A personal interview transcribed from long out-of-print and defunct The Courier—the Weekly Newspaper of New Orleans (Nov 27-Dec3, 1975) in hopes of greater dissemination circa 2016.
This piece is reproduced directly from the crumbling newsprint pages of the original Courier edition. It describes a very much alive Bill Corrington in 1975. Some current commentary circa 2016 by the author will appear in italics throughout. The interview was conducted in two locations—first the Tulane University student union, then the Corrington residence on Valence Street, New Orleans.
Poet, novelist, essayist, film script writer, and lawyer, Bill Corrington has squeezed into one lifetime what most of us might not manage in two or three. And I have not even mentioned a sixth art, or perhaps, preoccupation–Bill has mastered the art of conversation. One meets few brilliant talkers in the age of McLuhan. But Bill can rattle your ears off with quotations from Thomas Aquinas, Vico, Eric Voegelin, Einstein and scores of other thinks most us only dimly remember from Introductory Philosophy.
[The art of brilliant conversation has diminished even more today in the digital age. Personal computers had not yet altered human communication and communion when this interview was published. People actually conversed and wrote letters!]
Bill is not so modest about his abilities—a lot of people who can’t keep us with him go around behind his back calling him a phony. My own feeling is that people who do and people who know earn the right to cause a little disruption and controversy. Envy assumes many guises.
The first time I met Bill I was interviewing him for a journal that died shortly after we talked. I had read a few of his books and seen that strange picture of him on of the cover of an old Outsider. But I didn’t really know what to expect. He showed up at Tulane’s UC wearing a Levi jacket and cowboy boots. There were 50,000 pens sticking out of the pocket of his work shirt. He was sucking, at the time, on a black pipe filled with sweet aromatic tobacco—he’ll smoke anything, he said. As the conversation progressed into its post-Wittgenstein phase, Corrington’s laser-like eyes seemed to zigzag in time with volleys of information ricocheting in his brain. Edgar Allan Poe said that the essence of poetry is the moth’s desire for the star. If that mean’s connecting disparate ideas, then, by God, Bill Corrington was a poet.
Speaking of Poetry, Bill has published poems in practically any decent journal you can think of. Over two hundred poems! He is currently working on something called “For Joyce—Fifteen Years After.” Was he talking about Joyce, his beloved wife or James Joyce or both? I can’t remember. But the poem’s epigraph was a couplet from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of Judas Priest.” I wanted to ask about Dylan, but before I got around to it Bill informed me that he had just won the O’Henry prize for a short story he had published in the Sewanee Review last winter.
Poetry? Short stories? man, what are you doing in this 26-room house?
[We have moved from the Tulane student center to the house on Valence Street and we are joined from time to time by Joyce Corrington.]
Yeah, twenty-six rooms. On Valence Street. Sort of an amber color with one of those half-moon shaped driveways up front. A beat up Volkswagen and a sparkling Olds. A child playing piano in a faraway room. Another on trumpet somewhere else.
“What kind of architecture is this?”
“Early disorderly,” laughs Joyce, who pops in wearing a red-striped, paint-splotched T-shirt and similarly besmeared work pants. “We’ve fixed up by ourselves and are still fixing it up.”
We’re sitting upstairs in the study. Tons of books line the walls. Tomes with titles like The Anti-Nicene Fathers, The Babylonian Talmud, Israel and Revelation, and, sure enough, The Bear Cub Scout Book. There’s also electronic equipment—tape decks, amplifiers, the works. Lots of records, old 78s, including the first song Bill remembers—“I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” by the Dorsey Brothers. There’s also an abundance of Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington. Miller, in fact, was one of Bill’s first heroes.
Other heroes line the walls. There are posters of Trotsky, Malcolm X., Thomas Wolfe, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. Now what, I ask myself, do these eclectic heroes have in common?
“One of Robert E. Lee’s great virtues, “Bill says, was duty. Duty is fundamental in an orderly society. All the men you see on this wall did their duty. They were serious man and therefore I take them seriously.
I reminded him that Trotsky abandoned his wife and child in Siberia.
“That’s an extremely valid point. There are some things one must not abandon. The value of one’s wife and children cannot be surpassed. The value of society cannot supersede it. I know that doesn’t sound progressive, but I don’t feel obliged to be progressive. Value’s a funny thing. The most wretched human life is worth more than all the art in the world. If I had the choice right now of having Louis Gallo shot or preserving the world’s great art treasures from certain destruction, do you know which I’d choose?”
I blink my eyes.
[Was the Trotsky issue resolved?]
Somehow something is weird here. Stonewall Jackson, Trotsky . . . next thing you know he’ll be drinking—and, voila, we have before us a bottle of red Spanish wine circa 1971.
“This is supposed to be an interview,” I say. “Tell me what you did in the order you did it.”
“Well, he began, “I was born in Memphis but came to Shreveport when I was ten. Before my twenties, I worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer for the Shreveport Times. I was the manager of a service station. I played trumpet professionally, and the most horrible job I ever had was at a shoe store. That was enough to make anybody a communist. I got my B.A. at Centenary College and my M.A. at Rice. Then I taught at LSU in Baton Rouge for a while before leaving for the University of Sussex, where I eventually earned a Ph.D. in modern literature. After that, I returned to LSU to teach. In 1966 Loyola University offered me the chairmanship of their English Department. I left Loyola in 1972. They wanted to make me a full professor, but we had our differences
You could say that at age 39 I was the world’s most educated redneck. I just dropped one career and picked up another.”
Now all along I am wondering how one man has so much time and energy. Two hundred poems, the short stories, four novels—Wait for the Night, The Bombardier, The Upper Hand, and The Disintegrator (unpublished)—the voluminous reading of everything from The Greening of America to the Apocrypha. And, oh yes, the movies.
Movies? Wait, let’s sidetrack. Bill left Loyola in 1972. In that same years he entered Tulane Law School He already had that Ph.D. from Sussex. And at this very moment he is expecting the results from his bar exam. Now he will have a J.D. too. He’s already working at Plotkin and Bradley law firm and claims to love every minute of it.
[I visited Bill at this law office to actually give him some work—legal papers to divorce my first wife. Bill sat in a vast room, his desk somewhere in the middle. He leaned back in a swivel chair with legs propped up on the desk, and . . . the cowboy boots! My impression at the time was that he looked really out of place. And yet I have a divorced decree signed by Bill Corrington!]
How old is this person? About 42, I assume. I think about how old I am and do some quick sad figuring.
Bill says he doesn’t move to Hollywood solely because of the kids. Hollywood? That’s right, the movies. Bill and Joyce have collaborated on five film scripts so far. That’s how they got that 26 room house. You don’t make a dime selling poetry unless you’re Erica Jong.
[Erica Jong! How quaint and dated it now seems though at the time she was in her heyday.]
How does somebody get into script writing, I want to know. Do you apply? Beg? Have friends in high places?
“It just so happens that Roger Corman, our producer, read my novel The Upper Hand. He thought it was great so he called me on the telephone to ask if I was interested in writing a screen play. I said, ‘not particularly.’ To move from fiction to screenplays is sort of like becoming a blacksmith after you’ve been an electronics expert.
“Then he asked me if I knew anything about Baron Richthofen. I said ‘yes.’ He asked, ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Try me,’ and that settled that. I just so happened I was interested in Richthofen. When Corman added that $10,000 was involved, I nearly fainted. I had been writing for fifteen years and never made more than five or six thousand a year. This looked like something big, so I grabbed. Wouldn’t you?”
Nah, man, nothing below a million would interest me. Tell me more.
“Well, I flew out to California every two months or so and eventually the script was completed At first, Joyce went out less frequently than I did. Later, we went together. The movie became The Red Baron.
“Our next film was The Omega Man. We did it for Warner Brothers. Then we did Boxcar Bertha for Corman, followed by the ‘great bomb,’ Battle for the Planet of the Apes. It was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. The next one was The Arena, which was about female gladiators in the fifth century B.C. After that, we wrote our first TV script, The KillerBees, that may sound terrible, but is the best thing we’ve ever done
“Right now we’ve been approached for a feature-length film based upon the Star Trek series. But I have serious doubts about that one. We’re too far from the center of things in New Orleans.”
Yeah, the Corringtons would move to California if their children weren’t around. You know, Bill laughs, camp out for a few years, make a lot of bread then come back and live like royalty for the rest of our lives.
Hell, kids like to camp. Take them with you.
Bill says he would not have his kids raised as anything but southerners. This is crazy, I think. I always thought people got their children away from the cotton fields soon as possible. What with the woeful educational system, the underdeveloped economies, the general backwardness of it all.
But Bill’s defense is eloquent. “The South still emphasizes the human perspective. The people I know and value down here are all fairly interesting. Don’t you think Southerners allow for more genuine eccentricity than, say, New Yorkers or even Californians? I’m not talking about perversity of the Haight-Ashbury variety; I’m talking about pure old-fashioned eccentricity.”
I glance around at those heroes on the wall. He has a point.
“There’s also a richness of relationships you don’t experience anywhere else. When I lived in Shreveport, I knew everybody’s cousin’s sister’s niece’s aunt. Last time I visited I made three phone calls to an old friend and was offered three different jobs. Nothing like that in Akron or Sacramento. People down here take care of each other.”
Concluding Unapologetic Postscript by Louis Gallo
I am not sure how we took leave of each other or why the interview ended as it did—such things drift into a vortex of forgetting. What stays with me is that Bill Corrington influenced me deeply as both a formidable intellect and a formidable man. He was both arrogant and humble at once. He would talk to anyone, teach anyone whatever he knew. He self-described himself as a “redneck,” and maybe he was . . . but when we use the term “redneck” normally, Bill Corrington does not come to mind. The man also had a honeyed tongue—he could discourse on practically any subject for hours. And when he did, you listened and you always learned something new or discovered a new angle from which to examine and issue or controversy. I still cannot determine if Bill was a conservative reactionary verging on fascist or a radical liberal espousing progressive causes. Robert E. Lee versus Malcolm X. The heroes.
One more thing. It’s clear to me now that Bill is one of the greatest poets this country has ever produced. Why his work is overlooked now, why he is not frequently anthologized, why some poets are elevated and others of equal or superior value not, I can’t say. At any rate, for a sample of his brilliant poetry, check out my recent article in the Fall 2015 issue of Xavier Review and also see Michael Presti’s review of the Collected Poems in the same issue.