John Jerimiah Sullivan
As a writer of creative nonfiction, Sullivan is possibly the writer for whom I have the most envy. The collection Pulphead has about everything you could want from an essayist: engaging, almost unbelievable stories from the author’s own past which also do some work in shedding light on why he became a writer in the first place, comprehensive profiles, and staggering research projects that show both the author’s exhaustive research process and obsession with his subject material. Sullivan’s language is accessible and startling, with apt references/allusions and images summoned quickly and slow to fade. I often teach “Feet in Smoke” to illustrate how it’s possible to seamlessly blend summary, scene, and reflection to create something layered, meaningful, and impossible to put down. The emotions rendered in the piece are raw and complex and it sits right at the absurd intersection of humor and tragedy. His profile of Guns n’ Roses singer Axl Rose, while far from objective, is honest and complete. His lengthy study on the anthropological history of North America’s forgotten caves is beyond thorough and like any good research essay, had me jealous for such a perfect occasion for an essay.
When I sit down to write an essay, one goal of mine is always to keep that wide eyed fascination and obsession that makes Sullivan’s work.
The relationship between essays and poetry is something I’m constantly turning over, and Purpura is in my mind, a prime study and worthy inspiration. I first read her in an anthology prescribed for a craft class in graduate school, which contained the essay “Autopsy Report.” What draws me most to Purpura’s essay writing, and what I hope to be influenced by, is the clear influence of poetry on her craft. Poetry was my first love in the writing world, and while writing essays has been my focus for years now, I am determined to let my background in poetry inform my projects. “Autopsy Report” remains the essay of hers that I keep coming back to for inspiration. It begins with artful repetition which somehow pays tribute, in gorgeous, at times horrifying prose, to the lives behind the bodies she encounters in her study, and confesses her intention to know, to touch, to explore their lives, their deaths, and the fascination which brought her there. The essay is surprising and personal at every turn, with descriptions that showcase a poet’s talent for connections that in anyone else’s hands would remain obscure at best, but in hers feel inevitable. The tension between expectation and experience is what drives this work, and by the end, there isn’t what I would call closure, but a working combination of change in perspective and a deepened sense of familiarity. Purpura’s It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, one of several collections of poems, is almost rigid in the brevity of its lines, but masterful in its turns and essay-like in its exploration of the poem’s various subjects.
I got to know Wendell Berry when I was about twenty, and he has been one of my most crucial teachers. A poet, essayist, tobacco farmer, and activist in his own right, Berry as a person would be a sufficient inspiration. But his ability to build an argument with air-tight reasoning, an unabashed personal connection, an arsenal of invaluable support, and a seasoned orator’s delivery is what made Berry indispensable to my work. Berry’s logic is often right out in front, but it doesn’t bash the reader over the head. It directly informs his structure, but it doesn’t steal the show or bore. His language is accessible, but his vocabulary is immense and well-wielded. With titles like “Getting along with Nature”, and work ranging in topics from common sense arguments against nuclear power facilities to mankind’s connection (or loss thereof) to nature illustrated by the profound confusion of feeling like an outsider in the woods, a main focus of Berry’s work has always been environmental issues.
Berry’s writing showcases a deep connection to place and stresses deeply personal investment in problems and solutions affecting all of us. Berry has been a mainstay of most curricula I develop and, I hope, a steady influence on my own work. Most essentially, Berry reminds me, as Dylan did for the Beatles, to write about what matters.