An Interview with Lia Purpura

By Sophie Weiner

+++I found Lia Purpura’s book by chance. Or, it presented itself to me, or it stood out somehow from the other hundreds of poetry collections housed at the very large university library in Lexington. The title stamped across the white spine, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful.

I read the first poem and then the second and did the thing I’d been avoiding doing, due to the fast-growing pile of unopened books by my bed: I checked it out. Then I bought it, semi-instantly, because I knew it was going to be for me one of those books that I’d keep returning to. I wrote her. I asked for an interview. She graciously accepted.

+++Rewind. About five months ago, I had a line stuck in my head. It’s one by Leslie Harrison, in the September issue, from a poem called “[Scientists grow new hearts in the shells of old hearts].” It goes like this: “people always say beauty and terror as if they were not the same / as if they were not conjoined at every point all the time ….”

+++And then It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful. And here’s this question, the one I never asked Lia Purpura in the interview that follows: What should it have been, if not beautiful? Should it have been terrible?

+++Some beauty, can have a “terrible plumage,” Purpura’s speaker claims in “Some Beauty,” how “It’s nature / is ruthless.” But now I’m thinking of the poem, “Lifting,” wherein the speaker states something about the nature of truth, and again there’s this feeling of danger in it, and not only because the poem immediately before it is titled “Doomsday/Rapture,” though it helps— “Things face off –” Purpura’s hallmark matter-of fact-ness lending clarity to a shadowy “things.” “And not that one / wins,” the poem goes on, “but / tensions shift”— I return to the book’s title. Should: a word suggesting obligation, guilt. So my question shifts: Is beauty a choice? And if (and when) it is a choice, what is our responsibility in the matter?

+++She begins to answer this, I think, in “Rare Moment,” the poem from which the title of the book comes: “A clear choice / is so sweet.” I should have asked her, but I didn’t.


Poet and Essayist Lia Purpura is the author of several book length collections of poetry including It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penuin 2015), and winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award, King Baby (Alice James 2008). Her essay collections include Rough Likeness (Sarabande 2012), and finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award, On Looking (Sarabande 2006). Her honors include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fullbright fellowships, among others. She’s Writer in Residence at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA.


The following interview was conducted by email.


I’m sure I’m not the first to compare your work to Emily Dickinson’s, maybe also Paul Célan’s, Wallace Stevens’s. More than brevity though, the compression, the linguistic richness–It strikes me that the long poem is having a moment. One thing that drew me to It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful was the amount of space each poem takes up on the page, something I haven’t seen much of lately. I was drawn to this, I think, because of its hold on my attention, the sense that when reading, much like reading Dickinson, there’s a kind of unbreakable line connecting my eye to the page. I’m not sure whether it’s cast from the eye or the page, or somewhere in between— I wonder, is there a way in which the biggest questions are best addressed with the fewest words? What is gained by saying less? For you, the writer? For the reader?


+++I think of the short poem as a chance for a “depth” experience, rather than a “brief” experience. Depth, of the kind met in prayer, requires an altering of space and time – there aren’t good words for this, though “a slowing” and “an entering” might inch close. Short poems can be hard to read at readings because the convention of course is to read a sequence of poems, banter a little in between and keep going, ever on to the next one. It’s been best, so people tell me, when I read the poems twice and sort of lay in a shadow shape for the listener’s ear to hold. I don’t know if it’s that the “biggest questions” as you say are best treated in short poems – though I think there’s much accuracy and wisdom in that perspective – but maybe it’s that in the relationship between poem and space, between words and the surrounding silence that comes after the poem is said, the feel of idea bodies up in a particular way. So that the space and silence are part of the experience of the poem in a profound way, a necessary way. (Space, of course, is integral to so many long poems as well, but differently.) Because poems mean in ways that are wordless and can’t be parsed, the silence and space are integral to how a poem comes to fill itself out. If all that’s wordless is going to be bodied up, it needs a place to do so…


Reading your poems I often think of Elaine Scarry’s question at the very beginning of On Beauty and Being Just, “What is the felt experience of cognition at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird? It seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication.” And perhaps there is the question: why is beauty important? What does it do to the act of looking, for you? For the book? I wonder also, if you can speak to this idea of the need to replicate. Does looking at looking bring about this kind of replication?


+++I love the provocation in this quote. The “felt experience” is complex in so many ways –and it also isn’t. The latter because what is felt – is exactly that: felt. By the body. And not a mentally-bound experience, a “cognition”. The ineffables route (and also rout) language.  And so beauty (however that falls out for each of us) is more an inflection, a taking in of words, a stun (even if quiet) and even a confusion, if the “beautiful” thing is in any way not conventionally “beautiful”.  The act of looking, for me, at “the beautiful” often leads me to unexpecteds, to untraditionally profound interactions. As for the need to replicate, I’d be more inclined to consider the poetic response as conversational, or relational than replicative. The drive being to communicate with the beautiful rather than sieve it through the self, or extrude its form.


What draws you to the prayer? The musicality? Incantation?


+++The stillness. The particular quality of air and light and quiet that surrounds the act of prayer, that surrounds the moment I’m engaging with, the thing seen… it’s a burst-on-the-scene kind of recognition of “idea”.

During a reading at UMBC you once said to the audience that you hoped they would do as you had done, to spend time being “daunted.” Why? I should say here, I find it sort of funny, in contrast to formal brevity, or maybe just paired with it, the daunting seems almost counterintuitive, but isn’t. Is there a connection here, or am I rambling? Could it be that brief poems are as good at daunting as they are at expressing being daunted?


+++Brief poems can be pretty daunting to hear, I think. By the time a listener is tuning in to the thing, it’s over. The multiple dimensions of the poem are still reverberating, and require a lot of space to unfold into (thus the procedure of reading them twice).  The brevity of expression calls for an even more heightened form of attention and focus on the part of a listener, and for the patience, too, to let the thing unfurl and reverberate and not mean immediately. In the writing of short things, the daunting is about a similar kind of focus, a capacity to work with strict limitations which of course is one form of tremendous freedom and resourcefulness.


I come back to your titles – “Belief,” “Regret,” “Proof,” even “Virtual” – things through which we do our looking – then the more concrete ones, the looked at –“Red Leaf,” for example immediately comes to mind. Then others, like “Lifting” that feels more liminal, somewhere between the lens and the object, like turning action into a place we can stop, look around— Alternatively turning image into process. What are we looking through?


+++I’ve been surprised to see how much like essays these poems actually are (and how like really long poems my essays are).  The project of considering actions as places, or concepts as live forms – that’s a pretty much literal way such things happen for me. Everything animate. Everything alive.


Can an action or process be treated like an object of beauty? I’m thinking in particular of the first poem in It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, “Belief,” the way it sets up the book, the idea of these human states as places, alternatively not places—What makes one a place, another not?


+++Sometimes a state of being is like a place (where one dwells, visits, escapes from) and at other times its nearly as concrete as an object for me – all forms of the felt nature of thought and the bodied nature of the ineffable.

There feels like there’s little left that needs saying in these poems, that they accomplish what they set out for. You’ve spoken elsewhere about the “musculature” of poems–what is the “musculature” of a poem?


+++Well, again, if one considers a poem to be a living entity (and I do – -they’re full of breath, spatial divides to leap and cross, rhythmic patternings, etc.) then the form as a whole can be seen as a system, a breathing system, a clenching-and-releasing system….

In the above-mentioned reading you also say you’re interested in “Un-categorizable reactions.”  Can you talk about what you mean by this?


+++We are all aware of (if not wholly alert to) the underneaths, the fragile states of being that make us, mark us as most human. Poems create access, lifelines, tethers to these states of being…. it’s not that poems “tell” about these states, rather that the enact, embody, fill them out.

I’m also thinking back to one of your essays from On Looking, in which you discuss reading Pinocchio to a friend’s daughter, how the “sad-scary-funny” and the “amusing-right-frightening” moments, whether it’s “all right to like them.” It of course, brings me ever closer to the title, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, its corresponding poem, dead center in the book. It feels to me that the book is straddling the fence of the “sad-scary-funny,” or the “amusing-right-frightening,” but less in the images, and more implied, more weighted in the questioning, and the gesture as lifts just beyond the page–why is it, do you think, that the thing that shouldn’t have been beautiful but was– is so fruitful, or so arresting?


+++It’s really a case of noticing and valuing that which is wordless-but-real, or unlikely-but-potent. You need hyphens for such things in regular conversation, to link long strings of words together in order to touch the full effect – or, you need a poem. The travel of a poem, the building that goes on in a poem, the increments lavished upon moments can approach the jittery animal best. The “why” of it is entirely individual and that’s the mystery of “aesthetics”…


In “Rare Moment” you write,

A clear choice
is so sweet. Not
reluctance but
real resistance.
or none. (1-6)

This poem seems to only ever feel more relevant. Do you find that to be true? I was hoping you might talk about this one a bit–did the title of the book present itself in the writing of this poem? When in the writing of the book did this poem come to you (beginning? end?) What is the appeal of  “A good, dark / strike-through” as opposed to “weighing everything / at the end of each day” (11-15)?


+++Oh, you know, this is a dream…. the desire for certainty, the helplessness in the face of the nuanced, the uncertain, the dream of having a single way of saying, being utterly cohered, of being clear and compact in one’s desires…. The poem goes on to sit with all that “shouldn’t have been beautiful” – but profoundly is — and to fully assent to that experience.


Lia Purpura is the author of eight collections of essays, poems, and translations, most recently a collection of poems, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (Penguin.) On Looking (essays) was finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships, as well as four Pushcart Prizes.  Her work appears in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Orion, The Paris Review, The Georgia Review, Agni, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore, MD, is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches in the The Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program.


Read Lia Purpura’s poem, “Rare Moment,” from It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful at the Poetry Foundation here.

Watch Lia Purpura’s UMBC reading here.

It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful (poems)

On Looking (essays)

Lia Purpura reads Carl Phillips with Paul Muldoon on The New Yorker Poetry Podcast!