login | Register

When The Saints Went Marching Out: Artists Remember Katrina, 24 August 2010

by Diann Blakely

“I do not know much about gods, but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god--

T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”

At first I thought it was the Dog Days: that period between July and September when it is not only horridly torrid, but Just Plain Weird Things Happen. Weeks of unutterable, obsessing coincidences have preceded the writing of this column--well, some aren’t so unutterable, such as the eerie, convoluted ones uncovered via Facebook, which have convinced this Voodoo Episcopalian that God sometimes works her best and most beneficent juju through entirely mundane sources.

Some of those connections and coincidences are far less pleasant; indeed, according to another of my obsessions, Wikipedia, the “Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time "when the seas boiled, wine turned sour, Quinto raged in anger, dogs grew mad, and all creatures became languid, causing to man burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies’" according to Brady’s Clavis Calendarium, first published in 1813. On August 9th, though in different years, a beloved friend was arrested as a result of that great seventies hobby, drugs, and faced a decades-long prison sentence which, considering the extent of his hobby, seems a bit excessive; and Richard Milhous Nixon, our 36th president, resigned from office.  August 16th, generally recognized as the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, also marks the date when Robert Johnson gave up his soul--whether to the Devil as a result of his legendary bargain, or to the God whom he called upon in a final, handwritten plea for mercy, who knows?--and succumbed, probably to pneumonia, after seventy-two hours of agony, strychnine wracking his body.  Forty years ago this week, one of the best and most terrifying novels to issue from our region in the latter half of the twentieth century, Deliverance, was published. And, of course, in just a few days, the fifth anniversary of Katrina will occur. Many commemorative events are planned, and most are or will be available to those unable to travel to the Crescent City itself.

The most widely publicized of these, of course, is Spike Lee’s latest documentary, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise, a follow-up to his devastating When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, which also aired on HBO, garnering an Emmy and several other awards. His latest effort is no less magisterial, and the Los Angeles Times’ TV critic Robert Lloyd is right, I believe, in calling both films essentially musical in structure. While If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise began its première on Monday, the 24th, the anniversary of the date the storm began its final and fatal formation, and continued on Tuesday night, I’d advise watching--or re-watching--the broadcast this weekend or anytime in the next few weeks when it will be shown in its entirety. I’m keeping my remarks about its exact content intentionally spare, not wanting to spoil any aspect of the experience for those who may have missed the film’s first showings, but I want to mention not only Terence Blanchard’s heartbreakingly subtle score, but also the array of commentators. I take issue with Lloyd’s reference to them as “talking heads,” for many of them sing, not all of them literally, but in the tragic tone of these men and women have to say. They include: Douglas Brinkley, frequent CNN correspondent and, to my mind, responsible for the single best book on the phenomenon--meaning what that station’s Anderson Cooper calls “a natural disaster that became a man-made catastrophe”--we call Katrina, The Great Deluge; Dr. Ivor van Heerden, former deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, and one of the leaders of the Team Louisiana investigation into the flood, also the author of The Storm; Tom Piazza, a writer of both nonfiction and fiction known to many for his years of music columns published in the Oxford American, and, more recently, for Why New Orleans Matters and a novel, City of Refuge, thus a natural consultant for HBO’s Tremé, about which Swamplanders will hear more in the next installment of Notes on the State of Southern Poetry; actor and activist Sean Penn; former FEMA director Michael Brown, of the infamous “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” line, who, as we see via a masterful series of quick replays, does in fact wince, as he claims, when Bush delivers what Brown says he told his children would be his New York Times obituary long before his actual death, though, as Brinkley reminds us, Brown’s previous post as president of an organization devoted to Arabian horses made him woefully unprepared for the post, of negligible importance to a White House circle which regarded FEMA as a wimpy holdover from the Carter era; Condoleezza Rice, who, I remember reading shortly after the storm, actually spent about four hours in the city, approximately the same amount of time she spent on a shoe-shopping expedition in Mississippi en route; Ned Sublette, writer, musician, and general fount of information on all things Creole, in the largest sense of that word and world; current mayor Mitch Landrieu and his predecessor, Ray Nagin, who has apparently just hung out a shingle advertising himself as a “disaster”--or was it “crisis”?--consultant; former governor Katherine Blanco; Senator John Kerry; James Carville; BP’s Tony Hayward, who notoriously complained that he “wanted [his] life back” and now, mercifully, has been replaced and thus has had his wish fulfilled; President Barack Obama; the adorably chubby and ireful President of Plaquemines Parish, Billy Nungesser; and Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, whose image I have chosen to illustrate the initial part of this piece. I reviewed her wrenching memoir, Not Just the Levees Broke: My Story During and After Hurricane Katrina, which Lee himself introduced after featuring her--how well I remember seeing LeBlanc seated on a bed in her FEMA trailer, writing a quieter version of the poetry which opens this second documentary--in his first, so aptly subtitled A Requiem. LeBlanc’s opening rap summons up both the rage and the poetry of the city and all who love her; and yes, there is something quintessentially feminine about New Orleans, perhaps because, despite the Central Business District’s skyscrapers, it is a city defined by neighborhood houses and apartments--though no longer by multi-level housing projects, as If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise explores thoroughly in its initial segment. As is Haiti, the earthquake there, and the relationship between not only the two disasters but Port-au-Prince and New Orleans itself.

Another of Lee’s commentators--and, like Penn, on both subjects--is, of course, CNN’s Cooper, who became, I’m quite certain despite himself, an overnight star. Who doesn't recall him drifting through the foul black water in small boats laden with technical equipment, stopping to pull aboard floundering survivors? Or his murmuring--with appropriate, shocked, and painfully obvious sincerity--the sorrowful horror with which he gazed upon the corpses afloat in that water? Cooper, who, it should be remembered, is half-Mississipian by birth and upbringing, will spend much of the weekend covering the aftereffects of the storm; and on Friday night Larry King will host Harry Connick, Jr.  As opposed to our collective memory of Cooper, I suspect most have forgotten the scorn middle-America heaped upon Connick when he stood in his drowned native city, shook his head mournfully, and said he understood the looting going on around him. These people had nothing, he explained. Don’t worry if you miss the initial broadcast; Connick has already been ubiquitous in Cooper’s current coverage, and the King show will doubtless be repeated.

Also on Friday night, in New Orleans itself at the House of Blues, will be a benefit for “Make It Right,” the architectural /renewal project for the Lower Ninth Ward founded by Penn and employing the talents of fifteen experts in ecologically friendly building, all of whom took their cue from the district’s original houses. Featured will be featuring the musicians of HBO’s Tremé--Kermit Ruffin, Lloyd Price, James Andrews, John Boutte, Jon Cleary, Irma Thomas, Coco Robicheaux, Paul Sanchez, Doreen Ketchens, the Rebirth Brass Band, and Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians--and some actors from the series are also expected to attend. The event will also function as the preview concert for the "Tremé" soundtrack. Though the ticket prices are reasonable--$25-$65--if you can’t make the trip, visit the website. All proceeds from the benefit will go directly to Pitt’s heroic project--fourteen houses have been built and nineteen more are in progress--and if you can’t be enticed to buy a t-shirt or tote from the merchandise store, note that you can mail donations of as little as five bucks. Surely you’ll have that to spare after you buy or download the soundtrack itself.

Saturday proved a day of rest, if not exhaustion combined with catching up on various network specials, but Sunday promises to be a special day indeed for Katrina as memorialized in literature.  As a poet, I was thrilled by the historic evening in New Jersey earlier this summer when Bruce Springsteen’s music mingled with the work of Robert Pinsky, our country’s sole three-time poet laureate and a man who has done so much to bring poetry to the people it remains a mystery to me how he gets any of it written himself. But have Southerners, whether raised on country, bluegrass, the blues, or rock’n’roll itself, ever needed a reminder that the two genres share a common root? (Think about the multiple meanings of “lyric,” and the many singer-songwriters who want to be considered poets; if you don’t know any of the latter breed, it’s never too late, and I can tell you from experience that nearly all want to be musicians of one sort or another.) Readers of Notes on the State of Southern Poetry: Part Three, will remember Julie Kane, one of the entire series’ stars, judging from resulting remarks and birds which chirped their little whispers in my ear. A Boston/Jersey girl come who has made Louisiana her home, Kane is a villanellist and sonneteer extraordinaire, as her two previous books, Rhythm and Booze and Jazz Funeral amply and respectively demonstrate. Who better to serve as an exemplar of my point that Southern literature--even when not written by a native--is based not simply on narrative, narrative, narrative, as that tired cliché goes, but equally, if not more, on song, song, song?

Kane, with Grace Bauer, edited Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Possum, an anthology about the Alabama native, Everette Maddox, a poet who died of alcoholism at the age of forty-four. One of the habitués of the famous Maple Leaf Bar, the portion of his ashes that wasn’t scattered in the Mississippi was buried with a plaque bearing with a sadly--but humorously--fitting and self-penned epitaph: “He Was a Mess.” Kane is also to be credited for providing me with information about the three literary major literary events to take place on Sunday. From 1:00-3:00 at the Garden District Book Shop, she wrote me, there will be a reading / signing for an anthology edited by one of her former students, Lee Barclay, New Orleans: What Can’t Be Lost. An anthology of short non-fiction essays about the many things to be found no where else in our country, the volume includes pieces by Kane herself, Richard Ford, Rick Bragg, Robert Olen Butler, Andrei Codrescu, and the aforementioned Tom Piazza, to name just a few of its luminaries, as well as photographs by Christopher Porché West. Again, if you can’t be there, visit here and learn more about its publisher, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, and read a fuller description of the book’s contents. Knowing something of the beyond-proverbial dire straits of the state’s economy and, particularly, the effect that budget cuts have had on Louisiana’s system of colleges and universities, I urge you to purchase your copy directly from the Press rather than Amazon or your favorite discount bookseller.

While the local literati may have to skitter a bit to make it to Tulane by 3:30, I’d also urge online readers to continue checking the website of the Poetry Society of America, which will, with that institution, co-sponsor a poetry reading. Alice Quinn, the PSA’s current director and the former poetry editor of the New Yorker, before that serving in the same position at Alfred A. Knopf, will preside over the event. Rob Casper, the PSA’s events co-ordinator, has been kind enough to correspond with me about the event and let me know that the organization plans to post audio/video on its website shortly after the gathering itself. The roster of those participating is dazzling and includes the jazz-suffused, hiply colloquial (one of his volumes is entitled Copacetic, another Neon Vernacular) Yusef Koumunyakaa, who counts the Pulitzer Prize among his many honors; longtime Tulane professor Peter Cooley, who has written seven books of poems, all published by Carnegie-Mellon Press; his daughter Nicole, whose most recent volume is called, significantly in this context, Breach, and Alison Pelegrin, among others. For a full listing and that promised audio/video content, check and re-check poetrysociety.org.

This being New Orleans, by which I mean safely out of the reach of “normal”--meaning puritanical, old or new style--American culture, it seems meet and right that the afternoon end at a bar. The Gold Mine Saloon in the French Quarter, to be exact. At 5 p.m., poets--including Megan Burns--and musicians--including Cyril Neville--will combine their talents at a benefit for Sammy Kershaw’s own particular cause: saving the Louisiana coastline, which is now, of course, under graver peril than it was five years ago owing to the perfidy of BP. But again, more about that in a few weeks. For now, especially after the solemnity that can, should, and must attend most of the weekend’s events, we shouldn’t forget that, while New Orleans has never been the city that care forgot (except for tourists), it’s also the originator of the “second line” tradition as, perusing 17poets.com will prompt all but the gloomiest to remember.  And even they have the ninth Ponderosa Stomp on September 24th and 25th to circle happily on their calendars.


Notes On State Of Poetry: Part One

Notes On State Of Poetry: Part Two

Notes On State Of Poetry: Part Three

Notes On State Of Poetry: Part Four

Alabama Poet Diann Blakely

Best Music Books of 2008

In The Sanctuary of Outcasts: A Memoir

Night of The Hunter by Diann Blakely




related tags

New Orleans,

Currently there are 21 comments. Leave one now!

Sirius Satellite Radio Inc.
Copyright 1998-2018 by Swampland Inc. All rights reserved.