Letters from the Editor


Zulu Landing at the River
photo by Megan Burns 2006

 

Death Interrupted: a Colloquy of Words from New Orleans
by Bill Lavender and Dave Brinks

You have to cross a big bridge to get into New Orleans, no matter what direction you come from: North, East, West, or South (If you come from the North, the bridge is even longer). These bridges from the four land directions average 18 miles in length. A lot of water to cross, whether you're going or coming, trying to get in, or hoping to paddle your way out.

The funny thing is although Dave Brinks and I have lived in New Orleans for as many years as we have fingers & toes, I first met Dave way across another water, in Prague. It was the summer of '99. He was giving a reading hosted by American ex-patriot poets Vincent Farnsworth and Gwendolyn Albert in a jazz club just off the Staré M?sto. The smoke was thick and the pivo (beer) flowing in this old basement bar which probably dates to the seventeenth century, if not before. One of many memorable things about that reading was that Ivan Jirous aka Magor, one of the original Plastic People of the Universe*, stood up, well in his cups during Dave's reading, and attempted to lead everyone in song. We didn't know who Magor was then; we only found out later what an honor it was to be interrupted in this way.

It's remarkable how much that jazz club resembles the Gold Mine Saloon where for the past several years our community has hosted a poetry reading just about every Thursday night. The Gold Mine is a place where most anyone might stand up and interrupt your reading. And being a saloon as you might expect, it's always one "o" away from becoming a salon. In fact, a couple of years ago, one night the Grim Reaper walked in, took the microphone out of the hand of the featured performer, and read a poem on stage only to receive a standing ovation before politely exiting. Rumor has it that one of the poets represented here dictated that poem for Death and even commanded him to get up and perform. But the amazing thing is that the poet whom Death interrupted took it all with a grin; she even put her arm around Him, honored by the interruption.

Sitting with this collection for a couple of hours will be a lot like hanging out at the Gold Mine in the French Quarter on a Thursday night. There's no telling who might stand up and interrupt the reading. It could be someone from New York, Colorado or San Francisco; or it could be someone with no fixed address; or it could be someone in the tradition of late great poet Lorenzo Thomas who did it a couple of times pulling the brim of his baseball cap down very low. But, more to the point, it might even be You.
One thing we're not afraid to speak out about these days, and some people would rather we didn't, is: the state, local and federal governments engineered the disaster that was visited upon us in late August 2005. It wasn't just poor planning and Mama Nature that transformed New Orleans into the chaotic scene of ruin and death broadcast worldwide on your Tv screen. It was the misspending, the squandering, and the diverting of large tax dollars at every level of government (including Congress, the Louisiana State Legislature, and the patronage filled Orleans Levee Board) year after year to appease corporate interests whose intentions were never to devise and implement a functional hurricane protection system for New Orleans in the event of a direct hit by a major storm (see Hurricane Betsy 1965).

That being said, the question still remains: is there an active, even conscious, desire to see the wetlands vanish entirely such that New Orleans becomes nothing more than a mudlump terminus to the Gulf of Oil? Whatever the case, outright greed, outright stupidity, or somewhere between the two; the truth is this kind of imbecilic lack of empathy, combined with hocus pocus flood walls built by the Army Corps of Engineers (immune from prosecution by order of the state), offers each of us a very clear picture of what contemporary American bureaucracy has come to represent.

There's another important scrap of wisdom which the flood waters left behind, and which New Orleanians know all too well - when the water's rising inside your house, you know what it is to live in the moment. This is a fundamental skill lost on the minds of most people living in the United States, where the clock has become a functionary of the state, much like one of the guards outside Kafka's castle. Here in NOLA we remember the future isn't coming, and the past isn't gone. And that poetry's neither a single text nor a single act, but a way of living, a fact of being human. You can't punch a clock for this job! Although poet Paul Chasse actually did. And, trust me, his act was no idle plea for humanity.

There's another giant poet who walked with us and who bears mentioning here. His name was Bob Kaufman. He was born in New Orleans on April 18, 1924. He grew up in Faubourg Treme. His words are axioms we mean to live by:

Raging in and out of insane comas,
Spouting word fountains
At the shriveled mouths
Of wildly depraved roses
As Cassandra dances
On the singed eyelids
Of sleepless ants
[...]
Hopelessly hoping hopefully
To find love
Of a dead moon
Or a poem.**

Reader, be warned. We don't take Kaufman's "love" lightly! We wear it on our shield! We champion it like no other city! Its very sound, say it! Say it again! Shout it! Open a window and let the bad air out! Let the earthly ethers know the intent of your blooded heart! Is there any fiercer alchemy? I dare anyone to speak otherwise! Yes, we love our New Orleans brothers and sisters to the core. We care for that often broken thing that lives inside their chests. We make Jazz. We make Poetry. We Laugh. We Dance. We Sing. We make Crawfish Étouffée and Pan Perdu. We praise Possum. We applaud Bony Fishes and Oysterlings. We extol Kingfishers. We worship Big Lizards and Little Ones too. We give thanks at the knees of Cypress Trees forcing their roots up through busted concrete. E Pluribus Eruptus, E Pluribus Eruptus!

One afternoon as poet Bill lavender sat drinking (drinking and drinking) in a courtyard in the French Quarter, he collected, between rounds of conversation, a five gallon bucket full of buck moth caterpillars. Not everyone can handle that sort of fecundity; not everyone can bear even to contemplate that many stinging things getting ready to turn into airy Lepidoptera. So my dear Princesses and Princes of the Disappeared, wherever you happen to be at this moment, stop for a second. Consider your butterflyness. Dream of a new Epoch from whence you came. Make it a practicum for survival like our dear Euphrosine! Turn your labors into song like string beans! Vive Le Horicots! Vive Lay Za-ree-co! Vive Le Zydeco Lousianne! Let the Poets of this World become that very irreducible thing that we've been all along: Professional Human Beings.

*Ivan Jirous aka Magor, one of the original Plastic People of the Universe http://www.radio.cz/en/article/84276
**excerpt of "Voyagers" by Bob Kaufman from the book Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, pgs. 38-39 (New Directions 1965).