I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I interviewed Phillip Lopate at his Brooklyn home, which he mentions in “Brooklyn the Unknowable,” one of the essays in his new collection, Portrait Inside My Head. There, he describes his reluctance to leave Manhattan for Brooklyn: “Brooklyn was the primeval ooze out of which I had crawled in order to make something of myself.” There is nothing of the primeval or oozing about the Carroll Gardens brownstone with which he and his wife, Cheryl, ended up falling in love and where they raised their daughter, Lily, who is now a college freshman. His is the only one on the block with enormous pots of flowering plants at the top of the long flight of stairs to the front door. Phillip greeted me, preceded by one of his three large cats.
It has been a good year for Phillip. The last time I visited him, he showed me Morris Dickstein’s laudatory review, in that week’s New York Times Book Review, of his two new books (his 17th and 18th as sole author—To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction and Portrait Inside My Head). Dickstein thoughtfully notes that Phillip’s essays “match Hazlitt’s promiscuous host of interests with Montaigne’s piercing attention to his inner life.”
The time before that, Phillip was still astonished by the news that Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series, had chosen “Against Joie de Vivre,” featured in the 1987 edition, as one of the ten best essays since 1950, claiming that Phillip “had found a creative way to insert the old familiar essay into the contemporary world.” “Along with James Baldwin and Joan Didion!” Phillip exclaimed on that fall afternoon. I was not in the least surprised. Phillip reinvented the essay for all of us, showing us the best features of that tradition combined with what Atwan has called a talent for “comic yet astute details.”
Phillip’s exuberance and generosity as a teacher had been on display the day before our conversation, during a daylong conference on the essay that he organized at Columbia University, where he is a professor and director of the graduate program in nonfiction. There had been one star-studded panel of essayists after the other. Everyone, panelists and audience, was a little giddy with the thrill of the discussions on- and offstage. Through it all, Phillip was making sure everything was going as it should, clowning a little, hugging some, and always ready with a greeting for everyone. The following afternoon he still had plenty of energy for our two-hour conversation in the decidedly not primeval ooze of his cozy, book-lined living room.
— Shifra Sharlin
Shifra Sharlin Coming to your place, I was thinking about your sense of place in Brooklyn and in New York. As someone who isn’t a native anything, I’m interested to hear what it means to call yourself a native New Yorker.
Phillip Lopate I do feel rooted in New York and am unapologetically pro–New York. There are other writers who have moved around and whose identity comes from being displaced or out of place or having two homes. I see myself as a New Yorker probably before I see myself as an American.
SS That’s true for a lot of New Yorkers.
PL First I’m a New Yorker, then a writer, then a Jew, and then an American. (laughter)
SS You’ve lived in Houston and in the Bay Area. Were you ever tempted to stay there? Why have you come back?
PL Because New York is part of my subject matter. When I’m in the street or on a bus or in the subway, I like to think that I have at least an inkling of what these people are thinking and feeling. It could be pure delusion, but I look at their faces, the set grimaces of their muscles, and I kind of know what’s passing through them. When I lived in places such as Houston or San Francisco, the people could be perfectly nice, but they were opaque to me. It’s just a fantasy perhaps, but I think I’m one of many here.
SS Do you think they can imagine what you’re thinking?
PL In New York, you get into the street and you take the measure of another person and the person after that. And you make very quick judgments from the way people are walking or standing still. It takes so much instinctual knowledge to navigate a street in New York, especially a busy one. This ocean of pedestrians has somewhat the same democratic promise that I think Whitman attributed to the crowd. The crowd gives the lie to D. H. Lawrence’s studies claiming that classical American literature is dominated by the isolate killer!
SS Haussmann’s Paris, Baudelaire’s Paris, has boulevards, restaurants, and other public spaces that make it possible for different kinds of people to meet.
PL It’s not an accident that the doppelgänger is a figure in urban literature. From Dostoyevsky on, we think of our doubles being encountered in city streets. When I first read Walter Benjamin and his writings about Baudelaire, the whole notion of the flaneur was a revelation for me. That was one of the most important books of my life. Just as in other ways Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities and Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York were very important to me. I later began to qualify my enthusiasm for both of those books—and to see that there were other ways of regarding the city—but, in a way, I never really departed from Benjamin’s approach.
SS When you describe yourself as a New Yorker, you are not only talking about it as an urban center but also about your familiarity with the people.
PL There are limits to the extent to which you can be self-invented. The trope of self-invention is one that Americans are drawn to, but I myself feel that you can’t evade your parentage. Some of my siblings like to think that they are more self-invented. I can see my father and my mother in me—they’ll never go away. Probably my relationship to Judaism is similar in that I’m not really a practicing Jew, although occasionally I fall back into it for old time’s sake. My daughter once said to me, “Why do you want to go to the synagogue, you don’t even believe in God, Daddy!”
SS That is not a deterrent to going to synagogue!
PL Definitely not a deterrent. I remember telling my friend Max Apple, a wonderful writer who’s much more of a practicing Jew, that I thought I was a bad Jew because I doubted everything. He said, “No, no, that means you’re a good Jew!”
SS Right! That’s the crux!
PL I just saw this American Masters TV show where Philip Roth is at pains to say, “I don’t want to be known as an American Jewish writer, I just want to be considered an American writer.” I thought, They can call me an American Jewish writer, I don’t mind. It’s funny because when I was a teenager, my god as a writer was Dostoyevsky. And Dostoyevsky said, “Why do they call me a psychologist? I don’t want to be called a psychologist, I’m a realist.” I remember at 18 years old thinking that if I ever became a writer, I wouldn’t mind if they called me a psychologist.
SS They can call me whatever they want!
PL Exactly! I’ve always been drawn to the psychological. The Freudian in me will never die, just as the Jane Jacobs in me will persist. My parents were both in a kind of Freudian therapy when I was a kid. They were working class, and didn’t even have much money, but they still went to therapy.
PL Yeah, they needed it.
SS That seems very unusual to me.
PL Well, it was part of the culture of New York. Growing up in Brooklyn, Freud and Dostoyevsky were the household gods. So I’ve always had a friendly feeling for psychology. When smart people dismiss Freud, I just roll my eyes. One of the points I made when I wrote the book on Susan Sontag, Notes on Sontag, was that there was this moment in the ’60s, especially in France, in which the psychological was disdained completely. The nouveau roman authors were all saying that the worst, the most vulgar thing you could do was to be psychological. That’s not me. I’m forever puzzling over peoples’ behavior and trying to understand my own behavior, and so, for me, the psychological is a very deep impulse.
SS One thing that jumps out in your work is the value of honesty. In the essay “Osao,” in your first collection, Bachelorhood, you wrote, “I was acting out the fantasy drama so dear to my own life of what would happen if people had the courage to tell the truth.”
PL Well, certainly. In my new book, Portrait Inside My Head, I say that I have limitations. The notion that you can’t be all things is very comforting. When I read some very theoretical texts about the diffuse self, or that question whether there is even such a thing as the self, I think, Oh well, this is very smart, but I don’t experience the world that way. I experience myself as having a very obstinate and locatable self.
SS In Portrait, you also write, “Honest to the world of facts outside ourselves, honest in reporting what we actually felt and did and finally honest in our own confusion and doubts.”
PL I make a distinction between honesty and the truth. I don’t know if I’m getting to the truth, but I do know when I’m being honest and dishonest.
SS One of the pleasures of reading your work is that you have an unusual emotional precision. Honesty looks different to different people. What does honesty look like to you?
PL It’s a good question, especially because Freud talks about the unconscious as something that we can never see about ourselves. It’s one of those things like God—if you can’t see it, how can you believe in it? I think of honesty as a kind of work: we’ve dug a hole, and we haven’t dug deeply enough. Often when I’m teaching … Believe me, teaching and writing are two processes that are incredibly intertwined in my mind—half the time I think I’m a writer and the other half I think I’m a teacher. So I see that students are preoccupied with technique and structure. Again and again I feel that if this student would just be more honest, the structure would fall into place.
SS Let’s talk about the essay in your new collection “Duration, or, Going Long,” which I think is—
PL Right, the one about sex.
SS It’s hilarious and so perfect. You begin by talking about Henry Miller and O. J. Simpson and their attitude toward sex.
PL The longer you do it the better—
SS Right! But also it’s about what honesty looks like when writing about sex. Henry Miller tells us details about his sex life as if that were the truest thing about him. In this essay, you reflect on a relationship with a woman who had a crush on you and was very sexy but was never sexually satisfied.
PL She wanted to be recognized. Perfectly understandable. So she began by being in awe of me but she really wanted to be recognized for what she was and, ultimately, that meant nothaving sex but just talking.
SS For Henry Miller or other writers for whom sex is honesty, another sexual encounter would have been the answer.
PL I’m always looking for the unexpected and trying to go against the grain somehow. That often gives me pleasure; I regard it as the instinct of doing mischief. I like being mischievous.
SS The curmudgeonly impulse.
PL The curmudgeonly impulse is partly the urge to do mischief. So instead of bragging about my sexual prowess, to put it in perspective, I’m always looking for something a little different, mischievous, unexpected. That means creating a persona for myself that is not completely socialized or not completely what you would expect—it’s certainly not always heroic. But then I still have to be sufficiently likable that the reader will not throw the book down in disgust. It means walking a tightrope.
SS Do you ever feel yourself falling off the tightrope one way or the other?
PL Well, possibly. One of the things that drew me to Montaigne was that his revelations about himself are not sensationalistic. He doesn’t reveal himself to be a sadist, or that he committed incest with anyone. He’s involved in the comedy of how humble our lives are, how little our flaws are. The grandiosity of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his Confessions makes you understand why Rousseau disliked Montaigne so much. They were both vying for the same crown. Montaigne said, “I’m the first one to really draw myself,” and Rousseau said, “How can he say that, because he doesn’t really spill the goods on himself!” So I’m closer to Montaigne. I’m not a great sinner.
SS Rousseau had a lot of horrible things to confess!
PL Magazines dedicated to the new literature are always reviewing novels about sexual transgression or something that feels a little kinky. They associate the edgy with the kinky. And I think, Yeah, yeah, what’s so interesting about this?
I’m skeptical about the seamy. The real, shall we say, buried continent is daily life in all its ordinariness.
SS That’s it. What feels like you’ve gotten to the heart of the matter, to something authentic?
PL It’s like: what do you make an identity out of? I’ve often had students who were writing a piece about discovering that they were gay as teenagers. But you can’t make a whole identity out of sexual preference. There are so many layers. An identity is made up of bits and pieces and scraps. There’s something almost overly hopeful about thinking that you’ll make one choice or figure out one thing about yourself that will solve your problem of identity.
SS You’ve spoken of your sense of place in New York, located in a family. How do you locate yourself in a community of friends and of writers?
PL When I was in college I was friendly with a lot of the poets who hung around St. Mark’s Church as part of the New York School of Poetry. I continue to be friendly with some of them—Ron Padgett, for instance. I was friendly with Kenneth Koch when he was alive. You might say I’ve been a fellow traveler of an avant-garde scene. At a certain point, I felt like I was losing my street cred with those people because my work was being published by establishment presses, and it was accessible. By which I mean that the “common reader,” as Virginia Woolf put it, could pick up a book of mine and understand the individual pieces. So this has inspired in me a lingering resentment.
SS Toward people who don’t have broad audiences? (laughter)
PL No, a lingering resentment toward the judgmental side of the avant-garde, which thinks their set of five experiments—having to do with collage or chronological shufflings or genre hybridity—are the only legitimate experiments. I’m not speaking just about myself but about a lot of writers, whom the general public find readable, when I say that we are experimenting, but with different experiments.
SS In Portrait Inside My Head you experiment with miscellany.
PL I was responding to an older tradition. Collections by people like Mary McCarthy and Leslie Fiedler included theater criticism and some book reviews with the idea that if you’re interested in how the essayist’s mind works, you’ll be interested in these other things. I realized at this point I was willing to take the chance, to put in an essay on baseball, an essay on politics, on movies, on sex. But I didn’t want it to all have the same valence. So I included the essay on my daughter’s illness, “The Lake of Suffering”—I didn’t want it all to be comic. I needed to strike some deeper notes, approaching tragedy but not quite tragic, to say that suffering was part of my life, as well as everybody’s life. Again, the question of balance. I just pulled together the pieces that I felt closest to. I’ve written much more than is in this book but I had to make choices. Most of the essays reflect a kind of second thought—on sex or politics or seeing a movie again and changing my mind, for instance—each time asking myself, Is this what I really think? What else do I think?
SS Can you say something about your writing process?
PL Often I use the beginning to establish the tone. I may take a long time writing one paragraph at the beginning just to teach myself what kind of lexicon I’m using, what kind of persona, what level of seriousness or comedy. So sometimes I tinker with the beginning for a long time.
SS And then that will stay, because—
PL Not always, but usually. Basically that’s the foundation stone that the whole building is going to be built around. And then I don’t necessarily write in sequence. I write what I can see clearly. I may write the end last or I may write the middle and the second part last. But I like to write as much as possible in sequence, because I’m planting sticks of dynamite of suspense that will have to be detonated somewhere along the line. I do think of an essay as a construction of suspense and tension. Maybe all the questions aren’t answered, but there’s some resolution of the suspense. Sometimes it’s just: Where is this guy going? What is he trying to figure out here?
SS Or how is he going to figure it out?
PL How’s he going to figure it out? He’s got himself into a deep hole here.
SS The openings to your essays are very quiet. There’s no attempt at an attention-grabbing beginning.
PL Often they’re direct, though. One of the things that I encounter among students is that they’re very reluctant to be straightforward in their setup. They’re backing a long distance away from the main idea of the essay or they’re very indirect in their approach because they think it’s much cooler to be indirect.
SS Or they’re just afraid of holding their reader’s interest or getting the reader interested.
PL Sometimes setting up a problem calmly is the best way of winning the reader’s trust. The essay can go off and explore and go someplace that you never expected, but that doesn’t mean it has to begin in complete befuddlement. It can begin with a certain tentative modest clarity and move on from there. Clarity of intent, perhaps.
SS You often write about friendships.
PL There are writers who are lovers and writers who are friends. I’m one of the friends. I think there’s a difference between writing to maintain a friendship and writing to seduce the reader. Some writers are Don Juans—
SS They want to dazzle.
PL Yes, they want to seduce you, to lure you, to overwhelm you, to take over your whole consciousness. There’s a macho side to some American male writers: They want to fuck you. Or they want you to want to fuck them, is what it comes down to.
SS They want to mystify you.
PL They want to put you in a trance. I want to amuse and maybe provoke some thought, but also befriend the reader. Friendship suggests a certain liberty. You’re not a slave to a friend. You’re a slave to your passions.
SS In Portrait Inside My Head, you also write about friendships with other writers and artists.
PL I think about friendship all the time—it’s one of my main preoccupations. This is a confession: In some ways, I’ve never been able to take romantic love completely seriously. I mean, I’ve wanted to be in love, and I thought I was in love, but if there was some piece of work that I was doing at the time, that would always take precedence. I’ve never felt needy enough to change my whole life around for the loved one. That’s another kind of stubbornness and limitation in me.
SS When you write about the limits of empathy it’s usually in relation to the loved one. Friendship is a whole other object.
PL It’s much more temporally defined. You see the friend for four or five hours and it’s wonderful and then you go off. You don’t have to hang in there for all the questions of are you snoring or is she snoring? (laughter) And certainly I think the death of a friendship is one of the most puzzling things in the world. We all understand that love affairs can end, but there seems no reason for friendships to end and, when they do, it’s horrible.
The personal essay is the kind of form that constitutes a friendship between the writer and the reader. So I’m trying to enact friendships through my writing.
SS Your awareness of the limitations of your empathy indicates its extent. You’d only be aware of your limitations if you knew that you had that impulse.
PL This is true not only of my sympathy but of my capacity for mysticism and spirituality. When I’m with somebody I’m usually reading that person in waves, instinctual waves that are telling me a lot—not always accurately, because of my own projections and prejudices, but the point is that I am experiencing these waves. The same thing could be said about my relationship to the universe or any larger experience. I’m intellectually skeptical of transcendence, of redemption, of all these words. And yet I go through life still aware that the aperture is open to some degree. I think this is self-protective on my part.
It’s really about a balance, and this draws me even more to Montaigne: he’s very involved with equilibrium, which is not a very edgy idea. It’s a scandalous proposition to the modern mind. Equilibrium without nirvana, just daily equilibrium.
SS This is a historical moment of particularly extreme religious beliefs. There’s a sense of either/or, all or nothing.
PL That’s true politically as well.
SS The idea of reasonable religion is impossible.
PL Reasonable politics, reasonable religion, reasonable civic involvement—so, yeah, I’m back to defending reason, you know?
SS The Enlightenment is blamed for banishing the irrational in favor of the rational. We are still experiencing the backlash but, even then, there was such a thing as the “middle way.”
PL The middle way, yes, I like that idea. As you know, I’ve written poetry, I’ve written fiction and nonfiction, and I am always trying to find the middle way. That’s not to say I’m always calm. I wake up in the morning sometimes with a kind of impatient buzz or irritability or sense of anxiety or fear. But it’s just something that I’ve learned to deal with. It’s not anything that’s going to take over, it’s just to indicate that we’re not meant to be pure and perfect.
SS I wanted to talk about imperfections.
PL I do want my writing and, by extension, my students’ writing to have a certain gravity. It bothers me if it starts to get too colloquial and feels like it’s just the transcription of a phone conversation, if there isn’t enough tension in the prose. I want it to have a gravitas, an intellectual density. This is something that I’ve striven for: to be accessible but also to have enough texture in the vocabulary, in the syntax, to ensure variety and pleasure.
SS Imperfection is partly about texture.
PL We all live using a lot of different vocabularies. When we go into a shop we use one vocabulary, when we’re on the phone with a friend we use another, and when we’re teaching we use another. I want to be able to use as many vocabularies in my writing as I use in my daily life.
If I tend toward anything, it’s maximalism rather than minimalism. I’ve always been attracted to writers like Dostoyevsky or Proust or Virginia Woolf who give you the sense that they’re not going to run out of things to say. There is a generosity in play. I’m much less interested in exquisite writers who polish every word like a set of stones in a Japanese garden. Or in that minimalist post-Hemingway style, which is very seductive and attractive, but not for me.
SS This connects to teaching and what can be taught and what looks like good writing to your students.
PL Teachers are desperate, so they resort to a bunch of rules. And that’s part of why I made such an issue, in my book To Show and to Tell, out of encouraging them to show and to tell because “Show, don’t tell” is one of the main rules that’s drummed into them. It inhibits them from thinking on the page, and narrows their voices considerably.
SS There are a lot of crazy rules—
PL They terrify students. I try to question the rules, even my own. When I’m teaching, I often wonder, Am I really going to say out loud what I’m thinking now? Is it my place to say it out loud? And nine times out of ten I think, Okay, let’s just go for it. In a way it’s easier for me to say what I’m thinking than to censor myself in the classroom, and I hope in general something good will come of this honesty.
SS Are you hesitant to make a statement that will feel too much like a rule?
PL No, it usually has to do with some piece of psychology, like, Why are you so discreet about this thing? You could confront it a little more clearly. Or—
SS Pushing people to emotional clarity.
PL Yes, I try to push them to emotional clarity. I’ll make a comment about too much anger, too little anger. I’m not doing endless line editing because a lot of the time their sentences are fine, they’re adequate. The real problem is not with their sentences; it’s with their psychology.
SS You are one of the big reasons why the personal essay is now flourishing everywhere.
PL I’ll accept that. (laughter)
SS When you started it was new and different and took a certain amount of—
PL It may have seemed new and different, but what I really did was uncover a long historical tradition. When I did the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, which is probably the book of mine that’s had the greatest impact, there were other essay anthologies but they were almost entirely modern and contemporary. There was nothing historical. I wanted readers to fall in love with individual essayists—that’s what made me fall in love with the essay. I didn’t really fall in love with essays, I fell in love with essayists. Writers like Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb and Baldwin became my family members, my friends. They made me feel less lonely.
SS In the introduction to the personal-essay volume you say that writers become what they write.
PL Yes, that was Montaigne’s idea, that he was writing himself into—
SS —you write yourself into existence.
PL He wrote himself into a defined self. I feel exactly like Montaigne in that regard. I was interested in a person who didn’t mind saying something that was nasty or something that was difficult because it meant that they spoke out of a defined self. They weren’t always trying to oblige or make nice. So that’s my tribe and it has a certain sound. To some degree, it’s a mischievous sound. When I was younger, I was very influenced by Italo Svevo and Machado de Assis, who are largely ironists and comic writers. I hope that I’m writing in a comic tradition.
SS Do you think of yourself as someone who makes people laugh?
PL I do, on my best days. I’m engaged now in editing a book of Max Beerbohm’s essays. I love Max Beerbohm. He’s the quintessential example of somebody who was an obstinately minor writer. He didn’t mind that he was a minor writer; he didn’t set out to be a major writer. Look, I think I’m a pretty good writer. But I don’t think I’m a major writer. I’m okay with that. Beerbohm took the freedom to say, Okay, I’m minor but I’m going to have some fun, and I’m going to follow out my quirky march. For me, the comic is the true way of looking at the world: It provides a perspective that undercuts excessive self-absorption or taking yourself too seriously. When you reach a point where you can laugh at yourself and at the world, then you know you’re walking in the truth.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee