Sunday, April 13, 2008

Barry Lopez at Interlochen: Facing Down the Barbarians

Before I get to Barry Lopez, though, I want to start with a comment from novelist Jack Driscoll, who's retiring after 33 years at Interlochen Arts Academy, that idyllic incubator of creativity in northern Michigan. Driscoll, author of nine books, said on Friday, "the impulse to write is the impulse to love -- to love humans, to love language, to love the world." While I sometimes suggest to my students that writing is the best revenge, thus exposing my own less evolved attitude, I found Driscoll's contention moving, and a heartfelt and apt description of what's in the air at Interlochen.

I'm freshly back from a conference there called "Between the Lakes: A Symposium for Writers and Educators." Its keynoter was the deeply quiet and reflective Lopez, who arrived a day late after a 27-hour ordeal from Texas thanks to American Airlines. The conference coordinator was Anne Marie Oomen of the Interlochen writing staff, and Driscoll and Michael Delp, another longtime Interlochen teacher, offered readings and discussions. Other writers featured were Keith Taylor from U of M -- Ann Arbor and Patricia McNair and Randy Albers from Columbia College Chicago.

Stories that sustain community -- "the coming of all men into one fate," as Lopez quoted Robert Duncan -- those were the stories that the symposium writers sought to nurture. Lopez recalled an old man from a tribe with a long storytelling tradition instructing him, "if the stories don't help, you're not the storyteller." The storyteller, the old man said, was the person who "creates the atmosphere in which wisdom can develop." And the fate that is to be shared, all voices raised in the gentle spring contours of a rainy Michigan weekend suggested, is to live without destroying the planet -- to live in mindful reverence and active love for our imperiled world.

Lopez said it raises his hackles to be called a "nature writer." "My subject," he said, "is justice" -- attempting to build good relations with other people and with the other elements of the world." The real issue, he said, is community. Looking around him at the many young faces of the Interlochen high school students, many of whom joined in the conference proceedings, he said, "When you meet a genius, you are meeting everybody who ever loved that person, including the animals."

Plaintively, in his keynote address he asked the crucial question, perhaps, of our remaining time on earth: "Who will be the inventors of peace?" Addressing the almost-packed house of Interlochen kids, adult writers and dozens of silver-haired and avidly attentive seniors from nearby towns, he got down to business.

"Your job," Lopez said, "is to make the barbarians irrelevant -- to create beauty that will overpower them." His deep and focused anger at U.S. leaders. minced no words: they are "men who have never grown up," who dominate brutally with ignorant cultural narcissism, who "silence the middle ground with their extremism." "The strong man," he asserted, naming Musharaf, Putin, Bush, "has nothing enlightened to say."

And he concluded with the following gorgeous poem, after which we all walked out into the chilly, rainy April day:

Try To Praise The Mutilated World
Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Translated by Renata Gorczynski

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