The Poet Next Door
UPTOWN MESSENGER (New Orleans)…September 21, 2014
By Jean-Paul Villere
At some point in all of our academic experiences poetry enters the fold. For some it’s a blessing, others a curse, but for me it became a curiosity. And then as a pup of an undergrad at Loyolasome 20 years ago, I met and had the privilege of being taught by Ralph Adamo, whose classes offered a quiet exploration into language, form and intent.
Until that point in my life I’d always considered poetry melodramatic and esoteric, if not silly. The calm focus Ralph navigated the material made the journey one of intrigue and wonder. I began to really enjoy and even write (gasp!) poetry. Once he even held a class at Carrollton Station, which to any undergrad is a bonus.
Over the last two decades we’ve kept in touch intermittently, and then one recent almost-drizzly evening as I stood in my driveway, end-of-day beverage in hand, likely disciplining one of my brood, Ralph happened to pass by walking his dog. In a very New Orleans moment, someone I hadn’t seen in so long just — appears. And we picked right up where we’d left off, and of course to prolong that magic the Crescent City can conjure, turns out he (now an English professor at Xavier) and his family had recently moved into the neighborhood just around the corner. So our dialogue kept unraveling and here we are:
JV: As an active member of the New Orleans literary community and after decades of teaching and publishing poetry, what stays with you? Is it influences in terms of people that taught you, people you’ve read? Is it life experiences? Like becoming a dad?
RA: Well, I haven’t been very publicly active since my kids were born, so, for most of the 21st century. As my publisher pointed out, people don’t know me locally because I haven’t been hanging out with the poets in town for years now. I guess older people do. However, I have met some of the younger crowd and like a lot of their work and their energy, of course. But your question: All those things stay with me. Those and more, like my continual surprise and delight at language itself and like finally understanding some things I’ve wondered about for years. But yes, certainly being a father, being with my children almost all the time has had a big influence not only on what I might write but on the way I see the world. I have been lucky enough to live through a number of ‘stages’ of life, both in terms of age and experience, and so have perspective that is constantly renewed. I feel less pressured to write now and at the same time, more confident and comfortable writing.
JV: Is poetry still relevant to the overly-distracted social media smart phone populace of today? Why / why not?
RA: If I understand your question, I think yes. For one thing, more and more people seem to be doing some version of poetry writing (if not reading). The electronics are developments we need to accommodate and assimilate into our work and our world-views. I have consistently preferred to compose at a computer since the ’90s, and now have found the little pretend-yellow notepad on my iPhone a perfect place to compose, at least briefly. It has mostly replaced the small and large notebooks I used to carry from my youth into my middle age. Of course, you probably mean something more profound and cosmic by the question, and to that I also say yes. We don’t really -– or most of us don’t -– have the option of not going forward with our own culture. So we use it, shape it, try to figure out how to make it hold onto the values and other things we don’t want to lose. But it’s always a struggle, and we won’t know who has prevailed or what for a long time to come. As for ‘social media,’ I have gotten on Facebook because of my new book, because I am told I have to in order to let anyone know that it is here. But I see social media and the new connectivity mostly as a great thing, however much it is a nuisance to me personally.
JV: What’s your earliest memory writing?
RA: Earliest memory writing… Well, seriously, meaning for what I wrote to be eternal and immortal, maybe some poems that began leaking out (pouring out, I guess, really) in sixth and seventh grade. I had already begun writing stories, but mostly just imitations of what I was reading. I have to say, the poems my son and daughter are writing now in 8th and 6th grade respectively, are light years better than what I wrote then. Part of it is talent, no doubt, but it is also that they are being taught to write by smart people, and exposed to really good work. When I started, I was essentially on my own. In high school, I finally found another student, my friend Emmett, and a teacher, Jim Heiter, who read the poems I wrote. That was a breakthrough, just being read. And I remember Emmett saying well, these are good but you’ll look back on them and realize they weren’t as good as you think now because the new ones will be better. Not that I’m going to do it, but I could still recite the first poem I wrote, a kind of pastoral that was very green, very rhythmic.
JV: Tell me about your newest publication. Where does it come from?
RA: My new book, Ever, is an odd project for me. Aside from my first full collection (Sadness at the Private University, 1977), which was 20 poems picked out of a manuscript of maybe 50 poems by Frank Stanford, who published it under his Lost Roads press, my books have mostly been collections of poems all written within a year or so. The earliest of these Ever poems goes back to 2000, and so the period includes several jobs, the births of my kids, the World Trade Center bombing and subsequent wars, Katrina, moving house several times, a number of deaths of people close to me as well as of friends in a wider scope, the comings and goings of pet animals, and on and on. Fourteen years worth of living, during which my primary way of composition was to snatch a bit of time here and there and write something white hot and then forget about it, forget even writing it until later. What I did in the last year was begin to organize all the bits and pieces, some into poems where they seemed to fit together. A few, like my slightly tongue-in-cheek farewell to Limbo, were whole separate poems from the beginning. It is, overall, more elegiac than I expected, though I hope it contains and conveys some happiness as well. The language in it is all over the place – some prose poems, some closely rhyming poems, some oddly disjointed poems… I hope it holds together as a book.
JV: What’s more important: the meaning of a word or the sound of a word? Or is that even answerable?
RA: Your question about sound versus meaning is a great question in poetry. Unanswerable, as you say. But I believe that sound is the equal of sense as far as that goes – the way the word hits you physically along with the ways it hits you emotionally, intellectually. The great poems all have high levels of impact from both aspects. That’s what makes them great. It’s also what makes some of the distinctions we force into the discussion of poetry seem a little abstract and unnecessary. Poetry has always been a deeply physical undertaking, as well as a spiritual, intellectual, verbal one.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street and a married father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.