Growth, Wildness, and ‘80s Jingles: A Conversation


BRANDI GEORGE: We first met at Northern Michigan University. I was getting my M.A. in author2blackwhiteLit, while you were pursuing an M.F.A. in Poetry. I still remember the first poem of yours I encountered, a villanelle titled “Of the Mantras in Your Voice, This Too.” I was blown away by the intensity of the lyricism, the way the syllables are stitched together by grief, how grief is a tide swelling beneath the surface of the poem. I wanted to do that, too. When and how did you find your voice? Were your poems always so musical?

LISA FAY COUTLEY: NMU feels like a lifetime ago now, and that poem, too. That was my favorite writing time, not just because I was surrounded by people like you in such an amazing part of the country, but because I think I was discovering my voice then. Studying with poets who complemented one another had a real impact on me. Austin Hummell urged us to follow sound, which felt natural to me, and Beverly Matherne required immersion in forms, which did not come easily.

“Of the Mantras…” was my first attempt at a villanelle, and while I broke the form, of course (because that’s just me) it asks for musicality and a point of obsession, such as grief. The poem contains so many long vowel sounds—o and e mostly—which was typical of the poems I wrote then. During that time I read my poems aloud so often and through so many drafts that I’m sure those aching vowels simply felt natural to my body, to the human I am, and to the ways in which I’ve experienced the world and a fair amount of loss.

My first love was music. I grew up singing, dancing, and analyzing song lyrics with my dad, though it was all very casual (not the result of any study or formal training) yet became a part of the way I felt about, the way I moved through, and the way I survived the world. As I see it, to “find your voice” means letting yourself be vulnerable on the page—to be yourself. For strangers. For you. It’s hard to let that happen naturally and to know how to balance that with craft. Maybe a poem’s movements (sounds and stresses) are akin to a person’s body language and happen more organically and often complement or betray the things we say. They’re less cerebral, perhaps, than the choices we make in ending and shaping lines, though once those things come together the voice is more apparent and the poems are more crafted yet more genuine, if that makes sense.

Forgive me for going on so long, but all of this brings me to Gog. There’s a great deal of variation in structure or the ways in which you use spacing or indentation from poem to poem, and I wonder if you can talk about the effect such structural diversity has on the collection as a whole and how that contrasts or coincides with the consistency of your own voice.

BG: I really love what you said about how “a poem’s movements (sounds and stresses) are akin to a person’s body language.” This is certainly true for me. Gog was written from a place of rage and intense emotional distress. The forms reflect that, too, and the order of the book reflects the order in which the poems were written. The poems became more formally chaotic as I delved deeper into my past experiences. The section, “Possessed Girls,” is perhaps the most so. When I was thirteen, my parents burnt my writing notebooks, and these poems attempt to recover what was lost. As a result, there’s a lot of white space. That’s the healing power of poetry—it can help to recover what was lost.

The body’s reckoning, the mind’s reckoning, the form’s reckoning—for me, poetry is all of those things at once. The poems contain the girl I was, the lost parts of myself—I believe that. This is all to say that the structural diversity of Gog is a landscape, a space where lost things manifest. My voice is the girl who lives there.

How do you feel about poetry’s healing potential? I know you have said that poetry saved your life—how so?

LFC: John Rybicki—another poet who I met in the U.P.—once told me, “we’re trying to heal ourselves in some ways in each poem,” and I suppose we are, though for some reason I hesitate to use the word healing. When I was a young mother with a toddler, an infant, and a partner who wasn’t right for me, I started staying up while everyone slept, and I’m pretty sure I never thought about what I was doing, writing every night in that brown recliner by one dim light—I just knew that my life felt broken, and writing felt like the way lisafaycoutleythrough it. Looking at it now, I can see that it’d been a long time since I’d been asking questions of my self or about my life or the world (if I ever really had), and that was the point when I realized I needed to change things. I try to make discoveries via language in an attempt to make sense of my life, the world, and myself. I don’t always find answers. What matters is that I keep asking questions. As I’ve said elsewhere—to write is to tend my desire to keep going. All of that said, I prefer growth to healing because persona poems or other poems outside of the confessional, like those in my current manuscript, aren’t necessarily about reckoning with my wounds but about asking other questions.

It’s interesting that you said your “voice is the girl who lives there,” which sounds like a version of you and also a constructed self, which is almost always what we’re dealing with in confessional poems, right? The mother in In the Carnival of Breathing and Errata says and does some things rooted in my life and imagination that I’ve fictionalized, but I wonder if you can say a bit more about how you approach that girl and if you feel that by making a relic of her you’ve made it possible to relinquish her. Furthermore, I wonder if we have different notions of voice, then, and—when you’re writing poems not about her—does that sense of voice shift?

BG: You’re right—I think growth is a much better word. I would even say transformation. The speaker of a poem is always a persona, although the artifice is to make it appear otherwise. This is a technique as much as line breaks or meter. It’s not something I did intentionally in Gog, but it’s something I understand now. The events in Gog happened, but I was a terrified teenage girl with little self-awareness. The bravery and rebelliousness of the speaker in Gog is an invention. I rewrote the history of my emotions. I mythologized my past in order to gain power over it, to become someone else.

I thought I “found my voice” in Gog, as if voice is an authentic representation of a singular essence. I don’t believe that anymore. My new manuscript is written with a polyphony of voices. Helene Cixous says it best: “Who can say who I are, how many I are, which I is the most of my I’s?” How would you define voice? And how does the mother in In the Carnival of Breathing and Errata fit with your definition?

LFC: Well, like I said above—I think that voice means being yourself on the page and that certain movements are natural to a person’s body, thoughts, rhythms, etc. When I explain it to my students, in order to try to make it simple and to strip poetry of some of its mystery, I usually describe voice as personality, which is often consistent from poem-to-poem, whereas tone shifts from subject-to-subject (I might always be morbid and sassy, but I do not feel the same about taxes as I do about love…not quite, anyway). That distinction/definition may be a simplification and doesn’t necessarily speak to personae, but even when I’m writing persona poems I find that something of my voice is still present in my style. In Errata or In the Carnival, for example, the speaker is a total back-talker who presents a great deal of bravado before allowing vulnerability its due. In many ways, that’s me (or my constructed self in those collections) yet supporting that sass is a whole host of elements and craft choices—the way that I employ a lot of masculine word endings and Germanic diction, long vowels and cutting consonants, etc. The speaker is not just back-talking in what she says but even in how she says it. The latter, it seems, is indicative of my voice and carries through even into persona poems if I’m not actively revising toward another end or another type of person(ality).

In the course of arranging and revising Errata—and by studying the exaggerated voice of the constructed self in the poems—I noticed that tension between bravado and vulnerability, though I’d never really noticed that about myself, or that maybe that’s how I’m construed (a hard exterior despite my sensitivity). In that way, I learned from the poems by seeing the ways in which the voice and style stitched those traits together. I first noticed this in “My Lake,” which is also in In the Carnival of Breathing, though I think I noticed the consistency of the bravado v. vulnerability in Errata given the length of the collection and the time I spent with that speaker.

Would you say that there is a poem in Gog in which you can pinpoint a moment when you realized what you were learning about your voice and about that girl? That is, did you know you were mythologizing this girl in order to empower her, or what is it something the poems taught you about the process afterward? It’s a little chicken and egg, but in a similar way I’m curious about how you “mythologized [your] past in order to gain power over it.” You wouldn’t say that the poet and adult woman you are possessed that power already and recreated the girl in order to give her that power, but that you both grew more empowered in the process of writing those poems?

BG: Yes, I grew with the poems, not before them. I use techniques like automatic writing, erasures, and other formal games. In fact, most of the poems in Gog are about events that I had told very few people. I couldn’t talk about my past, but I could trick myself into writing about it. The poem, “To Cora Goldman, My Exorcist,” helped me realize this. I was studying at FSU when I wrote it, and I couldn’t workshop that poem. For a long time, I couldn’t even read it. I knew that the poem was way ahead of me, and I had to catch up to it.

In the first poem of In the Carnival of Breathing, “Staying Afloat,” you write, “To dominate water / with this delicate spine, this alphabet of cells, you must / tumble through webs & chains before you can rise, / lungs full & cinched in a body heavy with disbelief” (9-12). It’s a poem about survival, discovering strength. For instance, in “My Lake,” the lake possesses characteristics that the speaker of the poem desires. Would you talk a little about how images of water represent potential and wildness in your work?

LFC: I grew up on a bay of Lake Michigan and, as you know, later fell in love with Lake Superior, so inland, freshwater seas have always been a part of my rhythm and experience. They are lulling and ferocious. They are wonderfully paradoxical in that they are sources of life yet they are also deadly forces. Despite the personification in “My Lake” I try to avoid using nature in a Romantic way but instead try to let lakes and mountains and other natural bodies/landscapes speak for themselves, revealing what they will of an emotional landscape that may or may not parallel human struggle and can in that way be explored as a vehicle for whatever tenor arises organically. To me, the Great Lakes demonstrate potential and wildness like nothing else.

In Gog, you don’t seem to settle on any one wild creature to support the emotional landscape. There are birds, snakes, insects, and on and on. Can you talk a bit about that wildness? And do you see a foil or a counterpoint to that wildness (in the same way the lakes offer creation and destruction)?

BG: I believe that the physical landscape effects and informs the emotional landscape. It’s a Romantic idea, but one I’ve found to be true nonetheless. Wildness includes the will and consciousness of nonhuman beings. Growing up in a rural landscape allowed me to observe many other forms of life, and it allowed those forms of life to observe me. It’s this reciprocity that I’m interested in. I quote Nietzsche in “The Shadow of My Black Dress”: “If you gaze into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

I wonder if my relationship to wildness is less complicated that yours because I don’t have children. One of my all-time favorite poems of yours is “On Home.” You write:

I joke, but someone should / tell these boys—in the wake of black mascara, / mothers drive away. 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.

Of course you never act on this impulse, but the pressure to care for other beings, to often put their needs before yours, must be immense. Your language is on the brink of wildness or chaos, and yet it’s reigned in by intellectual intensity. Do you think that parenthood shaped your aesthetics, perhaps your sense of restraint?

LFC: Definitely. The poems in ITCOB often explore or point toward the body as a vessel in which we are trapped, and I’m sure that feeling of being hemmed in (and the desire to feel freer) is the result of an overwhelming amount of demands on my time and more needs than a woman can reasonably meet. Certainly that has seeped into the imagery, the diction, and the tension in my poems.

I also agree wholeheartedly that physical landscapes can convey emotional landscapes. Both of the collections I’ve mentioned here rely on that relationship. That said, I try to resist the Romantic poet’s impulse to project human emotions onto landscapes rather than to allow those landscapes to reveal their own emotional terrain that may/may not align with human feeling mostly because I’m interested in collapsing the boundaries between my internal and external landscapes. I recognize moments in Gog where you attempt a similar collapse by projecting human emotion: “Birds liked to watch us, me and Lily,” which opens the Heathen in Fishnets section of “Lily and Gog.” I can see how that builds a relationship between the speaker and her environment while also adding to the tension of her anxiety or uneasy sense of self in a wild or dangerous world.
To that end, how did you approach creating an emphatic arena via exclamatory punctuation, repetition of phrases, pleading diction, such as “O,” or forceful verbs—“exploded, abandoned, roiled,” etc. I’m always afraid to overuse emphatic elements. Did you attempt to control or track your employment of those devices? Did you read the poems aloud to gauge the level of intensity? Or did this not concern you at all because you felt these gestures were of this world and of this girl?

BG: I don’t have a lot of restraint. Wildness tends to take over, which is why I cut a great deal of what I produce. I do try to let the girl in the poem have a voice, and this is often a dramatic one. I feel like there’s an honesty to the drama, even if the adult me is sometimes embarrassed by it. Maybe this is why my voice changes so much from book to book.

Are you working on a new collection, and if so, how does it differ from In the Carnival of Breathing and Errata? Is there a consistency of voice and/or form?

LFC: I am finishing my second collection, yes, which is quite a bit different in form, style, and approach. As I mentioned earlier, these are mostly persona poems, and there are two personae in particular who are separated by time and distance and are carrying on a dialogue about the universe, humanity, life, love, etc. The book is all up in the air—that is, exploring clouds and space. I’m also playing a great deal with spacing versus punctuation, collapsing syntax in ways that I had begun to explore in the latest poems I’d included in Errata.

Though, again, even in persona poems, I know my voice carries through. I’m interested in exploring facets of one’s imagination from different perspectives and in new, removed places as a way to create temporal distance and thereby gain proximity to the self or to understanding, in the same way that the Apollo astronauts saw the Earth with greater clarity once they were headed toward the moon. What about you—what are you working on now? How is it the same or different from Gog or any other collection you’ve assembled?

BG: I’m working on a book-length poem titled Faun. It’s about a young girl named Lily who grew up in my hometown of Ovid, Michigan. She undergoes a series of transformations, including plants, animals, and insects. The poem is written in Lily’s many voices as well as the voices of the nonhuman beings she encounters. Each character speaks in a different form, including blank verse, villanelles, erasures, and typography.

I’m also trying to gain distance, although for me that can only be achieved inside of the body. Lily never escapes a physical form, but she does transform away from the human. By allowing Lily to become an animal or insect, I’m able to gain a different perspective, to find a new way to think about what it means to be a human living in the twenty-first century.

Gog, as my first book, allowed me to see beyond myself. Now I’m working through collective tragedies, such as climate change and mass extinction. And yet, I can only approach these issues through the polyphony of voices issuing from my own body. Sometimes writing poetry feels absurd, and sometimes it feels absolutely necessary. Either way, I write because I write. It’s that simple. What do think about poetry’s role in our culture? Does it have a purpose?

LFC: Metamorphoses is one of my favorites, so it makes me geekily happy to know that you’re writing a book that nods to Ovid (and that it’s your hometown because I thought you were from Petoskey)! Fabulous.

You know, I do think that poetry is alive and well in our daily lives, but I’m guessing that I probably mean that in a way that doesn’t quite jibe with your question. Do I think that people are as engaged with written poems in the same way that they might have been at one time and that it carries the same sway that visual art once did in persuading the masses and therefore effecting change? No, I don’t, but then I’m not really sure how much poetry reached all people beyond its antiquated, oral tradition. Maybe it’s wrong to assume that written poetry had some grand historical reach. How many people born into lower classes or with less privilege were reading poetry, and if it doesn’t reach everyone how does it effect change?

Maybe that’s too negative. I realize that poetry still has oral forms—slam and song—but even beyond that, the devices of poetry are used to change the world all the time, for better or worse.  One of the first exercises we go through in my Fundamentals of Poetry class is to examine jingles (ads from the 80s are so very amazing). We scan them. We see the ways in which various craft elements contribute to rhetoric. We learn to recognize the tools that poets use and to see how others have used them to persuasive ends. I don’t think that the majority of people are immersing themselves in written poetry, however, which really is a shame because I do believe in its power to change our lives, not just by presenting us with other perspectives but also by allowing us—and showing us how—to ask questions.

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