Bedell, Jack B.

When Jack Bedell began writing poetry in college, he thought he should emulated the great Romantic masters, poets such as Colleridge, Wordsworth, and Blake. A teacher pulled him up short. "You've got talent," he was told, "but everyone who writes like you is dead."
He was handed a book of contemporary poetry by a writer "who just told stories," remembers Bedell. "It opened up a world of what poetry could be."

Poetry, Bedell came to realize, could be his forum for telling "things that I hear in my head, stories, things I've lived through." It has become his way of exploring, understanding, documenting and, through all of this, preserving his roots.

Jack Bedell's roots are Acadiana, specifically the Acadiana of southeast Louisiana. Poetry and culture are inseparable in the works of the young Houma native, works that have already brought him national recognition. His poems have been published in literary journals such as Kansas Quarterly and Aethlon and in LSU Press's anthology of Louisiana poets living and dead, Something in Common. His collection, Sleeping with the Net-Maker, was awarded the prestigious Devil's Millhopper Chapbook competition sponsored by the University of South Carolina. His role as poetry editor of Southeastern's Louisiana Literature has helped the award-winning publication gain a reputation as one of the best places in America for a poet to be published.

Southeastern has now joined the ranks of those praising Bedell by naming him the 1997 winner of the President's Award for Excellence in Artistic Activity.

Writers are always told to write about what they know. Bedell knows the saltwater marshes and cypress swamps of southeast Louisiana and his poems reflect "the images and experiences common to our region -- cleaning redfish, hunting teal, listening to the broken tones in an old oil-field hand's voice for our future," he said.

"I think I have an innate urge that might be cultural to tell a story," Bedell said. Through his narrative poetry, "I try to make some sense of my culture and provide some accurate representation of the landscape and the people and the activities where I was raised," he said.

Where he was raised, kids weren't particularly encouraged to go to college, Bedell admits. He decided to go, however, "because I wanted to learn to play the drums, which I've played since I was four, and I really kind of wanted to go to law school." As an All-State musician, he attracted the attention of Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. "Northwestern called up and said they'd pay for everything and I said, I guess I'm coming to Natchitoches. Where is Natchitoches? Get out the map,'" laughed Bedell.

"That was a far north as I ever wanted to be," he said, "but the next thing I knew I was at the University of Arkansas getting a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing." He was lured even further away from southeast Louisiana by University of Arkansas' creative writing teachers -- writers such as Miller Williams (who read the inaugural poem at President Bill Clinton's last swearing-in), Bill Harrison, Jim Whitehead and Heather Ross Miller. "They were my favorite writers. They could have been teaching at the University of Poland and I would have gone there," Bedell said. After getting his degree, he took a teaching job at University of Missouri at Rolla.

"I walked out of a contract up there to come home," Bedell said. "I felt everything that I thought I was creeping away from me. I really think it's important to have a sense of place. I could lie and say mine was somewhere else, but I knew I was never going to be a Missourian and I was never going to be an Arkansan. I was never going to be anything other that what I am."

Hammond isn't Houma, but Bedell says he still feels at home at Southeastern. He brings a "missionary goal" to teaching, he said. "I know it sounds hokey, but I've been taught by so many wonderful teachers. Heather Miller was a student of Randal Jarrell's. She taught me out of her notebook of notes from him. I feel the burden of a legacy. It would be flat out immoral of me not to try to pass the knowledge on."

Bedell said his Southeastern colleagues such as fellow writers Norman German and Tim Gautreaux call him "the angry youth" because of his passion about poetry. His art's tradition of craft and form are important to him and he can get fired up talking about it.

"A lot of people hear poetry and think berets and turtlenecks and bongos," said Bedell. "It's perpetuated in the media and in anthologies that free verse poets and beatnik coffeehouse people are poetry. It's tough to try to convince students that they should read formalists and learn craft, because these aren't in our anthologies. They've been taken out one by one, leaving Robert Frost. He's a great poet, but he wasn't alone and our books tell us that he was."

Stephen L. Gardner, the editor who published Sleeping with the Net-Maker, says of Bedell's own craftsmanship, "His flair for and use of language are clean and compelling. He tells an interesting story -- and he tells it well. He understands character, can manipulate line,.and brings music to the page. In short, his poetry is strong, solid, approachable, and -- by God! -- interesting."

"Jack Bedell is an artist who means business," said Heather Ross Miller. "He does not live in an ivory tower, but in Louisiana, a real place where: 'I am seven again,/ lying down in the cane/ with my back in the cool dirt,/ things moving around me' and 'The house grows out of the marsh,/ each board grey and splitting/ like saxophone reeds,'...His words brings the history, beauty, and power of his native place to life. He seeks to reflect Louisiana and the existence of its people, tragic, funny, heartbreaking, crazy, and magnificent."

I try to get it done right," said Bedell. " Poetry for me is an opportunity to control elements -- visual elements, sound elements, imagery -- to make something as real as you possibly can make it and as accurate and true on something that comments on the human condition. If you can't do that you're wasting people's time."

Bedell is proud that his friends from Houma compliment him on his poetry's accuracy, although his father, a retired Texaco production engineer, can be a tough critic. "It goes from being an enjoyable thing to being a worthless thing to him if you miss one detail," he said. "If I call a derrick a rig, it's just all wrong!" His older brother, who works in the oil fields, often shows up in his poetry. "He takes a bad rap in some of the poems, but I love him to death. He'd rather have teeth pulled than do my job and I share the same feeling for him. I'm 'college away' from wearing white rubber boots, being in the oil field, being on a shrip boat. I'm happy every day that I ended up in college."

"My friends are shocked when they see my name somewhere as teaching at Southeastern," Bedell laughed. "They thought I would have been a football coach or a musician. They're shocked that I'm teaching English. It's funny, but I don't feel shocked. I'm not suited to do anything else."

When he's not writing poetry and teaching, Bedell reverts to another part of his roots, his music. A classically trained percussionist, "I was that little kid on the school bus carrying the snare drums down the aisle," he said. He is member of a local heavy metal band called "Nail Boss," which has its own compac disk out. He also loves to mountain bike, but confesses to "a lazy streak." "There are few things I like better than turning all the lights off and just sitting and listening to music," he said. "I just bought a house, so I have a porch now. I'm practicing to be a 90-year-old porch sitter."

And he's striving to be the best poet he can be, knowing that it's a never-ending "learning process."

"I have made it my goal to create an accurate, personal, and comfortable account of Acadian culture in my poetry," said Bedell. "I hope the work I have produced and published to this point shows the effort."
--Christina Chapple