January 2013

Noah Charney


An Interview with Lia Purpura

Lia Purpura is a successful writer in two genres that are difficult to pull off, and still more difficult means to make a living. She is a poet and essayist in an era in which both writing styles have, unfortunately, been marginalized. Poetry, once the most honored of literary forms, its practitioners sponsored by kings and royals, is still well thought of, but is only taken to heart, and truly read, by a relatively small group of dedicated enthusiasts. Essays, once the art form of Cicero and Montaigne, are likewise sidelined in favor of quantity of words, over quality of argument. It is easier to live as a writer producing a thousand words a day that are neither crafted nor proofread, but simply provide internet content, than to sculpt a thousand word essay over a two-month period that will resound with truth, wit, and wisdom. Hats off to stalwarts like Lia Purpura, who excel in both genres, and fight the good fight for good writing.

Purpura has been highly decorated, the recipient of several awards and a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker (among the last bastions of great poetry and essays), and of her latest essay collection, Rough Likeness, Philip Lopate wrote: "Lia Purpura is at the forefront of the New Essay, and this latest book (her best) takes us much close into the rough terrain of her quirky mind..."

I interviewed Purpura about how to write poetry in the post-patron era, the aura of ISBN numbers, and the joys of seventh grade humor.

Where did you grow up?

On Long Island.

Where and what did you study?

English at Oberlin College, then got an MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

Where do you live and why?

I'm now in Baltimore and love it. It's unpretentious, complicated (yes, The Wire; yes, Homicide) and yet, in so many ways, behaves like a small town. It's part southern, very East Coast, somewhat rustbelt... a place of many converging forces.

You were a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow. What did that entail, and how has it helped your career?

The Guggenheim Fellowship entailed a lot of joyful celebrating and now a lot of patient writing and deep reading. I just finished up a new manuscript of poems, and I'm working on a new collection of essays.

Gone are the days when poets had aristocratic sponsors who kept them employed so they could focus on poetry. Because it is rare for a poet to sell enough books to live off of, how do most poets make a living these days, and how do you think it has altered poetry in general, now that most poets are obliged to have day jobs?

Art has always been hard to reckon in day-to-day ways -- and artists and writers have, more often than not, either lived very simply, or taught or edited or worked a nine-to-fiver. I teach. I love teaching. I try to keep the business end of teaching as minimal as possible -- for me, staying untenured has helped -- which isn't easy, and requires a lot of negotiating unto itself.

Is there one among your collections that is the best place to begin, for those unfamiliar with your work?

Essay-wise, I'd say that On Looking sets out ways I think and believe... Rough Likeness, then, takes many of those inclinations, about seeing deeply, and moves into dramatizing, as Woolf wrote, "moments of being."

How about one poem of yours that you'd consider exemplary, as a preview for those new to your work?

I'd set people up with the newest one, "Allegories," in the Oct 9, 2012 issue of The New Yorker. It's a good indication of what my new work is up to. I'm working short now... the essays are getting longer and the poems shorter, each form maybe fulfilling its extreme.

How does your approach differ in these two different media?

It's really curious: I sit to work, often without a sense of which road I'll be taking that morning. I rummage around a while, shuffle some papers, look into the poetry folder or the essay folder and a direction snags, just catches like a jagged nail on a sweater, and I'm off. Of course, sometimes I'm directly compelled toward a thing in progress and that takes all my attention for days on end -- those mornings are even more pleasant, because I can just throw myself in fast and know at least what playing field I'm on immediately.

Do you write the first draft of a poem in one sitting, or does it emerge more slowly?

Poems usually do come in one sitting. They're not necessarily any good yet, but rather, it feels like a gesture fills out completely in one sitting. There's endless reworking and deepening to deal with, but still, there's a dependable core to work. In fact, my latest collection worked closely with exactly that gesture -- very fully staying with a small moment, an errant thought-that-hit, and writing into the density of that moment, small as it was. It was a kind of commitment to the worth and value of a small moment, one otherwise lost if not attended to.

Describe your morning routine.

Up early. Lots of coffee. Sit to write. I'm super alert in the morning, so it's a good time for me. I have to remember to tone it down sometimes, around others who are a little slower to kick into gear.

What is your favorite item of clothing?

Ridiculously old ratty sweaters for writing. My son just begged me to get rid of one awful green one -- and then (I was thrilled!) to find almost the exact sweater at a local thrift store. The cashier overheard my son flipping out about it, and said something like "Now that is an old man sweater. That's a grandfather special. You CANNOT get that." Score one for my son. He physically led me to the women's section.

What books (not your own) would you recommend to your readers?

Ann Pancake's collection of short stories Given Ground, and novel, Strange as This Weather Has Been. Astonishingly embodied and physical writing that offers constant stings of beauty and sharp "wounds," as Barthes would say, of recognition.

Jack Turner's The Abstract Wild is best summed up in his sentences "A created environment is a neutered wild, a wild to which we no longer live in vital relationship" and "To create a wilder self, the self must live the life of the wild, mold a particular form of human character, a form of life. Relics will not do, tourism will not do, books will not do." I especially appreciate the challenge of that last statement, because I believe so wholly in language and books, frail as words are... all issues I'm actively taking on in my new work.

Lawrence Sutin's gorgeous, brief novel, When to Go into the Water. So delicate, otherworldly, yet precise, honed, deeply atmospheric.

What is a place that inspires you?

I seem to need a lot of distance from an inspiring place -- years and miles -- in order to write about it. When I'm in a place, I just want to be in it, not looking up and writing about it. To really write a thought, or a place, into being, I seem to approach it from afar. I get discombobulated, too, when I bring stuff I'm working on into a new and fascinating place -- the work gets overrun by the place and my own words feel foreign. The real place detonates the imaginative place. We actually travel a lot (my husband's a conductor, and works all over the world) and nearly everywhere I've been asserts, at some point, and in some way, but just not while I'm there.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

No maps, no maps, no maps. No projects, no plans -- just strong inklings, directions, territories. I'm attentive to families of ideas and disciplined enough to stay with those frames, but I have to keep intentions fuzzy as much as possible or things feel stark and locked down.

Some author-to-author advice: What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

I think Stephen Dunn said it best: "early and frequent verbal events." I'd also say that I'm calibrated to register language physically -- living writing causes pangs, and lances, swipes, presses the breath out. It's necessary to be patient, as a reader, to allow momentum to build, but it's also true that vitality announces, bursts seams and comes on because it's irrepressible.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from there?

I work in a room on the second floor of our house that looks out over our small backyard and into an apple tree and a pine. According to the season, the view gets dense or opens up. So in the summer, when all the trees are fully leafed, I can't see over to the next street at all, and the window frame is lush and close and filled with green. In fall, everything pares back, and slowly the rest of the neighborhood to the west comes back into view. What I lose in color and lushness is replaced by distance and clarity. It's mostly the act of living-with and then shifting, of going through change, that's most moving. I keep the skulls of small animals in front of me on the sill. The landscape of a skull is stark, elegant, proportioned according to need and function.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

Jokes a seventh grade boy would find funny.

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

Oh, weepy occasions around every corner ambush me. I'm unsuspecting and always nabbed.

Do you have any superstitions?

Constantly knocking and spitting. Constantly. Very Old World.

What is your favorite snack?

The word "snack" itself is so great. Just saying it is tasty.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had "made it" as an author?

This is odd and seemingly unlike me in so many ways -- not being one for systems and markets -- but I was deeply moved by my first ISBN number. It made me feel small in all the right ways. It also allowed me to feel part of a library, which for me is a sacred space.

What do you need to have produced in order to feel that you've had a productive writing day?

There's a great deal of variation here. Sometimes one good sentence or paragraph, sometimes solving a problem of phrasing or thought that's long dogged me, sometimes patiently researching, sometimes the sketching out of a long essay. Any way in which I can feel I've "landed" is good.