Portrait of the artist as a redhead

Blake be with you

As the night progresses, the audience is caught within the reverie of memories, transported from their surroundings into the Hopes netherworld, where memory prevails and poetry is spoken as truth.

UNCA’s Laurel Forum is filled with a mixture of students, retirees and the artsy types who faithfully flock to this sort of function. Some clutch pens and writing pads — the better to record whatever wisdom may issue from the guest of honor. Others, if not chatting with the person next to them, hold the flat expression (reserved for public places) that reads “Do Not Disturb.” A girl catches my eye as she scans the room with a look of despair; I see the soul of Sylvia Plath writhing within.

Dr. Jeff Rackham steps up to the podium, adjusts his glasses and offers a lighthearted introduction of tonight’s speaker — a local guy who’s recently been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. If that weren’t enough, David Brendan Hopes is also a UNCA literature professor, a producer and director of local plays (and a playwright himself), a visual artist, a gallery owner, an actor and a poet. (As if further proof of the man’s versatility were needed, Prof. Rackham makes sure to note that Hopes once played Mother Ginger in a production of The Nutcracker.)

Once introduced, Hopes nods his tussle of red hair. His small glasses are perched on his nose, and his boyishly expressive round face breaks into a cherubic smile.

Without further prompting, the poet begins to recite Blake. He captures his audience from the start, dispensing Blake’s words as if they were his own. And they are — for he has claimed them tonight.

“Channeling Blake from eternity,” he says wryly.

With honesty, drama and a good dose of doughty humor, Hopes then proffers selections from his books A Sense of the Morning (Milkweed Editions, 1999) — a collection of philosophical essays about nature — and the Pulitzer Prize-nominated A Childhood in the Milky Way (The University of Akron Press, 1999), a memoir.

In Childhood, the Akron, Ohio-raised Hopes remembers how “with an indivisible mixture of homage and cruelty” his early classmates (in Akron, Ohio) dubbed him “The Poet.” He wrote his first poem — a self-described “putting away of former things … a calling,” upon returning from summer camp. After earning his B.A. at Hiram College, Hopes got out of Ohio, seeking higher degrees at Johns Hopkins University and Syracuse University, where he earned his Ph.D. Asked later about any wild times that may have colored his undergraduate years, Hopes bravely chooses the truth: that he followed an unsensational, but ultimately more rewarding, path back then. He had a calling to attend to.

Java and the art of muse maintenance

The artist steps into a local coffeehouse, sporting a New York City Police Department baseball cap pulled tightly over his head. We’ve decided to meet in the heart of downtown Asheville — Beanstreets, to be exact. Surrounding us is a hearty mix of businessmen, young bohemians, artists and wannabes, sipping their cappuccinos and lattes with blase self-importance. Hopes waves, recognizing me amid the caffeine-drunk crowd. In that boyish gesture, I see a man set apart — a child in the Milky Way, if you will. The poet approaches …

He sits across from me in a wingbacked chair, pulling off his hat to reveal that disheveled red hair. His smile is warm and genuine.

Wasting no time, we blast off into Childhood in the Milky Way — which, Hopes reveals, was 12 years in the making, beginning as a series of essays. The notion for a book cropped up in 1997, and the author toiled an additional 18 months to complete it. Revisions ensued, of course, though Hopes has some definite ideas about that distasteful task.

“Perfectionism is a vice. … I often trust that what I have said is the right thing to say, without fixating on it,” he declares, adding with a laugh: “I hope my students don’t get wind of this.

“People talk about how hard they work writing,” the professor continues, and then exhales in disgust — “[They should] do something else!” For this Renaissance man, writing is a lovingly nurtured vocation, a calling — not a mere job, not drudgery, but expression spun into art.

That’s how it is with Hopes. I’ve known him for more than a year — both as one of his students and through my work as a stage manager for Hopes’ theater company, Black Swan Productions — and know by now that any chat with him quickly morphs into a discussion of art. Or, more to the point, life as art. And I should note that one can’t be around him without being gripped by the desire to create. Hopes is a catalyst of creativity, inside and out, constantly inspiring others to pursue art in their lives.

Detecting the muse is a daily exercise for this man. He relates a recent visit to Blue Moon Bakery, nurturing it into a life lesson.

“It was a terrible week, just one betrayal and one disaster after another,” he begins. “I went to get a salad in the bakery … and there was this family sitting by the window with this baby. The baby was looking at me with this … seraphic joy on its face. … It followed me around the room with a [look] out of Eden. Well, I was enamored, and I couldn’t take my eyes off of this baby, and I had the feeling that I knew this soul from elsewhere.”

His order came up, and when he turned around, the family was gone. Hopes claims he experienced a “feeling of bereavement,” coupled with an “auditory vision” that urged: “Let the body of light come forth from the body of fire.”

He gets lost in the memory for a moment, then comes back to Beanstreets and reveals: “That’s the business I was meant to be about, and furthermore, it was the business I had been about.” That “business,” of course, is the sometimes painful creative process — an unending journey that is, always, more important than the destination. Hopes aims to find out what this life can show him, crafting from his discoveries what he calls in Childhood a “Sacrament of Remembrance,” a task both holy and necessary: “I’m going to remember this in my poem, in my paragraph, my painting …”

It’s what most artists are really about, he feels. Society, he opines, is on a “juggernaut of destruction of forgetfulness” — and artists are the only stay against this.

“You realize you have lived your childhood in the Milky Way, and that there is, before age and immensity, nothing but childhood,” he writes. Never ignoring possibility has allowed him to see things forever in a fresh light.

“Good poets speak the truth, bad poets just waste your time,” he says with a hearty laugh. Moreover, the poet must speak the truth unencumbered by factual details. Ever the teacher, Hopes speaks of the Romantic poets’ amazing breadth of vision, how they never rejected possible interpretations of the world around them, delivering the truth as they saw, felt and experienced it.

Despite the mini-lecture, however, “it still surprises me to be a professor — it’s not part of my self-identification,” he admits.

An accomplished dramatist who heads The Blue Ridge Playwrights, a local artists’ gathering, Hopes has penned such exhilaratingly titled plays as Threnodies of Corinth and Godzilla: The Musical (Ellen Pfirrmann, his partner in Black Swan, calls him “a genius … incredibly eccentric”). He is also a much-loved local actor, whose most star-making recent turn was as controversial Louisiana Gov. Huey Long in Consider The Following’s one-man show Kingfish.

Actor, director, producer, playwright, “stage mom”: Which of these theatrical hats, I wonder, does Hopes most fancy? Perhaps not surprisingly, he favors the pen over the footlights: “Playwrighting” is his answer.

And what advice might our man of the hour have for aspiring writers?

Hopes pauses, rubbing his chin.

“I think that some people say, ‘I’m going to be a writer’ because they think it’s going to be nifty. It’s not that it’s not nifty, but [that cavalier attitude] is never going to work. …

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