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 amazon.com 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 amazon.com.