Interview with author and poet Barry Gifford

Originally published in Where Y’at?, November 1, 2004


Barry Gifford is one of the finest rabble-rousers of modern American letters. Probably best known for his novel Wild At Heart, which was the basis for David Lynch’s Cannes-winning film of the same name, Gifford has written a slew of critically lauded novels, nonfiction, poetry and screenplays. His new book of poems, Back In America, has just been released by Light of New Orleans Press. It is one of the finest poetry collections of recent years, a bracing jaunt that takes the reader from Ginsberg to Vermeer to Billy Wilder and back again on a journey that fluxuates between laugh-out-loud and weep quietly.

You have a longstanding literary relationship with New Orleans, and the town comes up several times in Back In America. What is it about the city that keeps you coming back to it?
When I was a boy, my mother and I lived for a time at the old Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, now the Fairmont. After that, I visited the city several times over the years, and during much of the 1990s, I was frequently in residence in a house on Pirate’s Alley. I wrote parts of several of my novels there. As you know, New Orleans can be a lively as well as deadly place, so there is no shortage of inspiration if you are in the mood to be inspired. Having been raised both in the Deep South and in Chicago, this was the first time that I really wrote out of the Southern side of myself. Many of my stories also take place in Mississippi, where I also spent time as a child. I have been away from New Orleans for a few years now, but on my recent trip back I found it exciting and interesting again, so there may be a redux in my future.

What are a few “highlight” places you like to hit while in New Orleans?
These places change, but my first night back I usually go to Coop’s on Decatur for the rabbit and sausage jambalaya. I go to Galatoire’s for the remoulade sauce, Liuzza’s for the trash cooking, etc. etc. My main hangout is Tujague’s, where my father used to meet people when he had business in the city (it’s mentioned in the first chapter of my memoir, The Phantom Father). Other than that, I go where I need to.

You’ve published at just about every level of the game. What are some advantages to publishing with a small press like Light of New Orleans as opposed to a Harcourt Brace?
I began by publishing poetry with small presses and I am happy to continue the tradition. I enjoy the intimacy and the special care small press publishers tend to take with the few titles they publish. For larger books, I go to New York because they can pay me something. Josh and LONO may prove one day to be the exception to this rule. I hope so.

Does your physical writing process vary depending on whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction or poetry?
Not really, other than the fact that poems seem to come to me all at once, practically in finished form and it is my responsibility to stop what I am doing wherever I am and write down the words.

Kerouac and your friend Ginsberg are recurring themes in a lot of your work. Why do you think these guys have had such a lasting, era-spanning appeal to audiences?
Kerouac and Ginsberg were great inspirations to me and to many others of my generation, as writers, travelers and iconoclasts. I don’t write like them, but they help to show the way insofar as method and vision are concerned. Despite their difficulties with the established critics of their day (and after), they manage to get through to each succeeding generation and have become an industry, much to the dismay of the stodgier critical establishment. Sometimes the people know, sometimes they don’t. In this case, they seem to.

“September 11, 2001” is about as succinct and accurate an assessment of that day as I’ve seen. How have these “interesting times” affected your creative output?
Life for me has never been less than interesting. As Samuel Beckett put it, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

The book is dedicated to several popular songwriters like Smokey Robinson and Hoagy Charmichael. Will these folks ever be given their just due as genuine poets?
I’ve just given it to them.

I read an interview you did about the Lost Highway screenplay where you said audiences “have to bring something to the party. It’s not like lying back and being fucked. The film forces you to be involved.” Do you think of your poetry and/or prose in the same terms?
The truth is, I’ve never liked parties very much.

And speaking of Lost Highway, are there any more Gifford/Lynch collaborations in the pipeline?
That will depend upon what we put into the pipe.

In light of the many eulogies in this book, how would you hope to be eulogized?
The cowboy poet of yesteryear, Rex Lampman, copied this epitaph from a gravestone: “Here he lies, the Idaho Kid, the only time he ever did.” That’s the best I can hope for.

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