10 questions for Joshua Clegg Caffery

by Walter Pierce

His new collection of poems, "In the Creole Twilight," celebrates the oral traditions of Louisiana.

Before he was a scholar, folklorist Joshua Clegg Caffery was best known as a musician. A founding member of the famed Red Stick Ramblers and later a Grammy-nominated songwriter and sideman with Feufollet, Caffery has of late turned his Renaissance-man focus to the wellspring of Louisiana’s indigenous culture — the songs, storytelling, poetry and oral traditions of our early and enduring folkways.

Joshua Caffery

After earning a Ph.D. in English and folklore at UL Lafayette, an Alan Lomax Fellowship in Folklife Studies at the Library Congress in 2013-14 led to Caffery’s first book, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Collection. With his latest work, In the Creole Twilight: Poems and Songs from Louisiana Folklore, Caffery comes full circle, melding the scholarly and the musical into a celebration of Louisiana’s colorful, playful and often poignant tropes.

A native of St. Mary Parish and longtime resident of Breaux Bridge — his mother is celebrated photographer Debbie Fleming Caffery — Caffery recently settled in Lafayette with his artist wife, Claire, and their two young children.

In advance of a series of book-release events and readings over the coming weeks, here are 10 questions for Joshua Caffery:

First, tell us about the genesis of the book, inspiration, etc.

I’ve been interested in the poetics of Louisiana songs and what folklorists call verbal art for a long time. Part of my interest comes from a desire to write songs myself — songs that really felt and sounded like traditional Louisiana songs. This drove me to look at Louisiana songs from an academic perspective, and I eventually pursued a Ph.D., writing a dissertation that focused primarily on the poetics of oral traditions documented in the 1930s in the area.

So I had a scholarly goal, but also an artistic interest. As I was doing the scholarly work, I was also learning about the componentry of Louisiana oral tradition, and about the structures of Louisiana song in particular. I was also just inspired by the imagery, the stories, the history, the humor, and really the poetry that’s contained in this material.

That’s part of the inspiration.

Another part is just a desire to share this somewhat inaccessible material more directly and to let it breathe a bit. We’re in an interesting cultural moment now, and have been for a little while, where we’re losing the language and oral tradition that contains so much of our vernacular culture, but it’s still a powerful presence in our lives. Part of the task of folklorists is to help ensure that these older oral technologies of expression emerge productively into contemporary life. That’s also the goal or certain kinds of poets and writers.

We’ve done a great job of staving off language loss, but unfortunately our vernacular languages are still in rapid decline. It’s vital to recognize, though, that there are plenty of important and beautiful traditional things contained in language that aren’t necessarily language bound.

Take a recipe, for instance. A recipe is a traditional formula that might have been developed and passed on in a certain vernacular, but it can persist and endure outside of that context—in print, say, or digitally, or in another language. I think we see that in action now in the creativity of our culinary scene, which is all about fusing traditional and contemporary methods.

It’s tougher with something like poetry and storytelling, because the ingredients are primarily linguistic.

But even with poetry, there’s quite a bit going on that is potentially translingual.

Rhyme schemes. Motifs. Characters. Narratives. Genres. Symbols: All of these things are meaningful and interesting and worth hanging on to. And they exist outside of language, even though spoken language is one medium for their expression.

Put it another way: say all of the cast iron pots in Louisiana were melted to build a giant wall separating us from Texas. That would be sad (kinda).

It would be worse if we also forgot how to make Shrimp Creole.

South Louisiana’s indigenous culture seems to have an inexhaustible supply of tropes, symbols, etc. Have you scratched the surface with In the Creole Twilight?


What is about this region specifically that creates such a wealth of symbology and musicality, or is South Louisiana not much different from, say, Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta?

Yes, I think southern Louisiana is one of the key nodes for traditional culture in the country.

I don’t know if there’s one easy answer for why this is. Part of it has to do with South Louisiana being a frontier, or a borderland of various sorts — between the American South and the Caribbean, between the South and the West, between French and English, between the water and the land. All of these rifts, I think, make for a kind of intense cultural friction.

Do you see an evolution in the oral traditions of South Louisiana and if so where are they headed?

Like I said above, we’re at an interesting crossroads. With a few exceptions, young people don’t really speak vernacular French. The music is doing well. The food is doing well. In some cases, storytelling has found an outlet in Cajun comedy in English. I think there is a legitimate concern, though, that songwriting and verbal art won’t evolve — because people really won’t know enough about the language to create in it…or won’t know enough about the other poetic aspects at work to create something comparable in another medium.

I’ve always been interested in individual poets’ governing principles for form related to stanza, line length, etc. “Teche” (in the new book) is a gimme, but what governs how individual poems appear on the page?

Poetry was originally oral. The earliest written poems attempt to echo the natural lines and pauses of spoken poetry. So, in a very general sense, stanzas and line lengths were usually visual evocations of sonic realities — rhythms, rhymes, pauses, etc. As poets became primarily writers, rather than oral performers, visuals increasingly challenged the sonic foundation for primacy. But the basic traditional forms we have — say, the ballad or sonnet — are sonic devices.

In this book, I use a wide array of patterns drawn from various places, both written and oral: African-American toasts, Chaucer, British balladry, Poe, Dr. Seuss, etc.

French folk song has its own poetic structure, and French folklorists, particularly of the 1800s, wrote quite a lot about the poetics of these songs. While researching for my previous book, I learned a bit about this.

French oral performers, like Homeric bards and Anglo-Saxon scops, sang according to certain formulae, and this governs the structure of the songs. It also affects how they appear on the page. They all contain pauses, for instance, which we call caesurae, and that reflects the fact that an oral performer has to pause for breath. You see this in Homer. You also see it in Lunéda Comeaux of New Iberia, who was singing songs that we know were around in the 1300s, because they appear in old manuscripts.

In a couple of the poems, I tried to use the structures of French folksong. This was tough, because these structures are organically tied to the French language. I found it much easier to use vernacular English song/poem forms, like the ballad.

Tell us how you view the meaning of the word Creole in the title. (It’s such a misunderstood and/or mis-used word now, no?)

Creole, last time I counted, means at least 20 different things.

It means different things in different parts of the Caribbean, or in different parts of New Orleans. In means very different things in Pointe Coupee Parish and St. Martin Parish. It means something drastically different to linguists, scholars of the transatlantic slave trade, and farmers.

It’s a tricky word. Scholars should avoid it.

But it’s a good word for poetry, for the same reason. The overlapping layers of meaning are both resonant and complex. And despite all of the meanings, it usually has something to do with an idea of newness and also blending and merging. That’s what the book is about.

Claire Caffery's illustration for the poem "Saint Catherine and the Cherubim"

You mention in the notes for “The Loup-Garou” (a poem in the new collection) how the sounds of words can extend their lives in folklore. Expound on that a little bit.

Sonic appeal is mnemonic appeal.

It’s the same reason you have Google and Yahoo, or, parodically, Hooli on the HBO show, Silicon Valley. Short words with oooh sounds are easy to recall. “Loup garou” is fun to say, fun for kids to say. And it’s especially fun because it sounds like what it describes — a howling wolf. It’s just vernacular culture marketing itself, folk style.

Clearly your sources for the collection extend beyond Francophone folklore. Describe your source-gathering process.

Well, I had the good luck to have an office at the Library of Congress while writing this. So all I had to do was request a book, any book, and it would arrive at my desk within minutes. I was also researching recordings of Louisiana songs and folklore at the same time, so I had a huge resource of oral and print sources in English and French within easy reach.

What’s the current/next project for Joshua Caffery?

That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I recently moved back to Louisiana and got a job at Stuller, where I’ve rediscovered a childhood love for gemstones and gemology. As it turns out, there’s also a sub-field of folklore studies dealing with gemstones. George Kunz, the most eminent gemologist and mineralogist of the late 1800s, was also, to my delight, a prominent folklorist. So I’m in the early stages of writing something merging those worlds.

I also really want to write a biography of E.A. McIlhenny, the Avery Island conservationist, naturalist, and businessman. Might take a few years to get it together, but I’m eager to make it happen.

These are a couple of things, but there’s a long list…

Tell us about the illustrations in the collection, which are equally compelling. (Some look like combinations of woodcuts and pen/ink drawings. Done by your wife, correct?)

They are mostly pen and ink drawings by my wife Claire. But I’m glad that you think they resemble woodcuts, because that’s the style we were going for. I love the Gustave Doré editions of various longer poems, like “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and I wanted something with the feel of that. Luckily, Claire is really versatile and gifted, and she made it happen.