Finding Joy in the Yarns: Interview with Louisiana Poet Laureate Dr. Jack B. Bedell
As I perused the bookshelf in the main hall of Mercer University Press’ office, I found my way to this little book of poems. On the cover, gulls perch atop posts in silver water while one turns back and squawks at an off-page presence. I opened the first few pages to a poem called “Remnant,” and within moments I was home.
Dr. Jack B. Bedell, father, husband, son, editor of Louisiana Literature, and English professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, is also serving as the esteemed Louisiana Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. He has published nine books of poetry, including his latest, No Brother, This Storm, with Mercer University Press. After scouring through this book for hours and putting my thoughts into words, I finally got to asking him a few questions about it. Take a look:
Elizabeth (E): In No Brother, This Storm your poems often include food imagery and what I can only describe as domestic tranquility. These vivid scenes transport me back to my childhood. Why do you feel it is important for home and hearth to play such an important role in your poetry?
Dr. Jack Bedell (B): New Year’s Day for the past 16 years I’ve had the same resolution: Find the good in the day. Writing poems is my primary means of honoring the people and events that fill my life with goodness and joy. Those poems about home life and loved ones are really meant to be archives of my blessings. More than anything, I want my work to express gratitude and hope. Even when the poems detail personal, environmental, or cultural loss, they come from an urge to honor this resolution toward thankfulness.
E: Part III: “Fables” is my favorite section of your collection. The poems read almost like regional mythology; you give voice to South Louisiana culture through oral-tradition-esque storytelling. What do you hope for readers to take away from these “fables”?
B: As much as I believe all stories carry lessons, I try to steer clear of any direct statement of heavy meaning in my poems. I was always taught to let a narrative play like a record, without editorial or guidance, and the majority of the poems I’ve written live by that directive. The poems in the “Fables” section of No Brother, This Storm lean a little more heavily toward allegory, though, so it seemed natural to group them together when I was putting the collection together. Throughout the section, I use stories I was told as a child meant to teach me something, historical events that carried heavy significance, and folk tales created to perpetuate culture. I would hope readers can forgive the moralizing some of those “fables” encourage. I also hope they find some joy in the yarns.
E: Your poems constantly blend together nature and man. Do you feel like nature reflects humanity? How does nature interact with us and our stories in your eyes?
B: To me, everything in this world is part of creation. The respect, empathy, and caring we extend to the least bit of this creation is the same we give to each other. Not to sound too much like Walt Whitman, but we are all part of the same organism. No particle of this world is less valuable than any other. I’d hope my poems show the harmony man needs with nature. I’d especially hope it’s obvious in these poems that I see a connection between damage done to the environment and cultural loss, and in writing these poems I came to connect those feelings with my own personal losses. In the face of all of that, however, we can honor beauty and find hope to live past whatever damage or erosion happens in life.
E: Your family appears several times throughout No Brother, This Storm. How do you feel your changing role as a son, husband, and father has affected your poetry differently at each stage of life?
B: This is a tough question! I still feel like a 12-year-old kid in my heart. Even though both my parents have passed away, I’m still trying to be a better son. I’ve been married 20 years now and I’m still learning how to be a better partner. And after 16+ years of parenting, I’m still terrified I’ll cause some great damage with poor guidance or by being an awful example!
I guess I’d say life is about learning to me. The longer I’ve lived, the more I’ve learned, though, the less sure of everything I’ve become. My earliest poems did their best to deliver answers. As I’ve grown into an adult, a husband, and a father, my poems have switched to searching for the right questions. Or maybe just looking in the right direction!
E: To me, some of your shorter poems are the most impactful. Do you believe that we learn the most from the simplest things in life?
B: I’ve always had a natural tendency toward storytelling, so my poems have always been built with beginnings, middles, and ends. Typically, my poems turn a full story in 24-30 lines like James Dickey did in Poems 1957-1967. Recently, though, I’ve fallen in love with the work of micro-narrative writers like Joan Naviyuk Kane, John Sibley Willliams, and Carly Joy Miller. From their work, I’ve come to really appreciate the power of concision. In No Brother, This Storm, I’ve done my best to focus several of the poems on single events or scenes without worrying about completing the narrative. Something about this ellipsis adds resonance, and I’m honored that you think these shorter poems pack some punch, too.
Dr. Bedell was so gracious in my short contact with him, kindly answering all my questions with care. No Brother, This Storm demonstrates his gentleness with words and his ability to transport the reader back to another time and place. This gentleness, however, does not hinder him from immersing us into tragic loss and destruction; rather, it is his tenderness that pierces more deeply into our imaginations. His words open old wounds and close others and ultimately allow us to find the hope, beauty, and goodness within the chaos of the storm.
No Brother, This Storm is available for purchase from Mercer University Press or wherever fine books are sold.