Lia Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems and translations.Her honors include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, National Endowment for the Arts and Fulbright Fellowships, and the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction. Recent work appears in Agni, Field, The Georgia Review, Orion, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Best American Essays, and elsewhere. She is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a member of the core faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. A new collection of poems, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin) will be out in 2015.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Rosie Huf. Of the process, she said, “It was a true pleasure to have had the opportunity to interview Lia Purpura. I admire her passion for the natural world and her devotion to transcendent language.” In this interview, Lia discusses traversing life as a writer, her commitment to authentic reflection, and her upcoming poetry collection It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful.
Superstition Review: Your essay “There are Things Awry Here,” first published in Orion Magazine, resonated with me a great deal as I too have experienced the lure of Tuscaloosa. Would you discuss what ignited your desire to write this essay?
Lia Purpura: I don’t always recall the moment of ignition, but in the case of this particular essay, it was a sharply uncomfortable and therefore memorable event. I was staying at a hotel and very much needed to get out and walk, breathe, touch something not-concrete, built, ugly, monumental—but the only space available to me was a huge parking lot, ringed with even more big box stores. The very few people in sight were moving fast from cars to stores without any connection to the land. A few gardeners were trimming the sparse grass around the lot. I decided to walk anyway, and was acutely aware of my body moving though this inhospitable landscape, of feeling very small and very much not-a-machine—and very out of place and strange looking. And while the walk had the effect of physically tiring me out (which I needed), I remember, too, going back to my hotel room and in an attempt to try to feel real again, taking notes on the sensation, the displacement I just described. Those notes and observations—and what grew into a series of questions about the history of the land, eventually became the essay.
SR: At one point in the essay you state, “I knew in this vacancy something asserted. Something strange—that is, real—and insistent was here. The land didn’t mean to be torn and tar covered, wasn’t meant to sprout stock farmers, farm women, and ranchers. The land asked to be considered, and seriously.” What does the role of nature play in your work?
LP: To find ways to talk about, dramatize, and imagine states of being that we have no language for is one way I think about the inner life and drive of writing—both poetry and prose. Confronting the ruin we, as humans, perpetrate on other creatures and the land/air/water is another task that’s central to my life as a writer. I believe very deeply that art can address the biggest issues of our day in that it can allow readers (viewers, listeners) to inhabit new ways of being alive, of caring and taking care. Phrases like “There’s nothing more important today than (insert critical issue here)” are really tempting—any good, hearty statement about extremes is tempting and cleansing and rousing—but they ultimately end up polarizing the big issues and then one gets encamped and ends up behaving in a partisan way upholding a single issue and failing to see interdependencies. Or one feels lessened and cheapened by shorthand and the too-simple terms one becomes associated with. And yet, there’s a need to stand for, stand up for, and be lucid about stuff that matters, isn’t there? This is a long way of saying that my concerns about the losses we’re facing (of life forms and species, habitats) and the destruction we’re continuing on with despite ample evidence of the consequences – are central to my thinking and have been since I was a child, and drive my work in a core sense, as I ask how I might talk about such things, and why, and why in the forms I’ve chosen to work in, poetry and essay. So “nature” doesn’t so much “play a role” in my work as it is a force I’m conscious of talking to and about, and the sets of mind, the cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual habits of mind that are really hard to pin and yet which drive so much decision making—these are the things I’m most interested in engaging.
SR: How do you navigate between the writing of nonfiction and poetry? Have you ever explored other genres?
LP: I’m involved with poetry and prose at the same time. One urge usually asserts when I sit down to work—I kind of wait to see which pushes its way to the front first. Or—if I’m deeply involved with a poem or set of poems, the essays rest a while and cook on their own—then, after the poems are tended, the essays get their chance to be front burner. Each form calls up a different stride and so it’s been really good for my overall musculature to have both forms—the density of poems and the extension of prose—to work with, and the time signatures of each—brevities or sustained lines of thought—those often across genre lines.
SR: In “Of Two Minds,” you state, “When I read Dickenson and Whitman back to back, I am reading for the precipitous rise and fall between them. If styles are territories, I want to tack along those open ranges and consider the America that holds them both.” How has reading instructed your own style?
LP: The essay “On Being of Two Minds” is an extended meditation on the phenomena of holding a lot of contradictory affinities together in one person: not resolving, but recognizing. Pretty much as soon as I assert a love for one thing (Whitman and the talky, intimate, endless, raging song of it all) a kind of opposing force rears up (Dickinson and the taut, bare, dense scaffolding of thought out of which a wrangling with spirit is built). This thought gesture, an assertion followed by another equally powerful assertion, is just a fact of what it is to be me. So my reading is pretty various and I’m interested in and fed by a lot of different styles and stances and genres. I need a full alphabet of nutrients.