Lia Purpura is the author of the new poetry collection It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful. She also has written the poetry collections The Brighter the Veil, Stone Sky Lifting, and King Baby, as well as three essay collections. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and The Paris Review. She is writer in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and she lives in Baltimore.
Q: Why did you choose "It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful"--a line from one of the poems in the book--as the book's title, and what does it signify for you?
A: In both my poems and essays, I’m interested in seeing what there is to notice that may have gone unnoticed, or hasn’t traditionally merited attention.
I’m interested in paying attention to the aesthetic, moral, civic, spiritual questions and demands that are called up in the act of looking – an act which is almost always full of complexities, contradictions, surprise, and mystery. I’m interested in uncategorizable feelings or moments – moments that I’m convinced are inklings of bigger questions.
What I’d call “beautiful” is often a little off center. The objects or instances or beings that elicit that particular response, beautiful, are so capacious … sometimes, too, they’re attached to systems that, in their perfect workings, are themselves beautiful, but under-sung.
This sense of surprise, this off-centeredness, or drive to see a thing slant felt like a good lens for the book’s intentions. Also, to give proper credit here, my husband first suggested it as a possibility, among others, and, truth be known, he’s a master titler. I owe him big time for a lot of good titles over the years.
Q: These poems have been described as "compact." What do you think of that description, and why do you write in the form you've chosen?
A: Well, the compact is often pretty enormous in what it contains. Sure, “brief” things can be cut-short things, tossed-off things, things capped or lopped -- or can reveal a skittishness about the supposedly short attention span of the contemporary human.
I’d like to think about brevity as a depth experience rather than one that responds to the inability to pay attention. I liked working with a form that allowed for a lot of space around it. I liked the combination of density (layered thought, heightened moment, precise incident, lasered attention) and spaciousness.
And I liked, too, the way a focused thought can ring out, behave like a saying or proverb or riddle, and engage the air around it in its blooming.
Q: In addition to poetry, you also write essays. Do you have a preference?
A: It’s not so much a preference as a sense of great fortune to have these two very different musculatures to work with. I can work long or short, depending on the feel of the day.
This is not to say that the poems are in any way easier or take less time – just that the physical sensation, the sense of time and space is very different and I like, need, am attracted to both.
Sometimes, actually, sort of often now, the essays behave in highly lyrical ways and move about the way poems traditionally do, by leaps of thought and image, and the poems behave like small essays, organizing and presenting a thought or concept. The crossover, the freedom of that, is exciting.
Q: Which authors have inspired you?
A: Always a question that draws a blank! I think what’s often meant is: which authors are you somehow aware of as influencing your work. The question may suggest, too, that writers can trace the origins of certain gestures or subjects back to a beloved author, or early influence – and articulate a sense of an orderly heritage.
I’m not being cagey here, or resisting talking about my beloveds for the sake of appearing to be spontaneously born of a god’s forehead, or in order to come off as untouched and pure.
A whole range of writers have been important to me – by introducing angles of vision, by offering challenges to the soul, by stirring generative envy, by making me feel very very small and thus forcing growth – so, to name just a very few: James Baldwin, Dickinson, Neruda, Whitman, and recently, say, Claudia Rankine, Mary Ruefle, Larry Levis, Elizabeth Kolbert, Ann Pancake, Terrance Hayes, David Foster Wallace, and early on, a whole host of post-WWII Eastern European poets -- and then, writer friends, of course, whose own astonishing work I’ve seen through many stages, whose ethics and aesthetics make me want to write better every day.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m mostly working on easing It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful into the world, and that means doing an awful lot of traveling and readings.
Writing-wise, I’ve got a few essays under construction (a new one, “Scream, or Neverminding,” will be out soon in The Georgia Review) and other than that, I’m trying to keep in more of less daily touch with very new, small sparks, trying to hang out with the mysteriously hovering stuff and get some of it down and get a sense of what’s coming next.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb