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Philip Brady, PhD ’90, has a new book, titled To Banquet with the Ethiopians. It’s a verse memoir that blends Homer’s discovery of the alphabet with a man’s recovery from near death and a boy’s struggle to see the adult world through the prism of an ancient epic. Brady is a distinguished professor of English at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio; executive director of Etruscan Press; and plays in a band.
Question: Why did you write the book in verse?
Answer: Prose tells everything that happened, but poetry tells everything that happens and does not. I think writer Timothy Findley put it best when he wrote, “I didn’t know quite how to tell this story until I realized that if I were Homer, I’d have recognized that it isn’t just the story of men and women, but of men and women and the gods to whom they are obedient, and told best through the evocation of icons. So what I must do is transpose this story, which is history, into another key, which is mythology.”
Q: Where does the title come from?
A: The phrase, “To Banquet with the Ethiopians” comes from Homer and refers to the gods’ habit of retreating from human affairs in times of crisis.
Q: Was writing in verse difficult?
A: Once I decided to write verse instead of prose, it came very quickly — 18 chapters in as many months. I learned that the most telling difference between prose and poetry is pace. Verse moves at great speed, grounded only by a barely audible thrum. It illuminates without revealing — lightning flashing on a dark landscape.
Q: Where have you taught?
A: I have taught at the University of Lubumbashi in the Congo and University College Cork in Ireland. I’ve taught in prisons and urban farms and retirement homes and on a ship. Our outreach program brings books and authors to thousands of underserved high schoolers in Ohio.
What I love best is passing on what I learned from my teachers — including my mentors at Binghamton, Jerome Rothenberg and Art Clements and Robert Micklus.
I remember Jerome Rothenberg telling us, “I write those poems which I have not found elsewhere, and for whose existence I feel a deep need.” It’s that sense of sharing, carrying on and making new that I love about teaching.
Q: You play in a band called Brady’s Leap; what kind of band is it?
A: Brady’s Leap is a new-Celtic band. We play original music, poems set to music, and traditional Celtic and folk ballads newly arranged. I play bodhran, harmonica and tin whistle.
Q: How did illness influence your writing?
A: The idea for a long poem came in fall 2010 after major heart surgery. During the months recovering from surgery, sitting in my rocker in front of the fire, I felt again like a boy, rocking and chanting. And when I reviewed the many pages of the prose memoir I’d been struggling to write, they seemed so slow and dense and stolid. After having been — briefly — dead, who’d care about all that stuff? And I remembered a summer in camp when I was 12, trying and failing to read a prose translation of the Iliad. Only now do I realize that it was the prose, not the story, that was difficult. And so I started to transpose my own prosy life into another key.