Archives for posts with tag: poetry

I stepped in gum on my way to a poetry reading this weekend. I was baffled and infuriated: First, who chews gum? Where are these ditzy blonde secretaries or sleazy agents in wraparound shades that, to my knowledge, are the only people left on the planet who get a kick out of gnawing Juicy Fruit? I’ve never seen anyone like that in New Orleans.

Second, who does not know the obvious result of discarding gum on the ground, the prolonged aggravation some innocent walker-by will undergo while having to scrape something impossibly both rock-hard and grossly gooey from the bottom of his shoe? Whoever spat it: Let him be hanged.

My aggravation was not totally a result of the gum. The poetry reading I went to intended to recognize the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which was Sunday, and among those featured was Yusef Komunyakaa—a Louisiana native now living in New York and a poet recently of great interest to me. Of course, in a gesture that affirms the robust humility that seethes from his work, Komunyakaa volunteered to read among the first poets instead of in the “headlining” spot at the end, where he belonged. And, of course, me—I’m always late for everything. He had finished by the time we got there.

I retreated to the bathroom after the event in search of some privacy in which I could attempt to chisel the remainder of the gum off my shoe—that which I hadn’t already rubbed into the fine fibers of Tulane’s auditorium’s carpet. I was leaning on a sink, making good progress, when I realized someone was in the bathroom with me, in a stall.

I began to daydream that it was Komunyakaa, and that after all I had gone through—the long wait at the sandwich shop which made us late in the first place; the drive across town during which I listened intently (obsessively?) to the noises my car made that increasingly suggest I’m going to need new struts; the rain; the gum on my shoe; missing Komunyakaa; Brenda Marie Osbey’s over-zealous expositing of mediocre verse; the bored, pompous look on Peter Cooley’s face throughout—this journey would have an extraordinary element after all. Komunyakaa would emerge from the stall while my foot was still in the air, my sole toward my face, gum in plain sight. I would glance up and recognize him, and he would see that I recognized him but that I was not overly awed or nervous in his intimate presence. He would gather that I’d read his work and appreciated it, and then he would look at the gray gum on my shoe and back up at me, and there would be a knowing connection between us.

In his effortless baritone he would tell me a story of how, once in Bogalusa when he was a boy, he too had memorably stepped on a piece of gum. The story would take place on a hot, muggy day, and would likely involve his father. It would illuminate the way in which we often learn one thing from a person who’s trying to teach us something completely different—or, how the lessons we receive from our well-meaning elders take on new shapes and proportions as they grow inside us during our path to adulthood. It would end with some line that would make me long for home, because I, like Komunyakaa, grew up in a small, crappy town and spent a good part of my life struggling to put it behind me, only to realize that this was impossible. He would only take a few sentences to achieve all this, and then he would wash his hands and walk out.

A college student in sandals and a white t-shirt was awkwardly maneuvering around me. I was blocking the paper towels. I put my foot back on the floor and returned to the lobby, where I ate a plate of complimentary salad.

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A couple weeks ago I received a brief email from a friend of a friend asking if I might answer a few questions regarding New Orleans’ “literary scene” for the blog attached to Fictionaut. I was tempted to admit that I’d only lived in the city for a few months and was therefore probably not the best person to ask about such things, but the sparse punctuation and complete lack of capitalization in her request indicated that this probably wasn’t the most serious undertaking, and I’m always happy to offer an opinion.

So, she sent me her questions, I sent her my answers, and she edited my answers down into a single answer and posted it with some other answers to other questions that she had asked a writer who spends time in Haiti and another who started a Fictionaut group that has something to do with the Gulf oil spill. You can read that post here. Below, I’ve posted the complete set of answers I sent her.

whats the word on new orleans re: post-katrina literary world. i heard an influx of hipsters moved down in solidarity to volunteer their help. true or untrue? if true, has there been a change in the literary scene?

True. Lots of young people have moved to New Orleans since Katrina to participate in the rebuilding of the city. Some are hip, and others are not hip. Some help out “rebuilding” in literal ways, like volunteering to build green homes or starting entrepreneurial ventures or nonprofits, and others just sort of figure that adding themselves to the mix as bright, motivated, intelligent people is good enough. I saw a clever advertisement for the University of New Orleans the other day that showed a picture of a smart-looking girl and it said, “She’s part of the BRAIN GAIN.” There’s even a nonprofit here whose sole function is to keep all the people who have moved here post-Katrina from moving away.

As far as the literary world goes, I would say that it has not been tremendously affected by the influx of hipsters … yet. Remember Adorno’s idea about writing poetry after the Holocaust? People had other things to do after Katrina besides write fiction and poetry, on top of the psychological trauma. In fact, Anne Gisleson, a writer who runs a cool gallery/publishing house here called Press Street, said in an interview that she even stopped reading fiction for a long time after Katrina.

There are some stirrings, though. The best example of good new blood I can think of is Paul Killebrew, a young poet and attorney who recently released a book with Canarium and also recently moved here to work for the Innocence Project New Orleans. Lots of people have been coming through, too, some as a residual result of the storm: Dave Eggers taught a master class last year at NOCCA and did some other stuff with the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival; Deb Olin Unferth is (tentatively) coming to teach a master class at NOCCA this upcoming year; Amy Hempel recently completed a residency at Tulane; and an outstanding unknown writer and generally all-around great guy named Nate Martin has really been shaking things up and doing good for the community.

All that said, people in New Orleans are kind of tired of hearing about all this post-Katrina blah blah blah. Seriously, it was in 2005. Get over it. Mary Robison got away with publishing a post-Katrina book last year only because she’s Mary Robison. I met a Bosnian filmmaker named Mirko Rucnov who’s working on a film set in post-Katrina New Orleans and he’s getting away with it only because he was a war refugee and can perhaps bring a perspective on trauma, displacement and loss that differs from David Simon’s. In case y’all hadn’t heard, there’s a new catastrophe that’s devastating the Gulf Coast AT THIS MOMENT. Sure, a lot of New Orleans is still deeply scarred by Katrina, but we have no choice but to move on.

how has literacy in new orleans changed if at all since katrina?

Literacy, yeah … hmmm … I think it was at 40 percent in 2005, which made aid difficult to distribute in some areas of the city because people couldn’t read the forms they needed to fill out in order to get the aid. I don’t think it is any worse now than it was then, if that’s any consolation. Although I do know that some Vietnamese fishermen who were trying to file for compensation from BP for oil-spill-related losses couldn’t fill out the requisite forms because they couldn’t read English—but I think most of them can read Vietnamese alright, so I believe that’s being somewhat sorted out.

As those of you know who read The Shock Doctrine (or at least made it through the introduction), New Orleans’ school system underwent a radical transformation post-Katrina, as neocons—alongside ordinary people who were exasperated at the thorough and relentless fucking-up that has plagued N.O. public schools throughout history—essentially dissolved the city’s school district in favor of a system dominated by private charter schools overseen by a state board. There are currently more charter schools in New Orleans than in anywhere else in the country. Obviously this divides people along ideological lines, but I think it’s really too early to tell what positive or negative effects this has had on literacy, or education in general.

There are also a number of literacy organizations that have either launched or undergone a rejuvenation with help of federal aid since Katrina. The Louisiana Literacy Alliance is a sort of umbrella organization that pulls a lot of them together, at least informally, and there are smaller independent groups, too. Press Street was running an after-school program for a while, but they’ve yet to restart it since moving to a new space last year. The Neighborhood Story Project is a fruitful undertaking. I talked with some folks at McSweeney’s a while back and they are really interested in launching an 826 center here, but as one might imagine, there are obstacles that make such things difficult (crippling poverty, etc.).

[Addendum: After the interview, I found out that the 40 percent literacy rate was ascertained in a nationwide study that accompanied the 2000 census. A similar study accompanied the 2010 census, but Louisiana did not participate because of a lack of resources.]

what can writers, readers do to help?

Move here. Sure, it’s hot in the summers, the crime is atrocious, and sometimes attaining goods and services is tougher than in other places, but New Orleans is a magical town abounding with amazing sights, sounds, interactions, and activities. My girlfriend and I live in a (veritable) mansion in the coolest neighborhood in the city for $1,000 a month. There’s an incredible insularity to the city’s culture that distinguishes it from the blasé amalgam that you find in much of the rest of America. While most of the country piddles along stagnant or receding, New Orleans is in a period of rebirth. While in New York you can be one in a million and there are still eight of you, in New Orleans you can make a perceptible impact. The city’s strong literary tradition hit a glitch with Katrina, but will soldier forth anew. Perhaps all it needs is you.

This biographical sketch exists as the result of an assignment I received in my Louisiana Literature class. At the beginning of the course each student picked a Louisiana writer to have as a subject for several assignments throughout the semester. I picked Yusef Komunyakaa for reasons that should become apparent to you shortly.

Yusef Komunyakaa first learned to play music—that is, to speak, since oral language is our first music—as a small black boy in Bogalusa, Louisiana, where a paper mill dominated the town and the public library did not admit blacks. His father was a carpenter and a Calvinist. Yusef partook in carpentry years later in New Orleans, renovating a house in the Bywater. He wrote his first poems about Vietnam in that house, in intermittent trips down the ladder from the ceiling he was tearing out.

Yusef was born in 1947 and he is not nearly dead. He teaches poetry at New York University. In between this and that he has lived in Arizona, Colorado, California, Louisiana (again), New Jersey and Indiana, at least. He has mostly been a poet and a writer and a teacher. He daydreams about making sculptures and has recently begun to write plays. His grandfather stowed away on a boat from Trinidad. His grandmothers taught him to half-boil the wildness out of raccoons before roasting them.

Yusef walked with Robert Hayden in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado and they talked about how it paralleled a moonscape. Hayden wrote a poem about this later that taught Yusef how language and imagination can transform a physical landscape into a spiritual one—the poem was not a realistic recreation of the day as they gazed out at the rocky formations called Kissing Camels and Balanced Rock, as myriads of birds flashed in the high reddish crevices, but a fantastic tale from a poet who after a long journey arrives in America, and considers the country as an alien.

Yusef earned degrees from the University of Colorado, Colorado State University and the University of California, Irvine. He has taught at the University of New Orleans, the University of Indiana, Princeton, and NYU. Wesleyan University Press has published most of his books, some of the more notable of which are Copacetic (1984), Dien Cai Dau (1988), I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head (1986), Magic City (1992), Thieves of Paradise (1998), Pleasure Dome (2001), and Neon Vernacular, a collection for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Lately, he’s been publishing with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.

Yusef refuses to define himself as a jazz poet, although he sometimes writes jazz poetry. Occasionally he will write a poem with a refrain and then remove the refrain before he finishes the poem. The refrain is a false engine, but an engine nevertheless. “Yusef” is the refrain for this jazz biography.

Garcia Lorca invoked duende to help him write poetry. Yusef invokes the blues. No five hundred dollar suit will keep him out of Robert Johnson’s shoes.

Yusef had one more child in 2002 than he had in 2004. What happened was his son’s poet mother killed herself and their son in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She cut her son’s wrists with a kitchen knife and then cut her own throat. The son was two years old. Someone found them in a pool of blood in their dining room, along with a note that mentioned Yusef.

Yusef has at least one other daughter, who at the time of an old interview lived in Arizona, where Yusef’s mother also lived. Arizona is where Yusef went after the war. He was an air conditioning mechanic and a police officer. He thought he would be able to fight crime with a gun on his hip, but he ended up mostly behind a desk.

Yusef ingested a lot of images in Vietnam—violent ones, funny ones, enraging ones, pitiful ones, surreal ones. His poems often move from one image to the other, with space in between that creates tension. While he was in Vietnam he rode helicopters into combat zones to get the story, to get the picture. He brought along volumes of poetry with him and read them to calm down. The men he saw killing in Vietnam were men he saw loving the next day. The first Vietnam poem he wrote was “Instructions for Building Straw Huts,” in that house in the Bywater, at 818 Piety Street, a few blocks down from my own.

At one point in time Yusef dreamed of returning to New Orleans, and then came Katrina. He has this to say in 2006:

I hate to think of that tragedy being parlayed into a real estate project, but given that it’s in the United States, most likely the Ninth Ward is going to become a boom area for developers. However, we have to keep the horror of Katrina in our conscience, in our psyche, and we have to make decisions based on that awareness. For years, whenever I went back to New Orleans, I thought, “I’m going to move back here. I’m going to have an apartment here.” That’s the furthest thing from my mind at this moment, because I don’t want to participate in that evil at all.

FromThe Letters of Gertrude Stein and Carl Van Vechten, 1913-1946. “Baby Woojums” is Stein, “Papa Woojums” is Van Vechten, who was a writer, photographer, and Stein’s literary executor.


Portrait by Carl Van Vechten

To Carl Van Vechten
Postmark: 21 February 1935
The Roosevelt Hotel
New Orleans, Louisiana

My dearest papa Woojums

Here we are still in New Orleans, hot and delicious and the only thing missing is you, and you would make it hotter and deliciouser which would have been so nice, and we do like it, and have seen the levies and ferried across the Mississippi and have been given bulbs of a Mexican lily given to the first governor of New Orleans and the social register of the bawdy houses a charming little blue book with the simple advertisements of the ladies by themselves and we have eaten oyster a la Rockefeller and innuemerable shrimps made in every way and all delicious and we were taken to visit the last of the Creoles in her original house unchanged for a hundred years and you would have enjoyed it, and all the time papa Woojums hundreds of miles away and he did say papa Woojums did say that he would not be hundreds of miles away and the moral of that is put no faith in papa Woojums, no not any. It is wonderful unblameable weather and the clouds go up and down, and it is all very lovely and very lively, oh and we have seen the most wonderfully large camellia trees growing with camellias, they were transplanted from old plantations a hundred years old and still cheerful, and we are coming back and buy a Ford and just run around, we have met up with Sherwood [Anderson] and now to-morrow we must leave all these joys behind us. We are so happy about Fania not that she is nervous but that [it] will be and has been alright and lots of love always and always.

B.W. to her pa