Love of place is a passion as strong as any other. For writer Sheryl St. Germain, love of Louisiana began with a free-range childhood in Kenner, living on Williams Boulevard between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi.
“There were ditches where we would look for crawfish,” she recalls. “Blackberry bushes. I would climb into a tree and read.”
That passion — for place and writing — continued as a young woman, when she studied at Southeastern Louisiana University, coming under the beneficent influence of Louisiana master Tim Gautreaux.
“He told me not to write about New Orleans, but to write about Kenner,” St. Germain remembers. “And there was one other piece of advice: One day he drew a picture of a roach on one side of the board. And on the other side, he wrote ‘Love.’ He said it’s better to write about a roach than to write about love. And by that I knew he meant to always be very specific.”
She took that advice to heart, and her body of work — poems, essays, meditations created over decades of a distinguished career — are shot through with very specific details and images of the beauty and heartbreak of living in Louisiana. So it is that she joins a select company of writers when she’ll be receiving the Louisiana Writer Award at the Louisiana Book Festival on Saturday, Nov. 10, at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
This award places her in the company of such Louisiana greats as Ernest J. Gaines, James Lee Burke, William Joyce, Shirley Ann Grau, and including her former teacher, Tim Gautreaux, right there where she belongs.
St. Germain’s Louisiana roots go way back, almost 200 years. Her mother is a Creole, her daddy a Cajun. She was born in New Orleans, but lived in Kenner from the ages of 5 to 25. Now 64, she lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she directs the creative writing program at Chatham University (also the alma mater of Rachel Carson).
It’s a program that prizes travel and environmental writing, and St. Germain has grappled with environments and cultures around the world, from Indonesia to Ecuador, teaching her students to see, to question, to write.
She’s brought students to south Louisiana to experience life in the swamp, and part of the pleasure of that work is seeing the place anew through their eyes.
Another deep thread in the tapestry of her work is the dark side of life in south Louisiana. “There’s so much vibrancy and passion here, especially in New Orleans — music, food, love of life, but there’s also a dark side to that, a love of excess, of drink. In my own family, we’ve had a lot of problems with drink and drugs and that’s all part of the vibrant messy mess of it all, the family I come from and the place where I come from as well. So, for me, writing about that is a way of honoring it, and making it into a gift. Instead of just living with grief or sadness, it’s important to turn it into something, to make it a present.”
“I think of my walks along Lake Pontchartrain, where there’s all this pollution. And yet there are these crabs and they have this sweet white meat. And even though they live on the yucky stuff at the bottom, they turn it into something good. And poems and essays are that same kind of act of transformation.”
That transformative energy, that spirit of giving in writing, that relentless honesty — all those qualities have spurred readers to follow St. Germain through such works as “Let It Be A Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems,” “Making Bread at Midnight, “Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman” (a passionate memoir-in-essays), “Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair,” as well as her most recent poetry collection, “The Small Door of Your Death.”
The latter collection includes hard-won poems created after the death of St. Germain’s son. “My son died in 2014, and my father and brother both died of issues related to substance abuse. I want writing to be a gift. It’s a sad book on some level, but there’s hope in it. There are so many books written about recovery, but not all of us are recovering. There’s a place for grief, a way to honor the complicated relationships we have with family members who are troubled ... Any parent who has a child that is suffering from a substance abuse is going to have a complicated relationship with them. There will be times when it’s really wonderful, and there will be times when there are lies. There is hope in this book.”
This is an award that comes at a special moment for St. Germain, now that she is getting ready to retire and planning to spend part of every year in her home state.
“The award means the world to me, especially given how much I love Louisiana and how much I've written about it,” St. Germain said. “For a time, I've felt like a native daughter that wasn't always appreciated by her home. Except for ‘Navigating Disaster’ (published by Louisiana Literature Press), I'd been unable to find a Louisiana press to publish a collection of poetry or my other memoir, “Swamp Songs,” which was published by University of Utah Press. I felt Louisiana as a kind of mother I really wanted to love me, and rejoiced whenever a poem or essay was published in a Louisiana-based journal. As time's gone on, I thought I was beyond caring about awards, but the Louisiana Writer Award is so very, very close to my heart. I can't imagine another award that would mean more to me at this time in my life.
“Although I haven’t lived in Louisiana for a while, I come several times a year to visit with my mother and sister, sometimes I come with students from the MFA program I direct, and I try to always make the Book Festival,” St. Germain said. “This year I was scheduled for a book talk about my new book. Festival director Jim Davis and I always correspond via email about events like this, but I got a text from poet Darrell Bourque, saying that Jim needed my phone number, and I wondered why.
“I am the kind of person who always thinks she is in trouble; if the sirens go off, the police are after me, if someone crashes into my bumper, I assume it was my fault. So I gave Darrell my number but immediately started to worry: Why hadn’t Jim just emailed me? He must be canceling my book talk, I thought, and he wants to tell me in person. I texted Darrell, ‘I hope it’s nothing bad.’ ”
“ ‘It’s not,’ Darrell texted back.
“When Jim called later that day, he started off by saying, 'Of course you're doing something already for the festival, l but I need you to do something else.' Here it comes, I thought, I’m not being canceled but they need me to be a moderator for something.
“‘I need you to write an acceptance speech,’” he said, ‘for the Louisiana Writer of the Year Award.’
“And then I had to sit down. ”