September 21, 2018KR BlogChatsLiterature

An interview with Louisiana Poet Laureate Jack Bedell

Dr. Jack Bedell is a Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University and the author of nine books, including Call and Response (with Darrell Bourque, 2010), Come Rain, Come Shine (2006), What Passes for Love (2001), Bone-Hollow, True: New & Selected Poems (2013), Elliptic (2016), and Revenant (2016). As editor of Southeastern’s literary magazine Louisiana Literature since 1992, he has published numerous writers, contributed to Louisiana LEH’s award-winning PRIME TIME Family Literacy Program as a storyteller, and continues to promote the writing of his fellow Louisianans. His latest book of poems is No Brother, This Storm out from Mercer Press.  In 2017 he was named the Louisiana State Poet Laureate 

Jack Bedell, Photo Courtesy of the Author

Bedell and his former student, Kirsten Ogden, spoke on the phone and over social media in May through September of 2018.

It’s been such an amazing couple of years for you, Jack! Tell me a little bit about how your life has changed since becoming poet laureate of Louisiana.

Yes–it’s been completely unexpected! I’d been in the mix for the Poet Laureate post a few times before, but that’s all due to the kindness of others–you know, “Thank you to the people who nominate you.”

Without knowing what to expect, it’s been really wonderful. As Poet Laureate I get to do a lot of what I was doing anyway, but I get to do it all over the state! It’s enlightening to see that so much literary activity is going on all over Louisiana.  I’ve been very impressed by what’s happening–our poets are kicking it in Alexandria and Shreveport and Baton Rouge and New Orleans, everywhere across the state.

My goal as editor of the journal Louisiana Literature has always been to find writers to celebrate–and that’s kind of how I see my role as Poet Laureate. I’ve always been committed to literacy programs and guiding young writers–and the idea that I can shine light on all the talent we have in Louisiana, but do it in really personal ways– that’s what’s been wonderful so far.

That must’ve been a surreal moment, getting that call.

The funny thing is that at first I thought the call was just a courtesy call letting me know I wasn’t the choice. When I saw “L.A. Governor’s Office” on my cell’s caller ID, I answered the call thinking, This is the call where they say  “We enjoyed reading your work, but . . . ” except it kept going on without the “but.” I thought, if this is the kiss-off call they would’ve gotten off the phone by now, and then I realized “Oh, you’re calling to tell me I got the nomination.”

In the past, I’d found out through an email congratulating the appointed laureate, but Governor Edwards was really up front saying, “I will contact each person individually.” I haven’t been able to say this particular thing about Louisiana politicians much in my lifetime, but our current governor is the kind of a person who genuinely cares about how we all feel as citizens, and he is as much a people person as he is a politician. It meant a ton to me that his office called personally like they did, and that he had clearly read my work and appreciated it prior to my appointment.

How has your new role as a poet laureate influenced the way you see yourself as a teacher-poet?

It used to be a big struggle for me to find time, or to make time, to write. I used to waste a lot of energy trying to separate my life as a writer and my life as a teacher, but I’ve kind of had a change in who I am and the way I approach life in the past couple of years. That coincides with a kind of sea change in how I feel a career should be built. Having the opportunity to travel Louisiana a bit, meeting other writers and visiting classrooms full of young artists, I’ve realized teaching and writing are both part of the community you have to build to flourish as an artist. The energy and knowledge exchanged in those writing communities flows all ways, and I’ve really come to believe that writing, teaching, and learning are all part of that exchange.

The more I’ve found myself in writing experiences with writers at all stages in their development, the more I’ve come to realize we all have the same goals and the same time constraints.

Younger writers have trouble finding time and voice just like older writers do. In my creative writing workshops at Southeastern, my students might have ten poems due at the end of the semester–and it’s a tough journey for them to create work with life so busy around them. But, you know, I’m in it with them, too. I’ve got work to do, and responsibilities at home, and it doesn’t make it easier (or different) for me because I’m older or have had more poems in print. Time is precious for all of us, and creating is the same struggle all around.

The main thing I’ve tried to do to adapt these days, to find that time and energy to create,  is that I’ve stopped thinking of my writing as an isolated thing and separating it from teaching or reading with other writers. Instead I’m fully aware now that I’m dependent upon these other artists, and absolutely need their energy and creativity to fuel my own work. When I get into a community of writers who are working, I have no other choice but to write. It’s a little like going to the gym. As an old dude, it would be easy to be the guy reading the paper in the corner, pretending I’m working, but for me now it’s really difficult to stay out of things when others are working hard all around me. I owe it to them to put the work in, too. Nowadays, when I’m around writers writing, I have to get in there with them and get to work, too.

You were born and raised in South Louisiana–a sort of melting pot of African, American, and French-Canadian cultures that contributed to the development of Acadian and Cajun cultural identities. I think most people associate South Louisianan culture with New Orleans, Jazz, and Mardis Gras, but South Louisiana is so much more rich and complex. How did this place inform your development as a poet?

I feel real pride in being raised in the place I was raised. My goal as a poet has always been to pay tribute to the people and the traditions of south Louisiana, and to honor the memories and the experiences of it all as best I can. I’m as from this place as anyone can be. But, you know, south Louisiana is very diverse. Hammond [where Bedell lives and teaches] isn’t much like Houma where I was raised. Hammond is only an hour away from Houma, but it’s a world away in so many ways.

My wife is from Chalmette. These are all very different places, with different traditions and different types of people. The Catholic upbringing might be common, and seeing plenty water and plenty grass around means we share many things, but people in Houma,  Hammond, and Chalmette have very different sensibilities. For example, Louisianans in Hammond may not be as worried about coastal erosion as I am being from the Gulf coast–if there was suddenly a shortage in pine trees, they’d notice, though. I think one way my work has changed over the years is that I’ve tried to gain an understanding and appreciation for other regions of south Louisiana and incorporate those into the poems I’m writing.

It’s certainly fertile ground for the development of a poet. You’re often referred to as a regional poet – do you embrace that label?

The pride I take in being a regional poet comes from how much I love where I’m from. I try to archive this place in my work and write with love about it. I see the faults in it as much as anyone, but I don’t know that we take steps forward by writing critical poems. I definitely feel in my heart we can move forward by praising the things we do well which is where my poems come from.

What I’m proudest about in my poems is that I’ve been true to this place without isolating myself as a regionalist. The world outside of this place presses on us pretty hard, and it’s getting impossible and irresponsible not to take notice of the flat-out awfulness that’s going around us nationally. That stuff is creeping into my poems more and more because it has to. As a citizen of this country and this world, what I don’t want to do is focus so much on region that I become a navel gazer.  It would be irresponsible leaving what’s going on in the world around me out of my poems. Everyone has a tough time turning on the TV and not seeing something embarrassing or horrifying—it’s tough encountering friction and disturbance in our world and then bringing it into poems set close to you, but it’s important to do so in order to be honest and accurate.

That makes it sound like you’re having conversations with your poems–you’re archiving this place and also you’re commenting on the importance of place and how that place impacts and is impacted by that “friction” and “disturbance” you encounter.

Yes–some of the most difficult conversations I’ve had to have in my work are about the value of life lately. It’s about having, simultaneously, conversations that are easy to ignore by burying my head in my own day-to-day life but also impossible to ignore–the New Orleans news, the national news – you can’t make ten seconds without someone losing their life, and sometimes it’s so senseless–that’s kind of a code word for evil. When I see such senseless loss of life all around me, I have to address that in my poems somehow even when I’m not personally affected. It’s easy to say it’s not relevant to me, but it’s only not relevant if I’m TRYING to avoid it. The shootings my kids see on the news may not have happened in our backyard, but they happened on the road we take to get to their grandmother’s house in the city. This is why I’m pressing the poems I write about my backyard to engage that greater conversation sometimes. Those are difficult conversations and so heavy to the point where I often don’t know how to move through them, so the poems have to do that for me–engage that conversation.

Yes! There are a lot of conversations now about how poets and artists can respond through their work to difficult times. You’re a teacher too, so you must encounter these conversations more presently too.

Definitely! In my poetry workshop last spring, we were talking one day about the idea of arming faculty and teachers for the protection of students, and I said “I’ll be a human shield all day to protect you guys but the last person in the world you need in here with a gun is me.” As a group, we all talked about how unnecessary arming teachers would be at Southeastern, and then that very day there was a shooting on campus at the University Center and some basketball players were fired on.

Sometimes these conversations seem so speculative, then life keeps showing us there is no such thing as speculation–it’s just dumb luck that there’s not something happening in your back yard, so that’s a conversation we need to have. Those conversations help to slow life down. It’s so easy to hear it all as white noise around you. My kids are like most kids, and the news is just not part of their day-to-day grind. There’s so much I have to explain to my own kids daily, to put some of these issues into perspective for them. These conversations are part of our daily life now, and I find myself thinking it’s irresponsible to avoid confronting these things in my poems. I can’t just focus on cypress trees any more. The news is always on. And it affects all of us.

Louisiana Life named you one of their Louisianans of the year in Jan-Feb 2018. That must’ve been a great honor! In that magazine interview you said, “I have an incredible debt to my family, Acadian culture and to the region [ . . . ] I try to honor that debt as much as I can in my writing.” 

I definitely feel that I owe all the opportunities I’ve had express myself as an artist to the people who raised me and to the places and culture of south Louisiana that taught me what it is to be a human being. Every poem I’ve written has started with the urge to honor those people and this place. 

How do you help your students and other writers create these relationships?

We’re all part of a community, or we have to make a community and be a family—it’s one pool. It’s not a matter of me saying, “How do I find time and energy to write.” We have to share that time and energy with each other. What I mean is that poetry has the power to forge a community of writers and readers. Whether we write to archive experience, validate identity, or posit new realities, poets welcome readers into a relationship. We share creative energy with readers and fellow writers. I recognize now that their celebrations are my celebrations and that my celebrations are theirs.

And for me that goes for ALL writers, regardless of age, experience, or length of vita. I tell my students not to think that because they’re only 19 they’ll write a better poem when they’re older; this new one could be as good as it gets! Be proud of this one; don’t denigrate it. I want them to say to themselves this is who I am at this moment and find the confidence in that voice to do what they‘ve got to do. I want them to be proud of their work, and I want them to help build a community for all of us by sharing their work with others, publishing it in journals, and performing it publicly.

New Orleans has a robust summer writing marathon and you’re a big part of that community. How has that been for you the past few summers?

I go down to the New Orleans writing marathon every summer to be part of community of writers and be PRODUCTIVE—it’s crazy to be with forty or fifty other people at Molly’s and the whole vibe of the city is fuel for writing. That’s the shift I’ve made in my life. Instead of looking for and paying attention to the things that drain energy, just realizing there’s fuel everywhere for that stuff and it’s made me a better writer. What better fuel is there than a room full of creative writing students writing out and about in a vibrant city like New Orleans?!? They’re not student writers participating in the writing marathon. Heck, we’re all learning to write! They are, we are, practicing writers. The marathon is tremendous source of this kind of creative energy and vital community.

I know you’ve attended some writing retreats and summer workshops like the Kenyon Review’s Writer’s Workshop. What do these experiences do for you and for your development as a writer?

I’m a real advocate of workshops and retreats. The time spent in those communities is an investment in yourself and your writing. It’s also the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in a creative experience with other writers. I never want to stop learning from other writers. I attended the Breadloaf Orion Environmental summer conference a couple of years ago, and I’m still running on the energy I picked up there. Everyone involved was generous and present, and that kind of energy is contagious. I haven’t found a better place to harness that kind of energy than workshops and retreats.

The average person doesn’t really know about these kinds of writer communities, but you work with several programs that offer a similar experience. Tell me a little bit about the Family Literacy Program you worked with for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities as a storyteller. 

The LEH’s Primetime program! It’s wonderful. They bring a scholar and storyteller into a venue for families—parents/guardians and school-aged kids—to provide an opportunity to discuss books and culture in a supportive arena. The program also provides a hot meal for everyone involved, so it really feels like a family activity. The LEH has developed a wonderful syllabus of books that cover every element of our diverse world culture. All of these award-winning children’s books give families an opportunity to talk about how literature affects us daily. There’s such a high illiteracy rate here in Louisiana, we need to do everything we can to combat it, and the LEH’s Primetime Family Reading Time program is really designed to use the power of families to break down reading barriers.

The program provides great books to families and an environment of trust and support to discuss the issues contained in the books. The scholars and storytellers are in place because families might be uncomfortable talking about how books relate to life. Because I’m a story-based poet, I primarily serve as the discussion leader working with a professional storyteller. The storyteller tells the story of the book, and it’s my role to facilitate the discussion of the book and how this book relates to real life.

I’m really excited about your new book out with Mercer press, No Brother, This Storm. A good number of those poems were in a chapbook, elliptic, by yellow flag. Can you talk about those poems and their development into your book?

Many of those elliptic poems are about coastal erosion. They are about loss in general, too. I lost, in the last three years, both of my parents – and writing those poems that focused on coastal erosion was an valuable way of deflecting ruminations on personal loss, but doing so in a productive direction.

I care deeply about this place I’m from, and I  could only see so many of those maps that said “in 20 years you won’t see miles of this coastline anymore” before I had to write something about it. It’s easy to hear “we’re losing a couple of football fields each day,” but seeing it in person or experiencing it personally adds urgency to it for me. That’s a lot of loss, and it’s not a gradual erosion you can’t see. That lost coast is a big chunk of who I am. You know, that’s my hometown going under water, and connecting that feeling of loss to how I feel about losing people I love made those poems extraordinarily important for me to write.  I couldn’t just archive that stuff and say “here are my memories.” I don’t see how that would HELP anything. Writing those poems forced me into a conversation that asks “how do we recognize this loss yet still move on in life?” I really wanted to make those poems beautiful and valuable beyond just me and my own memories/loss.

What books are you currently reading that are inspiring you and your work, and what events are coming up that can inspire others and support the larger literary community?

I’m currently reading and re-reading Carly Joy Miller’s Ceremonial  and Chelsea Dingman’s What Bodies Have I Moved . This Fall I’ll be at the Louisiana Festival for the Book and will be doing workshops and readings at the New Orleans Words and Music Festival

No Brother, This Storm COVER

Read a poem from No Brother, This Storm, and newer poems by Jack Bedell at Peacock Journal. Purchase his new book out now from Mercer Press.