with Jack B. Bedell
Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?
Jack: I really didn’t start writing until my final semester as an undergraduate at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana. I scheduled a creative writing course to finish my English requirements, mainly because it was offered at the perfect time and day. Everything I wrote for the class was awful, but my professor was kind enough to pull me out into the hall one day to tell me that no matter how bad my writing had been, there was something in it that showed him it didn’t have to stay that way. He handed me a copy of R.S. Gwynn’s The Drive In and told me to give it a read over the weekend. The poems in that book were all formal poems, very close to poems I had read growing up that way (Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, etc.), but many of them told regional family stories. I immediately realized reading Gwynn’s poems that I had been trying to write like William Blake and not myself. After reading that book, I immediately wrote a few family poems about growing up in south Louisiana, and I have stopped doing that since! R.S. Gwynn’s work led to James Dickey, and there’ve been hundreds of poets who’ve shaped me from then on.
Q2: Who are your biggest influences today?
Louisiana writers like Darrell Bourque, John Warner Smith, Julie Kane, Brenda Marie Osbey, and many, many others have been tremendous inspirations to me over the course of my career. They’ve shown the way, both in terms of their writing and in terms of the role models they are.
Lately, I owe a tremendous debt to writers like Joan Naviyuk Kane, Carly Joy Miller, and Jericho Brown whose technique and voices push me to keep progressing, to keep pressing the boundaries of what poetry is capable of achieving.
Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing?
I feel real pride in being raised in the place I was raised. My goal as a poet has always been to pay tribute to the people and the traditions of south Louisiana, and to honor the memories and the experiences of it all as best I can. I’m as from this place as anyone can be.
I’m incredibly indebted to the people, places, and tradition that have formed me in south Louisiana. The marsh where I was raised, my Acadian heritage, the oil fields and canals that made livelihoods for my family—these are unique to Louisiana. I don’t exist without them. To say I love Louisiana seems trite. It is love to me, actually. Just like family is.
Q4: Have any travels away from home influenced your work/describe?
Jack: I’m truly a homebody. South Louisiana is my one and only influence in that way. Having said that, though, trips to the Pacific Northwest, Vermont, and Canada have given me tremendous energy and opportunity over the years to write about home!
Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a poet/writer?
Jack: As long as I can remember, people in my family have told stories. It’s how we passed the time. Even my father, who wasn’t much for talking, told us stories through the dog. These stories, like bible stories, carried for us everything we needed to know to be decent, happy people. I’m not sure listening to those stories growing up made me want to be a poet, but they definitely made me want to be a storyteller. Over the past thirty years or so, I’ve done my best to learn how to tell stories within the confines of poetry.
Q6: Favorite activities to relax?
Jack: My life is pretty much centered on family. Anything I can do with my wife and kids—mountain biking, camping, fishing, or just sitting down to have a big meal—really makes my heart smile. That family time actually gives me the bulk of my subject matter!
Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects you’d like to promote?
Jack: My two most recent collections, No Brother, This Storm and Color All Maps New, are both out from Mercer University Press:
With COVID putting such a damper on in-person readings over the last year and a half, any help spreading the word about these books would be greatly appreciated!
Q8: One of your favorite lines from a poem of yours?
I’m not sure I could choose a favorite line from my own poems. They all fall just short of what I’d hoped they would be. But that’s what keeps me going!
I could give a favorite line from a song, though. It’s from Deftone’s “Back to School”: “Transpose or stop your life.” I really believe in growing, learning, and rolling with life. Like Deftones say, if you’re just going to stay the same, what’s the point?
Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?
I hope it’s not a cop out to say it, but every writer I’ve worked with has been a tremendous help to me. I’m a real advocate of workshops and retreats. The time spent in those communities is an investment in yourself and your writing. It’s also the perfect opportunity to immerse yourself in a creative experience with other writers. I never want to stop learning from other writers. I attended the Breadloaf Orion Environmental summer conference a few of years ago, and I’m still running on the energy I picked up there. Everyone involved was generous and present, and that kind of energy is contagious.
I also go down to the New Orleans writing marathon every summer to be part of community of writers and be PRODUCTIVE—it’s fantastic to be with forty or fifty other people working like that, and the whole vibe of the city is fuel for writing. That’s the shift I’ve made in my life. Instead of looking for and paying attention to the things that drain energy, just realizing there’s fuel everywhere for that stuff and it’s made me a better writer. The marathon is tremendous source of this kind of creative energy and vital community.
Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. Jack’s work has appeared in Pidgeonholes, The Shore, Cotton Xenomorph, Okay Donkey, EcoTheo, The Hopper, Terrain, and other journals. His most recent collection is Color All Maps New (Mercer University Press, 2021). He served as Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017-2019.