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New Orleans in Alabama: Brenda Marie Osbey--and Lagniappe--Poet Jane Hirshfield

Posted: Nov 13, 2011

This October I traveled to New Orleans to see my good friends David Lummis (author of The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans) and his life partner Csaba Lukacs and to meet with a class from the University of Montevallo in Alabama. The class, taught by Dr.  Paul Mahaffey, was studying The Coffee Shop Chronicles in a course taught entitled  "A Taste of the Sublime in New Orleans Foodie Lit." The group was making a field trip to New Orleans to study the culture and meet with David Lummis at Cafe du Monde. While I was in the Big Easy, my new friends, Dr. Mahaffey and Dr. Rosa Maria Stoops, professor of foreign languages and literature, invited me to come to Montevallo on November 8 to hear the renowned New Orleans poet and historian, Brenda Marie Osbey, Dancy lecturer for 2011-12. Little did I know what treats awaited me.

I was no stranger to the Dancy Lecture Series having a made a trip down to Montevallo over thirty years ago to hear, in an intimate venue, the late great Joseph Campbell, world renowned mythologist and teacher. After Campbell's talk, I returned to Athens State University and developed a class I called "Myth, Ritual, and Culture." We used Campbell's landmark work The Hero with A Thousand Faces as one of the texts, and when Bill Moyers' seriesThe Power of Myth with Joseph Campbell aired in 1988, I added the Moyers' tapes to the course syllabus, along with tapes of Joseph Campbell's lectures at Sarah Lawrence College. That trip to Montevallo was a turning point in my life, and the University still holds a very special place in my heart.

Anything New Orleans is always associated with lagniappe (a little something extra)---and that is exactly what I encountered. Prior to leaving for Montevallo, I learned that ---in addition to the celebrated Brenda Marie Osbey---the internationally known poet Jane Hirshfield was also speaking on the Montevallo campus. Hirshville was reading at the college courtesy of the BACHE Visiting Writers Series. The BACHE organization, a collaboration among Birmingham-Southern College, Miles College, Samford University, the University of Montevallo, and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is designed to bring writers of national and regional significance to north central Alabama. I arrived just in time to hear the brilliant, beautiful, and charismatic Hirshfield speak and read at 3:30 p.m. in a tiny commons room, warmly paneled and filled with books.

I had met Hirshfield previously about thirteen years ago at a National Association of Poetry Conference in California. I never dreamed at the time I would see her again just 130 miles from my home near Athens, AL. Hirshfield opened by reading one of my favorite poems, "For What Binds Us."  She then read from her latest collection Come, Thief. After the reading she wrote in my copy of her  book: "Penne, In gladness at meeting---now twice...."

There was just enough time between the conclusion of Hirshfield's reading and the beginning of the New Orleans program for me to check into my room at the McKibbon House, an elegant bed and breakfast built at the turn of the 20th century by a lumber baron. The four bedrooms on the second floor were sumptuously furnished, and the high ceilings on both floors were lovely, dark mahogany. I relaxed with a glass of wine and a platter of cheese and fruit in the comfortable parlor before returning to the campus for the evening program.

I arrived at Comer Hall in time to greet Dr. Mahaffey and meet my friend Dr. Rosa Stoops. Then the party started. The evening began with five jazz and swing pieces wonderfully and energetically played by the University of Montevallo Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Dr. Joseph Ardovino: Buddy Rich's "Grooving Hard," Glenn Miller's "String of Pearls," Miller's "Moonlight Serenade," and Paul Desmond's "Take Five." What a kickoff!

The room was still rocking when the band exited and a clip from the 1947 movie New Orleans appeared a screen with Billy Holiday singing "Do you Know what it Means to Miss New Orleans." After Holiday's final note, Brenda Marie Osbey strode onto the stage and announced that the song had been written by two men who had never seen New Orleans and thus was full of the mythology that surrounds the city." It tells us," she said." what people believe about New Orleans rather than what New Orleans really is." Osbey asserted that she wished to demythologize four icons that people believe they understand: 1. Music, 2. Gumbo, 3. Creoles, and 4. Voodoo.

After a brief talk in which Osbey explained to the audience the difference between the stereotypes associated with New Orleans and the truth of that magical city, she read four of her narrative poems about family, gender, and back-breaking labor: "Something For the Dead" (about the miserable life of factory workers in the city, primarily women), "Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,", "Everything Happens to Monk and Me" (a jazz poem), and an excerpt from a book length poem Desperate Circumstances, Dangerous Women about Osbey's "fefe women" who recreate a local history of New Orleans. In conclusion, Osbey taught the audience a call and response from the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, and we left the room singing "yaaah--aye" in response to her enthusiastic call.

As if all that richness were not enough, we were treated to a feast of New Orleans cuisine catered by Absolute Catering: red beans and dirty rice, marinated shrimp and artichokes, medallions of bread topped with cheese and Creole sausage, and some of the best bread pudding that I have ever tasted---luscious and gooey, the way I like it.

Dr. Mahaffey then introduced me to Osbey. I told her that I had been an admirer of hers since seeing the documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, a 2008 film in which she appears. I was begining to believe that this is a very small world.

Following the evening's festivities, Dr. Stoops and I toasted one another, and New Orleans, with a glass of red wine at Eclipse, a chaming bookstore, coffee house, bar, restaurant, and favorite gathering place of Montevallo students and faculty. We vowed to meet again in Montevallo in the spring--- and in New Orleans in the fall when Dr. Mahaffey will once again teach what Montevallo students affectionately call "the New Orleans course."

---Penne J. Laubenthal
Explore Futher on Swampland
     Meet David Lummis

    Review of The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans

    The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans Featured in Course at the University of Montevallo

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