Women Who Write: Julie Kane

This is the third in a four-part series featuring Louisiana women poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. Each profile will highlight a poet from New Orleans or Southeast Louisiana including interview, biography and an original poem selected for this feature.

Julie Kane

Julie Kane

Our featured poet today is Julie Kane. Julie’s poetry collections include Rhythm & Booze (University of Illinois Press, 2003), which was Maxine Kumin’s selection for the National Poetry Series and a finalist for the Poets’ Prize; Jazz Funeral (Story Line Press, 2009), which won the Donald Justice Poetry Prize, judged by David Mason; and Paper Bullets (White Violet Press, 2014), a new collection of light verse. Together with Grace Bauer, she co-edited the anthology Umpteen Ways of Looking at a Possum: Critical and Creative Responses to Everette Maddox (2006), which became a finalist for the Southern Independent  Booksellers Alliance book prize in poetry. The nonfiction Vietnam memoir that she co-authored with Kiem Do (Counterpart: A South Vietnamese Naval Officer’s War, 1998) became a History Book Club featured alternate selection. Recently she wrote the libretto for Starship Paradise, a one-act opera with music by Dale Trumbore that was produced by Center City Opera Theater of Philadelphia. Her poems appear in over forty anthologies and in journals such as Barrow Street, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, and The Southern Review. They have also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. The 2011-2013 Louisiana Poet Laureate,she has also been the George Bennett Fellow in Writing at Phillips Exeter Academy, the New Orleans Writer in Residence at Tulane University, a faculty member of the West Chester Conference on Form and Narrative in Poetry, and a Fulbright Scholar to Vilnius Pedagogical University in Lithuania. Currently she is a Professor of English at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and a Contributing Editor to Light Magazine.

THOSE SUNDAY DRIVES

You used to bore me with your monologues
on drives through old “New Awlins” neighborhoods:
what family had what house when you were young
and where some candy store or bank had stood.
Who cares about the past? I used to think.
We Yankee Irish pulled up roots a lot,
escaping relatives with chicken coops
and cabbage boiling in a kitchen pot.
But that was all before the hurricane
our Mason-Dixon love did not survive—
a minor loss beside a thousand dead,
four houses flooded out of every five.
So much has changed: Time speeded up her clock,
and now I bore all riders with my talk.

What is your earliest recollection of the desire to write down your own thoughts?
When I was seven years old, I had a collection of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen with several blank white pages at the end. I knew with absolute certainty that I was supposed to write my own story on those pages, and I did, printing it in pencil. It was about a girl who was helping her mother make whipped cream, but she whipped it too long and it turned into butter, and then her fairy godmother appeared and granted her one wish, and she turned the butter back to “wiped cream.” I still have that book.

Do you remember your first poem? What was it about?

I don’t remember the very first one, but I have a copy of one I wrote in 5th grade, when we were studying logging in our social studies textbook (God only knows why). It begins: “The loggers are busy cutting trees / with saws that sound like bumblebees . . .”

Is writing your full-time occupation?

Ha! Advice to any aspiring poets out there: don’t quit your day job! I am an English professor at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Before I got my doctorate, I worked for many years as a technical writer and editor.

Is poetry your primary genre? Do you work in any others?

Yes, it is my primary genre, but I also publish creative nonfiction, and I write scholarly essays and book reviews about literature. Last year I wrote the libretto for a one-act opera that was produced by Center City Opera Theater of Philadelphia.

I’m always interested in the writing process. Tell us a little about yours. Do you ponder a poem for a while, keeping it in a draft stage and working on it periodically or do you write it all at once, as the inspiration and words strike you? How much editing do you do on a piece?

I can write prose when I am not inspired and produce a lousy first draft, and then go back to it and improve it later, but poetry is different—I have to be feeling inspired to write a poem, or it just does not flow. I handwrite in pencil on lined paper, and I keep crossing out and crumpling up sheets of paper—the first draft of a one-page poem might take me several hours. Then I have to put it aside for awhile, a few days or a few weeks, before I can look at it objectively and tweak word choices or individual lines. Sometimes I will get the idea for a poem but know that I am not ready to write it yet. There are a few poems that have taken me years between the time the idea came to me and the time I felt ready to write it.

Do you have a favorite place to write that’s particularly conducive to your creativity?

I have a huge study with bookshelves and a desk, but my favorite place to write is a little breakfast table that looks out on my yard, with birdfeeders and trees and flowers.

I read an interview where you said you can not force poetry if you’re not feeling
inspired (and I silently cheered!). So many writers advise to write every day, to
actually force yourself, that it’s good practice. What do you think about that p.o.v.?

I think it’s a good idea to write every day if you are working on a novel or a dissertation or
another long prose work, but it does not work for me in terms of poetry. It does for some poets,though.

Where was the strangest place that inspiration hit you for a poem and how did it turn out?

There have been times when I was driving my car and a line or idea would come to me, and I have had to fish in my purse for a pen and the back of one of the deposit slips in my checkbook to try to write it down while driving. Then sometimes I go back to those cryptic jottings and wonder, What on earth was I thinking?

Are there any recurrent themes in your poems? If so, why do you think that is?

Other people are better than I am at spotting themes, since I am inside the poems and they are outside. But certainly, love and the breakdown of contemporary relationships, fate versus free will, alcoholism, mortality, Irish Catholicism, Louisiana nature and culture.

I am somewhat a collector of words. Do you have any favorite words?

I think my favorite is “newfangleness,” from the 16th century poem “They Flee from Me,” by Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder. It means “fickleness.”

Do you have any tips to share regarding motivation and/or discipline in completing a piece?

You have to love the act of writing enough to finish what you start, or what’s the point? There are so many other things competing for our time and attention—there is no need to torture yourself, if you don’t love to do it. It can be hard sitting down in the writing chair and getting started, but once that creative flow takes over, it should be more fun than Netflix or Facebook!

I know that you studied briefly under Anne Sexton at Boston University. What is the one most important thing you learned from her?

She told us not to be afraid to be a fool for poetry—not to worry about whether anyone would like us or respect us because of what we wrote. It was the opposite of the advice my mother drilled into me while I was growing up, which was to always worry about what other people were thinking, to be well-behaved at all times.

You were Louisiana’s Poet Laureate for 2011-2013. Do you remember how you felt the minute you were told that you were chosen?

I was sitting in my office at work, getting ready to teach a night class, when I opened an email message from a member of the governor’s staff. It said that the governor would like to name me the next Poet Laureate. I was so happy and excited, I let out a very loud scream! And then a student who was out in the hall poked his head in my office to ask if I were OK.

Did you learn anything that surprised you during your time as Poet Laureate?

I was stunned to find so many thousands of people who care about poetry, all around the state: from teenaged dropouts in an alternative high school to the Colonial Dames of Shreveport.

There is a burgeoning poetry community online and new lit journals popping up all the time. Some people think it’s just so much “look at me” noise and unworthy of notice while others celebrate more open and diverse opportunities for poets to share their work. What do you think?

I think online publication is wonderful—it means that anyone can find and read your poem online, and that the size of the audience is potentially unlimited. I love the look and feel of a beautiful print journal or a book, but I also love the democracy of online publishing. Also, online forums and listservs and social media make it possible for writers who share a certain interest—such as those of us who write in form, the so-called “New Formalists”—to share news and build a sense of community that counters the isolation of writing.

I find it impossible to name one poet who is my favorite – I have several. Who are some of your favorite poets and/or poems?

It is impossible for me to name all of my favorite living poets, but I can name some of my favorites who are no longer living: the ancient Chinese poets including Po Chu-i, Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, John Donne, Charles Baudelaire, Constantine Cavafy, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, Anna Ahkmatova, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Seamus Heaney.

Finally, do you have any upcoming readings or appearances you can share with us?

I have several readings coming up in Washington, DC, next week. Together with the current Louisiana Poet Laureate, Ava Leavell Haymon, I will be reading at the National Press Club of Washington, DC, at 12 noon on April 15. That reading is sponsored by the American Women Writers National Museum. That same evening at 7 PM, Ava and I and two other women poets will be reading at the Arts Club of Washington. The following day, we will read our poems for a taping of Grace Cavalieri’s radio show, “The Poet and the Poem.” Later this month (April 27), I will be taking part in a reading at the Zachary Public Library that will honor the memory of Wilmer Mills, a Louisiana poet who died young.

_______________________________

Thank you, Julie, for sharing your thoughts with us today!

To read all interviews for Women Who Write, click here. Next Friday: Valentine Pierce.

Women Who Write

Audubon Park Labyrinth, New Orleans

Audubon Park Labyrinth, New Orleans

 

During the month of April, Poetry Month, I’ll be featuring four women poets from Louisiana. They will tell us their writing process, what they read, who they admire, what their favorite words are and many, many other things. They will share a poem with us. They will be beautiful examples of why you should date/love/marry/admire/emulate women who write.

It’s going to be great.

“You should date a girl who reads.
Date a girl who reads. Date a girl who spends her money on books instead of clothes, who has problems with closet space because she has too many books. Date a girl who has a list of books she wants to read, who has had a library card since she was twelve.

Find a girl who reads. You’ll know that she does because she will always have an unread book in her bag. She’s the one lovingly looking over the shelves in the bookstore, the one who quietly cries out when she has found the book she wants. You see that weird chick sniffing the pages of an old book in a secondhand book shop? That’s the reader. They can never resist smelling the pages, especially when they are yellow and worn.

She’s the girl reading while waiting in that coffee shop down the street. If you take a peek at her mug, the non-dairy creamer is floating on top because she’s kind of engrossed already. Lost in a world of the author’s making. Sit down. She might give you a glare, as most girls who read do not like to be interrupted. Ask her if she likes the book.

Buy her another cup of coffee.

Let her know what you really think of Murakami. See if she got through the first chapter of Fellowship. Understand that if she says she understood James Joyce’s Ulysses she’s just saying that to sound intelligent. Ask her if she loves Alice or she would like to be Alice.

It’s easy to date a girl who reads. Give her books for her birthday, for Christmas, for anniversaries. Give her the gift of words, in poetry and in song. Give her Neruda, Pound, Sexton, Cummings. Let her know that you understand that words are love. Understand that she knows the difference between books and reality but by god, she’s going to try to make her life a little like her favorite book. It will never be your fault if she does.

She has to give it a shot somehow.

Lie to her. If she understands syntax, she will understand your need to lie. Behind words are other things: motivation, value, nuance, dialogue. It will not be the end of the world.

Fail her. Because a girl who reads knows that failure always leads up to the climax. Because girls who read understand that all things must come to end, but that you can always write a sequel. That you can begin again and again and still be the hero. That life is meant to have a villain or two.

Why be frightened of everything that you are not? Girls who read understand that people, like characters, develop. Except in the Twilight series.

If you find a girl who reads, keep her close. When you find her up at 2 AM clutching a book to her chest and weeping, make her a cup of tea and hold her. You may lose her for a couple of hours but she will always come back to you. She’ll talk as if the characters in the book are real, because for a while, they always are.

You will propose on a hot air balloon. Or during a rock concert. Or very casually next time she’s sick. Over Skype.

You will smile so hard you will wonder why your heart hasn’t burst and bled out all over your chest yet. You will write the story of your lives, have kids with strange names and even stranger tastes. She will introduce your children to the Cat in the Hat and Aslan, maybe in the same day. You will walk the winters of your old age together and she will recite Keats under her breath while you shake the snow off your boots.

Date a girl who reads because you deserve it. You deserve a girl who can give you the most colorful life imaginable. If you can only give her monotony, and stale hours and half-baked proposals, then you’re better off alone. If you want the world and the worlds beyond it, date a girl who reads.

Or better yet, date a girl who writes.”
Rosemarie Urquico

 

 

Confessions of a Book List Hoarder

Stitched Panorama

 

I’ve become a book list hoarder.

I love books. I love reading good books. But I don’t have the time (or patience) to read like I did when I was, say, 16 or 23 or even 35. Somehow, over the years, my life became more complicated. This surprises me because I thought by the time I reached this age (dare I say it: 50ish) everything would have slowed down. Life would have slowed down, I would have slowed down. Then, I thought, I would have time to read all the classics that everyone else has read. Those books I never read as a young adult because I just didn’t like reading stuffy old language about crap that happened so long ago I just couldn’t identify with it. Well. Guess what? I didn’t slow down and I still don’t like the old stuff. In fact, I’ve become even more discriminating about the books I read than I ever was before and I’ve made peace with the fact that I like contemporary literature. I just don’t like archaic language, I don’t want to work that hard. I want to be entertained when I read and I don’t want to have to reread entire pages to get what it’s all about. I don’t like Shakespeare, either. I’ve never read a single thing he wrote (ok, maybe in high school but I really don’t remember) all the way through and that’s ok with me.

I used to finish a book no matter what, back when I had plenty of free time. Now, if a story doesn’t capture my attention by about chapter 3, I’m out. No regrets, no second chance.

However, I’m always looking for a good recommendations, which are plentiful on the internet, I save them on my Pocket account or my Goodreads account and I’ve recently realized, after saving this list, that I’m a book list hoarder. Probably  my favorite place for finding book lists is Flavorwire. They have compiled booklists by any subject you can possibly imagine under the sun. Here’s a few examples:

50 Sexy Books to Get You in the Mood (for Valentine’s Day)

Made for Each Other: Literature’s 25 Most Memorable Love Affairs

10 Wonderful Russian Novels You Probably Haven’t Read

10 Recent Nonfiction Books to Read for Black History Month

12 Curious Vintage Sex Books  !!!

50 Books by Women Authors to Read for #ReadWomen2014 !!!

25 YA Novels Everyone — Even Adults — Should Read

50 Essential Mystery Novels That Everyone Should Read

Snow Reads Are the New Beach Reads: 26 Books to Get You Through Winter

10 Must-Read Books for January

8 of the Best Genre-Busting Books About Writers and Writing !!!

Flavorwire’s 15 Most Anticipated Books of 2014

Flavorwire Staffers’ Favorite Books of 2013

10 of 2013′s Best Books of Poetry !!!

Flavorwire’s 15 Favorite Novels of 2013

Just reading the titles of these lists makes me salivate. Oh, the possibilities! The stories! The characters! The entangling situations yet to be discovered! It’s all so tantalizing. With so many books to choose from there’s absolutely no reason to slog through a bad one. (In the making of this list of lists I actually saved four more to Pocket = !!!) It all makes me tingle to the point that I wonder….am I addicted to book lists and not really books? Is it all just an obsession for anticipation’s sake? Nah. It’s knowing that all these books are out there whenever I get a yen to read. I never, ever have to worry about looking for a good book to read when I have my cache of lists just waiting to be perused and one more lucky book waiting to be chosen.

Originally published on Zouxzoux.

Books, TV, Movies: Charlotte’s Lists of Top Fives For 2013

Everybody’s doing the obligatory year-end lists so I thought I’d jump on the band wagon with my top five faves for movies, TV and books. I decided to limit myself to five so I wouldn’t spend too much time on the laptop. lol. Everything is listed from 5 to 1, 1 being the favorite.

First of all: movies. I love Independent film and I rarely run out to see a movie when it first comes out in theatres. In fact, I prefer watching on TV in the comfort of my home.  Just released blockbusters? Forget it. The movies I’ve selected are ones I watched this year but none of them were released this year. All of them I discovered on my own through chance and thoroughly enjoyed. Predictably, all but one are dramas as that’s my preferred genre.

TV: Three of my five favorite shows were on Sundance Channel with two being Sundance Original Series. I love Sundance. It was a little hard narrowing my favorite TV down to five since I am a true child of the TV generation. As with movies, I prefer the quirky, original and creative in my TV viewing. See what you think.

Books: I don’t rush out and read the just-released bestsellers, as a rule. However, four of my five were released this year and I’m pretty sure a couple of them are on the Bestsellers list. (Not sure as I don’t consult any of them.) After reading this article and this article, I’ve decided 2014 will be a year of reading only women writers. It’s long overdue and I urge you all to do the same in support of women’s writing.

Movies

Bonus Pic: ( because I realized after publishing that I have 6 movies listed)
You Can Count on Me – Starring Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, 2000
A young mother’s drifter brother shows up back in their hometown after years away and out of touch. The dynamics between the siblings (Linney and Ruffalo), who are complete opposites, makes for a very interesting movie. Not a lot of action here, but a thoughtful unfolding of how differences in perception can create misunderstanding and resentment in relationships. Laura Linney is a nuanced actor and one of my favorites – I’ll watch anything she’s in. Ruffalo plays his well-honed bad beautiful boy that you want to kiss and slap at the same time. Watch this movie if you don’t require car chases and exploding things.

5. The Savages – Starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Directed by Tamara Jenkins, 2007
Linney and Hoffman portray two siblings who are juggling caring for their sick father with their own busy lives. Their emotional journey as they watch the deterioration of their father and the subsequent decisions they must make for his care is one many of us in our 40′s and 50′s are familiar with. This movie really touched me in a big way as I’ve recently dealt with this issue myself. Sometimes it’s helpful to see your own struggles played out on screen so you realize it happens to other people too. Linney and Hoffman give skillful, poignant performances and I wouldn’t expect anything less from them.

4. The Darjeeling Limited – Starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman, Directed by Wes Anderson, 2007
Hilarious. These are three brothers who travel to India to find themselves and bond after their father’s death. The predicaments they get into will make you giggle, or at least smile. I thoroughly enjoyed this offbeat comedy that also has a few tender moments.

4608-The-Deep-End--2001-

3. The Deep End – Starring Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic, Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, 2001
A mother struggles to keep her son from being implicated in a murder. Both Tilda Swinton and Goran Visnjic are great in this movie, their casting was perfect. Tilda gives a convincing, heart-wrenching performance of a mother stoically trying to keep her shit together while slowly unraveling as she tries to keep life normal while dealing with blackmailers (Visnjic) threatening to expose her son as a murderer. This movie held my attention from start to finish with a strong story and compelling acting. Highly recommend.

2. Brothers – Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Toby McGuire, Directed by Jim Sheridan, 2009
Just before a young Marine (McGuire) is deployed (again) to Afghanistan, his younger black sheep brother (Gyllenhaal) is released from prison. The story revolves around what happens in Afghanistan and what happens back home. I have to say I was impressed most by McGuire’s performance as he was not an actor I cared much for until this movie. His acting here was pretty incredible in my eyes. Gyllenhaal and Portman (as McGuire’s wife) give solid performances too but McGuire is clearly the star here. This is a tense yet, in some ways, tender movie. Some of it is hard to watch but definitely worth the effort. Highly recommend.

1. Snow Cake – Starring Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman and Carrie-Ann Moss, Directed by Marc Evans, 2006
OK, movies like this are why I love Independent Film. This is a wacky, crazy, insightful, sweet movie that I will definitely watch again. (I don’t often do that.) Rickman and Moss meet up serendipitously on the road, both returning to their homes after prolonged stints away. Weaver plays Moss’s mother who is a highly functional autistic, Rickman ends up staying with her and the story unfolds and keeps you watching and guessing how it will ever end. If you don’t like this movie then I can’t imagine why not. Weaver and Rickman are great and play two of the most memorable characters you’ll ever meet. Highly recommend.

The movie that most disappointed me: Silver Linings Playbook Maybe it was the mood I was in at the time but Jennifer Lawrence’s character kind of drove me crazy and I wanted to smack Bradley Cooper. I kept looking at the clock during the entire movie.

TV

5. Downton AbbeyPBS – What’s better to take you away from reality than a historical family dynasty story set in another country? The acting is fantastic, the sets opulent, the cinematography bucolic, the fashion glittering and, oh yeah, those dreamy English accents. What’s not to like? It’s worth it just to watch magic unfold from Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess Violet. Eight more days to season 4 – I can’t wait! Squee! maggie

4. Rectify – Sundance Channel -  A young man is released from prison after nineteen years on Death Row after DNA evidence exonerates him. This series follows Daniel as he tries to assimilate back into his old life where he encounters prejudice and resistance as well as support and love. This is a well-written series that makes you think about how opinions that seem so solid can be so wrong.

3. The Returned – Sundance Channel – A French (subtitled) zombie series that isn’t your same old hum-drum, flesh dropping zombie series. I am wild for this series. Basically, it takes place in a small, isolated community in France where deceased loved ones, looking as they did at death,  begin appearing, unaware that they’ve been dead. You can not take your eyes off this show and I can’t wait for Season 2. (Here’s a good synopsis on Flavorwire.)

2. Breaking Bad - AMC – If you don’t know about this series then you’ve been living under a rock. I watched the first four seasons on DVD this year, one after the other, then watched season 5 live. I was shocked by how this show pulled me in with season one. Really, I didn’t think I’d like it, thinking it was all about drugs and addicts and all the shit that goes along with that scenario. In reality, it’s one of the most well-written, well-acted and emotionally compelling shows I’ve ever seen. Now I’m watching re-runs on Sundance.

1. Top of the Lake - Sundance Channel – A  detective returns to her hometown to investigate the disappearance and suspected abuse of a pregnant teenager. The detective (Elizabeth Moss) unearths long-held town secrets and faces demons from her past in this dark, suspenseful series. As with Breaking Bad, this is a well-written and acted show that pulls you in and won’t let go. Elizabeth Moss is riveting in this, playing a much more tortured, compelling character than her gullible Peggy on Mad Men. She was nominated for a Golden Globe and  an Emmy for Best Actress in a Mini-series or Movie and should have won. Filmed in New Zealand, the cinematography is uh.may.zing, winning Adam Arkapaw the Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Miniseries or Movie.

The program that most disappointed me: American Horror Story: The Coven. This show is just too corny. I wanted to like it simply because it’s filmed here and set here and stars Jessica Lange and Angela Bassett but those  facts aren’t enough to make me sit through it one more time.

Books

5. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain – The story of the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson. It was fun reading about Paris in the Jazz Age and the antics of the “Lost Generation”. I have to say, though, that if this is really the way Hemingway treated his women then he’s lost some of my respect. One can be a lauded writer but if you treat people like crap it diminishes the work, for me.

4. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – Set in India and America, this is the story of two brothers, their family and a country torn apart by revolution. It’s a page-turner, for sure.

3. Tenth of December by George Saunders – A collection of short stories every one of which is a gem. I swept through this book in no time and plan to read it again. Highly recommend. the-year-of-magical-thinking

2. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion – If you’ve lost someone close to you, this is the book to read – grab it now! It gave me some solace in the year after my mother’s death by identifying and explaining patterns, behaviors and thinking that seemed wacked out but, in truth, is part of the grieving process. Skillfully and lovingly written, Didion walks us through the long protracted illness of her daughter, the sudden death of her husband and her life in the year afterward. You will see yourself in her story. Highly recommend.

1. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – The best book I read this year, hands down. Set in Afghanistan, this is the story of a poor family, their struggle to survive and the ensuing life of a son and daughter. This is a richly detailed and engrossing story, a book I couldn’t put down. Until this, Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns had been my favorite book. Highly, highly recommend.

The book that most disappointed me: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. After a promising start this book quickly became Bor.Ing. That is all.

I hope you enjoyed my list of Top Fives and maybe feel inspired to read or watch some of these recommendations. Do you have any favorite movies, TV shows or books you’d like to share?

Little Free Library

At the end of last year, Sun and I wrote an essay and won a Little Free Library. Since then, she and I have been the stewards of our very own LFL. And I do not overstate when I say it changed my life.

First, it brought Sun and I even closer together sharing the project of checking to see if books have come into or gone out of the LFL and working to replenish our stock. We’ve spent hours together walking the neighborhood handing out flyers. She’s been asking when we’ll be doing that again. I think we’ll be sending out a summer newsletter just as an excuse to do it again soon!

Second, it brought me closer to my neighbors. I’ve yet to hear anything negative about the project. Turns out, folks like free things and appreciate the sense of caring that a steward emits by the very act of stewarding. Even wizened neighbors I’d have thought would have scratched their heads at us young hippies have embraced us and our library. I’ve met neighbors that have lived doors down from me for over a decade that I never knew. It’s that nice feeling we New Orleanians get after a storm passes and we are all sitting on our porches with no electricity to pull us indoors. Humans connecting over a common bond. In this case, that common bond is books. The Marthas and Wendys and Dollys that you meet every other summer after a particularly bad storm. Except now we meet weekly, if not more often. We get thank you notes left in the LFL. My favorite was written by a young boy thanking us for the Star Wars book.  We also get notes of encouragement to keep up the good work. I keep every note. And we get offers of donations. Oh, the donations! I need an extra room for all the books we’ve amassed in under six months!

Third, I am a reading machine now. The quality (and quantity) of books being donated to this LFL is nothing short of astounding. Here’s a link to my Librarything account showing the LFL tag I’ve created for the books I’d not have read but for my LFL. And that’s just of the books I’ve read so far. I have just as many in my to-read pile.

Our LFL has its own Facebook page, its own bookcrossing account, a personalized embossed seal to mark the books, and, most importantly, its own heart. When I was away from home for a week, a neighbor did the stewarding for us. Because truly, it’s hers too. It belongs to this neighborhood. And we all know it. We are proud of this little box–what it means to ourselves, our children, our community. And we are grateful for the wonder it has renewed in us that we didn’t know we could so easily attain.

Local author Ronlyn Domingue in the middle of the Simon & Schuster/Barnes & Noble contract dispute

Recently, a friend of mine, Ronlyn Domingue, published her second novel, The Mapmaker’s War. Ronlyn’s a fantastic writer and The Mapmaker’s War is a inventive and inspired book. However, since her first novel, The Mercy of Thin Air, was published in 2005, the publishing industry has changed drastically. It’s often very hard for authors to make their books visible to the reading public.

It’s recently gotten even harder for some authors with recent titles from Simon & Schuster, including Ronlyn, because S&S is involved in a contract dispute with Barnes & Noble. This means The Mapmaker’s War, as well as other recent S&S titles, are not being carried in B&N stores.

The greater workings of this contract dispute are complicated, but the easy take-away is that authors with recent S&S books need help spreading the word about their books since there are no B&N front-of-store-placements or co-ops available to them right now. Please do them a favor and check out some of their titles here. Read them and tell as many people as you can to check them out, too.

Something else that’s changed significantly since 2005? Social media. Fans just voted on Facebook and picked Elizabeth Gilbert’s newest book cover. Together, we can tell people about the S&S titles we like and help the authors get read.

Ronlyn recently had book signing events in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, where she lives. Her books can be found at the great local booksellers Garden District Books and Cottonwood Books, among others.

Ronlyn signing a huge stack of books at Garden District Books. She put handmade bookmarks in each one!

Ronlyn signing a huge stack of books at Garden District Books. She put handmade bookmarks in each one!

Morgus the Magnificent

Anyone who grew up here in New Orleans should remember watching our beloved Morgus the Magnificent. For over half a century, Morgus prefaced the weekend horror movies with his own New Orleans style horror vignettes. Morgus, along with his sidekick Chopsley would entertain us with his weekly scientific experiments gone wrong, dissecting and poking and prodding various New Orleans B-listers, with the week’s story line progressing during the commercial breaks of Godzilla or Mothra, or Godzilla-Mothra-King Kong end of the world movies. I swear, Morgus’ dry, morbid sense of humor has affected generations of New Orleanians, claiming his rightful place alongside the satire of Mardi Gras and the unique New Orleans musical soundtrack of our lives.

Well today, the ever elusive character has proverbially come out from hiding – behold the man behind our Morgus!

Allow me to present Sid Noel Rideau, a.k.a.  Momus Alexander Morgus. Sheila Stroup of the Times Picayune wrote a beautiful article profiling Mr. Rideau with his latest contribution to New Orleans culture, the New Orleans Public Library’s Internet Story Club of America. What an admirable endeavor, and it seals the deal that future generations will have the privilege of being entertained and enlightened by Morgus the Magnificent, now publically known as Mr. Rideau. Thank you sir for all you’ve done, and continue to do for our city.

The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans, Part 2

David Lummis’s second installation of The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans was recently published. Whereas the first part, reviewed here, was more a “lighthearted and irreverent and even campy” (as Lummis himself describes it) romp in and around the French Quarter, Part 2 is a more serious work. A more serious tone, a more serious topic. And a more true voice, I suspect, of Lummis. And for that, a far richer gift to the reader. Lummis lays bare his soul as he writes of the tormented soul-searching done by the last son of an old-school blue-blood New Orleans family, and the struggle of those who love him to keep him from losing himself in the process.

As Katrina approaches New Orleans, B. Sammy Singleton is on the search for his missing friend, Catfish Beaucoeur. Sammy, in a role similar to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, is the narrator but not the star of CSCNO2.  In his frenetic search for Catfish, Sammy encounters Lee Ann, Catfish’s oldest friend. And when it is clear Catfish is well and truly missing, Lee Ann decides it’s time for Sammy to know what Lee Ann herself knows to be the truth of Catfish’s tortured past.

And in this manner, Lummis takes us to 1970s New Orleans and pre-Civil War Louisiana. And the curses that were cast in the long-ago past and the long spidery legs that still stretch and scratch into the present.

Although it is Catfish that is the subject of the novel and for whom the reader will root, it is Lee Ann for whom the reader will relate: Her struggle to love, and be loved, in an imperfect way but in a way as pure as imaginable. Even when she knows it is utterly and completely hopeless.

Upon one reunion of the teen-aged Catfish and Lee Ann, with Catfish recalcitrant as always for having had to leave Lee Ann to fight his own darkness alone, Carfist extracts a vow from Lee Ann never to give up on him.  Here’s Lummis’s description of Lee Ann’s coming-of-age moment:

 And with that vow, Lee Ann felt herself letting go of all she knew she should do, not for Castfish, but for Lee Ann. And it was as if she were taking leave. And as she sat in the Firebird and listened to Catfish read “Old Glory” out loud, she saw the Lee Ann who knew better, the Lee Ann with the Lucky Strike rasp, open the car door and stride out onto the water. And as she watched herself go, this wiser Lee Ann kept on walking out onto that vast pool of night until she reached the center of Lake Pontchartrain, where she stopped and turned back as tiny waves lapped her calves. It was pitch dark in the Firebird and she was a long way from shore, but she could see Catfish plain as day, his eyelashes, the spray of freckles on the back of his hand. She could feel him too, his essence, his beating heart. Negating the distance, he was bigger than life, while the little girl to his right was scarcely a silhouette. From her marine outpost, Lee Ann waved but the little girl wasn’t looking, so she whistled, then called out. No response. The windows were closed and the words hit the windshield and flapped outward like Halloween crows. Her only chance of getting through to the girl, Lee Ann knew, was to return to dry land, but with the first step she comprehended her ability to walk on water was, like most things, imagined, and that all she could do to keep from sinking was to stay where she was, dead center on the lake. So this she did as Catfish started the car, and the headlights broadcast over the water, and the Firebird backed away from the curb and crawled along the shoreline, then winked red and disappeared.

This is not a cliff-hanger story-plot-twist of a novel. Rather, it’s one of strong character development among real-life afflictions and the struggle for regular folks to face life on its darkest days and push to get through to fight another day. And to love others enough to help them push on as well when they fail to find the strength on their own. CSCNO2 is at times lyrical, at times heart-breaking; and it is part historical fiction. But at all times, it is an attempt to explain who we are by where we—be it an individual, a family, a city, a society—have been. It is genuine and palpable. Written with a deftness so that the reader understands the love, and struggle thereto, Sammy and Lee Ann have for Catfish, and, more, to understand the demons that haunt Catfish. Even if the solution to exorcising those demons is not so obvious.

And best of all, it’s not the end of our journey. Part 3 is yet to come.

In loving memory of Charlie: LAST CALL…

Charlie Smith, Jazz Fest Day 2 2009. Photo by Michelle B. Kimball © Preservation Resource Center, Advocacy Dept.

We’d met on an intermittently drizzly day in the heart of  the Vieux Carré in January 1992, when I’d stopped to check out the poetry he was peddling at Jackson Square. He watched me reading, not saying a word, then turned and rummaged through a couple of banker’s boxes and pulled a short story he’d written titled “The Girl in the Black Trenchcoat” from a manila file folder which he handed to me with flourish as a greeting gift. The story obviously wasn’t about me (as we’d not yet met), but it resonated immediately. I still have those three type-written pages in a box of keepsakes, safely tucked away.

We were kindred — he’d recognized it from the get-go, and I’m still grateful that I was smart enough to roll with it (despite my New-to-New-Orleans wariness) until I eventually realized that he was absolutely right. I’ve never been good about keeping in touch with people as time passes and the scenery changes, but I somehow managed to keep in contact with Charlie over the years in between then and now, and he welcomed me back when I returned to New Orleans.

If love were enough to keep anybody on this side of the daisies, Charlie would have been a formidable, wry, growling, mischievous, and lively raconteur forever — a one-man court jester/Greek chorus hybrid who’d never pull a punch when he had something on his mind that needed to be said out loud. This man was family to me; he’s the reason why I took up deviling local politicians and community figures as my most favorite sport, and his ability to speak the oft-overlooked yet simple truth of a situation will continue to inspire me. I was delighted when he decided to throw his hat back into the lobbying ring and by the artful descriptions he’d craft for his most recent clientele; as the only lobbyist inducted to date in the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame, he was truly legendary, unforgettable, and unique.

I’m happy that the last time we kept lengthy company (blissfully grazing at a pig roast party at Pravda on Lower Decatur), he got to see me use my two minutes of  unanticipated and impromptu face time with Louisiana State Senator Edwin R. Murray to my best advantage… Charlie just smiled and looked proudly amused as I excused myself from the conversation we’d been enjoying to address Sen. Murray directly after he’d taken the seat at our table across from me. Sen. Murray was visibly stunned (as if he didn’t know what had just hit him), and one could also see my date’s brain cells colliding as he watched me snap from relaxed & casual to being a political creature with a three-bullet-point agenda in the blink of an eye, securing a follow-up meeting on the spot. The guy I’d been seeing back then is history for all the right reasons (I remember noticing Charlie watching him quietly and I could see that he’d thought that the guy couldn’t keep up with me), but Sen. Murray hasn’t forgotten my name since, most likely because I’d been in Charlie’s company that evening.

I only knew Charlie after he’d paid his dues and cleaned up his act, and I loved him as I found him — I can only imagine who he’d been in the years prior from the stories he’d occasionally share. I’m pretty sure that I’d have liked him, had I known him “back when,” but I also suspect that I respected and admired him more for his having learned how to live beyond all of that. I think what I loved the most about him was that his smile always reached his eyes and I believe that this was true because of everything he’d experienced, not in spite of.

Here’s who Charlie was, in his own words from the introduction to his first poetry collection, before he chose a different way to go about living his life:

I was sitting, actually I was lying — passed out — drunk and stupid, in this place called the “Copper Bar” next to the Las Vegas Hilton at about three in the morning when this hooker woke me up and handed me my wallet. “You’re sure lucky I’m an honest hooker,” she said. “Don’t bother to count it, you’ve got $1,400 in there; I didn’t touch a thing.”

I thanked her and she said, “Look, it’s obvious to me that you don’t know shit from beans about Vegas or your wouldn’t have been so dumb as to fall out in this place. I’m off duty so what say I show you the ropes around town and you can throw me a chip every now and then… I mean, I just saved your ass $1,400 and all.”

She was right on all counts so we had a drink, and she showed me around Vegas. During the course of the night, or morning (there’s not much difference in a city that doesn’t recognize time), she told me her story.

She said she was a housewife in one of the Carolinas and, having read one too many Vivas or Cosmopolitans, had decided that she wasn’t getting her share of Life’s multi-orgasmic climaxes so she got together all the green stamps she could from her checking and savings accounts, left her hubby a note (just said “Bye.”), checked on a Greyhound Bus and headed to Las Vegas.

On arriving, she discovered that she really loved gambling and had no marketable job skills. It didn’t take her long to run out of money, so she turned to hooking for a living. Life can be hard on you anywhere, but in Vegas you’re operating at a higher rate of speed than anywhere else, and she was due to leave town soon. But, she told me, “At least I’ll have enough material for my book.”

I told her I also wrote, not books but poetry, so she told me what her title was going to be (with some people, titles come first). She said, “Since it’s going to be based on my life, I’m going to call it I GOT OFF THE BUS TWO YEARS AGO, AND I’M STILL WAITING FOR LAST CALL.”

To me, that’s the best title for hard living I’ve ever heard. The people I know, the street people, politicians, entertainers, bartenders, etc., are all waiting for the last call. I haven’t seen her book out so maybe she won’t mind me using her idea. She probably won’t see this book, either, so I guess we’re even.

This is dedicated to all the people who think what I write. The poems were almost all written in some confused state of mind, and a drunk that thinks in iambic pentameter can feel awfully silly the next morning when he looks at what’s been scrawled on the napkins, but that goes with the territory. I thought some of the poems would make great songs and had a flirtation with that idea, but nothing ever came of it. Maybe something will develop sometime or another.

Or maybe it won’t, but as Mr. Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”

(From Still Waiting For Last Call… © 1987 by Charlie Smith)

Charlie’s Jazz Fest Cape, Jazz Fest Day 2 2009. Photo by Michelle B. Kimball © Preservation Resource Center, Advocacy Dept.

Thanks to the magic of the ether and pixels, some of Charlie’s songs can be enjoyed here: Charlie Smith’s Songs.

Via a post from Charlie’s daughter on Facebook: “The service will be held at Jacob Schoen & Son funeral home [3827 Canal Street, New Orleans] on Tuesday, March 6, 2012, with visitation beginning at 5:00 PM until 8:00 PM, and then a service held in the chapel at 8:00 PM. Black is always the first choice at funerals, but we think LSU apparel would probably best honor Daddy, so please feel free to break out your purple and gold. This will be an obviously sad occasion, but it should also be a time to celebrate his life. We are not quite sure about the charity to donate to in lieu of flowers, but will post that when we know.” (Me? I’ll be wearing a Jazz Fest shirt, celebrating my memories of Charlie when he’d wear a flamboyant purple cape inscribed in gold lettering with “Defender of Arts / Pets / Historic Preservation / Coastal Restoration / King of Jazz Fest.”)

In closing, I offer this from the poignant-yet-funny write-up by political editor Clancy DuBos of The Gambit titled “Charlie’s Way”: “I once wrote that if Charlie didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Suffice it to say that Louisiana politics is cleaning up its act, which makes Charlie’s exit from the stage timely — but the story will be a lot less fun to watch without him.”

His obituary can be viewed here: Charles Leslie Smith — September 9, 1942 – March 1, 2012.

“Lives of the Saints”

Shortly before moving back to New Orleans about a year and a half ago, a close friend gave me a going away present—a book along with a notecard. The notecard wished me luck on taking on a city that is larger than life. The book was “Lives of the Saints” by Nancy Lemann.

Nancy Lemann is a clever writer. She has her own style of writing, capitalizing certain words like “Chaos” and “Life” to put extra emphasis on the word. The opening quote of the book simply says, “Then I climbed the sharp hill that led to all the years ahead.” [Evelyn Welch]

Just that one sentence rang so true at that point in my life. The book didn’t necessarily seem to have much of a plot, but was more about creating a mood of light-hearted oddity. The perfect setting to create this type of mood? New Orleans–of course.

Lemann did an incredible job of capturing the spirit of a people that you only encounter in New Orleans. I could fully picture attending a wedding as described in the opening of the book. I also found myself imagining me being the main character Louise walking up and down “the Avenue.”

A year and  half after I read it, I find myself referencing it about once a month at least…and I’m still climbing up the sharp hill that will lead to all the years ahead…enjoying every step, encountering people in real life whom I can imagine as characters in Lemann’s book.

I really loved this book and highly recommend it. It’s a quick read at about 150 pages. “Lives of the Saints” is Nancy Lemann’s first novel and was published in 1985. This book provides a short cut to falling in love with the city of New Orleans.

Keep it cheeky.