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Dr John Barber talks about Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan (1935-84) is a writer whose work combines a kind of absurdist humor with a poetic sensibility. He is probably best known for his novels The Hawkline Monster, about two cowboy hitmen hired to kill a monster under a house in Oregon, and Trout Fishing In America. Other novels include Sombrero Fallout. He also wrote books of poetry like The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. He has been described as one of the Beat poets, and he moved to San Francisco in the late 1950s. His fame peaked in the late 1960s when his style meshed with the psychadelic era.When I interviewed Dr John F. Barber about his website, The Brautigan Bibliography, which is the definitive site on Brautigan, it turned out he and Brautigan had been friends. Dr Barber is Assistant Director of Rhetoric at The University of Texas at Dallas, and a teacher of creative writing. He had been in Richard Brautigan's creative writing class in Montana in 1982, and their friendship stemmed from there.

RV: I saw on the web that you’ve published a book called Richard Brautigan: An Annotated Bibliography. I was wondering if, in addition to your website, you had plans to write a biography of Richard Brautigan because I’d like to read it.

JB: There is a fine biography, the definitive biography, of Richard Brautigan on the way. It’s currently being written by William Hjortsberg (Falling Angel) and should be finished this year.

Like you, I want to read a biography of Brautigan. My own bibliographical research has shown how much Brautigan’s life and work are connected, how each inspired the other. In fact, I was just talking with Hjortsberg about this very idea: that the more we learn about Brautigan, his life and work, the more questions we have. We both have hopes that the answers we find will eventually lead to the whole story, but they lead, rather, to more questions.

RV: Your website said he was influenced by Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams. I was wondering what other influences went into his writing style eg. perhaps The Torrents of Spring by Hemingway, or any other books or authors, or comedians, and what their influence was, and how he might have come up with his distinctive style.

JB: It’s fair to say that Brautigan was influenced by Dickinson, especially when you consider that her short, telegraphic style of poetry seems to provide a model for his own.

He pays tribute to Dickinson by using a line from one of her poems as the title for his second collection of poetry, Lay the Marble Tea. One of the poems in this collection was entitled “Feel Free to Marry Emily Dickinson,” which would seem to further build a case for the idea that Brautigan read and was influenced by Dickinson.

No doubt Brautigan was also influenced by William Carlos Williams’ call for writing poems that refused to use complex, allusive, and obsolete poetic forms. The kind of poetry Williams called for involved fresh observations of ordinary things. This was the kind of poetry Brautigan always tried to write. Another influence, as you note, was Hemingway. Brautigan’s early writing seems self-consciously modelied on Hemingway’s, he nods to Hemingway in the short story “Ernest Hemingway’s Typist,” and critics argue that Brautigan patterned his life (the love of fishing, the desire to lead the macho life in the Rocky Mountain West, for example) and even his death (both authors died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds) on that of Hemingway.

Other influences I think we should note are the works of the Japanese poets Basho and Issa. As Brautigan wrote in the introduction to June 30th, June 30th, “I like the way they used language concentrating emotion, detail and image until they arrived at a form of dew-like steel.” He was also influenced by their practice of the classic haiku, especially their focus on light-hearted humor, a quality he tried to emulate in his own poetry and for which he was often criticized when readers found his work lacking in seriousness.

RV: Do you know by any chance what some of Richard Brautigan’s favorite books were?
JB: Brautigan enjoyed the Greek Anthology, a collection of ancient Greek epigrams, poems, songs, and fragments first gathered together in the first century B.C. by Meleager, revised in the ninth century by Constantinus Cephalus, and finally revised in the tenth century into sixteen thematic sections. Brautigan owned a set of this multi-volume work and read from it often, sharing his delight with friends and fellow writers.

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Copyright Simon Sandall.