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i n t e r v i e w

L I S A   F A Y   C O U T L E Y

COMP: Congratulations on the publication of In the Tempered Dark: Contemporary Poets Transcending Elegy (Black Lawrence Press). The anthology is breathtaking—a book to be read again and again, a source of perpetual comfort and companionship.  

We find the anthology’s subtitle compelling. “Contemporary Poets Transcending Elegy.” How did you arrive at the verb “transcending”? Did it come to you during the editing process, or was it conceived beforehand and then later confirmed? 


Lisa Fay Coutley: Thank you, I appreciate the kind words and the light you’re shining on this work. The full title preceded the collection. Transcending encompasses the hope I had for the work that would be included and as such was intended to steer folx when they were selecting poems to submit and drafting their accompanying micros. Is it confirmed? I don’t know. It was a big goal, I suppose, but what I aimed to create was a collection that conveyed various ways poems take their necessary shapes based on the unique bodies of grief that feed them, expanding on the kinds of grief we conceive of when we think of elegy nowadays, which really brings the form to its point of origin.


C: The inclusion of micro-essays is a brilliant idea. The essays are in many cases as artful and profound as the poems. Did you envision the micro-essays (at least initially) as secondary or subordinate to the poems? What surprised you about the micro-essays?


LFC: Thank you. In addition to including contemporary, living poets, the micros are one of the features that set this collection apart from other grief anthologies. I had hoped that the micros and poems would function in tandem, the former opening the latter to let the light in, if you will, and that they would be unique in style and form to their respective poet, which is entirely true and what makes this work even more diverse, as well as teachable and relatable. I was delighted to see—as I noted in my introduction—how poets called to one another across micros. Despite how many shapes the micros take (lists, epistles, analyses, refusals), they often employ the same language—“shape(lessness), space, distance, splitting, seams, control, breath”—and note the same theorists, poets, and poems (Emily Dickinson’s “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes” makes several appearances).


I think maybe what surprised me most was how much they hurt me, how much I needed them, and how each of their respective shapes was so affecting. In drafting the micros, poets were so smart and so vulnerable, and while the poems are, as well, the artifice of craft feels less apparent in the micros, even though they’re certainly careful and intentional. It feels a bit more like you’re in a room with the poet and you’re both looking with tenderness and care at one another’s love, joy, loss, and pain. For me, there really is both balm and break in these pages. I’m grateful.


C: In your introduction you write, “I open poetry classes with the assertion that all writing is a rhetorical framework built from a pattern made to be broken at a poignant moment.” (Brilliant.) Having read hundreds of poems about various forms of grief, did you observe any patterns about how such poems “break”? Did you learn anything how poets tend to process or perform grief in their poems?  


LFC: Again, thank you. I appreciate you. What I noticed was what I had hoped—that each poet’s body of grief would manifest uniquely on the page. Each of us grieves differently, even when we’re grieving similar losses. More than one person here has written about losing a loved one so painfully-slowly to dementia or Alzheimer’s, and each of them takes different approaches—Lauren Camp’s poems, for example, embody and enact confusion via syntax and uneven (sometimes cascading) tercets whereas Berwyn Moore fixes on a single image of a tissue (mistaken for a tennis ball) in controlled quintets. Both poets approach the same helplessness and loss—watching a parent disappear—and each renders the grief as their body held it loudest. That was my hope for this collection—that we would speak (to each other) through uniquely enacted grief, learning and growing from one another, and not just feel but really be less alone in every way for it.


C: Do you think grief intensifies one’s receptivity to poetry—whether you’re a poet or not, a reader of poetry or not? 


LFC: Yes, absolutely. I think grief insists on taking up space inside us, and we each tend it in our own way. Maybe we try to explain or understand it, or maybe we try to drown or gouge it, but whether we know it or mean to or want to or not, I believe it provides us with opportunities for empathy just as this collection does. Then, my answer is likely biased by a life lived in poetry. I do believe, though, that we’re more receptive to metaphor—the need to create and collapse distance—once we’ve experienced grief. Whether we are capable of admitting that or not is another question.


C: Who are your go-to poets (or prose writers) of grief? We assume one of them is Jack Gilbert, after whose work your anthology is titled: “I say moon is horses in the tempered dark, / because horse is the closest I can get to it” (“Finding Something,” from The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992). How did these writers inform, influence, or indirectly encourage the creation of this anthology?


LFC: Who’s Jack Gilbert? Jk, jk, as the kids say. Things were way too serious there for a minute. Yes, of course, Gilbert, mostly because—again, as I said in my introduction (I feel weird quoting myself?)—he showed me how I could, through very simple narration, create very different effects on the page and in a reader’s body, though there are so many poets who do this in such brilliant ways. Many of them, I’m honored to say, appear in these pages. But my earliest and always grief poets (in no particular order): Sylvia Plath, Larry Levis, Rita Dove, Claudia Rankine, Bill Shakespeare, Ovid (translated by Allen Mandelbaum), Osip Mandelstam (translated by W.S. Merwin), Homer, Leon Stokesbury, Claudia Emerson, Rainier Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell), and so many others I’m forgetting, but this gives you a sense of the range, I guess. Each of them gave me a new kind of permission and example, and if they are listed here they certainly offered me solace and perspective. Always I’m looking for another way to see grief because I’ve seen so much of it that it starts to take on a single shape and smell and numb home in my cells. These poets have held my face to pain I didn’t want to see or hear or name yet they’ve shown me new ways to look and to survive. As such, the shape my grief takes on the page is also filtered through these poets’ shapes, as so many of their lines and images live inside me now. I often tell my students that if I remember nothing else in the last moments of my life, I hope those two Gilbert lines—“I say moon is horses in the tempered dark / because horse is the closest I can get to it”—run on loop in my head. No language gets closer to describing my first deep and surreal experience of grief. That feels brilliant.

Lisa Fay Coutley is the author of HOST (Wisconsin Poetry Series, 2024), tether (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), Errata (Southern Illinois University, 2015), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Open Competition, In the Carnival of Breathing (BLP, 2011), winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, and Small Girl: Micromemoirs (Small Harbor, 2024). She is the editor of the anthology, In the Tempered Dark: Contemporary Poets Transcending Elegy(BLP, 2023). Her poetry has been awarded an NEA Fellowship, an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize, chosen by Dana Levin, and the 2021 Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, selected by Natalie Diaz. Recent prose & poetry appears in the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day, Barrelhouse, Brevity, Copper Nickel, and Gulf Coast. She is an Associate Professor of Poetry & CNF in the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and she is the Chapbook Series Editor at Black Lawrence Press. 

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