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SunLit Interview: Poet Carol Guerrero-Murphy’s urgency moved her to self-publish

The "existential shock" of the pandemic helped her focus on living with death -- and a sense of loss -- as a constant companion in "Bright Path, Dark River" 

Carol Guerrero-Murphy has a significant history of publishing while teaching creative writing from preschool through graduate levels in southern Colorado. She is semi-retired, writing and teaching in the Adams State Prison College Program and is affiliate faculty in the Western Colorado University MFA creative writing program. She is a professor emerita from Adams State University and has a doctorate from the University of Denver in English/Creative Writing.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

I had just had a book published when the pandemic shut down plans for book launches, workshops, and readings.  So, I decided to create another book, with a sense of urgency based on the topic.

I guess I can synopsize that it is about the deaths of family (including animals) and meditations on death in general that the pandemic aroused in me.  Also, the timing: I felt how fragile our lives are, and what an elder I’ve become. I wanted to just get it done, so I figured out how to self-publish and built the whole book myself, including taking the cover photo of a moonlit night standing out on rocks in the Platte River at Nighthawk.  

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

It felt then like a legacy project, but now I am on to new projects. I am grateful that self-published books can now be recognized through award processes that help others to verify their value.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it? 

Because this is a book of poetry, it is hard to explain how it fits, but it does contain several of the themes threaded through the book.  I also selected it because it contains a sense of humor (or at least slightly amusing images) within the topic of death.  

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write the book? 

Although most of these poems were written over several years,  suddenly I could see that I had a whole, real “book” instead of a collection of poems. The existential shock of the pandemic helped me see and focus the collection on poems that explore how we live knowing death, or loss, is our constant companion. 

After someone close to us dies, we keep searching for them and seeing them.  My dad has been dead 12 years and sometimes he appears pumping gas or grocery shopping. Both my parents, it seemed to me, became a pair of ravens. They appeared in dreams.  They appeared as dolphins. They appeared in fairy tales driving off a cliff. All this entered the poems. 

Maybe grief is a kind of madness, but as a poet, I believe it opens us up fully to mystery and we experience metaphor fully.  I also was able to finish the title poem, which I had been messing with for years, when I went back to the South Platte riverbank of the memory and saw it fresh.  The continuity of Place is as important as loss. 

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?  

I’ll make this question a little different.  I found several poems in my piles that fit unexpectedly into this book, such as several horse poems.  The amount of humor surprises me. I kept asking myself (and others) if it is somehow wrong that I grieve and honor the death of a horse or of spawning salmon as much as my mother and father. The answer is “no.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

Learning the formatting technology was tough and completely absorbing, a perfect project for lockdown.  Approaching 70, I am committed to learning new things including technology, and this process met the goal. Although I doubted my process or the poetry itself sometimes, I was surprised by how determined I was to complete the project.

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them? 

Readers have told me about having strong emotions.  People do write to me about tears.  “I think the crying was a release for living in these strange times.” “My daughters and I read the book together and cried together over one night.”  “Death is a difficult subject to explore and contemplate to the degree you have done here. But I find your words to be more of a celebration than about death.” 

People write that the book, which is so much about my mother and father’s passing, and my old horse, and childhood passing, reminds them of their own mothers, fathers, old animals. I was most touched by a reader who told me the poems made the dark feel more comforting, and the messages from readers who are re-reading it: “I have my favorites, that I go to over and over—some feel like old friends now.” 

I know a reader who reads it once a week, finding it cathartic, heartbreaking, and comforting, he tells me. When I decided to finish and publish the book,  I believed the poems would connect with many people, and I am so glad they have been able to.  Because I direct-mailed the book to lots of folks, many wrote to me about their experience reading it, so the whole process was terrific. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

Generally, I do need a stretch of quiet and too often, I let non-writing/teaching work and tasks take precedence, but if I can get down some notes, which I do in a sporadic notebook, I can often develop a poem when the open time comes.  Or I write when I need to show up with something.  

And when I decide I have a project, such as this book, revising and writing become the same thing, and I become pretty obsessed. I stare, read, pace, print out, spread paper around, sort on the computer, revise endlessly, tinker, pace, re-order.  Recursive. 

Everything else, all other demands, became largely irrelevant then. It’s a lovely space to spend time in, that state of obsession. The pandemic gave me time to do this. It is usually too easy to get caught up in other activities. I sent the manuscript to numbers of trusted readers who made suggestions and caught edits.  I’m grateful to a lot of people for the quality of this book.

Given the many observations on death in your collection, do you believe there’s an afterlife?

I like to speculate and I have no problem with not knowing.  Unknowing leaves us open to wonder.  Some of these poems recount things my parents said when they passed, or things I saw, but I still find everything highly speculative.  And poetic.  

Tell us about your next project. 

I have a couple:  I am writing poems that have fairy tale elements, such as “When My Father Was A Bear,” and many, many poems involving animals.  I have been discussing and probing ideas about anthropomorphism, and I’ve decided we should not let this concern limit our understanding. It’s not the same as projection or being andro-centric; for me, it means recognizing that all life has personhood.