Lia Purpura Interview
The Near-Miss Nature of it All
Amy Wright: Do you follow any advice columnists?
Lia Purpura: Very funny and weirdly pertinent question! I used to follow Dear Abby fanatically. In fact, my grandmother would send me huge packs of clipped columns when I was at college. Abby was sensible and no-nonsense (“are you better off with him or without him”?) and cut through the crap in really succinct ways. She was empathic, never coddled or scolded, and she wasn’t above apologizing for a lousy answer or changing her point of view when presented with a better thought. And she had a kind of bawdy side, too. I wanted to be her—I very much wanted her job. She was – and this is rare now—an adult. The field is scattered and specialized now and there’s no one comparable—
AW: Who is Jed? [to whom Purpura’s essay collection On Looking is dedicated]
LP: Jed Gaylin is the Conductor and Music Director of two orchestras in the States (the Bay-Atlantic Symphony,NJ—and the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra, MD) and guest conductor of many international orchestras (most recently in China, Russia and Spain), cook, voracious reader, pianist, best joke-teller ever, most astute critic and—my husband.
AW: In “On Form,” you describe an essayist’s task of “recording, recording, recording.” I know of an artist who studies scrap book editing, examining the discarded clippings of photographs for what they can tell her. Crying faces go to the dustbin, neutral moments, the blandly domestic. I know you are a conscientious watcher, so you must have noticed your decisions to leave out certain information. In “Autopsy Report,” for example, you eliminate the back story that brings you to the twelve naked male bodies on dissecting tables. “Stay with me,” you say in another essay, “Events will fit themselves to themselves.” Is it trust in the reader to hold lightly the reins of narrative, or is there a private methodology to the missing?
LP: This is a spectacular question and gets at the heart of some complicated issues about aesthetics, teaching, creating and the act of reflecting on one’s own work. I am aware, of course, of the writer-as-shaping force, but I have a hard time talking about my “method” — I don’t want to sound dumb or withholding in any way, but here’s the truth: I try not to think too hard about how I do what I do. I guess it would be accurate to say, yes, I DO trust the reader to hold lightly the reins of the narrative, or to be patient while an essay unfolds. I DO believe in my reader—mysterious, distant, unknown as s/he is to me. That’s way my faith unfolds or expresses. Sometimes I feel the need to encourage or reassure the reader a little, so I do that. There’s no “private methodology” at work, in terms of what’s elided or fore grounded. I’m trying in each essay to be what I know of as “myself” on the page. To think and feel openly. I hope I keep getting closer and closer to that which is impossible to say. This way of proceeding is what makes it hard to teach; what am I going to say: “just be yourself?” That’s less than helpful and too opaque. People want to “get it”—readers and students alike deserve to invited in—so I try my best to teach like a writer, to point out issues of balance and missing or overemphasized parts, to help people read closely, to help them learn how to love a piece. (And to be very direct here and answer your question, I went to see the autopsies because I had gotten to a point in another essay, “On Not Hurting a Fly” where I felt I couldn’t accurately write about the human body without seeing and knowing it—so I talked my way in to the city coroner’s office. I ended up with so much information and so much sensation that the very unexpected essay, “Autopsy Report” was born. Pure research move—no major “back-story”!)
AW: Kenneth Koch describes a “poetry base” that wings writers of poetry along a “wisdom breeze” of osmotic inheritance. Reading poetry lifts new voices along an aural continuum that helps them access greater mysteries than they might without the rhythm of tradition. I hear a steady lilting through your lyric essays that suggests the same thing might be at work in prose. Since you write in both media, can you speak to how the ear, almost of its own accord, reaches toward something?
LP: Whatever lilt or lisp or accent that’s apparent in my essays is likely born of the way poetry reckons with me. Sounds and shapes are in my ear—from an early life as an oboist (almost conservatory bound) and an early focus on poetry—that highly concentrated way of working in small spaces. So the ear, indeed, reaches out, casts out past “idea,” creates a shadow space into which ideas shimmy. There may be even more formal shaping going on in my prose than in my poems . . .and certainly the historical tie to important forbears buoys or “wings” me along, as you suggest. And I am bounced along by which writers? Loving/swooning are different gestures than receiving influence/instruction—so I’m not being cagey when I say I can’t adequately name my “influences.”
AW: I read aloud to a friend, laughing, your Mitzi Purdue coinage of “EggsScape (tm)” as “to escape into another world with the help of decorated eggs.” Have you ever coined something?
LP: Well, there’s this little square in Barcelona called “Placa de Sant Galdric.” It’s very near the Boqueria (market) and we ate there a lot a few summers ago, and got kind of obsessed with this saint we’d never heard of—but when we looked him up, we found very little information (though he was posed like St George on a rearing horse and it seemed there must be a good story to be had)—“Galdric” came to mean, to us, any situation that’s resistant and hard to pin or get a handle on in some way; tricky, thorny, unresolvable. So in our house, you can say, when things aren’t working properly, or when someone’s going on with a litany of complaints: Galdric. Probably we also liked the “ick” sound, paired with “gall”—which fits the feeling well.
AW: What is your favorite syndicated cartoon?
LP: I like those fuzzy-haired, sweet/liberal folks in the New Yorker and also the upper-crusty waspy folks (also in the New Yorker). What I really like, though, is reading them both, one right after the other. I realize that this is a very typical answer for me: some expression of the need for two sides, two minds . . .the inability to isolate a sensation, or aesthetic (I don’t think I have a “favorite” anything) but always allowing one to suggest the other. . .
AW: Do you have a theme song, or do certain lyrics ever recur conveniently when you need encouragement?
LP: I guess I’m supposed to say “Don’t stop, be-leeevin’” or “We’re iiiidiots, babe . . . .” but I’m not much for inspirational song-moments. I like phrases, though – or single words. “WAIT” (Kafka, some say, kept this above his desk) and “Listen more than you talk” (someone’s grandmother, for sure) but ok, how about this little poem by A.R. Ammons, which I always have near:
I read this, think “yep”, then get back to work.
AW: You mention a teacher friend in “Recurrences / Concurrences” who disarms students with the impermanence of their identities—handing out obituaries and disillusioning their here-to-thought unique narratives. Will you list some things that function regularly to liquefy yours?
LP: I can give you an entire list in a single phrase: “that could be you.” THAT thoroughly liquefies. The sensation that, very much like the Roadrunner, we’re all constantly and unconsciously dodging falling anvils, all over the place. And that I’d better be aware/grateful that my life has been mostly Roadrunner and not so much Wiley Coyote. As Nabokov said” To Whom it May Concern: gratitude.” The near-miss nature of it all . . .
AW: You quote Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica as a way of closing an observation of a bustop amputee you notice for her subtly protective gesture of folding a magazine over the missing remainder of her arm—as if to say such moments are elusive of meaning, for any commentary would be intrusive. There is a YouTube video of a hiker who is flabbergasted by the sight of a triple rainbow, asking repeatedly and unsuccessfully its significance. It is such a laughable question nowadays; the video went viral for comic relief from other daily futile efforts. I wonder if we are in a climate of greater freedom to abstain from the pedant’s task of meaning making, or if there are just certain questions that out of propriety or exhaustion we have quit asking?
LP: I really had no idea that this interview would uncover such a promotional stance: the dual, the two-minded! But here goes:
Lorca: “What shall I say about poetry? What shall I say about those clouds or about the sky? Look; look at them; look at it! And nothing more. Don’t you understand that a poet can’t say anything about poetry? Leave that to the critics and professors. For neither you, nor I, nor any poet knows what poetry is.”
John Cage: “All I know about method is that when I’m not working, I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear I know nothing.”
Lorca suggests that it’s pedantic to insist on meaning—and yet, he also insists that poetry IS, that it’s AVAILABLE for the taking, or rather, for the seeing/experiencing. Cage suggests that meaning and a sense of direction is slippery and can be mused on but not really held fast to when creating (though one can know it then in a different way, by not-knowing, by just being in it and moving along). I think we—artists who teach—have to find a way to communicate and preserve that which is mysterious. Not “teach” it or make it “accessible” but rather assert it, assure students, readers, ourselves of its existence, and not allow ironics, exhaustion, excessive assessment required by so many institutions, the contemporary mashed-up aesthetics of arrangement to change the nature and terms of the conversation with mystery. I’m absolutely ok with getting up in front of a class agog and stunned and working my way into speech . . .or better yet (and I keep learning this) letting others take a crack at it, and relying on the piecemeal nature of discussion to create an exciting response.
AW: I like that word “ironics.” Are they a new breed of hybrid cynics?
LP: This is very funny! I meant 'ironics' as a noun (like 'histrionics' or 'calisthenics'). I meant something that communicated “the dramatic act of being ironic” or to suggest, I guess, that irony is a kind of stance—and not a terribly authentic one. Though I like thinking of ‘ironics’ as a group of people (which maybe should be spelled ‘ironix’ then.)