Interview with Natalie d'Auvergne, TreeHouse's Artist of the Month

Natalie D'Auvergne, Featured Artist of the Month, June 2013
  Natalie d’Auvergne, Featured Artist of the Month, June 2013

Natalie d’Auvergne was born in St. Lucia, West-Indies. She holds a BA in English from Southern University and dual Master’s degrees from Chapman University in Orange, California, where she studied under James Blaylock, Mark Axelrod, and Dr. Anna Leahy. A writer of fiction and poetry, her work has appeared in 34th Parallel, Tabula Poetica, and Pen tuh Paper. She currently teaches literature and composition at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she resides with her husband Michael and son Gabriel.

How much of your writing is inspired by growing up on the beautiful beaches of St. Lucia? Do the island and its people find their way into a lot of your work?

I used to think it was my duty to represent the entire island with my writing; everything I wrote had to speak to, for, and of my land, my people, my culture, my family, my mother and what I thought was a unique childhood surrounded by those splendid white sand beaches you ask about. In an effort to forever remain Lucian, I tried to capture and share the Lucian tongue. That approach might have made my work seem more original to an American audience, but after a decade of life outside the island I’ve come to realize how restricting such an identity, heavily constructed on nationality, was for my craft and me. We are so much more.

The island and its people still feature strongly in my work, but like mostly everything else we use to construct physical identity, their significance has lessened due to my changing perspective on life. These things are now secondary considerations as I attempt to delve beyond the relative in an effort to recognize and gratefully acknowledge the ultimate role Spirit plays in our existence.

In your poem Lucians at JFK International, you incorporate the Caribbean/West Indies dialect and accent into the work, which definitely lends to its authentic sound. Can you explain your process in doing so?  How does it add to the story you tell?

I confess to eavesdropping on a conversation led by a man who reminded me of my paternal grandfather as I waited for my flight to St. Lucia one year. I enjoyed the familiarity of his accent in that foreign setting and thought it typical of a Lucian to point out everything he thought wrong with the island then proclaim his love for it.

In flight I constructed the poem focusing on the issues he’d raised about money, respect for our mothers and the natural beauty of the place. I wanted to remain true to him, not only by capturing what he’d said but how he’d said it; some things can only be expressed and understood by St. Lucians. When language evolves on an island 238 square miles it takes on qualities not possible to reproduce anywhere else. Every time I go home I notice how the language has changed. Besides, the St. Lucian accent still sounds like home to my ears. I simply wanted to share that love.

You seem to enjoy conducting artist interviews, or at least you have done quite a few of them in the past. What do you like about that type of creative journalism?

I enjoy this medium because I get to pick people’s brains. I’m always interested in learning, so when I get the opportunity to ask someone like Donna Grandin about her spiritual approach to painting, or Lynne Thomson about her need to connect in Beg No Pardon, I go all out and ask the questions I really want answers to. I know their answers will allow some insight into my own need to be creative.

A few years ago you helped organize a poetry, art, and music celebration benefit for your home of St. Lucia, after it was hit by Hurricane Tomas. Tell us a bit about how that experience went for you.

That experience was wonderful!

I am thankful to Dr. Leahy and Tabula Poetica at Chapman University for allowing me the opportunity to lend support to my country in the only way I knew how. I was far away, in always-sunny Southern California, but somehow still able to feel helpful. We raised $500 for the St. Lucia Red Cross and managed to bring a little bit of St. Lucia to Orange County. The benefit featured beautiful artwork by St. Lucian visual artists, Donna Grandin and St. Omer, photography by Stephen Paul and Bill Mortley, steel pan music as well as poetry by Kendel and Jane King Hippolyte, Travis Weeks and Lynne Thompson. Together we transported people to the island, or so I like to think, and a little bit of St. Lucia’s resilient spirit was manifested in the air that night.

After spending years in St. Lucia and Southern California, you now make your home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Has the move influenced your writing at all? Are there any aspects of Baton Rouge that you find similar to either your Caribbean upbringing or to the fast pace of LA? And what about your son – how has his arrival changed your writing habits?

Yes, all of these locations have influenced my creative work in ways I can only try to explain. My formative years in St. Lucia means a deep and lasting belief in magic and God and Spirit. In St. Lucia there is a somewhat automatic acceptance and reliance on things eternally more mysterious than what the five senses can pick up on, or can be proven by science. This affects the way I live my life and inevitable creeps into my writing.

The three years spent in Southern California were otherworldly and desperately needed. You mentioned the fast pace. Well, that was a big change from the small town feel of both St. Lucia and Baton Rouge but I eventually acclimatized. The weather and diverse cultures were conducive to creative growth; however, the real impact on my writing was the MA and MFA programs at Chapman University. I cannot say enough about that.

I first experienced Baton Rouge as an undergraduate, so, returning as a professor is very different. As a student I never imagined the demands of the profession. I must say it is eye-opening to see things from the other side.

My son, Gabriel, makes everything a little more complicated yet absolutely simple, all at the same time. His needs come first so I’m required to strike that perfect balance between all the roles I now play i.e. mother, wife, professor, writer etc. I do what Spirit allows and let go of the rest. Sometimes that means I don’t get to write as much as I would like, but that only means when I do, I appreciate it a lot more.

Follow Natalie’s blog AphroditeAres here:

Read Natalie’s poems in Pen Tuh Paper:

Check out her interview with Grandin in 34th Parallel: