Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Until I reached pre-teen age, my mother read to three of her children nightly from books she somehow managed to buy at Claitor’s Bookstore during WWII, a period when rationing affected the purchase of luxuries like children’s books. In our collection of children’s books from which she read, Grimm's Fairy Tales became a favored volume that included the classic folk tales of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood and other interesting tales that fascinated and sometimes terrified me. I attribute a lifetime love of literature to these nightly readings that delighted my mother as much as it did us. I’ve always enjoyed myths, folktales, mystical poetry and, as Charles Simic says, I believe that “…poems and paintings reassemble reality in new and unpredictably pleasing ways…are a collaboration of dream and intellect…”

Pinyon Publishing’s newest collection of poetry and art, How Still the Riddle, contains many references to myths and fairy tales, showcasing the talents of Francine Tolf, a poet who lives and works in Minneapolis and her deceased sister, Gale Tolf. Gale’s magical illustrations might have appeared within the pages of a volume like Grimm’s Fairy Tales and complement the lyrics of an inspired poet.

In the preface, the poet explains that How Still the Riddle features rhyming poems, which would have pleased her mother who “loved rhythm and sound and musicality,” and which she tried to instill in the poems of this volume. The ink and watercolor drawings by her late sister, Gale, were inspired by myth, legend, and fairytale, and are a meet companion to the rhyming poems. The artist considered Shakespeare “one of her best friends. He knew more about psychology than Freud and had a sense of humor to boot!” Her drawings often reflect her appreciation for the place of humor in memorable art.

I was drawn to nature poems in the beginning of the book; e.g., “Summer Gold” where “Luxuriant and lush, late summer/mornings melt like easy gold/to full ripe afternoons, so humming-/rich a heart can barely hold/such heavy wealth./I tell myself /to savor slow the molten skies/and laden trees and dragonflies—/but never do…” And I turned a few pages to find the drawing of a magic man who appears in “Moon,” and plucks the moon from a diamond sky, then “descends into a mountain cave,/hammered it till paper thin/with magic anvil luminous—/and then he hung it back again.” Readers will discover that many of the poems and drawings appeal to children, as well as adults and that they create the same kind of mystery indicative of the Grimm tales. 

Poems like “The Desert Father” who leaves home and his comforts to fast and pray” border on morality tales, but redeem themselves by being amusing. The pleased expression on the face of the desert father who has escaped “worthless pleasure sold and bought/by desperate people craving to be whole…” becomes irony when the good father “stumbles on [his own] cunning sin of pride.” 

I was intrigued by a poem with no accompanying drawing entitled “The Island of Discussion” bearing an explanatory note that this is an island in Scotland where, in the past, those with arguments traveled to sort out their problems. “They say time on this mossy-green island/heals grudges and mends cruel wounds./It might be the meadows, it might be the mist,/but sworn enemies leave its shore friends.” Francine invites readers to sail there and “unpack ancient grievances while sipping good whiskey and sweet honey cake under fir trees in lake-scented air” —an idyllic idea that takes place on an idyllic island and would that readers could make such a voyage to resolve contemporary world problems!

Poets will appreciate Francine Tolf’s tribute to poetry in “Sing Me A Poem” in which she issues the invitation to “unriddle the riddles and after you’ve mended/the tattered illusions and patches and shreds,/weave me a tapestry braided and blended/ and woven from poetry’s magical threads.” The poem is accompanied by a drawing of a wizard singing a poem to a woman holding a hand to her forehead while trying to untangle enigmas. Unexpected images and a rhyming poem with emotional color will appeal largely to the adult reader, but young readers might enjoy the illustration in this tribute as much as poetry-loving adults will appreciate the contents.

Moonflowers, wild beasts, snakes with fangs extended, fairy queens, goblins — creatures from old mythologies and cultures rise from the unconscious of poet and artist in How Still the Riddle, and, as Simic says, “make poems and paintings that reassemble reality in new and unpredictably pleasing ways.” 

Francine Tolf’s work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Poetry East, Contrary Magazine, Rattle, and Water-Stone Review. She has received grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Elizabeth George and Barbara Deming Foundations. Gale Tolf (now deceased) was an award-winning artist, writer, and teacher with a Masters degree in Gifted Education. Her art was exhibited in Mandala Gallery, Pacific Grove, CA; Carl Cherry Foundation, Carmel, CA; Northeastern Illinois University; the Pacific Grove Museum; Monterey Public Library; and many other venues.

How Still the Riddle is another handsome volume produced by Pinyon Publishing, a premier publisher of art and poetry with offices based in a log cabin on the Uncompahgre Plateau near Montrose, Colorado. Order from Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, CO 81403.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


My friend, the poet Darrell Bourque, often closes his messages to me with a few words that provoke profound thought or the beginning lines of a poem, and they simmer in my mind until I allow myself to sit down, often at the busiest part of the day, to write about what he has provoked. Just yesterday, Darrell closed his e-mail with the words: “I am hoping for a quiet, uneventful Christmas; the baby Jesus slipping back peacefully and sublimely into our lives at midnight…” 

There it was — the invitation to shuck off unrest and the hecktivity of Christmas preparations and welcome the Incarnation of God. I re-read Darrell’s words, then went to the bookshelves, and the perfect reading for that respite from the “halls of folly”seemed to drop into my hands: Advent with Evelyn Underhill edited by Christopher L. Webber. I sat down while the lunch dishes churned in the dishwasher and treated myself to the work of Underhill, an Anglican mystic popular during the 1940’s. Underhill is an old friend, via the influence of my godmother Dora back in the 60’s, and is known as a kind of pioneer in the revival of interest in the spiritual life. A retreat master who helped people deepen their lives through prayer, meditation, reading of the mystics, and charitable acts, she had more than a few words to relate about “the baby Jesus slipping back peacefully and sublimely into our lives…”

Underhill said that Reality is being offered to us in the “simplest, homeliest way — emerging right into our ordinary life. A baby — just that.” [And isn’t that what Darrell said?] “We are not told that the Blessed Virgin Mary saw the angels or heard the Gloria in the air. Her initiation had been quite different, like a quiet voice speaking in our deepest prayer — ‘The Lord is with thee. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.’ Humble self-abandonment is quite enough to give us God.’”

Well, there it is…an invitation to dismiss what Underhill calls “craving, clutching, and fussing on the material, political, social, emotional, intellectual — even on the religious—plane…Being, not wanting, having and doing, is the essence of a spiritual life…”

Most of these quotations are derived from Light of Christ within the cover of The Fruits of the Spirit, a worn copy of which always accompanies my moves from Louisiana to Tennessee and return, and Christopher Webber seems to have been inspired by many of the same passages I’ve marked in my falling-apart edition of this book. Underhill writes that the people of our time are variously helpless, distracted, and rebellious, “unable to interpret that which is happening, and full of apprehension about that which is to come, largely because they have lost this sure hold on the eternal; which gives to each life meaning and direction…I do not mean this is a mere escape from our problems and dangers, a slinking away from the actual to enjoy the eternal. I mean an acceptance and living out of the actual, in its homeliest details and its utmost demands …with that peculiar sense of ultimate security which only a hold on the eternal brings…”

A concluding comment from Underhill to which Darrell alluded in his wish to live out a quiet uneventful Christmas: “…We are required to go on quietly, making root…docile to the great slow rhythm of life. When we see no startling marks of our own religious progress or our usefulness to God, it is well to remember the baby in the stable and the little boy in the streets of Nazareth. The very life was there present, which was to change the whole history of the human race…the hidden Will of God…”

Peace and Joy to readers all.

Monday, December 18, 2017


Aboard a flight from Los Angeles, California to Houston, Texas, I sat next to a young woman who appeared to be asleep for the first few laps of the trip, a woman who looked to be of Hispanic background about 25 years old. She didn’t seem anxious to talk; however, when I volunteered to pass a glass of water the stewardess thrust at occupants on our row, the young woman smiled and looked open for conversation. We quickly passed through introductions. I discovered her name was Robinette Ramirez, and her parents were natives of El Salvador now living in the San Fernando Valley. Robin teaches kindergarten in a charter school in this district, and most of her students are underperforming children from women’s homeless shelters. They are among 100,000 children in the U.S. living in homeless shelters who face a formidable statistic:  two-thirds of students in the U.S. who are unable to read successfully by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. An even worse statistic: one in four children in America grow up without learning how to read, and 90 percent of high school drop-outs are on welfare.

These facts about literacy seemed to challenge Robin. She talked about helping build confidence in these underperforming “shelter students” so they could achieve, particularly at a basic level of learning to read. “A lot of these children are in survival,” she said. “They have social and emotional problems, and many of them are angry and easily bored. My job is to help them develop a positive sense of self-worth.”

Robin had begun majoring in Sports Medicine in college but switched to Education and Child Development where she quickly found that her passion involved helping children become successful in school. When she told me about her experiences as a soccer player early on, it became evident to me that she had developed her poise from having a strong family life, engaging in sports, and traveling with a team worldwide. In fact, I recognized that she had the humility of a team player and knew something about servant leadership. She spoke Spanish but said she scheduled Castilian Spanish so that she could learn to speak the language correctly and scheduled English for the same reason.

Robin leaned forward in her seat and faced me directly. She spoke slowly and precisely. “This year was my best year,” she said. “A little girl, 7, and two years past kindergarten level, was sent to me to teach her to read, and I wondered if I could reach her. I needn’t have worried because she came to me eager to learn. I repeated letters and words until she had the sense of a story being told, even sang songs I made up with the words, and she responded 100 percent. She came to school on time, and never complained of the reading assignments being boring like many of the other kindergarteners. She really came alive with each new letter and word she learned. She also had perfect attendance because the school was her haven. If I do nothing all year except teach that one enthusiastic child to read, I’m satisfied. This is a challenging job but I loved seeing that little girl wake up to words.”

Robin said that most of the students in her class were part of Afro-American and Hispanic families living in the homeless shelters, children who had no real privacy and whose needs were frequently ignored. Empathy is often an unknown quality of the students’ parents, and many of the children develop the idea that they will never achieve or be successful in jobs and social situations.

As Robin was en route to El Salvador to visit relatives during the holidays, we parted in Houston, but she shook my hand and strode off, a young warrior with a mission. She was determined to help homeless children build confidence by becoming literate so they could one day be among healthy achievers — and feel good about their lives.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


In a preceding blog, I wrote about plans to fly out to California to see my younger daughter Elizabeth, 52, receive her RN pin from Antelope Valley College, and I’m now in the desert country of Palmdale, California, a few days past the graduation ceremony. The night before my departure, fires raged in southern California and snow began to fall in southwest Louisiana! During the early hours of December 8, I began making frantic calls to the airport, to a motel in southern California, and to the California Highway Department, to see if Interstate 405, a major artery leading out of the airport, was open. The preceding day wildfires had edged the city of Los Angeles, causing this highway to close. “The 405,” as native Californians call it, connects to Hwy. 14 and Antelope Valley and a closure could have meant being stranded at LAX. Despite the uncertainty about the wildfires and falling snow, we decided to wing it. “Wing it” involved a delay at the Lafayette airport because the plane from Houston had to be de-iced; and upon arrival in Lafayette had to be de-iced again. You guessed it — we missed our connection. We sat in the Houston airport until 6 p.m., climbed aboard a United Air flight to LAX, and finally arrived at our motel in Palmdale at midnight, Louisiana time. I’m beginning to realize that I’m no longer a happy air traveler.

Joshua tree

However, Elizabeth now has her nurse’s cap, the fires have moved to other points in southern California, and we’ve begun to explore plant life, searching for several trees that will be included in my forthcoming book of poetry entitled Let the Trees Answer. The biggest find is that of ancient Joshua trees, and my grandson Joel photographed one for me to include in the book. We also visited Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, Lancaster, CA, 100 acres of untouched high desert, with two miles of hiking trails that showcase a diversity of desert plant and animal life. We were able to get shots of the Western Cottonwood tree to accompany one of my poems. The site had a plethora of desert plant life, and we trekked the dusty trails long enough to photograph all the trees I’d hoped to find while visiting southern California.

Western Cottonwood

Grandson Joel, 14, loves to take photographs, and I’ve included several of his subjects in this blog to encourage his interest. Joel was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis shortly after he visited me in Tennessee when he was seven, but he’s a cheerful trouper — plays basketball, swims, is an active member of a church youth group, is teaching himself to play a guitar using an “app,” attends “Elizabeth’s Home School,” and is a whiz with electronic equipment. He also spends time teaching Zeke, his African gray parrot, to talk; however, Zeke only talks when we try to watch a movie or television show. 

Joel at his mother's graduation
Temps have remained in the 30’s and 40’s here in Palmdale, but we’re still enjoying the abundant light from sunny skies that I’ve enjoyed periodically for the 34 years I’ve been coming out to this place my father once called “Diddy Wah Diddy.”

Friday, December 1, 2017


According to an article written by Xi Lin in the Department of Educational Foundation Leadership and Technology at Auburn, Alabama, 61 percent of the adult student population enrolled in colleges and universities of the U.S. are female nontraditional students. They are the fastest growing segment of all groups in higher education. Most of these students have multiple roles as parents, spouses, and employees and are challenged by child care, financial, and school responsibilities. They sometimes feel marginalized and excluded from traditional campus life, and they run a formidable race to achieve their educational goals.

I read this article only yesterday, and I know the facts presented in it on a firsthand basis. I know those facts because my youngest daughter, Elizabeth, at age 52, will be capped as an RN at Antelope Valley College in California (the college that former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan first entered) next week. She entered at the level of a freshman, and at the entry level, I think she underestimated her ability to succeed. However, she’s a highly-determined young woman. Her great-grandmother, Sarah Nell Greenlaw, once said that “she’s a stubborn child, but that isn’t always a bad quality.” Elizabeth was two when Grandmother Nell voiced this declaration.

Elizabeth went out to California at 18 and married before she could begin her academic experience. She has three children, ranging from age 14 to 34, and she home-schooled (and still home schools the youngest) all three, two of whom graduated from the school I playfully refer to as “Elizabeth’s School.” A few years ago, she decided that the time had come for her to continue her own education, and she entered Antelope Valley College. During her years of attending college, much of the time in Honors classes, she has been a homemaker, continued to run her home school, managed the stress associated with her youngest child’s juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and dealt with other family illnesses. I watched Elizabeth “ace” Chemistry, and Anatomy, and marveled at her ability to excel in classes for which she had no background education. She says that one of her most difficult classes was an Art History class, mostly because she had to visit museums for six weeks, several as far away as Los Angeles, which is a two-hour drive from her home in Palmdale, California.

I couldn’t resist celebrating Elizabeth’s achievement via a salute in a blog. I plan to fly out next week to attend the capping ceremony, and I’m sure it will be an emotional event.We’re a family of late bloomers. While raising a young son, Elizabeth’s sister, Stephanie, graduated cum laude in Psychology from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette at the age of 29; my daughters’ father received two degrees from Louisiana State University at the age of 31. I know that their level of self-confidence, while pursuing higher education, was often low, and the gap between high school and entering college was a hurdle they had to jump before they could catch up to traditional students. However, every time the bar was raised, they sailed over it. In Science of the Mind, I recently read and champion the idea: “…the energies …increase over time with the intentions you create, the words you chant, and the focus of your mind…”

I’ve resisted putting photographs of my offspring on Facebook for years, and family photos seldom appear in my blogs, but this event deserves notice, so here’s Elizabeth of whom the family is proud (as proud as I was when Stephanie was cited as a cum laude graduate in 1989). After visiting Elizabeth in California one summer, I wrote a poem entitled “Elizabeth Growing” that appeared in Soaring, one of my books of poetry, and I think of the last few lines this morning as I celebrate Elizabeth’s achievement: 

“You do the heart work,
cultivate fruit trees and marigolds,
small plots in sand drifts,
soul seeds that grow upward
toward the stars under which you swim,
entering the realm where you, again,
‘trail clouds of glory.’”*

Salud, Elizabeth Alice!

*"Intimations of Immortality” by William Wordsworth

Painting on cover of Soaring by Paul Emerson Marquart

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


Mary Alice Fontenot photographed by Debbra Sperco Piehler

The Christmas season approaches, and this morning I began thinking about gifts for the great-grandchildren in my family. For me, a list of Christmas gifts for the little ones includes Clovis Crawfish books, so I searched the cardboard box that contains desk copies of all the books I’ve written for a copy of Their Adventurous Will a book that features memorable Louisiana women and contains an essay about the creator of Clovis, Mary Alice Fontenot. Mary Alice died at the age of 93, and I estimate that her output included eighteen books about Louisiana, the most notable ones about critters native to southwest Louisiana bayou country. I sat down to read my own essay about this woman who wrote and read aloud memorable folk tales at school and library performances for children in Louisiana, beginning in 1959. 

I have a copy of Mary Alice on tape being interviewed by me somewhere in research material between New Iberia, Louisiana, and Sewanee, Tennessee. I couldn’t find the tape, but the interview with Mary Alice recorded in the introduction to the essay of Their Adventurous Will was sufficient to bring up cogent memories of that live 1983 interview. Actually, I was introduced to Clovis Crawfish in the early 1960’s when I began haunting the Iberia Parish Library. Ruth Lefkovits, the parish librarian at that time, introduced me to the books about this Cajun creature and informed me that if I was interested in writing, I should meet Mary Alice Fontenot, the creator of Clovis. “She’s a master storyteller,” she said, “and she frequents libraries a lot.” After I read one of the books in the Clovis series I became fascinated with the French-speaking crawfish who enchanted children in Acadiana. He seemed to know more about the Cajun landscape than the people who netted him and his progeny every spring during the crawfish season in Louisiana.

I didn’t meet Mary Alice until 1976 when I attended an autograph party for her book about Clovis Crawfish and Etienne Escargot, the snail. At that time I interviewed her for a feature story I’d been assigned to write for the Daily Iberian in New Iberia. When I walked into the meeting room of the New Iberia Library, Mary Alice was seated at a long table with a child on her lap, reading quietly from her book about Etienne Escargot. She had a soft-speaking storytelling style, punctuated by lively hand flourishes. Her characters seemed to be the gentlest creatures in bayou country, moving to help one another in their survival efforts, protecting the smallest critter from screaming blue jays, finding food for a starving ant, and singing, always singing, about their triumphs over natural disasters. Mary Alice finished her story, signed two books, put her arms around a child who was glued to her side and began telling the story about Etienne again — this time for me. The entire interview was made up of her storytelling.

“Clovis Crawfish symbolizes the Cajun people of south Louisiana,” she explained with a flourish of her hands in typical ‘if you tied my hands, I couldn’t talk’ French fashion. “I try to endow him with those traits that are common to the Acadians —concern for others, willingness to help with problems, and the courage to tackle situations that threaten the lives or happiness of their friends. At the same time, Clovis must maintain his reputation as a bon vivant.” Most of this accomplished raconteuse’s stories include nature study; she selected subjects that could be found in any child’s backyard and breathed into them her own sense of wonder — Jocette the Junebug, Lizette Lizard, Dennis Dirt Dauber, the Curious Crapaud, to name a few.

Mary Alice lobbied for the preservation of French in Louisiana long before the advent of CODIFIL (Council for the Development of French Louisiana) for which she was an avid supporter. The first six books in the Clovis series were once translated into French at the Bi-Lingual Center of Alice Boucher School in Lafayette, and a few hardbound copies remain as evidence of the venture. Mary Alice also wrote a two-volume history of her native Acadia Parish, which is a definitive work on this rice-growing parish of southwest Louisiana. The first volume won the 1976 Louisiana Literary Award given annually by the Louisiana State Library Association to the author who makes the most significant contribution to Louisiana literature. She also edited a history of Church Point, Louisiana and Mercedes Vidrine’s cookbooks, Quelque Chose Piquante (something spicy), Quelque Chose de Doux (something sweet) and recipes that appeared In Vidrine’s “Eunice Demi-Tasse,” a column that formerly appeared in the Opelousas Daily World

Memorabilia about Mary Alice Fontenot has been placed in the “Women in Louisiana Collection” at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. She’s been titled everything from a Louisiana folk heroine to the Cajun ambassador for children of Louisiana. No doubt about it, Mary Alice Fontenot’s place in the genre of juvenile fiction in the South has been firmly established. French words, nature study, and a unique application of the Golden Rule remain the salient characteristics of her tales about swamp creatures.

For a more comprehensive essay about Mary Alice Fontenot, readers can still find my article about this memorable Louisiana woman in a used copy of Their Adventurous Will on As I wrote in the beginning of this blog, my choice of Christmas gifts for children include Clovis Crawfish books, and I know several great-grandchildren who may be introduced to Cajun critters this Christmas.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


Glasswork depicting spirit of the Venerable Henriette Delille
by Karen Bourque

My spirits always lift when we turn off on Jessie Richard Road near Church Point, Louisiana and into the drive, sheltered by a forest of bamboo, leading to the home of Darrell and Karen Bourque. “Come to lunch, and I’ll cook for y’all,” Darrell said a few weeks ago, and my friend Vickie and I seized the opportunity to spend the day (lunch always extends into a four or five-hour visit) with these cherished friends. The new dish on the menu was an asparagus/carrot soup (beautifully presented) accompanied by black beans, pork roast, sweet potatoes, dirty rice, and the naan that Darrell knows I like because it reminds me of my life in Iran during the 70’s. On each visit, we tell this consummate chef that we’d like to live in the Bourque kitchen — or in the studio, a renovated sharecropper’s cabin adjoining their home. During this visit, Vickie discovered an old shed in the backyard and teased our friends about renovating it and taking up residence in the gardens surrounding the Bourque home.

Darrell Bourque reading from Delille
Darrell is the former poet laureate of Louisiana and author of ten volumes of poetry, one of the latest honoring the talented Creole musician, Amede Ardoin. Darrell was also responsible for establishing a drive to fund a statue to honor Ardoin that will be placed at the St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission and Visitors Center in Opelousas, Louisiana Karen, a glass artist, creates non-traditional works of stained glass using rocks, gems, sliced agates, jewelry, and recycled, repurposed items along with the glass to enhance the work's narrative or lyric quality. Many of her pieces have been photographed and appear on the covers of poetry books I’ve written. Her glasswork for the photograph of the cover of Above the Prairie was just featured alongside one of my poems in The Pinyon Review, a literary journal published in Montrose, Colorado.

The Bourques’ art projects can often be traced to interest in Acadian history and culture combined with a mission to commemorate the achievements of descendants of Afro-Americans in Louisiana. The present Bourque project focuses on the Venerable Henriette Delille, a Creole religious born in 1813 in New Orleans whose cause for canonization has been recommended to the Roman Catholic Church and who has been recognized for her charitable works serving the poor, nursing the sick, and educating the illiterate. A Creole, the Venerable Henriette was born into a system called the “Placage,” Creole women trained in the fine arts who became concubines for white Frenchmen in New Orleans. Henriette’s mother brought her up in this system, and in her short life as a concubine, she may have birthed two sons who died before the age of three.

However, when the Venerable Henriette was 24 years old, she experienced a religious experience that led her into service in an unrecognized order of nuns who called themselves the Sisters of the Presentation, opening the first Roman Catholic home for the elderly in the U.S. The Order later became the Sisters of the Holy Family who cared for the indigent, free and enslaved, took into their home elderly women and cared for the sick and dying during the yellow fever epidemics that struck New Orleans in 1853 and 1897. The Order of Sisters of the Holy Family is still functioning in several states of the U.S.

Darrell has just completed a book of poetry about the Venerable Henriette Delille’s life, bearing a working title of Delille, that will be published by Yellow Flag Press and from which he read at the recent Festival of Words in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. He will read from this manuscript at Scottie Beans Theatre Cafe in Church Point at 10 a.m., Friday, Nov. 17 and at 2 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 18 this week.

Karen Bourque in her studio
Karen has been commissioned to create glasswork depicting the Holy Spirit descending on the Venerable Henriette for one of the windows in Christ the King Church where she and Darrell attend Mass and participate in the charitable work of the church. After lunch, we went into the studio where Karen showed us a smaller version of the glasswork, and Darrell gave us a private reading of “All the Time” (The War of the Pews that took place at St. Augustine’s Church in the Treme of New Orleans} and “Taking Viergela In” featuring an eldercare facility for women who need more than visitation.

Before we headed home, Darrell drove us to view Christ the King Church where Karen’s glasswork will be displayed, taking us through the flat prairie countryside that once belonged to his grandfather. Karen said that she has already been asked to create glasswork for the many windows in the church, but she wouldn’t have enough years to complete such a project. 

At 4 p.m. we left our talented friends who often combine art with charitable missions, remembering what I'd written about them in a poem entitled “Festival of Love” in my book of poetry about the southwestern Louisiana prairie, Above the Prairie: “We are made known/from somewhere else/but were cousins of the crossing/held fixed in joie de vivre,/the joy surviving common ancestors/who sought a promised land/and found it for us/so we could be at table together.”

Photographs of the Bourques by Victoria Sullivan.

Saturday, November 11, 2017


Pinyon Publishing reminds me of the annual Festival of Words in Grand Coteau, Louisiana in its promotion of poets and writers. Of the fifty publications, during the past ten or more years, this small literary press has produced at least forty books that contain the poetry of new and established poets, many of whom have won awards for their contributions to the literary world.  Most of the poets’ work reflects the notion that poetry is an art “and not a pastime,” as Ezra Pound says, “and the mastery of any art is the work of a lifetime.”

Pinyon’s latest poet, Tim Suermondt, shows us his mastery of the art in The World Doesn’t Know You, a poetry collection that carries the reader away with its freshness, its unusually wry and unsentimental tone, the poems unfolding with surprises for the reader that sometimes border on caprice.

I was drawn to the love poems that Suermondt included throughout the collection, especially “Some Heart,” an unsentimental tribute to romance that unfolds with the aforementioned surprise and wry tone: “You’ve come to admire/your heart/s allegiance/and the way it never/faltered the way you have/when despair made/the mere thought of walking/along the Seine/with the woman you love/impossible. Look at it/donning a beret/for the occasion and saying/its name is now Pierre.” Such an outrageous picture of a romantic poet invokes a hearty guffaw at this example of the “poetry of play.”

Then there are the brief philosophical pieces that poke fun at the poet’s own periods of angst in “Once Slightly Displaced:” “What am I exiled from?/Life now and then/as most people are, but balancing acceptance/and estrangement is what I’m best at./ The stars over my city always move me.” The author seems to be understating a serious question in a short reflection lifting us out of serious considerations to focus on a distant star that comforts us when we feel isolated... 

I think that poets write many poems about dream life, and I know that as I grow older I have numerous nocturnal visits with dead relatives and friends that enter my poetry when the sun comes up. Suermondt’s “Dream Hotel” is probably my favorite poem in The World Doesn’t Know You — I could readily identify with his visit with his parents and the words that came to him while he was asleep, underlining the philosophy of another poet, Jacques Maritain, who wrote that no one comes so close to the invisible world as the sage and the poet (“unless it is the saint”). Suermondt describes his stay in the dream hotel: “I walk up the rickety stairs, suitcase and life in hand/and enter my room that makes bare bones sound/voluptuous…the air smelling sweet as chocolate covered almonds/and I watch images of people I’ve known but can/no longer place go by, until my mother and father,/young as the day I was born, appear briefly before/moving on…” Here are poignancy and play intertwined in evocative verse. 

“Bayou Pigeon” sounds as if Suermondt had traveled in Cajun country, and I gather that he has been peripatetic during his lifetime, so he may have actually visited Bayou Pigeon. When he begins the poem with “Crawfish shadows on the street,” I found myself with him observing the blind man on the corner playing a saxophone, locals declaring that “he sees with his heart/ and, darling, I think I know what they mean—/the world gives as much as it takes.” This poem illustrates the charm and clarity evident in Suermondt’s work, his mitigation of his own suffering through brief records of his encounters with tragic characters.

This poet speaks to the issues of the day in a lighter tone than many contemporary poets, excepting former poet laureate Billy Collins, and he also focuses on inoculating readers with the desire to maintain ordinary, enjoyable life while balancing both pity and humor in the written word: “a mizzle, lighter than Fall’s leaves/drop[ping] on my head and the generous world/equally” (From “When Nothing Will Do”).

Tim Suermondt is the author of six books of poetry, and his poetry has been published in outstanding poetry journals; e.g., Ploughshares, Poetry, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Oxford Review, and others. He lives with his wife, the poet Pui Ying Wong, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Available through the premier poetry press, Pinyon Publishing, 23847 V66 Trail, Montrose, Colorado 81403.

Friday, November 10, 2017


Although I try to “keep up,” I confess to being somewhat of a Luddite, often lagging way behind  contemporary social customs, and last week-end I was made more aware of my age when I went up to Grand Coteau, Louisiana to hear poets Darrell Bourque, Patricia Smith, and Allison Joseph read at an annual Festival of Words event. The Chicory’s Coffee and Cafe buzzed with poetry lovers, teachers, and students interested in literary events. We chose a table at the back of the room where young people from Baton Rouge were recognized for traveling some distance to hear the poets perform.

About midway through the second reading, I began to hear fingers snapping and wondered about the disruption. Instead of abating, the students near me continued to snap when they identified with a particularly arresting verse or line they heard. For me, the sound was distracting, and when I got home, I began to research the pros and cons of finger snapping at public events.

It seems that I am indeed way behind the times. Although I was in my teens and early twenties at the time of the beatnik revolution, I knew nothing about finger snapping that went on at poetry events, had read nothing about the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village where finger snapping at poetry readings was in vogue. Of course, the finger snapping was mainly a survival action for poets because the old Gaslight Cafe was located beneath apartment dwellers who objected to the traditional hand clapping type of applause that wafted upstairs and kept them awake. 

Finger snapping, rather than clapping, was also a custom in the Roman Empire, and there are pages and pages of justifications for this custom in the classroom, in poetry slams, and during political speeches — snapping instead of clapping is a quieter demonstration of support and appreciation. I might add that this form of applause can also signal a kind of political activism. Snapping fingers is very alive and well in college cultures across the nation and abroad in countries like Great Britain.

As a Luddite, I was brought up to regard finger snapping as a rude gesture that indicated an impatient family member or friend who wanted me to serve them in some way pronto! When I visited in Mexico several summers, I was told to summon waiters in restaurants by snapping my fingers, but I never could bring myself to do it (and I can actually snap my fingers very well, even now with ailing nerves in my left hand). 

One writer has complained that finger snapping turns readings into competitions for poets to create more and more emotional dramas in their poetry, but this writer seemed to be in a minority in the finger-snapping world. For me, the constant finger snapping at the Festival of Words broke into my listening mood, and I reckon I wouldn’t have been a very good beatnik poet although I was writing heavy emotional lyrics in the 50’s. I know that when I do a reading now, I appreciate healthy hand clapping at the end of the poetry share, and I think I’d be greatly distracted if the sound of one hand snapping broke into the reading of a line or verse.

And having said all of this, I do appreciate that young people are listening to contemporary bards. Perhaps the interruptions indicate that which Robert Frost conveyed when he said that “permanence in poetry as in love is perceived instantly…the proof of a poem is not that we have never forgotten it, but we knew at the [sound] of it, we never could forget it.” And so, I might conclude, perhaps he would’ve approved of snapping our fingers at once when we heard a great line! 

Artwork by me.

Monday, November 6, 2017


Paul Schexnayder, New Iberia, Louisiana’s artist of note, has created illustrations for several of my books; the most notable being The Kajun Kween, a young adult book that carries Paul’s illustration on the cover and his drawings in the interior. Paul has illustrated many children and young adult books for other regional authors in Acadiana, and last month he came into his own as a children’s book author with The Time of Joy and Wonder. It’s a tale of a King Royal, a Trojan horse, and a blue monkey in a boat. He says that the painting of these characters hung on his wall for some time before he began to wonder about their origins and mission in life.

Readers will find it difficult to believe that Paul is color blind because the characters and landscape in The Time of Joy and Wonder are rendered in vivid blue, pink, orange, and green acrylics on masonite. The illustrations alone will delight young and old, carrying out Paul’s message of joy and wonder in his typically whimsical style. I understand that his “Girth series,” many subjects of which are kings with small heads and billowing robes, was initiated in 2016, and the king in The Time of Joy and Wonder continues this series as a royal person who has become an “exceptional explorer of the day.” The king, Trojan horse, and blue monkey embark on an exploration to find “anything stupendous and magnificent” and discover serendipity — a battered boat that causes them to wonder if it qualifies as a “joy and wonder.” Inside the boat they discover a treasure they decide not to claim and return to their kingdom with only a story that becomes as valuable as the find itself. 

The joy and wonder of Paul’s tale is that, without being didactic, he creates a story ending with an old-fashioned element: a moral. I won’t reveal all of the carefully-crafted tale, but I purchased a copy for my daughter to give to my three youngest great-grandchildren, and I know they will love this colorful narrative.

Paul's art is also displayed at A&E Gallery in New Iberia where he sponsors art classes, poetry readings, author signings, and, in his generous, inclusive way, features the art and crafts of talented area artists. He has been the artist for many state festivals, and his work has gained recognition throughout the U.S., often invoking the question: “Do you own a Schexnayder?” Every Christmas, my gift list includes pieces bearing his imaginative brush strokes. 

I know that Paul has had the desire to publish a children’s book for several years, and I congratulate him on this wonderful expression of his talent and beliefs. Bravo, Paul, and bountiful sales from all your admirers in Teche country! We are blessed to have an artist who believes we still live in a “time of joy and wonder” and wants to convey this message to young readers today.

Available at Books Along the Teche, New Iberia, Louisiana, A&E Gallery, University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, and

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


Dr. Tina Theriot

“Is that your Harley in the parking lot?” I asked Dr.Tina Theriot during my Monday morning visit to the chiropractor. It was a teasing question, and her answer startled me. 

“Well, as a matter of fact, it is,” she replied. “It’s part of my new regime to scale down and have some adventures in my life. My son asked me if I was having a mid-life crisis, and I told him I’m just getting rid of stuff and having EXPERIENCES instead.”

Tina is a member of the Cajun H.O.G. organization and had just completed her first long biker ride this week-end when I talked with her Monday. She had been 127 miles with members of the 700-strong bikers, making four or five stops along the way for boudin and ending up at Poche’s near Breaux Bridge. “I’m not so fond of boudin but I loved the ride,” Tina said, giving my back a hefty push.

She often rides her Harley from her home in Youngsville, Louisiana where she says she scaled down by selling her home in New Iberia and clearing away a lifetime of accumulated “stuff” so she’d be ready for the road. We went out the back door of her clinic and walked around the shiny Harley, then persuaded her to pose for a photograph with her blond hair down, but without her helmet and the chartreuse jacket she wears for her biking trips. I wished that I shared her enthusiasm for this new adventure, but the fact that I'm in her office three days a week makes me know how foolish such an adventure would be for me.

I’m beginning to think that female chiropractors in their forties and fifties love facing physical challenges. Amy Rudder, my chiropractor in Tennessee, where I live part of the year, is a powerlifter and has won awards in international competitions as far away as Russia. She’s probably in Las Vegas right now, where she walks away with first place in her class every year. Amy, 44, and just married for the first time, can also wrangle cows and helps run the ranch her husband owns near Winchester, TN. A tall woman with enviable black, naturally curly hair who tells me that chairs and other furniture aren’t designed for short women like me, towers over me like an Amazon woman to do her magical healing. She says she likes cross-fit activities, too, but can’t take time away from her practice. However, a few months before we left Tennessee, she brought me salsa and green beans she’d preserved in her spare time away from tending cows on the week-end.  

Both of these chiropractors have thriving practices and are healthy examples of healing without invasive techniques and medication; both impress me with their positive outlooks on life and confidence in their abilities to heal. At almost 83, I appreciate their efforts to make me sit up straight and to correct what years of daily writing, sitting at a typewriter or computer, has done to my spine. But more than that, I admire their adventuresome spirits during mid-life. Then again, I wasn’t such a wuss at their ages — I remember rappelling off a cliff, climbing hand-over-hand across a yawning ravine and zooming down a zip line at age 49! 

Photograph by Victoria Sullivan