back toJacket2

This piece is about 8 printed pages long. It is copyright © Dennis Phillips and Sheila Murphy and Jacket magazine 2008.See our [»»] Copyright notice. The Internet address of this page is

Two nibs


Dennis Phillips in conversation with Sheila Murphy, 2008

You can read an excerpt from
Dennis Phillips’ novel HOPE
in this issue of Jacket.

Paragraph 1

Sheila Murphy: Dennis, as a highly accomplished poet, you have gifted your readers with a marvelous, complicated novel that transcends the usual boundaries of time and space. I am intrigued by the structure, the poetry, and the humanity of this ambitious work. Would you mind beginning this conversation by discussing some of the impulses that brought this work into being?


Dennis Phillips: It’s funny how simple the seed can be. In the case of HOPE, the germ of the seed was really simple: a man on an island. I realized, looking through some notebooks a couple of years into the writing of HOPE, that I had been circling around the idea for almost fifteen years, starting, stopping, forgetting, once even traveling forty pages in and then not finding the gravity to pull it through. And then one day, as if I had never thought of it before, I had the flash: A man on an island, like Prospero, like Odysseus, even Crusoe. So I made an armature: a hell, a purgatory, a heaven — nothing too original — and imagined a man tortured enough to be clear in the distance and garbled in the present and I felt ready to go. Then the truly odd thing: on the day I actually sat down to begin, instead of my contemporary Joseph Spero, around whom I had planned, out of “nowhere” came Father Benedictus and the year 1293. I had thrown myself a curve that I knew enough to follow, and so began the almost decade’s worth of work on the book.


Sheila Murphy: Talk to us about structure, Dennis, from your architecting of the stories.


Dennis Phillips: There are two principal structures that underlay the book. The first, most general, I alluded to above: a Dantean hell, purgatory and heaven. To further the connection, HOPE imitates the commedia’s 100 cantos by using 100 chapters. Unlike the commedia, which, in effect, begins with an extra canto — a preface to the succeeding series of 33 cantoed sections, HOPE has three 33 chaptered sections and adds a 100th as an appendix that presents a small portfolio of the protagonist’s poems.


The second structural factor is that HOPE is a novel within a novel, so that each of the three sections, in one way or another, moves between the story that Joseph Spero tells us about his plight, and the story Joseph is writing about a 13th century abbot named Father Benedictus.


There are specific aspects to the interaction of the two stories that form the smaller structural members of each section, but that may be more information than you were hoping, or have a need for.


You and I have spoken informally about the response of “non-literary” readers to this novel. I can think of many reasons they would be drawn to HOPE, not the least of which is the clear, clean, poetic prose. The style of writing instantly transports the reader to the moment in the lens. The book begins:


Father Benedictus walks the concrete floors of his domain. It is a sunny morning on a hilltop and the view is of the sea, but the sea is mountains and the mountains have valleys and the valleys are filled with sacramental fog. It is the first sunny morning after weeks of rain. Father Benedictus commands a vista that oversees the fog and the sheer peaks that emerge from it. It is 1293.


Father Benedictus is the keeper of a secret. Perhaps he smiles. And if he smiles, he smiles because he is walking on his secret, surrounded by his secret. His secret forms the sounding boards off of which the prayers of tierce, and then the Eucharist, had just reflected and refracted. He is at ease in the middle of a grand hierarchy that is crowned by the radiant and radiating glory of the secret. The silent monks at the Monastery of San Zeno know the secret, and Father Benedictus is its vested clerk.


In the view of this interviewer, your poetic gift is integral to the rendering of this complicated and deeply satisfying story. Please talk about the role of poetry in HOPE.


If I use Pound’s definition of poetry — language charged with meaning — as a fulcrum, the charge I take most seriously as a writer is the revalorization of language leeched of its meaning. That’s where I find the commonality of prose and poetry. On the other hand, the process of writing a novel and writing a book of poetry differ significantly, a fact I kept from myself throughout most of the work on HOPE.


One phrase that has occurred to me to describe the difference is that writing a novel is akin to composing a symphony if the musical analog to writing poetry be composing chamber music. But that’s not quite satisfying. One reason — maybe the chief reason — is that my analogy misses the crucial object quality of poetry.


In one way or another, my work in poetry has been concerned with narrative. This is most apparent in my longer books: A WORLD, ARENA, CREDENCE and SAND, all of which play with narrative concerns and conceits. And since I have been writing books of poetry — in the Spicer sense of that — as opposed to collections, issues of continuity, pacing, tension, suspension, delay, etc. have been a part of my practice for a long time. What needed to be added into that mix were some of the conventions of fiction — characters, dialogue, narrative arc, and so on — that I never really needed to deal with — or purposely and even vehemently avoided in my poetry.


Another aspect of the connection between the two disciplines is musicality. In my poetry I have place a high value on the sound of the line. It was great fun shifting that concern into what felt to me to be the more open field of the prose sentence. In both cases I find the musicality of the line/sentence to have an important impact of the maintenance of effective tension in the given unit — for example, stanza or paragraph, poem or chapter. I actively sought to bring the kind of tension I have worked at in poetry into my fiction, and, as in my poetry, tried to bring it to each unit of integrity: in this case, sentence, paragraph, chapter, section, book.


I sense that another distinguishing aspect of HOPE from your longer narrative poems is the increase in population. There are more attention points via the characters present. A large measure of focus comes through Joseph Spero, (y)our contemporary, and an intriguing character. Your depiction of him in a larger context adds multiple layers of interest about who he is, what he experiences. Through attention to detail, incorporating sensibility and humor make for vibrant reading. I’m interested in his evolution as a presence-in-process as well as the presence in the completed novel. Can you talk about Spero?


“Increase in population” is a bit of an understatement, considering that there are no characters in my poetry, per se. This is not to say that there aren’t references to people, but the mechanisms by and through which the poetry functions don’t require, and would be hurt by the separate mechanisms of characterization. In the poetry there is a wrestling with narrativity and a very purposeful avoiding of narrative in any conventional sense, at least insofar as structuring a given poem around narrative ends or thinking about narrative arcs as a method or goal. On the contrary, I am often commenting on the negative aspects of narrative, both politically and aesthetically, especially in poetry, where story-telling as an end seems often to have displaced more interesting and — I think — vital properties of poetic work.


The novel on the other hand, pretty much requires characters. Of course there are many ways to construct a character. In HOPE, as in most novels, the foregrounded characters are the most nuanced, the most dimensional, while those who populate the peripheries tend to be flatter. I wanted Joseph, along with all of the other major characters, to emerge and change as the work progresses. We know him through his voice, his perceptions — or lack thereof — through his reversals, through the eyes of others. I don’t think that there’s a physical description of him any where in the book. But as the story evolves, and as he revises his story, I hope that he takes shape and that the shape then gains complexity and depth. But there’s one other crucial, if not obvious way that Joseph emerges: He is the author of the book within HOPE. Part of Joseph, therefore, emerges through his writing and his characters, and through the points of consonance and dissonance between his “fiction” and his “life.”


Let’s turn to your reference to the fiction and life of Joseph Spero. You have created a philosophical dance with and around Spero, formed of his perceptions and misperceptions. There’s an aspect of Scheherazade to his being, as he digs, chips away at surface signals, drawing multiple conclusions. Spero takes us all over the place. His capability of being drawn to depth seems clear. His ability to experience such depth is less clear.


Near the end of the first section someone says to Joseph, “Isn’t it amazing how false the real can be?” Joseph follows that he is “...trying to encompass the reality of the false and the falsity of the real.” That summarizes the rubric of the first section of the book, where Joseph, in trying to understand his own predicament, can rarely make that reality/falsity distinction. In his confusion two fictions develop, one that he is writing, one that he is narrating. In his fiction he can’t get things wrong, but in his assessment of his “reality,” the substance of his narration, ultimately deeply revised, is ambiguous: does he totally misunderstand his life, or is he trying to convince the reader that the turns of his life are more exciting, dramatic, important than they really are, or is he both misunderstanding and soliciting? I hope that the ambiguity is both justified and, in the end, largely straightened out.


So, to answer one of your points, like Scheherazade, Joseph’s stories have a dual purpose: one of them is understanding the world, the other is survival.


The narrative that keeps us close to Spero as recorder of his own life depicts unevenness in what he’s made of that makes for intrigue. For example: he’s scattered regarding self-perception. He is also well regarded by many others, and repeatedly is given opportunities. The intelligence that is clearly essential to his position in the novel keeps pointing to where he places his attention. His judgment makes him vulnerable, perhaps even less than his self-doubt. There seems a sense of unreality to what happens in Spero’s life (as told by Spero). My question: Did Spero surprise you as he took shape on the page?


All of the major characters consistently surprised me. I might have expected Joseph to be less surprising, since, out of the array of HOPE’s characters, his life is closest to my own. But I doubt that there was a day during the initial composition when he didn’t throw me a curve.


Some questions now, Dennis, about the novel and about this novel. Start with any of the following, as you prefer! Having invested time, energy and attention in this work, how do you see it in the larger genre of the contemporary novel? What particular contribution do you see this novel’s making? Alternatively, how does the accomplishment of having completed Hope compare to other work of yours in the realm of poetry?


As to what contribution Hope has made, I’ll leave that for others to take up or not. And I’m not really sure what to make of contemporary fiction, so much of which seems wrapped up in providing product for the few multi-national corporations that now own all the “major” publishing houses. I persist in my no-doubt outmoded sense that my job as a writer is to do my work, and I have had a difficult time seeing that work as involving anything other that writing — and more recently teaching. This of course is much to the detriment of my books, which all could have used a far more active advocate than I have turned out to be.


One lofty aspiration that I do have for all of my work — and whether I have sometimes succeeded or not seems less relevant than the goal — is to revalorize language — the English language — after the thorough leeching of meaning created by rampant commercialism and commercialized politics. Certainly I’m far from alone in this aspiration — every writer of note, in one way or another, participates in this mighty if often futile reclamation project. Still, it’s a goal that keeps me charged up — as in “language charged with meaning.” And — with that in mind — it was invigorating, and endlessly engaging working in fiction, with its facets, its dimensions, and its structural and psychological potentials.


I sense a quality of directness, even of purity, in your writing, and this comes through as clearly in HOPE as it does in any of the poetry. Joseph Spero writes to Father Benedictus of revenge (more specifically, about Spero’s thoughts about revenge). Spero concludes this missive by saying, “Perhaps you do not know the word ‘karma’.” This sentence-that-speaks-volumes seems to me a signature characteristic within this novel. A single voice as ingredient of living and experiencing finds words in his mouth that are beyond him.


Here, I feel the (Pro)Spero character allowing himself to be carried off into his fate, assuming, perhaps unwittingly, a role in the proceedings, available to us now by voice.


This strand of mythos that Spero shares, feel oddly distant, even voiced from within the reader herself. I keep wanting this book to be a film. Do you hear and see this work in physical, beyond-human size on the large screen?


The epistolary structure of Part Two of Hope, finds Joseph Spero the recipient of letters written to him by the main character of the book that he (Joseph) is writing. Moreover, Father Benedictus, Joseph’s protagonist, is a Franciscan priest who is also, incredibly, aware that he is a character in someone else’s fiction. This sets up a number of philosophical conundrums that both characters address, and which are further complicated by the fact that among the differences between them is a span of 800 years. Joseph finds himself writing to Benedictus in a contemporary vocabulary of which, at least in the case of the word “karma,” he realizes his correspondent has little historical chance of being aware. The line you quote is Joseph’s sign-off at the end of a brief letter in which, as usual, he seems to be taking a strong position only to reverse himself through layers of consideration and anticipation. His “You may not know the word karma,” has always struck me as funny, partly because it seems disjunct, separated from his initial comment about invoking “bad karma” through revenge fantasies by a paragraph in which he abandons the revenge riff for another, paranoid riff on the return of his “captors.” I guess I’d say that there are moments when Joseph is carried along by events, sometimes volitionally. Those moments seem more constant toward the end of the book.


Your question about film potential is interesting. Although I never really thought about it while I was writing Hope, some early readers brought up the idea. For me, so much of the book is concerned with how language works, with artistic process, with formal concerns and with issues of narrative and narrativity, etc., all factors that seem to be anathema to most film-makers, and suitable only for the most “experimental” of films. On the other hand, what I think film-makes are looking for, above all things, is story, and I think the two, intertwining stories of Hope would work well in a film. It would open up the possibility of actors playing duel roles, which could bring an entirely new dimension to how the work is perceived. Besides, I hear that writers in Hollywood actually get paid for their work, an experience I’d like to have someday.


I found myself holding the smile evoked by the remark that Spero made about Karma. We’ve talked a little about time in this conversation, and I’d like to pursue that further. Time and characterization seem intertwined in so many wonderful ways. What comes through in reading HOPE is that these two elements are interdependent. Growth of the characters cannot be restricted to present tense. Any comment from the creator on this?


It’s impossible to be dealing with the artificial lives one creates in a fiction and not also be dealing with the multifarious aspects of time. These can range from the philosophical, such as the ongoing issues of mortality that infuse, particularly, Father Benedictus’ part of the novel, to the practical, such as my need to anchor the narratives in place and time. These aspects also include questioning the validity of time as something other than a human invention, a query that comes up at least once in the book. There is also the problem that time presents as one thinks about finding a language — or spectrum of language — that can both universalize and ground a text, the very notion of which engages issues of time and place.


I kept both protagonists uneasy and uncertain about time, especially through the first half of the book. Each in his own way seems to have lost tack of time in a calendrical way though not in an historical way (historical including personal history). Then their paths diverge, as Joseph reattaches to his/the calendar and Benedictus abandons time altogether.


May I ask you to talk about the title, allowing the reader insight into the author’s perspective?


In a classical sense HOPE is a comedy: it has a happy ending. The Paradise section of the book, I hope, walks an ironic line that toys with the artifice of creating expectations and then playing them out. But there’s also something sincere there as well. Perhaps it’s that the many twists and turns in the end all lead to some kind of epiphany for the characters involved. Sometimes these are personal, sometimes philosophical, sometimes political. All involve a concluding realization, and the prospect that that might even be contemplated, for me, constitutes hope. And hence the title.


The going-away party for Joseph is a particular favorite among events, from the standpoint of ingenuity in revelation on many fronts. Can you talk about that part of the novel, again, with an authorial eye?


I stole the trope of using a set template for each character from a long-running series of magazine ads for Dewar’s scotch — and the fact that the scene takes place in a bar gave the trope an irony and, I hope, a humor, that would further my goals for the moment in the book. My problem was how to capture Joseph’s sense of estrangement from the “scene” of poets surrounding him, how to maintain his sense of connection with those few comrades with whom he felt connected, and how to also bring into the mix the political awkwardness — I use “political” in the loosest way — of the situation created by his publisher (Beverly Postal). So I used the Dewar’s Profiles as a trope to try to accomplish my goals. It was great fun to write — I allowed myself a cameo — and I still enjoy reading it. But I learned the hard way that it works much better on the page than it does at a reading.


I might add that one of the most challenging aspects of working in prose is in dealing with the simplest and most transactional actions of characters. The use of “profiles” in the party scene solved that huge problem there. In an earlier chapter in the third section, when Joseph is confronted in his apartment my the husband of his lover, I could find no refuge in stepping out of conventional form, and so labored on the relatively brief encounter for weeks to get the sittings and standings and walkings across the room to hang together with some vitality and surprise. I think it ended up working, but it was amazing to me how difficult the transactional can be.


I would assert that you did succeed with that. The labor of crafting work that does not show its effort is something you’ve mastered both in poetry and prose. The Dewar’s template is a fine touch that adds zest. And on that note, the immediacy of your writing is something that struck me, continues to strike me. You draw the reader in quite vividly. Are there particular novelists (from any of the continents) whom you see as inspirations for the kind of prose you create?


I’ve always been a little squeamish about answering the question of “influences.” As with the formation of characters, there’s a kind of wonton stealing, combining and recombining that goes on. That said, as my friends and students know, James Joyce was a huge early influence on me in many ways. I also realized quite recently that my youthful reading of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet held more gravity than I could ever have imagined. For some reason this summer I was drawn to pick up Justine and was deeply amused to see how many structural ideas I had subliminally stolen from Durrell. Those two are interesting poles, between which are an array of masters, like Austen, Boccaccio, Chandler, Dante, Eco, Faulkner, Guest, and the alphabet goes on.


The baker’s dozen of Spero’s poems that appear as an appendix to HOPE: can you tell us more about those?


Simple answer: Joseph Spero is a poet. So as the one hundredth chapter — to complete my use of the basic structure of the Divine Comedy — I thought it would be appropriate to provide an appendix with a sampler of Spero’s work. (In Dante, the extra canto is actually the first.)


Yes, and so here, the last. A nice touch! As to the poems themselves, I sense from Spero’s directness that he is creating from a narrow layer, telling from a consistent surface, consistently, some angular observation from the position of removal. In Hope you have provided so many ways of revealing narrative and what it can become.


What is current or next in the way of projects for you, Dennis? Does Hope factor into the determination of what is to arrive after it?


I’m at work on a new book of poems, called ON. All of the pieces address specific subjects, hence the title, as in “On War,” “On Latitude and Rotation,” “On Obscurity,” to name three that have been or will soon be published. I’ve begun a new novel, provisionally titled JUSTICE, which will use HAMLET as its armature in a similar way that HOPE used the DIVINE COMEDY. Also, my SELECTED POEMS is in a preliminary stage of assembly, but will be forthcoming from Green Integer in the, I hope, not too distant future.


Thank you for devoting the time to these questions and for providing illuminating answers about this book, Dennis. I invite the readers to enjoy the segment of HOPE that is included with this interview. [See below]

You can read an excerpt from
Dennis Phillips’ novel HOPE
in this issue of Jacket.

Sheila E. Murphy

Sheila E. Murphy

Sheila E. Murphy’s most recent titles include Collected Chapbooks (Blue Lion Books, 2008), Permutoria (Visio-Textual Art in Collaboration with K.S. Ernst (Luna Bisonte Prods, 2008) and parsings (Arrum Press, Finland, 2008)
Murphy’s home is in Phoenix, Arizona.

Dennis Phillips

Dennis Phillips

Dennis Phillips is the author of nine books of poetry, the most recent being Sand (Green Integer, 2002). His first novel, Hope, came out from Green Integer in November 2007, which is also preparing his Selected Poems. Phillips is a Professor in Humanities and Design Research department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He is also a Senior Lecturer in the Otis MFA Writing Program. Phillips co-edited the poetry section of the New Review of Literature, was a founding editor of Littoral Books, the first Book Review Editor of Sulfur and the L.A. Weekly’s first poetry editor, as well a past Director of Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center.

Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that all material in Jacket magazine is copyright © Jacket magazine and the individual authors and copyright owners 1997–2010; it is made available here without charge for personal use only, and it may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose.