Women Who Write: Kelly Harris

This is the first of 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.

Kelly Harris

Kelly Harris

This week we feature Kelly Harris. Kelly earned her MFA in poetry from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. She has been awarded fellowships by Cave Canem and the Fine Arts Work Center and won a Wendy L. Moore Emerging Artists Award from the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. Her poems have appeared in Say It Loud: Poems for James Brown, Yale University’s Caduceus, PMS, The Southern Women’s Review, PLUCK Magazine, DrumVoices Revue and other publications. The Kent State University graduate serves on the board of STAIR, (Start the Adventure in Reading) and is the editor/founder of brassybrown.com

Kelly will be speaking at The Contemporary Arts Center on April 18th in celebration of National Poetry Month and the 30 Americans Exhibition.

 

Stick Fighter
for Winnie Mandela

his breath on your neck

    his morning posture
    at the breakfast table

keepsakes of an ordinary wife

    freedom is not a love story

jumping the broom
is a weapon against those

    who see no danger in a woman

wearing a gele
crossing the threshold

    of her forbidden country

she is mad as the man
she married

can’t wait for God’s will

    demons are necessary
there must be blood

concrete to kiss
a modest woman will not have

    her name carved in stone
freedom is not a love story

               Winnie

the iron that sharpened him
all those years
               into a fist

~ ©Kelly Harris

How long have you been writing and what inspired you to choose this craft?

As a child I could always recite speeches and poems. I don’t really know how I developed the skill. I just always remember speaking somewhere and being mindful at an early age. I’ve been writing seriously since I was an undergraduate at Kent State University. I entered the university as a magazine journalism major, but it was always poetry that had a hold on me. I won a pageant contest my freshmen year. My talent was poetry, and soon after I become a poetry editor for the Black student’s publication and ran a poetry series that’s still active today. I don’t think I ever woke up one morning and said to myself, “I’m going to be a poet today.” I believe life calls us to become who we are meant to be.

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

Poetry is my first literary love. My blog, BrassyBrown.com, allows me to stretch my writing and of course, share my poetry. I just finished a major writing project about Black women in New Orleans that should be released soon by a nonprofit. I also do freelancing when I can. I am in the process of trying to find interest for my children’s book manuscript called “My Hoodie Keeps me Warm.” It’s the story of a group of African-American teenage boys being racially profiled. I am looking for a press for my poetry manuscript, “Revival.”

What is your earliest recollection of writing and poetry as a passion? Do you remember your first poem?

My first poem was called “Be a Leader Not a Follower.” I wrote it in 5th grade at my grandmother’s coffee table. I used to write poems in a spiral, pink Mead notebook. I threw
away many of my earliest poems because I was teased for being a poet. There weren’t a lot of poetry programs in the schools I went to. I didn’t pick up writing again until about 11th grade. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. The great thing about my street was people were always talking, gossiping, cussing, and when you juxtaposed that with jump rope songs, hip-hop, my mother’s music collections, attending church with my family and black girlhood, it makes for great poetry.

Is writing your full-time occupation?

I wish. I’m a stay-at-home-mom and do contractual gigs in literacy, strategic planning and business writing. This may be hard to imagine, but I think becoming a mom has helped me become a better writer. It’s sharpened my attention to details and sound. To watch my 18-month-old daughter’s evolution of speech really has helped me think about language as a unit of the body.

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 sit and write a blog a lot easier and faster than a poem. Being a mother has forced me to write at God-awful-times, but I get it done because I do see writing as my life’s job. Most of my poems begin handwritten. When I type poems, I edit too fast. It’s just too convenient to backspace. I’m more likely to delete lines or words that may be useful later. I often do mental mapping of my poems. It helps me weed out clichés and tendencies and helps me see the possibilities for a poem.

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

I write when and where I can, but I must admit I don’t write well in crowds or with lots of noise. Libraries used to be my ideal place, but now they are not guaranteed places of silence. There are very few public places where you can find solitude. Usually when everyone is sleeping, I am writing.

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

I have an MFA in Creative Writing and I sat through all sorts of lectures about motivation and discipline. First, it takes courage to write and hard work to write well, but the writing process is a lot more complicated than that. I’ve learned that everyone is different. I’ve tried to sit down each day and write on a schedule. I just can’t do it. I’m not wired that way, and my life is too hectic for structured writing. I make sure I take in a lot of music, interviews, reading, conversations and vocabulary words so that I am stock piling ideas and energy for poems to come. I’m always working on about 3-4 poems at a time. And I keep a journal of lines I’ve never used and mental notes that I sometimes use for things I’m working on. (See photo sample below)

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Whose work has inspired yours?

It depends where I’m at in my life and what I’m writing. I recently just bought “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” (Mouthmark Press) by Warsan Shire. She packs a lot into a line. Recently the poetry world lost Wanda Coleman and Jayne Cortez—two amazing poets of color. I’ve been re-reading a lot of their work. I bought a Sonia Sanchez album, “A Sun Lady for All Seasons” last month and she’s really got me thinking about how to effectively use repetition and sound.

Speaking of sound … Bobby McFerrin. I’m not talking about “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” He’s amazing. To me there is no other human voice on the planet that creates sound and words the way he does. My 18-month-old taps her chest and improvises with him when I watch him on YouTube. It’s pretty funny, but in watching her and him, it’s a great lesson in the art of timing.

Where do you see yourself with regard to your writing in 5 years?

Hopefully I can increase my publishing credits and teach. I really miss teaching poetry to young people. I’ve had brief opportunities to guest instruct at NOCCA and Lusher, and I loved it.

Please share five poetry books you’d recommend.

“Blacks” by Gwendolyn Brooks (I mean, do I really have to explain?)

“Rice: Poems by Nikky Finney” (“Head Off and Split” won the National Book Award for Poetry but her other books are worth reading too).

“Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry” edited by Dr. Jerry Ward (Former Dillard University Professor)

“How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems by Carolyn M. Rodgers” (Not as widely known, but should be).

“The Never Wife” by Cynthia Hogue (I bought this book at Dauphine Books in the French Quarter and had no idea there would be some poems about NOLA in it. It’s a wonderful book)

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Thank you, Kelly, for this inspiring interview!

 

hogs for the cause

Originally posted on the mosquito coast:

This weekend the Hogs for the Cause was held in City Pork , a benefit for families that have been impacted by pediatric brain cancer. It was an incredible event, with great music and great pork. The mud made the event complete! If you want to see some more pictures and read more commentary, browse through the #hogsforthecause hashtag.

I got there early and upon entering, the Pig Sexy booth was ready to go, serving up steamed pork buns, which were delicious!!!

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The 555 Sauciers were ready with the best chocolate covered bacon!

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Mr. Pigglesworth’s booth had a hawker in pink pig costume, one of many booths with team members in costume!

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Pork was the star of the day, but I managed to find the LA 23 BBQ team selling brisket!

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Kevin Bacon’s Balls representing!

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And of course the all femmes team, Sweet Swine O’ Mine were representing as well!

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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

 

 

The Scoop and the Skinny…A Day of Nyxcitement.

I had thee best time Wednesday! Sit down a spell and I’ll tell you all about my pretty darned awesome experience riding with the Mystic Krewe of Nyx.

me in all my nyx splendor!!
me in all my nyx splendor!!

My riding experience actually began Tuesday with float loading. All of the floats are pulled out of the barn and brought to a place undisclosed to the public. We’re given a 3 hour window to load and/or check our throws. You could feel the excitement around the floats as the sisters were busy getting their throws ready for the big night.  The men were just as awesome as ever….checking to see if anyone needed help carrying throws or putting bike hooks up (we use them to hold throws). We just needed the rain to hold up.

float loading
float loading
float loading time!
float loading time!
some of my nyx sisters getting ready to ride.
some of my nyx sisters getting their float together.
Navy Seal getting my area  hooked up for me!
Navy Seal getting my area hooked up for me!
My nyx sister on the float we'll be riding.
nyx sister on our float.
Moi
Moi

The weather wasn’t looking all that great for us. It rained Tuesday and light showers were expected around our time to roll.

But remember, I said it wouldn’t rain on Nyx the year I rode with them.

And the rain held up!

Wednesday morning  began with a light breakfast at home. I had some last-minute float things to do which took some time so I stayed pretty close to  home until it was time to leave.  Around 10:30 a.m. I dressed in full gear and headed out to the float loading area once again to drop off my decorated purses.

The pre-party began at noon. I arrived around that time and checked  in to enter the hall. Security is very tight at the pre-party and you have to show identification to enter. Once checked in, I received my wristband and I was good to go! The pre-party was off the chain! It was held at Generations Hall … they did a wonderful job. The staff was excellent and there was more than enough food and spirits to keep over 1200 women happy!

Mardi Gras  music filled the hall as the ladies  talked, laughed and enjoyed  being around other nyx sisters.

 

Our totally amazing Captain and Nyx Sisters.

Our totally amazing Captain and Nyx Sisters.

pre-party fun!
pre-party fun!

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me and my nyx sisters
me and my nyx sisters
A Seas of Sisters
A  Sea of Sisters!

After a while, we could hear the sound of brass in the building. Well, with a brass band in the house, only one thing was  going to happen…

time to second line!

Did you notice all the different color wigs and headdresses? That’s because every year, there is a headdress competition. Each float comes up with an idea that’s related to the theme of their float and create headdresses to wear. There were some pretty spectacular  headdresses…there’s a lot of creativity in the krewe.

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representing my float, CHICKEN CORDON BLEU!  YEAH BABY!!!
representing my float,
CHICKEN CORDON BLEU!
YEAH BABY!

The pre-party was about 4 hours long. I enjoyed every last-minute of it. It was wonderful being around so many happy women who were eager to spread that happiness on to the City of New Orleans.  Shortly after the headdress competition, we were called to board the floats. Each float had a designated sister  holding a sign and we followed that person to the float.

That’s when it really hit me!

The waiting patiently to  receive  an invitation to join,  all the hard work and  dedication it takes to create purses..its all been for this moment,

TIME TO RIDE!

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making our way to the floats!
making our way to the floats!
My float mate showing us the way!
My float mate showing us the way!

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Float 16 rocked the night!
A few of float 16 riders with our driver.

Once boarded up  and ready to go, we were escorted by the New Orleans Police Department to the staging area. During this time riders began organizing more of their throws or  just took a minute to take it all in.

I took it all in.

Here’s a short clip I created of the ride and how the floats move to the staging area.

floats at staging area
floats at staging area

This is where the bands and dancing troupes  are waiting to “fall in line” with the floats.

Once we reached the staging area and the band  scheduled to march in front of us fell in line,

IT WAS ON!

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nyx coming down the street.
nyx coming down the street.

Here’s  a clip of the parade coming down the street

We began to throw like crazy to the crowd!  You go through sensory overload with so many people screaming for throws for 5 miles, but I enjoyed every single second of it.

The joy that you see when you give someone a throw is priceless. I particularly loved giving decorated purses to those who did not think they would get one from me.

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The crowd was very gracious!

Posters for purses were everywhere! It was spectacular!

A sinus attack kicked in on me around Lee Circle and by the time I made it to the end of the route, I was toast.

I’d do it all in a heartbeat though…sinus attack and all.

It was just that fabulous!

Thanks to all my wonderful friends,family and readers who came out in the cold to support me and the krewe.  It means so much to me that you were there for my inaugural ride.

The city showed the Krewe of Nyx so much love that night.

I’m  looking forward to many years of riding

with this wonderful krewe,

in this fabulous city.

photo courtsey of Streetcar PR.
photo courtsey of Streetcar PR.

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Sunday Snapshots: LeBeuf Plantation

Algiers Point & Levee 002

Algiers Point & Levee 003

History and recent renovation information of LeBuef Plantation here. (Click photos to embiggen.)

halloween in New Orleans

Folks in New Orleans really get into Halloween, decorating everything in celebrating the big holiday of fall. Many homes parallel the decorations on homes during the Christmas season. One of the more infamous homes that celebrates the end of October can be found along St. Charles Avenue near Audubon Park. Here they are, the New Orleans skeleton gang!

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Fall is truly the best time to be in New Orleans – Happy Halloween everyone!

Bucktown Bash – 4th of July

Bucktown was established over a hundred years ago as a fishing village along the 17th street canal. Bucktown has been somewhat of an enigma, straddling the boundary of New Orleans and Jefferson parish unlike anywhere else in the well defined city, with both sides peacefully claiming the village as part of their own. A variety of entertainment venues hugged the lake in Bucktown with brothels, bars, restaurants and dance halls coexisting alongside the boats. Mother nature however has not been very kind to Bucktown, virtually flattening it 6 times, with the most recent being Katrina.

After the storm, the fleet of fishing boats and trawlers formerly docked along the canal were relocated to the Bonnabel boat launch, after the Army Corps of Engineers took over the mouth of the canal to install a new pumping station. So finally with the money from the storm and the impetus to build, the Bucktown Marina came to life after the initial proposal to build it in the 1960′s. To celebrate, the Bucktown Bash was held today, complete with bands, food, kids activities and the Blessing of the Fleet at noon. Here are a few pictures…

The Marina sign

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There was a $5.00 entry fee, and temporary fencing was erected

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There were vendors and booths selling tickets for food and drinks

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The crowd got thicker as the afternoon progressed

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There was a kite building tent that the kids were enjoying

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About a dozen vendors were selling food, drinks, beer, daquiris and snowballs

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The boats were decked out for the blessing of the fleet in 4th of July bunting

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The Navy brass band was having fun

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The Bucktown Allstars had the crowd on their feet dancing

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The weather cooperated and a good time was had by all

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Happy 4th of July!

Her James

Nearly four years ago, a young boy by the name of Jeremy Galmon was shot and killed after a second line had passed by, a casualty of people using bullets to settle arguments.

The fundraising for Jeremy’s family was held only a few blocks from my home, sponsored by members of the community and by Young Men of Olympia Social & Pleasure Club, who had sponsored the parade on the day that the boy was caught in the crossfire. The city was in an uproar over this latest victim of gun violence here, and the finger-pointing at the parade as a cause of the violence was happening in too much earnest. Casting blame on the second-line was far too easy to do at the time, but the bands were out in force, and people were driving by the Goodwork Network to give funding to the Galmon family and to deliver the message that second-lining was not a cause, but strove to be a solution in a number of ways. It was there that I met Deborah Cotton for the first time, working right alongside the organizers, enjoying the Baby Boyz Brass Band, the Roots of Music in one of its earliest incarnations, and assisting with style and grace.

I knew the name from her book Notes From New Orleans, which was one of the first post-8/29/2005 chronicles I’d read – I feel to this day that it is still unjustly overlooked as a smart, occasionally sassy, and heartfelt window into that time. I then found that she was contributing to Nola.com under the name Big Red Cotton via a blog there entitled Notes On New Orleans (I wonder where that title came from?), where her amazing voice and perspective jumped off the web browser and stood out among all that hot mess. She’d made it a point to immerse herself in the second line culture and invited me out to do so sometime.

I’ll tell everyone a secret: for quite a while, I wanted to write like Deb. Her frankness about how many people were on some sort of antidepressant to deal with the aftermath of the levee breaches helped make me bolder about admitting that I was on them and will most likely be on them for the rest of my life. There’s one post of mine that’s directly inspired by her examples: a multimedia account of a visit to another fundraiser, the Dinerral Shavers Educational Fund, filled with brass bands, love, laughter, and even some “Halftime,” anticipating the Saints’ Super Bowl win later that same month. I was happy to see her posting at the Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans, and touted her extensive online archive of second line YouTubes when I could.

Life gets crazy, and 2010 flew by, then 2011, 2012. I saw Deb again at a Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities program, then at Rising Tide 6, but I wasn’t able to take advantage of that opportunity to dance with her as she took in another of the second lines she so loved. Once I heard she was among the 19 shot by someone lying in wait for the procession to come by this past Sunday, my heart was in my throat. She’d worked so hard for so many years to show that this was a welcoming part of New Orleans culture, and one kid with a gun had struck that down, taking her with it…

She and a few others are still recovering from their injuries. The suspect(s) in the shooting is(are) still at large. And, for whatever reason, I find myself thinking about James.

James is no one specific. In Notes From New Orleans, Deb wrote about wanting a James to come along, and referred to him in one of her most recent tweets. James isn’t someone who can come and take her away from it all completely, but he can certainly make it all bearable for quite a while. James will know just what makes Deb tick, and will respond to her in all the right ways when she’s low, bringing her out of whatever doldrums she’s in. James is a supportive, seductive dream of a black man who hasn’t arrived in her life…but I wonder…

New Orleans may not have been perfect, and it may have lashed out at her, but it has sustained her all these years. She’s believed in it for so long, worked so hard for it, that I couldn’t help but think that one of the greatest tributes to her toils was Ronal Serpas making the point that the second line was not to blame for the shootings – and most everyone agreeing with that assessment. Jeffrey the yaller blogger is correct in saying “no one has done more to cover and celebrate this generation of NOLA street culture.” Deb treated it so well that if it were a person, I’m sure it would be a James.

It’s now time for us all to do what a James would do – support Deb and those others hurt in the shootings.

The Gambit is working with the Tipitina’s Foundation on a fundraiser for them all. Go here and stay alert for further details.

Deb kick-started New Orleans Good Good shortly before Sunday’s parade. Sign up for updates on her condition and details on fundraising. It would also be great, if you are in a position to do so, to sponsor some advertising on the site and keep her work going.

A blood drive effort for shooting victims is being scheduled for May 22, from 2-7 PM. At least 25 donors are needed for the blood drive. Contact meglousteau@gmail.com for further details and to volunteer.

Liprap

Cross-posted at Humid City

Culture vs. enforcement: Could SB 140 change our City Administration’s priorities?

At its April 2013 Board meeting, the French Quarter Management District presented a draft copy of a flyer titled, “Do You Know It’s Illegal To: French Quarter Businesses” detailing the existing laws and ordinances applicable to businesses operating in the French Quarter (complete with citations!). This document, although still in draft form pending verification and final approval, is an eye-opening compendium of the existing ordinances and laws applying to businesses — and particularly “Alcohol Beverage Outlets” (ABOs or bars) operating in the Vieux Carré.

(For example: it’s illegal to “Allow an employee or any other person on the premises of a Class A ABO, including a doorway, to expose unclothed or in attire any portion of the cleft of the buttocks OR a female breast below the top of the areola. Law differs for live entertainers while onstage. La. R.S. 26:290 (B)(1) & (2), (D), (E); Sec. 110-157, 434, 435″ — who knew?!)

In April 2012, the French Quarter Management District also produced a similar — albeit more generalized — flyer detailing the ordinances and laws relative to individuals/citizens/residents: “Do You Know It’s Illegal To: ILLEGAL In the French Quarter.” This document is also reportedly currently being updated with minor revisions.

While both of these documents are interesting, it’s common knowledge that our City Administration’s emphasis on enforcement of such ordinances and laws is inconsistent at best. This could be, in part, because Louisiana law currently limits the amount of fines assessed at the municipal level to a maximum of just $500.

However, Senator J.P. Morrell (D-Dist. 3) is introducing Senate Bill 140 as part of the 2013 Legislative Session (its digest states as follows):

Present law mandates the maximum penalty to be imposed for violation of any parish ordinance is $500 and imprisonment of 30 days in the parish jail.

Proposed law provides for the city of New Orleans to establish a maximum penalty for violations of any parish ordinance as codified in the city code of ordinances at $5,000 and imprisonment of six months in the parish jail.

Effective August 1, 2013.

If SB 140 is passed and our City’s Administration figures out that there’s a possible new revenue stream from stepping up enforcement efforts, these odd little laws that are already on the books might become surprisingly — and possibly unexpectedly — significant. The passage of this bill will likely mean that our city’s officials will pursue more aggressive — and lucrative — fines for numerous violations that are currently possibly considered to be too costly to routinely enforce.

While I am generally in favor of this proposed bill, I am also concerned that it could have unforeseen consequences… particularly when one considers the enforcement efforts that have already been identified as “priority” issues by our elected officials.

Keep in mind, too, that the impact of this proposed bill will affect all of Orleans Parish — not just the French Quarter. Heads up, everybody!

happy mardi gras


Here are some pictures from early this morning – what better way to start the day than with some Irish coffee from Johnny White’s

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IMG_5211The Quarter was all decked out in purple green and gold finery

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Despite the fact that the Quarters were shrouded in fog and mist…

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…revelers were fueling up and getting their groove on for the day

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And the time had come to get the party started!

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I can’t imagine living my life without the ability to have some fun on Mardi Gras day – the party helps us remember not to take life so seriously.

Hope everyone had a fabulous time – until next year, or the next big event!