Dr. Darrell Bourque grew up in a rural community near Sunset, Louisiana. He graduated from the University of Southwest Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and then received a master’s and a Ph.D. in creative writing from Florida State University. He is Professor Emeritus in English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as director of the Creative Writing and Interdisciplinary Humanities programs. He was appointed Louisiana Poet Laureate by then-Governor Kathleen Blanco in 2007 and reappointed by Governor Bobby Jindal in 2009. His personal initiative for the laureateship is to develop poetry audiences by teaching and reading in the pre‐college classroom as well as in the state's libraries. He has been instrumental in the creation of this website and the Louisiana Poetry Project in indebted to him for his support and encouragement.
Our Executive Editor Hardy Jones spoke with Darrell Bourque about his writing process and his 2014 poetry collection Megan’s Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie.
HJ: What are the difficulties of writing about persons from history?
DB: One of the main difficulties is trying to create a voice that seems authentic while remaining true to your practice as a poet. By the time you’ve written for awhile, you have certain approaches; you look for a certain kind of music in the line; you know how much imagery you’re going to allow in a poem, how much other stuff, for want of a better word, is going to work itself into the poem. You have certain expectations in your practice of poetry. Trying to balance that, trying to be true to what is historical, to be true to the historical voices and then trying to work it into your practice as a poet is probably one of the more challenging things about writing historical poetry.
One of the ways I understood my own history and my own culture was through a 19th century romantic poem Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” and when I decided to write this particular sequence of poems I wanted it to be a 21st century book and not a 19th century book. In some ways I felt that I had a responsibility to Longfellow for having told the story earlier. In some ways I think that what he did with the story of the Acadians in the poem “Evangeline” is that he allowed it to sort of incubate in a way for a later writer to come back and retell the story. In many ways, I am grateful to Longfellow because he gave me a sort of blueprint I could work against. One of the things I wanted to do was to lift it away from being a 19th century Romantic expression to something that was much more authentic and truer to the Acadian experience as I understood it. I was always guarded against that 19th century American Romanticism. Yet I didn’t want to trash “Evangeline” because I felt grateful for the story having been preserved.
HJ: Sounds like Cormac McCarthy’s comment that “books are made out of other books.”
DB: That’s right. And I think as writers that’s something we don’t want to forget. One of the things that is so true about every experience I have had as a writer I always feel as if I am in collaboration with writers who have told the same story differently. Or who have told the human story in one way that I understand as a connector to my way of telling the story. You and I were talking this morning and you reminded me of what Ernest J. Gaines said about having to tell the story again.
HJ: “All the stories have been told, but need to be told again.”
DB: That’s true of the short story, it’s true of the novel, it’s true of drama, and it’s true of poetry. We’re going to keep telling that story that Ezra Pound was trying to tell in the Cantos; we’re going to keep trying to tell the story that William Shakespeare was trying to tell in the sonnet sequences. So we are always working in collaboration with writers who have come before us.
HJ: That’s a great image to have when a writer is working, so one does not feel alone at the desk.
DB: And you don’t feel that you must be the smartest guy in the room. That’s what I constantly remember. I know that people as a matter of course don’t go before the computer screen to write poems, but those that do make it their lives’ work, are working inside a network of writers who have come long before they have.
HJ: When you’re writing about events and people who are part of the culture that you come from how do you resist the desire to romanticize events and people?
DB: The contemporary writer that pays attention to 20th century and 21st century literature has been warned so many times. For those of us who are students of literature, I think we absorb a kind of resistance to the overly romantic. I love post-modern literature and I love the kind of anti-romanticism that comes in with the Modernist movement. I cut my teeth reading T.S. Eliot, and watching Yeats, for instance, turn from a kind of Romantic poet to a modern poet. With that kind of experience and that kind of study I think we have sort of automatic guards against romanticism. Then but still with the love of the culture that you’re writing about and that sacredness about the culture you’re writing about, there is that tendency to allow a little bit of romanticism to come in, perhaps. But I think an awareness of the fact that if you overly romanticize you’re not replicating the place, and you’re not replicating the incidents you’re talking about. I think those are your best guards for being overly romantic.
HJ: In terms of Megan’s Guitar, I am wondering why was the exile section placed at the end of the book?
DB: The exile section was put at the end because I wanted to enter that history through contemporary experiences and through a contemporary eye. I knew that if the reader felt fairly comfortable reading, for instance, free verse poems and poems that were pretty accessible, then they might trust me, you know, to go into the historical and to reach that far back for the poetry. It was a strategy I thought about for a long time. Also, I was thinking of those medieval diptychs where one side of a painting informs the other side of a painting. That short section between the longs sections, 1 and 3, works as a bridge or a kind of hinge in the poems so that there is what I hope is going to be an easy passage into a historical past. And I hope for the reader that after reading the first section of the book, that they begin to see that there are reflections of the themes and ideas from the first part of the book in the third part of the book.
HJ: If you could speak in general when organizing a collection, how do you decide the order?
DB: You know that was something that I thought about a great deal. The ordering in the first section probably paid a little less attention to than the ordering in the third section. The first section and the third section have the same number of poems, and so in the making of the book that was important to balance themselves out. As far as the number of poems concerned, in the third section of the book I realized that I was writing 25 relatively short poems about a long period of history. So for me the best approach to that was not to be strictly chronological. I think that comes from my respect and love for Post-Modern structures; if we’re going to understand a history, it doesn’t have to be chronological or sequential. Sometimes tweaking the chronology or sequence makes the reader pay even more attention to what the subjects and the themes are in the poems. In the first section of the book, there was some attention to where things appeared. For instance, there is a recurrence of poems that have a reveille or a réveiller theme and réveiller in French is kind of a wake-up theme. So I knew that the first poem had to be that kind of poem, and I knew that a few poems later I would want to repeat that particular theme, and that repetition of themes became important in organizing as well. I didn’t want all of the réveiller poems to appear in a cluster. I wanted them to be spaced out in the 25 poems that represent the first section of the book. Those were the kinds of things I thought about when I was thinking about the structure and ordering the sequence of the poems.
HJ: You said in some of our earlier conversations that Megan’s Guitar was a book that you could not have written earlier in your career. Could you comment on that?
DB: There are a few reasons why I couldn’t have written it earlier. One was that I wasn’t smart enough to have been able to write it earlier. The book really pays attention to form and it’s a tightly structured book. I didn’t have a kind of facility with form that comes after a long practice with poetry. I didn’t feel that I had enough experience, for instance, in the first section of the book to mix free forms with traditional forms and find the right kind of pacing for those types of poems in the book. I hadn’t begun to really feel comfortable in the dominant traditional form that I use, the sonnet. That took a life of writing to get to that particular point. The other thing that kept me from writing that book of poems is that I hadn’t lived enough. I didn’t know the history, didn’t know my response to the history, my attachment to my own culture and own history in a way that I knew it as a more seasoned writer.
HJ: If I read your bio correctly, you have a background in Drama. How has your background in Drama affected your poetry?
DB: I think to a large extent, particularly when you’re writing about something that’s so charged with drama, as a deportation and a migration are, originally I saw the possibilities of the story being presented as a kind of musical drama. In fact, that’s where it began. The songwriter and musician Zachary Richard, the leader of the Acadian Symphony, and I worked researching and planning a story on Joseph Beausoleil Broussard for a long time before I even thought of this particular sequence of poems. When I was thinking of the story of Joseph Beausoleil Broussard as a possible music production one of the things I thought that would be possible would be to do a kind of sequence opera. Rather than something that is strung together according to the more classical ways of looking at how to put a dramatic narrative together exposition, complication, climax, and resolution I saw it more as a kind of set of musical panels that would come one after another in a kind of sequence with these blank spaces in between. In the back of my mind, I think I was being influenced by having first thought of this as a dramatic production. Then having to reshape it into a book of poems.