Louisiana Poet Laureate Julie Kane on Aligning Her Life With Poetry

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April is gone and with it National Poetry Month. For some, that thirty days of appreciation of the ancient art may be the only time they think about poets and verse or consider how much poetry adds to our lives. Sadly, too, for others, the only time they will hear a poem outside of school may be when someone dies or moves on in some other way.

julie kane

Louisiana's State Poet Laureate, Julie Kane, said in an interview with me earlier this year that people reach for poetry when they seek words that can help them cope with life:

"At funerals, at graduation ceremonies, when we have those milestones in life, when we’re going through big changes, trying to deal with changes in our direction—passages in life—I think we feel a hunger for it, for that language to go with it, to help us make sense of it."

We saw this hunger for poetic words during troubling times recently when the nation faced the tragedy of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15. As often happens in such moments, poems began to appear online about the incident. Some familiar with the work of poet T.S. Eliot may have even recalled the opening of The Waste Land then: "April is the cruelest month," while others may have reached for more comforting poetic thoughts as President Barack Obama did three days later when he turned to a poet's words briefly at the interfaith prayer service in Boston.

Sitting in Kane's home in Natchitoches, Louisiana, on March 15, one month before the bombing, I discussed with her this ability of poetry to engage humans on a deep level and whether poetry still holds the power to comfort and sway hearts. We also discussed how her love of poetry helped her focus her life and how she's grown as a poet.

Video excerpts from my interview with her are below. They tell of her evolution as a poet and woman--from growing up in Boston to becoming a Louisiana transplant, from writing the more personal, confessional verse that you will find in her first two books (Body and Soul and Rhythm & Booze) to introducing her public poet's voice in her most recent collection Jazz Funeral.

Winner of the 2009 Donald Justice Poetry Prize, Jazz Funeral is a collection of sonnets, a form that "makes rational sense," said Kane, "unlike the villanelle [one of the forms featured in Rhythm & Booze] where you’re just dealing with private obsessions, going around and around. In the sonnet you make a statement. You come to a conclusion. You have something to say to others."

On aligning her life with poetry:

Kane was born in Boston, but in 1976 she moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and two years later, she moved to New Orleans. She has lived in Louisiana for more than thirty years now, and you will find the imprint of both Massachusetts and Louisiana in her poetry. Her verse falls pleasantly on the ear and is richly textured; her work contains not only poignant and bittersweet notes but also those that are playful and funny. For example, Jazz Funeral opens with the sonnet "Whisker," in which the female speaker discovers "[s]uddenly, this barb growing out of my chin, / as sharp as the quill on a porcupine: / the fault of a middle-aged shift in hormones, / the dot of the Other in the yin-yang sign."

A substantial number of the poems in Kane's second book, Rhythm & Booze, explore her and her family's love affair with alcohol. Facing that reality, the poet decided to stop drinking after she watched her friend and fellow poet, Everette Maddox, struggle and die of alcoholism. He passed away in New Orleans in 1989, and Kane threw herself more deeply into poetry, committing seriously to pursuing her art as profession. In 2002, Maxine Kumin selected Rhythm & Booze as a winner in the National Poetry Series.

When she learned she had a malignant melanoma in 2000, Kane assessed her life and priorities again. She took off for Lithuania in 2002, having been awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and she also crafted more poems as she coped with the possibility of dying young.

As we all do as we grow older, the poet faced other losses in her life: the death of her father and a dear aunt; the passing of another friend, Robert Borsodi who committed suicide after battling cancer, lack of insurance and unmedicated pain; and the horror of seeing much of her beloved New Orleans seemingly lost forever in the waters of Hurricane Katrina. But Kane is a survivor. From those difficult life experiences sprang Jazz Funeral.

Her decision to give herself over to poetry, to contemplate the hard stuff and make of it a kind of "music box" of language, has helped her mature with the same grace, thoughtfulness, and humor readers find in her work, both free verse and formal. However, writing poetry from an early age, Kane had her first poem published in the Sunday edition of a Boston paper when she was seven years old. She attributes her appreciation of the art form as well as the strong musicality of her verse in part to her Boston Irish upbringing:

"When I was growing up, my family—my family’s very musical, although until this generation no one was professional—but on holidays and everything, when we got together, we’d always sit around the piano and sing, old Irish songs and Broadway show tunes, all of which rhymed and were metrical or measured."

She also credits her move to New Orleans with playing a role in her return to rhythm and rhyme. In an interview with the Jarvis DeBerry of the Times Picayune, she said, "I think I kind of let go of the musicality of poetry. That came back in New Orleans. It was such a noncompetitive, easy-going, exciting, creative place to be."

She told me that before she went off to Cornell University at age 18, she had been exposed primarily to the works of Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and John Donne. At Cornell, she entered a nurturing writing community and a world of contemporary poets writing free verse. She was drawn to the works of confessional poets, such as Sylvia Path, W. D. Snodgrass, and Anne Sexton. However, as a woman who came of age in the sixties and early seventies, she also considers that the music lyrics of well-known singer-songwriters influence her work.

"You know, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell—their beautifully rhymed song lyrics are poetry to me," she said.

After receiving her undergraduate degree from Cornell University, Kane earned a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University, where she studied briefly with Sexton before that poet took her own life. Later Kane earned a doctorate from Louisiana State University, and as you may read in her bio, she has won numerous poetry awards.  Her provocative sonnet "Used Book," for example, won first prize in Open Poetry's 2007 International Sonnet Competition.

On confessional poetry and how writing poetry is sometimes therapy, Kane said that she has some issues that she thinks she will always return to in her work. In the video below, we touch on her exposure to Sexton and two of Kane's poems, "Kissing the Bartender" and "Villanelle for Thel." Both poems are included in Rhythm  & Booze.

Currently, Kane is a professor at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. Before choosing to become a professional poet, she worked for a while as a technical writer but maintained ties with the poetry community. For instance, she was part of a group of poets associated with the early days of poetry readings at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton section of New Orleans.

While our discussion of the losses she's worked through with her writing could give the impression Kane is preoccupied with the somber shades of life, the way the poet has chosen to overcome obstacles, the attention she gives to light verse, and how often she erupts in laughter tell a different story: Kane is a poet who approaches life positively and proactively. I perceive that she will continue to engage her challenges with an ear for the rhythm and rhyme of life, always aligning herself to the call of her first love, poetry.

Additional interviews:

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