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“You Can’t Carry that Raft on Your Back Forever”: An Interview with Poet Paulette Guerin

In March 2022, graduate students in the Arkansas Writers Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas met with Professor Paulette Guerin of Harding University to interview her about her debut poetry collection. Wading Through Lethe, recently published by FutureCycle Press, was discussed in depth, including its overall structure, grandmothers, the afterlife, the image, place, hoarding, and specific poems from the collection. With their Advanced Forms and Theory of Poetry professor Mark Spitzer supervising from the sidelines, Janet Uchendu, Kathy M. Bates, Amber Wagoner, Sydney Austin, and Savannah Moix-Rogers appreciatively addressed such conventions as voice, theme, theory, and style, which resulted in the following flash of literary history preserved for posterity. 

Savannah Moix-Rogers: Place is central to the subject matter and poem titles within your collection. Can you tell us more about how observations around place have informed your writing style throughout your career?

Paulette Guerin: Before I knew what I was doing when I was writing poetry, when I was an undergraduate and experimenting with a lot of things, I learned to trust the image. That was the only thing I felt like I knew without a doubt that I could trust: sharing an image in a William Carlos Williams kind of way and putting it out there. I have to watch my sentimentality and my embroidery while embellishing everything. In poetry, I would rather be understated than overstated. I don’t know that I always succeed, but I know I can trust an image because it’s doing its own talking. 

Place can be a way of framing an image. That was probably the second thing I learned: That there’s a shadow box around an image that determines the light cast on it. The way we perceive has a lot to do with what comes through it. This is what modern art tells us: That everything has its own relativity based on the objects around it. By providing the place, there’s a layer there that helps us understand some of the context by telling us how to see the images as well. At a conscious level, some of this was in the works, and all I could really know was that I was working with image, and that I enjoyed writing about place because I trusted that instinct. So there’s a certain amount of consciousness, but also a certain amount of feeling my way forward.

Sydney Austin: Something I was really curious about, especially reading that first section, was did writing this collection change your relationship with Arkansas and the places you grew up? 

PG: Definitely. Home is a hard place to write about for me. There are a lot of things that I still haven’t found the words for when it comes to home, so I’m particularly interested in how one could ever write about what feels unreachable or is still too raw. 

I wrote most of the collection when I was in Gainesville, at the University of Florida, so like a lot of writers it’s easier to write about home when you’re not there or when you have a lot of distance and time and space. This helped me a lot. I don’t have any family left where I grew up in the Ozarks anymore. I hadn’t been back in a long time, so to write those poems was a different experience. 

Janet Uchendu: It seems like Section I is about your early years. Section II seems to be about your college years and young adult life, and then Section III seems to be about a returning to Arkansas and then reflecting on your journey to this point. Was there a specific reason for the three sections?

PG: Yes, absolutely. Some of the narratives aren’t exactly chronological, but for the most part everything in Section I is the Ozark childhood. My grandmother passed away my first semester of college, and that was a time where I just was so ignorant. I didn’t know that you could tell your professors you couldn’t take your finals or ask for an extension. So I actually missed her funeral. It’s a thing that I really regret. She also had Alzheimer’s, and I used that arc to structure a lot of the book. Even though there is a sense of a funeral or a loss at the beginning of the first section, and then there is an actual reference to a funeral in the third section, it’s really not the same funeral. But I thought that as a catalyst it was really important; to bring someone home and reconnect them was part of me telling that story. 

The book is actually dedicated to both my grandmothers who died on the same day five years apart. They were both powerful women. One was a painter, and one was a teacher and a poet who loved Robert Frost. They’re so influential for me, and their identities are fused in lot of the poems, so I do some condensing. Some of the narrative speakers are not me necessarily but are things I witnessed or experienced from the sidelines sometimes or imaginatively, but the arc that you picked up on is very intentional.

Amber Wagoner: Did you always plan to have these sections, or did the content of the poems lend themselves to the sections when you were in the editing stage?

PG: I didn’t anticipate that when I was writing the poems. My master’s thesis was in three sections. I saw it at that point in the compilation process, when I was assembling the poems I’d written for my program and on my own. I was like, “I’m seeing a pattern here.” I ended up keeping it. There were found moments when I doubted it, when I would think, “Nah, no breaks,” but then I went with it. 

Some of the poems we had to write were from very specific prompts that I would never have thought would end up touching on these things. I was also writing poems just on my own. It was kind of a surprise that it worked out that way. I cut some poems from the manuscript that were more about the life I was living as a married person in school. This book ends before there’s any sense of marriage or a domestic life, and my next book has a lot of that. I intentionally took out those poems because I felt like it would be too much for what the narrative was trying to do.

Paulette Guerin; photo courtesy of the author

Kathy M. Bates: From the title of the book, Wading Through Lethe, what resonance were you hoping to relay to the reader through the Greek concept of Lethe? Wading through oblivion? Is this a beacon for transformation?

PG: I really hoped it would be. They are the waters that wipe the memory. My grandmother’s Alzheimer’s played a big part in that, but also, I wanted to set the tone of the Underworld being an important part of the collection from the beginning. When I talk about Orpheus and some of the myths that relate to questions of the afterlife, I wanted that to be more grounded as something always to keep in the background. The idea of salvation and some of the religious ideas of death being used as a means to introduce a child to the need to save your soul is not Greek specifically, but those waters and the idea of the afterlife are really important as a connective thread throughout the manuscript.

KMB: As a continuation of the title and connective threads offering readers something to expect in regards to theme and voice, the opening poem, “Ginkgo,” uses language to introduce possible themes. For example, “After other trees / have metamorphosed,” and then in the last stanza, “the ginkgo waits, / then lets go.” As an introduction for the collection, tell us a little bit about that first poem choice. 

Ever since I heard that the ginkgo loses all its leaves at once, I thought it was a great metaphor for the condensation of experience, how to express the power of autumn in an instant.

PG: Thank you for asking that. I had always believed in this poem. I sent it out to many journals, and it took a while to get published. I really loved that poem for a long time, and some of the ones I believed in the most are the ones that didn’t necessarily get any recognition. But one day at a departmental reading, I opened with it. One of my colleagues snapped her fingers in front of the whole group and got excited about this poem. So someone connected with me on this thing, and I began to see how important the poem was to the whole manuscript.

Ever since I heard that the ginkgo loses all its leaves at once, I thought it was a great metaphor for the condensation of experience, how to express the power of autumn in an instant. I’m interested in transformation and reincarnation, and the questions of how our energy remains, what it means to let go of things, and to do so peacefully with acceptance. The ginkgo achieves that for me.

“Ginkgo” opens the collection, even though youth is usually associated with spring and summer. It works for me, though, since death was explained to me at a young age with the image of leaves in autumn. There was a book from my childhood called Freddy the Leaf, which was written to teach children about death. It’s about a leaf that’s afraid to let go, and there’s a wise leaf on the branch that gives Freddy advice on how to deal with dying. 

AW: “Windy City, 54th Floor” consists of rhyming couplets, which stood out to me, since the majority of poems in Wading Through Lethe don’t rhyme. Was there any particular reason that “Windy City” rhymes or was it just experimentation? 

PG: That was a workshop prompt, and we were all given the same end words. I can’t remember which poem it was from, but I probably still have the prompt, and the prompt would have told us. A lot of the lines were cut. The rhyming couplets I kept, but the poem was much longer, and some of the words have changed because of different incarnations. 

Part of the prompt was to write about a place you had never been. I feel like poems that are complete fabrications are sometimes actually truer. I’ve been on short film sets, and you realize something has to be fake on set to look real when it’s on film. It’s like stage makeup. If you were up close to a person not under the stage lights, they would look bizarre, but under the lights, the makeup is appropriate. A poem might say something truer because I don’t have to exactly follow an experience. For example, I’ve never been able to write about a specific breakup, but in a new setting, I’m able to put the feelings into that container—with someone else’s end rhymes, no less!—and still get the catharsis I need from the poem.

SMR: Tell us about your approach to form, especially as it relates to pacing and readerly experience. Are we to read “Daffodil,” a six-line, tightly constructed poem, and “Hurricane Party, East Laville Hall,” a six-stanza poem of great detail, differently in terms of speed and  flow? And how do you go about weaving differently formed poems into a cohesive collection?

PG: In both poems I was experimenting with how things would look on the page and be interesting for the eye, as well as how best to break up the text for maximum effect. 

“Daffodil” was actually meant to be a little more interesting visually. When I originally wrote it down, it was very fluid, with lines all over the page. However, it was published by Cellpoems, which is a journal that sends poetry to subscribers as a text message. They used slashes to denote line breaks. Then, when I submitted the manuscript to FutureCyle Press, the manuscript had to be formatted to their specifications—I assume for ease in formatting the Kindle edition. I was actually okay with making the changes because I had already accepted the poem’s form as fluid. 

In “Hurricane Party” I was experimenting with much longer lines, and I also wanted to convey movement, so I indented some of the lines. But I struggled with whether to include it in the manuscript. Eventually I kept it and put it at the beginning of Section II because I wanted to signal that childhood was over and the college years had begun. 

But just in general in terms of forms, that’s a revision technique I often turn to. If I’m really not sure about a poem, if it’s not coming together, or if I’m not really sure where it’s going, I might put it in a form. I might challenge myself to make it a sonnet or a pantoum or a sestina. Once I’ve generated some more material around it, I then take it out of the form, and then I see what happens. Some of the poems may have residual forms because of that.

KMB:  There’s a recurrence of color throughout the pieces. How is color in use in correlation to theme? 

PG: I thought about color when I was trying to decide on the cover. So I read through the manuscript again just for color, noting all the colors to try to find a pattern to see what the cover needed to be. There are earth tones in the manuscript: There’s burnt colors and yellows and also green. There’s something earthy going on there. I knew I wanted to collaborate with an artist or photographer, which the press was fine with. I felt like there was an opportunity there. I submitted a photograph that a photographer friend had taken of a ginkgo leaf, and then I realized just how much the ginkgo leaf was a guiding light for me. FutureCycle Press provided a few other mockups of a cover, one with cicadas and lots of earth tones. However, ultimately we all liked the ginkgo, even though the image was starker. 

JU: When did you know that writing was a part of your life? 

Writing became a way of coping with my need to preserve and to come to terms with the inevitable letting-go.

PG: Before I knew that I was a writer, my first impulse was to save everything. I was a kid that collected stuffed animals and rocks and shells and junk. I was a little mini-hoarder. I wanted everything to be named. All my animals had names and dispositions and peculiarities. I didn’t want anything to be lost, so it began as almost a tangible thing, but at some point I felt like stories needed to be recorded. 

There were times when I was interested in family history, or art history, or just history in general and art. I recognized that some people and some places and music, especially, was a place to record important moments. Before I knew that I had the power to preserve something with words, I recognized the power when I experienced what others had written. Writing became a way of coping with my need to preserve and to come to terms with the inevitable letting-go. Because things don’t last, the fewer things you have, the greater the meaning they have, so you dilute meaning by having so many of one thing. 

Synecdoche is a form I really love: The idea that one thing can stand for a whole. When my grandmother died, and she had all these art supplies, I wanted all the magazine clippings and everything. But now, through the years, I’ve realized that I only need a few of these things, and they’re like a well; they look small but they go deep. 

SA: What poems didn’t make it into the collection and why? 

PG: There’s a poem that has actually been picked up by a journal on Ozark studies, “Night Out at Cadron Creek Catfish House.” It would’ve been a good childhood poem, and I thought about adding it to the collection, and it’s going to be in an anthology, but at some point I was like, I think these are the ones. 

Sometimes when poems were done I would feel a little bit dramatic about it—like “Oh, it’s done.” But in a way, that was sad. I wanted it to keep evolving or keep growing. When my chapbook came out and those poems were published, I was a little freaked out—like these poems are relics now, they aren’t living and breathing, they’re fossilized. Then I realized poems are like anything else. They’re like the raft that gets you across the river, and you can’t carry the raft on your back forever. You’ve gotta put it down and cross that next river and write that next poem. 

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Paulette Guerin teaches various courses in writing and literature in the English Department of Harding University. Her poetry has appeared in EpiphanyConcho River Review, The Tishman Review, Contemporary Verse 2, and she also has a chapbook entitled Polishing Silver. Wading Through Lethe is available for purchase through online bookstores, or a signed copy can be ordered directly from pauletteguerin.com.

Wading Through Lethe

by Paulette Guerin

FutureCycle Press $20 (shipped)

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Janet Uchendu, Kathy M. Bates, Amber Wagoner, Sydney Austin, and Savannah Moix-Rogers are currently pursuing MFA degrees in Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas.

I'm a fiction and CNF writer, an editor, and a blogger. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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