Conducted via e-mail by Celeste Roberts, a former student of Dr. Middleton’s at Nicholls State University,
9 September 2013
- How long have you been working on The Fiddler of Driskill Hill?
My first book, The Burning Fields (LSU Press), came out in 1991; it was submitted in 1989. My second book of verse with LSU Press, Beyond the Chandeleurs, came out in 1999. It was submitted in 1996. There is almost always a gap between submission, acceptance, the editing process, and publication, and this gap has grown in recent years. Presses have many submissions (most of which are rejected but still have to be read), and one must wait one’s turn in line to be accepted, evaluated, edited, and published. After my first two books, I needed a break from writing about Louisiana (both north and south) and became interested in writing poems on the pictures of 19th-century French artist Jean-François Millet (1814-75). So, I spent 2000-2003 writing the sixty 16-line poems in that book: The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet. Millet painted scenes of rural farm life in his native Normandy. Gruchy was his hometown (a village). Millet was born a peasant and grew up doing farm labor. Millet’s farm workers parallel the rural Louisiana I knew growing up in north Louisiana. I submitted the Millet poems as a book LSU Press in 2002. It appeared in 2005. Worldwide, Millet’s painting “The Angelus” is the best-known painting by a French artist. The last poem in my book is on that painting. The Millet book was a departure from my usual themes/settings – Louisiana, The South, family, etc. Therefore, when I began planning the book that became The Fiddler of Driskill Hill, I drew on non-Millet poems written between 1996 (the year Chandeleurs was submitted) through 2007. I submitted Fiddler to LSU Press in November of 2008. It appeared in October of 2013. The delay is explained by LSU Press’s having quite a number of poetry books to bring out before mine. (LSU Press, though located just up the road in Baton Rouge, is one of America’s 2-3 leading presses for poetry. Only about 5 of its 100+ poets are from Louisiana.) I did add 1-2 newer poems from 2008-10 or so to the final version of Fiddler.
- Compared to your other books of poetry, how is Fiddler similar? How does it differ?
Fiddler returns to my perennial settings – Louisiana, the South, family, friends – and the themes of love, death, religion, nature, family life, the complex history of the South including issues of race, farming life, celebration of other characters – my father mother, uncle, cousin, a Civil War soldier, a poet friend who had cancer, a father’s grief for a daughter who died at only ten, a farm wife, an Acadian traiteur, many others. It differs from Gruchy in being about subjects close to those of my first two books. It differs from these two books in being written throughout in a somewhat simpler style and, most importantly, in seeing life now from the perspective of a poet in “early old age” (I am 64). I try to write poems that are not going to “date” – are not topical, not about today’s news There are, however, two poems on hurricanes in Fiddler, one based on Katrina.
- Is there a certain place where you prefer to write poetry?
In my retirement, as Professor Emeritus of English, I have an office at Nicholls where I work MTWTh&F mornings. I also work in my study at home. I tend to write mornings and afternoons, not often nights at my age. (I need regular sleep hours.) I am either writing poems, thinking about a new poem to write, or reading and thinking about human life in hopes of finding a new poem therein. This is what in one poem I called “the habitude of craft.” I write a first draft with a black ballpoint pen on yellow legal pads, then edit on computer. I need that old-fashioned pen-to-hand-to-paper flow for the first draft.
- What is the poetry writing process like for you? How often do you find yourself revising lines or consulting others for feedback (if you do so)?
I revise many times, I’m more like Beethoven than Mozart in that respect. I do a good deal of cancelling of lines and words, use big dictionaries and a Roget’s thesaurus, and go through draft after draft until I reach the best version of the poem I can manage to compose. I have a small number of close poet friends who read my poems when newly composed. One is Mr. Lindon Stall, my lifelong friend, fellow poet, and a retired English teacher at Nicholls. Another reader is Dr. William Bedford Clark, the nationally known Robert Penn Warren scholar, a fine poet, and by chance, my brother-in-law.
- What is poetry to you? How does it affect who you are and your life?
I define poetry technically as “composition in meter.” Whether traditional formal poetry or good free verse, poetry should maintain a regular rhythmical pattern. (I don’t write free verse myself but enjoy it when it is done well.). More broadly, poetry is a way of bringing heart and mind together to ponder in language the mystery of the human condition and the universe as a whole with a sense of wonder. I am never bored. Life is too short. Think of the long odds that each human being beats just to be born from what is in and comes from a woman and a man to make life yet, relatively speaking, so rarely does. You will take my point. Poets pull the scales of habit, custom, and boredom from our eyes so we can see the world in all its beauty and, yes, its terror and evil as well. I write poems to share with others, not just for myself. I want readers to read a poem and say “Yes, that is just the way it really is. He’s moved my heart by saying things I’ve felt a long time but couldn’t quite put into words.” I am not a self-centered poet or one who engages in self-promotion or self-display. Poetry is my calling in life – just as some feel called to be a priest or a doctor or a teacher or a homemaker. I believe that God gives us all one or more gifts. It is up to us to discover and develop these gifts both for the satisfaction it gives us and for sharing for the good of others.
- What do you hope The Fiddler of Driskill Hill will give readers?
The pleasure of recognition, enjoying the music and words of poems that speak in what in what I have called “the language of the heart” about common, sharable human experiences. I write poems for general readers, not just fellow poets or academics. In that regard, I take Robert Frost as my model.