“all the while you are living in language that is entirely yours, you escape to it, it shapes you….”
Animals / Bodies (Finishing Line Press, 2014)
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
My favorite collection of poems is Snow on a Crocus by Joan Swift. It’s not officially a chapbook, but at 23 pages it “feels” like one. I read it over and over and every time it punches me in the gut. There are too many to say… but another two are Of a Feather by Janine DeBaise and Where the Meadowlark Sings by Ellaraine Lockie.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
I am drawn to chapbooks that offer entrance into a certain heart and soul. If they speak to me, I return to them for inspiration and “writerly friendship.”
What’s your chapbook about?
I wanted Animals / Bodies to speak about shared experiences between the human and nonhuman—our shared struggles and joys, if you will. I am loyal to empathy and compassion… and feel most called to “justice” for the voiceless. I do not think the nonhuman is “voiceless”—but since the culture at large often does, I hope to work as a messenger, of sorts, I suppose. It can be tricky ground—the territory of what I think of as “valid” anthropomorphism that can inspire empathy and compassion. Still, there has to be a tension in the poem.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest poem in my chapbook is “On Missing a Sun Bear,” which appeared in the anthology, GRRRR, Poems about Bears. It is about a sun bear I saw in the rainforest of Borneo; everything in the poem is exactly as it happened in the rainforest. Only after it was published did I learn how rare it was to see a wild sun bear and, at the same time, learn that they are captured for bear bile farms in Asia, even though they are threatened by poaching and are a CITES species, which prohibits trade in their bodies and body parts. My poem does not enter the political, but I think it was at this time, after it was published and I saw the chance I’d lost to say something more, that I realized the power of poetry.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I’m not sure I envisioned a process. I just wrote what spoke to me, what seemed to bubble to the top from the ocean inside. I tend to work in waves. Something grabs me and I work relentlessly on it. Then days of nothing. Or weeks of just little edits… until I am called back. I try to work every day, whether reading, fussing with various projects at once… but there is always one “real” project I’m tending, bringing along, so to speak. It’s almost as if that one project comes to life and then it needs a rest, or it works on me in my mind when I’m not actively working on it, if that makes sense. It’s almost as if once it’s come to life, it speaks through my body and says, go back and make this change, add this, delete this…. Often I have to scribble it down or put it in my “notes” app on the phone… or else I forget it. This is the worst, because it’s often when I’m not “trying” to do something that the work I like most “appears.”
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The arrangement: I had help from a poet friend who’s published several chapbooks. I have to say, I still don’t feel like I “know” how to order poems. Instead, I sense it. It seems intuitive in some respect. For example, when I thought I had put together the final ordering/ organizing of Animals / Bodies, I realized I wanted a few more poems. So I slid them in where they seemed to fit. I guess it worked.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
My super talented daughters helped me, as did a friend who’s a graphic designer. My older daughter, Fossey Mettam, is a photographer. She imagined the cover image and took the photograph of me sitting in the field with my horse, Tully. Then my younger daughter, Lucienne Mettam, who’s an artist and a singer, drew the reflective image of the photo. The idea being the human and nonhuman reflected in each other’s lives. Then our friend, Stephanie Potter, did the exacting work with lining up the reflection, the tones of the drawing and the photo. My husband, Kirk Mettam, had the brilliant last minute idea of having the title “reflective” as well, in the sense that the word “Bodies” is upside down, under “Animals.”
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your chapbook? How would you answer it?
What are you working on now? Now I am working on a memoir. It’s been a long time in the making. My collection of essays, The Hopes of Snakes, was published by Beacon Press and I thought I would write another collection of essays… but it’s not turning out that way. Even though people said The Hopes of Snakes had/has a lyrical, poetic quality to it, I think my chapbook changed me, if you will. I’m drawn to the merging of poetry and essays, the vignettes, the scenes, the white space, the poetic memoir, or lyric(al) essay, or what have you. I’m interested in how memory works on the work, so to speak. Neither the mind or the universe exist in a linear place/ space and I try to work with that as a “frame”… in that I see the poem/ essay/ writing inside this frame/ idea of the world as a “being”… it gives me a visual of “a somewhere” where the work can be contained but is limitless as well, if that makes sense.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
I think the question I am most asked by students is: how do you determine your audience? I used to feel bad about saying what I’m about to say, since I was trained as a journalist and was taught repeatedly to think about an audience. But no longer do I think of an audience. If I think of an audience, it automatically brings to mind the feeling of “being observed, judged, questioned.” I’m not good at any of that. I prefer isolation.
I guess the best example of my advice is this: I wrote an essay called “Dark Horse.” I wrote it over a six-month period of time. It was 10,000 words long. It is about the brutal, dark and greedy world of horse traders, horse racing, horse auctions, horse-slaughter. I wrote it because I met a woman who rescued horses from auction and she took me to the auction one day. The next morning I began “Dark Horse” —with nothing in mind but to expose the world I’d just come from. I had no audience, no editor, no magazine in mind. I just wrote (and researched and interviewed) on my own time with no money, no assignment, no guarantee of anything. Just the hope that I could bear witness to what I saw.
Long story short: the piece was sold to Orion magazine and went on to win a Pushcart Prize in 2012. All that. No audience in mind. Big audience now.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Write what you love to write about. Be fearless. Say what you want and then go back and polish, polish, polish. I love to edit. It’s my favorite part. It’s where all the beauty is. It’s your mind and heart at their strongest and sharpest. There are always many many drafts of everything. And I don’t mean five or ten. I mean 20 or 30 or 40… it can seem endless but all the while you are living in language that is entirely yours, you escape to it, it shapes you, it assists you in your calling—writing is your worthy opponent.
Lisa Couturier’s chapbook Animals / Bodies is the 2015 winner of the New England Poetry Club’s Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award. She is a Pushcart Prize winner for her essay “Dark Horse” and a notable essayist in Best American Essays 2004, 2006, and 2011.