10 Questions for Lisa Fay Coutley
- By Franchesca Viaud
When Buddha said silence is an empty
space & space is the home of the awakened
mind, he hadn't yet crossed his legs
& held his spine both firm & calm
in the smoke-filled avocado kitchen
of my small girlhood.
—from "Cuffing Season" by Lisa Fay Coutley, Volume 64, Issue 2 (Summer 2023)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first poem that comes to mind is not the first ever but the first I revised for many hours in that way I came to know as really working a piece. A few years before that, the dysfunction of my life brought me to the page, which led me to return to school as a young, single mother, and this poem, “Small Girl,” which appeared in my first chapbook, Back-Talk, was born of a “Snapshot” class assignment given by my mentor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She knew how hard I’d worked the poem and made a point to praise it in class, recognizing the time and effort I’d put into its images and linebreaks. In many ways, that validated my writing while confirming my primary genre, since I was still trying to determine what kind of a writer I was, and it gave me permission to write about trauma. When I look at it now, it’s easy to see how this poem opened the way for every other lyric narrative poem I would write exploring my childhood inside domestic violence, which have been many, particularly in my first collection, Errata, and it’s also informed my essays.
Poems are a place for me to lie—even when I’m writing a poem rooted in autobiography, I push things into fictional territory for pain’s sake—though I turn to CNF to explore truth, which isn’t to say reality but to dig toward the emotional core of a memory or a situation. For years I’ve written poems about violence, addiction/alcoholism, trauma, legacies of abuse, but in 2018, I delved into the contents of that initial poem in a way that slowed things down and gave the girl I was a chance to voice her confusion, hurt, love, while exploring the effects of psychological abuse and what it means to grow inside violence sans context. The result is a chapbook of 15 micromemoirs written from the perspective of the girl I was, and that collection, also titled Small Girl, is forthcoming from Harbor Editions in 2024.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Too many to name, but among the earliest were Sylvia Plath, Jack Gilbert, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marie Howe, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Larry Levis. Over the years I’ve taken a great deal of permission from Claudia Emerson, Diane Seuss, Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes, Ilya Kaminsky, and so many others. There are also those whose writing I love for their particular styles, though their influence is less direct—Allison Benis White, Claire Wahmanholm, Rebecca Hazelton, Rachel McKibbens, Muriel Leung, Dana Levin…
What did you want to be when you were young?
When I was 8, I staple bound my first book with a yellow construction paper cover and a picture of a candle in a window and gave it to my mother with the claim that I wanted to be a famous author someday. Then my parents divorced, life shifted in too many ways, and I forgot that want until I was that young, single mother I noted above. During adolescence I wasn’t trying at life for my own sake, but loving my sons meant trying, at which point I started asking big questions through what were rather embarrassing rhyming couplets, which I look back on now as the most important doors I’ve ever passed through. And that drive really has been foundational. Goodness, I’m so very in the middle of my life, ha.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Solitude, loneliness, addiction, and all the ways in which a human might try to silence desire. Also, I suppose most poets have certain lines they carry around like keys they try in a variety of locks until they find the fit. I’ve come to drag with me a handful of lines that I repeat with intention across pieces, books, and genres, pointing certain traumas and desires toward one another. In this case, “a lullaby’s muted wish” reaches across poems and essays to that faux hope for the quiet room, the stillness of contentment and peace, given that the trauma survivor I’ve been/am actually feels more at home inside violence and upheaval.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Absolutely. The shorelines of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior—the former where my childhood home was set, which was an idyllic landscape countering the violent interior of family, and the latter where I would see myself inside the extremes of waves that eat people one day and settle themselves glass-flat the next. I never feel more simultaneously alive and calm than I do sitting next to Lake Superior, where I’m most at home inside my body.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process? Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Historically, I’ve needed quiet in my home office, though I’m in a period of change just now, so I’m challenging myself to write in a large drawing journal in places that aren’t so easy and predictable. It’s uncomfortable because it calls to my adolescence, so I know it’s the right place for me to explore at this point, in midlife, which is really only different by time and insight (or so one hopes).
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’d love to have the skill to explore the nuances of imagery through visual art—drawing and painting specifically—though I also love music and dance, and wish I’d been brave enough to pursue theatre, which I guess means I’d aspire to be the creative hat trick.
What are you working on currently?
I have three collections coming out in 2024—HOST, my third collection of poetry, the CNF chapbook, Small Girl, and a grief anthology, In the Tempered Dark: Contemporary Poets Transcending Elegy—so I hesitate to say I’m working on anything (beyond promotion and production), but I’m trying to finish my full collection of essays and also seem to have some new poems creeping in, though I’m not entirely sure what they want just yet. So right now I’m mostly trying to dig and to listen. In fact, I’ve never been in a place where I didn’t feel the urgency of needing to produce something new, so it’s a nice, breathable time, where I hope to be surprised by what comes next.
What are you reading right now?
I’m revisiting Mary Ruefle’s My Private Property, which is so great, while reading a novel gifted to me by a good friend whose suggestions are always spot on—I Who Have Never Known Men, by Jacqueline Harpman.
LISA FAY COUTLEY’s collections include: tether (Black Lawrence Press), Errata (Southern Illinois University), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition, In the Carnival of Breathing (BLP), winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, Small Girl: Micromemoirs (Harbor Editions), and the anthology, In the Tempered Dark: Contemporary Poets Transcending Elegy (BLP). She is an NEA Fellow, Associate Professor of Poetry & CNF in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and Chapbook Series Editor at Black Lawrence Press.