When the call came, Jack Bedell thought it was rejection on the line.
“I was walking across campus at Southeastern,” says Louisiana’s new poet laureate. “I saw it was the governor’s office and thought it was a courtesy call saying politely I hadn’t been selected. Then it dawned on me. I was stunned.”
“I never really thought it would go anywhere.”
Jack Bedell, 51, has been Louisiana’s poet laureate since mid-August. The professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond has been a finalist three times. Vetting is a little less strict than for the Nobel, but rigorous nevertheless. Candidates are evaluated by scholars, editors and poets for their resumes and work.
What exactly does a poet laureate do?
There's the obligatory public readings at least once a year, and they write commissioned pieces if requested. But now, and Bedell credits former poet laureate Darrel Bourque with the change, the two-year term is no longer just a ceremonial job.
“It’s a functional working position now with an agenda,” he says. “Now I have to make sure it was a good decision.”
Bedell’s own active two-year agenda is focused on poetry in schools.
“I’m committed to showing them the power of language at a young age,” says Bedell, who has lined up workshops for high school teachers and to encourage younger writers "to take their voice out for a run.
“I’ve not turned down anything yet.”
One priority of the governor’s office in selecting the poet laureate is that he or she engage Louisiana. A native of Houma, Bedell’s family has resided there for generations.
“I took this job at Southeastern because it was as close to home as I could get. I couldn’t get back to Houma,” he explains.
Atchafalaya, Terrebonne Parish, Hammond — all find context or subtext in Bedell’s free verse.
“I’m attracted to writing that pushes the boundaries," he says. "It’s definitely not in closed form.”
His writing process is more organized.
“One thing I learned early was I’m not a big fan of joy riding,” he says with a laugh. “I like to know where I’m headed; I like an itinerary. Unless I know where a poem is going, I’m uncomfortable. I respect improvisation, but it’s not me.”
Bedell works when he can and finds meeting weekly with writing partners productive. His poems are built around narrative, a story or an episode, and he pre-routes a poem based on frames or flowcharts of that moment. The images and movement of a story already exist so when he sits down to write, he knows the goal.
“Things in life announce themselves,” he says. “As a writer, I archive moments I consider beautiful or important.
“I don’t just sit down and hope to be inspired. I come completely prepared.”
Writers’ notebooks have never worked for Bedell, and he writes exclusively on electronic devices — iPad, iPhone, laptop — using Scrivener writing software that allows him access to research and composition using split screens.
Despite the lofty title of poet laureate, Bedell is no ivory tower academic and once spent a decade as an arena football sportswriter.
“They advertised for writers, and in my heart I said, ‘I can do this,’” he explains. “It wasn’t a planned thing. It was a real joy to do games. Just another kind of story to write.”
For Bedell, writing in general wasn’t planned, and there was no one moment when he realized he’d become a writer.
“It never dawned on me. I went to college on a music scholarship and maybe plans to go to law school," he recalls. "While I was there, I took a creative writing class and the teacher told me, ‘Everything you’re doing is awful, but you don’t have to stay awful.’ I thought poetry was Coleridge and Blake, and I was the Cajun William Blake.
“Then he gave me a book by R.S. Gwynn that showed me how personal and place-based poems could be. There was no turning back after that.”
The author of nine books himself, Bedell reads constantly and admits to being influenced by James Dickey.
“There is no end to how many voices you can encounter and so many that deserve our attention,” he says.
Jack Bedell reading
The poet laureate will read selections from "Revenant" and "Bone-Hollow True"
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10
WHERE: The Paul and Lulu Hilliard Art Museum, 710 E. St. Mary Blvd., Lafayette
ADMISSION/INFO: Free and open to the public. (337) 482-2278
DETAILS: The reading will conclude with a Q&A and book signing.