Arts & Culture

"I don't understand the vogue for stripped-down sentences."

By Heidi Broadhead March 19, 2010

Phillip Lopate is one of the best known essayists in the country. And one of the most well-regarded. Check out the blurbs:
"'The Stoic’s Marriage'" is a mordantly funny brickbat tossed at every diarist egged along by big publishing dreams."
--Jan Stuart (New York Times, review of Two Marriages)

"Lopate is a storyteller. He is always teasing, luring and guiding us with cinematic clarity into a world of sight and sound..., of characters and talk."
--Margo Jefferson (New York Times, review of Getting Personal: Selected Writings)

He has written seven nonfiction books nonfiction (essays, criticism, memoir, and biography), two collections of poetry, and two novels. He's edited four anthologies, most famously The Art of the Personal Essay, a staple for essay writing classes.

When he's not busy writing essays and criticism for magazines, including The Nation and Book Forum, he's teaching at Columbia, The New School, and in workshops around the country (like the one this weekend at the Richard Hugo House... which is already sold out).

Lopate is in town for Hugo House's closing Literary Series program of the season, "Laws of Attraction":

ArtsNerd: When Hugo House invited you to come to Seattle to read a new work about the Laws of Attraction (basically, sex) what was your first thought?

Philip Lopate:: My first thought was "Oy vey, how am I going to make something of this?

AN: The whole idea behind the Literary Series is to encourage the creation of new work. How crucial, and how rare, is this sort of program?

PL: I think it is pretty rare to commission new literary work. I don't how crucial it is, since magazine and book editors are doing the same all the time, and writers are always self-assigning new problems for themselves to solve.

AN: It seems like literary nonfiction has really been in ascendance over the past decade or so, and yet I rarely read essays that have the sophistication, engagement with other art and literature, and turn of thought that distinguishes really great essays like your "Against Joie d'Vivre." What do you make of the building popularity of the personal essay form, and do you see some directions being more promising than others?

PL: Thank you. I do feel proud and pleased to have been part of the growth of the personal essay in the last twenty years. It's a wonderfully durable and variable form, rather ancient, and it never really went away, just went sort of underground for awhile, and now it's surfacing again. I welcome all its manifestations.

AN: Aren't a lot of popular essays memoir and not essay? Is that distinction important?

PL: I think the memoir-essay is a subset of the personal essay, not a different beast entirely.

AN: Your prose is very musical, which I especially noticed in reading Two Marriages and recent essays like "My Brother, My Life." (You make such beautiful use of commas, and semicolons!) Would you say your prose style is most influenced by your having written poetry, your interactions with literature as you're writing, or years of practice--or all of the above?

PL: My style is a product of all of the above. Reading other writers has had the most impact on me: I still thrill at a well-turned sentence. I want to be able to use all forms of punctuation, and adverbs and adjectives--I don't understand the vogue for stripped-down sentences--and of course, one's ear in very important in guiding the prose, though its choices would be hard to explain. They reflect a lifetime of experimenting and imitating.

AN: Can you give us a hint about your piece for Friday?

PL: My piece on Friday will concern relations between men and women, and be a little mischievous, I hope.

Philip Lopate reads tomorrow night with poet Emily Warn, performer Marya Sea Kaminski, musical guests Happy Hour Hero, and poet Leslie Fried, who recently won the new works competition.
Hugo Literary Series, Kane Hall, Friday, March 19, $15-25.
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