New Orleans has always been a good town to sit around in." So says Johnnie Farragut, a character in probably the most famous of Barry Gifford's novels, Wild at Heart. (David Lynch's film version of which consistently sits at the very top of the American cult-film canon.) Sitting around in New Orleans has been good for Gifford, as well. Shuttling back and forth between New Orleans and his current home base of San Francisco throughout the 1980s and '90s, Gifford wrote most of his acclaimed "Sailor and Lula" novels (the six interlocking tales that tell the story of his two most famous characters) in an apartment above the Faulkner House bookstore. The publication of Gifford's most recent work, the poetry collection Back in America (which will be released Sunday, Nov. 7, by local small press Light of New Orleans) marks a return, of sorts, to the city that has played such a vibrant role in his books.
"It's important to me that the city, the place becomes a character," says Gifford. "And New Orleans has always been such a wonderful place for me." The darkly comic dreamscape that Gifford created via his novels set in New Orleans and the Deep South painted, through peculiar, haunting characters and lurid cinematic descriptions, a kind of just-left-of reality, rich portrait of the American South. This portrait balanced dark, violent satire with a tender appreciation of the region's lovely strangeness that cemented Gifford as a cult American storyteller both here and in Europe, where he also spends a great deal of time.
"I didn't understand why [my work was so popular in Europe]," says Gifford. "Then I began to see, as the criticism began piling up, that they enjoyed that I seemed to be picking apart life in America. Certainly I was examining the flaws inherent in American society, but they thought I didn't like it."
Gifford is somewhat distinct among American writers for his work across a broad spectrum of genres, ranging from songs to libretti to screenplays to journalism to novels. Back in America, which contains poems written between 1997 and 2004, is one of only a few experiments in the genre. The poems, organized in several sub-groupings, range between elegiac and romantic and seem to almost distill the carnivalesque sensory whirlwind of his novels into tiny and perfect gems. They investigate single images with the keen, slightly skewed eye he's famous for turning on the sweeping landscapes of his dense, juicy prose.
"I was changing my way of writing," says Gifford. "In terms of the novels, I had made my point. I'd lived in that world long enough. My books got harder and darker, and I didn't want to inhabit that universe anymore."
The groups of poems include tender musings on a love affair, a group of poetic eulogies for several Beat poets Gifford counted among his friends (his 1988 Jack's Book was a nontraditional biography of Jack Kerouac), responses to Vermeer paintings and a playlet imagining the last moments of the poet Rimbaud. They are disparate in subject matter but maintain a thread of transience. They contain elements of travel on the earthly plain as well as in and out of it, wandering between Mexico, Canada, America, Cuba and France, as well as dwelling briefly on the lovely moments one stops for. The focal character of the title poem -- an old cowboy wino with a worn copy of Homer's The Iliad in his back pocket -- serves almost as a spiritual guardian for the whole collection, in transit, dreaming of the glories of the past.
"Part of it comes from living in Rome for four years, coming back and being struck by the differences," says Gifford. "Coming back, taking a fresh look at things, there was a lot of death; September 11th and the end of a relationship in Rome. It was kind of a demarcation, being back in America. So it was a very important title for me personally." Gifford's take on 9/11 is one of the collection's most powerful pieces. It's brief, apt, and packing a sneaky wallop: "The Chinese / used / to say / in parting / from a person / perceived / as an/ adversary / "May you live / in interesting/ times." / This is / our new / address.
Josh Clark, who runs Light Of New Orleans publishing, is pleased to be working with Gifford. The relationship began when he solicited a piece from Gifford for the press's first book, the French Quarter Fiction anthology of writing set in that neighborhood. "This book rocks, pure and simple," says Clark. "And while I swore never to do poetry, I knew working with Barry would be a blast. And it has been." Light of New Orleans' promotional plan for the book includes a limited Southern tour, including a stop at indie bookstore stalwart Lemuria Books, in Jackson, MS, and a release party this weekend at the Gold Mine Saloon.
"It's really fun to be published from a place that's been so important to me," says Gifford. "I'm not finished with New Orleans, you know. I think I've just had a kind of hiatus."
- "I was changing my way of writing," Barry Gifford says of his approach to the poetry collection, Back in America. "My books got harder and darker, and I didn't want to inhabit that universe anymore."