the other richard lopez
i have a common name. when a kid i didn't know how common my name is. particularly in california. when you are a child you respond naturally to that group of words that identify you. however, throw a stone on any street in any city or town in california and you will probably hit three people named richard lopez.
i remember years ago i googled myself -- c'mon, we've all done it, right?! -- and found many richard lopezes. one was a landscape painter. one was a jazz pianist. another was a physician. still another was an attorney. and another had a rap sheet. i told my friend, the late poet pearl stein selinsky, in an email about my various richard lopezes and she responded, you do all that stuff?
naw. when i began putting sentences together in my late teens i toyed with pen names. i discovered the poetry of paul celan and how he made his surname out of an anagram of his birth german surname. i admired punk rockers like richard hell and tom verlaine who were literary men who self-consciously changed their names. but then i thought my birth name is a good one. i like it. my name suits me.
plus there is a comfort in a name so common it is almost anonymous. a writer becomes a textual creature. your name takes a life of its own. but no matter how unique or common your name someone shares it with you. i was reminded of this notion of shared names when i read this piece, my literary namesake
, by irish poet billy mills.
poet mills' literary namesake is the track & field olympic gold medalist, member of oglala sioux nation, billy mills. i have books by both men. poet billy mills talks about the shock of finding his precise name, not william mills, not will or bill mills, but billy mills, in a poem by colin simms. one think of him/her/hir self as unique and that includes your name. to find out someone also has your name is a bit . . .of a surprise.
i have known that surprise. i still toy with the idea of using my nickname, bo, or using the shortened version of my name, rich -- that i'm more commonly known by friends and co-workers. then again, names are important. the euphony of names is a music of the spheres, even common names possess magic and beauty.
or so i hope. i just asked anna to order me a few books. one is by jose kozer -- a gorgeous name! --, another is a study about the estonian buddhist poet jaan kaplinski -- another gorgeous name! -- and a book by zen writer, translator and sinologist red pine/bill porter. the book by porter is published under his name bill porter. i think there is a beauty too of that fairly common name. not william, not will, but bill porter. a solid, cool, steady name.
i think names are critical to our humanity. all of our names. you are you but you are also what you are called be it common or not. we create and are created by our names. what is identity but that to which we call ourselves. identity, as jose kozer claims, might be a trap, but we seem to have that need to name you something. for me learning how to live with my common name is like learning how to be comfortable in my own skin. it takes a lifetime's habit. when i hear the name, richard, i always turn towards the sound.