By Meaghan Menzel
“I first came to Lia Purpura’s nonfiction for her book ‘On Looking,’” said Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House Dr. Jehanne Dubrow. “I was in Virginia as an artist resident and heard her read from her remarkable essay, ‘Autopsy Report,’ an explicitly rendered account of what it’s like to have served a medical autopsy… in a Baltimore morgue. All of us in the audience sat there listening, gripped by her meticulous descriptions.” This was how Dr. Dubrow introduced the reading by Pupura on Nov. 13 which served as the final event in the “Poets Writing the Lyrical Essay” series in the Rose O’Neill Literary House.
Purpura is a writer-in-residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a member of the core faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. She graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches writing programs all across the country. She has won awards such as a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, three Pushcart Prizes, and a National Endowment for the Arts and Fulbright Fellowships. She published seven collections of poetry, essays, and translations including “Rough Likeness” and “King Baby.”
“King Baby” is one of her poetry collections focusing on a mysteriously decorated gourd Purpura’s son found in a river. Dr. Dubrow said that it “begins as an inanimate object but becomes a small household god, reflecting the speaker’s anxieties, fears, and desires. This book is an analysis of the way we make meaning out of a world that often responds to us with silence.”
Purpura’s book of essays “Rough Likeness,” according to Purpura’s website, “finds words in the minute, and crafts monuments to beauty and strangeness.” According to the Star Tribune, “In each of the book’s 18 brief pieces, she strives to capture subjects that seem to defy close study: an adjective, a buzzard, bits of beach glass, a warning sign. Yet she finds something insightful to say about each of them…”
For the event, Purpura first read her essay “On Coming Back as a Buzzard” from “Rough Likeness.” She said, “Fiction writers are not the only ones who imagine their way into other beings. This essay is a study of a metaphysical problem: the problem of feeling aligned with other creatures, other beings, the problem of returning as that being—and really above all it’s an ode to the buzzard which is a very under-admired bird.”
The second essay Purpura read from was a new one in the works titled “Boredom Walk: A few Sketches and a Solution.”
“I ended up writing a series of very short essays that either take place on walks that I take or are kind of about the certain feeling or tenor of a walk,” said Purpura. “Every walk has a really different flavor, and sometimes I can work through a poem on a walk, or sometimes I am completely blank and think nothing of any interest. Sometimes I am worrying through something in my head, and it calms down by the time I’m finished.”
Dr. Dubrow said, mostly for “King Baby,” that it is “a book that reminds us that good writers can find subject matter anywhere,” but freshman Olivia Libowitz even said in regards to Purpura’s work in general, “I like her ability to talk about a wide variety of topics, some of which are not considered a pretty topic, and still make them sound beautiful to me.”
“I don’t become aware of the fact that others are not looking at the things that I’m looking at until later on,” Purpura said. “Often in the writing of a certain essay, I am struck by the fact that it might not fly because I am trying to work with something that is uncommon… There’s kind of a little faint bell in the back of my head that I suppose goes off… and then I stuff some cotton around it and keep working.”
Purpura said that she is constantly writing poems and essays simultaneously, but the poems are getting shorter and the essays longer.
“I like facts,” she said. “I think there are more odd, complicated, colorful facts in this world than we know what to do with,” and that “I think the job of the writer is to work with the limitations that facts give us and make something of certain things that are intractable… When I think about lyrical [writing], I think more about all of the sort of transformative things that language can do without having to transform facts into something else.”
This seems to fit in well with the overall idea of the “Poets Writing the Lyrical Essay” series. “One of the messages that has emerged during this… season of poets writing the lyrical essay is the bridge made by language which poets who work in prose create between the two genera,” Dr. Dubrow said. “Their essays also have the texture, the seen and felt places of poetry, imagery, metaphor, music, and in turn, their poems frequently function as essays in miniature.”