Monday, October 4, 2010

RETURNING TO THE LAND OF POETS

This morning I received an e-mail bulletin from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities which included an announcement that Darrell Bourque’s term as Louisiana Poet Laureate would end in May, 2011. The announcement caused my heart to drop a beat or two in a sudden whoosh of regret that this talented poet and friend will no longer serve in this prestigious position. Darrell Bourque is the star of Louisiana poetry. Last year when I returned to New Iberia, I visited with Darrell and his wife, Karen, several times and was privileged to read with him at a poetry reading in “The Berry” (AKA New Iberia) at Paul Schexnayder’s A&E Gallery on a cold January evening. Darrell has also written an elegant review for my latest book, THE CHANT OF DEATH, co-authored with Isabel Anders. The review is another expression of his constant support for over thirty years.

At the poetry reading last January, I introduced Darrell and because of time restraints, I was unable to deliver the entire introduction – I had to omit an anecdote about my semester as a student in Darrell’s Creative Writing class that is worth reporting here. At this time, we were asked to swap our latest poetry with each other in class and to write a critique of the swapped poem. An 18-year old freshman (and I was 54 at the time) attacked my poem about my great-grandmother, which happens to be a poem that is very close to my heart, since she was also a poet and made a literary transfer by dying the night I was born. This boy’s comments weren’t in the least helpful as literary criticism. They centered on the subject of my poem. “I wish that you wouldn’t write about your relatives,” he said, “they are so boring to me.” Needless to say, I was taken aback, even though the classmate was only 18 years old, and you and I know how wise 18-year olds can be. I sat with the criticism for a moment, then stood and addressed him and Darrell by reading the entire criticism aloud, something the attack dog hadn’t expected.

Darrell was shocked, but he spoke to the attacker in his gentle, softly-accented voice, “We must never criticize a poet’s subjects for they are precious and sacred to the poet.” Later, when I went into Darrell’s office to whine about the incident, he said to me, “you know how long that would have bothered me, Diane?” “No.” “About ten seconds. Just remember that you must have faith in your own gifts and work and let remarks like that be a failure in response that spurs you on. Just let it pass over your head.” Both of Darrell’s remarks were made in his caring way, and, of course, they’re not only personal remarks, they’re universal guidelines for struggling poets when they write and when they speak as critics.

That incident has remained in my memory for over thirty years. It’s obvious that Darrell Bourque is my mentor, and he’s also mon cher ami, a gracious, bilingual poet about whom I‘ve written in several blogs. He has read in every corner of the U.S. and supports the wonderful art of poetry at readings from Poet’s House and the Small Press Center in Manhattan to Significant Voices, a series in Lafayette featuring Louisiana African-American writers. He travels and writes in bayou country, as well as in Europe, speaking to us in perfected lyrics, convincing us at our deepest level that poetry is life; life is poetry, and he is the ultimate poet. I speak of him as a poet who records the very old voice of French Louisiana and his experience of living in this compelling culture.

I look forward to renewing my friendship with Darrell and Karen, who does her own form of poetry in glass art. Karen was recently commissioned to do a stained glass piece for the upcoming opening of the new Ernest Gaines Center at ULL in Lafayette, Louisiana, and Darrell will read the commemorative poem for this event. I have read the poem, which Darrell kindly sent to me and have wanted to publish it in a blog but that would be pre-empting the performance, so I’ll pass on one of my favorite poems from Darrell’s The Blue Boat instead:


LA TOUSSAINT (after Sei Shonagan)

It was on a cloudy morning on the first day of the eleventh month.
On my morning run, twice the sun broke through
and then the clouds filled the sky again.
The leaves on the trees in the forest were losing their green
but they would never turn gold and red and purple
in this part of the world.
I was stopped suddenly by a red pine snake
that had made its way from the edge of the road
in this unseasonable heat.
As I left a beauty that I still feared there on the ground,
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 air.” – Darrell Bourque –
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