Julie Kane, whom Gov. Bobby Jindal named as the state’s poet laureate for 2011 to 2013, finds inspiration in Louisiana.
“Louisiana has such a strong culture and sense of place,” she says. “With such strong traditions and customs, you can’t help but be influenced and inspired.”
Kane grew up in Massachusetts, married a man from Louisiana, and the couple moved from the Northeast to Baton Rouge. Kane had been to Louisiana only once previously, and the change took some getting used to.
“It was June, and I was in absolute shock at the heat,” she says. “I thought the coffee was undrinkable when I first got here.”
Kane worked as a technical writer in Baton Rouge to put her husband through school, but, she says, “It wasn’t what I loved and didn’t give me any opportunities to bring poetry into my work.”
What she loves, of course, is poetry.
“I started writing as soon as I could print words,” she says. “I started writing poems, and for many years I hid my poems. I’d fold them up in squares and hide them in my underwear drawers.”
It wasn’t until college that Kane began letting the world in on her poetry.
“I took a creative writing course in college, and I started reading aloud to classmates and publishing my poems,” she says.
But it wasn’t easy at first: “I was so afraid. When you’re first starting out, poetry feels like yourself stripped bare. Fortunately the response was good and encouraging. I started taking myself seriously.”
When Kane and her husband divorced, she moved to New Orleans, where her experiences influenced her work in Jazz Funeral and Rhythm & Booze.
“I had been to New Orleans a couple of times, and part of me thought it would be interesting to live in New Orleans for a year before probably going back to Massachusetts,” she says. “But I fell in love with it, and it turned into 17 years.”
She became a fixture of the Maple Leaf Bar literary scene; its Sunday afternoon events have become the longest-running poetry readings in North America.
Kane, now a professor of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, relies on a “spark of fascination” to ignite her poetry.
“Something lodges within me,” she says. “It’s like a grain of sand in an oyster, irritating the oyster until it comes out a pearl. Something will stick like
that, and eventually a poem will result.”
Kane is only the third writer to be named Louisiana’s poet laureate under the current peer selection process. The relatively new process
begins with a public call for nominations, of which there were 14 this year.
A selection committee whittles down the nominees to three, says Michael Sartisky, president and executive director of Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Sartisky authored the state statute guiding the selection process.
The panel then turns over the three names to the governor, who makes the final selection.
Although Kane knew she was a nominee, she didn’t expect to make it any farther.
“I was surprised to be in the final three,” she says. “I was very honored, but I figured that was as far as I would go. Then, to my shock, I was in my office before class, and I had an e-mail from the governor. I did scream when I opened it. I thought: ‘Is this real? Is someone putting me on?’”
As poet laureate, Kane is encouraged to make public appearances and promote poetry in the state, though her only official duty is giving a public reading. She’ll serve a two-year term.
“It’s more an honorific,” Sartisky says, “to recognize a lifetime of work.”