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THIBODAUX, LA. (AP) — As a small child, Jay Udall drew pictures that his mom captioned based on his descriptions.

The youngest of six kids, he grew up in the 1960s with The Beatles and Bob Dylan providing a soundtrack for his home life. He started writing songs as a teenager, and music led him to poetry.

Now he’s poet-in-residence and an assistant English professor at Nicholls State University. He recently won the X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize for his sixth book, “Because a Fire in Our Heads,” which he expects to be published in the spring.

Ellen Barker, languages and literature department head at Nicholls, described Udall as a renaissance man.

“He can do a little bit of everything,” she said. “He’s a great poet. He’s very talented. This is a wonderful honor for him and the university, and it’s not an easy prize to get.”

Sponsored by the Texas Review Press at Sam Houston State University, the X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize is named for the American poet, translator and editor. It’s awarded each year for full-length poetry collections.

The title of Udall’s book comes from “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by Irish poet W.B. Yeats. In the first two lines, Yeats says, “I went out to the hazel wood because a fire was in my head.”

Yeats’ poem is about seeking, Udall said. His own book is about seeking spiritual or physical desires and encountering reality, including separateness and violence.

“The book has to tell me what it’s about really gradually,” he said. “It just kind of evolves. This book, for example, has five different sections. It’s actually kind of an arc. I was writing about five things repeatedly. They fall into these five sections; but, altogether, they kind of make up a process.”

Born in Washington, D.C., Udall lived in several states before coming to Louisiana in 2011.

He said he uses poetry as a way to enter an area and respond to it. Places like Grand Isle and the Chauvin Sculpture Garden served as inspiration for some of the pieces in his latest book.

Udall’s father was Interior Department secretary under President John F. Kennedy, and his mother advocated for Native American art.

“It was almost like osmosis because that stuff was just in our house,” Udall said. “My dad was the one who introduced Jack Kennedy to Robert Frost. Frost ended up reading at Kennedy’s inauguration. There was just a lot of art and artists that came through the house, and there was music all the time.”

Udall’s daughter is designing the cover for his upcoming book.

When she was a baby, he learned that she’d only take naps when she was in a stroller.

“I would take her out on the streets and stroll her up and down these hills,” he said. “I realized pretty quickly that I could continue to write poems if I could carry them in my head. I started to memorize. I would repeat the poems over. To this day, I can carry a 40-line poem in my head.”


Information from: Daily Comet,