The cover of Lia Purpura’s 2008 book of poetry titled King Baby could easily confuse anyone. The photo on its front is an object, apparently comprised of gourds connected to form a sort of head and small body with seashells for eyes and a large hole of a mouth, which Purpura found while walking by a river with her son. The two took it home, cleaned it up, and the object became King Baby. The eruption of over 60 poems that came from Purpura due to King Baby’s strange appearance was one she did not expect. “I had no intention at all of writing this particular book,” the curly-haired poet said. “We thawed [King Baby] out and these poems started coming. It really was a great surprise.”
It took Purpura, who read her work in the Alumni Room on Feb. 10, only four months to write the poems in King Baby and she did not do much editing once they were finished. She did, however, let them sit for about a year before publishing them. She refers to King Baby most often as an “occasion,” a “companion,” or an “object of desire.” It would not be far off to say that the book King Baby is an occasion of sorts as well, in the sheer number of poems inspired by the mysterious and unlikely object. Assembled without titles, “images of each [poem] get to call back to each other,” said Purpura.
She began reading at the beginning of King Baby, with the poem whose first sentence is “Once I was walking in the cold” (the poems have no titles). Reading several poems scattered throughout the book, Purpura said, “The poems take different stances. Some are questions, travel reports, prayers,” and she felt each poem was a continuation of a long story being told by more than poems. She concluded with the last poem in the book, which begins, “King Baby, are you singing or asking to be fed?” regarding the object’s mouth gaping open, perhaps carved, but certainly ghostly.
Before reading her poetry, Purpura read from her book of essays, On Looking. Her selected story was “The Smallest Woman in the World,” about how she has changed since age 18 and how her thoughts about her body and thoughts about inhabiting the bodies of others have changed. Purpura said, “I’ve been thinking in the last few days about the notion of influence [on writers and between writers],” though most writers can only hope to be so strongly influenced and inspired in finding such an object in on the bank of a Baltimore river.