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Drifting Toward Wonder: The Millions Interviews Lia Purpura

“Childhood’s a long training in never minding all you’re losing, everything that’s falling, crashing, being taken”—Lia Purpura’s essays unfold in rich, detail-driven vignettes, but every so often she stops me with a sentence of pure wisdom. I’ve got to take a second before moving on. All the Fierce Tethers, her new book of essays, is full of these moments. Yet when I read that line about childhood, I not only thought yes, she’s right, but also appreciated her essayistic skill in opening that place for imperfect conjecture. Her essays help readers drift toward wonder.  

In the collection’s title essay, she says that when she
watches people, “it’s exactly the boundedness of their lives, the precise
sizing down that moves me. How absorbed and unprotected they are.” In a twist
that might best be described as a bit of literary magic, Purpura’s essays make
me appreciate the contours of everyday life more: our “small moments, fixed in
their own tondos of light.”

Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Orion, and The Georgia Review. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program. We spoke about presence, absence, irony, and how writing can come from a “desire for repair.”

The Millions: You’re an essayist and poet, two forms of writing marked by an associative style. In the early pages of the first essay in your new book, All the Fierce Tethers, you move seamlessly across several subjects: screaming, the idea of “never minding,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a tin of mints, a consideration of trash, and the paradoxical history of the term “bandwagon.” How do your essays and poems happen? Do you seek association and breadth in your sense of observing and perceiving the world?

Lia Purpura: Associative behavior is a form of relatedness, alignment, empathy even. Storytelling, caretaking, flashes of insight revealing wholeness, the recognition of what it feels like for a tree when the wind moves among its branches—because you’ve felt that in your body—all these are manifestations of the likenesses extant—abiding—in the world. So maybe it’s more that, rather than seeking association and breadth, I am aware of being a site at which intersections occur. I’m stunned by, (and often beset by) the ways so many different forces and beings are telling a part of the same story. Linking us up. And I see my work as a way of regarding and surfacing the interdependencies—the awe, the responsibility, the wounds incurred in recognizing the connectedness. The associative impulse confirms the deep systems holding us together even if we’re bent on ignoring or destroying those tethers.

TM: One essay in this collection, “Of Prayer,” has an early, imagined scene of a man buying a knife from Crate & Barrel. “Here, when you buy a knife, they wrap it securely in sturdy paper, which indicates they run a safe ship, no bows or gift wrap for the cutlery. They seal such things with a wide strip of tape and let it be your problem undoing it at home.” We learn that the knife was used by the man to kill his wife and daughters; his oldest daughter went to a university where you taught. In class, you ask your students to take a moment of silence: “What rattled me, though of course it shouldn’t have (this being a Catholic university), was that they had a prayer ready and knew what to say, while I had to make something up on the spot about breath and pennies and each of us being assumed into another’s day.” You write elsewhere in the book of being “given no church, no practice, no prayer (no under-the-breath rote anything to lean on).” Do you see your essays functioning as prayers? What does that mean for you as a writer—and perhaps your vision of what gives us comfort and transcendence?

LP: It’s not uncommon, I think, for many writers to consider their work a form of prayer. Writing’s practices—long, slow attentiveness (or sharp, incisive revelations), repeated sounds, words, phrases, a focused and set-aside time for work—are features of more traditional prayer practices for sure.  Prayer, at least in my practice, does not require language and often refuses it, works to thwart it, asks that I become an altered perceiver and communicator. Essays, for me, take on various modes that are found in prayer: self- interrogation and arguments with self and with fate, praise, a laying out of the vulnerability of places or beings that I’ve known intimately, a desire for repair and the wits and strength to carry it out, question-asking, direction-seeking.

TM: You quote John Donne mid-essay, mid-book: “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.” All the Fierce Tethers feels so aware, narrated by someone who is so observant and here in the world. As a writer, and even as a person, how do you feel most present in the world? When do you feel most absent?

LP: I love that quote because it so directly asserts a radical equivalence, a rock-bottom sense of sanctity shared by all beings. I suppose I am most absented from the world when I’m forced to interact with what I call “the systems”—by that I mean not the sustaining systems found in cloud formations or animal habits or planting cycles, but the human made-systems and apparatus that I’m afraid I have very little stomach for and am abraded by in chronic ways, and can’t fall in with: everything from phone menus to computerized steps-following, the constant noise that our systems of “upkeep” require (leafblowers, compressors, etc) all the dinging bells (microwaves)—all these requires our tacit assent, our not-minding the ways we’re forced to break peace, concentration, etc. These are smaller abrasions but the assumptions undergirding them extend out to the enormous and intractable forms of rote behaviors, land and climate destruction and so on. On the other end of things—my sense of presence is confirmed when I am able to confirm others’ presences, when I can behave in relationships of reciprocity and proximity with humans and other beings without much mediation. The essays in the collection manage two impulses: they write into these unmediated often joy/awe-filled experiences, and they also delineate forms of contemporary assault that fly under the radar.

TM: Have there been any particularly formative essays in your life? Ones that unlocked the genre for you, or that you might return to, as a reader?

LP: Oh—here are only two of many: James Baldwin whose essays scour and love simultaneously, are ferocious and moral and relentlessly seeking, that hold accountable both the writer himself and the systems into which he’s been born. C.D. Wright whose poems move through prose-realms and are unabashedly essay-ish even while she falls in so fully with image and speech and is awe-filled by the smallest gestures witnessed in the course of a day, a drive, a conversation.

TM: In a related vein to the previous question—are there particular essays (or essayists) who you love to give to students?

LP: Most recently, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen which offers such elegant, compact, formal ways to counter speechlessness in the face of injustice and angles by which to express chronic anger. Also—Jo Ann Beard’s ”Fourth State of Matter“ is an amazing work—one that describes and mirrors cosmology at large as it creates its own local cosmology, set in motion by the stupendous and tragic events of a single day.

TM: I absolutely loved the essay “Brief Treatise Against Irony.” It made me think of your wonderful poem “Belief,” and your words about that poem’s core feeling: “the seam that fuses doubt/faith, optimism/despair (whatever other binaries one comes up with)—that seam holds for me a kind of light, and a capaciousness. A way of living that seemed to clarify. The holding of opposing forces makes me feel like a catfish, looking off in both directions at once. It also keeps curiosity alive.” You begin this essay with the line “The opposite of irony is nakedness,” setting a binary contrast between the vulnerable nature of sincerity and the posed performance of irony. What do you think is the “seam” between irony and nakedness, between performance and honesty? What is the healthy space between them?

LP: Some states of being need protection because the language around them sags, drags the nuance down, threatens their fragility. Your question is actually an enormous and complex one—it speaks to the range of modes of expression we’re offered today, the idea of aesthetic “choices”—which aren’t actually choices for many writers but rather the act of coming to speak as one needs to, personally—and the methods for this vary tremendously—from the raw/confessional/exuberant (Ross Gay for instance) to the more enigmatic/suggestive (Merwin), to modes that agilely employ both (C.D. Wright). Amplified performance mode in no way indicates a lack of authenticity (see Tyehimba Jess’s Olio—which is an astonishing full-body experience that just keeps coming page after page with relentless force). On the other hand, some forms of self-proclaimed “honesty”—can come off as psychological reportage or emotional indulgence. One way or another, authenticity intensifies the heat, the light, the stakes. In my essay “On Being of Two Minds” in Rough Likeness, I work through being unable and unwilling to land on one “way”—spare or effusive—and having to live in that seam, that ecotonal space where both Dickinson and the winding perambulations of Whitman are equally meaningful. So I work with loving both, and don’t necessarily feel the drive to reconcile impulses or vocal registers or amplifications or sentence forms—as a reader and writer.

In terms of “irony”—the essay essentially works through the distancing that irony requires to sustain itself, critiques its protective features, the ways it creates hierarchies and keeps one from feeling directly and unabashedly—in fact, shames a person for feeling. I love work—poems and prose—that allows the blows the creator has sustained to make it to the page. No buffing, cooling, quieting, or intellectualizing.  

A Year in Reading: Kima Jones

I’ve been making lists since my father died in September. Lists of the things I need to do, lists of the things I need to finish, lists of business expenditures, lists for tax-season preparedness.  When my father was dying in the hospital I read poems to him. The breathing tube prevented him from speaking to me, but he would move his head from side to side or groan or widen his eyes to let me know he was cued into the recitation. Sometimes I wanted to be sure he really liked what I was reading so I would ask, “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” That’s when he would smile. We read the Quran, and we read poetry, which is to say, I watched my father die for two weeks and for two weeks I read poems.

I read other books this year. I devoured Louise Erdrich’s LaRose, Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, Brian Evenson’s A Collapse of Horses, Renee Simms’s Meet Behind Mars, Yuri Herrera’s The Transmigration, Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, Claude McKay’s Amiable with Big Teeth, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, Natalie Graham’s Begin with a Failed Body, and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It  Ends. That’s one list. A list.

Then there are the poems I read. They are not many. I read them to my father, and I read them for myself. I read them for strength. I read them because I have faith.

1. Ntozake Shange’s “my father is a retired magician”

In the shower I’d say the few lines I have memorized to myself. It was a kind of affirmation. Maybe the poem was just stuck there, in my head, but saying the words made me feel like my father would never die.
i mean
this is blk magic
you lookin at
& i’m fixin you up good/ fixin you up good n colored
& you gonna be colored all yr life
& you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life/ colored & love it
love it/ bein colored/
2. Surah 93: Ad-Duha (The Daylight, or The Dawn, or The Glorious Morning Light)

This is my favorite surah of the Quran. I get up before fajr and think about my father. I never sleep anymore. I watch the sun come up, I listen to Aretha Franklin’s Rare and Unreleased Recordings. “Fool on the Hill” is a perfect track. I love the way she fades into the last verse of the song. “The fool on the hill/ Sees the sun going down/ And the eyes in his head/ See the world spinning around.”

I think about being an orphan. This new world where this is no father for me.

3. “These Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

My father loved this poem. “What did I know, what/ did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

Muslims do not bury their dead in caskets, we do not have wakes or memorials, there are no headstones. We use flat grass markers, a white shroud, oils. We pray, and we leave. I wore a red dress with pink flowers. They were the only flowers there. Muslims don’t bother with adornment.

4. Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Alone”

Like Lee, I see my father everywhere. In paintings, in books, when I slice fruit, little black kittens, fat tabby cats, at Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit, in Arizona reading a Terrance Hayes poem dedicated to Ai. Sometimes when I am hurting, after I’ve cried, I say, “Oh, Hamzah.” I want him to know I’m getting his messages. I want him to know I see.

5. “38” by Layli Long Soldier

The first poem I read after my father died. Evidence that the world continues to turn, but I do not.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Goes to Colson Whitehead


The Pulitzer jury named Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad this year’s winner in the fiction category.

Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:


Winner: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Millions review)
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan


General Nonfiction:

Winner: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
In a Different Key: The Story of Autism by John Donvan and Caren Zucker
The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery by Micki McElya



Winner: Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy by Heather Ann Thompson
Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It by Larrie D. Ferreiro
New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America by Wendy Warren


Biography or Autobiography:

Winner: The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between by Hisham Matar
In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (Millions review)



Winner: Olio by Tyehimba Jess
Collected Poems: 1950-2012 by Adrienne Rich
XX: Poems for the Twentieth Century by Campbell McGrath


Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.

A Year in Reading: Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

I open every year by rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God. There’s something about it that pulls me back, eagerly, to the work. Like many people I know, I open most years hopeful and willing to be seduced by possibility. So much of that book reminds me that the brightness of a welcoming new year is brief, that there is certainly a darkness that we’ll have to survive again.
It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.
My first book, a book of poems, was released this summer. I’m sure that for some people who do this, it means that they spent a lot of the year agonizing over their own work. I did, but I also hit a point where I didn’t want to look at poems anymore. At least not my own. I fell in love with the poems of my peers: Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Khadijah Queen’s Fearful Beloved. There’s something really refreshing about diving into brilliant poems after spending months picking your own poems apart. The stakes are low, and you can allow yourself to sit back and be overwhelmed. Another poetry book I deeply loved this year is Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. Jess is a historian, truly. The book is filled with brilliant black folklore, all centering on the redemption of ragtime performer Scott Joplin. I had fun reading the book, sure, but I was also reminded of why I found myself to poems in the first place: endless possibility.

I’m a music writer who loves reading about music. I keep a copy of Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic with me at all times, sometimes reading bits of it out loud to any willing audiences, in the backseats of cars, around dinner tables. There’s an open letter to Sufjan Stevens in the book, and I am always overwhelmed by it. Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements was really exciting for me. I’m always interested in new stories behind the bands I love, and The Replacements are so incredibly fascinating in that way. There’s always so much more to them than I expect, at every turn. I maybe love Bruce Springsteen too much to indulge in the sprawl of his memoir, though I purchased it in good faith. After a chapter or two, I realized that maybe the book was written to get folks to fall in love with him, and I’m already there.

I was lucky enough to have Angela Flournoy read at my book release party in New York this summer, which pulled me back to a second reading of The Turner House. After that, I was forced to ask myself why I don’t treat myself to new fiction, instead of falling back into the same handful of fiction books I love. I did a panel on politics with Kaitlyn Greenidge, and purchased her book We Love You, Charlie Freeman, thinking that I’d get to it sometime in the winter. But I started it the next day, and finished it within 48 hours. It reminded me of how fiction can slowly and gently surprise, unlike poems, which sometimes have to reveal the surprise early in the work. I won’t spoil anything about Greenidge’s book, but the ending was so perfect, I read over it twice. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is one of those rare things that is actually as good as everyone says it is.

I’m on the road a lot these days, more than I’d like. I’m in small plane seats and in quiet hotel rooms and in corner booths at coffee shops in cities where I know no one. It’s not ideal, but this was the year that I truly felt like I lived the motto of “read more than you write.” I’m hoping 2017 will leave me just as lucky.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005


We thoroughly enjoyed the latest episode of David Naimon’s Between the Covers podcast featuring Whiting-Award winner Tyehimba Jess. The conversation centers on Jess’s latest book, Olio, a tour de force hybrid-genre exploration of African-American performers from the period just before the American Civil War through World War I. (Previously: We recommended Jess’s Leadbelly as perfect reading for train travel.)

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