An Interview with Lia Purpura
By Laura Klebanow
Laura Klebanow: It seems you came to write poetry first, and prose poetry and essays next. Is this correct, or has your work in each genre developed less compartmentally? For example, do you ever start a poem and watch it become a prose poem or essay, or vice versa?
Lia Purpura: The issue of how one discernible genre grows from another is utterly mysterious to me. I’m certain that I’m writing prose, though my essays are called “lyric essays.” In fact, I’ve just written an essay titled “What is a Lyric Essay?” for Seneca Review. In it, I’m making a plea for allowing the form to remain as mysterious as possible. I do mean “mysterious” though in the best way – challenging and magical and able to work on a reader and knit up above the page. I don’t mean at all “unclear” or “sloppy”. The language ought to be as precise as possible in order to affect the most unlikely moves. When I’m writing, an impulse makes itself known as a prose itch or poem-itch. Some failed poems have extended out into prose and found their musculature that way. I don’t think a derailed essay has ever turned itself into a poem.
LK: Did you think that Increase would be your only book of non-fiction essays upon your completion of it, or were you interested in pursuing the form more? Was On Looking already developing when you were at work on Increase? Was there an incident or tipping point that caused you to realize that On Looking could become a full collection? When did the nuggets begin to coalesce?
LP: “On Looking” found a very lucky home at Sarabande. I had been writing essay by essay, noting that one essay would seed another, that if one didn’t finish a thought fully, then the next picked up the strand and extended the language and thinking. I had published a number of these essays individually when Sarah Gorham called and asked to see my work. I sent it off and then began seeing how the parts fit together. She was certain the pile amounted to a full collection and, after removing a few, and finishing up another, I ,too, agreed. After every book, I’m at a loss and have no idea what will happen next. I’m not a writer who has a line up or plans and outlines ready to go. I prefer to be lost.
LK: I was first exposed to Charles Simic in your introductory poetry class—now he is the poet laureate! He’s a dark, surrealist, succinct, biting kind of guy. Why did you choose to teach him to an intro class? You were certainly onto something, since he’s realized much greater recognition since that class (but even if he hadn’t, he’s still more than worth teaching, no doubt). Why was he on your syllabus?
LP: Simic is amazing—he expands all that poem can hold but he does that by writing these tiny poems. Someone once said he endeavored to write an epic on the back of a matchbook cover. He’s full of the magic of folktales and the odd logical leaps I think (no, I believe!) that students “get” when they loosen up from their received notions of what a poem “ought” to do. His work allows a really close study of the line as well.
LK: Before you were a poet, you were a musician, and now you’re married to one, too. Have you ever written a poem or piece directly linked to a certain instrument, or a few bars of a particular musical piece? Do you still play? In your own writing life (I know it’s strange to call it that), do you feel any similarity between the discipline required to play an instrument and that required to compose poetry and essays? Do you have any similar habits when you engage in either act?
LP: Yes, absolutely there’s a connection between a musical life and a writing life. I very much wish I still played the oboe (there’s nothing like that controlled column of air moving through the body, ending in sound and song), but it’s an absolutely unforgiving instrument to take up again. If you spurn it, your embouchure will never really recover. I was the weird kid who never had to be nagged to practice. I loved it. Of course it was frustrating, but I was just inclined to stay with it. Who knows why. My life is filled with music (my husband is a conductor and our son plays the piano and sings) but I don’t conjure it much as a subject – I hope my language shows an attentive ear. I suppose sitting down to writing is very similar to practicing an instrument and that was instilled early.
LK: In The Brighter the Veil, you included a poem about a milliner’s shop—a place now considered unnecessary but, as I imagine it, once a place full of fragile, lovely, small objects. Are you often inspired by things of small, perhaps unnecessary, and serve solely as adornment? Do you collect anything? Do you often begin writing with an animate object in mind?
LP: I collect all kinds of things. Washers for instance. I love the surprise of looking down and finding one shining in the grass or on the street. But I also feel very much a kind of responsibility towards things; I suppose I’m a “keeper” of things in the custodial sense. Old darning eggs (very beautiful, solid wood, and such an odd shape! Hardly anyone knows what they are anymore). An old, later 20’s Royal typewriter with beveled glass sides . . . I punch the keys when I pass it, just to feel the roundness. Old objects, well-made old objects, feel very much like relics, carry stories with them and the suggestion of their uses, and the contexts in which they were used. Even if all that information is not available, objects are infused with and layered up with their uses.
LK: You are the writer-in-residence at Loyola College, and have taught at the Rainier Writing Workshop in Washington State and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where you were a teaching/writing fellow. You also assumed a scholarly role in your translations of Grzegorz Musial’s poetry in Poland. What draws you to teach and engage in classrooms and workshops in a leadership role? When you walk into a classroom of undergraduates—perhaps not all interested in poetry particularly—what do you hope they will gain from your lessons when the semester ends? What about those writers you taught at Iowa—that is, those who have committed themselves, in part at least, to a writing life? What’s the toughest part of leading a workshop of semi-professional poets?
LP: I hope to allow undergrads the chance, if only for a semester, to live like writer, to move through the world like a writer, honing forms of attention, practicing ways to capture and preserve and stabilize thought. I hope to train them up in the art of reading deeply and attentively. Graduate students are terrifically intense, and a joy to teach – like these Ferraris you just touch gently and they fly. Often, though, they need to read more rigorously as writers – not as theoreticians and critics – and be helped to figure out how to become more porous, messier, a little less smart.
LK: When you write poems, do you read the lines aloud as you write and revise them? In other words, do you conceive of your composition with recitation in mind, or not as much?
LP: I read everything aloud to myself. It’s the only way to shape the rhythms of language and prose is no different than poetry in this regard. Reading prose is another story: essays feel to me like a deeply epistolary form and are conceived with a reader in mind – a reader who will be spending with my work in solitude – so when I read an essay aloud I often feel like I’m reading a letter I’ve already written to the person. It’s an odd sensation. It’s not that the prose isn’t “lyrical” – it’s that the form of a reading feels odd to me. Other essayists wouldn’t know what I was talking about at all – so many wonderful essays are written with, say a radio audience in mind, are funny, full of plot and story and characters. Not mine.
LK: What was the first poem you ever had published, and how do you feel when you read it now? Do you recognize the person who wrote that poem as you at ____ (however old you were), or does that person seem like a stranger to you now?
LP: My first poem was published in Columbia Magazine (“Anger” – it ended up in my first book, The Brighter the Veil). In it, the word “gun” repeated and shifted and altered meaning – however, the last time the word appeared was misprinted as “sun” which made some kind of goofy/happy sense and totally wrecked the poem. Thankfully they reprinted it (after some begging) and now it lives rightly. I still certainly do recognize that poem, still feel ok about claiming it. It’s one of the poems that just maintained a clear contrail of its making: where I was sitting when I wrote it (Oberlin’s Mudd Library, first floor) what time of year it was (spring, finals) how I felt (exhausted from studying and with lots of pent up drive to write my own work and stop the English paper I was working on).
Laura Klebanow is an intern with Smartish Pace and a senior at Loyola College, Baltimore. (2007)