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Interview conducted by Sarah Greene Marcoulier and Jeffery Ann Scoggins
Phillip Lopate was born in New York City. At the time of this interview, he was teaching in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Houston. He is the author of two volumes of poetry, a novel, a book on education, and a collection of essays.
Dialog: When did you start writing?
Lopate: I started writing in the fourth grade. We all had to do those poems for Thanksgiving, or pumpkin poems. Just as there was a class artist and a class athlete, I became the class poet without any particular interest in it. I was a great reader, and that interested me far more than writing. My father had wanted to be a writer. He was always reading, so I grew up in the presence of books. He liked things like Dostoyevsky, Faulkner, and Schopenhauer; very heavy dramatic things.
Dialog: What writers influenced your early work?
Lopate: I think Dostoyevsky was probably the biggest influence. It was reading him that made me want to be a writer and also made me think I could never be a writer. I thought, he’s got universes inside his head, and I don’t. If that’s what it takes to be a writer—The Brothers Karamazov—I’m sorry, I’ll never do it. Earlier, however, I had an experience or two where I wrote poems out of a terrific pressure from the unconscious. In one case, I woke up when I was about twelve years old from the middle of a dream and was very upset. The dream was that my father had died, and I just sat down and wrote a poem about it. A poem in free verse. And then I wrote a poem called “I Hate It All,” filled with rage and horror at the circumstances in which I was living. The poem, after being a diatribe against life in the slums, ends up with this reverse movement in which I accept the fact that I am part of this thing that I hate. This turns out to be a very typical movement in my writing: asserting something and then catching myself up and contradicting it or finding the qualifications in it. Both of these poems were written not from a sense of myself as a poet and the fame it would bring me, but really from internal pressure. From the start, writing was communication. It wasn’t simply a formal linguistic interest, but it came from having to say certain things that I could not say otherwise.
In high school, I was the editor of the literary magazine, and I wrote stories. The stories were very much like my present writing. Very early, in prose, I had a way of looking at the world that was observant—based on observations of myself and the people around me. In college, I entered pre-law. My hero was Clarence Darrow, who felt his life was a disappointment because he had wanted to be a writer. I was going to be a lawyer who secretly wanted to be a writer. I had this disappointed life already planned out for me at age sixteen. But when I went to Colombia, I hung out with the pre-law students and had nothing to talk to them about. So I shifted into writing. I was reading Norman Mailer, the Russians, Flaubert, and Stendhal. They were all dovetailed together, the courses I was taking and the reading I was doing. Henry Fielding was a big influence on me for God knows what reason except I think I was looking for some objectivity and irony and distance to counteract this enormous Dostoyevskian subjectivity.
Dialog: In your essay “Bachelorhood and Its Literature,” you express interest in the bachelor narratives of Hazlitt, Lamb, Pavese, Barthes, etc. Do you incorporate them into your more recent work?
Lopate: Well, I’m still doing essays. The great essay writers continue to be an influence on me. After I finished “Bachelorhood,” I read Montaigne and got very excited about him because he has these all-inclusive essays that are like glaciers. They move, and they pick up everything around them. They are very associational. It’s a terrific gamble and confidence that to write about yourself will somehow be interesting. Montaigne is incredibly honest about himself, and yet he has a very strong interest in the outer world. That is the kind of writer I see myself as being. Even though I certainly am autobiographically interested, I see the character that I’m building based on my “I” allowing me to explore the outer world.
Dialog: You have published a novel, a book of essays, one on education, and several volumes of poetry. What makes you turn to one form rather than another?
Lopate: I think poetry has been exploratory for me. It is a reconnaissance that allows me to find out what I’m interested in. Sometimes a poem will point the way to a subject matter that I then explore at greater length in fiction or an essay. If it’s a made-up story, of which I’ve written some, there is no question that I have to do it as fiction. Often, what I want to write about is a kind of subject matter.
Dialog: In your essay “Remembering Lionel Trilling,” you speak of your direction as a writer and choice of subject matter as “friendships, marriages, children, jobs.”
Lopate: Right. At the mment I’m writing a long essay on film and also an essay on photography. Education allowed me a concrete subject matter. If there is anything that I can ground my writings on that is at all technical, that is outside simply my feelings, I am appreciative.
If I am writing an essay, I generally have a kind of concern about some issue. Often it starts with a memory. I remember something, and this memory is embedded in a pattern, like: Why do you do the same thing, Y, every time X happens? So at times, it comes from an impatience with myself that I make the same mistakes over and over again and I land in a cul-de-sac. This impatience turns into a kind of fascination. What is the pattern that is operating here? Why does this memory keep dogging me, why does it keep distressing me? And when I’m ready, I try to write out the memory. And I try to write out the analysis that goes with the memory, that’s woven itself around the memory. So I’m very interested in recapturing memory, and I’m also very interested in the rationalization process that we build around our lives.
Dialog: You say, in the same essay, “I had always felt uneasy with the writing of Beckett, Genet, Burroughs, and the whole ‘abyss’ tendency.” What is it that makes you uneasy?
Lopate: I’m interested in daily life and specifically in relationships—psychological relationships. I remember once Dostoyevsky saying, “Why do they call me a psychologist? I’m a realist!” When I read that, I thought, I wouldn’t mind at all if people called me a psychologist. I really am interested in psychological behavior. Sometimes people attack that. Every time somebody wants to do something avant-garde, he strips his character of psychology. What drew me to novels in the first place was character, and character continues to interest me a great deal more than anything else. I will be more interested in a novel that has good characters than in a novel that has a cleverly worked-out plot. I have, perhaps, a deficient sense of narrative structure, in and for itself, because I am following something else. I am following the way people clash with each other and the way they give each other love. I like to look at relationships over a long period of time. The first novel I wrote (which was never published) is called Best Friends. It’s about strong, difficult relationships. It was long on character and had absolutely no plot. I had the idea that if I simply wrote about all the people I knew, some pattern would emerge. Some pattern might have emerged in five thousand pages, but I stopped at page four hundred. I was looking for the implicit patterns in real life. Instead of making up a plot and superimposing it on characters, what I try to do is to think back about my life and find it coalescing into key incidents. Define the plot in one’s life. The mistake I made with that first novel was I was writing about myself at the same period I was living through. I didn’t have the distance for these events to crystalize into stories.
I think you can work toward form in two ways: You can make up something— invent a plot—or you can keep working with your actual experiences until they develop a formal shape. I could say I don’t have much imagination. I think that would be a modest way of saying I’m not terribly interested in making up whole worlds, because I’m so fascinated with the world that has been presented to me that I want to find the shapes hiding in it.
As far as the abyss is concerned, I feel that I don’t have a talent in that direction. And it bores me. There are people who genuinely have a sense of horror. They are right to write out of it. I seem to have a lot of sadness, but it seems I just have too much energy or optimism to try to adapt myself to apocalypse. I really am comfortable in the world, and I would be taking a foolishly misanthropic position if I said I wasn’t. The fact is that I see myself as effective in the world. I am always going out into the world and helping to build institutions. That work is key to my writing. It’s not as if I want to sit in my room and write all the time. I want to get out there in society. I like people, up to a point. I like people especially in a work situation, where sometimes the best of them is being brought out.
Dialog: Would it be accurate to link you with the poets of the New York School—Koch, Ashbery, O’Hara?
Lopate: Only in a certain narrow sense. I went to Columbia at a point where the poets of the New York School were very important. All my friends were very influenced by them, and they were always reading the stuff to me. So I was in that milieu. In fact, I rebelled against that milieu because I thought people were becoming flunkies. I said, okay, I’m glad somebody is doing that, but I don’t have to. I did like very much Frank O’Hara’s poetry. He had a way of incorporating the occasional details of walking around the city and daily life that I enjoyed. He had a very strong persona. When I tried to write like Ashbery, it came out silly, so I gave that up. But even when I rebelled against them, the good thing was that I grew up with a defined literary scene. So, I was kind of a fellow traveler in the New York poetry scene.
Dialog: Would you comment on the criticism that contemporary literature lacks a definite, identifiable voice? Is this a justifiable criticism?
Lopate: I think people are very conformist, and there isn’t enough mind in most American poetry. There’s not enough thought. People are afraid to appear idiots, so they’ve learned to write a certain kind of safe poem. They all end in a kind of diminuendo. The thing that interests me most in literature is vitality. A lot of writers who attracted me when I was an adolescent seemed to have vitality, like Celine or Dostoyevsky. Recently, I’ve read a lot of Proust and Mann. You get a feeling of generosity from them—there’s so much more where that came from. It’s not so stingy.
I take much more sustenance from the past than contemporary literature. It was Pavase who said he couldn’t read anything until the dust of fifty years had settled on it. I do think that, in the first place, the past has sorted out a lot, so that many terrible writers have dropped by the wayside. Secondly, when you read a novel about the past, there is the charm of antiquity, and you don’t feel these people are just exploiting the zeitgeist and putting a lot of brand names in. What I’m trying to do in my own writing is build a bridge between the tradition and the present. I don’t want to sell myself short as being a conservative or a traditionalist. I think I am making experiments, but they are not the experiments the avant-garde is interested in. A typical experiment that interests me is what Robert Musil called “essayism,” which is to try to create a fusion between the essay and the story. So that the author will have back the commenting voice. So that the writer won’t be terrified of saying how he sees the world. We’ve lived for so many decades in this period of the noncommenting narrator, where everyone said “show, don’t tell.” Writers, especially young writers, are terrified of commenting on the world except in a very hit-and-run manner.
Dialog: Do you think there exists a “poetry mafia” or dominant group that determines grants, publications, and teaching posts?
Lopate: No, I think it’s more pluralistic than that. There are poetry mafias. I don’t think it’s so centralized. There are concentric circles that overlap. I don’t care much about this. It’s bad to worry too much about careers and patronage systems. I don’t worry about American writing now. There is a lot of writing being done, some of it good writing. The fact that a lot of the not good writing is conventional in identifiable ways doesn’t bother me very much.
Dialog: Would you tell us about the Teachers and Writers Collaborative and what effect teaching has had on your writing?
Lopate: I spent twelve years working as a writer in the schools for the Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York. TWC was pretty much the first organization to send writers into the schools. It was a terrific experience for me, and it allowed me to be with children and have a kind of impact on the community. I entered TWC at a time when people were seriously perplexed about education and wanted to reform it. Now there is a lot of fiscal conservatism and educational anxiety in Washington, and I don’t think there is a real consensus of support for that kind of reform.
When I came to Houston, I noticed there was no Writer in the Schools Program. I was a little appalled, but I knew what it would take to start one. You would have to give a lot of energy to it. I continue to have a connection with TWC. I feel very loyal to the people who are slogging away in the trenches trying to make public schools better places. I gave twelve years to it, and I got tired. Now I’m teaching in a university, which, in some ways, is not as exciting as working with children, but it pays better and takes less out of me. Still, I continue to see my role as trying to build community. I helped start the reading series at the Museum of Fine Arts, and I program films for MFA. I stared a magazine at the University of Houston, Domestic Crude, and a little group of graduate students who go into the schools as writers. I get impatient with writers who are always bitching about something taking them away from their writing. People are taken away from their entire lives. Once you hang around classroom teachers and see how hard these people work, it is very, very hard to complain or take seriously your own complaints as a university professor.
Dialog: What are the effects of workshops and readings on your work?
Lopate: I teach a lot of fiction workshops. Often at the beginning of the term, I think it has a dampening effect on my writing. I get depressed at the poor quality of the student work, and I ask why am I doing this? As I go on, I begin to feel that I have to develop a model for myself as well as the students, and I start writing. That is, I don’t want to make everyone write like me, but I do want to give them the benefit of what I’ve learned as a writer. So, I keep going between theory and practice, and before you know it, I’m writing, and then I’m more confident in my writing, and my students’ writing is coming along, and we’re all on a kind of optimist’s jag.
When you teach workshops, you have to create a group out of disparate individuals. That takes time. Then you have to teach them what your own expectations are. In some cases, you have to teach them what literature is because they come in with an incredibly pop sense of what they can get away with. You have to teach them to recognize quality. I enjoy it.
I don’t know that I need to teach, but I do need a workplace. I need to be in the world. I am not such an interior person. I don’t have whole inner worlds inside me. I realize that when I am by myself, I am usually thinking about social relationships and incidents that have occurred between myself and others. There is a real other-oriented side to me, but I then have to go off and be by myself and work it all out—create a form for it. Unlike certain other poets, I don’t feel I am too good or too fragile for this world. I feel like I absolutely need this world.
Dialog: Have you established a habit of writing?
Lopate: I usually write during the day between the hours of nine and five. I try to go for as long as I can. It’s important to try to increase the time you do write. You get a whole other kind of rhythm when you do that. You get past the inspiration period and go into another kind of work. I like to approach writing as if it were carpentry or shoemaking or something demystified. I have written for so many years, I don’t need a schedule. I don’t feel obliged to write every day. I trust that the writing will get done. It isn’t a ritual.
Dialog: Do you keep a journal?
Lopate: That has been a very important experience in my life as a writer. I’ve kept journals ever since I was eighteen years old. They are the bedrock of my writing, in a way. I try out ideas, I record memories. Being With Children relies a lot on diaries. Confessions of Summer, to the degree that it was based on a real incident, I went back and found some diaries. Some of the little pieces in Bachelorhood came from journals. What interested me with those little pieces was in how short a space you could get the whole arch of the story. Like the old lady who asked me to walk her down the block. Some people felt that these things were too slight. Still, I wanted to show what the gesture looks like when it’s like that [he snaps his fingers]. Like a painter doing a calligraphic motion. What it looks like when it’s a little wash; what it looks like when it’s a developed drawing; what it looks like when it’s a painting. I wanted to betray the process of my work. And since I think that so much of my work comes out of the kind of thinking I do in journals, I wanted to show that step and then a more elaborated step. Recently, I’ve been rereading my diaries. Every ten years or so I read them all.
Dialog: Do you revise a great deal?
Lopate: Oh, yes. I revise a lot. Something like the Lionel Trilling essay I revised seven, eight, nine, ten times. Confessions of Summer I went through at least seven times and more.
Dialog: What about revising something that has been published?
Lopate: I’d like to revise some of the stuff. I wish I could. Sometimes I read poems and think the rhythm is off. Maybe I will revise them some day.
Dialog: How do you react to criticism?
Lopate: I haven’t been so severely criticized. I’ve gotten a few savage reviews, but something like Being with Children got universal praise. Confessions of Summer was more controversial. I react to reviews in the same way I react to criticism at a party. It interests me how people interpret the signals I’m giving off. I don’t think it profoundly changes me, but it interests me. Sometimes it tells me more about the spirit of the age. Bachelorhood basically got very good reviews. Occasionally, there would be a review where someone would say that, for all this candor, he still doesn’t spill the beans. Does this mean that I have to confess to incest or that I’m not troubled enough? I think there is a quality in my work that may never satisfy those who want a certain harrowing kind of confession. I feel Bachelorhood is really filled with me and my personality. If people think I was holding back, they don’t know that this is who I am! I go toward the situation of pain or intrigue and I look at it and examine it and get what I can out of it. Then I move away. I don’t wallow in things.
Dialog: What is the effect on your work of living between New York City and Houston?
Lopate: I still need New York for the street life and the pace of walking that has a great deal to do with the way I write. When I’m in New York, I’ll write, I’ll take a walk around lunch time, I’ll come back, and I’ll write. While I’m walking, I’ll be in a dream, but I’ll also see things. Here, I don’t feel encouraged to walk—there are no sidewalks. Also, there is a lot of just plain information in New York that comes from living in the imperial city. Sometimes I think it’s silly information. I’m not that jingoistic about New York. Now, whenever I got back, I think there is more information than heart. I’m fond of New York, and I’m fond of Houston. They give me different things. I’m promiscuous about cities. I have to have both places. Houston is having a subtle influence on me. It’s opening me up spatially. At first, there didn’t seem to be enough outside the window. Then I would turn back on myself and the void the Buddhists speak about was facing me—the abyss, if you will. A friendly abyss, but still an abyss. After three years, I find I can write here; that, to some degree, what is me is going to be the same no matter where I am. I think eventually I will write about Houston, but I need to know it to the bone. So now it is nurturing me in many ways.
Dialog: You are taking a six-month sabbatical. Will you be working on something specific that you would like to talk about?
Lopate: I want to do a long book about cities and people living in cities. It will probably be mostly about New York during the period of the bankruptcy scare. It seems to me that was something like a plague that never quite hit, but people were walking around stunned. I want to talk about the fate of cities and possibly write about Houston also. I am at the point of trying to decide whether to do it as a series of essays or try to make this grand synthesis of the essay and novel, which is very ambitious.
I feel I have a long book in me. I’m not sure when I’m ready to undertake it. I have to recognize my limitations. I have to recognize the fact that here I am, an autobiographical writer who is writing about an average, nonmythic life. I don’t climb mountains or fight bulls. I accept the project of such a life as a significant and reasonable thing to write about.
This interview originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.