Lisa Fay Coutley

Carnival of BreathingIn the Carnival of Breathing (Black Lawrence Press, 2011)

What are some of your favorite chapbooks? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a chapbook of your own?

At the time when I wrote this chapbook, I hadn’t read many chapbooks. I was in a very intense summer workshop taught by Leslie Adrienne Miller, wherein we focused on writing one poem a day, filtering content through other academic disciplines. I’d chosen limnology and pulmonology (lakes & lungs), so texts from those sciences informed the poems in In the Carnival of Breathing.

That said, I’m intrigued by any of the chapbooks published by Black Lawrence Press (not to be totally biased—they’re just doing amazing things for and with chapbooks), Tupelo Press, and Diode Editions, etc. More and more it seems that people are writing and publishing some really fantastic chapbooks, which is great to see.

What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?

According to my records, it looks like “View from the High Road” (written in December of 2008) is the oldest poem in the chapbook, and I think the event surrounding that poem broke open a lot of things inside me that led to a flurry of writing. The rest of In the Carnival of Breathing was written that spring and summer, and I sent out the manuscript that fall.

What’s your chapbook about? 

Tenacity and fragility, bravado and vulnerability, cynicism and hope, as they pertain to family, romantic love, and parenting. It tends to emphasize and collapse binaries in an attempt to draw out the emotions along the spectrum because, as we know, nothing is ever black and white, especially when it comes to exploring the loss of a parent or a great love or—maybe most importantly—the self, which are all things the female speaker grapples with.

How did you decide on the length, arrangement, and title of your chapbook? What were some of its earlier titles?

The length was determined by the poems I’d written in those 8 or so months, during the spring and summer of 2009, while I was working on my MFA at Northern Michigan University. At the end of the aforementioned summer workshop, Leslie had us assemble chapbooks, so I wove together the poems I’d written that spring with the new, science-driven poems. The result was, more or less, In the Carnival of Breathing, which—if I remember correctly—I first titled Woman from Water, since that poem in many ways captures the major themes of the chapbook more completely than ITCOB (but I preferred the sound of ITCOB).

Did you submit your chapbook to contests, open reading periods, or both?

I submitted only to one contest that fall—the Black River Chapbook Competition.

To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?

BLP is so fantastic to work with, and their designer is amazing. I was asked to give some thoughts on what I’d like to see on the cover, and I think I said a Ferris wheel underwater, and what you see above is what they sent the first time around. I couldn’t have been happier, despite the fact that I detest pink.

What have you done to promote and publicize your chapbook?

Well, again, BLP is great about promoting their chapbooks just as they do their full-length collections, so they sent it to all the places an involved press sends. Beyond that, I facilitated a reading tour, started a Facebook page for the book, and plugged it on my blog frequently. It also received a fair amount of rather generous reviews that appeared on high-traffic sites, which likely helped with distribution.

What are you working on now?

Well, my first full-length collection, Errata, was just selected by Adrienne Su as a winner of the 2014 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award and is forthcoming from Southern Illinois University Press in 2015, so I’m finalizing that book now. I’m also refining a second manuscript that I wrote as my doctoral dissertation this fall. The goal is to pluck and polish the book from the dissertation in the coming months.

What is your writing practice or process?

Early on, I wrote always late at night and with an amazing urgency. Maybe that’s the way all writers begin, in terms of process. Over time—as my schedule became more hectic, given school and motherhood, etc—that waned. Now I write in starts and fits, producing a lot of work in a short time and then not writing so much as a line for a couple months. I don’t think it’s the best way to write, but it’s how I seem to operate these days. I did my first 30/30 (with Tupelo Press)—thirty poems in thirty days—in November, and I haven’t really written since. Though, I have been revising quite a bit. I think the best thing about settling into this process is that I no longer guilt myself for not writing during my quiet times, and I no longer become terrified that I’ll never write again. I’m resting. And I’ll get up and run a marathon again when I’m ready.

What advice would you offer to an aspiring chapbook author?

Be patient. Be hard on your writing. Do your homework. We all want to see our work in print, but it’s good to put some pressure on yourself and your potential press. Be sure that the poems you’ve included are the poems you feel most confident in. If you don’t have a small collection of poems that you feel are solid, wait, keep writing. And when you do have that collection, be sure to send to presses that publish books you admire—in terms of design, layout, and content—and presses that promote their authors well. Be selective all around.

Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?

If there were anything you could do differently about arranging, publishing, or promoting your chapbook, what would it be?

In the Carnival of Breathing actually is not my first chapbook. My first chapbook, Back-Talk, won the inaugural ROOMS Chapbook Contest and was published by the now defunct Articles Press a year before ITCOB was released. While they made a fine chapbook, I wish I had been a bit more selective about how and why I’d published those poems, which were—at the time—the poems that were most dear to me. I was very eager to see them in print. Probably too eager.

What question would you like to ask the next chapbook author featured at Speaking of Marvels?

Do you think that in the course of your present and/or future career, having written and published full-length books, etc., you’ll come back to the chapbook, publishing them (or attempting to) as you see fit or as the work seems to elect, or do you see the chapbook as a breakthrough collection to longer works?

When (or if) you take your chapbook to readings, how much do you read from the collection, and how much do you read from new, uncollected/unpublished work? (Also: How much is a sufficient “sample”? How do you choose the pieces you present to the audience?)

This really depends on how many people are reading and how much time I’ve been allotted. I typically operate under the assumption that, at a poetry reading, less is more. Interested readers can always seek out more of your work, so I always try to read that handful of poems that seem to resonate most with readers. Those are typically the poems that I feel most invested in and that felt important to me during composition. And if I have new work that I want to share, especially if it falls under the above category, I definitely read a couple of those poems and read fewer from the chapbook.


Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of Errata (Southern Illinois University Press, forthcoming 2015), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition Award, and In the Carnival of Breathing, winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition. Her poems have been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize, and have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Crazyhorse, Best of the Net (2013), and Best New Poets (2010). She is a PhD candidate at the University of Utah.


My Lake

My lake has many rooms and one, which is red
with a door that’s always open but chained.
My lake owns boxing gloves. She owns lingerie.
She can swing, she can cha-cha, she can salsa
and tap but refuses a simple slow dance. My lake
learned early to rest the needle without a scratch.
She has been classically trained in lovemaking.
When she wants to ride a rollercoaster, she does
it alone. When she lets her hair down, men go
blind. My lake doesn’t take any shit. She wears
stilettos in ice storms, does crosswords in pen.
She eats red meat. Her porch needs painting,
her flowers need weeding, but my lake reads
palms in twelve different languages. If my lake
puts her hand to your chest, she decides. At times,
whole days can pass when she won’t let anyone
near her. She freezes just before she murders
her own shore. It’s been years, and still my lake
won’t name the delicate sound of ice taking
then brushing away. She might say it’s the train
of a wedding dress, or the rain falling on a glass
slipper. There are times she sees the grace of two
loons gliding—their bodies a duet over breaking
water, and she slows herself. She makes a cradle.

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