The Overlook with Matt Peiken

The Sage of Retirement | Playwright, poet, novelist David Brendan Hopes

May 03, 2024 Matt Peiken Episode 155
The Sage of Retirement | Playwright, poet, novelist David Brendan Hopes
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
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The Overlook with Matt Peiken
The Sage of Retirement | Playwright, poet, novelist David Brendan Hopes
May 03, 2024 Episode 155
Matt Peiken

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

David Brendan Hopes has written more novels, poems and plays than he can count. The river of writing hasn’t slowed at all since his retirement from UNC-Asheville, where Hopes taught English and creative writing for more than three decades.

Hopes’ newest play is titled “A God in the Waters.” The Sublime Theater in Asheville is premiering it May 9-18 at the Bebe Theater. We’ll talk about the play in the second half as part of a larger conversation on answering the call of creativity. But first, we take an unplanned dive into the financial troubles at UNC-Asheville and what Hopes views as the root causes.

Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

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Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Show Notes Transcript

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

David Brendan Hopes has written more novels, poems and plays than he can count. The river of writing hasn’t slowed at all since his retirement from UNC-Asheville, where Hopes taught English and creative writing for more than three decades.

Hopes’ newest play is titled “A God in the Waters.” The Sublime Theater in Asheville is premiering it May 9-18 at the Bebe Theater. We’ll talk about the play in the second half as part of a larger conversation on answering the call of creativity. But first, we take an unplanned dive into the financial troubles at UNC-Asheville and what Hopes views as the root causes.

Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Matt Peiken: Were you not thinking of retiring up until the pandemic? Were you still enjoying teaching? 

David Brendan Hopes: Matt, the institution changed. I was 69. I had taught longer than I needed to because I was enjoying it. It never crossed my mind not to, but the atmosphere at the university changed and it was no longer Joyful and that mixed with the pandemic that we didn't know when it was ever going to end.

Matt Peiken: You said the atmosphere wasn't joyful and, headlines have happened, obviously, recently around the six million dollar shortfall at UNC Asheville. They've had to lay off staff and, they're talking about changing curricula around that. So were you getting headwinds of that even back in 2020?

Is that part of what you're talking about? 

David Brendan Hopes: Long before that. One can point to the exact moment when it happens. A new chancellor and a new provost came on at the same time. One of the things the provost said is, we're backing away from a teaching mode to a learning mode. 

Matt Peiken: What does that even mean?

David Brendan Hopes: Exactly. Two people were paying attention and we knew exactly what it meant. It meant that faculty was going to be devalued and other ways of teaching were going to be emphasized. So from that point on there was contempt shown to the faculty from the administration, which got worse and worse as time went on.

Matt Peiken: Can you offer some conjecture as to why it would change? Why do you think just having a new provost, why would that change anything? 

David Brendan Hopes: They were the tip of a wave that we saw coming, that is to say now I don't know whether to blame Chapel Hill or Phillips Hall, but I know that UNCA was It was no longer valued, it was no longer treasured, we had irritated them in some way.

Matt Peiken: Do you think that, and this is maybe taking a leap, looking at a larger picture of politics that have happened in this country around liberal arts education, and a lot of conservatives say, universities and particularly liberal arts schools are indoctrinating students into liberal ways of thinking thinking and we need to change that. Do you think this is part of that? 

David Brendan Hopes: I didn't sit on the councils of the great and mighty, but my guess is that is part of it. Also the administration kept getting worse and they would hire people that had no interest in UNCA.

One of the things one realizes as an academic is that administration is a caste. It's not a meritocracy. If you fail at one place, you will be hired somewhere else. You can't fail badly enough not to get another job. 

Matt Peiken: You mean specifically in upper leadership in academia? 

David Brendan Hopes: Yes, absolutely. Oh, yes. And they had contempt for the students, too. One of the things that you could hear out loud was we're not going to hire good faculty because our students aren't good enough to profit by that.

They won't know that they've got second best. If they do know, it won't matter to them, considering what their lives are going to be like. 

Matt Peiken: Wait a second, you said you heard that out loud. That can't have been what they said. 

David Brendan Hopes: Absolutely, I'm, verbatim. 

Matt Peiken: How could they possibly get away with that? Why, how could they get away with that and not be drummed out of leadership by the students and faculty rebelling en masse?

David Brendan Hopes: The faculty was paralyzed with fear. And the administration managed to make it seem that they were the friends by getting rid of requirements, by siding with students when there was a dispute between a student and faculty. The administration managed to maneuver itself so it looked like it was the friend of students, rather than the faculty, who were the actual friend of students.

And so the students didn't know what was going on. It was kept from them. And, the faculty loved UNCA and wouldn't do anything to destroy it. But I think you see chickens coming home when it roosts now. UNC is in a bad way. And even though the same people that put it in a bad way are trying to get it out of that situation, it now shows. It just took a while.

Matt Peiken: One of the things, and I want you to continue at that thought, but One of the things you just inspired in me is thinking that I think some people are critical of liberal arts educations because they think in today's environment it's not making students career ready.

Yes. What do you think of that accusation? 

David Brendan Hopes: University is not there to make students career ready. And that needs to be said at every possible point. Every possible point. A student would come to me and say I want to major in English, but my dad says, how can I get a job? I would say, what corporation do you want to work for?

We would call them and ask what degree should you get? And they would say, they never failed liberal arts, never failed. So in some ways it's completely delusional that it doesn't prepare you for, it's not job training, but it does prepare you at any employer who has his wits about him will prefer that, you know teaches you how to think.

Matt Peiken: So you spent decades teaching and you've taught generations of writers. And what we're alluding to just a bit ago is that kind of education is being devalued. Talk about how you approached your teaching in terms of preparing students to become writers and poets, novelists, playwrights. Where was your grounding ethos in that? 

David Brendan Hopes: We would spend a couple of weeks or a couple sessions talking about how to get into the business. This is how you write a query letter, but other than that, I made very clear that I was there to make them better writers.

And beyond that, I could not have an influence on their lives. Getting work from your writing was something completely different. And I hope that they understood that. And the way I ran my life, and wasn't maybe completely successful, was believing that if you were really good and honest and did good work, and were clear every moment about your designs, then Things would happen that were good enough.

I guess it did work out. It was good enough. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, and how you just talked about clarity and honesty in your work, I think that's how you've punctuated your entire career as a writer, and where you're coming from, as illustrated by the sheer prolific span of your work, whether it's poetry, novels, Plays and you'll bounce between one or the other and work on one or the other Simultaneously. If you were an influence on your students, I would imagine one of the things and I want you to comment on this that you would have influenced your students is Simply that you were always writing. You've written so much. Have you always been that kind of writer where you're not burdened with what am I going to write about, not only project by project, but even page to page. 

David Brendan Hopes: No, those things did not burden me. And in some ways, I thought that I was not useful to my students. Because when they came to me and said, What do I do about writer's block? I'd have to say, I don't know, I've never had it. In some ways, I was bogus as a teacher of creative writing. Because I didn't know how it was done. I knew how to do it. And knew when someone had not done it. But I didn't know what the mechanism was. 

Matt Peiken: That's really interesting that through all these years of teaching, because you had not experienced the so called writer's block, you couldn't coach on how to get through that, which, So many writers speak of. 

David Brendan Hopes: Yeah, I could say go downtown and sit on the bench and watch what happens. Obviously that's what I do. I just got back from Folly beach and while I was at the beach, I wrote half a play, which I'm still transcribing from my little notebook. So you go somewhere, you change your life. You just don't sit there saying, Oh dear, what should I write? If you can't write, don't write, go do something else. 

Matt Peiken: You also have written regardless of whether it's published or produced. Oh yeah. Yeah. It's so many pieces. Now in your retirement age, you must have a very different outlook on this than you did, say, in your thirties.

Or is it different? Were you always that sort of, I am writing, I am a conduit for these thoughts and ideas and impulses and they just come through me and I'm writing them regardless. Were you always that kind of writer? 

David Brendan Hopes: I was always that kind of writer. I am now. One of the things that happened when I retired was suddenly I felt like I've Felt when I was a grad student. When I would just sit around, it would gush out. And in some ways the whole college career seemed an interruption of that because suddenly it was coming out again.

Now i'm more pissed off about not getting published when I want to be.

Matt Peiken: What do you mean, you're more pissed off. You've had so many works published. 

David Brendan Hopes: Not in my mind Really because I have six novels 200 poems that need to go out. It's partially my fault because they don't send them out the way it should. But 

Matt Peiken: yeah, I remember when I interviewed you first for Blue Ridge public radio, I think it was in 2017, you had more than two dozen novels that were just sitting in a drawer. Is it, is that still the case? 

David Brendan Hopes: I'd say it's actually six, but I just finished one that I'm sending out and And it's joyful. The process is joyful, but the waiting for other people to be able to see it is frustrating. It happens, but it's not nearly as fast as I want it to be. 

Matt Peiken: And yet compared to so many Playwrights, you've had a lot of work seen but I have read and seen. but

David Brendan Hopes: I have to remind myself of that because I was in dublin once talking to the guy that runs a theater in dublin and he made the observation which was quite correct That an american playwright can have a decent career without ever seeing one of his works staged. And i've had about 40 staged. So I thought, Oh, I need to shut my mouth and, stop complaining about it because he was right. 

Matt Peiken: It's all perspective, right? Absolutely. Do you think in some ways, you grew up in Akron, Ohio, and you wound up in Asheville, not necessarily a bigger city. It's a more. It's more. It's smaller, it's more artistic city.

Oh God. Did it take you a while? Did you ever have ambitions of being that New York City writer? Or being in London or some other center that's known for being a home of thriving arts and culture? Was that ever anything you wrestled with? 

David Brendan Hopes: The answer is no, and that is probably the biggest mistake I made.

I think that if I had located myself in the middle of one of those situations, my career would have been entirely different. But what I wanted was To be able to hike in the woods and grow my garden and not be bothered with all that crap and I got that. There's an exchange there and you know here in my later life I'm wondering if I made the right choice and I think it probably did but it's too late to go back and I'm not gonna move to London now. 

Matt Peiken: You mentioned coming here, you wanted to hike and have this environment that was part of it for you. How do you think living in Asheville has shaped you as a writer?

David Brendan Hopes: Someone else asked me that, and it's almost impossible to say because I don't know what would have happened if that had not happened. 

Matt Peiken: It's not like your topics are born in this region, they're not set here. 

David Brendan Hopes: No. When I came here, I was hired as a poet, and that's the only thing I ever did.

And since I've been here, I've started writing fiction and non fiction prose and plays. So it could be that it allowed me to branch out in those ways. 

Matt Peiken: Certainly having your tenured track professorship and being able to do that for, how long were you there? years? 37 years.

37 years. It allowed you, you could go wherever your whims took you and you always knew you had your base income taken care of. 

David Brendan Hopes: Yes, absolutely. It was a huge advantage. And I can't overemphasize that. You tell your students you don't have to go to grad school in order to be a writer.

They'll be heartbroken because they didn't get accepted in the graduate program and you don't have to be right. You don't have to be an academic, but geez, it makes it so much easier. And I have to admit that. 

Matt Peiken: And those are the jobs that are going away. Absolutely. That how many tenure track positions are opening up as writing teachers and poets? When you retire, those positions get attritioned out, they then adjunct it out, and then they're eliminating the adjunct positions. 

David Brendan Hopes: Five professors retired in the two years prior to me and then one the year later. None of us were replaced not one.

Matt Peiken: Wow. What does that say about where the liberal arts are going? That's just within the creative writing program. No, 

David Brendan Hopes: I was an english professor really I oh, yeah, so that's the english department I guess three of us were creative writing people and not replaced. It's de emphasized.

Matt Peiken: You said you came here first as a poet and you've branched into other areas.

How has your poetry evolved in terms of how you were writing, what you were writing about. Do you think you could look back on the poetry you wrote in the 1980s and 90s and the poetry you've created in the 2020s and see the same poet there? 

David Brendan Hopes: What an interesting question. I know that my poetry has changed hugely from that time. Although I recognize, the threads that go through it. I'm not the right person to ask that question. Because, in some ways, I don't want to be the goose that laid the golden egg that broke its neck looking up at someone's finger to see how it was done. You know, I, I love that.

You know, so, so In some ways it sounds coy to say, I don't know. But I recognize huge differences. For one thing, I didn't used to be funny. And now people tell me your poetry is funny. 

Matt Peiken: You didn't recognize it, but other people were seeing that. Why do you think, if you didn't recognize it, but why do you think You are now funny in some of your poetry in ways you weren't decades ago.

David Brendan Hopes: Because my poetry now is more analytical and in previous times it was the gushing forth of romantic sensations. 

Matt Peiken: So your poetry, you talked about getting more humor in it. When you started writing fiction, when you started becoming a novelist and a playwright, do you think you've had a similar arc in terms of what you've written and how you've written it?

David Brendan Hopes: In some ways, I'm the least self reflective person on the planet. So when you ask these questions, it's good for me, because you're asking about things that I've really never thought about. The first story I ever wrote was published in the New Yorker. And it was non fiction I sent them, but they published it as fiction and I decided not to say anything. 

Matt Peiken: Wait, are you serious? 

David Brendan Hopes: I am absolutely serious. My first fiction was published in the New Yorker. They published it as a short story when it was an essay.

Matt Peiken: But it was non fiction. You just chose not to say anything about it.

David Brendan Hopes: Well, Yeah, cause I didn't want to get in the way of it's being published. 

Matt Peiken: One of the things that strikes me as a key difference between novel writing and play writing, which you've been prolific in both, is novels writers sparingly use quotes, that quotes are, you only use to establish voice. It's things you can say in a quote that you can't do in a narrative. Yes. Okay? Whereas playwriting is entirely quotes. Yes. Okay. You can't explain anything in a play. Exactly. I guess you could explain, some plays do have that third person. And don't you want to smack them in the head?

Yeah, you do. I hate those plays. I hate that. For the record, I can't stand those plays. There you go. But talk about the craft of such distinct polar opposite in terms of the foundational elements of those types of writing and how you toggle between the two? 

David Brendan Hopes: I've said this in the past to students who ask the same sort of thing. It's rhythmic. That is to say, the first time I wrote prose seriously, it was because the rhythm that was in my head was wrong for poetry. And so I had to discover what I was meant to do with it.

The rhythm of a novel is different from the rhythm of a short story or a poem or a play. And you have to listen to that rhythm in your head long enough to determine what it is you're supposed to do. Does that make sense? 

Matt Peiken: It does, so it's a different rhythm from the outset, before you even start writing?

David Brendan Hopes: Yes. It's become subconscious now. But when I ask the question and I begin to analyze what's happening, what am I hearing? I'm hearing the sea speaking in the rhythms of a poem. 

Matt Peiken: Are you ever into a project and realize, oh wait, this isn't a novel, this is a play? Or vice versa?

David Brendan Hopes: Never. Never? Nope. I have Adapted a novel into a play, but it's so completely different that I have to tell someone that for them to the names of the characters are the same, but other than that, I'd have to tell someone, so no, never have I ever, no, this is really a short story.

Matt Peiken: Talk about this new play that you have coming up through Sublime.

David Brendan Hopes: The play is called A God in the Waters. And it's about a famous composer, completely fictional, someone I made up but you might think of someone like Schoenberg, cause he writes difficult, taxing, 

Matt Peiken: Schoenberg's one of my favorite composers. 

David Brendan Hopes: Well, There you go. And he's premiering his second symphony at Lincoln Center. And he's, understandably all agitated and wants it to go well. And so, Mozart comes in because he, He writes in the midst of his beer while he's getting ready, I am not Mozart. And that's the crux of his feeling of inadequacy, is that he thinks he should be someone else.

So he has the concert and then they have a party afterwards where he and his son have a confrontation and there's a big quarrel about that. Act II happens on a beach where they get to resolve this quarrel. And Out of nowhere, an acolyte, a disciple appears that thinks he's the greatest thing that ever happened.

And suddenly, all the things he thought was wrong about his writing, someone has transmuted into gold. 

Matt Peiken: You just said something, you said the crux of this, that he's someone who thinks he should be someone else. Was that the very seed of the play that you hit upon a feeling that a lot of people get in life? Was that the seed without knowing how it was going to manifest in terms of character and story?

David Brendan Hopes: I'll tell you what the seed was. The seed was a completely different play. The seed was writing about a guy who was auditioning to be in a symphony orchestra.

Yeah. Now that guy becomes the composer's son in the play. Alright, so it hasn't disappeared, but my original first scene was this guy auditioning to be first chair for his father's symphony. That scene is completely gone. So the germ of it was simply storytelling.

And it was, I thought it was quite funny. Alright the play is it, as it stands now, is less funny. It's more, it's, there's more seriousness to it. 

Matt Peiken: So did you only discover this change, that it's actually not the story that you thought it was going to be, as you were writing? 

David Brendan Hopes: Yes. As I was writing it, and as I was talking about with Steve Samuels about his impressions before putting it on.

Matt Peiken: So you were talking with Steven as you were writing this. 

David Brendan Hopes: I had finished it and then I presented it to him and he liked it. And he says, I like it, but X, Y, and Z. And so I had to consider X, Y, and Z to see what could be done about that. One of the things I've discovered about most production experiences is that I've profited by what people have said.

It's very seldom though, what people say about your work is BS. Sometimes it's BS, but you're allowed to ignore that. So I've always found criticism of that kind profitable and it helps me find my way. 

If someone doesn't get it, why bother? So if, they say, I don't get this. You have to change it. You just have to do it. 

Matt Peiken: You said very seldom is it BS, but you have to know who to take it to, right? It's trusted ears and eyes. 

David Brendan Hopes: I had a student who was in a playwriting class of mine, he was also in a couple of academic classes, who was the best reader I ever had, and he was 19.

And who would have thought that, but everything he said was right. I've complete revised plays because I gave it to him and he said this, that, and he was absolutely right. He's this genius who got frightened from academia and now, as far as I know, runs a pizza shop. 

Matt Peiken: Wow. What's interesting to me is as active as you are as a writer that you are also active in getting this feedback and revising, which adds more work to what you're doing. You're not just writing putting it away or writing it sending it off to a publisher You're revising. 

David Brendan Hopes: All the time. All the time. I've done complete revisions in a day because, oh no, I need to do this. So yes, it's never ends. 

Matt Peiken: In some ways that also says a lot about humility that you have as a writer, that even after all these years, you're still open, very open and encouraging of feedback that isn't necessarily falling in line with how you think about a work. 

David Brendan Hopes: Oh, yeah. And I can't assign that as a virtue. It's just the way I am. People are different about that sort of thing. I will sometimes bristle at a recommendation, but I'm as often as not, we'll eventually take that, as they shut, I don't want to hear it. And then the next day do it, so there's a little fight back. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah. Are the issues that you're writing about today? Are they markedly different than the issues you were writing about yesteryear?

David Brendan Hopes: Oh yeah one of my favorite artists is Yeats, and one of the reasons to cherish Yeats is that he managed to live into old age. Most poets do not. And in old age, he started writing about that. And I find myself writing about what am I supposed to do now? I'm so full of passion. I can quote the Yeats poem where he says that.

Never had I more fantastic a mind. What do I do about that when in some ways I'm failing and the work is not done? So you get different subject matters as time goes on, you know, I'm still Romeo in my mind, although it takes me two tries to get up off the couch.

Matt Peiken: So what are you working on now? 

David Brendan Hopes: I am working on the play that I started at Folly Beach. Sitting on the pier, writing in a little notebook. I'm transcribing that from the notebook and revising as I go along. In some ways it's very like A God of the Waters, except it's with a painter.

So I have not gotten rid of that issue of self evaluation, I suppose it is. 

Matt Peiken: In some ways, are these sequels, even though they have different characters. 

David Brendan Hopes: I think they're parallels. I mean, they're not connected in any way temporally you know, or, you know, just, and, and I hope the tone is different.

The tone of God in the Waters is much more serious than the tone of the work I'm looking on now, which may be called Periwinkle. 

Matt Peiken: Okay. And whether it's been magnetic theater and they're, they've just now disappeared or they've evolved into a different kind of theater and you've got sublime. Are these companies ready to do your work whenever you produce them? 

David Brendan Hopes: Magnetic wasn't, although they went through several manifestations before it disappeared. Some of those manifestations were really eager. Some of them were less eager.

Sublime, I don't want to speak for Steve too much, but he seems to have Artists that he is interested in helping them realize their vision, right? And I have the good fortune to be one of them. Yeah, so who knows, every theater company struggles. How long can sublime struggle, you know. So far, it's floating. It's good, but it has been lucky for me because Recently my work has been done in my hometown often enough. Before that, I had ten performances in New York before I had one in Asheville. 

Matt Peiken: Really? Yeah. I guess you had to prove yourself first before Asheville would welcome you in.

David Brendan Hopes: Asheville is also a club, and you have to know the right people, and, it's just. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, because there aren't that many people doing this work. So it is a club in that sense. Everybody knows everybody else in that world. 

David Brendan Hopes: Pretty much, and everyone's irritated everybody else.

I think I have not. I think I've not really irked too many people. Yeah. And so I can talk promiscuously among them.

Matt Peiken: So you have this play that you're finishing that you started in your residency at Folly Beach. And are you still actively writing poetry? 

David Brendan Hopes: Absolutely. Every so often well, like twice, three times a week, I'll go down to the riverbank in Woodfin and I'll sit there and I never come away without a poem. In fact, my next book is poetry is called North flowing river. And it's all about the sitting on the banks of the French broad watching stuff. 

Matt Peiken: Now are your retirement years looking the way you'd always envisioned and hoped they would be?

David Brendan Hopes: Matt, I don't think I ever gave it a thought. I am famous for not giving it a thought, and I think that's all in all right. Because I'm difficult to disappoint. In my retirement years, I've heard myself say I was born to be retired. All the time I was working as an academic, I never said the words, Lord, thank you for my life.

I've said that several times since I've retired. But I didn't expect to say that, you hear people who become disabled the minute they retire. I had no expectation of what was happening. But since my extreme youth, it's been the best time of my life.

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