Writers on Writing #61: Lisa Fay Coutley
Why to Kill Your Paradise
Mina Loy said that a poet needs to have a place she loves, that is her whole heart, where she can never stay. That tension will be enough to drive all she’ll do and say in her lifetime. I was sitting in one of my last grad classes at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City—a city small between walls of mountains and in the palm of a dry lakebed—when I read that.
So badly was I missing the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Lake Superior that right then I fucking hated Mina Loy. Not because I was stuck at a tiny table surrounded by peers when my throat constricted in that terrible burning way you hope doesn’t happen in public, but because I had already spent too much time weeping and feeling halved as only a body away from its place can.
I knew so intimately that longing, that tension (that torture), that the part of me most likely to throw a tantrum (a sizable part, I admit) wanted to slap Loy’s mouth. How dare she say I needed to keep miles and time between me and my lake? For a lot of reasons (some having to do with my sons, some with me), I knew I needed to return to the UP.
It would be a lie to say that my five years in the UP were the most joyous of my life—my mother died two months before we moved there; within one year what was then the love of my life had fallen apart; and I was a single mother raising two boys while juggling full-time grad school and part-time work—but there was always some draw. Something in the volcanic rock, the sea glass, the aurora borealis, the silence that lives inside the noise of a lake that’s blue even when she’s absent of light, that’s fierce even when she’s forcing herself still, that can never know when the next light or wind will come or from how far away.
After three years (coursework and comps) I came rushing back to the lake the way a woman returns to a lover. So headstrong and so certain in her love it never occurs to her that she might get there to find herself draped in the light of his doorway and have no desire to run across the room to him.
To pure air and water from the worst inversion in the states and a lake poisoning itself with salt. From a four-lane street with steady traffic to a cabin on a basin surrounded by brilliant autumn trees. From a volatile family life to two sons who are making strides, a new puppy, an almost-forgiving cat.
Yet there I was, walking in the woods with the new pup as I have every other morning for the past two months—the trees behind me barely visible in the still-dark, the sun pressing so heavy against the lake, dividing her instead of breaking open over her. It was not exquisite (though it should be). I was terrified. I was sure that this was what it meant to fall out of love with living.
I won’t bore you with all of the details of my neuroses surrounding this pseudo-terror (there is a stupid amount of weeping and hyperbolic woe-is-me-ing here already), but suffice it to say that I left the academy for the first time in over a decade certain that it would be best for me (I was exhausted by all of it and ready to write, right?) and for my boys. For them, it was the best thing. I, however, was foundering without the structure and community. How does one go from the rigor of a PhD program to days wide open for writing? You are ridiculous, I thought. Bitch, you are killing your paradise. If you can’t be happy here, where can you be happy?
What does it mean—if you find yourself standing across the room from yourself and you don’t want to cross? Because that’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it? That love or longing for another body—human or water—is rooted in the self, the human you are in the presence of the other. So I’ve been thinking about what Loy said and about what this place means to me. Why it means to me. How we—ourselves—are always inevitably bound up in the love we have for others and things, selfish though that may seem, and why I was so totally over myself, so to speak.
Last night I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop with a professor who taught me a great deal in a classroom where I grew a great deal in a time that seems so far ago now. Strange but lovely. When he introduced me to his grad students, he asked me to tell them why—why pursue a PhD in Creative Writing? It’s a great question and one I’ve already explored elsewhere, so I’ll just say that the answer, in some ways, never changes, yet in other ways it just keeps evolving.
I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do with me, I said. Writing isn’t something I do; it’s who I am. I experience the world as a writer does—with sensitivity and an ache for discovery. Friend and poet John Rybicki recently said to me, aren’t we trying to heal ourselves in some ways in each poem? Of course.
Here, I learned to write is to tend the desire to keep going. The lake taught me to breathe through rib-wracking cold, to surrender, to float inside my storm. Or, as John might say, to try to heal.
Loy’s necessary tension, then, is about a longing for the self, for a love of life, for the desire to keep reaching for meaning when words can only ever approximate feeling. I’ve been rereading Larry Levis’ Elegy, which seems to me an elegy for the struggle of writing as the search. Even in those days, when he was surely suffering, he must have wanted to want to find himself inside life again—
Friends, in the middle of this life, I was embraced
by failure. It clung to me & did not let go.*
For years I’ve been desperate to know the road a person stumbles down, where the sun keeps pressing its head so heavy against hers but she never turns around or veers left and bushwhacks back to living. I no longer want to know.
My fifteen-year-old and I have a recurring disagreement about the meaning(lessness) of life and language. Words mean nothing, he says. It’s true—they mean only what we agree they mean, and they can never mean nearly all that we feel, as I’ve already said. But here, now, where I’ve been holding a knife to Paradise’s throat, I know I am a writer and a teacher because I believe so whole-heartedly in the ways that searching via words can change our lives. Even if I’m always chasing a goddamned carrot, let me praise its burning color and its fading shape and its earthy smell the whole harried way. Let me share the love and fear of that chase with readers and students and lovers and lakes. Let it be the place where I am most likely to find silence in the noise.
* Levis, Larry. “The Two Trees.” Elegy. Ed. Philip Levine. University of Pittsburg Press: 1997.
Lisa Fay Coutley’s poems have been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, scholarships to the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and an Academy of American Poets Levis Prize. Her chapbook In the Carnival of Breathing (Black Lawrence Press 2011) won the Black River Chapbook Competition.