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A Conversation with Darrell Bourque

Jay Udall: The poems of yours we’re featuring in this issue are all drawn from your new book, Megan’s Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie, which will be published by University of Louisiana Press, Lafayette, early next year. What’s the focus of this book, and how did it come to you?


Darrell Bourque: I think the book goes far back to a photography exhibit by a Canadian photographer at Cite des Arts. In this exhibit photographer Sue Mills posed the question, “Where is Acadie?” to writers, artists, historians, storytellers, musicians, and other folks who see themselves as cultural “keepers of the flame.” She posed this question mostly to people in the Canadian Maritimes and to people in the twenty-two parish area in Louisiana known as Acadiana. Each person featured in a photograph was asked to hand write a response, either in English or in French or in both. The idea of the exhibit got me to thinking about where that place Acadie is and for me it was not just a geographical area but included some spiritual geography or emotional or psychological geography as well.


And so as the idea of the book began to emerge, I immediately began to think of the Acadie I know and live in in South Louisiana as well as Acadie du nord, that region in the Canadian Maritimes consisting of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, the land of my ancestors and a place that I have never been to. At the request of editor and publisher Glenn Bergeron and editorial advisor David Middleton, I wrote a set of 14 poems for a Chicory Bloom Press of Thibodaux publication. Soon after the release of that book, I began to see the 14 poems as seed poems for a larger work, and I began to see that they might anchor the Acadie tropicale part of the larger manuscript. The structure of Megan’s Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie is a diptych, the first section Acadie tropicale consisting of 26 free form poems and sonnets and all tied to Acadiana in Louisiana; the second section Acadie du nord is made of 26 sonnets centered primarily on the people of the Deportation of the Acadians who began to arrive in Louisiana in 1765 after the 1755 decision of the British to exile these French people from their homeland in Canada. The middle section of Megan’s Guitar is a hinge section and consists of 3 poems, including the title poem.


JU: Do you always begin a book with an idea, or does the idea emerge as the poems accumulate? Marilyn Nelson once told me that she couldn’t begin a book without having some kind of central, guiding idea. I’ve always envied that! I’m one of those who have to listen to the poems and slowly figure out where they’re pointing. How is it for you?


DB: I nearly always begin a book with an idea. But sometimes it is a very general idea and sometimes some poems included in a book are written before the idea for a book makes itself completely clear. I knew for instance that I wanted all the poems from the first book to be poems about my family and my family traditions; I wanted to the poems to be about a place I felt I knew deeply, a place that had shaped who and what I was. I knew as well that I wanted these “songs” to be sacred songs of a sort and I grew up loving the music of “high mass” traditions, so it was easy to let the language of these poems be influenced by some of the most glorious religious music ever written, the plain chants or plain songs in the Gregorian chant tradition. So that idea of sacred songs held this first little book together. The second full-length manuscript, Burnt Water Suite, was also influenced and stuctured by music. Perhaps my favorite long piece of music is Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. The structure of the book loosely follows the lead and model of the classical suite which begins with a prelude, followed by an allemande, a courante, a sarabande, one of several galanteries, and ends with a gigue.


The next book, The Blue Boat, was again “structurally” inspired. I saw a Lafitte skiff being built in the Jean Lafitte Center and Library in Thibodaux and fell in love with the structure of this Louisiana boat. From the beginning I knew that the boat of the title of the book was the boat I had seen in the Thibodaux library. As I worked on the manuscript, I worked with this idea of the construction of a hull that has to be evenly balanced and a keel/ballast that has to keep the boat “centered” and “held” in the water. Parts 1 and 3 (the “hull” poems) are made up of equal numbers of poems (25), and each poem in Part 1 corresponds to a poem in Part 3; sometimes connected by form, sometimes by subject matter, sometimes by theme. The correspondence scheme links the first and last poem of the book and then moves “inward” from there so that the last poem of the first section (“My Mother Teaches Us to Speak in Tongues”) and the first poem of the third section (“The Blue Boat”) are corresponding poems: linked in this case by form, the sestina. The 10 poem keel/ballast section of the book (Part II) opens with the poem “Relatives” and the section is composed with alternating family poems and poems about art, religion, music, memory; all themes and subjects I am constantly drawn to.


In Ordinary Light, New and Selected Poems has a built-in structure, but the idea for the New poems was from the beginning built around the motif of light: spiritual light, physical light, the light of love, enlightenment, etc., so that the idea of some kind of light is central to each poem, with a conscious working toward the idea of the beauty and sacredness of ordinary light, light not manipulated or contrived or embellished but mostly light as a natural emissary in the world.


JU: In her wonderful profile of you in Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Ann Dobie observes that there was nothing in your background or early years that seemed to presage a life in letters. Yet I think there must have been something—people, places, experiences, ways of thinking or being in the world—that planted a seed or two or three along the way. What were your early influences in this larger sense? When did you know that you had to write?


DB: Knowing that I had to write came to me rather late, relatively speaking. I now feel that I have to write but that feeling is less than 10 years old. For most of my adult life, I enjoyed writing and was drawn to writing but I think I saw myself more clearly as a teacher, a researcher, a reader, a thinker. For many years I taught more classes than was ever good for a writer and my professional advancement did not give writing poems its due. In fact, creative work never carried the weight that critical academic writing did for most of my career as a teacher, and non-academic writing was seen as a handicap in a way. In my case it was an impediment to professional advancement, having been repeatedly denied advancement because my professional writing was not “critical.” Also, I had myself to educate, children to raise and educate, a wife to love and care for as I could, parents to take care of too. So, for much of my writing life, I had to steal time to write poems. And, I had to argue and make a case for myself for professional advancement based on my poetry publications. I was finally successful in that effort but the whole atmosphere in which I worked and wrote was biased against creative work and creative writing degrees. The change in that climate did not come until the end of my life as a teacher and I know now that the negative attitude in the academy toward creative writing may have worked on me with opposite effect so that I continued to go to that stolen time, continued to not only value the stolen industry but to know that it was deeply connected to something that was an essential part of who I was.


Something more deeply embedded in who I am may have more to do with why I have to write. I grew up “between” languages. Many French Acadian Louisianans have a very special relationship to language. I was the first generation of Acadians who did not bring French into the school setting. Our parents were that generation of Acadians who were forbidden and punished for speaking what was their “native” language. We grew up in bilingual households but there was a clear line between what was acceptable language and what was not. So much of our art and culture was excised or questioned or repressed. I feel strongly that a latent language in me is a force in the poems I write. I feel too a kind of shame for not getting the “right” language right. For children growing up in bilingual households, language itself can be an opening and a way to success and achievement. But growing up in a culture where the thing that holds culture together is a shameful thing, and even an outlawed thing, is another matter.


Then there is a third thing that I think makes me have to write. Most of the men I grew up around were not storytellers, or even talkers. They were quiet, silent men who kept what they felt to themselves. This tendency was underscored in my father who never spoke at all. I don’t remember a conversation we ever had. I don’t remember a conversation he ever had with anyone. I felt that he felt that talking might cost him too much. I can remember a sort of happiness when he drank, but that too was a silent happiness. Around all that silence, I began to talk a lot, to love stories, to value what I read in poems and epics and plays. And, early on my life was drawn to men and women who spoke and valued language, who could play with language and not be afraid of it. It was Mark Twain, and Robert Frost, and Homer, and Cocteau, and Chekhov, and George Lyman Kittredge and Oscar Wilde who first brought me to the delights of language, the value of writing.


The list above tells much of the time I was educated in. It would be some time before I would begin to hear the magic of language in the works of Kate Chopin, Sappho, Emily Dickinson; to learn from Jeanette Winterson, Sharon Olds, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and the many powerful women writers who are only lately admitted into the canon.


JU: In your talk and reading last fall at Nicholls, titled “In the Company of Others,” you spoke of the writing and reading of poetry as a search for community.  Yet I’ve also heard you say that, in the actual process of writing, you don’t have an audience in mind. That seems like an intriguing contradiction—or maybe it’s not a contradiction?


DB: I think the question of audience is always an interesting one. I, for one, would not write if the writing were wholly an exercise of me seeing where my mind goes in poetry. Yet, when I am actually in the process of composition, I never have a specific audience in mind. I think that separation is a necessary part of the process. When I write about family, for instance, I seldom even make contact with the idea of what the response might be by the subjects of the poems. Yet, I am writing “with them” in a sense. I am not separate from them and yet the poem in an interesting way as a piece of art is separate.


Another way to answer that question is that I think I am not unlike many writers who write out of some conscious engagement with tradition. For the past several years I have become a student of the sonnet, so I am constantly researching for ways to approach that form and when I write a sonnet I am aware of the logic of the sonnet as it functions in the English tradition or the Italian tradition; more specifically how the form is worked by practitioners like Shakespeare and Keats, Petrarch, Spenser, Hopkins, Frost, etc. When I created for myself the sonnet form I write almost exclusively in (what I call my Italo-Cajun sonnet form), I am aware of how sonnets in various traditions are lined, how the volta works in a sonnet etc., but I wanted a form that would do a few things specifically to meet my needs. My form is a “broken” form and so the octet of the traditional Italian sonnet is broken into opening and closing quartets and the “sestet” is a pairing of triplets in the middle of the poem, triplets with an interlocking rhyme that is different from the rhyme of the “octet.” My sonnets often attempt to start with an iambic meter but that is not usually consciously sustained for more than a couple of line or two. Also, the lines are mostly enjambed lines and the rhyme throughout is rhyme that is off-rhyme, slant rhyme, sometimes sight rhyme, but seldom perfect rhyming. This rhyming and line construction practice further “break” with the idea of the traditional sonnet.


Yet, another way to answer that question is that I often use the poem as a way of almost having a “conversation” with another artist. In the case of ekphrastic poems or poems that are influenced by painters/paintings, my poems are my “dialogues” with the artist and/or the painting(s), or with theories of art. I do the same thing with music and with other poets. A culmination of that kind of “conversation” work is the collaboration I did with Jack B. Bedell in Call and Response, Conversations in Verse. In writing those poems, I was very conscious of an audience of one: my collaborator. But, beyond that one person, I seldom thought of a specific audience.


As the Louisiana Poet Laureate (2007-08, 2009-11) I was commissioned to write several specific/occasional poems. I was aware of the audience of people who, for instance, might hear “Lincoln in New Orleans, 1831” as part of a Lincoln bicentennial program, but again as I was writing the poem, my focus was on getting the history right, the character right, the form (a sonnet) right. The audience nearly always gets relegated to some quiet corner in the making of the poem and then the audience is finally who the poem is delivered to, either in performance of the poem or in the publication of the poem.  The response to the question then is that my practice is a contradiction of sorts, but a contradiction that the making of art not only allows but demands most of the time.


JU: When writing, do you ever have the sense of being accompanied by language–the sense that language itself is filled with presences? I think our common sense view of language is that it’s simply this external medium we manipulate–words as objects–when perhaps it’s more like something we live inside, something that flows through us and carries us. It’s here before us, we’re born into it, and it lives on after, changing, being changed by us, as it goes. I hear you saying something similar about poetic tradition and forms.


DB: We live inside a current of language that is a primary force in our understanding both the face of the earth we live on and the pulses and energies contained within that “space.” The same can be said of the world we live in as an enlarged entity from geographical earth. Our sensibilities, our perceptions, our articulations, I believe, are all connected to how language plays inside this/these dynamics. Sometimes our language experience is like a vortex; sometimes the experience is one of almost calm, but this current moves both around us and through us and it is always shaping us. One example: I have to live inside the idea of the sonnet, inside the subjects of sonnets and impulses for writing them, inside particular sonnets, inside the theory of sonnet, inside the logic and energies of sonnets and then at some point, all that Language enables me to create the form anew. I cannot imagine poetry without language. I can see the poetic in movement and subject and action, but until something is articulated in a language, I cannot access the poem. One of the powers of language in relation to art reveals itself when I hear poetry in languages I do not understand. I can hear some remnant of Poem in places where the intent is not poetry, but I can never “hear” or “perceive” something as Poem outside of language.


Another case in point: Until we have language for things, we often do not even see them. I can imagine a place like the Grand Canyon existing in powerful beauty all by itself, but it becomes something other than just carved rock when we bring our language experiences to it. With language it becomes a poem. To the Native Americans who first lived in it, it is one poem, to the pioneers, another poem, to a 21st century tourist from Japan or Africa or Denmark, another. It is both the sensibility of these various cultures and the language they bring to experience that makes the different poems.


JU: So many of your poems engage visual art—photography, drawing, painting; the works of Degas, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and so many more; there’s even a poem based on a drawing by your oldest daughter. There’s a lot of close looking in your work. Where do you think this strong visual pull comes from? What does the visual do for you? I’m tempted to say that perception itself is a central subject of your work. Would that be inaccurate?


DB: The act of making a poem is often the act of “remembering” and I believe we remember in different ways. Different imaginations access memory variously. That is the reason, for instance, that some poets use a narrative mode as a vehicle for the poem; others a philosophical mode, others an oneiric mode, etc. For instance, Nature for Emerson and Wordsworth and Whitman, and even Dickinson, is a powerful force in their poems, but each uses Nature differently. For Wordsworth it is Nature as a way to get at “emotion recollected in tranquility,” whereas for Whitman, it is almost as if he is inseparable from the natural world that is giving him the poems. For Wordsworth, he is not that “splendor in the grass” that he writes of; for Whitman, we are not so sure where the boundaries of experience and art lie. He is the “grass” he writes of and he makes one of America’s great poems from that idea that such a union can and indeed does exist.


For each of us, remembering is often connected to the senses through which we access the world. And, for me, that sense is the visual. If I write in a narrative mode, it will be a set of images that will for me move the temporal element of the narrative along. If I use an oneric mode, it will be a set of images that will guide me through the “recollection.” For me, perception comes from what I can see and describe. I am not an abstractionist by nature. I am not philosophical by nature. I think my access to meaning in the world may be guided by what I understand of the 17th century metaphysical poets’ theories and practice. For me the visual is a window, an icon almost, through which I pass to access something other than the physical. That is probably why I love and respond so favorably to the works of Donne and Herbert and Marvell. It is the reason I am pulled to Frost. It is the reason I love Gerard Manley Hopkins and it is the reason that all of those poets are huge influences on my work.


JU: You’ve spoken of your love of films by directors like Fellini and Almodovar. What do you find in these works?


DB: I think one of the main things that attract me to those artists are their validation of the oneiric as way of understanding the world we live in, the human experiences we have that define our existence. In both of these artists’ works, the use of the dream, or at least the oneiric mode, to tell a story does two things that I believe influence me as a thinker and artist. Fellini’s Book of Dreams helped me to see that the dream can texture or enrich narrative in a meaningful way. The idea of the dream as an approach to art and as a way to shape the art itself, gives us a new way of looking at “character” as well. And that new way of looking at “character” gives us an opportunity to see ourselves as much more textured than we might see ourselves if we only look at ourselves as movers in a story that is logically and “sensibly” directed. There is a whole part of human experience that can be accessed through dream and in recent years I have begun to explore that idea as an artist. Rodger Kamenetz’s The History of Last Night’s Dream: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Soul and Federico Fellini’s illustrated The Book of Dreams are two of the most important and influential books I have read in the last 10 years. They are books about the imagination and the workings of the imagination and I value them as I value anything that I have read by Ralph Waldo Emerson, or William Wordsworth, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or Jacques Derrida or Jeanette Winterson or Charles Jencks or Frank Gehry: all artists and thinkers I admire greatly.