An Interview with Poet of Witchcraft and the Weird, FRED PHILLIPS
Conducted by Nicholas Diak
Fred Phillips is a poet, scholar and a bibliophile who has lived an adventurous life within various fandoms. He has two collections of poetry from Hippocampus press: From the Cauldron (2010) and Winds from Sheol (2017) and operates his own amateur press periodical, Sercon, for the Sword & Sorcery and Weird Fiction Transit (SSWFT) APA.
Welcome to the Witch Haunt, Fred! Would you be able to introduce yourself and tell a little bit about your background?
I was born in the same year Lovecraft died, 1937, in a Manhattan maternity hospital near 181st Street near the George Washington Bridge. I was an unwanted child; my father prospered as a hardware-man; my mother was able to afford to hire a wet nurse for me. My mother had one year of high school; in those days the youngest daughters of immigrant middle class Jewish households were expected to work their fingers to the bone to put their older brothers through college. My Uncle, Abraham Herbert Rothman, graduated from the School of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University. He married a girl who had her B.A. from CCNY and he opened a pharmacy on Hill Park Avenue, Yonkers, bought a house on King Ave. near the Yonkers Reservoir. They flew and took ocean liners all over the world and changed their car every two years.
My mother was an ignorant Ukrainian mouzhik (peasant). All she wanted was that I earn enough to satisfy the three basic needs of existence: food, clothing, rent. She was so stingy she refused to allow me to have birthday parties since she knew I'd invite my playmates who would have to ask their parents for money to buy me birthday presents. Thus, I was never invited to any of my friends' birthday parties.
At 14 I joined a Scout troop, #191,District Two, N.Y.Councils. In three years I rose from Assistant Patrol Leader to Assistant Scoutmaster. My Scoutmaster and Assistant Scoutmaster were about to recommend me to be promoted to Scoutmaster because they said I had “charisma,” the ability to inspire devotion and enthusiasm among the younger Scouts. When they met me in mufti (civilian dress) they would snap me a salute to how me respect. At Open School Week in junior high school, my art teacher told my mother, “Mrs. Phillips, if Freddy keeps going this way one day you're going to see his name lit up in lights.” In high school, because I wasn't six feet tall, didn't wear expensive clothing, didn't drive my own car, and displayed no upwardly mobile expectations, I almost never got a date.
After earning my academic diploma my marks were too low for me to qualify for anything except for city college. I clerked at the Bronx branch of a city-wide chain of retail bookstores, Bookmasters, where I met Dorothea [Dee] Nissen and began courting her. Her father had died of cardiac arrest when she was ten. She and her younger sister, Joan, had to work early; their mother licked stamps for the Democratic Party. I took her to the Bronx Zoo, to concerts, to films. I shared my extensive book collection with her. My destructive witch of a mother tried to persuade me not to marry her.
At sixteen I suffered the first of a matched set of nervous breakdowns and was sent to the Psychiatric Observation Ward of Jacobi Hospital on Pelham Bay Parkway. I was given chemotherapy, recreational therapy, occupational therapy, and psychotherapy. My first psychiatrist was the Chief Psychiatric Resident of Jacobi. My second, Dr. Robert Langs, was a colleague of Dr. John Rosen, the “God” of American psychotherapy. In our recreation room, I played through several Beethoven symphonies on the piano, entirely by ear. When I was in the throes of a serious depression, my mother visited and said my Grandmother, who had doted on me, had died, which drove me deeper into depression. My psychiatrist had to forbid her to visit me till I recovered from my depression.
While clerking at Bookmasters I had taught myself so much the other clerks used to call me “Professor.” Dee (whom I married) persuaded me to register at the SGS (School of General Studies), the night school at Lehman College. As a Bookmasters employee I was given a 40% employees' discount. When I knew which course I wanted to take, I'd buy the finest book on the subject, take it home and read it until I memorized it. In my “survey” course, Introduction to Anthropology, I raised my hand and asked our teacher, “Would it help if we read Kroeber and Malinowsky?” Excitedly she wrote their names on the blackboard. The kid sitting behind me punched me in the shoulder and hissed, “Shaddup schmuck or she'll assign them!” I turned coolly around, looked him directly in the eye and replied, “You're taking this course to earn an extra three points. I'm taking it because it's my major.”
My next anthropology teacher, Prof. Ethel T. Boissevain, arranged for me to address the college's Anthropology Society, for which she was the faculty advisor. She selected me with a group of her leading students to attend the annual conference of the American Anthropology Society, held that year at the University of Toronto, a leading Medieval study center in North America. She arranged for me to present a paper, “Aspects of the Science Fiction Fan Subculture in Metropolitan New York City, 1965-1971,” which was duly accepted as a formal part of the proceedings (the records of the convention) by the chairman because it was brand new material. In this way I brought a description of fandom to the attention of academia. I won a debate against Dr. Margaret Mead. Some of the girls who came with us asked me if I planned to teach anthropology. I replied “I haven't made up my mind yet.”
I drifted into SF fandom in NYC in 1965 when I was invited to attend a bi-weekly Friday open house, FISTFA (Fannish Insurgent ScienTiFictional Association) held on 13th Street, near 1st Ave, Manhattan. There I met the names many of whom would soon be raised to prominence among the professional ranks of SF writers: Ted White, David van Arnam, John Boardman, &c. The next year I was invited to serve as Chairman of Publications for the CCNY Science Fiction Society. As such I became editor of the society's newsletter and changed its name to Durendal. When the other members asked, “What does it mean?” I explained, “It was from a Chanson de Geste (Song of Deeds) beginning before the advent of the 7th century. This was from the Chanson de Roland (Song of Roland) and referred to Count Roland's magic sword, Durendal. When he fell, mortally wounded at the Battle of Roncesvalles, two legends arose about how he disposed of it: one that he threw it into a poisoned stream, the second that he laid it under him beneath a tree and sat on it, his face towards the foe, the standard 'heroic death' of many renowned European heroes through the 17th century.” In 1968 I was invited to attend the first Crown Tournament of the NYC branch of the Society for Creative Anachronism; you saw The Fred Phillips Issue of the Swords & Sorcery Weird Fiction Terminus Amateur Press Association, edited by my friend, Leigh Blackmore, current President of the Australian Horror Writers Association.
In 1972 I was appointed Poet-in-Residence for the Fantasy & Science Fiction Society of Columbia University. In 1973 at the first Meistersing (Poetry Contest) held in the Royal Province of the Eastern Kingdom, against formidable competition, I became first Poet Laureate, initiating a chain of annual Meistersing events leading to the establishment of the Honourable College of Bards of the Eastern Kingdom.
Fred, you've become quite well read in the study of witchcraft. What got you into witchcraft scholarship? What are the primary texts you'd recommend on the subject?
In 1971 my wife tried to persuade me to have the credits I earned at Hunter College transferred to Lehman College (also known in those days as “Uptown Hunter”). She informed me of a student seminar slated to discuss witchcraft that would be held in Lehman's teachers' lounge. I came up with a handful of titles that at that time represented the “cream” of witchcraft scholarship: H. R. Trevor-Roper's essay “On the Witchcraft Hysteria of the 17th Century”; George Lyman Kittredge's Witchcraft in Old & New England; the 1981 3rd printing of the Iceland Review Library edition of Ghosts, Witchcraft, & the Other World from the series Icelandic Folktales I; the 1968 Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London) edition of The World of Witches by Julio Caro Baroja; the 1970 Harper Torchbook TB 1539 edition of Witchcraft in Tudor & Stuart England by A. D. J. Macfarlane; the 1985 Aquarian Press edition of The Devil's Workshop by Christopher McIntosh. These, in essence, are only part of my collection dealing with the history of (Occidental) witchcraft. The others inhabit my occult shelf and include Transcendental Magic by Eliphas Levi (aka Abbe Luis Constant), the 2009 Oxford University Press edition of Grimoires: A History of Magic Books by Owen Davies, (especially in reference to chapter 8, “Lovecraft, Satan, & Shadows”), the1970 Citadel edition of The Book of Ceremonial Magic: A Complete Grimoire by Arthur Edward Waite (originally entitled The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts). The key to my collection is the 1989 University of Toronto Press edition of A Razor for a Goat: Problems in the History of Witchcraft & Diabolism by Elliot Rose (professor in the Department of History, University of Toronto) which is probably the best of the lot.
To more clearly understand witchcraft, one must be conscious also of the history of religion. Two titles I can heartily recommend to insure that end: the 1982 Chapel Hill/University of North Carolina Press edition of Messianism, Mysticism, & Magic: A Sociological Analysis of Jewish Religious Movements by Stephen Sharot (associate professor of sociology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev), and the 1989 Oxford University Press edition of Religion, Science, & Magic in Concert & in Conflict, edited by Jacob Neusner (visiting professor at Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, distinguished research professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida), Ernest S. Frerichs (professor of Religious Studies at Brown University), and Paul Virgil McCracken Flesher (professor of the History & Literature of Religion at Northwestern University. But these are only drop in the bucket, my resources embrace many more reliable studies of both Occidental, African, and Oriental witchcraft.
What is something you’ve learned about witchcraft during your studies?
In Old English, there was a town meeting called Witenaġemot (meeting of the wise). In the 7th century, when England (Angle-land) converted to Christianity, if someone could be found who professed to having converted to Christianity but persisted in worshipping the former Anglo-Saxon deities, he was called a “Waer-loge,” or oath breaker. This evolved into the term “warlock,” a man accused of violating his oath to the “White Christ.” The word “witch” is descended from the Old English term “Wicce,” wise-woman, that in large part gradually evolved into the term used today. Its contemporary definition is “a woman believed to have evil magical powers,” not unusual in a male-dominated culture.
You have two collections of poetry published with Hippocampus Press: From the Cauldron and Winds from Sheol. Can you tell us a little about these books and what you’d like to accomplish with your poetry?
To describe through the eyes of a Lovecraftian reader/collector a medieval milieu, a reflection of the works of renowned writers such as William Hope Hodgson, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Lovecraft himself; to immortalize in print close personal friends I made in the SCA during the decade of 1968-1878; to exhibit my abilities in literary compositions in verse based on unusual or fantastic circumstances composed in an innovative way. I also wanted my family and friends to be proud of me. Regrettably, during the 20s, the modernists, such as Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and T. S. Eliot, abandoned rhymed and metered poetry until it and other branches of aesthetics were condemned to irrelevancy. In the rest of the world, rhymed and metered poetry still sells like hotcakes. If Shakespeare was alive in the U. S. today, he'd starve to death in a month. This represents a serious decline in American culture.
It was not only one main thing I wanted to reflect in my poetry, but several. I made close friends from around the world [such as] Ann K. Schwader (recently appointed Grand Master for the Science Fiction Poetry Association) [and] Leigh Blackmore (member of the Society for the Academic Study of Magic). My work appeared in the Hippocampus Press annual Spectral Realms. Winds from Sheol was nominated for the Elgin Award by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.
Thank you so much for this interview Fred!
Publisher product page for From the Cauldron:https://www.hippocampuspress.com/mythos-and-other-authors/poetry/from-the-cauldron-by-fred-phillips
Publisher product page for Winds from Sheol:https://www.hippocampuspress.com/mythos-and-other-authors/poetry/winds-from-sheol-by-fred-phillips
Nicholas Diak is the Editor of The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s from McFarland
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