POET to POET: Marissa Glover interviews Jack B. Bedell

MUP author Marissa Glover asks MUP poet, Jack B. Bedell, about his newest collection of poetry: Against the Woods' Dark Trunks. 

Bedell is professor of English and coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also serves as editor for Louisiana Literature and director of the Louisiana Literature Press. His previous collections include NO BROTHER, THIS STORM and COLOR ALL MAPS NEW. Bedell served as Louisiana Poet Laureate from 2017-2019.

MG: Often, when readers think of “traditional formatting” for poems, they imagine lines and stanzas much like your work in “The White Alligator” and “Pecan Grove with Body Farm.” I’ve seen you write in these forms in previous collections, but Against the Woods’ Dark Trunks seems to include wildly varied formatting (like in “Until the Rice Boils Over” and “City of Nature”), and I’m wondering if that holds meaning.

Were line breaks and indentations used to create the same kind of mood that the book’s title conveys?

JBB: Many of the poems in the collection employ stepped lines, especially those in tercets and couplets, to add a little movement and balance to the lines. A few of the poems, though, like the two you’ve mentioned, use interstitial space to add some disintegration and uncertainty inside the poems, some pulling apart that the poem can put back together to a degree. I really think of it as doing my best to hold images and memories together in those poems that might seem to be slipping away or disappearing in my life.

MG: Speaking of titles and moods, this book feels darker than one of your previous collections, No Brother, This Storm. While the poems here are deeply connected to Place, like all your work seems to be, there is noticeably less light in these pages. Glimmers of hope, sure, but a foreboding I’ve not seen in recent years from your work.

Is this intentional—were these poems a reflection of a larger world’s devolution or something on a smaller, personal scale?

JBB: At the time I was writing the poems that make up this collection, life around all of us was getting dark and difficult. We were all struggling to come to grips with living through a pandemic, and the news was chock full of violence and dispute and what really felt to me like a disintegration of kindness and civility. Like many writers, I felt an obligation to address all of that somehow, but I have to admit I was overwhelmed by the breadth and abundance of it all.

I turned to folklore, cryptids, family stories, and environmental issues to grapple with all that disintegration, loss, and danger. Even though it’s fair to say much of Against the Woods’ Dark Trunks deals with ghosts and monsters and death, I try my best to include hope and strength and the ability to stay put and fight for hope and beauty in enough of the poems to swing the balance that way.

MG: Personally, I enjoyed many lines from this collection. I saw so many intentional moves with craft and language, which makes reading poetry a pleasure. One example that made me smile is this:

“And don’t we all deserve to feel
that kind of surge just once?”

This couplet is the second to last stanza in a very early poem. The line itself is masterful, but the fact that you answer this question with the poem’s title (“Yes, Yes We Do”) is genius.

It made me wonder, how often do you write the title after the poem is done, and how often you start with a title or idea and then write the poem?

JBB: I almost always start with the narrative. Titles usually present themselves to me after the story is told or after I’ve asked the pertinent questions in the poem. Every once in a while, though, I’ll base the whole poem on a word or image that forms the title of the piece, like in the poems “Augury,” “Disparition,” and “Littoral.”

MG: There were several poems in this book about what one might call “inevitable erosion.” You explicitly write about erosion of the local land, but is there a kind of erosion (of humanity? of civility? of “burning legacy”?) that you write about when referencing boxing, violence, snakes, Hollywood, and all the things that might haunt the woods?

JBB: I would definitely say that many of the poems in this collection grapple with loss of culture, memory, life, ability, and land itself. Like I mentioned before, these poems were written at a point when I truly felt I was witnessing an erosion of kindness and civility in our world, and I think the poems reflect that feeling, that fear, often. I really hope the poems succeed in restoring some of that loss, or at least in giving hope we can face monsters and loss and darkness with hope that light will return, even if we can’t manufacture it ourselves.

MG: There’s quite a bit in this book that is haunting—from the gorgeous cover art to the use of the word “haunting” to the mention of spirits. This adds to the “heaviness” of the collection, and I remember thinking after I’d read it that the book hurt in all the best ways. Indeed, the poems haunt the reader.

What is your feeling after writing such a book? Do the poems, the people, the places linger? Do you hear and see them even after you’ve finished the manuscript?

JBB: The fears expressed in many of these poems do haunt me. The goal in writing these poems was never to defeat and resolve those fears, though. I didn’t think I could get rid of them by writing them away. What I really wanted to do in these poems was face the fears, either in the form of memories about loved ones I’ve lost, or in the forms of sea monsters or Bigfoot, or even in the form of environmental scares like the coastal erosion Louisiana faces daily.

Facing these fears, or these losses, with strength and with hope, seemed like the best I could accomplish at the time.

MG: There were several phrases repeated throughout the book, like “gone to ground,” and I found these to be a kind of music that played from the first page to the last. And there were the trademark references to the Gulf, silt, storm, water, waves, dunes, grass, trees, stars, and the creatures that call these places home.

Like magic, the imagery in the poems relocate me to the very place you are writing about. Do you hope that readers will care more about Louisiana after reading your work? Do you hope they might visit the places you love and love them too?

JBB: I would definitely hope that my love and appreciation for Louisiana comes through in my poems about home. I’m grateful for this place and what’s it’s provided me. I’m also grateful for my family and the memories they’ve left me, the impact they’ve had on my life. I do write with love and gratitude for these things and these people that I would hope makes others want to visit with them for a spell.

MG: I like poems that make me learn new things. Your titles and even some word choices motivated me to go online and look stuff up. For example, now I know that “nictate” means blink. My new goal is to use that word in conversation. But I’m curious—was it syllabics, or consonance, or something else entirely that led you to use “nictate” in “The White Alligator”?

JBB: Since I was a beginning reader, I’ve always valued accuracy in the stories I read. There’s nothing worse for me than reading something set in south Louisiana that has details wrong like fishing for redfish in a freshwater lake or hunting ducks in summer, or even watching a movie with “Cajun” characters who speak with some kind of butchered Southern accent instead of sounding like we actually speak down here.

In my own poems, I try to be as accurate as possible for that very reason, even if it means employing a specialized word like nictate. Being raised around alligators my whole life, I know they have nictating membranes as second eyelids. For me, there was no other word appropriate for that sentence. I feel the same way about using regional French terms like Traiteuse in my poems. I could translate the term for the poem to something more familiar, but then it would lose accuracy for me.

MG: I learned so much from this book by Googling titles, words, epigraphs, references (ferry ride to Algiers), and I learned so much about paintings, folklore, New Orleans . . . I knew you were a poet of Place—how does it work for you in the writing process? Do you start with a place and write a poem, or do you start with a poem and give it a place?

JBB: Place is really non-negotiable for me. Every story I tell in these poems comes from a particular place, whether it’s a Bigfoot story from Henderson Swamp, a lake monster story from Lake Champlain, a ghost story from Adams, Tennessee, or an environmental story from the Bonnet Carré spillway. Places give rise to all of these tales.

MG: This book of poems contained more epigraphs than usual, specific places of geography or in nature—even works of art and museums. It seemed like you found inspiration from varied people and places and that you wrote poems about paintings—writing stories upon stories.

Was this a particular “venturing out,” or referencing of Place, that you wanted to do in this collection?

JBB: I definitely wanted to include stories from all over the place and from different times in these poems, so that none of the issues or images detailed could be construed as only local or only contemporary or only mine. The worries I’m dealing with in many of these poems are universally human, and I needed the poems to represent that. I didn’t want the folklore to be just local or the cryptids to be only regional. I wanted those stories to come for the reader from all angles so that we are united in our reaction to them, not fragmented or localized.

That’s definitely true for the ekphrastic poems based on work displayed in museums and galleries. The art that inspired those poems was created all over the world from a variety of periods. Its beauty and its lasting value, though, are relevant everywhere in any time to anyone.

MG: My favorite one of these epigraph poems was “Amano,” after art in the Frank Relle Gallery, NOLA. When I first read the poem, I literally stopped after the first stanza to say out loud (to myself), “Wow.” And then I read the first stanza again, stopped, and said (out loud to myself) “Wow.”

I was so moved that I looked online for the image and found it—the cypress tree featured in the poem—and the last part of the poem brought back that through line of hope that I equate with Jack Bedell poems:

“Even what’s left of this broken cypress tree
hasn’t given up reaching for the sky. . . .
                                          . . . As long
as there is light somewhere, it’s worth the reach.”
The final lines in “New Beach, Elmer’s Island” recall this ideal:
                              “. . . but it can
buy us time. And all time is hope.”

You’ve said in other interviews that your faith is important to you and that holding onto hope is a vital part of your life—your life as a writer and your life as a human, husband, father, teacher. I was surprised by the end of “Rolled Over into Waves” with the lines, “though faith was a piss-poor bait/and an even sorrier supper.”

Is this just fisherman lore or something deeper that believers wrestle with? Talk to me about the hope that sustains you.

JBB: “Rolled Over into Waves” is based on the tale of a river monster called “Whitey” that was first sighted in rural Arkansas in 1915. The community really suffered from poverty and lack of food that summer when the river suddenly became devoid of the fish that provided their primary source of meals.

A good bit of the anger that pops up at the end of the poem comes down to my own disappointment that those folks turned to superstition and prayers during hard times instead of doing something proactive to make things better. I guess the contemporary equivalent would be sending “hopes and prayers” to a community after a tragedy instead of sending actual help or changing laws so those tragedies stop happening. I probably projected my own frustrations over current events onto that poem in the lines you quoted.

In situations like that one in Arkansas 100 years ago and those we are facing today, our faith and our hope are tested, for sure. I never lose hope or faith that people will find a way to prevail through all tough times, but I do get frustrated sometimes. I really try not to let that frustration take over my poems or my heart very often, though.

Jack B. Bedell’s titles with MUP:

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Credit Benjamin Watters/Stephanie Reed photography

Marissa Glover lives and teaches in Florida, where she also serves as a reader for Orange Blossom Review. Before working in education, Glover was employed as a writer and editor for various companies for more than fifteen years. She is the author of Let Go of the Hands You Hold. Learn more about her at www.marissaglover.com

LET GO OF THE HANDS YOU HOLD is her first full-length collection.

Photography credit: Benjamin Watters/ Stephanie Reed Photography