Thursday, June 18, 2009

LOUISIANA CULTURE AND A POET LAUREATE

One of the newsletters I receive online comes to me from The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, and I was recently dismayed to read an editorial by Michael Sartisky, editor of “Louisiana Cultural Vistas.” The article was entitled “A Dirge for Culture” and informed readers about budget cuts that would slash the state appropriation for the Louisiana Endowment Humanities to absolute zero! The programs of this association keep alive the Arts and highlight the history and culture of my home state, sponsoring such programs as “Museums on Main Street,” a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution; “Prime Time” programs that target at-risk children and parents; “Relic” programs in inner cities and rural areas that have enrolled a thousand adults in public libraries to read and engage in learning that provides greater enlightenment; “Teacher Institutes for Advanced Study” which graduate 250 teachers who teach 30,000 students annually; grants for cultural festivals such as the Louisiana Festival for the Book, the Tennessee Williams literary festival in New Orleans; a national radio documentary called “American Routes,” which carries music to 125 cities, and many more cultural projects that have contributed to the culture and education in Louisiana which would become moribund if proposed budget cuts are enacted.

In such an oil-rich state, this seems one of the most insensitive slashes the present administration in Louisiana has proposed. Other programs in the realm of Arts and Culture that I hope the governor leaves intact are those presented by Darrell Bourque, the Poet Laureate of Louisiana. Darrell Bourque is one of the nation’s finest poets (and I continually wonder why the Sewanee Writers Conference has not invited him to teach and read here on The Mountain. His poetic voice is also cogent enough to warrant the position of Poet Laureate of the U.S.). Darrell lectures, teaches, holds readings for the public and in schools, and continues to write his poems about deepest Louisiana in both English and French.

Back in the 80’s, I was privileged to introduce Darrell Bourque and Jeanne Bernard (another fine poet who now lives in Paris, France) at a poetry reading sponsored by the Iberia Parish Library in New Iberia, Louisiana. I introduced them with words of qualification from Emily Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” adding that listeners would experience that kind of sensation when they heard both poets’ read from their work. That night it was clear to me and to the audience that these two performers were two rich voices who could speak to the condition of those who sought good poetry in Acadiana.

Later, in 1989, I scheduled a Creative Writing course taught by Darrell and was inspired to write two journals filled with poetry, a play, and a short story during one semester. Darrell became a friend and mentor, and when BLUE BOAT appeared in 2004, I knew that he had produced a wonderful volume of profound poetry. I hear from Darrell sporadically and am always glad to read his gentle, true lines. I’m taking the liberty of quoting an excerpt from one of his poems in BLUE BOAT entitled “La Toussaint:”

"…my father came to me through the clouds.
I asked the old monosyllabist how it was up there
in his heaven.
“The good thing,” he said, “is that you don’t have to speak.
Something within you, large before it ever shapes itself
as a simple yes or no, is sufficient here.
The bad thing is that everything is tending toward something else.
It is like living in the air.”

In an article written by Susan Larson in “The Times Picayune” last year, Darrell said that he spoke best in his poetry and was 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.”

My hope and prayer is that Darrell will remain Louisiana’s poet laureate for many years and will be able to give us more and more of his true art. Darrell is the author of BURNT WATER SUITE, PLAINSONGS, THE DOORS BETWEEN US, and a special volume entitled WHERE LAND MEETS SKY, a volume issued by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Art Museum, highlighting his poetry from PLAINSONGS along with Elemore Morgan, Jr.’s paintings and drawings. He gives presentations in language studies; bi-lingualism in Louisiana, poetic forms, poetry and landscape, Cajun and Creole cultures, and Teaching Poetry in the Classroom. He is Professor Emeritus of English at ULL in Lafayette, Louisiana, has deep roots in Sunset, Louisiana, and lives in the house in which he grew up. Darrell's poetic voice is both mystical and true as he showcases the Louisiana landscape and culture. His wife, Karen, to whom he dedicates THE BLUE BOAT, is an artist.
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