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A conversation with Louisiana’s Poet Laureate

By Mark Folse

Louisiana Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque looks every part the poet and professor of literature emeritus, with a swept-back mane of gray hair and a loose, square-cut shirt untucked, standing before a large projection of Ida Kohlmeyer’s Cluster # 39. It’s Saturday, and he’s lecturing the students of the Lusher Charter School Writing Program on ekphrastic poetry and his own unique sonnet form at the New Orleans Museum of Art.  Ekphrastic poetry focuses on verses dedicated to another art form.

A poem by Bourque was commissioned by NOMA for its centennial, and the reading program involving the poet and students from Lusher was organized by the museum’s librarian, Sheila Cork, an enthusiast of both visual and literary arts.

Following the lecture and a break for lunch, the Lusher students read their own poems, inspired by various works they had selected at NOMA; the student works have been collected with Bourque’s poem in a free booklet published by the library (all scooped up Saturday, but Cork promises to see about printing more). The students chose works of all sorts, from contemporary canvases to a portrait of Marie Antoinette, a Faberge paperweight and a Renaissance miniature portrait. Bourque follows along with the students, offering commentary on their poems.

Here is a quick interview with Bourque, who has just published “OrdinaryLight: New and Selected Poems,” from ULPress at the University of Lafayette, as well as a volume with Lusher Writing Program founder and poet Brad Richard.

I heard your remarks at the Tennessee Williams Festival and here today about ekphrasic poetry, and this must be a natural commission or a particularly apt commission for you.

I think so. I seem to come very naturally to responding to works of art through poetry.

I see in your discussion of the Marie Antoinette painting that you spend a lot of time not just looking at paintings appreciatively, but thinking them through and looking at the history of the artists.

It’s my second professional interest, certainly. I think if I hadn’t been an English teacher, I would have been an art historian.

As laureate have you been called on to do many commissions?

I think I have gotten probably ten poems in the two years that were commissioned poems. I received one from the Lake Charles Humanities Council to do a poem on a painting for Vision in Verse project. Then I received a commission to do five sonnets for an art book that Professor Linda Frieze is doing at UL. Then the Abraham Lincoln omission, the commission for the dedication poem for the Ernest Gaines Center. And then I received a personal commission from a marriage poem, from someone who got married at City Park at Christmas time and she wanted to give him a poem for a Christmas present.

What do you think of this program, asking the students to do something like this?

I think its remarkable. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing.

You went through the entire episode where the state tried to eliminate the poet laureate. As government de-emphasizes art in the schools, why do you think it’s important to have a poet laureate?

Well, because the poet laureate to a large extend is one more person in the state who can support the arts and talk about the importance of arts as an essential part of the education process. Education is not just about learning skills and readying oneself for the job market. It’s about developing the imagination and developing the school, and the poets and the art teachers are the people most responsible for that. I’ve probably been to over a hundred sites since I’ve been poet laureate, so I write less because it’s dangerous to write and drive at the same time.

I remember finding an ekphrastic poem about a Dutch master when I was writing about the poet laureate controversy, a very different style of painting that you chose for the [NOMA comission]. Do you  prefer one period or style of painting?

I don’t have that bias at all. I go to a painting without any preconceived notions. I do a lot of ekphrastic work with photography as well and I treat photography as serious art. One of the first of the poems I did like that is in the Selected Works, “Posing for Our First Commission Picture,” and I treat that like a painting and approach that the same way.

What’s the name of your new chapbook?

“Folding the Notes,” coming out this month from Chicory Bloom Press in Thibodeau. It’s a really small edition. The first edition is an edition of 40, and if there’s a demand for it there’ll be more published. But it’s an exclusive hand-sewn edition put together by this husband and wife team. They don’t do it as a marketing thing. They do it as a labor of love.


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