“More than anything, that urge to archive and to honor those people and moments is the same urge that generates poems for me.”
No Brother, This Storm (Mercer University Press, 2018)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
Books were not a big priority in our house growing up. We had a full set of World Book Encyclopedias and Yearbooks, and as best I can recall every series Time/Life published, but the only poetry I remember seeing was a Reader’s Digest version of Robert Frost we used as a doorstop (which I’d actually love to find so I could see what it contained!).
I didn’t really attempt writing any poetry myself until I took a creative writing class my final semester as an undergraduate at Northwestern State University. I had only read the Romantics in high school classes, so everything I wrote in the creative writing class was a horrible imitation of William Blake filled with whatever ideas I’d learned in my philosophy classes. It was all truly awful stuff.
Luckily, my professor was kind enough to take me out into the hall to tell me everything I was turning in was awful but didn’t have to stay that way. He loaned me a copy of R.S. Gwynn’s At the Drive-In to show me what poetry could be. Reading Gwynn’s poems was the perfect education for me. His stuff is formal, so I was able to relate to its structure, and his range of subjects opened up the world of contemporary narrative to me. Once I found out I could tell stories about growing up in south Louisiana instead of visionary treatises based on Kant, I dove into writing poems about my family and home and haven’t stopped since!
How do you decorate your writing space?
I used to write best sitting in a comfortable chair holding a legal pad and pen while gazing out the window, but that all ceased when my first child was born. I tried to continue that tradition of quiet creation by following my friend Virgil Suarez’s advice to wake up before the kids to write in a sleepy house. I had to abandon that notion quickly, though, when doing so meant getting up at 4am.
These days I love to write in public places with other writers. If my writing space is decorated with anything, it’s decorated with noise and energy. I need the juice provided by working writers in busy places to make me get busy. The noisier the writing venue, the easier it is for me to focus on doing the work.
What is the relationship between your ethics and your aesthetics? How does your form, content, and style as a writer reflect how you are and are trying to be as a person?
I always have the same New Year’s resolution: Find the Good in the Day. As a person, I do my best to honor and to celebrate the people and events that add goodness to my life. More than anything, that urge to archive and to honor those people and moments is the same urge that generates poems for me.
Even when the subject matter of my poems turns to unpleasant or disturbing subjects, I do my best to find a way to go beyond an inventory of that negativity. The poems in No Brother, This Storm that deal in some way with loss of loved ones, or loss of coastline, or loss of ways of life in south Louisiana definitely try to find way to live past these tragedies, to find life beyond them.
What songs soundtrack your making of your book?
If there’s music coming through my headphone while I’m working, odds are it will be a Deftones album. Adrenaline, White Pony, and Diamond Eyes are always in steady rotation. Just like I need energy in my surroundings whenever I’m working, I need a little aggression in my music to help my mind focus on the work. Nothing sounds more like the blood moving through my veins than Deftones!
Could you share with us a poem from your book? Perhaps one that introduces the work of the book, or that invites the reader into the world of the book?
They happen in the kitchen, these visits
with my mother. She’s always working, something
busy, like separating yolks for chix buns.
Alive, she would’ve passed the eggs through her fingers,
letting the whites drip through, holding the yolks
gently in her palm. During these dreams, though,
she uses the shells like they do on cooking shows
passing the yolks from half to half before
dropping them into the mixing bowl. She makes
her dough patiently, without much fuss,
pressing it out and balling it up quietly
in the hollow of an old balsa plank.
When the dough is gold and dense enough,
she raises the plank as high as she can
above her head to place it in the warm spot
on top of the refrigerator. Straining like this
she is so much like herself I can barely breathe.
If I try to help her or open my mouth to speak,
the alarm will go off and morning will burn itself
onto the day. Quiet or not, I can never stay
long enough for the dough to rise, for her
to roll and cut the buns, place them in the oven
on buttered sheets. Even though I’ll wake
before the smell hits me, the taste remains.
Why did you choose this poem?
“Remnant” is the opening poem in No Brother, This Storm. It recounts a recurring dream I have of my mother making Chix de Femme rolls in our kitchen. My mother passed away just as I was beginning work on this collection of poems, and that loss connected itself to the ideas of coastal erosion, cultural loss, and storm damage addressed in many of the other poems written for this book. Writing “Remnant” was painful in many ways, but facing that pain by sharing a pleasant memory and by archiving favorite details of those memories really became the blueprint I used to move forward with hope in the other poems dealing with loss in the collection.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
The earliest poems written for No Brother, This Storm arise out of an urgent concern for loss of land in coastal Louisiana. Poems like “Elliptic,” “Storm, Grand Isle,” and “Breakwater” focus on coastal erosion with an eye toward restoration and recovery. As someone born and raised in south Louisiana, I could only see so many of those maps predicting complete loss of our coastline over the next three decades before I had to address that loss in my life and my work. Most importantly, though, I want my work to move beyond simply archiving loss. I really feel it’s important to recognize the ways we can live past this loss, ways we can help our ecology restore itself. To me, this is where hope for the future is born.
What’s your book about?
The poems in No Brother, This Storm are unavoidably about loss. While the majority of poems in the book are about environmental and cultural loss due to coastal erosion and natural disasters, the book includes a few poems about personal loss. As I mentioned earlier, my mother passed away at the onset of writing these poems. Toward the end of the process, I also lost my father. Those two personal losses really changed the tenor of the collection. Probably the most important impact of the poems about my parents was a renewed conviction to honor memories and to focus on hope, recovery, and restoration more than inventorying loss and damage.
What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
“Elliptic” is the oldest piece written for No Brother, This Storm. More than any of the other early poems in the book, that poem set the course for the subject matter in the collection. Since “Elliptic” is about coastal erosion and gradual loss of home, I wanted to write the poem in a sparse, elliptical style. I used white space and text placement to connote missing pieces. In that elliptical narrative, however, I wanted there to be sense, emotion, and hope. As a poet indebted to narrative, it was definitely difficult to leave story off the page intentionally, but it struck me as the best, really only, way to deal with the loss of coastland we’re suffering here.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
Putting the poems together for this collection, it was easy to recognize thematic unity in the poems, but it was difficult for me to find a flow that worked from poem to poem until I grouped the poems into three movements: “There and That,” “Gone to Gulf,” and “Fables.” The first movement contains poems more focused on culture and tradition, the second addressed the environment, and the third offers narratives leaning more toward allegory. Once I grouped the poems by subject matter and/or perspective like that, it was much easier to build flow from beginning to end in the book.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
It’s a tough call to pick a MOST meaningful back story, but I would probably go with “Revenant.” That poem began with an interesting point I learned helping my oldest son study for a science exam just after my mother passed away. He was studying weather patterns at the time, and his textbook claimed in a sidebar that the wind circulating around the planet today is the same wind that’s circulated since the atmosphere formed. For some reason, this assertion reminded me of my mother’s favorite spot on their drive up from the coast to visit us. Whenever she passed Manchac near Hammond where we live, she’d roll down her car window to smell the air over the lake. As fate would have it, the spot she loved so much had a small camp on the water there that had been blown over in a recent hurricane. All of those facts/stories fused into “Revenant,” and that conflation really makes the poem my favorite in terms of background.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
No doubt, the “misfit” in this collection would be “Coastal, Aberration.” The poem moves from traditional lineation, to prose, to sparse spatial language at points. The poem takes place at a commercial fishing camp on the day of a storm. Since that place holds fear, anxiety, destruction, loss, beauty, and hope all at the same time, I wanted to use shifts in language and design to communicate these different perspectives on the page.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
After decades of working with Texas Review Press on full length collections, it’s been a really positive, exciting change working with Mercer University Press on No Brother, This Storm. Because I’d worked with the director of TRP for so long, I’d inherited a good bit of trust and responsibility with the press, so they expected my collections to be totally edited and ready for press when sent to them. Texas Review also had me do my own book design since I edit a journal and direct a press myself.
With Mercer, though, I’ve been really privileged to work with careful, conscientious editors to refine No Brother, This Storm. I definitely appreciate the care they took to make sure the poems were as good as they could be. Mercer also took total responsibility for the cover and text design for the book, and I couldn’t be more pleased with how it all turned out.
What are you working on now?
I’ve just completed another full-length manuscript, Color All Maps New, and I am about three quarters of the way into writing poems for a brand new collection, There Is No Train, But the Tracks Will Lead You There.
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), Revenant (Blue Horse Press, 2016), and No Brother, This Storm (Mercer University Press, fall 2018). He has been appointed by Governor John Bel Edwards to serve as Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017-2019.