Interview: Meghan Purvis

by Paige Wajda

Meghan Purvis received an MA and PhD from the University of East Anglia, and an MFA from North Carolina State University. Her translation of Beowulf was published in 2013 and won the 2011 Times Stephen Spender Prize for literary translation. Her poetry has appeared, among other places, in Magma, The Rialto, and The Interpreter’s House. She is currently working on her first novel. 

You can find Meghan on Twitter @meghanpurvis.

Paige Wajda (PW): Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions for us, Meghan. Jumping right in here: You’ve done your own translation of Beowulf, which is a recommended translation by the Poetry Book Society. Why did you decide to take on such a tremendous task, what were your greatest challenges of doing so, and what do we still have to learn from Beowulf one thousand years after it was written?

Meghan Purvis (MP): I originally said I’d translate Beowulf as part of my doctoral thesis, and I’d like to say that I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I did. I’ve known and loved the story since I was a child (Kevin Crossley-Holland did a children’s version of it that is traumatizing and amazing), and I was just arrogant enough to go, “Sure, I can do that”. I think the most difficult part of it for me was finding my own voice for the poem (or voices, given that my translation uses several different ones) — the rhythm and power of the original is incredibly compelling, and it was a definite struggle to stop unconsciously mimicking that and figure out how I actually wanted it to sound.

As far as what we can learn from Beowulf, I find it both familiar and utterly foreign, both in good ways. The people in the story struggle with the same things that we do: what makes you a good person, what makes you a good leader, what it means to be brave. At the same time, they’re doing it in a milieu that even without the monsters and dragon is very, very unlike our own. The fact that we can empathize with this world and these characters is a reminder of what unites us, while the portions that we can’t really recognize challenge us to find empathy for our contemporaries who may seem totally different.

PW: You’ve completed an MA at the University of East Anglia as well as an MFA in the US. What do you think are the biggest differences between graduate study in the US versus in the UK? Where do you feel a stronger sense of community and/or opportunity as a writer?

MP: Oof, I could probably write a novel on any one of these questions! As far as comparing programs in either country the easiest difference to point out is the length: most MA programs in the UK are one year, whereas the default in the US is two. There’s a lot to recommend the longer time: it absolutely leads to a stronger community within your cohort, and speaking for myself, at least, that second year gave me time to put together a thesis that felt much more cohesive and deliberate. On the other hand, the American program involves more hand-holding: there are more required literature classes, where the assumption with the British model is that you already have that base and you can just focus on your own writing. And of course, the cost of higher education is exponentially higher in the US, so a second year can be quite a financial hit.

I think I’ve been very lucky in that I made close friends in both programs; I have writerly communities in both countries. The UK is smaller, so it’s easier to feel a community earlier—by the time you’ve encountered a few different editors, you’re going to start seeing the same names pop up again and again. But if you want to publish a novel that’s going to be optioned and make your fortune, then that has to happen in America; the numbers are just higher across the board.

PW: When did you start writing creatively? When did you know that you wanted to pursue writing professionally?

MP: My mother has been telling me I was a writer since I was about seven, so I tried to avoid it through most of my teens. I wrote poems (to clarify: awful poems) when I was a teenager, but I didn’t think I thought of myself as a capital-W Writer when I was doing it. I was about to say that it was only when I got to university that I started taking it seriously, but that’s not true; I remember the fact that Oberlin College (class of ’03!) offered creative writing as a major separate to English literature was one of the reasons I wanted to go there. So I suppose I was thinking about it even then. 

Like every good liberal arts freshman I sent off a few poems to the New Yorker immediately, which were just as immediately rejected, but I did land on the shortlist for a contest (at The Comstock Review) that same year, and I think from then on that was it, writing was what I was doing.

PW: You mentioned your work being shortlisted for The Comstock Review contest – have you received any other accolades recently? What would you say was the proudest moment of your writing career?

MP: This is still going back quite a ways, but I won The Times Stephen Spender Prize for literary translation in 2011, with an excerpt from Beowulf. (I believe it’s now sponsored by The Guardian. I have yet to see FOX News sponsoring any literary prizes, shockingly enough…) And though the moment when I found out I won the Spender prize was amazing (I was halfway over a pedestrian bridge in Cambridge and called my parents crying from a field), my proudest moment was walking out of the Penned in the Margins office after Tom Chivers, the editor there, had said he wanted to publish Beowulf. Knowing it was going to be a real book is probably the proudest moment of my life, never mind my writing career!

PW: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers on how to keep going with their writing and how to navigate the publishing world?

MP: I think any good advice is almost always simple and direct, and mine here is no exception. Read constantly and widely, across every genre and form you can think of. Commit to getting words on the page: Annie Lamott has a bit in Bird by Bird about shitty first drafts that has become my mantra. Take twenty minutes after every rejection to curse yourself, the editor who rejected you, and the publishing industry in general, and then dust yourself off and keep writing. And most of all, support other writers! Go to readings, buy literary magazines and books, spread the word about writers you like. It will foster the kind of literary community we all need, and it will more than come back to you.

PW: Tell us about your writing process. Having an academic background, do you ever find that the ideas that compel your criticism and academic work make their way into your poetry as well?

MP: All the time. I pull from everything when I’m writing; I have a Google doc that’s perpetually open on my computer and phone, so if I read anything interesting in a book or newspaper or tweet or anything else, I’ll scribble it away there. But yes, my interests tend to align across genres quite a bit. I’m interested in how the act of telling a story shapes it, I’m interested in how people who want to lead nonviolent lives can exist in a violent world, I’m interested in how what scares us speaks towards who we are. I think all of those things show up in all of my writing, whether it’s Beowulf or a chapter about how women are hexing Donald Trump or a poem about Victorian undertakers.

PW: That poem definitely sounds intriguing. What are you currently working on and what might we expect to see from you in the future?

MP: I have a novel manuscript that I’m thick in edits with right now, that’s very much a departure from my other work. It’s set in the 1920s, and is about a young woman working her way into the artistic crowd that was bouncing between London and Paris, having seances and performing occult rituals the whole way. I’ve also been working towards putting a poetry collection together, so hopefully at least one of those will pan out! Oh, and I’ve got a chapter due next year about how the horror genre approaches trauma, where I’m wittering on about Session 9, this fantastically underrated film. You’d think I’d be better at narrowing my focus down to one thing at a time by now, but I’ve just given into the chaos.

PW: Lastly, who are some of your favorite poets? Who inspires you creatively?

MP: Oh goodness. I’ll attempt to not create a syllabus here. I will begin by mentioning my own publisher, Penned in the Margins, because Tom publishes such amazing stuff (some of it isn’t even mine): Amaan Hyder, Raymond Antrobus, and Charlotte Newman are all astonishing. In the United States, Jericho Brown and Natalie Diaz are both getting buckets of extremely well-deserved attention at the moment. My two lecturers at UEA were Denise Riley and George Szirtes, and their work continues to inspire and intimidate the hell out of me. And I have to acknowledge my own patron saints: Seamus Heaney, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Francis, who all got me on this road in the first place.

PW: Thank you again for your excellent answers. We wish you the best in all your future endeavors.

You can read two of Meghan’s poems on our website: ‘For the Bear’ and ‘Well-Tempered’.

Beowulf is available to purchase from Penned in the Margins.