Louisiana Book Festival: Louisiana Writer Award Response
Thank you, Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne and State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton, for this honor you extend to the art of poetry through me. Thank you both for your public service which creates environments that foster and deepen the cultural and intellectual lives of the citizens of the state of Louisiana. And, thank you Jim Davis for the sustained poetry programming at the Festival and for the State Library programs you create every year during National Poetry Month.
It pleases me greatly to receive this award at the same time the Festival is honoring an artist who is not only a state treasure but a national and world treasure as well. George Rodrigue has done as much as any writer, sculptor, musician, or food artist to let the world know about the magic in this little piece of geography he lived and worked in his whole life. Along with his jolie blondes and Evangelines, with his ancestors and his manifestations of Tiffany, he celebrated the acknowledged legislators as well as the unacknowledged legislators who come to us in the form of the writer, the storyteller and the poet. So we see in his long view, the Longs and Edwin Edwards alongside Ernest J. Gaines, Walker Percy and Shirley Ann Grau; Kathleen Blanco alongside Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gus Weill, James Carville, and Sophie Freud; Bobby Jindal, Jimmy Davis, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev alongside Robert Coles, Bruno Bettelheim and John Kennedy Toole.
George Rodrigue loved this state: its darkness and its light, its resilience and its vulnerability, everything in it from trees to his beloved dogs, its madmen and its wise women, its festival spirit and its death rituals and practices. He loved and supported the Louisiana Book Festival because he knew how valuable our narratives are, whether they come to us in the form of poems, or paintings, or stories. He knew on some level, deeper than most, the value of what we keep in our libraries, public and private, in congressional libraries as well as in the libraries of our dreams. He knew that art is an act in which nothing is trivial and everything is tender. And, he knew that art is an act of remembering in which nearly everything is at stake.
Among the many stories about the origins of poetry, the one that sticks with me is the one in which Mnemosyne is the key figure. The legend goes that even Zeus could have a midlife crisis. Here was this god that could turn himself into a bull, a shower of gold, a swan, and other things for exploits that would not only satisfy his sexual urges but would produce compelling and complex characters, and more, in our early stories and poems: Perseus, Helen of Troy, Clytemnestra, Medusa, and even constellations, Gemini and Taurus among others. Here he was, the genesis of epic stories, and he began to wonder if all he was might not be lost in time. In those days even gods the rank of Zeus could have such thoughts. So, he went to Mnemosyne, a prominent Titan among those he had overthrown to come to power, and the daughter of Uranus/Father Sky and Gaia/Mother Earth, and he asked her for help. In those days the people on either side of life-defining issues could talk to each other. Mnemosyne was Memory and presided over the pool of memory in the underworld, where those that passed there could either drink and remember their past lives as they moved with some wisdom into new stages of being, or they could drink from the river Lethe and not remember, thus vulnerable to the past weaknesses and frailties of human life. Mnemosyne, knowing Zeus as well as he knew himself, arranged that she and he sleep together for nine consecutive nights and out of those unions were born the nine muses, who became a template for our libraries, for our generic classification of poetry and stories, our blue print for the constructs of the liberal arts, and for all our early classifications of learning.
The nine muses were vessels or compartments for all human expression, and interestingly they are all feminine vessels, Mnemosyne’s slickest trick on the old stag. There was one vessel for all those manly epic stories, Calliope; a vessel for what we see as historical, Clio; a vessel for our music and lyric poems, Euterpe; a vessel for the stories where we laugh at ourselves, Thalia; a vessel for tragedy, Melpomene; a vessel for songs to the gods, hymns and psalms, Polyhymnia; and one for our love songs, Erato, and even vessels for astronomy, Urania an homage to her starry-eyed father, and one for dance, Terpsichore.
This great figure and founder of the poem maps our way to the war story, the coming-of-age story which is always a war story, country music songs which are filled with war stories, and every blues song and every song of praise as well. In her scheme we are brought to the rememberings of poets like Seamus Heaney, and Billy Collins and Ted Kooser. Agency of remembrance is agency of power and affect in poets as various as Adrienne Rich and Sharon Olds, Lucille Clifton and Edward Hirsch and Gwendolyn Brooks.
But, in Mnemosyne’s expansive construct writers such as Cokie Roberts, James Carville and Mary Matalin are all remembers too, thus connected to the aims of the origins of poetry. We are here today in a festival of remembering and everyone participating is making the Louisiana Book Festival a remembering experience: from the children in the State Museum receiving their first awards for writing to the performance poets and storytellers who will be in their tents later in the day. The Mnemosyne story reminds us also that the tribal dances of all the continents on the planet are poems too. So are the dances of Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp and Nijinsky and Bill T. Jones. She reminds us that movement is poem, and any poet that does not know movement is handicapped everywhere, in line, in strophe, in form. She reminds us that the work of Galileo was more the work of a poet than the work of a heretic. Copernicus, al-Sufi, Sagan, Hawking, Hubble, Omar Khayyam and Caroline Herschel, all poets according to Mnemosyne’s understanding of the undertakings of remembering. For her, narratives in the skies are not unconnected to the narratives of dreamers who walk the earth. It is only in later and less wise times that we have become separated from the unifying expressions of who and what we were and who and what we are as set forth by this immense imagination.
None of us write in isolation from our brothers and sisters, from our ancestors, from both our friends and those we perceive as adversaries. We write the stories of our communities, however we see or define community. We write in a sort of correspondence with those who have come before us. There are no new stories but we are ever in search of our story, the story that will be a response to our in-the-world-being. Our poems are made of others’ music, our histories come to us through what others have painted or sung or dramatized or dreamed.
The first poem I ever wrote came out of an assignment to write a Wordsworth lyric. My first book of poems was a set of plainsongs sung in an effort to understand the geography I lived in, my relationship to this boggy, wetland state that is now vanishing right before our eyes at alarming rates. At my side in this first experiment were poets as various as St. Gregory, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William Carlos Williams. My second book was a submission, a prostration of sorts, to Bach’s poetry in the unaccompanied cello suites. My next book was an exercise to see if I could write a book of poems that used the genius of the Native American Lafitte skiff boat builders of Louisiana. Another book, a collaboration with fellow poet Jack B. Bedell seeing if we could do something in poetic correspondence with the ancient practice of call and response. The next, a chapbook, written as an elegy for my mother. The next, a history of the 1765 and 1785 migrations from Canada and Europe of the Cadiens of Louisiana and of the imprints of those migrations. My last book and the project I am currently working on is grounded in the Cajun-Creole culture, the geography I was born into and have always lived in.
My education began in listening to at least three languages: English, Cajun French and the Creole French of St. Landry Parish in a rural community near Bellevue. My education included the language, lessons and music of the Latin High Mass as well as the music of musicians who would not be called zydeco musicians for a couple of decades, all that braided to the music of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Iry Lejeune and Nathan Abshire, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Kitty Wells, Mother Maybelle Carter and Little Richard. As a young adult those sounds were never quelled but I began to try to listen to voices in other registers as well.
J. C. Broussard and Ann Dobie at USL brought me to Aristotle and George Lyman Kittredge, to Homer and Cocteau, and Chekhov, to Hemingway, James Joyce, Edith Wharton and Katherine Mansfield, and I was off and in love with what people could do with words. My later study took me to all the usual suspects and then almost monastic studies of Faulkner, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, and I like to think that from time to time the shadows of their influence appear in my work. What is certain of is that there is more than shadow of influence that remains in me of those two early teachers.
I was lucky enough in high school to be called to the desk of our school librarian, Miss Alice Clay, who told me that she had just the book for me to read, a biography of Jim Thorpe. It was the singling out that I think really counted. In the fifth grade I began working on that finger callus all pen and pencil writers develop when Miss Elsie Sibille had us write out our chapters in history while she taught another group of students in a combined multilevel classroom. Her lesson was my first lesson in the physical act of writing, and for that I am grateful. In her class I learned something of the labor and the solitude involved in writing things like chapters in history books. At Bristol Elementary Mrs. Eleanor Forrester Gonsoulin, a native of Clinton in East Feliciana Parish, gave us the option of napping after lunch or listening to her read. In that voice I thought was the voice of the Mississippi River itself she read us a chapter a day of all of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At least half of us stayed awake for the whole of those two stories and I was awaked to voice. The road the poet travels is a circuitous one. A writer’s influences come from everywhere and the influences sometimes get so folded into the work that they are hardly knowable.
What I do know is that I am deeply affected by the community of poets I live and work with, and in the state of Louisiana we have an incredibly lively poetry culture. I will try to not list names here but many of you will know the names behind the industry. Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Natchitoches, Patterson and Grand Coteau have become centers for spoken word and performance poetry, centers that bring us back to poetry as was originally transferred from one imagination to another. In New Orleans the church and bar and library poetry scene is rivaled only by the poetry centers led by the remarkable poets who teach in the city’s universities and colleges, many of them my mentors and guides.
There are presses in the state and journals that keep our poetry scene alive: LSU Press with its regular poetry series as well as its new Barataria Poetry Series, Editions Tintamarre of Centenary University with its French language poetry series, UL Press with its Louisiana Writers Series, Louisiana Literature Press of Southeastern Louisiana University, and the independent presses like Chicory Bloom Press of Terrebonne Parish and the Yellow Flag Press with both ULL and Arts and Humanities Council of Southwest Louisiana affiliations. Poets are supported by independent poetry projects like the New Orleans Institute for the Imagination, New Orleans Blood Jet Poetry Series, New Orleans Lavender Ink, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities which oversees the selection of the state poet laureate, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society programs and the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival, Baton Rouge’s Forward Arts initiatives, and Grand Coteau’s Festival of Words, as well as the Louisiana Poetry Project and the Lusher School Creative Writing rogram. And here I will name names. Laurie Williams runs the site at the Louisiana Poetry Project almost single-handedly. Brad Richard’s students have been cited with distinctive awards for some time now and just this year one of his Lusher poets was invited to the White House as one of the most promising pre-college poets in the nation. This year Zachary Richard was named the first Louisiana French-Language Poet Laureate. Also, this year Kirby Jambon became the first Louisiana poet to be honored and brought before L’ Académie francaise as the recipient of the Prix Henri de Regnier for his poetry volume Petite Communions, a recognition by the Academy for Jambon’s contribution to Louisiana and French culture. And finally, leading the charge for us for all these years have been our guardian angels in the media led by Greg Langley and Susan Larson.
What I know with equal certainty is that nothing I do would even be possible without the support and encouragement of my wife and partner for more than 50 years now. I met her at a high school dance, and a few years later when we were dating and I was failing every college essay I was turning in, she tutored me and got me through my freshman composition class. For over 30 years she studied and reported on forms of bacterial growth on blood agar plates. She put me through graduate school and then moved to new medical technologies as we raised and educated our two talented daughters, Nicole Reiss and Rachel Turley, who are teachers in Louisiana’s public school system. Eventually she turned to her own creative work with color and form and intention as a stained-glass artist. Her work was the featured work at previous Louisiana Book Festival and can be viewed at the Louisiana State Library. She also designed and executed the stained glass entrance to the Ernest J. Gaines Center in Dupre Library on the ULL campus. Her work includes interior home installations and smaller medallion constructions on the Sacred Feminine. What I have learned from her about focus and discipline, dedication and belief in the work itself, while supporting the creative endeavors of her children and her husband, has been one of the great gifts of my life. She has always been my first reader and she has been patient when my projects have taken me elsewhere than where she may have needed me to be. Every book I have ever written and every poem in those books is dedicated to her and there is no redundancy in that whatsoever. I owe her everything, her and Mnemosyne.
Darrell Bourque, delivered November 1, 2014 in the House Chamber in the Louisiana State Capitol