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'The strange spinning that is...grief': An interview with Lisa Fay Coutley

The Prairie Schooner Book Prize is now open! In honor of the 2016 Book Prize season, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson will interview authors about the process of constructing a manuscript and bringing it to publication. This week, Katie interviews poet and Prairie Schooner contributor Lisa Fay Coutley about confessional poetry, the public, collective joy of hearing you've won a book prize in an airport, and about her book Errata, which won the Crab Orchard Series Open Competition in 2014.

How many books have you published, and where?

My first full-length collection, Errata, was selected by Adrienne Su as a winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award and was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2015. I’ve also published two chapbooks—In the Carnival of Breathing (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, and Back-Talk (Articles Press, 2010), winner of the Rooms Chapbook Contest.

Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?

Arranging the collection troubled me for a painfully long time. The book conveys a great deal of grief and many losses but centers on one, main death (the speaker’s mother), which I was burying deep in the book (so deep that some readers didn’t even know—after a complete reading—that she’d died) because I was afraid of rendering that loss in a way that felt sentimental or precious. A very astute reader made it clear that I needed to frontload the book with that loss in order to let readers understand the reverberations of grief throughout the book. Once I constructed around that loss and arranged into (rather than away from) it, the pieces slipped into place.

There is also a physical relocation—from Great Lakes to high desert—that runs parallel to the internal struggles, and the terrain often conveys the emotional tensions. The book resists tidy resolution, so it’s fitting that some of the final poems demonstrate tenacity via desert plants and animals—beings that thrive only by growing spines or holding poison.

How do you test for sentimentality in your own work? (Full disclosure: I am going to try to steal whatever method you tell me about.)

Sentimentality isn’t necessarily a crime of gushing emotion but of having only one perspective on something. I can tell that I’m veering toward sentimentality if I’m struggling to find the best words yet refusing to abandon truth or memory. Or if I glom on to lovely language or a certain phrase and strong-arm it to thrive, that’s a warning sign. Submitting to the poem rather than attempting to wrangle it is my greatest, ongoing—and favorite—challenge.

Shelving a poem can feel like giving up, but often that’s what I have to do, trusting that eventually that line or image I love so much will find its way into the right poem or reveal what it will in time. Sometimes it takes a decade, which is a serious exercise in patience for me because I want all of the answers yesterday. That said, since I typically try to preempt sentiment, I almost always lean toward obscurity (such as I did in arranging Errata), which is a similar sort of balancing act born of the same concern. The best way to test that is to send the draft to two readers who I trust and to see where their feedback aligns with the instincts I was likely trying to ignore.  

In regards to ordering, you’re essentially describing a kind of organic internal logic that arose out of your reader’s clear-eyed observation. That seems like a great gift, and difficult for a writer to see in her own work, right? Especially, perhaps, for a first book. How much of a relief was it to see the book in that way? Did you realize that you had to write different poems? (Also, what a GREAT reader--)

Now that I’m struggling to finalize the order of the second book, I realize that arrangement is simply difficult for me, though Errata was particularly challenging (personal content, first full-length book). It’s definitely a gift when someone can unveil things for you. I think I knew the central loss needed to be clearer and/or at the forefront in Errata, but I needed permission. I was afraid to border on preciousness, like I said, but I also worried that revealing too much would seem self-pitying. It was a relief to know that a writer who I admired thought it was not just okay but necessary to make readers experience the loss clearly and early in order to carry it with them through subsequent hardships in the same way that the speaker does. I’m embarrassed by the obviousness of it now, but I was too close to (or too afraid of?) the book.

Given the confused readings of the earlier manuscript, I added two poems that clarified the mother’s death, taking permission from Claudia Emerson who told me that it’s okay to write surreal and complex grief poems so long as I give readers one line or image that grounds them. The first section still skirts concrete details, but I’ve given readers what I think is enough to place them in the strange spinning that is complicated grief.

How did you decide which stories or poems to include in the collection?

Like most poets, I circle certain obsessions, writing versions of the same poem until I’ve uncovered what I set out to find. Some obsessions require several poems that explore the same question or situation from various angles. Errata explores addiction, dysfunction, and loss that’s rooted in autobiography and pushed into dark, fictional territory, which made it easier to see which poems could belong—if they felt of the same vein or they complemented a certain trope through difference—but it took time to be sure that the book was populated with the strongest versions of those poems. I kept writing until stronger pieces bumped weaker ones and my harshest internal editor felt as sure as she could that I wouldn’t look back years later and cringe in horror at the inclusions.

How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?

I submitted on a rolling basis to presses that were publishing books I admire, focusing mostly on first book prizes because I felt that’s where the book would be most competitive.

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

Wait. Keep honing before sending out the manuscript to each contest more than once. Instead, use your money to travel, gathering fodder for better poems. Ask fewer people for their thoughts, and trust your gut. Worry less about what it means to be without a full-length book.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I was waiting to deplane from the last leg of a flight home post-AWP. It was 10pm, and I still had a two-hour drive home in well-below freezing weather. I was hunching in row 110 (or all-but-in-the-bathroom), turned on my phone, and saw a voicemail from a Carbondale, IL phone number. I got a little excited and had to resist shouting out “JON TRIBBLE CALLED ME!” as I listened to his message. After several minutes of stupid smiling and squirming I headed to the bathroom to splash water on my face and attempt to compose myself before calling him back. I remember very little of what Jon said because I was laughing and crying and laughing and watching this young guy watch me, and he was smiling in this really fabulous way. When I hung up, he said, “I have no idea what just happened in your life, but I’m so glad I was here to see it.” Some people wait for a perfect marriage proposal; I was waiting for a perfect book proposal, and it really was the best moment ever.

Oh my god, that’s amazing. I’m sorry you were in an airport, but I love that you got to share it with that dude.

Don’t be sorry. How often does something fabulous happen to you in an airport, really.  

Your full length is inspired, in part, by the confessional work of Sylvia Plath. Can you talk about young women's enduring interest in Sylvia Plath's life and work? What made the confessional feel alive to you as a source of inquiry?

I can’t really speak to anyone else’s interest, but I can see how young women could take permission from Plath’s approach to the experiences of being a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a lover by constructing a self and dropping her inside poems that are intimate, raw, unflinching, and riddled with a grief that points toward a muted hope. The speaker in Errata explores the difficulties of being a daughter and a mother, so it feels natural to use an excerpt from Plath’s “Morning Song,” which is an aubade that simultaneously celebrates new motherhood and mourns a facet of womanhood.

All of that said, I was writing confessional poems before I read Plath. In fact, as embarrassing as it is, early in my undergraduate studies I was working on a suite of poems that I was referring to as my Ariel poems. When I told my writing professor, he looked at me like I was an idiot, but I had never heard of (let alone read) Plath’s Ariel. It was just a fabulous coincidence, though it broke my heart a little, too. I was writing into what nagged at me, as I’m sure Plath did. In writing confessional poetry it was necessary to me to craft experience—to sculpt language and song—and to serve the poem rather than to remain true to some reality.

I’ll always hold up Plath’s poems as models of how to create distance through artifice in order to gain proximity and to make discoveries, which is why I never allow discussion of her life or her tragic death when we discuss her poems in class. Confessional doesn’t mean diary, and I think to conflate her life with her art (or anyone’s) is to diminish her deft hand and ear and eye and the passion that she had for words and is to detract from her contribution to contemporary poetry.  

Plath’s masking and unmasking in those poems is masterful. “Distance through artifice” is such an excellent way to put it. How does artifice allow the writer of the confessional get proximity? What is she drawing nearer to?

I want to say she’s drawing nearer to discovery of some sort—some greater understanding of the self or the human condition—but there’s a part of me that’s calling bullshit on such a tidy answer. At the end of the day, she’s probably drawing nearer to more questions, which just means that she’s feeding her desire to keep moving forward despite resistance.

In my second book, tether, I’m exploring space and distance through various personae. Apollo astronauts said that they thought going to the moon was the most important part of their mission until they saw Earth hanging so small in all that dark, and I wondered how a person might gain that sort of distance from the self. I know that’s not really possible in the same way, yet the trying excites me. Through metaphor, personae, constructions of self, or even by simply using the third or second person to explore aspects of the self, we create small distances in order to gain new perspectives. Writers stay open to unexpected vehicles that can teach us something, even if that something is just how to ask better questions and to never lose the desire to ask no matter the elusiveness of answers.  

Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of Errata (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award, and In the Carnival of Breathing (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition. Her poetry has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for Arts, scholarships from Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize. Recent prose and poetry publications include Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, and Poets & Writers. At present, she is teaching at the University of Oregon as a Visiting Assistant Professor in Poetry Writing.