phillip-lopate

Doubt is my boon companion, the faithful St. Bernard ever at my side. Whether writing essays or just going about daily life, I am constantly second-guessing myself. My mind is filled with ‘yes, buts,’ 'so whats?’ and other skeptical rejoinders. I am forever monitoring myself for traces of folly, insensitivity, arrogance, false humility, cruelty, stupidity, immaturity and, guess what, I keep finding examples. Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect.
—  Phillip Lopate
We Who Are Your Closest Friends

by Phillip Lopate

we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
frustration
discontent and
torture
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift

your analyst is
in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us

in announcing our
association
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves
but since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make
unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your
disastrous personality

then for the good of the collective

We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
frustration
discontent and
torture
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
association
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.
— 

We Who Are Your Closest Friends, by Phillip Lopate.

For good measure, I’d like to include Anne Lammot’s description of her writing class’s reaction to her reading them this poem:

They stare at me like the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Only about three of them think this poem is funny, or even a good example of someone taking his own paranoia and shaping it into something artistic and true. A few people look haunted. The ones who most want to be published just think I’m an extremely angry person. Some of them look emotionally broken, some look at me with actual disgust, as if I am standing there naked under fluorescent lights. 

We Who Are Your Closest Friends
we who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting
as a group
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
frustration
discontent and
torture
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift

your analyst is
in on it
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us

in announcing our
association
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves
but since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make
unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your
disastrous personality

then for the good of the collective

-Phillip Lopate

I am an essayist, for better or worse. I don’t suppose many young people dream of becoming essayists. Even as nerdy and bookish a child as I was fantasized about entering the lists of fiction and poetry, those more glamorous, noble genres on which Nobels, Pulitzers and National Book Awards are annually bestowed. So if Freud was right in saying that we can be truly happy only when our childhood ambitions are fulfilled, then I must be content to be merely content.

I like the freedom that comes with lowered expectations. In the area of literary nonfiction, memoirs attract much more attention than essay collections, which are published in a modest, quasi-invisible manner, in keeping with anticipated lower sales. But despite periodic warnings of the essay’s demise, the stuff does continue to be published; if anything, the essay has experienced a slight resurgence of late. I wonder if that may be because it is attuned to the current mood, speaks to the present moment. At bottom, we are deeply unsure and divided, and the essay feasts on doubt.

Ever since Michel de Montaigne, the founder of the modern essay, gave as a motto his befuddled “What do I know?” and put forth a vision of humanity as mentally wavering and inconstant, the essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt. The essay’s job is to track consciousness; if you are fully aware of your mind you will find your thoughts doubling back, registering little peeps of ambivalence or disbelief.

According to Theodor Adorno, the iron law of the essay is heresy. What is heresy if not the expression of contrarian doubt about communal pieties or orthodox positions? This is sometimes called “critical thinking,” an ostensible goal of education in a democracy. But since such thinking often rocks the boat, we may find it less than supported in school settings. Typically, the exercise of doubt is something an individual has to cultivate on his or her own, in private, before summoning the courage to air it, say, in an essay.

— 

Phillip Lopate, The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt

As a writer, I am an essayist, although that term is falling into disuse with the rise of the web. Now, people would call me a blogger, although naming a role for the tools used would mean tailors would be called needlers. 

No, I am an essayist, and I share Lopate’s identification with doubt and heresy proudly.

Lopate’s writing is masterful, filled with gems:

Age has not made me wiser, except maybe in retrospect. 

Strangely enough, doubt need not impede action.

Argumentation is a good skill to have, but the real argument should be with oneself.

I like the freedom that comes with lowered expectations.

I am an essayist, for better or worse.

I will have to track down one of his books, I think.

On Anthologizing Creative Nonfiction

John D'Agata and Phillip Lopate

During 2014, Essay Press will release a series of chapbooks investigating what creative nonfiction can learn from small-press publishing communities in poetry. One of these chapbooks, curated by David Lazar, will consist of three dialogues by editors of prominent nonfiction anthologies. Each dialogue will examine the potential to reshape a literary field through an experimental form of anthologizing. The Conversant has published an audio preview of one of these dialogues, conducted by John D’Agata and Phillip Lopate, the directors of the nonfiction programs at the University of Iowa and University of Columbia, respectively. We’ve transcribed a segment of the conversation below.

JOHN D'AGATA: There’s an interesting question you have to ask yourself when you’re doing an anthology, and that is how important it is to present new work from well-known writers rather than those old chestnuts that had originally made them famous. When I was doing my second anthology, The Lost Origins of the Essay, I found myself treading ground that you [Phillip Lopate] had already well-traveled.  For example, I knew that I wanted to include Sei Shonagon, because she speaks so wonderfully to the argument that that book is trying to make. And the same thing with [Yoshida] Kenko, Natlia Ginzburg.

PHILLIP LOPATE: And Montaigne.

JD: And Montaigne, from whom I selected the same essay as you had—and even same translation. For some I was able to find different translations, as with Sei Shonagon, or commission new translations, which I did for a few of the selections I included. But in other instances you face a dilemma: those old chestnuts might be speaking directly to the argument you want to make, and yet because they’ve been so frequently anthologized you could end up looking like you aren’t imaginative or well-read enough to find alternatives.

Keep reading

from “Midlist Crisis” by Philip Lopate, in The New York Times

“We are all soon to be dust and ashes under the aspect of eternity — a comfortingly modest thought. There is nothing, I repeat, in an author more becoming than modesty. I myself am, when all is said and done, exquisitely modest. I recognize my talent is a small one, and it has taken me further than I ever imagined when I started out in adolescence on the writing path. So I will conclude by expressing my abject gratitude to the powers that be for recognizing me to the degree they have seen fit. We will leave it at that.”

The urban walk-poem or story is a species of travel literature, one in which, without going anywhere, you often adopt a stance of unfamiliarity in your own town. In New York, precisely because it is so polyglot and international, the walker-writer can turn a corner and imagine being in Prague, say, or Montevideo. Some walks follow habitual routes, and are intended to reassure; others are undertaken to disorient oneself in a strange neighborhood–to court, as in childhood, the sensation of being lost and afraid, albeit in safe, small doses.

Such walking requires leisure. Idlers and literary bohemians, looking down on nine-to-five “wage slaves,” try to swallow their guilt towards the worker and promote walking into a sacred vocation, much like the nineteenth-century flâneurs who strolled around Paris, and whom Walter Benjamin called “connoisseurs of the sidewalk.” A wine connoisseur appreciates the best and often the most expensive vintages; but the connoisseur of streets, while charmed by the leafy quiet and exclusive shops in a wealthy area, is more likely to grow enthusiastic over a section a bit more ragged. Street connoisseurs are often drawn to borders between neighborhoods, which inherit the different, high-low, joli-laid personalities of both. It’s this sort of cognitive dissonance that the urban connoisseur takes pride in recognizing and then resolving aesthetically.

The urban connoisseur is also an amateur archeologist of the recently vanished past. Not surprisingly, an elegiac tone creeps into this genre, as personal memories intersect with what had formerly existed on a particular spot. The walker-writer cannot help seeing, superimposed over the present edifice, its former incarnation, and he/she sings the necropolis, the litany of all those torn-down Pennsylvania Stations and Les Halles marketplaces that goes: Lost New York, Lost Boston, Lost Tokyo, Lost Paris.

— 

On The Aesthetics of Urban Walking and Writing by Phillip Lopate inWaterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan

(via @sepoy’s tweet on masculine possession of the city)

A friendship may travel for years on cozy habit. But it is a melancholy fact that unless you are a saint you are bound to offend every friend deeply at least once in the course of time. The friends I have kept the longest are those who forgave me for wronging them, unintentionally, intentionally, or by the plain catastrophe of my personality, time and again. There can be no friendship without forgiveness.
—  Phillip Lopate, “Modern Friendships,” Against Joie de Vivre
Cierta mujer me pidió que me detuviera cuando le dije cómo me sentía: no era necesaria una “franqueza tan brutal”. Su reacción, aunque comprensible, sugiere que con frecuencia lo que predomina en los hombres no es una reticencia emocional, sino la imposibilidad de seguir el guión romántico que ellas han estipulado.
—  Phillip Lopate, Sobre el fin de la soltería.
Retrato de mi cuerpo 
Reading assignment for class

I’m reading an article called “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character” by Phillip Lopate, and found a part I needed to share with tumblr.

“The student essayist is torn between two contrasting extremes:

A. I am so weird that I could never tell on the page what is really, secretly going on in my mind.

B. I am so boring, nothing ever happens to me out of the ordinary, so who would want to read about me?”

Obviously this man has never been on tumblr.

I would have said no poetry can come
From a lack of enthusiasm; yet how much of my life,
Of anyone’s life, is spent in neutral gear?
The economics of emotions demand it.
Those rare intensities of love and anguish
Are cheapened when you swamp them with souped-up ebulliences,
A professional liveliness that wears so thin.
There must be a poetry for that other state
When I am feeling precisely nothing, there must
Be an interesting way to write about it.
There are continents of numbness to discover
If I could have the patience or the courage.

-Phillip Lopate

TONIGHT (1/25) at 7pm / NYFA Presents: Three Decades of Writing Fellows

New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) Board member and three-time fellowship recipient Saïd Sayrafiezadeh will be returning to host the third event in this reading series featuring NYFA writing fellows. Kathryn Harrison (Fellow ‘94), Phillip Lopate (Fellow ‘91), Catherine Lacey (Fellow ‘12), and Rajesh Parameswaran (Fellow ‘15) will be reading.

This event is free and open to the public; join us! Doors and the cafe open at 6:30 and the reading will start sharply at 7.

For reader bios and more info: http://current.nyfa.org/post/134871454978/nyfa-presents-three-decades-of-writing-fellows

You are not me, and I am never you
except for thirty seconds in a year
when ecstasy of coming,
laughing at the same time
or being cruel to know for certain
what the other’s feeling
charge some recognition.

Not often when we talk though.
Undressing to the daily logs
of this petty boss, that compliment,
curling our lips at half-announced ambitions.

I tell you this during another night
of living next to you
without having said what was on our minds,
our bodies merely rubbing their fishy smells together.

The feelings keep piling up.
Will I ever find the time to tell you what is inside these trunks?

Maybe it’s the fault of our language
but dreams are innocent and pictorial.
Then let our dreams speak for us
side by side, leg over leg,
an electroencephalographic kiss
flashing blue movies from temple
to temple, as we lie gagged in sleep.

Sleep on while I am talking
I am just arranging the curtains
over your naked breasts.
Love doesn’t look too closely…
love looks very closely
the shock of beauty you gave me
the third rail that runs through our hospitality.
When will I follow you
over the fence to your tracks?

—  Phillip Lopate, The Ecstasy