Interview with poet and memoirist Philip Brady

Today’s special writer guest is Philip Brady to chat with me about his new collection of poetry, The Elsewhere: Poems & Poetics.

Philip Brady’s forthcoming book is The Elsewhere: Poems & Poetics (Broadstone, 2021). His most recent book is a collection of essays, Phantom Signs: The Muse in Universe City (University of Tennessee Press, 2019). His most recent book of poems is To Banquet with the Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet (Broadstone 2015). He is the author of three previous books of poetry, a previous collection of essays, and a memoir. He has edited a critical book on James Joyce and an anthology of contemporary poetry.

Philip’s work has received the Snyder Prize from Ashland Poetry Press; a ForeWord magazine Gold Medal; an Ohioana Poetry Award; the Ohio Governor’s Award and six Individual Artist Fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council; and Thayer and Newhouse Fellowships from New York State. An essay earned Notable recognition in Best American Essays, and work has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes. He has done residencies at Yaddo, the Headlands Center for the Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, the Hambidge Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland, Fundacion Valparaiso in Spain, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, and the Soros Centre for the Arts in the Czech Republic.

Philip has taught at the National University of Zaire, University College Cork, and on Semester at Sea. Currently, he is distinguished professor at Youngstown State University. He is Executive Director of Etruscan Press. He also serves on the low-residency MFA faculty of Wilkes University.

Can you give us a little insight into a few of your poems – perhaps a couple of your favorites?
I have a love-hate relationship with swimming. I love the freedom and bouyancy, the reach and kick. I love the glimpse of light when I suck in air, and the black lane lines refracting on exhale. I love the flip turn, and the full-stretch glide two beats long. At the finale, I speed crawl to the deep end and jacknife down to trace the tile insignia, staying as long as my lungs last, then letting the rising take me, effortless. But a swimming pool is the place where I feel most alone, trapped in my mind. There’s no end, no arc. Swimming doesn’t correspond to anything I do anywhere else. Water is, finally, a foreign element which I cannot inhabit.

It’s been three years and nine months since I last entered a pool. That October afternoon in 2010, I slipped into the chlorined water and began my regimen. But I got through only four laps when I felt pressure in my chest, and my breath went shallow. Three days later I was wheeled into surgery for coronary triple-bypass surgery.

I had been working on a memoir, a sequel to my first memoir. I called it To Banquet with the Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet. The protagonist—me, I suppose—a scholar in the shank of middle age—broods on a list “metastasizing into memoir” which he keeps folded in a copy of Fagles’ Iliad. Item 265 reads simply, “Thersites,” a foot soldier who is beaten by Odysseus for whining to go home. The scholar recalls the summer camp when he first encountered the Iliad, in a prose translation by W.H.D. Rouse that claimed to cast Homer’s verse into plain English. English it may have been, but no plainer to a ten-year-old than Greek. He—or I—understood very little of the turgid paragraphs, but we gleaned enough to realize that the Trojan War, with all its violence and intrigue, was being waged on a smaller scale at the Police Athletic League summer camp.

And there things stood, at sea between the scholar and the boys’ camp, as I freestyled through a stream of memories, dreams, intuitions, and conundrums. In other words, it was not going well. The work was stalled as an army of beached Greeks.

From To Banquet with the Ethiopians: A Memoir of Life Before the Alphabet:
Book XII Wiretap

When the monarch inquired from what city Homer came, and whose son he was, the priestess delivered a response in hexameters after this fashion: ‘Do you ask me of the obscure race and country of the heavenly siren? Ithaca is his country, Telemachus his father.’
–from “The Contest Between Homer and Hesiod”

The goddess who drowned my father’s heart
Was not the voice, not the girl
Who fled a burning town. The case is myth—
From cave figures to Daily News splash pics:
Always the Gorgon hair-do and Rilkean headline


What the scriveners call an archetype.
And always the bronzed son-of-a-salt flatfoot
Falls for her tail and tries to get her off.
But I was there. I witnessed,
Peeking from behind a scrawny moon
The night before the summer of 265.

STONE COLD MURDER QUEEN howled tabloids.

Though how would they know what grief
Sealed the Jackie O shades and silk kerchief?
That night I swooped from dreaming Ethiopia
Into the ancestral Queens row house
And saw from between banister rails flame
Lipstick smear Telemachus’ neck.
I testify the queen in question sobbed.
And my father? He rocked on slippered heels
Cradling in his massive outstretched paw
A dry manhattan big as a lampshade.
At my back the bedroom held its breath.
In the cellar headphones absorbed the dark.

But heavy petting and trapeze wiretaps
Could hardly make the keystone myrmidons’ case.
People’s Exhibit 1: Nightclub strobes
Streaking across designer sunglasses.
2: a scarlet mouth as trashy as Fresh Kills.
And Exhibit #3 If You Please Judge,
The stone cold queen could turn to stone
Squads of suitors with a single twitch
Of her continental Lucille Clifton hips.
Who else but she would slaughter her own brood?
Truffling menstrual gore to the cave’s mouth
The pigs danced wandless rooting the granite
Toe of the dolmen notching myth and time—
My Da. Detective Telemachus,
Only son of the eponymous
Hero of the first sequel,
One brogue planted in Ithaca and the other
Hooked on a brass rail in Duffy’s Tavern.

Not Circe, Sirens, and Sophia Loren
Undulating to the macarena
Could drown my father Telemachus.

For one thing, he was already drowned.

In the summer of 265 Telemachus
Was a slab of brawn, buck-toothed, light-footed,
With a jebbie’s jowls and peacock pheromones.
Being only demi-legendary
He missed Troy’s sack but landed on the beach
A week after D-Day to liberate
Hittite concubines and brandy cellars.

The jacket on Telemachus has him
Pounding the wine-dark pavement to serve
Expired subpoenas on a dead-beat dad.
But that’s yellow scrivening and paparazzism.

My father’s only odyssey was shaking
Briskly in a Grecian urn-shaped tumbler
2 parts windy coast and 1 part Queens
And straining over rocks till the potion chilled.
Garnish with maraschino cherry bomb
And voila, he was everywhere and nowhere.

The amber goddess drowned him, coursing through
The cloudy vessels of his whale-road flesh.
She bronzed his eyes, choked his voice with wind,
And slipped into everything he touched
A mickey that kept anything from touching.

And if the pigs clamored bloody murder
It was nothing for Telemachus to turn
One Janus gob to the cave mouth
And suck her out and bind and wind
The stone queen in a skein of magnetic tape
Lubed with KY and tincture of ichor.

Cool as his manhattan Telemachus
Could transcribe and deliver to the pigs
Her stenotyped confession, notarized.

They’re dead my darling twins
My singing girl and alabaster boy.
Drowned and burned my babes. Murdered them.

But leaning over the whirring tape machine,
Headphones clapped tight on waxless ears,
Telemachus caught, between sobs,
Over the static surf a strangled word.
He cranked the volume, replayed, slowed the speed
Until the utterance coalesced into a name—
As best as he made out, she said, Thersites.

And all that summer of love and burning cities,
As the trial proceeded under the tireless sun,
And Odysseus objected to Agamemnon,
And scriveners ejaculated headlines


How do you research markets for your work, perhaps as some advice for not-yet-published poets?
As Executive Director of Etruscan Press, here’s my advice to writers looking to get published.

There’s the usual stuff: Read our books. Follow the guidelines. Send only one book at a time, even—or especially—if you have three in your drawer.

But I have some questions I think anyone submitting their work to a publisher should consider.

Why do you want to publish your book? Is this your best work or just your latest? Is this a vision or just a collection? How close are your neighbors (that is, books like yours) and how well do you know them? Is your book one of the best you’ve read this year? Has anyone published sections of it? Has anyone besides a relative posted your work on a blog, in a letter, or on a refrigerator door? Has anyone learned it by heart? Have you?

Finally, why should I want to publish your book? Taking on a book project is an enormous commitment. There’s the questionnaire and contract and editing and design (cover and interior) and proofing and pre-sales and sales kits and sales conferences and blurbs and review requests and reading requests and jacket copy and contests and ISBN and PCIP and AWP. And after all this, money will be lost. The only sustenance through the process is love for the book and belief that others need to read it. So, friend, is your book worth all that?

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