Poetic Louisiana: Professor thrives with verse

The Courier (Houma, La.), 25th June, 2003

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Middleton

It is a peaceful evening at David E. Middleton's home in Thibodaux. He grabs a pen and a stack of paper from his desk and paces over to his rocking chair.

But as the distinguished service professor of English is about to concentrate in the quiet, his 16-year-old daughter switches the television to MTV and cranks up the volume. Although he claims to have adapted to the environment, he attempts to counteract the loud music by playing his Gregorian chant CD.

"I can work in all atmospheres now," he says with a smile. "If you're oversensitive to having the perfect atmosphere, you'll never get anything done."

Middleton gets back to work. Instead of grading papers for his English literature class, he writes a poem. Middleton is not only an English professor, but poet-in-residence at Nicholls State University, a title he earned in 1992, a year after his first poetry book was published.

As a result, Middleton teaches one less class than most English professors. But he has to write poetry with his extra time. "It's kind of a tradeoff," he says. "They give me some time to work on poetry and I help boost Nicholls.

"I write when I have time. My first responsibilities are teaching, family and church. Poetry comes after those, but I love writing poetry. I don't spend too much time socializing, so I use the extra time to write."

Middleton has written more than 300 poems in 28 years. "I've actually written more, but a lot of those were early poems that I don't consider worth printing or preserving. As far as mature poems, the first one came out in 1974."

A poetry editor for several national literary publications, Middleton has written three full-length paperback collections along with six chapbooks. The full-length collections consist of 60 to 70 pages, while chapbooks contain 12 to 24 pages. "I tend to publish the smaller collections every two to three years and a full-length collection every five to eight years," he says. "The full-lengths incorporate poems from the smaller collections along with newer ones."

His latest full-length collection, "The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by J.F. Millet 1814-1875," was recently accepted by the Louisiana State University Press and will be released in 2005. Printed in 1999, "Beyond the Chandeleurs" became Middleton's second collection and his latest one available in bookstores. The book was named after the Chandeleur Islands of the Louisiana coast.

LSU Press published Middleton's first full-length collection, "The Burning Fields," in 1991. The burning of sugar-cane fields during the autumn season influenced this book's title. "If you grew up around here, you know that was a beautiful sight at night as you see that fire burn across the field," he says.

An excerpt:

_Along the rows of stubble where the mold

Of tie vines and the false poinsettia froze

Cupped matches struck by the older men

Kindled in undergrowth a steady flame_

Since Middleton began writing before the popularity of computers, he uses a pen and legal size paper to develop his poems. "I still don't feel comfortable composing on the screen," he says. "The first draft always has to be the old-fashioned way."

Middleton's poems use modern language and are based on his personal experiences.

"I spend a lot of time on each poem," he says. "Sometimes it may take me from three to four weeks to develop a poem. And every now and then, I spend a couple of months on poems that take up more than one full page."

His first two collections focus on life in Louisiana, family and history of the South back to Civil War times. As a native of northern Louisiana and resident of south Louisiana, Middleton says he has an expanded knowledge of the differences of the two regions.

"The culture, the religion, the customs, the landscape, swamps and marshes versus tiny little hills and soybeans. It's interesting to write poems about these different areas of the state."

But Middleton tends to focus more on northern Louisiana when writing his poetry.

"One thing I'm very proud of is that I'm a north Louisiana native by birth and I get to write a number of poems about that area."

While many poems have been written about New Orleans and the Cajun culture, Middleton is an original when it comes to writing about northern Louisiana.

"That's the next best thing to virgin territory for poets," he says. "I'm one of the first to write serious poems about that part of the state, starting back in the early 1980s. Most people who aren't from Louisiana naturally think about the part south of Baton Rouge. I was fortunate to come from a place that did not have much writing competition."

For example:

_Through North Louisiana's pinewood hills

I saw the pale boards brighten in the sun

The white and pink oxalis lining the walk

Where bold moss-roses welcomed back the day_

Born in Shreveport in 1949, Middleton says poetry has been a part of him since birth. When Middleton's parents brought him home from the hospital as an infant, they set a semicircle of baby books around his head. "From that point up until I was 9 or 10, I had so much literature and poetry put into me that I drank it in just like it was part of the natural world," he says.

Raised as a Southern Baptist, Middleton and his family read verses from the King James translation of the Bible over breakfast every morning. "Those verses are so beautiful in the old English style and are very poetic. That was also a major influence on me," he says.

Poetry, however, did not become a passion for Middleton until his ninth-grade teacher, Ruth Day, encouraged him to write. After having the class write a short story, she recognized Middleton's outstanding writing potential more than her other students. "I was about 15 and spent the next several summers writing," he says. "I soon found out that fiction was not my strong point, but poetry was. I began writing poetry on my own and continued through high school."

That trend continued for Middleton as an undergraduate student at Louisiana Tech University from 1967-71, where he earned his bachelor's degree in English. Several of his poems were published in The Tech Talk, the campus newspaper. He then sent poems to small journals around the nation.

"Two or three poems got accepted here and there," he says.

Although that was a start for Middleton, he did not flourish as a major poet until graduate school at LSU from 1971-77 where he earned his master's and doctorate degrees.

"LSU is where I got my best schooling as a poet," he says. "I was studying under Dr. Donald Stanford, who edited the Southern Review, which is our state's literary quarterly published at LSU. He made a great impact on my poetry and me."

The late professor of English taught Middleton how to write in metrical or traditional poetry, a form that brought out the best in Middleton. "That's the old fashioned kind that rhymes and has a certain number of syllables per line, rather than free verse where anything goes. The demands of the set form, where you have to count syllables and make the rhyme work, are my favorite. I need that restriction."

As Middleton writes in "The Heron at the Weir," a poem dedicated to Stanford:

_His gaze seems fixed and icon-like

Till beak and eye by instinct strike

Taking a prey that never heeds

The reedy legs it sees as reeds_

Middleton says while people tend to think of LSU Press as just a local publishing company, it is actually an international and prestigious group. "They publish poets from Canada, England, and Ireland," he says. "So although it is located close by in Baton Rouge, only five or six of poets of about 100 poets are from Louisiana. It is one of the most distinguished presses in the country for poetry."

Middleton's most popular poem, "The Sunday School Lesson" from "Beyond the Chandeleurs," is also his favorite. The poem takes place during a Sunday School lesson at a Southern Baptist church in Saline, La. during the early 1960s. Middleton was 13 years old at the time.

"The guy who led the Sunday school class didn't really care to talk too much about the Bible," he says. "But one time he got serious about a specific lesson." Middleton and the other teen-age boys were amazed that the teacher was teaching on a serious topic.

It is one Middleton is often asked to read:

_At last he slowly read, then half-recited

In a strong drawl which measured out of King James

Those passages in Matthew were affrighted

Disciples cried to Jesus as He came_

"I like it because it's written in rhyming quatrains (four lines grouped together at a time) and I took something from my own life."

Middleton says he will continue to write poetry for as long as he is able. "I love poetry and I love writing about my experiences," he says. "It'll be a few more years before the next full-length collection is written, but hopefully I'll have many more."

While poetry has a smaller audience than most forms of literature, Middleton says he is pleased by the reception of his poetry.

"The reviews by other famous poets who have read my book surprise me the most," he says. "Those reviews that LSU Press prints on the back of my books have really been an honor."

Catharine Savage Brosman, an internationally-known poet also from Louisiana, writes: "Middleton is among the most accomplished of southern poets now writing and the prominent voice of Louisiana in verse today."

X.J. Kennedy, a national award-winning poet, agrees with Brosman, writing that Middleton is "making poems of great clarity and distinction ... (and) readers will cherish his work."

While others have influenced and encouraged Middleton, the favor has been returned as former students improve their poetry because of his guidance.

"Dr. Middleton helped enhance my poetry skills by showing me various fundamentals of the major poets," says Farren Clark, mass communication senior from Harvey. "I like how he helped us learn from peers. He put us in circles and let us critique each other's work. That helped out a lot."

Middleton's poetry creative writing class students produced 19 of 31 poems printed in the 2003 Mosaic, the Nicholls' annual literary magazine.

Olivia Pass, professor of languages and literature at Nicholls, says Middleton is one of the best poets she has ever read or heard. "He and Catharine Savage Brosman rank, in my opinion, as not only two of the top poets in Louisiana, but two of the best nationally. David Middleton's poetry has a spirituality and humor that is so human, yet so divine."

While Middleton is seemingly pleased with the reception of his works, Pass disagrees, saying her friend is often overlooked. "He's a great poet and I think many people take his work for granted."

Pass believes poems like "Night Fears," dedicated to his daughter, backs up her claim:

_Then kissing you goodnight

I sit in the dark alone

And wonder if you might

Recall when I'm gone

And it is you instead

Whose own night-frightened child

Stands crying by your bed

With eyes so wide and wild

How you too sobbed in fright

For one no longer here

who brought a little light

And held you warm and near_

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