New Books: Rough Likeness

Lia Purpura’s new essay collection, Rough Likeness, includes two essays that appeared in Orion, “On Coming Back as a Buzzard” (September/October 2009) and “There Are Things Awry Here” (November/December 2010). Lia is also the author of the essay collection On Looking and the poetry collection King Baby, and was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Orion‘s Hannah Fries caught up with her to ask a few questions about Rough Likeness and what’s next.


In both On Looking and your new collection of essays, Rough Likeness, you engage in a kind of “looking” that takes immense energy and intention—a sharp kind of inquiry that refuses to take things for granted, that hungers to peel away layers and screens of all kinds. Is this a practice you were consciously aware of when you began to write these essays? Am I right to call it a “practice”? If so, how did it become one for you?

In one way, I think you’re absolutely right to call it a “practice”: paying attention is a way of being. It’s not an easy way of being, because porosity (registering, holding) does mean a kind of commitment to registering painful things. Or, maybe it’s a helplessness before such things. Probably that. I don’t know how such a stance became a stance for me—and others have asked this before. I do think the desire to turn outward, to see, to not turn away from, is counterbalanced by the drive to write, which requires a turning inward. I suffer, as many writers do, from feeling I’m not “doing” enough, not being an attentive enough public activist or advocate…but I’ve come to trust, too, in the tools I’ve been given—the capacity to sit and write—and have tried to strengthen my belief in those tools as “useful”—in showing alternate ways one might, as a reader, engage with the world attentively, in helping to provide language for states of being that are hard to word, but certainly shared by all.

Rough Likeness seems particularly concerned with language itself. As one might pick up an object, turn it over, examine it, see how it catches the light—even break it open—you do that with words. It makes the reader very aware of the shiftiness of language. What has compelled you toward this hyper-attention to words and language, and what role does it play in this book?

Language is really very physical for me. Words hurt, scrape, detonate, sidle up as companions, tap shoulders…I’m fascinated by the way we “use” language, how we accept it as either a blunt-edged tool, or a highly refined and nuanced precision tool. Writing feels almost sculptural for me—not so much a “honing and perfecting” kind of gesture but, I guess, just as you say, a practice in which I can look at language from all angles of vision—as if walking around a sculpture. I was wholly focused on poetry for many years, before I began writing essays, so the kind of training poetry and perhaps especially translating offered, that patient, close attention to singular words, words as smaller units in a phrase and component parts of lines, lines as tensile parts of sentences…all this absolutely influences my prose.

I want to throw out a few quotes from Rough Likeness:

“…the drive to get to the bottom of, the urge to make a path by which one comes to inhabit an idea for herself.”

“…an impulse to sketch, itchiness of form, abundance of love for an object, a drive to give small things their due…”

“Things are evidence, and the experiment’s a form of alertness to take part in. A turning-toward, where slowly, one possibility shades into the next. Moves bear forth things. Things beget things.”

Is this drive/impulse/experiment/turning-toward—the creative sense of which is so powerful in this book—an antidote for something in our culture or lives? What are you working against in these essays, if you are?

I suppose I’m working against a sense of roteness, of unquestioning adherence to ways things are done, bought, used, destroyed, said, framed. In order to truly inhabit your day, it’s critical to feel “relationship” in all forms. When kids have way too many toys for example, it’s impossible for them to form meaningful, interior relationships with those things—the sheer number of objects distracts, allows for only a surface kind of attachment: it’s normal then, to just move on to the next thing once a hint of boredom (i.e., anxiety) sets in. I just read the other day that Mark Zuckerberg’s motto for Facebook employees is “move fast and break things”—immediately I thought, “Wow, my motto is ‘move slow and make things.’ ”

Congratulations on being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship! I understand that in your proposal you outlined a plan to write a book of essays that will explore the ways people relate to and form relationships with the natural world. Can you talk a little more about your approach to writing these essays-to-be? How will they be an extension of your previous work, or how will they be different?

Well, thank you, Hannah! In terms of how I work…I’m aware of the way that questions and ideas that go unanswered in one essay are seeded in the next essay. Sometimes the tether is clear and other times I think it may be clear only to me. Either way, each book feels very much like a response to the last one, an ongoing conversation. In the new collection I’ll be working on, I’m interested in pushing the conventions of “pastoral” writing. I’m interested in story-filled landscapes (often degraded), states of being (both emotional and metaphysical) nearly impossible to define but surely an interior reflection of our relationship to the environment, and the phenomena of violence, involving both humans and the natural/aesthetic environments that sustain us. That’s the best I can do in terms of a description without feeling like I’m preempting my discoveries.

Hannah Fries is associate editor of Orion.