A Hauntingly Beautiful Collection: Courtney LeBlanc on “Her Whole Bright Life”

Courtney LeBlanc’s latest collection, Her Whole Bright Life, is a haunting yet beautiful collection that reminds us of the power of the past. The book is filled with a reckoning of self-awareness and love no matter how painfully or fondly we reflect on it, and it is a promise for the life that is possible.  

Courtney LeBlanc is the author of the full-length collections Her Whole Bright Life (winner of the Jack McCarthy Book Prize, Write Bloody, 2023); Exquisite Bloody, Beating Heart (Riot in Your Throat, 2021) and Beautiful & Full of Monsters (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2020). She is a Virginia Center for Creative Arts fellow (2022) and the founder and editor-in-chief of Riot in Your Throat, an independent poetry press. She loves nail polish, tattoos and a soy latte each morning.

In April, I had the privilege of speaking with Courtney about her latest collection:

You open the collection with “Self-Portrait,” a regal declaration with quite the twist — the speaker knows who she is (all too often that is the thing we wish to learn) but she doesn’t know who she wants to be. Is this a foreshadowing of the transformation that will occur in the book?

I didn’t plan it at the time I wrote “Self-Portrait,” but once it was written, I realized it was a good place to begin the collection as it would set things up for the reader.

Your imagery and symbolism reflect beauty that comforts and haunts simultaneously while addressing grief and disordered eating. Do you plan the whole poem around a particular image or do images come to you as you write?

It varies. Occasionally I will start with an image, but more often it comes organically — it just comes to me.

That’s interesting. Images are fascinating and often give the power to the poem just as Cathy Smith Bowers, professor in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte says: “Always start with your abiding image” — I was wondering if you had done that.

Cathy is my favorite! [laughs] She would be tickled we remembered that.

There is rhythm in your lines; does music play a role in your poems, either during the writing process or after the poem is finished? If so, to what extent?

Not usually. I can’t listen to music when writing because I will sing along, but it is an interesting idea. One of the poets I just published with my press coordinated a playlist with each poem and it was amazing. This would be fun to try in my own work.

In “We Feed the Living,” you discuss the custom of gathering to eat at the family’s home after a loved one’s passing. In this piece you have brilliantly captured the fact that the comforting in loss is the nurturing of those who are still here. Do you see this as something we all do to numb the reality of the loss?

It is both numbing and ritualistic. When we lose a loved one, there is nothing anyone can do, but they can feed us. Grandmothers are always trying to feed their families, our mothers feed us when we come home from a long absence. It is our way to show love when we don’t know what else to do, and eating provides some small measure of comfort.

“Would You Ever Get Your Spouse’s Name Tattooed” is one of my favorite poems in this collection: “I was wife #2 and you tell me / your first wife’s name was inked onto your other bicep. / But where will you put your third wife’s name? I quipped. I’ll never / marry again, you insisted.” Such a remarkable way to describe commitment and ultimately replacement and a hesitation to make things permanent. Do you feel tattoos are a declaration of the things we love?

Tattoos can be what you want them to be. I personally would never get a name tattooed on me — a name is someplace I don’t wanna go [laughs]. I think tattoos are indeed works of art that can mean something special. My best friend and I have matching tattoos — we both have anchor tattoos to symbolize we are each other’s anchor. My full sleeve is artwork to me, it is not one picture per se, but rather a compilation that forms a beautiful design.

There are multiple references to transformation throughout this book — the pale blue butterfly, the fluttering of wings, the planter of seeds. Can you tell us more about these images? Were they selected for their symbolism or are they concrete?

Those images are concrete. My dad was a farmer most of his life, and even when he retired, he loved gardening. So, “planter of seeds” is a very real thing for me. My dog, Cricket, is a pittie-mix who is all heart and no brain and she loves to jump and bite at the butterflies in the air along this trail we hike. She looks hilarious trying to catch them, and thankfully most of the time does not. But the pale blue butterfly of that poem she did catch. So I think these images play a dual role.

As the book takes us through the grieving of many things (self-image, loss of your father, loves lost) what were your intentions in structuring the collection? Was there a specific order or progression you wanted readers to experience when reflecting on change?

It is interesting you asked that. This coming Saturday I am leading a panel at a conference on how to structure a collection. This collection was definitely harder to structure. The first two collections were easy; the order just came to me. This collection was hard because a lot of the poems are heavy, with intense subject matter. I didn’t know how to structure them so as not to drown the reader. Originally there were only two sections and the collection felt overwhelming. While at a writer’s retreat in Greece, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and she suggested to move the “lighter” poems to the middle, therefore creating a breather for the reader. Once I did this, it finally clicked, and it felt like the progression worked.

I understand you are originally from North Dakota. How has living in the South benefited or changed your writing? What does the South mean to you?

I grew up on a farm in North Dakota, and I lived there until I left for college in Baltimore, MD. I have lived several places since, but living in Northern Virginia doesn’t feel like the South to me even though it technically is a Southern state. For me the South is weather and nature. I never saw a red bud tree until I moved to Virginia. They are in full bloom now and it is beautiful. I think this beauty influences my writing in subtle ways, and it wasn’t until I got to Virginia I felt like I was home. This is where I am supposed to be.

You are the founder and editor-in-chief of Riot in Your Throat, an independent poetry press. What has it been like for you to run a publication business? What do you love about it?

I love running the press. It is a labor of love and passion. My first book was published in March 2020, right as Covid-19 shut down everything and unfortunately, I didn’t get a lot of support due to this and I wanted more for myself and other writers. I have an MBA and an MFA so I knew I could handle both the business and creative side of things so I set out to create a place for writers to publish their work. My press’ motto is “publishing fierce, feminist voices” as I feel these voices need to be heard. It is magical to know I am a part of it all. I love it when others love a book as much as I do and it has been great to bring these works into the world.

Your writing is beautifully rooted in experience, loss, self-reflection, love and pain. How has the experience of writing your third collection been different than your first collection?

It is interesting. Megan Falley recently posted about rereading her debut collection, which was published a decade agon, and seeing the growth you’ve made as a writer, and I agree. My first collection was a part of my thesis while at Queens, but I believe I am a stronger writer now. I still write about the some of the same topics, that may never change, but there are definitely some poems I don’t think I would include if I were putting that collection together today. This collection was a different process; I hadn’t pulled it together yet when I won the book prize. I’d written the majority of the poems but not all of them so it was a different process — not good or bad, just different. I’m not writing very much right now as I’m focusing on my book tour but that’s okay, I think fallow seasons are an important part of writing. It will be interesting to see what comes next.

Her Whole Bright Life
By Courtney LeBlanc
Write Bloody Publishing
Published April 4, 2023