Lia Purpura is a poet, essayist, and translator from Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of four collections of poems–King Baby (Alice James Books, 2008), Stone Sky Lifting (Ohio State University Press, 2000), The Brighter the Veil (Orchises Press, 1996), and It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin/Viking, 2015). Purpura has also written three collections of essays (Rough Likeness, On Looking, and Increase), and one collection of translations (Poems of Grzegorz Musial: Berliner Tagebuch and Taste of Ash).
Purpura is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, a Fulbright Foundation Fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes, a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council, and multiple residencies and fellowships at the MacDowell Colony. Her essay collection On Looking was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Purpura reads and teaches extensively around the country, most recently in MFA programs at Columbia University, and Bennington, and at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, and Chautauqua Writers’ Conference.
Purpura is Writer in Residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and she teaches in the low residency MFA Program, the Rainier Writing Workshop in Tacoma, Washington.
EB: How did you begin writing nonfiction?
LP: I began my writing life as a poet and the essays followed. I write both forms at once—meaning that I have a set of poems and usually a few essays going at the same time. Having two genres to work in is like having two different musculatures. It’s hard to explain, and not nearly as simple as poems moving more quickly and essays taking longer (sometimes a 10 line poem can take years and a 10 page essay a couple of months). Some ideas and sensations want a shorter, denser, more concentrated kind of treatment and some want to exist in the presence of many other ideas, with the intention of being linked up in a net-like way. Or in a spacious way, or an argumentative way. So it really just depends on how ideas/subjects/mysteries come to me and ask to be expressed. The genre is very much, of course, a “genre” (and now one can get an actual MFA in nonfiction) but when I “entered the sentence”—which is probably the best way to describe my move into length, into a sentence-based way of shaping thought—I wasn’t thinking “genre”. I was more just moving beyond the line, trying to hear and work with cadences that were longer and yes, because of my ear, still oriented or spun around sound, and because of my eye, powered by image.
EB: I love that phrase, “entered the sentence.” What first attracted you to the sentence in the first place? Have you always been a literary person?
LP: Oh, in a broader sense, it’s the music of language in so many forms that caught me early. The music of people’s accents and individual ways of saying, the pace and inflections of speech, regionalisms, the wildness of Emily Dickinson (whose work I loved way before I could make any sense of it), the astonishment of reading Faulkner for the first time (talk about having the top of my head taken off!)—and I read, read, read as a kid. I don’t know if this makes me a “literary person” as much as someone in love with language.
EB: What do you think you personally bring to your nonfiction? What makes something distinctly Lia Purpura nonfiction, as opposed to Margo Jefferson nonfiction or Lis Harris nonfiction?
LP: The notion of “sensibility” (or temperament, comport, inclination, gesture, there are many ways to say it) is all-important to me as both a writer and as a reader. Every writer has a sensibility which is like a fingerprint, a leaning, a set of desires (often called “concerns” but that term can perhaps unwittingly prescribe an attitude, or narrow the scope and make it sound like writers are always worrying and hacking away and “problems” which may be true to an extent—but the best writing doesn’t weigh or drag even if one’s subjects are painful or intractable). So, considering one’s sensibility means taking in the wide scope of how one shapes a thought, how one bounces or climbs or meanders through a syntax, how one’s pitch or register flies or muffles, how the length or time it takes to unfurl a point sweeps in x amount of history or context or other/dissenting voices, how one’s rage is modulated, how close to poetry or to journalism one hews, how much invented form acts as a notable vessel or how it remains sort of secondary to more traditionally shaped narratives… I could go on about all the features that add up to a sensibility.
All this is to say that it’s hard for me to discuss my sensibility. I know certain things (in the way we all are aware of the fact that we might be shy or dramatic or melancholic or demanding)—I look very hard, for example, at moments and objects that tend to be overlooked or dismissed, and at registers of perception that often go uncourted or unseen. I’m aware that I’m attentive to what I call “fragile states of being” and to ways that violences of many forms are perpetrated on the land, animals, others who don’t necessarily have the voice or position to speak back. Other than these basics, I think probably a reader would have an easier time discerning and speaking about what it is I do!
EB: In addition to writing essays and poetry, you are a translator. How is the experience of working with someone else’s words different or similar to the experience of writing your own?
LP: Translating was probably the best education in how to write I’ve ever experienced. The daily wrangling with all the questions you have to tackle as a translator— how exactly you’ll make decisions in word hue and shape and sensation—requires that you weigh and reweigh and contextualize and move constantly between micro and macro issues in ways that are deeply demanding and full of responsibility. Every gesture you experience as a translator is alive in the act of writing one’s own work, too. I’d recommend the task to all writers—it’s a labor of great love and care and requires much existential arguing with oneself and sad compromises and joyful finds.
EB: How does writing nonfiction affect your life as a writer and also a person?
LP: Well, nothing escapes! Any form of writing brings with it a set of perceptions, or rather a discipline for perceiving and filtering and approaching—objects, ideas, people, concepts. So, as it is for poetry, the essay-mind sort of entertains all sorts of connections and makes all sorts of leaps pretty constantly. It’s hard to turn off this faculty. Both poetry and the essay exert a sense of urgency.
EB: I feel that urgency too. Writing is so deeply rooted in the every day—writing affects how you live your life, but your life also affects your writing. With that in mind, how has being a woman affected your experience as a writer and artist?
LP: Of course deeply, profoundly, endlessly, and naturally. I mean, it’s natural to write “as a woman” and I’ve been lucky enough to be a woman in an era that doesn’t solely relegate “women’s subjects” to specialty aisles (though as VIDA points out with their stellar research, publication is still unbalanced). I’ve been both allowed to (by my era) and trained up to take quite seriously “women’s” subjects and to treat those subjects as “the work” and not necessarily as special issues, but human issues. I assume my issues are both human issues and a woman’s issues, my perspectives both human and woman—and that’s a dance all women understand, I think—the wobble between confidence and questioning in terms of presenting to the culture at large. I think, too, that many essayists who are women (Roxanne Gay, Leslie Jamison, Eula Biss for example) are currently and in very direct ways, articulating hugely important issues, sometimes micro-issues—though I don’t mean “micro” in any kind of diminutive way at all. In fact, I mean the barely heard, the nearly invisible but terribly important, soul-defining, just-under-the-surface enormous issues we (women) all live with but don’t necessarily have language for, and they’re doing it with fantastic style and conscience and power and gorgeously shaped sentences and rigorous thought.
And then, there are, of course, the practicalities of how “being a woman” affects one’s life as a writer: having a child (if you choose to), a family, finding head space and time for it all, considering the body and how the body enters the work… and I’m grateful that so many are confronting and thinking about these complexities, too, and about the many more choices available to us all.
EB: Me too. I’m very grateful to be a woman writer in 2016. Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
LP: This is just a brief excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s essay/memoir called “A Sketch of the Past”:
And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving is what makes me a writer… it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words. It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me… it is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what; making a scene come right; making a character come together. From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.