David Brendan Hopes grew up in Akron, Ohio (the story of his becoming a poet in Akron is told in A Childhood in the Milky Way, on Kindle from Akron University Press), went to Hiram College and Johns Hopkins, and eventually took his Ph.D. in Literature from Syracuse U. He was writer in residence at Phillips Exeter Academy for coming to UNCA, where he has been for thirty years. During those thirty years, he expanded his original passion of poetry into fiction, non-fiction, painting, and eventually playwriting. He runs the Black Swan Theater, when it is up and running. His plays have appeared in New York, London, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc, and once in a while in his hometown. The Asheville company The Magnetic Theater will be producing his newest play Washington Place, this summer.
Geosi Gyasi: Could you share with us your beginnings as a writer?
David Hopes: I don’t remember a time before the conviction that I was going to be an artist. In junior high those aspiration began to settle around writing, and when I was fifteen I began writing poetry, daily and obsessively. That never quite stopped (except the daily part)
Geosi Gyasi: You are an accomplished poet, playwright, professor of Literature and Language and Visual Artist. I am wondering how you manage all these works?
David Hopes: People do ask me how I manage all that, and I have nothing to say except that it doesn’t seem like such an achievement when you’re actually doing it. In my own mind I’m goofing off much too often. I suppose my social life has taken a hit down through the years. Plus, I get up at 4:30 in the morning. I have no apps on my cell phone.
Geosi Gyasi: How different is the art of playwriting from poetry?
David Hopes: The best training for a playwright is to be an actor. The second best training is to be a poet, for poetry instills a sense of directness and conciseness, a sense of proper image that are all priceless in the writing of the play. The pitfall, though, is to write “poetic” plays, which are a temptation and nearly always dreadful. The poetry of playwriting is radically different from (though related to) the poetry of poetry. Playwriting is collaborative and poetry isn’t. You have to worry about what an actor can conceivably say, about what objects and effects can conceivably appear on stage. Ultimately, you have almost no control over the interpretation of your piece in the theater, and when you try to exert control, you look like a jackass. Only in bad plays are all the voices associated with the author; in poetry, that is pretty much the default. The actual FEEL of composing a play is very much like the feel of composing a poem. I can’t say much more about that other than to exhort your readers to put it to the test.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your work as a Visual Artist?
David Hopes: My work as a visual artist has two main modes: heavily textured and inventive abstracts, with mixed mediums and unusual supports. This is play for me. The second mode is what I suppose you’d call neo-Symbolic– recognizable objects organized in ways and combinations which are immediately meaningful and symbolic in my world. All are welcome in, though sometimes it takes some explaining.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you read lots of poetry?
David Hopes: No. Not really. Most very recent poetry is a waste of time. When I pick up good poetry it almost always sparks me to put down THAT book and go back to working on my own.
Geosi Gyasi: Your plays have won some important awards including the North Carolina New Play Project as well as the Siena Playwriting competition. How long does it take you to write a play?
David Hopes: I have written some plays in six days. Other plays have taken a year or so, not of constant work, but of picking a failed or incomplete piece where I threw it down at some earlier session. The thing I keep from my students is that work is the best (for me) which came out swiftest and easiest. This is not supposed to be the case, but it is. If it’s hard, you’re doing it wrong. No that is should be easy, exactly, but I have not found that frustration is a useful part of the creative process, though it is part of barking up the wrong tree. When the play gets to a director or a producer, there is new work to do, but you can hardly anticipate that on your own. Again, the word is “collaborative.”
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think poems are easy to write than plays?
David Hopes: Poems are easier to write than anything. Not easy effortless, but easy joyful.
Geosi Gyasi: What makes your poems and plays unique?
David Hopes: Dear God, I don’t know. The fact that I rather than someone else have written them? I know I have a particular music, but so do others. I am a Platonist and believe that some things are true and important while other things are not, and I would be surprised if this did not set me apart in some ways from my peers and inheritors.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “A Dream of Adonis”?
David Hopes: A Dream of Adonis was the effort to take account of and hallow a series of love affairs in the 70’s and 80’s. I will never see those men again. Many of them are dead. But I wrote so they should not go wordless and unremembered into the void.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you write for a living?
David Hopes: I guess not. I got my job because I was a writer, but only a few months in my entire lifetime has income from writing been enough to sustain even my modest needs.
Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to write “The Sun in Splendor”?
David Hopes: A couple of years. I couldn’t get the beginning right. It started out while I was watching that movie “Moulon Rouge” where Nicole Kidman lives in a house on the roof. That became a mysterious figure on the roof, and that was the start of the book.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for a piece of work?
David Hopes: Oh boy, have I ever. I think in my own mind that I have 50 rejections for every acceptance. That might be an exaggeration; it might not. I have four finished unpublished novels. That should tell you.
Geosi Gyasi: Who reads your books?
David Hopes: I never know unless they get in touch with me somehow. If I look at my royalty checks I’d say “practically no one.”
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary influences?
David Hopes: Yeats, Pound, Keats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Stephens
Geosi Gyasi: Do you think of style when you write?
David Hopes: My ear does. It’s all music to me. If the line doesn’t sound right, I change it. That might not be “style” at all, but beyond that I never worry if I’m writing in “my” style or any style at all.
Geosi Gyasi: What are your main interests as a writer?
Wow. To tell the truth. To change people’s lives. To discover my own life. To find my work, once, in an airport book shop.
Geosi Gyasi: From where did you scoop the term “Ailanthus”?
David Hopes: I made my living for a while as an interpretive naturalist, and have two books of nature essays. Ailanthus is the tree of heaven, a junk tree living in waste place in most northern cities.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you foresee the death of poetry anytime soon? In other sense, do you think the readership for poetry is dwindling?
David Hopes: Everyone I know is interested enough in poetry at least to lament (or gloat over) its “death.” People write essays about the irrelevance of poetry to make a name for themselves, or to justify why their poetry has failed. No, it will not die soon or ever. Questions about the number of people reading poetry are silly. Far fewer people prepare inoculations than read poetry, and yet we would never say those people’s work is irrelevant. They both save lives. The humanity instilled in you by knowing poetry may save another without their ever crediting the true source.
Geosi Gyasi: Are you currently working on any play(s)?
David Hopes: I’m working on the play Washington Place (about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911) to get it ready for a local production.
Geosi Gyasi: Having written half a dozen books of poetry, do you think you’ve not yet written what you may consider as the best poetry book?
David Hopes: The one I just finished and am now shopping around is called “In the Café of Comedy and Tragedy”. It is the best work I’ve yet done.