Phillip Lopate, the writer, is interviewed by his older brother Leonard, the former painter and longtime broadcaster on WNYC in New York, in a podcast from ‘The Leonard Lopate Show’ that will fascinate and entertain anyone interested in literature, the arts, and brothers. Both students and teachers will enjoy it.
Two books underlie the interview. Lopate’s most recent work is Notes on Sontag, a book-length essay reflecting on the work of the late Susan Sontag, one of America’s foremost essayists and critics of the postwar era. And he contributed an essay to a recent collection of pieces written by brothers about their brothers called Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry. Phillip’s essay, of course, is about Leonard, who talks with him about both books and a variety of related topics. What follows cannot begin to convey the charm of their conversation.
On Sontag, Phillip remarks on her conviction and courage as a writer. Born in the western United States, feeling alienated by mainstream American culture, she migrated to New York, studied philosophy, and turned herself into a European-style intellectual. Her writing style, densely philosophical and aphoristic, reflects this European sensibility. Lopate talks about the persona she creates in her essays, which he says convey a very strong sense of her personality even though she didn’t use “I” and strove to write impersonally. Noting that her fiction is less successful than her non-fiction, Lopate says this is because she lacked a strong sense of humour and a ‘ready sympathy’ for people.
Phillip begins by remarking that he wanted to write about Sontag because he is ambivalent about her. Ambivalence makes for a good topic, he says, because you are then forced to work out your mixed feelings on paper.
Some of these ideas spill over into the other part of the conversation concerning brothers. Phillip implies, without ever saying it, that there is some ambivalence in his feelings towards Leonard, or else he never could have written an essay about him. What exactly this ambivalence might be is unclear, since on air they both in what they say and how they speak to each other, it’s clear that they love each other very much. This makes me want to read his essay! He also discusses the problem of personal essays: how to know where to stop. It’s a question of both revealing and concealing at the same time, revealing enough to make the essay interesting but not so much that you ‘cross the line’ and reveal what would be hurtful or embarrassing. He also has interesting things to say about the process of writing. He ‘overwrites’, he says, and then goes back with a critical eye to censor, edit, and revise. Students who get stuck because they start editing too soon can learn from this.
In another part of the conversation they talk about old poems being like old photographs—snapshots of who we were when we wrote them. Phillip contrasts W.B. Yeats, who in his old age revised poems he had written years earlier, with Walt Whitman, who simply kept adding new poems to his grand opus, Leaves of Grass.
There’s lots more that interesting and entertaining, so have a listen at WNYC.org or iTunes, or if you wish you can download the podcast from my public folder. The path is Podcasts / English Podcasts / Interviews with Authors / Phillip Lopate.