Phillip Lopate, whose writing has done more to keep the personal essay a vibrant and viable form than perhaps any of his peers in the past several decades, will present a reading at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 17, at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (2800 Chartres St.). His reading is part of the 2013 New Orleans New Writers Literary Festival, a joint venture between NOCCA and Lusher Charter School that annually draws more than 100 high school students from the region together for two days of readings, master classes, and general literary stimulation. The Lopate reading is free and open to the public.
Lopate is the author of numerous books—fiction, nonfiction, poetry—but his public presence has sustained most robustly in his consistent contributions to some of the best magazines in English. He contributes regularly to Harper’s, Paris Review, Harvard Educational Review, and New York Times, but his name on the cover of a magazine indicates only the inclusion of a quality piece—there is no guarantee to the type of content, since Lopate’s mastery of forms spans book reviews and architecture criticism, travel narratives and personal ruminations, and more. His voice is self-effacing and disarming, drawing the reader into a subject vast or trivial and hardly even seeming to be posing an argument before he’s already got you convinced. This was my experience reading his paean to Ralph Waldo Emerson published in Harper’s in 2011, which begins:
For several months I have been camping out in the mind of Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is a companionable, familiar, and yet endlessly stimulating place, and, since his mind is stronger than mind, I keep deferring to his wisdom, even his doubts, and quite shamelessly identifying with him. All this started when I came across in a local bookstore the new, two-volume edition of his Selected Journals, published by the Library of America, and decided to give it a whirl. Some 1,900 pages later, I am in thrall to, in love with, Mr. Emerson. If this sounds homoerotic, so be it.
Lopate, a generous writer, seems to generate his best criticism when he’s enamored with his subject. But his writing is consistently sharp as long as he’s interested in his subject, and as a man of giant intellect and voracious curiosity, this means he can write well on just about anything he encounters. He presents himself well live, as those of us who witnessed him in conversation with Thomas Roma and Susana Kismaric at Tulane in 2011 can attest. Come see for yourself.