Cover Story

Crowning Achievement

by Mary Tutwiler

For a lifetime devoted to capturing universal truths in local culture, Lafayette's Darrell Bourque earns the distinction of being named Acadiana's first Poet Laureate for the state of Louisiana.

Darrell Bourque looks like the epitome of a poet. With his dark soulful eyes and black turtleneck, he could be a wintry-haired Hamlet ' if only he'd stop breaking into belly laughs. On a recent November morning, he grins as he tosses a tennis ball for his rat terrier Sam. He shows off his rambling gardens to eager guests all the while chuckling happily like the prize-tomato winner at the state fair. And when a flock of ducks honks overhead on its way to the nearby marsh, he bursts into such sunny gales everyone around him dissolves into the same joyous state.

The UL professor emeritus and author of five books of poetry, including the acclaimed 2004 collection The Blue Boat, has just been named Louisiana's Poet Laureate for 2008-2010 by Gov. Kathleen Blanco. While crowning poets with a laurel wreath goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks, the title of poet laureate is a fairly new one in Louisiana. The position was established in 1942, when Emma Wilson Emery served as the state's poetry ambassador. Seven poets, usually chosen by a legislator promoting a constituent, followed Emery until a law was written in 2004 that created a different criteria for choosing the state's poet.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Executive Director Michael Sartisky makes the distinction that the new legislation creates a nominating committee of poets and literary critics who are better qualified to judge a poet's merit. Nominations are accepted and each nominee goes through a competitive process before a short list is sent to the governor. In 2005, Brenda Marie Osbey became the first poet laureate chosen by a committee of her peers.

"Poet laureate, first and foremost, is an honorific conferring public recognition and validation on a lifetime of work," says Sartisky. "Not a single poem, not a single collection, not a single year, but an entire body of work. Darrell was chosen unanimously. He is very highly regarded by his colleagues. People like Darrell and Brenda Marie bestow credit on the award itself. While the award confers honor on the recipient, the quality of the recipients confers honor on future recipients."

Friends have been calling from all over the country to congratulate Bourque. Sheryl St. Germain, poet and director of the MFA program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, has known Bourque for more than 20 years. As colleagues in the UL English department, St. Germain says they used to meet for lunch and exchange poems and talk about poetry. "I really treasured those times," she says. "Darrell is someone who really believes in poetry, believes it can make a difference. He's so generous, too. This is from years of knowing him, but there's a generosity of the spirit that needs to go along with the poet laureate. There have been wonderful United States poet laureates who have really made a difference, who developed programs that really widened the audience of poetry, and I think that's what that position is about. I think Darrell will be a great ambassador for poetry."

Bourque, 65, grew up in the country outside of Sunset. He attended Bristol Elementary, a long-gone grammar school in a community that has faded from the map, and graduated from Sunset High School before getting his B.A. and M.A. in English at USL (now UL Lafayette), followed by a Ph.D. from Florida State University. After marrying Karen Gonsoulin in 1964 and receiving his doctorate, Bourque and Gonsoulin returned home and moved into his family house, intending to stay for a short while. Bourque taught at Northside and Sunset high schools, then got a job as an instructor at UL in 1981. Twenty-five of his 39 years teaching have been within the UL English Department, which he chaired from 2001 until his retirement in 2004. Bourque rarely changed residences either. In 1977 he bought the family house from his mother and began a process of renovating the cottage and the ongoing gardens into the Zen-like retreat it is today.

His is a deceptively simple story; the complications of life play out in the transforming fire of his work. Bourque's Cajun identity, rooted in his Acadian ancestry, French language, and love of the gardens surrounding his family home are dominant themes in his work. Equally powerful is a deep connection to universal themes in art, architecture, music, philosophy, religion and history ' the interdisciplinary humanities concentration at the university that changed his career.

Bourque started off teaching the standard English courses offered by most universities. By the late 1980s, the history and English departments, in conjunction with the community group Friends of the Humanities, began to explore combining different approaches to teaching history, literature, music and art. "Darrell is one who sees so many connections," says UL English department head Marcia Gaudet. "The courses broadened the way he looked at art and listened to music. He over and over again has been inspired by Louisiana artists. It certainly changed his teaching." It changed the community as well, says English professor Mary Ann Wilson. "He routinely devised new courses about exciting topics, for instance the Scheherazade theme in art, literature and music. Those courses typically drew not just undergraduates but the Friends of the Humanities, so there was an interesting mix there of people from the community, and then much younger students, so the discussions were just wonderful. And those kinds of things helped raise the intellectual level of the community."

Wilson describes a trip Bourque led to the Houston Opera to see Tristan and Isolde. "The bus would be rocking and Darrell would be trying to put a video cassette in the player, at the same time giving this marvelous lecture, talking, holding a microphone, gesturing ' as I think back, I don't know how he did it, but when we got to the opera, we were ready to see and hear Wagner. That's the kind of thing he routinely did."

Directing plays at Lafayette's now defunct Little Theatre was a way to bring contemporary theatre to the larger community as well. Bourque says directing Restoration comedy ' the subject of his master's degree dissertation ' and works like Theatre of the Absurd plays by Harold Pinter were a bit of a stretch for Lafayette but quite successful. "It was very important to me to be involved in the theatre," he says.

Writing in private is one method of artistic expression, but becoming deeply involved with others who share his love of literature and art helps build bonds the same way teaching does. And teaching first and foremost occupies Bourque, even in his retirement. He currently works with the Louisiana Writing Project, with which he has been involved for the past 15 years. By holding workshops for writing teachers, he can affect a large number of students in schools throughout the state.

The Independent Weekly talked to Bourque last week, right after Gov. Blanco announced that he would officially be named the state's next poet laureate in a spring 2008 ceremony. He greeted the news with a calm grace that couldn't hide his delight, both in being recognized for the body of work he has created, and being given the opportunity to reach out to so many people across the state who love the written and spoken word. His philosophies on life, writing and family are like his poems: simultaneously personal, accessible, expansive and universal.

What do you plan to do during your tenure as poet laureate?

I think implicit, in asking you to sit in the chair of the poet laureate, is that you tend in some way to the development of poetry audiences. That's what the United States Library of Congress poet does. Each poet laureate of the U.S. comes up with an initiative, in some way to develop an awareness of poetry, to make poetry a part of the everyday life of people. One of the poet laureates of the U.S. had poems put in buses [and] mass transportation systems, so that people commuting to work every day would read poems. It's a neat idea.

You're given an informal charge to make people more aware of poetry. Poet laureates very seldom write occasional poems, although our current poet laureate, Brenda Marie Osbey, did write about the experiences of the hurricanes. That was a significant part of the work she did as poet laureate, in her eyes. If the occasion rises, I think you are encouraged to respond.

The Louisiana Poet Laureate gets a commemorative recognition at the award ceremony, and there are grants associated with it. The poet laureate gets an honorarium at each event; the grants are to take care of publicity, arrangements. So the payment is minimal, but the real payment is not in monetary terms, but in being singled out as a voice and an energy that can support the ideas we aspire to as a culture.

It's amazing how many people write. If you find yourself talking to people about what's really important to them, it's not surprising to find a great number of people who write daily in journals. Or write poems. I would like to work with some of those people to be able to give them tools. To be able to give them ideas for things to write about. A lot of those people who write in isolation fall into the trap of writing what Galway Kinnell calls the merely personal. And he says there's nothing wrong with writing about personal experiences, but you have to take it further. From the merely personal to the deeply personal. It's been one of my slogans in workshops. I couldn't imagine encouraging a writer to write anything other than what that writer knows very, very well. Sometimes that means the writer is going to go naturally to family experiences and world experiences and responses to the landscapes and environments that they live in. What I try to tell them is that's where I start, too. But you have to have an agenda. When you write a piece of art, when you make a piece of art; it's not yours when you're finished. Its intent has to be directed toward an audience. And so you have to find a way that you can shore up those personal experiences, those personal feelings that go beyond simply your personal feelings.

I was reading Einstein's biography [by Walter Isaacson], and I was stunned by Einstein's use of the "merely personal." I'm sure that's where Galway Kinnel got it from. Einstein says that science is a refuge from the merely personal, and if we live our lives only concerned with the merely personal, then we don't do any good for the larger community. Or the larger sense of being human. That's one of the things I tried to direct my writers toward. And it does get rid of a lot of obscurity that's created by a set of purely personal references. That's so uninteresting after a while. It's not uninteresting ' in some ways it's unkind. When a poet gets up and reads that kind of obscure poetry with too [many] personal references, he's asking somebody to take time to listen or to read, and being unfriendly. He's withholding too much. That's not the way we make good things happen in the world. It's kind of elitist. It's saying I have these poetic experiences, and I'm different from you.

I'll grant it that poets are different from ordinary people. In so many ways ' let me give you an example ' I daily run down this road, a little mile and a half track of road. I bet almost half of my poems come from something that happened on that road during that run. I think the difference is I hear the geese above me in November, and I register it, and then I come home and write about it. That's the difference. The difference is not that other people don't hear it and aren't affected by it, but the other switch is not flipped. They hear it, they are maybe moved by it, but then they absorb it. The poet absorbs it and then comes back and gives it out again. That may be the difference. That what you hear and what you experience seems to be significant and profound enough so that you stop and make that recording.

Sometimes you have to come home and write it [right away]. I wrote a poem yesterday called "Einstein's Violin." I got the first two lines on the end of my run. And I knew if I ran another lap, that I wouldn't have the lines anymore. So there is partly that. I came in and went right to the machine and wrote those first two lines. Once those first two lines were recorded, I could go and do whatever else I had to do. But I had the way I wanted to start the poem. And that's an experience I've had over and over again.

Why is poetry important for the state?

I think it's important because our first ideas and who we are and what our work might be in the world and how we might make the world better is connected to an idea that's one of the jewels inside us, that's very closely akin to poetry. When I think about why someone decides to become a teacher or a doctor or a politician, I think the kernel is something that's close to poetry. Now how that gets worked out in the world sometimes can be a violation of that initial thing. It's something we don't even notice. The kid that decides to be a doctor ' that moment is so precious. And so pure. It's closely akin to what I consider to be the same thing within us that makes us make art. I think of Thomas Jefferson and Beaumarche, the Frenchman who had a lot to do with the American Revolution, and who faced all kinds of difficulty and opposition during his own time with his ideas about democracy. I think of people like that, Jefferson and Franklin and the Adams ' their imaginations are poetic. That's why I think poetry is important to the state.

Einstein knew that the things he was working with might not be able to be recorded in the real world. They were thought experiments, and they were like poems. I think we have such a tendency to bash what people are doing in public life. It would be useful and helpful that our life missions are connected to something that's pure and good.

Is there a politics to poetry?

I really am disturbed by negative campaigning, and its effectiveness, but I really think one of the real dangers is people who get used to this idea of accepting or welcoming received ideas. And this whole notion of "I'm running for office, but I'm not a politician" is repugnant to me. If you're running for office, damn it, I want you to be a politician. Being a politician means taking care of the polis, taking care of the place where we live. And so I think it manifests itself in a very different way, but I think at the core, the decisions to take care of your coastline, to take care of a homeless group of people who don't seem to be able to get home, Katrina and Rita victims, I think those things can be made easier and better by going back to something that's basic and elemental within us. And I think that poetry resides in that place. Very often, the poet can help people to see the extraordinary and the remarkable in the everyday. And in the culture that we live in, the everyday too often seems to be something we can throw away. And I think the poet has at least as one of his jobs to remind us that there is something miraculous in the everyday.

I think in some ways if a poet makes us see in a poem one family relationship that's valuable, and we can somehow get that outside of a purely private arena, then it begins to change how we view everything. If we see a moment of beauty with an animal, a sunset, a horse, a dog, ducks, those are all things I've written about. If you begin to value the ducks in a pond, then it's real hard to throw bombs.

In some ways putting yourself in a place where you're not addressing [a current event] directly, but you're making poetry present and available in the world, may make it even a more important thing. There's an acknowledgment on the part of the poet that there's all kinds of work to be done in the world, and that some of that work is unpleasant, and dirty and nasty, but that there is still the job of the poet in the culture.

How will your Acadian roots affect your role as poet laureate?

The current poet laureate of the U.S. is Charles Simic, and he said he would bring to the position something different. He's a recent immigrant. And he said he had only lived in large metropolitan areas all his life. So his poetry was shaped by that, by the cultures he grew up in and the geography he grew up in. We become products of the very geography we grew up in and the culture that's a product of that geography. And so if my poetry is to be true it has to start with a lot of what's really close to me. The way you are able to resist a kind of insularity is in this notion of going from the merely personal to the deeply personal. If you begin a poem about Lake Martin, and it's just about Lake Martin, it doesn't go anywhere.

I'm thinking about William Carlos Williams and the poetry he wrote on those little prescription pads. Sometimes he would stop the car when he was making house calls, and it was the only thing he had available. You are shaped by your experiences. But a little poem like ["The Red Wheelbarrow"] is not a lesser poem because it's written on a prescription pad. And the poem is not about chickens. It's a poem about relativity. I hope the poems that I write transcend the place they have to begin in. I couldn't advise people to begin in their own back yard and then not begin in my own back yard. That's a kind of faith in universality.