Louisiana Poet Laureate By Danielle Ducrest • Photo by Anna Karin Skillen
Ava Leavell Haymon’s career as a poet and poetry advocate began with an attempt to write in rhyme and metric verse, which did not go well. Undeterred, she kept writing. Her prize-winning poems have appeared in literary journals and as four poetry collections. Also an accomplished playwright, Haymon’s plays have been produced by several theatres, schools and theatre workshops in Louisiana and Texas. Haymon was born in Mississippi, raised in Missouri and Texas, and made Louisiana her home in 1965. She taught poetry at LSU and promoted poetry writing as Artist in the Schools in East Baton Rouge Parish, and she’s held an annual summer retreat for writers and artists in New Mexico. A seasoned traveler, she’s also been on spiritual pilgrimages to the Himalayas and to a shrine in New Mexico. In 2013, Haymon was appointed as the 12th Louisiana Poet Laureate, a position that allowed her to continue traveling around the state and the country to promote poetry through a variety of activities. Her most recent anthology, “Eldest Daughter,” was released during this time, and she also became the editor of “The Barataria Poetry Series.” Her 2-year term as poet laureate came to an end earlier this year, and her successor, Peter Cooley, was named in August. Overture spoke to Haymon about her experiences as the Louisiana Poet Laureate, how a fictional talking spider helped to launch her poetry career and why it’s important to write poetry as well as read it. Overture Magazine (OM): Poets laureate may be expected to give annual lectures and live readings of their work, introduce poetry in new locations, encourage poetry writing in schools, and organize annual poetry festivals. They may be asked to write poems for special occasions. Does this describe your duties as Louisiana Poet Laureate? Ava Leavell Haymon (AH): In Louisiana, the official regulations say that the Poets Laureate will “represent poetry” while in the state and will “represent Louisiana” when they are elsewhere. In addition, he/she will give two public readings. The first half of that is grand language but vague; the second is easy to fulfill. This — blessedly — enables the Louisiana poets laureate to make the office whatever they choose. Most have understood the appointment as a service position rather than as simply an honorific. In my own case, the appointment came at a felicitous time. Three things came together and, in fact, within two weeks of each other: my 70th birthday, my last book’s appearance from the publisher (a big work, spanning many years), and the news of the appointment. The coincidence seemed a sign from the beyond, and I was able to throw myself into the job without being preoccupied with a salary job or with finishing off the book. I determined that I’d say yes whenever I was asked to make an appearance. I had wonderful support from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, who contacted schools and librarians all over the state about my willingness to work with them. Many replied. Consequently, I read and led panels and workshops at quite a few literary festivals, led classes in poetry writing in elementary and secondary schools and libraries all over the state, gave many readings, workshops for teachers, led panels, and arranged readings with other poets. I was interviewed on the radio, TV, in print. Whew! And I also had some interesting work outside the state. Most people don’t know what a poet laureate IS, but they all want to see one. People came to poetry readings [even though they] had never been to one before or read a poem since they were in high school or college. And [they] LIKED it.
26 October 2015
Children wrote poems who had never been asked to express themselves before. And they liked that, too. Fortunately, I wasn’t expected to write poems for state occasions. I don’t think the powers of the state would like to hear what I’d have to say to them. OM: Is there anything you wish you’d been able to do as poet laureate but didn’t have the chance? AH: I began a project with the LEH, writing curriculum for elementary school teachers who want to teach poetry writing in their classes. I haven’t finished this, but I intend to. The LEH will have the contacts to distribute this to Language Arts teachers all over the state. OM: You discovered a love of writing poetry in the middle of writing a story about talking gerbils, mice and spiders. Could you explain exactly what happened? AH: I was writing a young adult fiction novel that had escaped my control, and not only the characters but also the plot were inventing themselves as we went along. I was the one typing, but the words surprised me at every turn. There were pet gerbils in the story I’d planned, and to my dismay, they started talking. They began to make up a fairy tale to cheer up their owner, who used to read fairy tales to them and pretend they could listen. After many twists and turns in the gerbil’s new fairy tale, a very shy mouse had to climb down an old stone spiral stairway in the dark and damp cold to retrieve the gold ball of the (obligatory) princess. This was the pinnacle of the story. When he reached the very bottom, deep under the palace, the little mouse found himself in the cave of a spider. She gave him some liquid that made him sleepy, and she spoke in a kind of incantatory rhyme. Now, I am not a good rhymer, and here I was, trying to get a spider dialogue in rhyme and meter. It was very difficult work for me, and I was terrible at it. Somehow, this told me that writing poems was what I should be doing. I abandoned the young adult novel and have been writing poems ever since. I still can’t rhyme and meter a line without suffering over it for a long, long time. Fortunately, very, very few of my poems rhyme or use a fixed meter. OM: You’ve held writing workshops and taught classes for elementary, middle school, high school and college students. That sounds like quite a range. Were your experiences teaching various age groups different or similar? AH: The age span I’ve taught is even wider than that. I taught private poetry writing classes for 20 years, with students ranging from 25 to 80-plus. And teaching all these different age groups has convinced me that we all, from 6 to 100, have the same need for self-expression and an art form that will enable us to do it. And when I’m teaching, I say many of the same things, whether I’m teaching kindergarteners or retirees. OM: Would you recommend that more people attend poetry workshops, even if they don’t consider themselves poets? AH: Sure. But I think the best entrée into reading poetry is to begin to write it, whether the writing is likely to ever be published or not. We may evaluate a poem as “good” or not, but in every case, it is important to the human who wrote it, and it should be treated with great respect. When we read poetry and do not ever write it, we tend to read in order to evaluate or rank poems as better or worse than others. When we have had some experience in writing and are wanting to write more, we read poems — LOTS of them — to see how the poet managed to do what he/she did. To learn more about Haymon’s publications or her upcoming public appearances, please visit her web site at avahaymon.com. Overture Magazine
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