Sunday, May 20, 2012

LET ME TELL YOU A STORY…


After the famous author Henry Miller visited Weeks Hall, master of The Shadows-on-the-Teche, he wrote that he had just been to “that strange part of the world called New Iberia, Louisiana.” When I first moved there in 1964, I agreed with him. Rain fell throughout the month of January, and my first glimpse of Bayou Teche, a murky brown tributary, made me shudder. I thought I had arrived in a place where dark stained, well-soaked ground was the norm. I felt this way until spring came to Teche country, and I fell in love with a place that I now call “unique,” rather than Miller’s word “strange.”

During the lush spring, I learned to enjoy and appreciate the people of multicultural origins who had settled in the Teche country and formed a culture that fosters art, music, and writing. New Iberia is the place that nurtured world-famed author, James Lee Burke; the Blue Dog artist, George Rodrigue; the jazz trumpeter, Bunk Johnson; and many other notable artists who thrive in a warm, romantic culture.

In that multicultural atmosphere, I began to seriously write and continue to write poetry, living in New Iberia part of the year and deriving from the culture enough subject matter to fill more than thirty books. During my sojourn in New Iberia, I’m sometimes asked to speak to students interested in Creative Writing and to engage in two or three hour conversations with the aspiring authors in a room at the New Iberia Library where cultural events take place.

Five years ago, I was happy to discover that Susan Edmonds, who brought many outstanding programs to the library, had written and been awarded a grant to initiate a memoir writing class, aka the “life writing class.” By the following year, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette had formed a similar class, and the two classes have been functioning since that time under the tutelage of Kim B. Graham of St. Martinville, Louisiana. Some of the students produce an essay or short story each week; others write poems or songs. 

All of the writing material is inspired by their personal lives and backgrounds. As Kim Graham says, “Memoirs are written not so much to become famous, but to place value on a moment in time. This genre of writing is about how one remembers one’s life, or a part of one’s life, and not about the outcome of the life as a whole…we hear the writer’s voice and his or her style in each story…”

This year, Kim engaged my friend Victoria Sullivan to publish the stories written by classes in New Iberia and Lafayette, and Let Me Tell You A Story emerged this month. It’s a book written by teachers, doctors, cowboys, housewives – people who like to tell stories about family and about that unique part of the world known as Acadiana.

The book also contains photographs and drawings that capture the moment in time about which Kim spoke. Stories range from those that have been inspired by ancestry to humorous vignettes. At the risk of being chided for not including all of the writers in a review, I just wanted to share with readers of “A Wordsworth,” a bit of humor from Glenn Oubre’s essay entitled “Nicknames in My Home Town.” Glenn grew up in the small community of Loreauville, just down the road from New Iberia, and writes that Loreauville once had more nicknames for people than any small town in the U.S. “Generally, the names were terms of endearment that made people feel good about themselves,” Glenn says. “However, some names were mean and cruel and intended to ridicule. The names stuck like glue and stayed for a lifetime.” 

The nicknames included important people like former Mayor Forbus Mestayer who was known as “Bagasse,’ which denotes sugar cane residue. This strange moniker was delivered in Cajun dialect. But most nicknames were more pronounceable – “Mutchie,” “Te-boy,” “Butsy,” “Too Too,” “Full Choke,” and “Hesitation,” to name a few. Glenn even went so far as to prepare an alphabetical table featuring many of the names and to compose a poem (he is also a musician) of eleven quatrains; e.g., "There was Sue Sue, Cho Cho, and Goo Goo,/names that all sound the same./And Me Me, Ge Ge, and De De/they were their claim to fame…My neighbors in the country/were Poon, Too Loo, and Toe Joe./Next door were neighbors Te-Bic, and Ze Ze./Down the road lived Noo-noon and Low Low…” “Pooyie, so much fun,” Glenn concluded his essay. And Pooyie, I agree!

Let Me Tell You A Story will soon be available on www.createspace.com/3847239 and at Books Along the Teche bookstore in New Iberia, Louisiana.  You're in for a reading treat when you sample these stories composed by authentic southern voices.

A subsequent blog will highlight the Lafayette Life Writing Class’s publication, Wit, Wisdom, and Mostly True Stories.
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