Monday, January 31, 2011

Monday Muse: Louisiana's Poet Laureate

. . . I speak best in my poems. I'm trying to get 
at what we respond to, in a simple way, a true way,
and you get closer and closer to that the more you make art.
~ Darrell Bourque*

Darrell Bourque is Louisiana's tenth Poet Laureate.

Bourque began his term officially in May 2009. Originally, he was appointed in November 2007, but eight months later, in July 2008, he was told that because of an oversight his name had not been submitted as required for state senate confirmation; the error, as this article explains, meant the position was declared vacant. Matters eventually were rectified by Governor Bobby Jindal, who reappointed Bourque to serve until May 2011.

Bourque succeeded Brenda Marie Osbey (2005-2007), the first state poet selected by a committee of peers; she came after twice-appointed Jean McGivney Boese (1996-2004 and 1980-1988). The others who held the position are Sylvia Davidson Lott Buckley, who wrote an official state judicial poem (1992-1996), Pinkie Gordon Lane (1988-1992), Henry Thomas Voltz (1976-1980), George William Noel Cooper (1973-1976), Ethel Green Russell (1970-1973), and Emma Wilson Emery (1942-1970).

The Poet Laureate position, established in 1942 and codified in state law (Louisiana Revised Statutes 49:171, 173), originally carried a term concurrent with that of the governor. Currently, the term is two years. The law is specific about process, requiring that a choice be made by the governor from a list of candidates prepared by a selection committee. The governor has to make the appointment by January 15 of the year following receipt of a list of prospective nominees. An incumbent may be reappointed to the position so long as the term is not consecutive. The nominee must have been born in or live in Louisiana at time of nomination and must have published work in books, literary periodicals, anthologies, or the like.

The only legal requirement of the honorary job is to deliver an annual public reading at a location designated by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. To date, taking advantage of LEH grants for the position, Bourque has worked with students and teachers in classrooms, libraries, and community centers and cultural institutions throughout Louisiana, serving as a "poetry ambassador" to foster appreciation of and create audiences for poetry. He gives many readings and leads many workshops and retreats within and outside the state and has judged poetry contests.

The nominating process for the next Poet Laureate began in late 2010. Three writers were nominated: Ava Leavell Haymon, Jack Bedell, and Julie Kane

* * * * *
I cannot write convincingly about anything
 that I am not passionate about.
~ Bourque in Interview with Roses & Thorns

A native of Louisiana, Darrell Bourque, Ph.D., is the author, most recently, of Call and Response: Conversations in Verse (Texas Review Press, 2010), a collaboration with Jack B. Bedell, and In Ordinary Light: New and Selected Poems (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2010), which includes selections from Bourque's earlier volumes, including all of his poems from The Blue Boat (University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, Writers Series, 2004) and all of those in Call and Response. A new chapbook, Holding the Notes, is forthcoming from Chicory Bloom Press

Bourque's other books are Burnt Water Suite (Wings Press, 1999) and Plainsongs (Cross-Cultural Communications/Merrick, 1994), poems from which appear in Where Land Meets Sky, a catalogue of the works of the late landscape artist Elemore Morgan Jr. The latter comprised Issue 1 in the publisher's Cajun Writers Series. His other chapbook, The Doors Between Us (1997), was the first in the Louisiana Writers Chapbook Series of Louisiana Literature Press. 

I think the poet has at least as one of his jobs to remind us
that there is something miraculous in the everyday.**

The poet, who began writing poetry while working on his doctorate at Florida State University in the mid-1970s, takes as his themes nature, culture (music, art, artists, architecture, history, philosophy, language, food, etc.), and, in particular, human relationships. He also explores in his poetry his conversations with artists (he's especially interested, he notes in interviews, in collaborations that acknowledge connections among people, what he describes as "articulating our humanness, wherever we find it"), the use of autobiographical details or personal stories that inform universal themes such as love and loss, and the spiritual in the ordinary. Place — not only his southernness and Louisiana Cajun ancestry but also his growing-up years on a farm — are reflected in poems such as "Cane Field Haiku" and "The Arum Lilies in My Mother's Dream". Giving careful attention to poetry's rhetoric (diction, line, sound, trope, etc.), he experiments with forms, which include free verse, ekphrastic poems, sonnets, sestinas, and narrative or prose pieces.

These excerpts exemplify both attention to expressive imagery and Bourque's declared intention to take a poem "into the deeply personal":

He loves this place he's fallen into:
his skies of smeared lilac, his clouds spun by muscled ether, congealed air so newly blue
it's hard to tell it from the sky we knew once and loved so [. . . .]
~ From "Where Land Meets Sky" in The Blue Boat

What he thinks of when he goes to the river
is not always what to take from it. Sometimes
it is what to put back that brings him there.
One day it will be the memory of all the lines

making catenaries on the surface of the water,
sometimes it will be the fish those lines brought in,
sometimes it will be the memory of all the quarter

residents and how they still live in him, [. . . .]
~ From "Of Men and Rivers (for Ernest J. Gaines)"

We string out trees
       with lights
                in wintertime.

We want
      to see ourselves
                in the dark.
~ From Lumina" in In Ordinary Light

Poems by Bourque have appeared in Louisiana Literature, Mid-American Review, Deep South Magazine, and Passages North, and are forthcoming in Pacha Mama : Earth Realm, a collaborative project with artist Lynda Frese and others that is slated for publication this fall.

Professor emeritus in English at the University of Louisiana, Bourque is a poetry workshop leader and consultant, primarily for Louisiana Affiliates of the National Writing Project. He features poets on "From the Poet Laureate's Bookshelf" on KRVS Public Radio (88.7 FM, Lafayette/Lake Charles);  he's broadcast work found at the online Poets for Living Waters. He was named Artist of the Year 2001 by the Acadiana Arts Council and has been president of the National Association for Humanities Education and editor-in-chief of the association's journal. In addition, Bourque was director for the project Significant Voices, a series that featured young African-American writers from Louisiana.

An annual cash prize, the Darrell Bourque Award, is made in his name by the Louisiana Conference on Literature, Language & Culture.


All Poetry Excerpts © Darrell Bourque

* Quoted in Susan Larson, "Louisiana Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque Turns Out Culture Into Poetry", The Times-Picayune, January 16, 2008

Susan Larson, "Governor Bobby Jindal Announces the Reappointment of Darrell Bourque as Louisiana's Poet Laureate", The Times-Picayune, May 21, 2009 (In this article, Bourque describes his plans for his tenure.)

Angie Ledbetter, "Interview with Darrell Bourque", Parts 1, July 20, 2010; and 2, July 28, 2010, Roses & Thorns

** Quoted in Mary Tutwiler, "Crowning Achievement", The Independent Weekly, November 27, 2007 (This article provides significant background information about Bourque, including his teaching career, and includes an interview in which he articulates what he wants to achieve as writer, teacher, and Poet Laureate and why he thinks poetry is important. His views about taking a poem "[f]rom the merely personal to the deeply personal" is critical to his philosophy about poetry's value: "When you write a piece of art, when you make a piece of art, it's not yours when you're finished. Its intent has to be directed toward an audience. And so you have to find a way that you can shore up those personal experiences, those personal feelings that go beyond simply your personal feelings.")

Rosalyn Spencer, "Bourque: Pied Piper of Poetry", Acadiana Gazette

Darrell Bourque's Poetry Online: "Light Theology and the Persimmon Tree" and "Lumina" at Poetry Daily; "My Father at Grand Isle" at Poetry 365; "Scratch" at Deep South Magazine (scroll to bottom); "Of Men and Rivers", a commemorative poem, at A Word's Worth; "To Be of Use" from The Blue Boat at On the Bayou; "Bone Fire"; and "Where Land Meets Sky (for Elemore Morgan Jr.)" 

Review of In Ordinary Light at A Word's Worth

Lannan Foundation Podcast of Bourque's Conversation with Luis Alberto Urrea, October 13, 2004 (A recorded reading also is available here.)

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

Louisiana Poets (List)

Louisiana Poetry Project (Bourque directed The Louisiana Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Poetry Project.)

Louisiana State University Writing Project (Authors Index)

Louisiana State Poems and Symbols (See this article on Governor Kathleen Blanco's veto of a bill to create a state poem (not one by Bourque).)

Louisiana Writer Award Page for Louisiana

Texas A&M University Press Page for Call and Response

ULPress Page for In Ordinary Light

Voices on the Gulf Page for Darrell Bourque

Darrell Bourque on FaceBook and LinkedIn


Louise Gallagher said...

I think the poet has at least as one of his jobs to remind us
that there is something miraculous in the everyday.**

Not just the poet -- all artists.

"We want
to see ourselves
in the dark."

Nice. Very very nice.

S. Etole said...

I like the thoughts of his that you have posted very much ... especially the miraculous in the everyday!

Laura said...

He is a busy man! And I love that name. I can just hear it roll off the tongues of the natives. So very convincing are his words and if he speaks true, he is passionate about much. Thanks for sharing this, Maureen. And thank you for that beautiful poem you left over at the Wellspring today. I am always amazed. Looking forward to my copy of Neruda's Memoirs coming tomorrow!

D.M. SOLIS said...

Great job. I love the quote by Bourque about writing convincingly--so much so, I added it to my list of quotes. Thank you, peace and all good,


Ruth said...

I was going to quote the same as Louise: miraculous in the everyday. Here's a poet worth reading. Thank you for the introduction, Maureen.