An Interview With Lia Purpura

They say that dynamite comes in small packages. The same could be said about Lia Purpura’s latest poetry collection, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, released this week from Viking/Penguin (pick up a copy today). Packed with Purpura’s typical attention to the often unnoticed, and strengthened by her ability to craft lyrical yet succinct lines, these little poems pack a large punch. In honor of the book's release, editors at The Pinch asked Lia some questions about the collection.

P: The form of the poems stand out. They are all quite brief, taking up less than half a page, with only a few words per line. Many of these even read like proverbs. Is there a lesson you were trying to give? Can you talk about the form?

LP: The brief experience can be, to introduce the paradoxical here, an enormous experience. So much that appears only briefly is marked by powerful physical sensation—a quick whiff of a scent that throws you back to childhood, the unguarded gesture that reveals one’s authentic feelings. A flinch. A pang. A welling in the chest that accompanies an unexpected emotion. Dickinson’s “certain slant of light.” Certainly, “brief” things can be tossed—off things, ideas or gestures that are capped or lopped or unfulfilled, the sound bite, the clip. But the short-form can also present a depth experience, rather than merely cater to the supposedly short attention span of the contemporary reader. The layered thought, heightened moment, precise incident, lasered attention of short forms allow for an experience of spaciousness. I hope the air, or the landscape around the poems is part of the experience of reading them. Proverbs, riddles, jokes—all those forms intensify pauses, present thought in dense ways that unfold as you, the listener or reader, sit with them, engage with them. That’s an experience of being alive I value, believe in—being stilled in the presence of feeling and thought, being an active part of making thought take shape.

The title takes its name from a line in “Rare Moment;” why that line? Why that title?

The surprise I wrote about in “Rare Moment” is the kind of surprise many of the poems were engaging, each in their own way. The sense of a thing that “shouldn’t have been beautiful” but then, presented itself with dignity and weight, and a stunning sense of unexpected beauty—well, that’s the world speaking a language it’s very hard to discern, with our human-constructed aesthetics. Objects, moments, events that present unexpected beauty, or usually-unnoted worthiness, or shocks, or intact mysteries—those are the things/experiences I was after.

You pay a lot of attention to the organic, things like plants, flowers, goldfinches, leaves, and others. What is the intent here?

The creaturely world is animate, alive, sentient, vitally engaged in its own goings-on quite apart from us and our need or use for it.  And our misuse of it. To see into the lives of these individuals, even in sidelong, even only briefly—that’s a stance I believe in, and it’s a way that language might repair certain tears in our consciousness, restlessness in our behavior, violence in our attitudes.

In the poem “Creation,” you start by writing:

"I want to get
a feeling
not sensation,
clip art cut
and spliced
brief samplings

of Michelangelo...”

As a writer, how do you ensure that you get the feeling “right” and that your reader does as well?

Wow—who ever knows if they’ve gotten anything “right”! These few lines from Merwin’s poem called “Berryman” are always close to me:

“…I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
 you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good

if you have to be sure don't write.”

That moment–“I want to get a feeling right”–isn’t so much addressing whether or not the act of writing is accurate, or if I “got it right” but rather, it’s an investigation into, no, more an assertion of the worth of creating, as opposed to merely arranging. I still believe an artist can make stuff and not merely arrange it or use bits to refer to.

There is a transformative quality to many of the poems, whether through evolution of landmasses, passage of time, or proverbial statements against titled emotions. Did you go through a transformation of any kind while writing the book?

My previous collection, King Baby, was a book-length series of linked poems marking a journey, behaving as a conversation. So this new collection did, indeed, mark a transformation of stance and form for me. The constant, heightened responsiveness of the poems in It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful made for transformative moment after moment; the seeds for these poems came in in very different ways, though I’m not sure I know how to talk about it any more than that.  I’ll just say that the “definitions-in-progress” of these poems kept open a very particular kind of force and energy for me.

Lastly, you write both poetry and nonfiction. Can you talk a little bit about the different approaches you take toward each?

I’ve got these two very different musculatures to work with – I can work long or short depending on the feel of the day or the shape of my thinking. The poems are certainly not “easier” in their brevity nor do they take less time than essays – it’s that the physical sensation, the sense of time and space involved in each form is very different and I’m attracted to both. Often, the essays behave in highly lyrical ways and move about the way poems traditionally do, by way of leaps of thought and image, while the poems behave like small essays, asserting, organizing, unrolling a thought or concept. The crossover, the ability to do both is exciting, and each form feeds the other by some underground spring I trust and feel but haven’t actually seen.




Lia Purpura is the author of 7 collections of essays, poems, and translations. Her awards include a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, NEA and Fulbright Fellowships, and three Pushcart prizes. On Looking (essays) was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poems and essays appear in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, Field and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her collection of poems It Shouldn’t Have been Beautiful, has just been published by Viking/Penguin.


Interviewers: Peter Hogan and Matthew Gallant