categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Table For Two: Interviews
Your essay, The Poetry Years (from Portrait Inside My Head) looks back at where and how you started writing professionally. You say you had no ambitions toward writing poetry until you were a student at Columbia and suddenly doing it, kind of by accident. What experiences drew you in?
PHILLIP: When I was an undergraduate at Columbia, my writer-friends were mostly poets. A few fiction writers, not a single nonfiction writer in the batch. Monkey see, monkey do: I started reading and writing poetry.
You carried with you a creeping sense of insecurity about your ability as a poet, yet that community was receiving you, and you were publishing your writing. During this period, did you ever face any feelings of severe doubt or despair over your ability or progress as an artist, or was it mostly clear to you that you had enough talent and a momentum within the literary world, and you would find your way?
PHILLIP: I was in doubt from the first that I had enough talent or enough to say to be a successful writer, but I figured what the hell, let’s give it a shot. I did not despair, but neither did I think when I was starting out in my twenties that I would ever be as successful as I have become. What made me stay the course was finally a propensity to generate questions and try to come up with answers–experimentation, rather than certainty.
What is your overall agenda or literary aim as an essayist?
PHILLIP: My literary aim as an essayist is to champion the form and extend the conversation that so many great, dead essayists who preceded me have started. I want to please the dead, as well as living readers.
I love your piece, Howl and Me—in which you discuss the complicated ways as a young man you were considering your own position in the world. You had deep-seated yearnings for success. Established writers often tell new writers that publishing doesn’t matter. But isn’t it more complex than that?
PHILLIP: Of course publishing matters, because the world’s approval of you is finally one of the ways that you can convince yourself that you are not merely a bluff artist but, possibly, just possibly, a writer. Plus it may help to pay the rent along the way.
As one who has made the study of the literary essay, the practice of it, the teaching of it his life’s work, do you ever question its evolving form? Are there any rules to insist on?
PHILLIP: The essay today is going through many mutations, as it borrows from other literary forms, such as poetry (lyric essay), fiction (the short storyish essay, like Joanne Beard’s Fourth State of Matter), comix (the graphic essay), cinema (the essay film), the mosaic essay, the appropriation piece. Anything goes, and should go, as long as the results are stimulating and well done.
AT THE WORKSHOP
You recently led a Creative Nonfiction workshop at The Lighthouse in Denver. Someone asked how to get her writing to transform into something beyond plain words and sentences on the page. Since the question garnered so much participation, anguish, and mental sweat, I thought it was worth revisiting. Will you speak on what is involved in getting down the sort of writing that hits a deeper mark?
PHILLIP: Good writing has intriguing linguistic texture (wide vocabulary, complex syntax, syncopated rhythm) and density of thought. It also seeks the deepest, wisest, most honest formulations.
After the workshop I was waiting outside for my ride, and having just purchased your craft book, To Show and To Tell, I opened it and read this first sentence: “I should explain straight out that I consider myself to be as much a teacher as a writer.” What do you value about teaching—and, noting the slight confession in your sentence, what accounts for the impulse to explain?
PHILLIP: Teaching can be a lot like writing. When I am “explaining” something in the classroom, I listen to my thoughts the same way I would when I am alone at my desk. I like the improvisatory jazz possibilities of teaching. Something comes up and provides the opportunity for a spark of humor. The comic helps loosen the mood of the classroom, especially in graduate programs, which can be so dour.
Along with your ventures into the personal, you take your writing to the political, cultural, and social. You’ve written that you have had the occasional change of heart over some of your former views. In what ways has your political perspective evolved over the years?
PHILLIP: I’m not sure my political perspective has evolved that much over the years. I was always on the left, always a skeptic. The difference is that now I am less inclined to mimic group-speech and more apt to ask myself: Do I really believe this or that? Also, I have been forced to become more pessimistic in the face of the Republican Party’s increasing lunacy.
There seems to be a good deal of discontent on college campuses these days. In one example, student activists at various schools have been demanding the silencing of any speech that might be considered hurtful to others. We used to call this censorship, and most of us opposed it. Is there now a difference? What do you think about this idea of regulating language to the degree that opposing viewpoints are not to be expressed?
PHILLIP: I am not on the side of censoring speech, or renaming dormitories because John Calhoun or Jeffrey Amherst or Woodrow Wilson turned out to have done some bad stuff. I think history should be respected, not suppressed. I don’t mean we need to revere racists or bad guys, just recognize that they had an historical impact. Also, I wish that students would be less inclined to expend their energies of this whitewashing of vocabularies and symbols, and more inclined to protest for a more equitable economy, full employment, affordable housing, health care for all.
Phillip Lopate lives in Brooklyn, New York and teaches at Columbia University where he is also the director of the graduate nonfiction program. He has written 3 books of poetry, 2 novels, 3 personal essay collections and much more.
His most recent books include: To Show and To Tell, The Craft of Literary Nonfiction and Portrait Inside My Head, Essays.