An Interview with Lisa Fay Coutley

Coutley_jpegLisa Fay Coutley is an assistant professor of creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry, at Snow College in Utah. She was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (2013), received scholarships to the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, and won an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and books, including CrazyhorseGulf CoastBest of the Net 2013, and Best New Poets 2010. Coutley’s website is www.lisafaycoutley.com. Errata is her first book.

SIU Press intern and SIU MFA-in-poetry candidate Kirk Schlueter interviewed Coutley about her work and her new book.

First off, this is an astonishing book. I absolutely love “Shooting Geese,” the opening poem, and the final image of the speaker breaking the birds’ necks is breathtaking. The poem reminds me (in the best possible way) of Traci Brimhall’s “Aubade in Which the Bats Tried to Warn Me.” Was that poem an influence on “Shooting Geese?” What authors do you think of as the influences present in Errata?

Thanks so much for the kind words. You know, I hadn’t made a connection between Traci’s poem and mine, though I had certainly read Rookery. And who knows what influences our work indirectly? I did, coincidentally, write this poem during a seven-day poem exchange with Traci. On day 4 or 5, I was stumped to the point of wanting to cry, so I did what I often do when I’m stuck—reached for a favorite book—this time Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife. I stopped at “Pitching Horseshoes” and started scanning my life for activities and titles that mimicked her use of the present participle. I thought of my first love (probably because Emerson’s poem is about a first husband) and how I hunted just to spend time with him. I typed “Shooting Geese” at the top of the page, and the poem just spilled out. It had been building for some time, and it came out close to finished. That almost never happens to me. To actually answer your question, though—Claudia Emerson, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marie Howe, Sandra Beasley, John Rybicki, Austin Hummell, and I could go on, but you get the gist.

You have some stark poems about motherhood in this book, whether it’s “Ode to Postpartum” or the speaker physically fighting off her son in “When He Comes at Me,” or the last lines of “On Home”: “All winter long I’ve left / feel-good Post-its on the bathroom mirror, / the espresso maker, the edge of my razor. // Every day I’ve given myself reasons to stay.” What beautiful lines! Yet they convey a real struggle for the speaker as a single mother with two boys. In a book that focuses heavily on mothers, what do you hope readers take away from your poems about motherhood?

I want to challenge common misconceptions about motherhood, so I push mothering into dark, imagined spaces. I’ve tried to blend my own experiences with the saddest struggles I’ve had in the privacy of my mind and lay them bare, because mothering can be very lonely if you feel that you’re not living up to some societal standard. If anything, I’d hope these poems might let mothers forgive themselves for being human and for having a range of emotions about what is the most difficult job some of us will ever have. And maybe to evoke a bit of compassion from the rest.

One of the things I love about this book is how the different types of poems bleed together, be they poems about loss, love, violence, or addiction. Why did you decide to have poems that on the surface seem like they should have nothing in common? What’s the effect you hope to achieve?

Well, from what I know of grief, it has no manners—shows up totally unexpected at inappropriate times—and makes us do crazy things, just as love does. Sometimes love begets violence begets addiction begets loss. Or some other variation therein. So the poems and the collection as a whole, I suppose, attempt to enact that tangling of threads.

Coutley

This is a book with few straight narrative poems; most of them are gorgeous lyrics, but when read all together, narrative threads definitely emerge. When you were putting together the manuscript, how much time did you spend setting up the various narratives and thinking about how different poems connected to one another? Could you maybe talk a little about why you organized the book the way you did?

Too much? I feel like I spent more time arranging the poems than composing them, which is only a slight exaggeration. I struggled to know what order readers would need to experience the evolution of losses. I was fortunate to have some very astute readers, and one in particular, Sandra Beasley, told me that I needed to let readers see the stone (the major loss) drop early in the book so they’d understand the ripples throughout later sections. Beyond that, in the same way that I use natural landscapes and tropes from other academic disciplines to convey emotional tensions in individual poems, the speaker’s external journey parallels and counters her internal journey.

Throughout the book, grief is presented and explored mostly through muted, surreal images. Real-world images, such as the speaker spreading the mother’s ash at the end of “Ash over Utah” or the father holding the mother’s head underwater in “Researchers Find Mice Pass On Trauma to Subsequent Generations,” are relatively rare. Why the choice to explore grief in this way?

I think time can allow us to view some trauma with clarity and to organize grief, but many of the poems in Errata present situations that are strange to the point of indescribability or that take place in early stages of grief. For me, little is more surreal than fresh grief; therefore so is my rendering.

There’s a moment in “Her Father Says She Worries Too Much” where one of the speaker’s sons appears to have difficulty swallowing, much like the speaker in “Researchers Find Mice Pass On Trauma to Subsequent Generations,” implying the destructive effect of trauma is still present in the speaker’s family two generations onward. How do you approach writing about trauma?

I want my trauma raw and honest, so that’s how I try to approach it. Honestly, I hadn’t noticed that implication, though I’m pleased by it and not at all surprised. “Her Father” was written maybe six years before “Researchers Find,” but certain fears settle in and become part of the landscape. I’m glad you pointed out that connection. Thanks for giving the book such a close reading.


These poems are so full of beautiful unexpected moments and images that I have to ask: What’s your writing process like? How do poems like (to take just two breathtaking examples) “Self-Portrait as Mountains Surrounding a Dry Lakebed” or “In Which Dorothy Appears” come into being?

Again, thank you. I become obsessed with an image, concept, or language and keep picking until I can see inside. “In Which Dorothy Appears” is one of the few poems I wrote the year after my mother died, which makes it one of the oldest poems in the book. I moved from Wisconsin to Michigan a few months after her death, and one morning I walked into my office and saw the tree outside my window had, overnight, turned redder than any tree I had ever seen. It haunted me as much as the black plastic box (which the funeral home had given me) that held her cremains. “Self-Portrait as Mountains Surrounding a Dry Lakebed,” like the other portraits in the book, is built from facts about a landmass or from the language of a particular discipline. I like to pluck conceits from various sources—often from the sciences or seemingly more sterile or less emotional materials such as manuals on natural disasters or aviation—so reading widely has become a part of the process by which I search for relevant metaphors, not to mention it’s simply interesting and educational.

Though the topics many of the poems cover can be bleak, there’s an inexorable sense of hope and purpose present throughout. How do you engage with some pretty heavy, even depressing, material and still imbue the poems with hope?

I’ve said it elsewhere, but to write is to tend my desire to keep going. The act of writing—in and of itself—is a hopeful act, especially when a writer is attempting to make genuine discoveries.

This is a completely unfair question, but after reading Errata, I need more Lisa Fay Coutley poems. Have you started thinking at all about what’s next for you poetry-wise?

It’s not at all unfair. I’m flattered. I am in the process of polishing my second collection, which is a departure from Errata in both content and form. The new poems are as interested in silence as they are sound. I’m exploring bodies through bodiless (often cosmic) elements; examining artifice, copies, language, and repetition through various imperfect personae; and attempting to create distance in order to gain proximity and perspective through a central dialogue that takes place between an astronaut and an earthbound speaker. The poems breathe more and say less, if that makes sense.

 

Errata is now available from Southern Illinois University Press.