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The Poet Remains Alive in the Essayist: Phillip Lopate in Conversation

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Phillip Lopate
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2014
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The following is a transcript of an interview with Phillip Lopate conducted by Sandy McIntosh in the fall of 2009.


Sandy McIntosh: Most people associate you with your personal essays, some with your novels, as well, and others with your non-fiction. But what many don't know is that for fifteen years during the ‘sixties, ‘seventies and early ‘eighties, you wrote seriously as a poet, and two collections of your work were published by Bill Zavatsky's Sun Press. These books have been out of print for some time, but now you've gathered poems from both collections, as well as uncollected poems, into one volume, At the End of the Day, Selected Poems, to be published by Marsh Hawk Press in January 2010.

In your introductory essay, you look closely at the social and personal situations that got you started with poetry, and those that led you away from it. You describe yourself as a tough kid, having hailed from the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We know from your essays and now from your poems that your home life was rough, your mother and father often at each other's throats, polemically but also physically. Why would this tough, cocky and ambitious ghetto kid be attracted to poetry in the first place?

Phillip Lopate: First of all, though I grew up in a tough neighborhood and in a battling home, I was not that tough. I was bookish, and used my brains to get a scholarship out of the ghetto. Poetry had attracted me somewhat from childhood: my mother would read us poems like "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes, and I liked the jangle of sounds and rhythms. I wrote poems on demand as a kid—birthday cards, Thanksgiving Day—then gave up the practice for prose.

It was only in my mid-twenties that I returned to it, through a mesh of circumstances: a) I had fallen in socially with the New York School of Poetry gang and envied their communitarian support system; b) I had taken a job helping to revise the Oscar Williams poetry anthologies, which obliged me to read mountains of poetry, until I had no choice but to vomit out my own; c) my married life was crumbling and my life was becoming too fragmented to work at sustained prose, and I found that writing poems on the fly was a better solution, for the time being.

When my first poems were greeted enthusiastically at open readings and accepted for publication, I took heart and continued. Needless to say, it was the same love of language and storytelling which had drawn me into prose writing that eventually made me want to try my hand at poetry. I also liked doing crossword puzzles, and there is a game-solving aspect to writing poems, getting the right words in the right places, that appeals to me.

Mcintosh: You've written that another factor sparking your entry into poetry was the anti-war movement. You had taken your undergraduate degree at Columbia University and were living nearby. In April 1968, the protests at Columbia reached their apex with the student takeover of Low Library, the university's chief administrative building. You write that you got swept up in the revolt, and reentered your old Alma Mater as a trouble-making alumnus. Thereafter, you participated in demonstrations, political meetings and study groups reading Marxist texts along with the poetry. To what extent do you see revolutionary or Marxist ideas affecting your early poetry?

Lopate: I hardly regard myself as a Marxist or a revolutionary—too lazy—though I suppose around 1968 and for several years thereafter I was very sympathetic to Marxist analyses about what was wrong with the world. Let's say I bought the analysis of the problem (oppression of workers, maldistribution of wealth, imperialism, cultural superstructure enforcing the status quo), but not the solutions, such as armed class warfare. I tried to let my political positions percolate into my poetry, without wanting ever to be didactic or write agitprop, propagandistic works.

So, for instance, my poem "Allende" circles around my own doubts and disheartenment. I would define the political position in that poem as skeptical, not optimistic. I certainly was against the Vietnam War, as I would also be against the War in Iraq, and do not think my days of disagreeing with or demonstrating against the government will ever come to an end. In any case, political discourse is a language, an argot as well as a way of thinking, and affected my poetry in many ways: consider for instance the title of the poem "Solidarity with Mozambique," or the last line of "We who are your closest friends" which is "then for the good of the collective" (a satiric dig at groupthink).

Finally, I wrote a number of poems which reflect on my work with minority inner city youth, and my sympathy with them. That stance is hardly revolutionary, but it suggests that the core of my politics and ethical beliefs has to do with a defense of city life. I would vote for the Urbanist Party, if such a thing existed.

Mcintosh: Many of the poems from your first book, The Eyes Don't Always Want to Stay Open, which you've included in your Selected Poems, seem to echo the styles if not the accents and viewpoints of poets who've influenced you. For example, would you agree that William Carlos Williams, Frank O'Hara, Pablo Neruda, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Randall Jarrell are influences?

Lopate: I would just add Whitman to that list, but yes, I fell in love with Frank O'Hara's poetry, so witty and urban and vulnerable. William Carlos Williams was probably the most dominant influence on the poets of my generation who resisted the pull of T. S. Eliot. He pointed us in the direction of plain American speech. I loved the incantatory melancholy of early Neruda, especially the poems in Residence On the Earth, more so than the later odes. As for Jarrell, I was attracted to the talky relaxed poems in The Lost World and some of the Posthumous Poems as well, when he broke the bounds of the fussy.

Mcintosh: In some of these early poems you're the sensualist ("Snowball Journal"); in others you're the seemingly laid-back contemplative ("In the Time"); in others the hard-headed pragmatist ("Nose Job"); and so on. Like many first books, yours conveys the sense of the poet trying things on, grabbing for things in the dark. Eventually, though, you came upon the poetry of Nicanor Parra. Did he crystallize for you what you were looking for: the taste for "anti-poetry," the taste for grubby reality? And if so, how did you put this into practice?

Lopate: I was certainly searching for a poetic "voice," and worked in a number of forms and techniques, but eventually I settled on a fairly long line, a prosy poetic voice you might say. In other words, I made peace with the fact that my poetry was never going to be crystalline or jewel-cut, but that I actually preferred a certain rough-hewn, direct and (whenever possible) comic tone. It wasn't Parra's poetry per se that had such a deep influence on me, as his formulation of the label "anti-poems." I thought, all right, maybe that's what I've been doing. It stiffened my spine and my defiance towards what I regarded as an insider's closed club.

Mcintosh: The poem concluding your early collection is the first referencing your life as a poet teaching children and teenagers in inner-city schools, beginning in East Harlem. In "Satin Doll," one of your students has died, potentially of a heroin overdose, and you take his classmates on a field trip to the funeral home. "As soon as I arrive," you write, "I want to split / OK I've seen it." You've described teaching children as a "crucial nonliterary influence" on your poetry. In what way?

Lopate: Teaching children gave me an opportunity to connect with a real world, a world outside my head, a densely detailed community, and at the same time to articulate my own principles of poetry and prose writing in a concise, clear way. In a sense, the twelve years I spent teaching children and adolescents gave me a chance to think of myself as a decent person, which meant that the many mistakes I made and the things I did that caused me to be ashamed of myself were put into a more generous perspective—hence, made more available to me as material. If the core of me was basically good, decent, I was freer to examine the parts that weren't; they became less threatening.

I wrote "Satin Doll" about a trip to the funeral parlor with my students; I wrote some poems about my own childhood, such as "The Blue Pants," because being around children so much stirred up those memories; and I wrote the long poem that ends the book, "Secrets, Rehearsals," at a workshop for teachers, when I began the class with a free writing exercise, which I myself felt compelled to do.

Mcintosh: Of the three poems you've just mentioned, your pursuit of intense, unflinching examination in "Secrets, Rehearsals" will be familiar to readers of your personal essays. Of course, many of the poems you've selected from your second book, The Daily Round, share these characteristics. You once whispered to a friend at a poetry reading in the late ‘70s when it was your turn to read: "This is how I get the girls." Of your sensual, laid-back or intense, examining poems, which kind did the trick?

Lopate: I can't remember ever having made such a boast, but I said many dumb things over the years. What's true is that I participated in many marathon readings and open readings during the years I was writing poetry. It seemed a good way to hone the oral side of my poems and to get audience feedback. Immodestly, I will say I was/am a good reader, got lots of laughs and strong positive reactions. One reason I was a good reader, perhaps, is that I was coming to poetry from the prose end of things, and hence did not read in that soupy, self-adoring, excessively "musical" way many schooled poets do. Be that as it may, there were a few occasions when an attractive woman poet and I flirted with each other after we had both enjoyed each other's performances, which led to some sort of affair. The results were not long-lasting: two literary narcissists do not a loving couple make. But if any type of poems "did the trick," it was the funny ones. Fortunately for me, there is a certain type of woman who is drawn to men who will make her laugh.

Mcintosh: Here and in your essay you've somewhat disparaged the school-trained poets and the MFA qualification. In fact, you gave their exclusivity, tentatively, as one of your reasons for leaving poetry for prose. Overall, do you see MFA programs limiting opportunities for professional writers, outsiders, to teach, and for MFA students to have the opportunity to learn from outside writers who may not hold to the MFA's traditional values?

Lopate: I don't really have a problem with MFA programs; in fact, I earn a good part of my living teaching in them. I do think that because of the emphasis on credentialing poets, they tend to make a fetish of technique and achieving a recognizable poetic surface. They also promote a poetry "circuit," which has an upside and a downside. On the other hand, it could well be that I sound disparaging at times about school-trained poets because I never got an MFA in poetry and am merely being defensive and envious.

Mcintosh: You've written that you left poetry for prose because you fell in love with the personal essay—a form that you've worked hard to mark out. On a practical literary level, what does the essay offer you that poetry doesn't?

Lopate: It's certainly easier to place personal essays than poems in general interest magazines. Beyond that, I just think it's a form that suits my particular writing voice. One can be very playful and self-mocking, and open up a mischievous space between the I-character and the narrator and the writer.

Mcintosh: Now, though, after assembling your Selected Poems you've looked back on your work in poetry and remembered how much fun it was to write poems, and you've expressed hope that you might pick up the practice once again. Are there some things you might accomplish in a poem that cannot be accomplished in an essay? And vice versa?

Lopate: Among the things you can accomplish by writing a poem rather than an essay, I would say that sense of having been given a gift, something miraculous when it all seems to come together. You did it, and yet you "found" it, as though it had already existed, a perfect stone on the beach. There are also sonic felicities that work better in poetry than prose. On the other hand, I find it easier to elaborate an argument in a personal essay than in a poem. In a sense, my poem "Numbness" was an attempt to write a poem with the structure of a personal essay: Let's interrogate this position and see where it takes me. Obviously, the demands of compression on the argument or digression are much greater in poetry than in essays.

Mcintosh: In conversation some years ago you described how you wrote your essay, "Samson, Delilah and the Kids." You said that you assembled the essay from fragments. You had no computer so that all your editing had to be done with scissors and paste. Your method was to write a section, or just a paragraph or a sentence and arrange them into stacks labeled Yes, No and Maybe. Finally, you selected from the material you felt strongest about and rearranged it until you came out with something you could call an essay. This process seems to share more of poetic composition than the traditional rhetorical kind. Would you say that you've continued this poetic method in more recent essays, or have you moved on to a wholly prose oriented form? That is, how much of the poet remains in the essayist?

Lopate: I think the poet remains alive in the essayist, to the degree that I still am not sure where I'm going, and let the last line dictate the next line. I'm still putting together essays from different riffs, tossing out the ones I don't like and keeping the ones I do. Paul Valery said that when you read a poem, you go back and reread the line instead of moving continuously forward, as opposed to prose. I don't expect people to read my essays that way, doubling back, but that self-reflexive loop is the way I compose them, and I learned that from writing poetry.

Copyright © 2009 by Sandy McIntosh and Phillip Lopate. All rights reserved. Sandy McIntosh's latest poetry collection is Ernesta, in the Style of the Flamenco, published in 2010 by Marsh Hawk Press.