by Steven Wise and the NonHuman Rights Project. Nonfiction accounts of animals in and out of captivity are my central focus right now. Ideally this will inspire literary production as well as activism. I'm also spending a lot of time with visual art and film. I go through periods of reading poetry and fiction, and periods of focusing on other art forms or politics. Right now my focus is political.