Jack B. Bedell

“Louisiana isn’t just a setting or subject for me.”

bedell

Revenant (Blue Horse Press, 2016)

Elliptic (Yellow Flag Press, 2016) 

about Revenant

Was the poem “Revenant” written after a hurricane or storm?

Not immediately, but yes. I wrote “Revenant” when I noticed a small camp on the Pass at Manchac had fallen off its piers. That camp was one of my mother’s favorite sights on her drive up from the coast to visit us. Seeing the place toppled over after a storm brought back a few memories that occasioned my poem.

Was the poem “Fable, Un Matin” written from personal experience or from the experience of living in Louisiana and hearing about the presence of alligators?

A little of both. Being raised in south Louisiana, I’ve been around alligators all my life. We even watched alligator awareness films in school while other kids were watching driver safety videos! The story told in “Fable,” though, is based on a newspaper article I read about a farmer in Georgia who found a giant gator in his cattle pond one morning. The alligator showed up out of nowhere suddenly, and the farmer killed it out of fear. I believe the animal was 15 or 17 feet long, and probably coming on a century old. Writing the poem gave me a chance to occupy some space between sympathy and necessity.

Can you tell me about the events that inspired you to write “Lutins”?

My uncle, Ray Rougeau, didn’t tell a whole lot of stories, but he did have a handful of folk tales and strange sayings he left me over the years. “Lutins” came out of a couple of those family tales meshed together of prairie fairies that troubled the track horses back when they were still used to work rice fields and of my uncle’s distrust of white animals of any kind, especially cats. Whenever we cleaned fish or baited crab traps, he’d always chase off any animal without color. I never understood why, so “Lutins” is my attempt at “mything” some meaning to it.

Poems like “Coda,” “Pere Papineau,” and “Coastal Aberration” center around fishing. Is fishing a pastime of yours or do you find inspiration in the stories other people tell about their fishing adventures?

Growing up in south Louisiana like I did, water was everywhere. The people we knew made their living off the water, either fishing, trapping, shrimping, or drilling for oil out of it. Fishing was as much sustenance as it was recreation. As a metaphor, though, fishing is probably the best cognate for faith and search as I could ever find. You throw your best lures/baits out into the water with hope the water responds with something you want/need. Sometimes it delivers bounty, sometimes just old shoes and tin cans. But isn’t that how all serious inquiry goes?

Do you often hear from readers who share your Louisiana heritage? What kinds of things do they say?

I don’t often hear from readers who share my heritage, but when I do it’s the most rewarding feedback I could ever get. Accuracy and sincerity are two very important goals for me. To have someone from south Louisiana read my work and tell me I got it right, that’s all I could ever hope for as a writer.

How does your job as a professor influence your writing?

The beauty of working as a professor my entire adult life is that I’ve never had to leave school! Every day my students teach me something. I learn from their courage, their invention, their willingness to listen and to experiment. More than anything, I think being in classrooms every day keeps me growing as a person and as an artist.

How do people generally react when you explain that you write predominantly about Louisiana?

Most people think of New Orleans—the French Quarter or Mardi Gras—when you mention Louisiana. Or maybe food and alcohol! I think my writing about the marshes and coastal regions of south Louisiana comes off as a little exotic and mysterious. I would hope, though, that anyone reading my work would realize pretty quickly that Louisiana isn’t just a setting or subject for me. It’s love, family, and world. It’s everything to me. I can’t imagine my poems occupying any other space.

As a native of Oklahoma, I found “A Wedding, In the Rain” interesting. Is it common for a wedding to persevere through such weather or was the oddity of the situation the reason for the poem?

Spring in south Louisiana is always pretty rainy. And if a couple is lucky enough to book a pretty outdoor venue for the wedding in spring, it goes off rain or shine. In all honesty, I’d sit in rain any day if it means a break from the sun when I’m in a suit!

What do you think makes a good story?

One of the things I try to communicate to my students is how important it is to trust the things that compel us as writers. Any story bugging you to tell it is probably a good story, even if you don’t know its moral.

What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

When my children were born, it was a real struggle to find time to write that didn’t take time away from them. Virgil Suarez, a great poet and friend, once told me the only way to pull it off is to wake up before everyone else and write. That was my schedule for years until recently. The last couple of years, though, I’ve been doing weekly writing sessions with poet and fiction writer Marley Stuart. We meet up every Thursday after I drop the kids at school. Working on a regular basis with  another writer who’s there to work, not to waste time, has been incredibly productive for me. In the last year I’ve managed to write two complete collections of poetry, one of which is due to be published by Mercer University Press in Fall 2018, No Brother, This Storm.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

I can only write a poem if I know where it’s headed. I learned this about myself in school at the University of Arkansas under the tutelage of Jim Whitehead. He taught me a system of flowcharting poem ideas so I could have a frame for each idea before trying to execute it. Nowadays, I use Scrivener exclusively to write. The software helps me organize and plan ideas so I’m ready to get to work whenever I open the app.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

My whole life revolves around family. My three kids get sick of me hanging around them so much! I’m blessed to have a work schedule that allows me to drop them off and pick them up from school. I coach their sports teams. I read in their classrooms whenever asked. I also have to admit to being a sports fanatic. When the family finally gets to bed every night, you can find me on the couch watching all the football and rugby matches I’ve recorded on the DVR.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

Poems always surprise me when they come out. With Elliptic, I was really trying to find out how much of a story I could leave off the page while still communicating the essence of the poem. The poems in this chapbook surprised me most with how uncomfortable they made me feel once they were done. I could never shake the feeling of having left something behind in those poems. Still haven’t.

Have you ever considered deviating from your beaten path to write prose?

My teacher Bill Harrison coerced me into writing the only short story I’ve ever written. We both admitted it was horrible, and he agreed not to hold it against me if I agreed never to try it again.

Do you keep a notebook handy at all times or only write about the ideas that withstand the test of memory?

Notebooks have never worked for me. Because I form poems from events or stories, single images or lines don’t get me very far. As I mentioned, I use Scrivener to collect frames for ideas. This allows me to set up whole poems so I can get to work when it’s time.

about Elliptic 

Could you share with us a representative or pivotal piece from Elliptic? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?

elliptic

Why did you choose this poem/part of a poem?

“Elliptic” was the first poem I wrote for the chapbook. It was a natural choice as title poem since it formed the focus and aesthetic of the collection. In writing about coastal erosion in south Louisiana, I really wanted to lose parts of the poem to the page, to have space invade the poem. I also wanted to force the poem to communicate with as few words/lines as possible with what was left on the page.

If you had to explain what your chapbook is about to someone totally unfamiliar with it, what would you say?

Elliptic started with a desire to write about the coastal erosion we are suffering in south Louisiana. Giant sections of the land where I was raised are disappearing daily. With the land, memories and ways of life are being lost as well. Some of the loss is natural, but a good bit of it we’ve brought on ourselves digging canals into the wetlands. Over the years, storms and floods have taken their tolls as well. Many of the poems in the collection deal with these effects directly. I also wanted to write poems in this same vein about loss of family members and of memories, so the rhetoric of erosion and of dealing with what’s left in its wake informs all the poems in the collection one way or another.

In Elliptic, there is a wife, a daughter, a father, a mother, and an uncle. How do you use the idea of family, and how do you hope readers respond as they read about family in your chapbook?

Family is every bit as integral to forming the voice of these poems as the landscape and traditions are. I would hope readers understand the love I feel for all of it, and that they see the poems as tributes and archives of this love.

In your poem, “Prédire,” you say that the women “know.” In the next two poems, the idea of knowing is important as well. What different types of knowing do you explore in Elliptic?

Structuring these poems around what’s left of the landscape, or the traditions, or the memories the poems detail, I really hoped to latch on to what the poems and people “know” to be true. These truths can become permanent markers in a place where so much else is eroding.

How does the terrain and history of Louisiana shape what you write and how you write it? Has your relationship to Louisiana in your writing changed since you became the Poet Laureate of Louisiana?

I’m incredibly indebted to the people, places, and tradition that have formed me in south Louisiana. The marsh where I was raised, my Acadian heritage, the oil fields and canals that made livelihoods for my family—these are unique to Louisiana. I don’t exist without them. To say I love Louisiana seems trite. It is love to me, actually. Just like family is.

I can’t say any of this has changed since my appointment as Poet Laureate. I imagine Governor Edwards chose me because of the way my poems express my love of south Louisiana and my love of family. These relationships won’t, can’t, change.

What about the format of the chapbook made you decide to publish Elliptic in this form? Did you write any of these poems specifically for Elliptic, or is it a collection of poems you had written previously?

I really wasn’t sure I could write an entire collection of poems written in an elliptic style. As a narrative poet, it’s just not natural for me to leave out parts of stories. The chapbook, because of its limited scale and range, gave me the perfect venue to give this elliptic style a go without having to hinge 30 poems on it.

How does being editor of Louisiana Literature inform your writing?

I know every literary journal editor says it’s an honor and a privilege to edit their journal, but it’s SO true! The reading I do for Louisiana Literature gives me a daily dose of courage, creativity, accomplishment, invention, and beauty. Curating the journal really is like a daily booster shot of incentive to write.

How does teaching inform your writing?

The beauty of working as a professor my entire adult life is that I’ve never had to leave school! Every day my students teach me something. I learn from their courage, their invention, their willingness to listen and to experiment. More than anything, I think being in classrooms every day keeps me growing as a person and as an artist.

What is the piece of advice you give your students that you wish every creative writing student could hear?

Other than to write and read as often as possible, I make it a point to remind my students they ARE writers. Too often, they believe they are only learning to be writers, or that they would LIKE to be writers. I try to communicate to them how impressed I am with their courage and with their accomplishment, even when they aren’t. If all creative writers understood this simple act of identification, their confidence would lead to great things, even as it leads to a hundred mistakes.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a new full-length collection of poems, Color All Maps New. The poems are all finding great homes in journals, and I’m pretty excited about how it’s all coming together.

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Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press.  His latest collections are Elliptic (Yellow Flag Press, 2016) and Bone-Hollow, True: New & Selected Poems, Call & Response, Come Rain, Come Shine, What Passes for Love and At the Bonehouse, all published by Texas Review Press (a member of the Texas A&M Press Consortium). His work has appeared in The Southern Review, Sport Literate, The Fourth River, Hudson Review, Connecticut Review, Paterson Literary Review, Texas Review, Southern Quarterly, and other journals. He has recently been appointed by Governor John Bel Edwards to be Poet Laureate, State of Louisiana, 2017-2019.

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www.ephemerereview.com/jack-b-bedell

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