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Lia Purpura discusses art in a time of uncertainty

Last week, the Retriever had the opportunity to speak with one of the campus’s most highly acclaimed and student-praised staff members: Michael Fallon. This week, we sat down with the English Department’s Artist in Residence: Lia Purpura. She has taught poetry, nonfiction writing and other English courses at UMBC for four years. Purpura is the author of three collections of essays, four collections of poems as well as a collection of translations. Her most recent (2015) collection of poems, It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, was widely praised. Stephen Burt, nationally recognized literary critic and alumni of Harvard and Yale, said of the collection: “Compact, profound, bright, occasionally dangerous, Purpura’s sentences shine like amethyst pendants, snap shut like bear traps, and open up underneath like trap doors.”


TR (The Retriever): What is an Artist in Residence?

LP (Lia Purpura): I get to teach from the perspective of a practicing artist and show my students how to develop the habits of a practicing artist. I give readings and workshops and talks around the country, publish poems and essays and articles and generally behave like a writer in the world from my home base at UMBC.

TR: Tell me about how you became interested in writing.

LP: Oh, I’ve always been writing, I just didn’t think about the act in any kind of formal way until I got to high school, when became more conscious of making poems as something I set aside time to do. I think most poets or writers are intense readers first, and then at some point they feel the urge to talk with or talk back to their favorite authors, or they feel the pull to test themselves against certain forms or subjects or specific poems. Or they operate out of the best kind of envy: the drive that sort of says “hey I can do that, too.”

TR: What do you consider to be some of your greatest achievements in your writing career?

LP: Finding ways to stay with the practice of writing is a form of achievement. Each book changes you radically and then you find yourself having to start all over again, which is like being a perpetual beginner, a perpetual student, novice, in an often prolonged state of unknowing. It never gets easier, this regeneration… so those moments when I feel like I’ve built up some stamina for the uncertainty of it all – those moments feel good.

TR: Do you think that UMBC is a community and an environment that cultivates poetry, poetic ideas, or poetic moments?

LP: Absolutely! Cultivating art in any form happens in an environment of curiosity and exploration, tolerance, acceptance, and interest in difference – and when people are given the freedom to try and fail. These qualities and elements are abundantly present at UMBC. I’d encourage everyone to “jump tracks” and enlarge their repertoire of “identities” during their time here. In other words, some of the finest young writers I’ve worked with at UMBC are STEM folks who bring vital and lively perspectives to the page and class, and who often discover the full range of their creativity when stepping into a complementary creative realm, like writing.

TR: Do you believe that UMBC is a good environment for writers?

LP: “Environment” is exactly the word to use here. A campus is an ecology. Think in terms of literary ecology and how the parts interact and what’s available for all. So, the annual poetry slam, open opportunities for editing and publishing in Bartleby and in the newspaper, classes in all genres of writing from poetry to journalism, an English department full of well-known, publishing writers, the extraordinary Manil Suri in the Department of Mathematics who is an internationally known fiction writer, opportunities to learn from peer tutors… the literary ecology is diverse and offers so many interconnected ways to behave like a writer. I’d encourage students in any field to try out classes in the English department – and go to readings. The next reader in the Department’s Literary Reading Series is Tim Seibles, new poet laureate of Virginia, who’s totally dynamic and a fantastic reader.

TR: What inspires you to write?

LP: The macro answer: the very act of being alive. The micro: the drive to hold and assert fragile states of being and perceptions that are in danger of being overrun by speed, efficiency, negligence – those ways of perceiving, those wee moments of being that make us feel most human. As E. M Forster said, “how do I know what I think until I see what I say?” That surprising and trusted interaction between self and page, between gathering and reflecting, observing and acting, is at the heart of my practice. I try to teach my students how to engage with forms of curiosity and how to practice listening so they might slow the onslaught of information coming at them and find ways to make things of beauty and ethical weight out of chaos and overwhelm.

TR: Do you have any personal thoughts, advice, or challenges for our readers?

LP: It’s challenging, in times of chaos and uncertainty, to remember that art matters. Why does writing matter? At a recent reading in NY, a high school teacher asked me this question. I told his students, who very much resembled the student body at UMBC, that now more than ever, clear, coherent, untrammeled language is desperately important – and this sort of language in any form is a kind of art. [That is] because language can be used to counter facts, betray humane values, and manipulate (to paraphrase Toni Morrison), and to maintain power, to obscure intentions and so on. A commitment to honesty and clarity and to the work it takes to attain those values is really critical. Art challenges, speaks back to, shapes the incoherent, shakes up the complacent with necessary chaos, offers new ways of being and thinking, makes beauty of strangeness – oh, so much more. Creative acts are, at core, acts of attention and alertness – both qualities we need in abundance today.

I told my poetry class the other day that they restored my faith in humanity – because of the way they talked and listened to each other, heard each other out, and though they often differed in opinions, respectfully countered. [I told them] that in no way should they ever discount the weight of these accomplishments and that this behavior in and of itself was one of the elements that they can bring to bear on the moment we’re living through as a country – the knowledge and practice that humane and open discourse is possible, that it takes practice and discipline and in no way precludes expressing strong feelings.

[I also told them that] they’re the agents and keepers of this behavior and that’s a form of power if acknowledged as such. Such modes of discourse are not to be taken for granted but to be acknowledged, because civility and openness to others, and the values of tolerance are not necessarily, as we’re seeing, stable norms. [They] can be broken into and robbed if we’re not attentive to what we’re upholding here in an open and free academic community. Students need to know that they can be the creators and keepers of this kind of behavior – and if they want it to thrive they need to be ferocious in asserting and demanding this out in the world.