Lia Purpura trained as a poet, and it shows: her essays are precise, finely tuned, and subtly accretive. So, too, are the collections in which they appear. I read and charted one of her books, Rough Likeness, for an MFA course with Ander Monson on book-length collections, and talked with her about the twined arts of essay writing, essay collecting, and living.
Sarah Ruth Bates: You’ve said in previous interviews that you don’t map out your books ahead of writing them, that you move intuitively.
Lia Purpura: That’s true, early on, I really don’t work with a map—either a form-map (a drive to “braid”) or an outline of a subject. I have interests, commonly called ‘obsessions,’ but to my mind, it’s more a way of being I try to be alert to—so the writing and the living are one continuous act. In All the Fierce Tethers, as in much of my work, I’m aware of following down trails, and opening passageways to objects, places, ideas, sensations that have been with me all my life, and that I’ve been profoundly intrigued/moved/troubled by. In lieu of an early map, there’s trust in the coherence of a self. When I say trust, it’s not like it’s comfortable or clear or restful, but I do find that finishing one essay leaves all of these very alive questions, or angles, up in the air, and the next essay wants to take that thread up, and stitch it into another essay—an extension or deepening.
Moving this way—and it’s not everybody’s way—lets me sort of set things out and see the ways that essays are speaking to one another, seeing what the conversation is about. Sometimes it’s clear that I’ve overspoken on a certain direct subject, like “insects,” and I don’t want eight essays heavy on insects in a collection. Even if one piece might be beloved, you have to pare back and balance. In On Looking [Purpura's first book of essays], all of the interlocking conversations around the subject of looking and perception, the ethics, the aesthetics, the drive to look at things that are difficult to look at came clear as an arc pretty late in the game. In some of those essays, the looking is very direct; in some, the looking is sidelong. It’s a broad conceptual net, as opposed to being a collection that’s memoir-driven, or told in narrative form, or consciously braided. I know some people find it really helpful to think about “braiding” or other kinds of formal templates, but to me, the making-clear of distinct strands—or methods—at the outset can be constricting. I seem to need to throw it open really wide, both in an individual essay and in a collection, and then look for and strengthen the drives, formal and otherwise, that I see.
All said, though, my interests, concerns, curiosities, questions, are of course known to me, and clear.
SRB: And for that—strengthening strands that you see working—I’ve read that you don’t change much in the pieces that you’ve already published in magazines, and instead, you arrange those finished pieces into a book. I’d love to hear more about that ordering process.
LP: Here’s one story: There’s an essay in Rough Likeness called “Shit’s Beautiful,” about three-fourths of the way into the collection, and as much as it laid out a particular sensibility that might help a reader see into the work as a whole, I chose not to make that the lead essay. I didn’t want the book to be immediately identified by an essay about shit, even though the ethos of that piece is central to my thinking—about the beauty and holiness of natural systems, the ecologies of working systems, the underseen beauty of the body, or that which we see as conventionally “ugly” or crude. The subject itself was too much of a flag, something too easily grabbed and foregrounded in a quick-take way, so I chose instead to place the essay in a live spot, but one that’s neither beginning nor end. So there are a number of considerations: how loudly a piece will speak, and whether it will drown out quieter pieces, or take center stage in a way that might set intentions in an unbalanced way.
There are all kinds of practical considerations that have to be balanced as well, like, what do I do with two fifteen-page essays that really want, subject-wise, to live together, but balance-wise, might leave me with two long essays back-to-back and a pile-up of shorter pieces. So many decisions about form and sequence draw from my other life as a poet, and deep time spent on the balancing of line breaks and lengths, and stanzas, so I think about that a lot in prose as well. I consider, too, within a collection, if three or four essays want to be read as a set, and, if so, how to order that? Should a defined “set” of essays be numbered, or maybe similarly titled—or do I want to scatter the closely related pieces throughout, at beginning, middle, and end? That’s another interesting conundrum I’ve come upon. Questions of “idea” are always, simultaneously, questions of sound, rhythm, breath, and space—form, in other words.
SRB: To make those decisions, do you try arranging the pieces in a few ways?
LP: Oh, many, many ways. Then I try to be really clear about what distinguishes each grouping, and I will write notes to myself about that: “ Grouping #1 focuses on X subject,” or “…makes X possible,” or “Grouping #2 presents an X kind of pace,” “Grouping #3 highlights a seasonal trajectory.” It’s amazing to see the characteristics that each sequencing surfaces. Absolutely, when you start arranging, different thematics arise that previously might have felt like an inkling or tint. You teach yourself so much by grouping and regrouping and re-identifying, and giving different subject or thematic names to sets.
SRB: And those things that you’re teaching yourself through that process—do those come in the next time you sit down to write?
LP: Well, cumulative knowledge can be quiet. Those grouping (or corrals, or frames, or indices) will show me I’ve written, say, five poems about insects. That’s fine, but, then I need to ask myself if I’m writing the same poem over and over, or if, on the other hand, I want to think about intensifying that impulse.
SRB: I’ve been curious about some of your formal choices as well, and I wonder how much you think about them consciously, especially parentheticals and exclamation points.
LP: Parentheticals, I think, represent a mode of thinking rather than a self conscious move. Another writer might interpret those inner-voiced thoughts as footnotes, or another writer might edit them out entirely, not wanting a conversational tone, but the parentheticals for me are a kind of accretive way of thinking and being that reflects a way of coming to know, giving some space to inner commentary, the extension of a mind at work.
The exclamation points? Well, they’re either saying “WHOA!” or are doing some kind of imitative commentary—they’re gestures that need to be read in context, always. Sometimes they are just flat-out ecstatic, completely honest little stun marks.
SRB: I really enjoy them, because each one feels like a shared moment or a little celebration.
LP: That’s really nice—as shared celebrations. Exclamations are complex—I don’t use them ironically—that’s not my register—but they can function as a way of commenting on others’ excitement about a subject I’m not especially agreeing with.
SRB: It’s been interesting, reading for those formal choices, because the MFA asks us to chart those elements in our own work, and ask questions about how much we use them and how we may amplify them. I’ve been curious about that in your work, because you are so intuitive with your process.
LP: Well, I don’t have an MFA in the essay, so I kind of just made the path for myself, and I suggest that method to students—make your own way, as much as possible. That’s hard to do in school, because, as you say, you’re asked to be reflective constantly, which can kind of get in the way of the immediacy or weirdness of composition, because you’re foregrounded and are leading with self-consciousness—and I think most of all, you don’t want to lead with too much in your head other than curiosity.
SRB: I wonder how workshops go, for you, because your pieces correspond so clearly to your particular mind, and your way of being, and I could imagine somebody trying to change your stuff in ways that would be different from what it’s trying to be.
LP: You mean they wouldn’t make it through a workshop!
SRB: Well, what does it mean to make it through?
SRB: I just don’t know that workshops would be helpful for them.
LP: I think you’re right—and none of these essays have ever been through workshops. As I said, I was at Iowa as a poet, so none of my prose has ever been through—or threatened by—a workshop.
SRB: I think it’s a failing of the workshop, rather than an issue with the work. I’m trying to approach the workshop in a useful and open way, but I think that the ways in which one can be swayed are fraught.
LP: Yeah, there’s so much going on there, and it’s really hard to keep your work yours—when you know it will be prodded—and when you have to negotiate so much about the sources of critique. The whole “MFA model” of workshops is, thankfully, no longer singular, and there are many different forms of really productive reflection going on out there. The choreographer Liz Lerman wrote a book called Critical Response Process. It’s a kind of general workshop manual that you can apply to anything, any art form under consideration by a group. As she says, “feedback for anything you make, from dance to dessert.” She has a very particular set of questions she asks and stances that she takes as a choreographer, but her method is totally adaptable, and a lot of it is profoundly author/creator-centered, and involves the workshop participants asking questions and listening, as opposed to giving opinions and claiming territory—or maintaining canons and systems of power, overtly or covertly. Some of the questions go so far as to ask the author whether or not the author wants to hear an opinion: “I have something to say about the ending. Would you like to hear it?” and you’re then free, as the author, to say, “no, I don’t need that right now,” or, “yeah, lay it on me.” Then, she encourages people to speak in questions, like, “I’m wondering what you were getting at here, when you did x …..?” It’s not defensive—it’s an actual question. It’s not like, [confrontational tone] “I’m wondering what the hell you were getting at…”—It’s not that. And it’s also not a showcase for judgment, like, “well that moment, when that guy’s walking through the storm—I don’t see the point.” Curiosity doesn’t allow for that. It’s a profound change of stance that I have found really helpful.
SRB: There’s a—it feels related—field of trauma-sensitive work that I’m familiar with through yoga, like, “you’re invited to raise your arm,” or, “you might find it useful to…”
LP: Sounds like a similar family of thought….
SRB: I really like that, and I try to teach with it.
LP: The workshop—as a space—can be used to maintain the power structure of the dominant players or it can be a space that actively works to hear and honor a full landscape of styles, subjects, voices. Its work can confirm convention or it can be dedicated to emergence.
SRB: And that feels more honest to me, because no one is actually compelled to take judgmental workshop advice, even if it’s given.
LP: It’s true! And why have we constructed workshops to privilege people who are critically adept, or driven by ego, or aggressive, or garrulous in one way or another? The language we use when talking about art/work matters, and the intent matters. And being open and clear about what your workshop is trying to accomplish and how it will proceed matters. It’s a challenge to try and ask open-ended and neutral questions that are truly helpful, and not, in some way, a veiled opinion or a veiled judgment, or a desire to call certain moves or subjects “broken” and then fix broken things.
SRB: Yes. These questions feel essential to looking at your books as collections, because each of the pieces are so in touch with themselves, so meshed at the line level.
LP: The attention paid at the line level has much to do with starting my writing life as a poet and now, with working in two genres. Line to line, I’m prose-writing very freely, but there’s a lot of shaping going on soon after the initial jotting, a lot of listening to sound, much attention to rhythm. In part, that’s because I’m not all that attentive to story initially—though I work hard on storytelling, which is not always my inclination.
SRB: That doesn’t seem to be the axis that things are moving along. I’d love to hear you think out loud about what kind of trajectory is happening in place of a narrative one.
LP: Well, sometimes they’re very small incidents that are striking or lit in some way, and I have to write my way into the questions, or into the kinned ideas that are surrounding the moment. Something happens in the moment—where does it lead, how does it reverb, what’s associated with that? In place of a kind of plot or narrative, I work by association and accretion. And then I stand back and see what I’m saying.
SRB: That’s where it makes such sense to me that the line level needs to be attended to, because that’s where this is all happening, right? It’s not incidental.
LP: Exactly. So therefore, image becomes central and driving, and not just as an illustration, but as a kind of element itself. A mind itself.
SRB: Absolutely. Thank you—this is striking many notes for me! I’ll ask one more question, since I’m in a class on collections: what are you collecting these days?
LP: I’m not collecting full, long pieces at the moment. I have two fairly recent essays out in the online magazine, Emergence [here and here]. Otherwise, what I’m collecting, literally, are scraps and observations. That’s the best thing I can do right now, because it’s been such an upending time, amplified in the past year. I’m looking at my notebook right now: there are entries as simple as “a mossy roof”; or “smoke from the neighbor’s fireplace, orange at sunset”; “circle of grass, yellow under the flowerpot”; “snow lying on the branch of a tree—tenderness.” Really, really basic. And much note taking on books, the news, conversations. I have no idea where these are going, or what they will be, but it feels right and restoring to see, and to say.
Lia Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books), her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as five Pushcart Prizes, the Associated Writing Programs Award in Nonfiction, and others. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, Agni, Emergence, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD, where she is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She has taught in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program, at Breadloaf Writers Conference, The University of Iowa’s Nonfiction MFA program and at conferences, workshops, and graduate programs throughout the country. Her newest collection of poems is It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin) and her latest collection of essays is All the Fierce Tethers (Sarabande Books).
Sarah Ruth Bates is a third-year nonfiction MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. Her work has appeared in Hobart, No Contact, Aeon, the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, and elsewhere.