The Big Idea: Courtney LeBlanc
While strong emotions like sadness or grief can be powerful motivators for writing, author Courtney LeBlanc was determined not to let the heaviness of her poems overwhelm her reader, and turned to a fellow poet for help. Come along in her Big Idea to see how she solved her problem, and structured Her Whole Bright Life.
I’ve been writing poetry since I was a teenager, using this medium to work through whatever I’m dealing with. In my teen years it was angsty, emo poetry—which is perfectly acceptable and appropriate for a teenager, no matter how cringe-worthy it is when you read it twenty years later… As I matured, both emotionally and in my writing, poetry began to take a more prominent role in my life and in how I dealt with emotional situations. My newest collection, Her Whole Bright Life, proved no different.
When I’m pulling together a poetry collection the themes usually become apparent pretty quickly and this was true for Her Whole Bright Life, winner of the Jack McCarthy Book Prize, published by Write Bloody. But with two heavy topics—my father’s death and my disordered eating—the challenge was how to not drown the reader. Even if these are topics many people deal with at some point in their lives, how to keep the collection from dragging down into the Mariana Trench of emotions? Enter Aimee Nezhukumatathil.
I had the fortune of spending two glorious weeks on the island of Crete, Greece in summer 2022, where I went for runs through the olive grove each morning, laid by the infinity pool in the afternoon soaking up the sun, and spent hours writing and editing under the mulberry trees in the courtyard of Dalabelos Estate. There I worked with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, a poet and essayist whose books have won countless awards and honors. I presented my problem to her: how to structure the manuscript?
Already the manuscript was divided into two groups of poems: the ones about my father’s death and my disordered eating, which wove together and couldn’t easily be parsed apart, and poems about other, perhaps lighter, and happier topics. Aimee made a simple suggestion that was the breakthrough I needed: break the poems into three sections, with the middle section being the “lighter” poems. This will allow the reader a chance to pause, to breathe, to come up for air. With this advice I printed every poem in the collection and set about rearranging them.
Aimee’s advice was perfect, of course, and this structure became the framework for the collection. Broken into three sections, the middle section is a break from the heartache, grief, and trauma of sections one and three. The end result is an emotional collection that doesn’t overwhelm the reader. And, I hope, it’s a collection that speaks to readers, that people connect with the poems and see themselves in the words. After all, connection is, for me, what poetry is all about.