Monday, November 26, 2012


Darrell Bourque
 Each week Darrell Bourque, former poet laureate of Louisiana, hosts a poetry show called “From the Poet’s Bookshelf” that is broadcast on KRVS Public Radio, 88.7 FM, Lafayette and Lake Charles, Louisiana. He reads from the works of Louisiana poets and from the works of poets inspired by Louisiana. Shortly after I returned to Louisiana in October, Darrell sent me a schedule showing that on December 6, he’d read one of my poems, “Carson City Nevada,” featured in the Pinyon Review published by Pinyon Publishing in Montrose, Colorado.

Later, after reading my newest book of poetry, Everything Is Blue, Darrell selected “In Memory of Mint” and “Drought” to read on his radio show this coming year. I’m honored to join Darrell’s cast of poets and to celebrate the efforts of this outstanding Louisiana poet whose authentic voice has inspired so many fellow poets.

Darrell once wrote “I think the poet has at least as one of his jobs to remind us that there is something miraculous in the everyday.” He might have added that he does something daily to remind us that poetry is necessary for the human spirit – through poetry workshops, public readings and a radio show, as a sponsor for poetry programs in libraries and community centers, and most recently, Darrell read to help celebrate “100 Thousand for Poets for Change,” a program of poetry, music and art focusing on Freedom of Speech, peace, environmental issues, and social concerns. This event touts poets as the “unacknowledged legislators of the world who often spread the real news.” In 2011, 650 Poets for Change events were held in 95 countries, and in Mexico City, poets read in an attempt to "encourage reflection and creative responses against systemic violence."

Darrell was not only a former poet laureate of Louisiana, he’s Professor Emeritus in English at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette and has broadcast on “Poets for Living Waters,” served as president of the National Association for Humanities Education and as editor-in-chief of this association’s journal. He has been instrumental in supporting the work of the “Festival of Words” in Grand Coteau, Louisiana and was director for the project, “Significant Voices” which featured young African American writers from Louisiana. An annual award, the Darrell Bourque Award, has been established by the Louisiana Conference on Literature, Language and Culture. Darrell’s latest chapbook, Holding the Notes, was published by Chicory Bloom Press, and he has just completed a collection of poems about the coming of the Acadians to south Louisiana that will be published by the ULL Press in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Here’s my poem, “Drought,” published in Everything Is Blue, which Darrell singled out as “one of the five best poems you’ve written” and which he’ll read on “From the Poet’s Bookshelf” in 2013:


Grasshoppers hiding in the forest
sing Requiem for a dried frog
splayed on the mossy back steps;
thrashers dart in the understory
of trees whose yellow/bronze leaves
have fallen before the Fall.
The doe appears,
her scorched eyes beseeching,
and stands unmoving for moments,
a stance posing the question
of her starving distress:
What do you know of hunger and loss?
This life offers no safety.

Wind ruffles the leaves
of the defiant persimmon tree
making shadows on its own bark,
but the doe remains standing,
licking the underside of her fawn,
a brazen figure in dry straw,
unsettling boundaries of forest and yard.

She watches for the orange sun to set,
listening for a spring to erupt
from the bony soil of mountain,
searches for a victor in the dust,
the earth bubbling up,
making leaves fresh and sweet,
a miracle to satisfy her trembling desire.

Photograph of Darrell Bourque by Vickie Sullivan. Cover of Everything Is Blue from a painting by my brother, Paul Marquart.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


I doubt that most readers observed Thanksgiving by visiting a cemetery, but it seemed a meet time for me to visit Ellis Cemetery in Franklinton, Louisiana, where most of my relatives are buried. I wondered if the cemetery had been named after my Grandfather Paul Greenlaw’s middle name, Ellis. Some local citizens believed that his initials, P.E.G., indicated that he’d be prosperous (which he became) because the bearer of a name having initials that spell another word will inevitably become wealthy. Such are the superstitious countrynisms of a small town in southeast Louisiana where so many of my recent ancestors lived and died.

The day was sunny, one of those halcyon days typical of autumn in Louisiana. I’d only been in the cemetery five times or so, but I knew the exact location of the “old” section of grave sites and recognized the plot immediately. When we turned onto the side road leading to the Greenlaw family plot, I glimpsed a profusion of pink camellias in a tall tree beside the gravestones. My first thought was that my relatives’ remains had greatly enriched the soil near the tree, causing it to bear such beautiful blossoms at this time of year. There they were – the headstones of my grandfather, grandmother, mother, father, and one of my younger brothers – and across the road the stones of my great-grandfather, great-grandmother, and one of my great-uncles. The stones represented a gallery of professions that included a poet, a physician, a lumber baron, a Ford dealer, a draftsman, and domestics like my mother whose stone bore the legend: “She was a real wife and mother.”

Cemeteries can be sad places, but as I stood in the bright November sunlight, I began to feel connectedness and peace, and a line from one of my funeral homilies came to me: “They go to the father, and they remain with us.” Even the great-grandparents, whom I never knew but whose stories I had heard many times, were with me, “in still small accents whispering from the ground…a grateful earnest of eternal peace…” (Gray’s “Elegy Written In A Country Graveyard”).

I enjoyed one of those peak moments when communication comes from a source beyond and was strengthened by their spiritual presence. For perhaps thirty minutes, I walked among my antecedents, noting that their headstones needed cleaning or that I should preserve the inscriptions in rubbings. This is a process where butcher paper is taped to the headstones with masking tape and charcoal or crayon is rubbed over the stone to make the etched lines appear without the engravings being touched by the charcoal or crayon. When the paper is removed, all the words appear just as they were initially etched into the stone.

I also noted that the women in the family, except for my mother who died at the age of 69, lived 84 – 88 years. This fact heightened my good mood for that kind of longevity could mean six – ten more years of fruitful living for me on this earth. When I returned to New Iberia, I re-read the poem I’d written about Great-Grandmother Greenlaw (who also wrote poetry) after seeing her gravestone for the first time. This is an excerpt from that poem, “Resurrection of the Word,” taken from my first published book of poetry, Afternoons in Oaxaca:

“...Now in the remembered scent of jasmine,
bees buzz around her headstone,
I look up at the winter trees,
great filigrees of ruin
hovering over her grave,
and I think:
words do not end,
words spill out,
making a poem in her soil,
thoughts emerge from another world,
the door to the tomb
falls open with a grating sound,
and the Spring of the year, curiously,
fancies itself reborn.
I did not urge her resurrection,
it was an old rebellion,
roots gnaw deep,
above, the stone is cracked,
and insects linger between deeply-etched lines
about the One Whom None Can Hinder.
Beneath, her hollow eyes do not see me,
but her heart burns, a firebox of words,
grave poet of the missionary senses,
Great-grandmother Dora Runnels,
mapping her slow advances in poetry
  in me."

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Jady Regard, CNO
 Thirty-four years ago, I wrote an article about three enterprising young brothers who started a home-based pecan cracking business called “The Nutcrackers,” operated by the Regard boys of New Iberia, Louisiana. You can imagine how delighted I was a few days ago when I walked into the offices of the Cane River Pecan Company here in New Iberia and shook hands with Jady Henry Regard, CNO (Chief Nut Officer) of the original “Nutcrackers” business.

However, the ultimate surprise hung on the walls of the office – a framed copy of a thirty-four year old article entitled “Pecan Businessmen Beginning Young,” with my by-line, the ink on the paper as sharp and dark as the day the feature article first rolled off the presses of The Daily Iberian. Jady called in some of his staff to meet me, and I stood in the lobby of the office, sampling some of the finest gourmet quality pecans I’ve ever tasted. I had ordered a tin of the delicious pecans last winter when I arrived for my winter sojourn in New Iberia and later discovered that the company had an office and warehouse on Easy Street in New Iberia.

In the article about the “Nutcrackers” that appeared in the Sunday Iberian, I reported that the boys’ father, Dan Regard (now deceased), owned a pecan grove on the plantation “Alcock Place” in Natchitoches, Louisiana and had employed his sons to spend their after school hours and holidays cracking approximately 400 pounds of pecans a week, using a huge nutrcracking machine he ordered from San Antonio, Texas. The boys sold pecans from a shop adjoining the Regard home on Darby Lane. “We needed spending money and our dad believed in teaching us to work,” Jady said. The brothers put signs in store windows and advertised in The Daily Iberian during the start-up years of their enterprise.

Cane River painting by Mike Reagan
 Today, The Cane River Pecan Company grosses approximately $2 million in sales and sells pecans as far afield as Singapore, employing thirty people to prepare the handsome Cane River Company tins that contain a variety of products: roasted and salted pecans, chocolate covered and praline pecans, fresh-baked pecan chocolate chunk cookies, pecan pralines, and pecan praline popcorn.

“We don’t run ads; we’re headfirst into corporate business where we often sell 500 gift tins at a time,” Jady told me. “The real engine behind this company was my mother Margie. One year, when pecan prices plummeted, my dad sat down at the kitchen table with her and told her he was pretty depressed about the drop in prices, and she suggested trying to sell to retail companies around New Iberia. The business took off from there.”

Jady once worked as manager of corporate sales for the Chicago Bears and for the LSU Basketball team before he began marketing full-time for Cane River Pecan Company. He often distributes a Cane River map by artist Mike Reagan that showcases sketches of the great plantations in Cane River country. “I just give copies away to nice people," he said, flashing a smile at me, and I could see why the Cane River Pecan Company business burgeoned. A long road leads from the home-based “Nutrackers” enterprise to the Cane River Pecan Company on Easy Street – but then a long road leads from this feature writer’s career at The Daily Iberian to present-day book writing.

If you’re interested in seeing the wares of this company, you can log on to Corporations can order custom gift tins that feature their own logo and message on the lid of the tins. The company also features a tin with a reproduction of “Pecan Threshing” by Clementine Hunter, the famous Louisiana painter who lived and worked on Melrose Plantation near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


St. John's mill during sugarcane grinding seasons
 The smell of smoke and boiling sugar lingers in the air. In Iberia and other parishes of Louisiana, it’s sugar cane grinding season, a season that begins in late September and ends in January. When I was associate editor of Acadiana Lifestyle, our sugar cane issue was published in January, and I learned a lot about sugar cane farming during the five years I wrote articles about this industry.

Recently, Acadiana Lifestyle celebrated its 25th anniversary, and I was asked to write a synopsis of my years with this journal. In one of the paragraphs I talked about the year I was sent to cover a story about a new sugar cane harvester. The assignment proved to be a challenge because on an overcast fall morning, I showed up in open-toed sandals with small heels and felt deep dismay when I was asked to follow the owner of the new machinery into a field near Jeanerette that had seen hard rain for several days. I sank into the ooze up to my ankles and stood for a half hour interviewing the owner and taking notes. When I returned to the Lifestyle office, I threw the ruined shoes in the door and told Art Suberbielle, the publisher, that he owed me a pair of shoes. But he only asked, “Did you get the story?”

Carts loaded with sugarcane
The new machine that I wrote about was called the Louisiana Two-row Green Cane Combine and originated with Walter Landry, then president of Agronomics, International, Inc. Lately, each time I pass a cane field in the parish, I wonder if the machine is currently being used to harvest cane. On that misty morning during grinding season in 1994, the large red harvester moved slowly through a field of cane, and the combine cut stalks of cane into 13-inch billets before extracting leaf from the cane, which was sucked through the extractor to be deposited back on top of the soil. At that time, the machine could cut 75 tons of sugar cane per hour and was put through its paces on the kind of day sugar cane farmers detest. Light rain fell on us as we watched the machine at work, and black mud oozed onto the roads between the sugar cane fields.

The scene was a far cry from the day of cane cutting by hand when slaves cut cane with special knives that resembled a machete with a hook on the end. The slaves had to lop off the top of the stalk, then cut the cane from the roots at the level of the ground. Other workers loaded the stalks on two-wheeled carts to move them to the sugar house or mill. During wet fall seasons, those heavily-loaded carts created a muddy mess on the farm roads.

Acres of cane near New Iberia, LA
The demonstration of the new harvester fascinated me. By extracting the leaf and putting it back into the soil, the machine assured that cane would no longer need to be burned, and organic matter would be returned to enrich the soil. A directional loading device on top of the machine placed cane into a container, which enabled cane to be loaded at any point in the field.

As I watched the huge machine, two other demonstrations began – one of a transport system and fork lift, the brainchild of J. Randolph Roane – and another piece of transport equipment that originated with Agronomics International, Inc. The transport systems were developed to transport billeted and full stalk cane to nearby sugar mills. These harvesting systems were touted to be a boon to the sugar industry as they had been designed for Louisiana conditions and would increase sugar recovery by reducing the need for field burning of cane and improving cane transport (at the time huge carts behind tractors were the major means of transporting sugar cane to the mill).

Crop for next year
Since I have no occasion to trek into the sugar cane fields, I’m curious to know if the harvesters are used today. If burning of cane residue has been reduced, brava! I think I missed the pre-harvest burn, if it occurred, but post-harvest burns are also part of the process yet to come! Right now, there’s still enough dust and smoke in the air to inspire a good case of sneezes, which I’m presently undergoing.
However, far be it from me to complain about an industry that moves about 14 million tons of sugar cane on some of our corduroy roads to Louisiana mills. According to reports from the American Sugar Cane League, the sugar cane industry has an annual impact of $1.1 billion in Louisiana. The industry has moved a long way from the early 1800’s when farmers turned to sugar production following Etienne Bore’s development of a process for making sugar, and Teche country became a major player in the burgeoning industry.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Saturday evening, while other literary enthusiasts enjoyed the highly-successful Flannery O’Connor Symposium organized by Dr. Mary Ann Wilson at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette this week-end, some of us attended sessions of the Festival of Words that culminated in readings by Louisiana poet laureate, Julie Kane, and award-winning author, Randall Kenan in the St. Charles Chapel (formerly Christ the King Church), Grand Coteau, Louisiana. Grand Coteau is a small town located on a ridge where ancient oaks create alleys and groves, and French, Acadian, Victorian, and Creole architecture is represented in the town’s residences and stores. It’s a lovely venue for literary and art festivals.

I recently wrote about the Festival of Words, a program taught by acclaimed authors in Creative Writing workshops to promote creativity and literacy. The program has a special focus on young people who frequently do readings at drive-by businesses, in schools, and at Casa Azul in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. The Saturday night readings attracted an adult crowd and must have had the saints reeling with laughter in that sacred space of the Chapel. Randall Kenan led off with a short story, “New York City,” followed by Julie Kane’s whimsical rhyming poetry from several of her books. Kane ‘s rendition of poems using some of Emily Dickinson’s first lines, which she finished in her own version of “I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died,” “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” etc. brought down the house.

Julie Kane, a native of Boston, has been a resident of Louisiana for many years and teaches at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. She has been garnering awards that include a stint as Writer-in-Residence at Tulane University and Fulbright Scholar at Vilnius Pedagogical University, as well as a 2007 SIBA book Award Finalist, and her poems have appeared in the Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, London Magazine, Feminist Studies and others. Kane’s repertoire includes Body and Soul and Rhythm and Booze,and she’s noted for her volume of poetry about post Katrina entitled Jazz Funeral.

An excerpt from Jazz Funeral entitled “The Terror of the Place:”

“Like Juliet reviving in the tomb,

you blink and blink and still your eyes behold

the walls of what was once a music room

grown over with great roses of black mold,

the grand piano caving in on shat-

tered legs as if a camel knelt to let

a tourist with a camera on its back…”

Randall Kenan grew up in Chinquapin, North Carolina and has been a finalist for the National Book critics Circle Award (1993), has been awarded the Mary Francis Hobson Medal for Arts and Letters, a Whiting Writer’s Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters ‘Prix de Rome, and many other recognitions for his writing about African Americans. He has taught at Sarah Lawrence, Columbia University, Duke University, the University of Mississippi, the University of Memphis, and is now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of his non-fiction books, Walking on Water, is an interesting study of what it means to be black in America today. The book features Kenan’s travels throughout the U.S. during a six year period in which he interviewed 200 black Americans to provide material for “Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century.”

I’m a latecomer to the Festival of Words, but Saturday evening’s program convinced me that literature in south Louisiana is still alive and well, and programs like Festival of Words at Grand Coteau and the Flannery O’Connor Symposium at ULL continue to feature gifted writers and artists from within the borders of Cajun country and farther afield. My next field trip is slated for Arnaudville, Louisiana, a small town near Lafayette, where the same kind of cultural activity has been going on for several years. It’s good to be back in Acadiana and to be part of the joie de vivre characteristic of this part of the world.

Monday, November 5, 2012


Today, I read a definition of family that resonated with me, and I was happy to discover that there weren’t any phony, sentimental aspects to the definition. “Family means no one gets left behind,” the short phrase read. I am sitting here looking out at a statue of St. Francis standing on the patio, tending his family of birds and squirrels, and I say, “Yes, family means no one gets left behind,” even God’s creatures that play around the base of the oak in my backyard, and especially under such guardians as St. Francis of Assisi.

I’m waiting for a good friend to return from a visit with her "blood" family that owns a company together – a visit in which she attended a meeting and was humiliated, shunned, and lied about – in short, got “left behind” and became the victim of a takeover of her position in a vengeful series of acts that I’ve heretofore read about only in novels. As the sitcoms say, “a whole lot of lying was going on.” Perhaps I can use the material in a future book for it has all the components of the kind of dysfunction in contemporary novels, but  I prefer writing contemplative poetry! The accounts of that meeting included enough primitive emotion to convince me of several things, the most tantamount being that this is the way wars start – from the ground up, from the family out, and most especially when they’re involved in what is termed a “family takeover.”

My friend is a very intelligent person with good critical abilities, is a writer and scientist, financial officer, and has the respect of her friends and colleagues wherever she has lived because she is passionate about the work she undertakes. She is noted for getting to the truth of messy situations and acting as an ombudsman for organizations in trouble. She also gets along well with those with whom she works in a volunteer capacity, and I’m shaking my head this morning at the audacity of this group of people who “dissed” her and who call themselves family. Perhaps family is the place you go when no one else will take you in, to paraphrase Robert Frost, but in my friend’s case, everyone else takes her in except these relatives. To further expand on this group of clannish hypocrites, they’re among those who advocate family values in the political arena. However, the word "love" is never mentioned in their conversations, and I've been privy to those conversations for almost 35 years now.

“Family means no one gets left behind” – but in the case of my friend, she was left behind, booted out of a position that she had held for over a decade simply because someone else wanted her job. She is, at the moment, trying to get an early flight out of the toxic family atmosphere. As Scott Peck advocates in his People of the Lie, there are occasions when a person who meets up with evil in her family feels immediate repulsion and should run like heck in the other direction. It seems that because my friend stood up and spoke the truth about family operations, because she wanted to perform the job she had been elected to do, she was nailed. She has gradually been edged out of a position in a behind-the-scenes coup, by control seeking, power and money advocates who call themselves Christians and some of whom belong to the Christian right.

One of the criticisms leveled at my friend was that she thought she was smarter than they were, which, to me, denotes one of the seven deadly sins: Envy. Then there’s Pride, Greed, Sloth… to name a few more that were committed by this scheming group. If these people are religious and believe in the so-called final Judgment and personal accountability, it appears otherwise --their Bible thumping seems just a way to make a loud noise. And if all this sounds appalling, sadly it is a true story about a post-modern family.

I’ve preached many times about the love of power and money corrupting otherwise good people who decide to take a wrong turn. I think my friend’s so-called family should read Matthew 23: 13-28, where Christ denounces the Pharisees and scribes who “clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed …so on the outside you look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness…”

Christ had no problem expressing his anger about greed and hypocrisy. He was passionate about truth and could be quite contradictory in that he preached truth, peace… and, oh yes, justice, in the same breath. Not to mention that he never left one honest person behind, regardless...

I look out at St. Francis and await my friend’s arrival. According to a clipping on my fridge, St. Francis would tell her, “Be at peace. Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; rather look to them with full hope as they arise. God, whose very own you are, will deliver you from out of them. He has kept you hitherto, and He will lead you safely through all things…” He might have added that evildoers gradually unravel and destroy themselves.