“Longing,” “tenacious,” and “digging” can only begin to describe the writing of Lisa Fay Coutley, star UW-Green Bay alumna and Assistant Professor of Poetry at the University of Nebraska Omaha Writer’s Workshop. Coutley, author of Errata, In the Carnival of Breathing, and Back-Talk found her love for writing here in Green Bay and has since done what these days seems unachievable: become successful as a poet. Coutley’s writing, heavily informed by place, delves into the vulnerable and probes human faults and vices.
UntitledTown blogger Nichole Rued had the pleasure of talking writing with the UW-Green Bay alumna—professor, poet and essayist who “dares her readers to a staring contest and never looks away.”
UntitledTown: To begin, your writing endeavors have taken you all over the US—from Wisconsin and Michigan, to Utah, to Oregon, and now Nebraska. How has place—your physical location, or even longing for a certain place—influenced, changed, or contributed to your writing? Has moving away from and returning to Green Bay influenced your writing?
Lisa Fay Coutley: I grew up in a house that my grandparents built on the bay of Green Bay in 1948, where my dad and his siblings grew up and where my own sons spent a great deal of their lives. I measured my childhood by the rhythm of waves and the clockwork of lilacs and green apples. When I was 11, I stayed up every night that summer to watch the sun rise over UWGB’s library. Place—and particularly proximity to water (preferably a Great Lake)—is everything to me. When I left Green Bay, I moved to the Upper Peninsula and fell in love with Lake Superior. Then to the Salt Lake desert where I tried to love the mountains but never shed the ache for water.
In Errata, the physical landscape often conveys the speaker’s emotional landscape—her longing and tenacity. In the second manuscript I use a great deal of space, flight, and cloud imagery to explore how literal distance allows speakers to gain figurative proximity. After my dad died in 2014, our family home was razed to the ground. In the daylight, when I visit the land now, I struggle to map out our yard, but if I make my way to the dike in the dark I can turn around and walk right to our door. Having and leaving a home (and all that home was) has and will probably always influence my writing.
UT: The topics in your writing are dark, direct, honest, and beautifully bold. Have you experienced any challenges (that you wouldn’t mind sharing) in writing or publishing about hard topics like death, alcoholism, or family conflicts?
LFC: Early on, the challenge I faced was how to render the images of dysfunction/abuse/addiction/loss without venturing into sentimentality. It took me a while to learn how to lie (to omit truths and add fictions) for the sake of making readers feel the desired sadness and darkness. I’d like to say it’s hard to share facts about my family and myself, but mostly it’s not, though I do worry a bit about writing poems about my grown sons. Poetry has always been my way of digging at what’s troubling me about life and the world, so those who I love most are bound to appear on the page. I can only hope they understand my need to share those struggles and discoveries with readers.
UT: From whom do you draw inspiration? Are there particular poets or essayists who you’d consider as influences?
LFC: From anyone brave enough to be vulnerable on the page, though I gravitate toward writers who praise grief by acknowledging ache and tending hope: Jack Gilbert, Larry Levis, Sylvia Plath, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marie Howe, Rita Dove, Emily Dickinson, Rilke, Ovid, Mandelstam…
UT: You’ve published numerous works over the course of your career. Do you have a piece to which you feel particularly close? A favorite “child” so to speak?
LFC: There are a handful of poems in Errata and in the second manuscript that I favor, and I feel very grateful that my essay “Why to Run Racks” came into being, but I think maybe my baby has yet to come.
UT: What about an all-time favorite poem or line of poetry?
LFC: “I say moon is horses in the tempered dark, / because horse is the closest I can get to it.” –Jack Gilbert (Opening lines from “Finding Something”)
UT: Your poems vary quite a bit in terms of form. How do you go about choosing a form for your poetry?
LFC: I try to let the poem find its discovery in early drafts—that is, just to be surprised by what I learn by digging at an idea or sounds—though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t play with lines and stanzas (by intuition or preference) as I’m working. Once I have a sense of what the poem is about I try to revise its structure toward supporting that content.
UT: How does your background in poetry inform your creative nonfiction? What challenges do you see as unique to each genre, if any?
LFC: I write mostly lyric, segmented essays, and the vignettes can feel like prose poems. My obsession with sound and image carries over, and no matter the genre, my challenge is always to find the best ones. Sometimes I play games with myself, limiting segments to a certain number of lines on the page, which makes me edit a bit harder and leads to denser sentences. I have a harder time determining when a poem is finished or effective, where essays feel a bit more natural. I’ve written far fewer essays than I have poems, yet they always come more easily to me—maybe because I’ve turned over the truth so many times in my mind that I’ve revised a great deal before I sit down to write.
UT: Does labelling writing “nonfiction” over “poetry” feel vulnerable? Empowering? How do you choose between what warrants a poem vs. an essay?
LFC: For me, all writing is vulnerable and in that way empowering. I find that genre depends on length and truth. How much focused time and attention will I require to make this discovery? How much am I invested in my own reality and memory? Certainly I find ways to imagine and therefore step beyond the truth in creative nonfiction, but in poetry it’s guaranteed that I’m lying at some point if not entirely.
UT: One could say that you’ve done what currently seems impossible: achieve success as a writer (and as an academic). How did you end up choosing your path? How did you overcome the challenges? Do you have advice for anyone else trying to make it down this path?
LFC: I just kept following my desire to learn and my passion for teaching. Writing changed my life, and I never want to stop digging at questions, even if there are no answers. If someone doesn’t feel this way about writing or learning, I don’t know if I’d tell them to follow this path (at least not the academic path, given how competitive and uncertain it is)…I’ve worked hard and leaned hard on friends and mentors along the way. It’s important to cultivate a good support system and—as it is with most things—to arm yourself with as much information as possible, which means using all available resources. My mentors can tell you that if ever a face appeared in their doorway often to ask questions or talk shop, it was mine. When I think back on my academic career (and most teaching days/nights now), I picture my favorite childhood bookmark with a picture of a kitten hanging from a tree: Hang in there, baby!
Up for a staring contest? Read some of Coutley’s work here.