Interview with 2014 1/2 K Prize Judge: Carol Guess

The August 15 deadline for submissions to the 2014 1/2 K Prize is fast approaching. We know this is equal parts exciting and terrifying, so please try to remember to breathe.

In the meantime, check out this interview with our current 1/2 K Prize judge Carol Guess.


Carol is a professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Western Washington University, but as novelist and poet herself, she understands the plight of the struggling author in a fiercely competitive publishing world. You can find her excellent piece, co-written with Kelly Magee, “With Fox,” in our Winter 2014 issue. She graciously answered a few questions here about what she looks for as a judge and what advice she has for aspiring writers.

You are an author turned judge here. How does your experience on the other side of the table affect the way you look at pieces? What advice would you give to a nervous submitter?

Creating art is about taking risks. That’s the glorious part. The hard part is getting your art in front of an audience, because this involves thinking with a different part of your brain. You have to think like a businessperson, someone with something to sell. Not for money, but for the price of time and attention.

If you don’t spend a little time and effort promoting your work, no one will ever read it. No one is going to swoop down from the sky and send your work out for you. Unless you end up publishing with a big corporate press and have an agent, a publicist, and money behind your book, you will (for the rest of your life) promote your work yourself. This is the reality of being an independent artist. I don’t have an agent and I don’t make money from my writing. Maybe someday this will change, but I’m 46 so I’m not holding my breath. I set aside a little time each week to tend to the business end of writing — it’s a difficult unpaid job, and entirely separate from writing itself. Then I pull myself back to pleasure — the great pleasure of writing, crafting words on the page. That’s the real reward; it has to be. The reward has to be in the process, for me.

It’s also really important to immunize yourself against rejection. You will get rejected over and over again. You can’t avoid this, unless you stop sending out your work. If rejection is really hard for you, you’ll need to find a workaround. I get rejected all the time, but this just means I’m still challenging myself — still writing work that takes risks and sometimes fails; still sending my work to places that might reject me. Publishing is very subjective. The person selecting the work for publication has their own set of biases, their own aesthetic. I will no doubt reject some fantastic pieces of work while judging this contest, just because the content or form of that work didn’t speak to me. Another judge would feel differently. That’s true in every publishing engagement.

2. “I was pink and you were blue,” is a striking opening line to “With Fox.” How important is it to have such an attention-grabbing start, and what would turn you off within the first 100 words of someone’s piece?

In my world, 100 words is a lot of air time. I’m invested in compression. I want the first line to capture my attention. Don’t use the beginning of a piece as a warm up, and don’t use the end of a piece to summarize.

What’s most important to me in any piece, what I’m looking for, is a unique balance between sound and sense. When I teach, I draw a line on the board that I call the “sound/sense continuum.” Every piece falls somewhere on this line, either closer to emphasizing the music of language or closer to narrative. Where does your piece fall on that continuum and why?

In “With Fox,” I wanted to alert the reader right away that this was a story about gender — the worlds of pink and blue we’re all assigned to, or mis-assigned to, at birth. Then very quickly I introduced the idea that, in this instance, the narrator’s lover was transitioning, not from male to female or female to male, but from animal to non-human animal. The color orange represents that shift. I wanted to expand the dialogue on gender and sexuality, encouraging readers to think about species, too. We live in a culture that values some lives more than others. This story is meant to question that, and also invite questions about keeping wild animals in captivity.


3. How do you think your work as not only a lesbian activist but also as someone who supports animal rights has helped you in writing “With Fox,” and what advice can you give authors about using their experiences and beliefs in their own writing?

Great question. I wrote some really lousy poems and stories early on because I was more invested in conveying my political beliefs than I was in making art. That’s an honest mistake and, as mistakes go, not so bad! My challenge over time has been to create art that’s in integrity with my politics and personal code, but also to emphasize beautiful language, imaginative situations, and believable characters.

I like art that has something bold to say, something with powerful meaning behind it. But I’m drawn to beautiful language, and I really like to be surprised by someone’s wild and wicked imagination.

4. You said in an interview, “There are no ‘shoulds’ in my poetry worldview!” How would you describe this “poetry worldview?”

Music and meaning are both so important. I’m bored by narrative if there’s nothing surprising about the language; and I’m even more bored by non sequiturs and abstraction, by work that’s entirely disengaged from content. Those two styles seem too easy. It’s cheating to tell a sloppy story and it’s cheating to pile words on top of each other because they sound pretty to you when you read them to your cat.

But all of this is just me, just what I like. Every judge, editor, publisher will tell you something different. The most important thing is to keep writing, and especially to find pleasure in the process — not in publication, but in the process of making art, right now.

Can I just wrap up by saying how excited I am to judge a contest? I’ve never done this before, and I can’t wait — really can’t wait — to read your work. Yes!