Monday, July 22, 2019

Mysteries Provoke Me: a Conversation with Lia Purpura

Lia Purpura is one of my favorite essayists and people, so the occasion of the release of her fourth book of essays, All the Fierce Tethers, this last spring was an opportunity for anticipation. It's a heck of a book, building on the strengths of her earlier work. It's an important book, and I'm happy to present our conversation about the book to our readers here at Essay Daily.


Ander Monson: To talk about your new book, All the Fierce Tethers, out this Spring from Sarabande Books, I’d like to start by picking up on something you said a few years back when you visited my graduate craft seminar on the structure of collections. You said that when you end an essay, you try to leave at least one question unanswered that the next essay can pick up, so as to create a sense of linkage. I carry that thought with me on some level all the time, and it came back strongly when looking at the beautiful image on the cover: “Purkinje Cell of the human cerebellum.” 

It’s an image of a human brain cell that appears at first to be a network of roots, or perhaps a tree, or even some kind of tributary system. The interconnectedness is the first thing you notice, as well as its indeterminate quality: what the heck is it, most people probably think. (Not me: you know I’m into diagrams, and I have books of these cell diagrams, if not perhaps any quite as striking or resonant as this one.) But—

Lia Purpura: In the spirit of real conversation—the one we’d be having if we were sitting together over coffee—I’m going to interrupt with an aside. The sense of interconnectedness you mention is central to my work. But it’s not often a restful notion. A kind of popular version of “we’re all one” so often imposes that woozy/cozy/chummy kinship model and that coziness, to me, has always had an effect similar to the “I don’t see color” stance—which is a statement spoken from a position of privilege, seeking to assuage the speaker’s discomfort or revealing a lack of perception of cultural systemics. To work with “interconnectedness” brings up issues of responsibility, sacrifice, accountability, loss, hierarchy, awe, joy, tenderness.... In these essays, I’m aware of being a mere “dot” on a police helicopter’s screen, or being seen by a woodchuck or a tree, and thus leveled—in other words, what roles other than “centralized human” in the web of interconnectedness are available to us, what do these positions feel like, how do I enter those bodies, how do they remake me…. these are some of the questions I’m working on in the book.

AM: I think the metaphor you used then was that an essay throws a bunch of balls in the air, and it tries to catch at least some of them, but you wanted to leave at least one uncaught ball at the end of every essay. In retrospect I wonder if the ball thing is just my gloss of what you’re talking about with interconnectedness—or maybe tethering?—and how you think of a collection.

LP: A collection works as a kind of system of angles and approaches and the essays themselves suggest subjects and further investigations: so often I find that by the end of an essay, the subject(s) have grown wildly dimensional. Or—to stick with the circulatory system model which might be way better and way less suggestive of a linear path—the questions and ideas constellate, they get dimensional. So in “Photographing Children in Trees”, a child is experiencing what it is to be made a symbol for the pleasure of others; in “My Eagles”, I assert the same problem by way of eagles and ways they’ve been stripped of identity, agency, standing, and selfhood for the sake conventional definitions of “country” and “ideals” and thus are no longer beings. Sometimes I see the tethers between essays in hindsight, though they’ve been linking up on their own all along. Sometimes I’m aware of “thematic” forces earlier on but more often, I’m not thinking in theme—it’s that certain rages take over, or mysteries provoke me, stir curiosity, won’t let me go.

AM: I hear you about the rages/mysteries. I just began, for instance, an essay about an image of a pair of doll hands on what looks like soft grass (maybe moss or a mat, I’m not sure) called Doll Hands on Soft Grass:

I’ve been spending a lot of time buying doll parts on eBay, but what I really love about this particular image is the presentation. It’s the grass in the background, or whatever it is, that does it. Like they’re cradled. And it’s not a clean mat or carpet: there are bits of all sorts of stuff in there. I’m not sure what about the image (or the genre of these images: do the people who sell these know how creepy they are? Given the preponderance of creepiness apparently embraced in these images, they must lead into it. But that not knowing is fantastic, and extremely compelling for me, and I’m heartened to know that I’m not the only weirdo who feels taken over by them. Would you talk a little bit more about how mystery informs your artistic practice (or these essays?). I think it’s very undersung as a tool in nonfiction.

LP: Those dolls…wow. They just crack open so much. Objects trailing moments and scenes like those come to me wordlessly. In a tangle. A totally fertile tangle which might, at once, include a sense of something very wrong, something vulnerable, or amusing, or frightening, or it might be a wild juxtaposition that hits (hypodermic needle amid peonies in bloom) or a curiosity that won’t let up—all of these portals, or itches, or drives usually don’t arrive with viable language. They arrive and suggest questions and shocks, disbeliefs, they urge further interrogation, require digging into so often, forces that we’re not yet aware of, systemically. One question “Scream, or Neverminding” asks is: what does it mean to understand yourself to be part of a destructive system and yet opt out of forms of action that might create conditions for change? And what role does art have in this conundrum? I’m asking the question of myself, of course, not holding the reader in some glaring moral light. 

AM: So to come back to that question of tethering and interconnectedness, does that also extend to the ways in which your books move into one another, or into the culture? If so, what was/were the question/questions that Rough Likeness left unanswered that you carried forward into All the Fierce Tethers?

LP: All the Fierce Tethers definitely takes up the charge of Rough Likeness’s inquiries into heightened perception, the consequences of looking very hard and cracking into the questions—moral-aesthetic-humane questions—that intense looking kicks up. Here, though, I’m aware of moving out into community more directly—my community, my city, Baltimore and its near-apartheid conditions, my own efforts to move beyond certain assumed and assented to boundaries, spoken and unspoken. I want to get at the stories that map the land, the stories that like palimpsests lay over the streets I walk daily, the beings both human and non that I meet while moving through, the ways I experience relationships with others, am centered or not. How do we assent to or revoke the assigned hierarchies (land/animals/trees v. humans) or respond to (or choose not to, because some of us have that choice) the ways we live in racially and economically and ideologically divided spaces?

AM: I think I’ve shared with you before that one of my primary experiences of reading your work is that of bewilderment, a pleased kind of transporting in which I really have no idea where we’re going at first but am along for the ride, and of course the more unexpected the chain of images and moments are, the better. 

I wonder now, thinking about this, if connectivity in an essay is a kind of ethos you’ve arrived at? Is it an ethos for living too? The perfume writer and essayist Luca Turin (have you read him?) tells me in one of his essays that “unfamiliar angles are a sort of joy,” which reminds me of an “undersung moment” in “On Coming Back as a Buzzard.” I wonder if that kind of back road travel between undersung moments or images or angles that don’t seem obviously to be connected be more than an aesthetic move but a political argument?

LP: Attention to back road travel and undersung moments (undersung people and creatures, too) yes, I believe constitutes an ethos. Yes. Absolutely. The cover of All the Fierce Tethers is drawing of a Purkinje cell of the human cerebellum (by the extraordinary Santiago Ramon y Cajal—“father of modern neuroscience”)—which also resembles a tree, or the branchings of alveoli, or tributaries seen from a height…in other words, we are so closely allied with others that even our forms align, the purposes of our forms align and it actually takes very little imagination to see kinship—though as a species at large, we certainly have forfeited direct access to imagining kinship in favor of so many ways of mediating direct experience or filtering it or blocking it out entirely. I do have hope—in the awe that kinship thinking offers. The NYT recently ran an article, “Our Planet is Just as Alive as We Are” (Ferris Jabr, 4/21/19) citing the ways the Gaia hypothesis is being revisited now—as opposed to being ridiculed as it has been—(just quick: biologist Lynn Margulis proposed in the early 70s, we—living and nonliving elements—“are parts and partners of a vast being who in her entirety has the power to maintain our planet as a fit and comfortable habitat for life”). This is large scale thinking of course. I traffic in micros that support and confirm the larger scale concepts. In working on the undeniable connectedness, ways of imagining into others’ lives and habits, trying to feel and scent and see accurately enough that I can find some fluency to bring back from diving expeditions (I’m thinking here of Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” and the charge she set herself to find language for states of being that were going unnamed and therefore actively destroying the viability of her lived experience). “Interconnectedness” can be mishandled and can signal a kind of lazy simple chumminess as I mentioned earlier. Or, on the other hand, committing to it can open opportunities for substantial change of heart and behavior. 

AM: Thinking about connectivity as an ethos makes me think about collaboration and the way in which (y)our essays are not just expressions of the self but filters in which a lot of other material gets caught. In your work we have the sense of a roving eye: it’s not surprising that sight is the sense we’re attuned to more often than anything else in your work: you pick up eagles, dots, and childhood. The Crate & Barrel new store manager makes an appearance, your grandmother’s wooden spoons, a woman in a bikini with a snake as a necklace, “How Deep is Your Love,” etc. 

LP: “Roving” is a great term. I love it. It’s that I can’t help but throw the net wide, my north star belief being that story (no “the”—just “story”) wants to get told from undersung angles—story has to be told that way for the sake of not only justice but accuracy—consider the silenced or quiet, the unseen, hidden-from-view … a world without buzzards and maggots is not a viable world. It won’t actually function in a sustained way. Eliminating the “uglies” breaks the system. This goes for forms of time that we are not literate in as well. A world in which serious slow time, tree and moss time is not considered, seen, allowed … well, that sets the conditions for the overriding and destruction of actual habitats… and that's where we are now. Similarly, “collaboration” and “community” cannot be reduced to merely “feel good” terms. A class is an organism. A poem is a conversation. 


Lia Purpura’s new collection of essays, All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books) has arrived!  Her most recent collection of poems is It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Viking/Penguin.) She is the author of three previous collections of poems (King Baby, Stone Sky Lifting, The Brighter the Veil); three previous collections of essays (Rough Likeness, On Looking, Increase), and one collection of translations (Poems of Grzegorz Musial: Berliner Tagebuch & Taste of Ash).
Ander Monson is the founder of Essay Daily. 

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