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For Readers & Writers

July 14, 2008 - Phyllis Sigal
I furiously took notes all last week, wanting to remember every bit of writing advice, every humorous quip, every last word of journalist/novelist Roger Rosenblatt, poet Billy Collins, writers E.L. Doctorow, Joyce Carol Oates and Amy Tan, and cartoonist Garry Trudeau.

All were magnificent in their own right as they sat on the stage for each morning's lecture at Chautauqua Institution in western New York. The theme of the week was titled "Roger Rosenblatt and Friends." He had a dialogue with each of the writers during the morning lecture, then they read some of their work and answered questions from the audience.

A few highlights from each of their presentations:

• Billy Collins: He mentioned that poetry is often confused with "the way we think and feel." And one of the big challenges with poetry is "how to get complete strangers to be interested." The poet's job is to please the reader. The reader is not particularly interested in the poet, but in the poetry, Collins pointed out. "You have to convince the reader that you are more committed to the poetry than to yourself ... which you are not," he said. And, of course, we laughed.

"Every writing is an act of hope ... You hope someone will read it," he quipped.

Collins talked a bit about being U.S. Poet Laureate, an honor he held from 2001-03. He said he felt he had a responsibility to get people to read poetry, however, there is so much bad poetry! Part of what he did as Poet Laureate was to create a project called Poetry 180, which was a way to get high school students to read or hear a poem every school day. He put together a Web site of 180 contemporary poems, from which he hoped a poem would be read over the public address systems at U.S. high schools. And he subsequently edited two anthologies of 180 poems each.

He just wanted the students to hear a poem, no commenting, no dissecting. Just listening. Maybe a kid would like that poem ... and eventually get to the point that he likes poetry.

One of the things Collins said that spoke to me was "creativity is driven by envy." (Although, later in the week one of the writers said that he was probably just kidding.) But, I believe it. When I read a wonderful poem or a great short story or a paragraph in a novel that I love, I want to write just like that. So, maybe creativity just begets more creativity.

Collins' poems are funny, poignant, wonderful. Check out his Web site for an entertaining read. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I first met him in 1998, and I've loved his poetry ever since. My new favorite is "Litany."

• E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow started his conversation on Tuesday with a story from high school. It seems as if he was to conduct an interview as an assignment for his journalism class. He wrote an interview with the doorman at Carnegie Hall, a German Jew who had escaped from Hitler, just in time, Doctorow explained. "I turned my assignment in to my teacher who said it was so good she wanted to publish it in the high school newspaper." She wanted a picture of Karl, the doorman, and Doctorow said, "I didn't think that was a good idea." When the teacher asked why, he told her that "Karl was shy." "Well, he talked to you, didn't he?" she asked him.

"Well, not exactly. I just made him up."

Apparently that's why he's been writing novels for the last several decades, instead of being a journalist.

He has been described as a historical fiction writer, which he disputed. "I don't write historical fiction." He explained that he believes "every novel written is about the past, even if it's written in the present tense."

"History tells you what happened. Fiction tells you what it feels like," he stated.

Doctorow read from "World's Fair," a novel of a young boy's life in New York City in the 1930s. As he read of little Edgar's shopping trip to S. Klein Department Store, he cracked himself up, subsquently cracking up the audience. "That was very unprofessional," he apologized, still laughing. "But, I haven't read this for a long time."

• NEXT BLOG(S): I still have to think about Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Tan and Garry Trudeau. ... Stay tuned.


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Roger Rosenblatt with E.L. Doctorow on Chautauqua's ampitheater stage.


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