The Shore Interview #4: Jack B. Bedell

Questions by Ellery Beck, Interview Editor

EB Your poem in this issue of The Shore, “Serpents and Insects, 1647,” is an ekphrasis written about an Otto Marseus van Schrieck oil painting that is currently located in the New Orleans Museum of Art. In a museum full of breathtaking art, what about this painting specifically inspired you to write about it? What strategies did you use to interact with the artwork in your poem?

JBB Walking through the 17th and 18th century exhibits at NOMA, I was drawn to the Schrieck painting because of the artist’s use of light and compression. “Serpents and Insects, 1647” is a really dark composition featuring one beam of light shooting through the center of the scene. That beam of light is filled with all kinds of struggle. There are snakes fighting over frogs, frogs fighting over insects, and all sorts of plant life fighting for space and light. There’s even the tiny blue spot of a fly circling through the beam’s expanse. All of this occurs in a few square feet of real estate, a real microcosm of life.

As soon as I stepped a little closer to the painting to begin the process of making notes toward a draft, though, I noticed the incredible detail Schrieck included in the darkness of the piece. Even in the deepest hues of the painting, there are brush strokes defining leaves, vines, branches, and bark. The whole canvas is filled with a density of shapes and a kind of negative depth that fascinated me. Right away, I knew it would be an incredible, rewarding challenge to write a poem engaging and employing Schrieck’s sense of light and dark, struggle and life.

Ekphrastic writing is always intriguing to me because the art can function as window and mirror simultaneously. The first thing I did diving into Schrieck’s painting was to create an inventory of what fascinated me most: obvious features of the painting like the moths, snakes, and frogs; but also the negative aspects of the piece like the black vines and leaves receding into the dark. I wanted these components of the painting to dominate my poem as well, trusting that somewhere behind my fascination with these details was meaning and significance. I really hoped the details could communicate my impression/interpretation of the painting without any editorial, narrative commentary.

EB Being in the position of Poet Laureate of Louisiana puts you into the position as the head of your state’s writing community. What are the best ways writers in your state can get involved with the writing community? Do you have any advice for writers looking for community regardless of location?

JBB Louisiana is blessed to have pilot organizations like the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and regional arts agencies like the Shreveport Regional Arts Center or the Acadiana Center for the Arts which support and feature writing and writers. These statewide and local agencies lead the way in terms of creating and offering programming for writers. There are workshops, readings, and spoken word performances happening all over our state. There are also festivals and events like the Tennessee Williams Festival, the Festival of Words and Music, and the Louisiana Festival for the Book that provide incredible opportunities for writers to connect and to grow as artists. There are also immersive writing experiences like the New Orleans Writing Marathon happening annually that give writers the chance to get out there and write with others. As Louisiana Poet Laureate, I’ve been really privileged to lead many of these initiatives over the past two years, and I’m excited to keep it all going after my term has ended.

My advice to other writers is always really simple: BE a writer, identify yourself as a writer, write in public, connect with other writers if you feel it will help you, find ways to share your words either through traditional publication, sharing with writers’ circles, or taking part in open mic opportunities. More than anything, I would encourage writers to accept themselves as writers, to give themselves permission to write without judgment (or at least be impervious to it!), and to truly value what they create. Extend that acceptance to others, and you have the makings of a beautiful community.

EB Correcting the public’s outdated misconceptions about poetry is something you’re tasked with frequently. What are some strategies you use to get non-poetry readers to interact with and understand contemporary poetry?

JBB I just had the incredible chance to work with a huge group of high school students in the Gear Up! Program who were studying character (in film, in literature, and in the ethics of everyday life) in hope that it might lead to more confidence in themselves as they prepare to write their college admission materials. The whole point of my presentation was to show the value of each individual’s voice. I stressed how much the world absolutely needs their individual voices right now, more so now than any period in history I can think of.

It’s wonderfully rewarding for me to take a group of students like that through a series of first-person narrative exercises and third-person descriptive prompts toward the drafting of poems, to hear their stories, and to see them discover pride in the words they string together. It is truly heartwarming for me to be present when a person realizes there’s nothing more poetic than their own voice, that poetry does not have to be some kind of mysterious Rubik’s cube of symbols, and that their words, and their choices of how to put those words onto a page or into the air, IS poetry.

Once you get someone to realize the value of their own voice and their own words, it’s a quick leap to the realization of the value of ALL voices. And once you can break down all the stigmas and biases in how we engage poetry as a set of arcane forms and rules, as a puzzle or mystery, you make contemporary poetry accessible and welcoming. We are blessed to live in a time of incredible invention and diversity, both in terms of voice and in terms of forms of expression. The more we can celebrate that diversity in the poetry we read, the more we’re able to do so in life.

EB Are there any magazines or journals you’re currently enjoying?

JBB I fall in love with new journals every day! My list just keeps growing, and I really love how easy it is to find great journals online and through social media.

I have tremendous respect for the editors at print magazines like Speak, Orion, Ecotone, The Common, Birmingham Poetry Review, Southern Review, Hudson Review, Image, Ruminate, Sugar House, and many, many others who are able to produce gorgeous issues full of amazing writing issue after issue. As the editor of a print publication myself, I truly understand the pressures of managing printing and postage costs, and I’m in awe of the consistence excellence of the print journals I read.

I’m equally knocked out by the excellence of the online journals I read daily: Pidgeonholes, Okay Donkey, Whale Road Review, The Shore, Waxwing, Cotton Xenomorph, Barren, UCity, Moonchild, Juke Joint, Oxidant|Engine, Rhythm & Bones, Yes Poetry, L’Ephemere Review, EcoTheo Review, Kissing Dynamite, saltfront, Terrain, Burning House, One. I honestly think I could keep typing this list until I passed out from exhaustion! The vision, taste, and dedication to quality and inclusion the editors of these journals display is amazing, humbling really. It’s a joy to have access to the phenomenal poetry they publish, much less to have work featured there!

EB Please speak to how two poems in The Shore (not including your own) are in conversation with each other in meaningful ways.

JBB Two poems from Issue 2 I’ve revisited several times are JK Anowe’s “An Outpatient’s Night at the Psyche Ward” and Chloe N. Clark’s “The Time I Saw the Earth from NASA’s Mission Control.” Both poets employ techniques of perspective, voice, and dislocation masterfully, delivering breathtaking epiphanies so organically I lose my breath reading the lines.

Through setting and the division of body and soul, Anowe’s poem absolutely dislocates reality toward the revelation that “I’m here to die & have no better way / to mean it.” When the poem turns finally to the narrative soul standing over a body in pain and the realization that the external world looms around them waiting like “a fist / around you,” it’s like a GPS pin has been planted right into the spirit of the poem.

Clark’s narrative inhabits an equally dislocated setting, space. Line by line, we journey through the space of memory, the space between what we mean to do and what we actually do, and the spaces we visit to find something. The poem is so effortless in its assertion that staring isn’t always enough; sometimes we have to have patience, to “wait” until it’s time to see. And in seeing that one thing we’ve been looking for, we are often blessed with more, the opportunity to “see / everyone from here.”

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Jack B. Bedell is Professor of English and Coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. His latest collection is No Brother, This Storm (Mercer University Press, fall 2018). Currently, he has been appointed by Governor John Bel Edwards to serve as Louisiana Poet Laureate 2017-2019.

Jack B. Bedell

Jack B. Bedell