An interview with Lia Purpura

Essayist and poet Lia Purpura teaches the craft of writing across the U.S., including at the Rainier Writing Workshop in Washington, and, this fall, at Columbia University. But she has called Baltimore home for more than 20 years, and right now serves as writer in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "I have to say, it's rare to be at an institution and in a department that so values writing, writers, and the production of creative work," she says. A winner of three Pushcart Prizes and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Purpura's writing has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, among other publications. Her most recent work, a compilation of essays called Rough Likeness, was published in 2011; forthcoming in 2015 from Viking/Penguin is her collection of new poems, It Shouldn't Have Been Beautiful. Purpura will be reading at the 11th annual CityLit Festival at the Enoch Pratt Central Library on Saturday. City Paper caught up with her via email to talk to her about her new residency and literary life in Baltimore.

City Paper: Tell me about the UMBC residency. Why did you take it?

Lia Purpura: I couldn't be happier there. It's a completely vibrant, alive place and diverse in every possible way-students from all over the world, of all ages and backgrounds. I don't think I've ever had more rigorous or engaged discussions on complex issues with undergraduate classes. My students are curious, brave, unselfconsciously creative, eager to learn, prepared to discuss.

CP: Some of those students will be with you at CityLit this year, right?

LP: This is UMBC's first appearance at CityLit. I'll be reading with my very talented colleagues Mike Fallon and Holly Sneeringer, and with three terrific English majors, and we'll be covering all genres.

CP: What makes the CityLit Festival special? Why is it important to the city?

LP: CityLit is a totally unique, homegrown, but in no way provincial event-it presents nationally known authors alongside emerging voices and local talent, and it represents writers of all genres. In one day. And it's free.

CP: In Rough Likeness there's an essay, "There Are Things Awry Here," where at one point you lament the fact that you teach writing-that if you had your choice, you and all the students would just be writing and reading great works of writing.

LP: When I wrote that essay, I was in Alabama teaching a grad class and I was struck by how impossible it can feel at times to talk about the things you're trying to do, and how internal most of the important questions you wrangle with as an artist really are. ... At times, it's really best to just read and find your answers therein-in the writing of others that you aspire to. You grew up on Long Island but have been in Baltimore for a while. Why write here, as opposed to New York?

LP: Oh, I love Baltimore. ... I miss New York all the time-its pace, the scents, its humor-but it's hard to live there, and, I found, hard to write there.

The central library hosts the CityLit Festival on Saturday, April 12. For more information, please visit

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