Interview: Dana Kress on French-Language Poet Laureate Zachary Richard

Zachary Richard
Zachary Richard

Founded in 1968, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) is dedicated to preserving and promoting francophile rights and culture in Louisiana. This week the LEH joins CODOFIL and the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism to announce the selection of Zachary Richard as the first Poète lauréat de la Louisiane française. Richard was selected for the honorary two-year post (2014-2016) because of his outstanding contributions in the field of poetry. Chosen in even years, the French language Poet Laureate’s efforts will complement those of the English language Laureate, currently Ava Leavell Haymon, appointed in 2013 by Governor Bobby Jindal through a process directed by the LEH.  Both poets will be honored at the March 29th Humanities Awards. Buy your tickets here today.

LEH 2011 Humanist of the Year Dr. Dana Kress served as the selection committee’s chair. We spoke with Dr. Kress about CODOFIL, the new position and the poetry of Zachary Richard.

LEH: We’re very excited about the establishment of this new role. Can you tell us the origins of the position?

Dana Kress: This is an idea that has been percolating in the French and Creole-speaking communities of Louisiana for some time but it gained momentum as a result of a conversation between Darrell Bourque, a former Poet Laureate of Louisiana, and Brenda Mounier, at one of the French gatherings at NuNus in Arnaudville in June of last year. Brenda said something like “If we had a French poet laureate in Louisiana, we could….” Her words echoed in Darrell’s mind for several weeks as he thought about the rich pool of French language poets who are writing in Louisiana and he began proposing the idea to people he thought might be interested. Brenda and Darrell’s idea found its way to the Board of CODOFIL who asked me to organize a selection committee and establish criteria that could guide us in choosing our own Poète Lauréat who would represent French and Creole-speaking Louisiana.

LEH: How did the selection committee proceed, and how was Zachary Richard chosen?

Kress: I solicited nominations for individuals who would be able to guide the selection process and asked Mavis Fruge, Amanda LaFleur, Darrell Bourque, and Brenda Mounier if they would be willing to serve on such a committee. Ironically, I didn’t know at the time that the idea for a Poète Lauréat was born out of a conversation between Brenda and Darrell. In addition to this group, the committee included representatives from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, who co-sponsor this award with CODOFIL. After careful study of best practices used across the nation to select state Poet Laureates, the committee finalized the criteria to be used in the selection in the Fall of 2013 and established February 1, 2014 as the first deadline for nominations, a significant moment in French Louisiana history. Zachary was chosen unanimously because he realized very early on how special our language was. Through his poetry he showed us that our French could be more than just an oral language. By example, he showed us that there was beaucoup to write about in our daily lives, our observations, our culture. Most importantly, he showed us that if we didn’t write about ourselves, we would be written about by others who did not know us and knew our history only superficially.

LEH: People around the world know Zach’s music. What should they know about his poetry?

Kress: To date, Zachary has published three volumes of poetry, of which Faire Récolte should be considered a watershed moment in the rebirth of Louisiana letters. This collection inspired an entire generation of Louisiana poets and stands among a handful of works that have given birth to an explosion of creative writing in our French and Creole speaking communities. His concerns as an activist and preserver and explorer of French American and French international cultures are as prevalent in his poetry as in his music; as are his environmental concerns. His aesthetic is all of a piece. There is no separation of ideas and message whether he is writing poetry, songs, blogs, nonfiction, or responding to interviews about his work, his life, his mission as both a citizen and an artist.

LEH: CODOFIL began in 1968 with a mission to preserve the French language in Louisiana, but clearly it’s grown into a larger movement, encompassing diplomacy and economic development as well as education. How do you think the establishment of the poet laureate position will advance that mission?

The advantages that will accrue to Louisiana extend much further than CODOFIL. For instance, our partners, Culture, Recreation and Tourism and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, in fact, all of Louisiana’s citizens are equally enhanced by this recognition of a poetic voice that speaks for a significant part of our citizenry. This post is another opportunity to expand Louisiana’s dialogue with the whole of the Francophone world, of which Louisiana is an exciting and vital part. Recently, Culture has become an important component of economic development. Showing the world the textured culture of Louisiana is good for Louisiana. Having someone as passionate and as eloquent as Zachary Richard articulating his ideas in a form that is not what one expects makes for a new platform from which to communicate ideas about culture, responsible world citizenship, and ideas on which to build educational platforms and initiatives.

LEH: Are there plans for readings and events in coming years to showcase the work of Zachary Richard and poetry from French Louisiana?

The guidelines specify the plans for readings, etc., and Zachary’s letter of acceptance indicates that he is willing to take his role as a poet of Louisiana beyond the borders of his home state. The simple fact that this internationally known artist is our first Poète Lauréat de la Louisiane Française is something that will create curiosity and something that will help others to see the mission of the artist in a new and broader light. Zachary is known to dream big and to make these dreams reality. I know he’s dreaming now, and French, Cajun and Creole Louisiana is eagerly waiting to see where these dreams will take us.

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