Louisiana’s new poet laureate, Ava Leavell Haymon, may owe her success to a spider. A tiny arachnid that spoke to her through the pages of a children’s book she and a class of fourth-graders were writing.
“My chapter just took off,” recalls Haymon. “The book took over. I hadn’t plotted it out or anything. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
But the animals in the book did. She says, unbelievably, they all began talking to her. And the spider — its words were poetry.
“I can remember saying, ‘She’s telling me what I ought to be doing,’” says Haymon, 69. “I took up the work of being a poet as an art form.”
Haymon, who had been a sporadic poet over the years, became earnest in her pursuit of the craft. She took courses and traveled to hear visiting poets. Suddenly, it all came together.
“You have to learn it (poetry writing) like learning to ride a bicycle,” she says, “but it takes longer.”
Writing poetry was one thing; getting it published quite another. At a party, she met poet Sue Owen.
“I had a cache of secret poems by this time, but I didn’t know who to send them to,” Haymon says. “She sent me a list of about 15 venues. She was very generous with her information.”
Haymon sent her poems off to journals and put together a chapbook, a small poetry book of less than 24 pages.
“Pretty soon,” she says, “I had won two national chapbook competitions.”
That led to three books of poetry published by the LSU Press — “I am one of the few Louisiana poets they publish,” Haymon says — and a fourth on the way.
In August, the LSU Press will release “Eldest Daughter,” in which Haymon writes about her life as the daughter of a Baptist minister.
She’s excited to have been chosen as the new poet laureate from a state that she says has everything to do with her writing.
“Louisiana is a wonderful place to write poetry about,” she says. “It has exotic weather, all sorts of ethnic groups and fabulous music. It’s sensory.”
Haymon was born in Greenville, Miss., but grew up mainly in Kansas City, Mo. Her father, she says, “would make us memorize 10 verses of Scripture each week and recite it perfectly, or we couldn’t watch TV.”
Even then, she says, “poetry was down there cooking a lot of stuff in my memory,” and, occasionally, she would put her words down on paper.
“I would have an inspiration, if there was something I wanted to say, something I needed to say,” she says.
At age 15, she met her husband Cordell Haymon when the teenagers both attended a National Science Foundation Institute for Science and Math. The two corresponded while she attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and he went to Rice University in Houston.
After college, they married and returned to Baton Rouge, his hometown, where he went to law school and she pursued a master’s degree in English.
Her first job was editing for a scientific consulting firm that did studies of the Louisiana coast.
“Working there, I learned what a really exotic place Louisiana is,” she says. “It was my first time to have an attachment to the physical place.”
With two children came Haymon’s involvement in their activities. She started the Junior Great Books program for South Louisiana, worked with the Arts Council as an artist in schools, wrote seven plays for the children’s theater group Playmakers and taught some beginning writing classes at LSU.
For the past 20 years, she has taught private poetry writing classes for adults.
In the summer, she heads to her home in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico and spends her time writing and hosting others who come to work. She often conducts classes and workshops and travels nationally doing poetry readings.
Haymon is the fourth poet laureate since the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities took on oversight of the process, which is handled by a committee of about 20 people from across the state. Nominations are made by the public, and the poets then submit biographical information, artist statements and a selection of poems.
The committee ranks the three top choices, and the governor makes the final decision. The poet laureate serves for two years.