Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Phillip Lopate

Report by Faine Greenwood:

Phillip Lopate has been a particular delight for me to discover. I’ve got my reasons: I have often been critiqued in the past for providing too much background information in my essays: it is the fetish of a life-long information whore, the kind of person who enjoys being good at Trivial Pursuit. I admit it all. The advent of the Internet has made back-research entirely too tempting to me. I can Google up a library of Alexandria; every factoid is instantly accessible to me in purest format. And here we have Phillip Lopate, who did this kind of exhaustive research prior to the Internet, who provided back-story and context in a readable and elegant fashion, who nailed it. As Peter Cooley noted, in his introduction at the Symposium, Lopate could write an essay about shoelaces, an essay in which we were given the history and origin of shoelaces, an essay we might actually enjoy.

Lopate’s style is cool and intellectual. His is not the enveloping bear hug of the new-age personal essayist. He is not here to make us feel better about ourselves, or drag us along on his personal spirit-quest (and thank God he does not). Lopate remains at a bit of a scholarly distance, a role he is comfortable with. Mr. Lopate is the shusher in the back of the movie theater, he is the man who spoke out (finally!) against the horrifying rise of joie de vivre. He says what he wants to say, and he does it so smoothly that we do not immediately file him away as a simple rebel.

And there is emotional depth to Lopate, beyond his initial New York City (Brooklyn!) veneer. Lopate worked as a “poet in residence” and teacher at the District 9 middle school in New York City for years, teaching writing and art to a host of not always willing pre-teen kids. The observations and the material he gets out of those years is superb. Look at the brilliant Chekhov With Children from the Getting Personal compilation, in which Lopate audaciously produces and puts on an ennui-sodden Russian play with a bunch of middle schoolers. The miracle? He pulls off the play, and the children personify the characters, envelop themselves in the part. He does not talk down to the kids or assume that they are incapable of doing what they do: so too does he approach his readers. He assumes we will sit beside him for the duration, and listen to what he has to say, because he has invited us in.

That Phillip Lopate is fearsomely intelligent and eternally measured serves him well when he reverses things. The Tulane reading was a case in point. Lopate followed a rather dense essay about his experiences in poetry with an essay discussing (in great detail) the vagaries and insecurities of his sex life. It worked perfectly, in my mind: the fog of scholarly thought the audience had succumbed to subsided, and we were all laughing together over Lopate’s particularly clever turns of phrase. (“Sex is like parenting: someone, somewhere, is doing it better then you.”) Lopate proves that we can have the high and the low together in personal essay, and perhaps emphasizes that we do not even need to make the distinction. Every part of life can be examined and considered, and every bit of it can be made interesting.

Lopate is an impeccable stylist, the man who has defined the personal essay in America. It was very good to meet him: we discussed pierogis briefly, and I mentioned that I agreed entirely with the thesis of Against Joie De Vivre. I wrote him a brief thank-you email that weekend. He replied immediately and graciously: we can’t ask for much more from those who come to Tulane to talk to us. He said in the email that he hoped he’d be invited back. I hope so too.

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